What the story reminded me of, more than anything else, was friends of mine who are gay, who come from these backwoods towns and then escape to the city to make an adult life. And then, fifteen or twenty years later, they’re in their thirties, and a parent dies, or the sister has a child, or whatever, and they have to go back and engage with that family and that place. One of Lovecraft’s major themes, and I think “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” expresses this best, is the horror of heredity. So I was writing from that feeling of threat, but also the issues of heredity, of anxiety about having children, and I decided to merge the two things.
—Grant Cogswell, “Interview: Dan Gildark & Grant Cogswell of Cthulhu” by Kent M. Beeson
The 2007 horror film Cthulhu was written by Grant Cogswell & Daniel Gildark, directed by Gildark, and stars Jason Cottle as Russell Marsh, a homosexual history professor at Cascadia University that has to return to the small town he escaped from when his mother dies. The 100 minute long film that follows is largely inspired by Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but is almost a cinematic adaptation of Robert M. Price’s essay “Homosexual Panic in ‘The Outsider'” (1982).
Cthulhu had an odd production; from interviews and the commentary track on the DVD, it seems like the idea for the script was born in 2003, actual shooting happened in 2005, and it finally premiered at the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival, with limited theatrical release in 2008 followed swiftly by a DVD release. The film was shot in the Pacific Northwest and had an estimated budget of $1 million dollars, a chunk of which ($175,000) was personally financed by Cogswell, who was left homeless when the film failed to recoup costs (Subject of Seattle film talks about the movie that almost destroyed him). Gildark and Cogswell are very forthright in the DVD track about the cinematic shortcomings of the film and their own inexperience in filmmaking, but the film that they made is worth considering on its own merits:
The genre films I’m most interested in are the ones that are indescribable, that move back and forth across genres. They aren’t true horror in the traditional sense; they kind of skirt the edges. To call our film a gay film is misleading, but to call it a straight horror film is misleading as well, so it really is kind of a bastard version of those genres, which I’m totally comfortable with. It makes it hard to market, but anything interesting takes from different fields and doesn’t try to be a purist art form.
—Dan Gildark, “Interview: Dan Gildark & Grant Cogswell of Cthulhu” by Kent M. Beeson
In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” from a plot perspective the sexuality of the main character is largely moot. There are no real potential love-interests, and romance and sexual attraction are not on the menu. Homosexual (or transsexual) readings of the story focus on the nameless protagonist as an outsider who enters a community of outsiders, scared and frightened by what they uncover, and who discovers too late that they are what they had sought to escape—and finally come to embrace that, and the community that they at first had rejected.
This is not the story that Cogswell & Gildark tell. The homosexuality of Russell Marsh is a key component of character and a driver for many of the conflicts and relationships in the film, but he is openly aware of that fact—and it blinds him to some of what is going on, viewing some of the conflict with his family as a reflection of his sexuality instead of the much darker reality. Yet at the same time, his sexuality very much is a key aspect to this story, because the Innsmouth story is a generational one—and it’s hard to get biological grandkids from a gay prodigal son. Brian Johnson in “Paranoia, Panic, and the Queer Weird” elegantly describes this as “the monstrous forces of a cultic paternal heteronormativity” (New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature 257).
That’s compelling, at the level of personal horror. Russell Marsh thinks himself an outsider because of his homosexuality, but the reality is far weirder. There are things he still doesn’t know about himself—but during the course of this film, he finds out. That revelation, filtered through a much more different perspective than Lovecraft ever intended as it may be, still works. Getting there, however…that doesn’t work so well.
Jason Cottle, who plays Russell Marsh, is also credited with some additional writing, and it’s more or less his performance that carries most of the film. His ability to convey irritation, outrage, disgust, and quiet longing is what will appeal to the audience’s sympathies, if anything. Richard Garfield’s performance as Zadok is fun, and Scott Patrick Green’s performance as Marsh’s homosexual friend Mike also stand out as they get basically scenes to themselves, talking while Cottle’s Marsh listens. The other characters have fewer lines and less development, and it’s Cottle who has to be the focus of the film, and he is.
Like the ill-fitting wig Cottle wears early on in the film, however, it’s not enough. Sometimes passion and vision can only take you so far, and unlike Dagon (2001), another film adapted from “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” there really isn’t that strong, almost campy and arresting visual style, fast pacing, and effects work which can take a clunky script and still produce an effective horror film. There are also some beautiful cinematography in Cthulhu, and the production really did their best to make use of the local scenery. The breadth and majesty of the Pacific rolling up in some scenes is excellent, until the CGI Deep Ones come marching in.
It wasn’t long ago that a horror film with gay content would have had no hope of landing a major U.S. distributor, but in today’s niche-driven industry, the sexuality of Cthulhu‘s main character may well prove a savvy marketing move. On the one hand, gay and lesbian film festivals have cultivated an audience that’s been proven hungry for movies with gay themes, regardless of hype or production values.
—“Oh, the Horror: The Making of ‘Cthulhu'” by Annie Wagner
Cthulhu wasn’t really marketed or distributed as a gay or queer film, but it has been adopted by some critics as queer cinema. Russell Marsh is certain homosexual; the first protagonist in a Mythos film to be openly played as homosexual. His homosexuality is crucial to the conflicts in the story. But Russell Marsh himself isn’t really conflicted about his homosexuality. Russell starts the film at peace with himself, agitated only by confronting those that he feels see him as the monstrous other. Yet Gildark wouldn’t call it a gay or straight horror film…and maybe with good reason.
Consider the argument that:
[…] monstrous figures in American cinema were and are informed by their given era’s social understanding of homosexuality, or more broadly queerness.
—Harry M. Benshoff, “‘Way Too Gay to Be Ignored’: The Production and Reception of Queer Horror Cinema in the Twenty-First Century” in Speaking of Monsters: A Teratological Anthology 131)
Homosexuality and transsexuality have made tremendous strides in mainstream acceptance and legal recognition in the last few decades, but this is still the cultural era of incels and TERFs. It is the heterosexual characters in this film that appear to be the real monsters—but Russell Marsh isn’t exactly heroic or normal by contrast either. As estranged from his family as he might be, he is still a Marsh…and in his own way he is a monster too. The inevitability in that, the way Marsh discovers that he cannot escape the essential kinship with these characters that he opposes, the ties that bind—is very Lovecraftian. Yet the ending is ambiguous; Marsh lashes out, but the audience never sees at who. The blow fails to fall.
Cthulhu lives in that undefined, unknowable, unfilmed ground. Russell Marsh is confronted with who he is, who his family is; but we don’t see the choice he is forced to make, between his family and his friend-and-lover. Between the demands of tradition, culture, and (arguably) biology, versus friendship and sexuality. If he strikes down his lover, he has completed the Lovecraftian arc of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and become that which he hated. If he strikes down his father, he affirms his sexuality and friendship over any ties of blood…even though it will probably cost them both their lives. Which is more horrific depends on the audience; either way, Russell Marsh will have to betray someone, and himself.
Cthulhu (2007) is available on DVD and some streaming services.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).