Strange Flesh: The Use Of Lovecraftian Archetypes In Queer Fiction: Cthulhu (2007)
Author's note: This is part 7 in an 8 part series
It's fitting that we save this text for last as it brings the article full circle and back to the plot of The Shadow over Innsmouth. Cthulhu is a 2007 film which loosely adapts TSOI and presents it in modern times. Directed by Dan Gildark and co-written alongside Grant Cogswell, the film received mixed ratings and holds 63% on Rotten Tomatoes. While the queer themes in the film split viewers, it has garnered a following and an appreciation in the last few years. Film critic Steve Barton of Dread Central writes that the film is:
“High on ambition and originality and the closest we’ve come to a true H.P. Lovecraft film.”(Barton, 2009)
In Cthulhu, Russel Marsh, a gay history professor, much to his reluctance returns home to the island township of Riversmouth (an obvious hat tip to Innsmouth) to attend his mother’s funeral and help take care of her affairs.
The film makers waste no time at this point with portraying Russel or ‘Russ’ as an archetypal Lovecraftian Outsider. They do this not only through the dialogue and acting but predominantly in this opening scene through the cinematography. Russ is depicted in his pajamas standing alone staring out a window when he gets a phone call alerting him to his mother’s death.
“What happened? When?” he asks the caller, then sighs: “Yeah, I’ll be there.” The room is dark and cold which sets the tone for Russ’s character. Behind him in his bed, a young man stirs. Russ’s lover sits up and asks matter of factly: “What’s up?” this combined with the man’s “that sucks” response to Russ’s news, the next words out of his mouth: “Do you think I can get twenty bucks?” and the soon to be revealed knowledge that Russ is a university professor, it seems as if the film makers are trying to suggest Russ is sleeping with a student. (Gildark, 2007) Already, in this initial scene, we have a very strong Outsider character – Russ is cold, half naked and standing on his own, he receives the news of his mother’s death rather nonchalantly and he is quite obviously gay and arguably lacks the emotional maturity to be sleeping with someone closer his age and not his student.
We are then shown several shots of him driving home alone, the film wants to make it very clear the loneliness Russ embodies.
As he arrives on the outskirts of his home town, Russ is passed by a couple of speeding teenagers in their car, who recognize him and shout: “You thought you got away! Nobody gets away dude! No one!” (Gildark, 2007) they speed past him and as Russ veers around the corner he discovers their car over turned and wrecked, the boys inside dying. One of them hisses through his bloodied choking: “He said you’d come back.” (Gildark, 2007)
These boys act as a herald to Russ, paradoxically both a call to adventure as Vogler and Campbell would say, and a warning to turn away from the forbidden knowledge he is beginning to approach.
Moving straight from this to his mother’s wake at the family mansion, Russ reunites with his estranged father who is revealed to be the charismatic and creepy leader of a town-wide religious group “The Esoteric Order of Dagon.” His father invites him to a family dinner the next night. During the wake, Russ also reunites with his sister and her husband before being informed by the family lawyer that he needs to stick around a few days to sell his Grandmother’s house as per his Mother’s will.
Outside the wake, Russ stands amongst the beach grasses and looks down at the ocean. His father joins him briefly, places a hand on his shoulder in comfort. Russ immediately walks away from him and walks through the township arriving shortly thereafter at an old boat house on another section of the beach. This building is insinuated through the use of flashbacks to be a place Russ and his friends hung out in as a teenager. However, upon breaking and entering into the boat house as an adult, he discovers the inside of the building scrawled with first and last names of people unknown to him, other than one name that will become important very shortly. About to leave, Russ notices something similar to a funeral procession of hooded members presumably from the Esoteric order of Dagon, marching down the docks towards the Boat House entrance. Russ manages to escape the building unnoticed by heading through a trapdoor and onto a small boat that he rows ashore.
That evening, reunites with the face to the name he recognized inside the boat house – Mike. His best friend from his teenage years, who it is revealed (once again through the use of flashbacks) had some kind of a sexual relationship with Russ, which may have become at one point unrequited love, causing Russ to attempt suicide. Mike is now a “straight” dad with a daughter and in the middle of going through a divorce. At first the two friends are awkward together, but upon deciding to ignore the dramatic events that have occurred between them, they get along again like they’d never had any time apart.
Russ returns to his motel room where he begins the first of several haunting dreams to do with his father’s cult and the ocean that surrounds the island. In this first dream, he re-watches the boy who had died in the car accident that heralded Russ’s return to the island, vomit up a black obsidian cudgel before starting awake, only to discover the cudgel from his dream is in the bed next to him.
The next night Russ attends dinner with his father, where probably some of the best dialogue in the film is uttered, and ties perfectly into our analysis here:
So how’s the church?
How’s the gay life treating you Russel?
It’s… my life.
Is it satisfying? Are you fulfilled?
What do you wanna know? Do you wanna know what we do?
Stay out of this. Look I came back for (sisters) sake and for my mum. (to his sister:) These are sensational rolls.
They’re store bought
Yes, but they’re wild caught!
Yes, I am. But apparently that is the only way I can get through a dinner with you. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am gay, and it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve spent the last ten years preaching the same tired Joseph Smith frontier horseshit to anyone who’ll buy it because apparently nobody knows anything!
The conversation heats up again shortly after:
(Yelling) Would it be possible to just for one night go without a fucking sermon!?
We just want…
What are you talking about? What does that mean? We want?
We just wish you could raise a family.
Why? I wasn’t raised in one.
Hain writes of this moment:
“The film speaks most powerfully to a gay audience in its portrayal of forced “conversion” from gay to straight as the strategy of a sinister and oppressive theocracy, robbing those deemed abnormal of free will and identity.” (Hain, 2009)
These scene highlights through the use of a kind of satirical lens to audiences the absurdity of what goes on between many Christian families and their gay children every day around the world: We wanted grandchildren, We want you to have a family, etc. As Hain writes this scene and the film in general uses the horror of a Cthulhu cult to paint a picture of forced or at the very least, peer-pressured conversion from queerness to heterosexuality.
The next evening Russ is introduced by his sister to her friend Susan, trying to blatantly set him up with her. Russ discovers through conversation with Susan that she is married and her husband (a paraplegic) is a huge history buff with a whole book written on the cudgel Russ has shown her from his dream. She invites Russ around to meet him and discuss the object.
After Susan leaves, Russ and Mike discuss the cudgel at a bar, drawing the attention of the drunk Zadok Allen archetype who bargains with Russ that he will tell him what’s really going on in this town in exchange for a bottle of whiskey and a six pack. What follows is a frenzied conversation, rivaling the dialogue of the family dinner a few nights prior.
They held their rituals in the net sheds. Inhuman things!
And they’re meeting in there again now.
There were people, there were fucking people man!
Elizabeth Parnel, Frank Oaks, Robert Camberwell. Do you know who they were?
Do you even give a shit?
These were the kids that disappeared, they were my friends!
…They came out of the sea and killed lots of people!
Do you know what a Shoggoth is? You ever hear of it?
They come back, and everybody goes with them back into the sea.
The Ape children, drowning!
While buying booze for the crazy old man, Russ encounters a young female grocery clerk who is inexplicably terrified of the town at night. Russ drives her home and she reveals to him that her little brother is one of the children to have gone missing that Zadok mentioned.
Suspicious that his father’s church is now involved in child abduction, Russ with the help of Mike decides to investigate the disappearance of the grocery clerk’s little brother. He eventually finds the boy who has inexplicably been living alone in an empty house watching a static TV despite now being totally blind. The boy informs Russ in a trance-like state:
At this point someone begins to try break into the house and chase the two, the boy leads Russ beneath the house and into a series of subterranean tunnels where he loses track of the child and encounters in the dimness of the tunnels a group of Lovecraftian beasties which look like amphibious babies – potentially Deep One children or Shoggoths as mentioned by Zadok?
Russ eventually escapes and heads to Mike’s apartment, where the two men reignite their teenage love and sleep together. When they wake up a time later, they discover the blind boy has been ritualistically murdered and hung against the bannister outside Mike’s apartment. Very quickly Russ is arrested and charged with murder and rape of a minor.
That night, a mob breaks into the jail, and inexplicably free Russ who reunites with Mark to flee Rivermouth which overnight has for some reason become an almost post-apocalyptic township filled with crazed riots and senseless violence. Before they leave however, Russ stops at his grandmother’s house and discovers a video tape left for him by his mother to watch in the event of her death. On the tape, his mother explains that she acted cold towards Russ to force him away from the evil of their family. She explains the going ons of his father’s cult and that whenever a grandchild is born in the marsh family (usually around the date that it currently is in the film) the grandfather dies or returns to the sea. The footage ends abruptly and returns with Russ’s father covered presumably in his mother’s blood spouting cultic propaganda, revealing the Russ is in fact the cult’s messiah and his offspring will bring about the flooding of the world where the cult can rule alongside the Deep Ones for eternity.
Enraged, Russ heads with Mike to his father’s mansion, leaving Mike in the car and storms the house. Inside, he is confronted by his father and the rest of the cult, where he is shown the offspring of his rape by Susan – what are assumed to be some kind of aquatic children as we never see the babies, but they are housed in a bathtub.
Russ tries to flee the house but as he does, he is strangely transported to the beach, where a helicopter camera shot shows hundreds of humanoid figures emerging from the ocean and walking towards the land. On the beach, Russ’s father and the cult surround him and offer him the chance to accept his destiny and become the cult’s Messiah by sacrificing the now captive Mike to the Deep Ones. The film ends with Russ’s father handing him an obsidian cudgel, and Russ raising it to attack, however it is ambiguous as to whether he is attacking his father or his lover.
The entire movie, although not the best example of film making offers us a very intriguing interpretation of not only the Outsider archetype once again, but also a creative way of dealing with and interpreting the problems inherent of the homosexual community in dealing with conservative religion and families.
“The very ambiguity of the ending – whether it’s Mike or Reverend Marsh who has gotten his brains bashed in – further speaks to the film’s politics. Has the lure of power and privilege, or the contagion of religious mania, driven Russ to betray his lover and his own sense of identity? Or, is he literalizing gay liberation’s symbolic killing of the patriarchy by actually murdering his father?” (Hain, 2014)
This fantastically ambiguous ending mirrors what many gay, lesbian and transgender people go through on a daily basis: do they put on a mask and pretend to keep their parents religious worldviews intact, or do they rebel against it and destroy the relationship with their family?
Barton, S. (2009). Cthulhu (dvd) – Dread central. Retrieved from http://www.dreadcentral.com/reviews/cthulhu-dvd
Gildark, D. (Director). (2007). Cthulhu [Motion picture]. United States: Regent Releasing.
Hain, M. A. (2014). Race, sexuality, and procreation in H.P. Lovecraft film adaptations. Retrieved from http://offscreen.com/view/lovecraft-film-adaptations