Dan Gildark And Grant Cogswell - Chasing the Zeitgeist

It may seem odd to spin a story by the famously bigoted H. P. Lovecraft into a horror flick with gay themes, but screenwriter Grant Cogswell and director Dan Gildark hope their new movie Cthulhu—which starts shooting in Seattle and Astoria, Oregon, next week—will do precisely that.

The Lovecraft short story "Shadow over Innsmouth" concerns a man who takes an archaeological interest in a small New England town, only to discover that its people worship a sinister fish-god called Dagon. Soon he learns that his own ancestors interbred with a race of amphibious monsters on the site, and that he's in danger of becoming a monster himself. Cogswell saw in the story's subtext a horror of small-town life that he says resonated with the experience of gay friends: "I knew folks who grew up in these backwoods places and then in their 30s, one of their parents died or had a stroke, and they had to go back and face their past." In Cthulhu, the protagonist is a gay professor at Cascadia University (played by Seattle University), who is called back to his hostile Oregon hometown in order to execute his mother's will. Gildark and Cogswell explained how the "latitude of the horror genre" and the "huge metaphors" that other horror films have exploited will allow the film to take on even broader themes, from suburban sprawl to free-floating anxiety about politics in this country.

Cthulhu is the first feature film for both filmmakers, who have spent the last decade pursuing vastly different kinds of projects. Cogswell is best known for his participation in local politics, from spearheading the original monorail initiative to a failed run for Seattle City Council in 2001, but he's also published poetry and is currently a writer in residence with Richard Hugo House. Gildark completed the film production program at Portland's Northwest FilmCenter in 2003, though his storied past includes a two-year stint in a Czech prison at the close of the war in the former Yugoslavia and a sequence of film clips that MTV allegedly stole to create the intro to 120 Minutes in the early 1990s.

Arkham NW Productions is also bringing on Robinson Devor, the director of Police Beat, as a full-time consultant to the project, and has borrowed many members of Police Beat's production team, including cinematographer Sean Kirby (shooting high-definition digital video) and art director Etta Lilienthal. Confirmed cast members include Jessica Westfeldt (Kissing Jessica Stein) as the main character's sister and Scott Green (Last Days) as the hot tow-truck driver whom the main character fooled around with as a kid.

Gildark admits that at the start of the project in 2003, both he and Cogswell "were new to horror, and we didn't really respect the genre." But he's since become a fan of the Japanese new wave of horror films, citing the slow pace and extended takes of directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure). Cogswell is a zombie partisan, and the second half of the screenplay certainly bears that influence. But he won't have much say during production. "I'm banned from the set," Cogswell said. "Dan told me, you're not going to be on the set because you won't be able to restrain yourself. And I said, you're totally right."

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. More and more mainstream films are testing the sexuality barrier (both Cogswell and Gildark pointed to the upcoming Brokeback Mountain, an upcoming Ang Lee Western that explores a sexual relationship between cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, as a potential crossover hit); and specialty theatrical distributors like Strand Releasing have a long history of successfully marketing art-house films with gay and lesbian content. On the other hand, fans of horror films are equally voracious for new examples of the genre, making the prospect of home video and DVD sales particularly tantalizing. The possibility of uniting the two markets isn't lost on other filmmakers: Hellbent, which is marketing itself as "the first ever gay slasher film!" is currently receiving a rolling national release, and opens in Seattle this Friday. Cthulhu may be chasing the Zeitgeist.

annie@thestranger.com