Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we celebrate our 250th post by watching The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu, a 2009 comedy-horror flick directed by Henry Saine and scripted by Devin McGinn. Trigger warnings (in the movie, not the post) for bloody guts, rape jokes, and frequent obscenities including slurs. Spoilers ahead.
“The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.”
Bad things are happening. In Egypt, hooded cultists unearth a stone (?) relic depicting a octopoid head. Inexplicably, water wells up beneath it, and its eyes glow aqua-blue. Two guys on a boat off the West Coast meet with gory deaths via an unseen assailant. Not long after, a California beach party ends in an equally bloody massacre, compliments of hungry Deep Ones.
Meanwhile, Jeff Phillips and bestie Charlie Russell pursue unfulfilling careers at Sqrly Squirrel Gift Baskets. Charlie leavens the situation with action figures, but Jeff miserably asks himself, “Is this really my frickin’ life?” No worries, Charlie says. They’ll soon rake in the big money with their comic book featuring koi ninjas. That’s if Charlie can ever draw more than the first two pages. Little do they know that at Miskatonic University, the Council of Cthulhu have heard about bad things happening! They know the signs: Cultists have found half of the “key” that will open Cthulhu’s tomb in sunken R’lyeh. Biology professor Lake must take Miskatonic’s key-half to the only person who can protect it: the last descendant of H. P. Lovecraft!
Meanwhile at cult headquarters, Cthulhu’s general Star-Spawn arrives. He has a boiled-lobster-crimson head with tentacles for hair, plus the occasional tentacles sprouting from his back, and he sports the T-shirt previously worn by one of the boat guys. (It shows a kilt-clad unicorn, brandishing pistols; this movie has its t-shirt game on.) After offing the head cultist for insubordination, Star-Spawn takes the relic and declares that no one will stop the return of the Great Old Ones—once again Their time has come!
Later, when he’s joined by the ancient (pureblooded) Deep Ones who crashed the beach party, Star-Spawn helps them off the rest of the cultists, human and hybrid alike. So much for promises of eternal life.
Back to our heroes, who find Lake waiting in their apartment. Lake explains that Jeff is the last in Lovecraft’s line and must defend the MU key-half. Jeff’s skeptical, but Charlie produces a comic book about how Cthulhu and his spawn warred with the star-headed Elder Things and their shoggoths for control of primeval Earth. Then a comet drove Cthulhu into his tomb at R’lyeh, where he remains to this day, influencing susceptible people via telepathically-cast dreams. Jeff remains skeptical. Only an attack by cultists and Star-Spawn convinces Jeff to take the relic and run. Lake holds off Star-Spawn, who dispatches him bloodily when Lake refuses to come over to the dark side.
Jeff and Charlie narrowly escape in their Mini Cooper Sqrly delivery “van.” Charlie suggests they look up high-school classmate Paul, who’s all into Cthulhu and lives with his grandmother nearby. He answers the door wearing a Deep One mask. (Plus another awesome shirt: My other pet is a shoggoth.) The relic doesn’t impress Paul: he has the same collectible based on Lovecraft’s drawings. Jeff dumps his version in a fishtank and it starts glowing; Paul’s won over.
He suggests seeking out Captain Olaf, a Deep Ones expert. Fortunately Paul has a souvenir map to his desert hideout. They gather weapons from Paul’s basement and depart. A snack break at an ominous desert motel brings Jeff in contact with a skeevy guy who turns out to be a cultist. Next morning Skeevy and friends surround the Cooper and demand the relic. Paul runs off with his (Mastercraft) relic held high. Jeff and Charlie take off in the opposite direction.
Jeff and Charlie struggle through the desert to Captain Olaf’s RV. After seeing the relic, Olaf tells the story of how his fishing boat was attacked by Deep Ones, who killed his crew and assaulted Olaf. Deep Ones like to mate with humans, see? The proof’s in Olaf’s bedroom, where a DO-hybrid named Gary languishes unconscious in a kiddy pool.
Meanwhile Paul wakes among his cultist captors just as Star-Spawn arrives. Star-Spawn’s not amused to discover Paul’s relic is fake. While he slaughters cultists, Paul goes out a window, breaking both arms. Eventually he staggers up to Olaf’s place to rejoin the good fight.
Olaf and Jeff go to a cave to recover hidden pistols and dynamite. Charlie upsets Gary’s pool and tries to keep him hydrated in the kitchen sink. As he neglects to add salt to the water, Gary dies. Waste not want not, when Deep Ones attack the RV, they throw Gary out as a distraction while Jeff and Charlie dash for the ammo Olaf buried in a separate location. Olaf saves our heroes by impaling a DO with his whaling harpoon. Then Star-Spawn arrives. He impales Olaf with the captain’s own harpoon. Jeff and Charlie, finally loaded up, shoot Star-Spawn. They retreat to the RV after listening to Olaf’s death-speech about hearing the sea again, sniffle.
Star-Spawn revives and attacks the RV in giant-cephalopod form. Jeff and Charlie escape to the roof, then run out of plans except to light a bundle of dynamite. Paul dashes out of the RV, leaving the real relic inside. Star-Spawn seizes it, reverts to humanoid form, pulls the fuse from the dynamite, and taunts our heroes as they cower. Then he plugs the MU relic-key into his half. Really bad things start to happen: Columns of lightning burst upward, and the doors of Cthulhu’s tomb unlock. Charlie and Paul are incapacitated by Cthulhu’s released dreams. But Jeff has inherited Lovecraft’s unique resistance to telepathic control. He fires his last bullet into the dynamite. Star-Spawn’s blown to bits. Cthulhu’s tomb closes. Our heroes have saved the world!
Months later we find Charlie signing copies of the “Relic of Cthulhu” comic. But Jeff rushes in—the Council thinks there are more relics in Antarctica, Paul’s waiting in the plane, let’s go!
Cut to Antarctica, and our three heroes climbing to their first glimpse of—the Mountains of Madness!
To be continued, evidently.
What’s Cyclopean: The word of the day is… pick an obscenity, any obscenity. Far more numerous than “cyclopeans” in At The Mountains of Madness.
The Degenerate Dutch: A random side character complains that Paul’s grandma isn’t “PC” because she calls him slurs. If you follow the usual rule of translating PC as “having some consideration for people’s feelings,” you will not be far off.
Mythos Making: Cthulhu fought a terrible war with the Elder Things and the shoggoths, until they were inconveniently interrupted by a dinosaur-killing asteroid.
Libronomicon: Millions of years later, that war was immortalized as a comic book.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Lovecraft’s line, we learn, are special because they can face eldritch abominations without going mad. Being immune to telepathic attacks is useful like that.
Soap opera writers say there are four kinds of characters: Good-good, good-bad, bad-good and bad-bad. Movies can be categorized the same way. I confess that when I first noticed The Last Lovecraft on Prime, I prejudged it as a probable bad-bad. Viewing it changed my assessment to good-bad, which can be a very good-good thing when you’re in the proper mood. It reminded me of my favorite horror-comedy, Shaun of the Dead, what with its vibe of bumbling buddies making sorta good under terrifying-hilarious circumstances.
Plus it has that super animation short that serves as Mythos infodump, featuring a ripped Cthulhu and puppy-cute shoggoths, not to mention a severed triceratops head used as a highly effective weapon.
And it rivals the geek-pleasing quotient of even “Xingzhou” for geeky references dropped and tropes ticked off. My favorite ref was the mirroring of the scene in Return of the Jedi when Han Solo’s being dragged into the Sarlacc’s maw and Lando Calrissian is afraid he doesn’t have a clear shot at its tentacle. Except here it’s Charlie being dragged from the RV by Star-Spawn and Jeff’s afraid to shoot, certainly an equally tense moment. For Charlie, anyhow. My favorite handling of tropes was Captain Olaf’s death scene, everyone gathered around to hear his last (voluminous) words about how he sees and hears the ocean again, including the cries of the gulls (god, he hates gulls.) I almost got teary-eyed. Or maybe it was Gary who made me sniffle, lying dead in the kitchen sink. Poor Gary, he never got to see the glories of Y’ha-nthlei, may he lie in the arms of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon.
For Lovecraft aficionados, there’s plenty to puzzle over. Like, how does Professor Lake look so good decades after being dissected by the Elder Things? Where do the Cthulhu cultists get their sharp hooded robes, oh, and their gill slits? If they’re incipient Deep Ones, why does Star-Spawn refer only to the fish-faced cultist as a half-breed? And, most important, with whom did our own Howard have a secret child? If not with Sonia Greene, who better than one of his other collaborating women, like Zealia Bishop or my choice, Hazel Heald. Because just as Howard and Hazel produced the best stories, wouldn’t they have produced the strongest line of anti-Cthulhu warriors?
Most glaring omissions: The Necronomicon, or for that matter, any of the classic Mythos tomes. Unless I missed one stranded in the jetsam of Paul’s room. More annoyingly, of any female characters of interest. I might have liked Paul’s grandma if she’d stuck to being a foul-mouthed peanut butter whore, but then she had to go and be mean to rather lovable Paul.
Scariest scene in the movie: When Jeff encounters the deskman at the desert motel. Skeevy Guy joins the pantheon of unnerving hospitality workers which includes Norman Bates and the original Shining’s ghost caretaker Grady.
Personal confession #1: Like Charlie, I like to fill my office space with action figures. I agree with him, plastic monsters scattered among the more mundane desk conveniences are both “amusing and awesome.” My most effective panorama (spread over the entire room) involved Star Trek Next Gen meets Alien meets Godzilla. There was also some Barbie furniture, because of course Picard travels with a pink canopy bed.
Personal confession #2: Or maybe not a confession, just a statement of where I stand on the burning question of which came first, Howard or the Mythos. As a fictional conceit, I mean. If you’re writing Mythos stories, do you ignore or downplay the fact that this guy named Lovecraft invented the subgenre? Or do you work him into the stories, as someone who had actual experience with Cthulhu and Company and who disguised his largely factual accounts of Their doings as fiction? Without having anything against the former, I, like Devin McGinn, do the latter. I also have a group based at Miskatonic University dedicated to opposing Mythosian incursions. Because what could be nicer? Whose top secret meetings would you rather attend? And whose Lammastide parties?
Thanks, guys, for hanging around for #250 and making it such a fun ride for us!
Ruthanna Emrys isn’t available this week. She’s on her knees screaming, either because of a telepathic attack or because of terrible special effects, we’re not going to say which. We are Concerned Cultists for America, and we would like to register objections to the portrayal of ourselves and our allies in the film known as The Last Lovecraft.
First, though, we must acknowledge that the movie is accurate in many ways. Notably, its portrayal of humanity as a whole seems flawless—and all the argument one needs for begging Cthulhu to devour them wholesale. Not that He would actually do that—you might recall that the original text is less about devouring, and more about reveling in new and terrible forms of pleasure. But a cultist can dream. The movie’s epigram might easily have omitted a word from its quote: The world is indeed comic, but the joke is mankind.
Our point is that every character in this movie, except for the otherwise personality-free woman who gets an action figure knocked on her head mid-coitus, is a complete asshole. Were we faced with Charlie, Jeff, and Paul in real life—or any of the selection of side characters—we would be tempted to convert them last. And more tempted to find some eldritch entity that actually likes the taste of human flesh. It’s surprisingly rare, you know.
Deep ones, by the way, can be quite eloquent. But they do have tempers. We have no intention of showing our piscine comrades this movie—or at least, we plan to leave the room before they get to the bit with Gary. Dear Snoring Sleeper in the Temple, some humans have a strange sense of humor.
In any case, while we won’t deny the occasional attempt to raise our dread lord from beneath the ocean floor, there are generally fewer entrails involved. And when there are entrails, our effects are better. Give us the chance to make an NC-17 movie some time, and we’ll show you some seriously creative taboo-breaking. That might actually be a more efficient way to teach mankind to revel beyond laws and morals, now we come to think of it.
Ms. Emrys appears to be recovering from the special effects now, so we’ll—aaaaahhhhhhh!
Ruthanna here—what just happened? I have a pounding headache and there’s a mostly-written blog post on my desk, scribbled on blood-stained parchment. Once I transliterate these mysterious runes, I’m not going to have much space left for my own commentary. I shall have to be succinct. So:
Things I liked about The Last Lovecraft: Paul’s “My other pet is a shoggoth” t-shirt, the whole concept of Samurai Fish, the fact that it was only an hour and eighteen minutes long.
Things I didn’t like: Learning exactly what it takes to scrape out an NC-17 rating with no on-screen nudity. Lesson learned, but at what cost? At what cost???
Next week, Mira Grant’s In the Shadow of Spindrift House sends Those Damn Kids to a haunted house a little too close to the ocean. You can only hope the haunt is just some guy in a mask…
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.