RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARCHIVE: Cthulhu (Daniel Gildark, 2007)

Under the sub-heading of “Hooray for Horregon!” Raider/Contributor Phil Oppenheim descends into the historical depths of the genre and unearths H.P. Lovecraftian tales featuring the haunting and often horrific Oregon Coast where none-other-than Tori Spelling emerges as a seductress from the sea to summon the all-powerful Cthulhu to River Mouth (nee Astoria) shores.

Diminutive armies of rotting zombies, blood-thirsty vampires, Wonder Women, Harley Quinns, Pikachus, and fairy princess are preparing to storm the sidewalks, assault our homes, and demand we relinquish our candy corn and Swedish Fish or suffer the consequences.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween: Welcome to the weirdest time of the year. 

In Portland, Weirdness is one of the city’s unofficial-but-omnipresent core values — I’ll let someone else wrestle Austin, Texas for the title of which city Keeps itself Weirdest — which makes Halloween the closest thing to a holiday embraced by all.  Portland’s historic Hollywood Theatre salutes the season of spooks with several fantastic events all month, including screenings of the silent films Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Nosferatu (1922), both with live organ accompaniment, an All-Night Horror Marathon, a Queer Horror Halloween, and a new digital restoration of the recently departed George Romero masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968).  But the weirdest Hollywood happening is the 22nd Annual H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival & Chthulhucon, taking place this weekend, October 6-8.


H.P. Lovecraft, for those of you who didn’t spend your youth nervously holding flashlights under piles of blankets reading the creepiest, dustiest old paperbacks you could find, is the author who gave the dark, supernatural, fantastic tales spun by pulp writers of the early decades of the 20th century its genre name, Weird Fiction.  More importantly, Lovecraft was one of the genre’s best practitioners too, creating sinister stories of ancient religions, esoteric knowledge, blood curses, suffocating morbidity, and terrifying horror.  Among his fan-beloved creations are the “Great Old Ones,” the malevolently monstrous, once-powerful but now dormant gods that ruled the Earth long before we humans created our own beliefs.  The most infamous Old One is Cthulhu, the beast who slumbers, dreaming beneath the waves of the Pacific Ocean, biding his time until his cultist-worshippers summon him back to land so that he can rule over the Earth once again.  You may have spotted his likeness on t-shirts worn by gothy types hanging out in the darker corners of Portland’s Lovecraft Bar:

“… a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long narrow wings behind.  This thing, which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy, was of a somewhat bloated corpulence, and squatted evilly …”  (H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu).

Cthulhu might sound to you as if he’s got the slimy, tentacled face that only a mother could love, but you’d be wrong — his fans are legion, and the Hollywood Theatre will be aswarm with groupies buying Chthulhu-branded merch of all kinds, including coloring books, bobble-heads, lunch-boxes, and inflatable beards.  And, of course, they’ll be faithfully crowding into the theater’s three screening rooms, ritually watching more than 40 different Lovecraft-themed movies (including the World Premiere of They Remain) all weekend long.  I’ll see you there (I may or may not be the one who wearing this campaign button).

If, after the Festival, you decide to join the cult — or if you’re already a Lovecraft lover — you’ll want to add the 2007 locally lensed horror flick Cthulhu to your movie queue.  A low-budget indie feature from director Dan Gildark and writer Grant Cogswell, Cthulhu updates the mythos for the 21st century, and relocates it from the New England of Lovecraft’s fiction to Astoria, Oregon.  The new surroundings suit the somber, ominous mood perfectly, with Astoria’s gray skies and storm-tossed waterfront helping to create a most eldritch environment. 

Russell Marsh (played by Jason Cottle) is a history professor happily distanced from his dysfunctional family and teaching at a Seattle university, when he gets the call to come home: his mother has died, and he’s compelled to attend the reading of her will in River Mouth, Oregon (the fictionalized name for the Astoria locations).  Turns out that the house isn’t the only thing that Russell may have inherited; he also appears to be heir apparent to his father’s role as leader of a mysterious religious cult.  Russell’s uninterest in the family business is only one of the ways in which he disappoints dad, though; because he’s gay, he has also failed to produce an heir of his own, frustrating his father’s fantasies of a multigenerational dynasty.  And who are those haunting hooded figures who seem to be beckoning him to the sea?

Cthulhu is stronger on mood than it is on action, but by the end of its moody dreaminess it gets nutty enough to please a Weird genre fan: a drugged Marsh impregnates a River Mouth seductress (Tori Spelling!), fulfilling prophecy, and the people of coastal Oregon explode into violently chaotic mobs.  By the film’s end, you might imagine seeing a rough beast slouching towards Astoria to be born (full disclosure and spoiler: the film’s tight budget prohibited the actual appearance of the Great Old One himself).


The best part of Cthulhu, though, is the additional material on the DVD.  Director Gildark and screenwriter Cogswell offer a crash course in independent filmmaking for aspiring auteurs, assessing their own film (and its shortcomings) with refreshing candor.  Cogswell suggests that “the movie is not what I wanted it to be” and that it “doesn’t really work”; both he and Gildark conclude that their ambitious vision was undone by both their small budget (under $1 million) and their inexperience making movies.  Was creating a script with 85 different locations a good idea, for instance?  Cogswell and Gildark laugh at their own overreach (which explains why Tori’s character works at Sea Lion Caves further down the coast in Florence — a mere four hour daily commute — because it creates a cool-looking backdrop for a scene).  Cogswell calls his own script a “trainwreck,” and both characters snicker at its “patchwork” feeling, ultimately agreeing that for them, it’s “not like watching a real movie.”


Cthulhu may not have met the expectations of its makers, but it still manages to create an unsettling, umheimlich, strange mood piece, set in an Astoria that I’d always thought of as charming, picturesque, and unthreatening.  This movie carves a little piece of Portland’s oddball magic out for the rest of the state: Cthulhu keeps Oregon weird.

Watch: Cthulhu is available on DVD from Liberation Entertainment.  H/T Movie Madness Video and More.

  • Written by Phil Oppenheim
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