Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Return to Innsmouth (1999)

By Brian M. Sammons

return_innsmouthReturn to Innsmouth (1999). Director: Aaron Vanek. Cast: Ezra Hubbard, Larry Curwen, Edgar Reynolds.

Hey, guys, remember that cool low-budget Lovecraft flick that came out some years back? You know: it starred a little-know actor named “Ezra” and was made by a filmmaker well-known and respected in Cthulhuhead circles? Come on. It’s the movie loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and had a bunch of wide-eyed deep ones in it? Sure, I bet you remember it now. Yeah, so you remember that movie Dagon? Well, that’s not it. But of course you knew that just by glancing at the title of this article. So, why all the games? Well, because I like them and also, to illustrate how similar the two movies are, and yes, they both really do star actors named “Ezra”. What are the odds? But the two films do have plenty of differences, too. One movie, while not a huge success financially, was released all over the world and is easily available on DVD. The other is Return to Innsmouth, the film I’m about to talk about today. It’s also a movie you’ve probably never heard of and a film that would be a pain in the ass to get, and even just to watch in this modern, post-DVD world.

Return to Innsmouth is an ultra-low-budget labor of love directed by Lovecraftian enthusiast, Aaron Vanek, who’s made quite a few short films based on the works of HPL. It is a very faithful retelling of Lovecraft’s famous story of fish people. In fact, in many ways, it’s more faithful than Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, which would come out two years later. However, at only 30 minutes, it is a lot shorter than Dagon, with a minimal cast, and filmed in black-and-white. The special effects, with the budget the filmmakers had to use, aren’t very special. The makeup is passable, but the early and low-cost CGI looks painfully early and low-cost, especially eleven years later. The acting ranges from good-intentioned-but-rather-poor, to surprisingly strong performances by the film’s two leads. As for the story, come on, it’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth”. I know you’ve read it and if you haven’t, then you should and I’m not going to ruin the fun of reading that great story for the first time for you. Rule of thumb for Cthulhu Eats the Movies: if a movie is a faithful adaptation of a Lovecraft story, then I won’t give too much of it away. I will point out when things differ and for this film, that comes in the form of an ending that takes place where the Lovecraft story leaves off. I’ll leave it at that, but I think most cinecephalophiles will approve of it.

Now, my brothers, sisters and shoggoths, for the bad news. As hinted at before, this movie isn’t on DVD, Blu-ray, or any medium more modern than good, old VHS. That means that it might be a little hard to find and if you no longer have a VCR, as I know some people personally who don’t, then you can’t watch it at all.

So, why am I teasing and torturing you all by telling you about a very cool Lovecraft flick that you may not ever be able to see, or at the very least, not be able to see easily? Once again, because I like to do so, but also because Lovecraft was all about uncovering the rare, the hidden, the things most of humanity doesn’t know about, or the things that mankind had forgotten. Well all that describes this movie to a T. And didn’t someone once say that nothing good ever comes easily? Well, if not, then I’m saying it now. Besides, if you do manage to track a copy of this delightful movie down, and drag your old VCR out of the closet, blow the dust off of it, and hook it back up to your TV (if you still can still hook up a VCR to your modern, flat-screen, plasma TV) you’ll appreciate the movie all the more for the hard work you had to do to watch it.

Want another reason for me bringing up this very hidden gem? My “when you wish upon a star” hope is that if enough people remember this blast of Lovecraftian goodness from the past, maybe, just maybe, someone will bring it out on DVD for a wider audience to enjoy. Hey, a Cthulhu cultist can dream, right?

One final note: if you do manage to get a copy of this movie, keep watching after the end credits roll for a behind-the-scenes, “making of” documentary. Yeah, I know, on a VHS, who would have thought that they even had that kind of technology way back then?

Final Verdict: this films is very Lovecraftian, very enjoyable, very short, and very hard to find, but so worth the effort.

Return to Innsmouth can be purchased through Amazon.com

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IFPColumn: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Return to Innsmouth (1999)

3 Comments on “Column: Cthulhu Eats the Movies: Return to Innsmouth (1999)”

  1. Aaron Vanek

    Wow, thanks, Brian!

    Some more info about RTI:

    1. About 50% of the $6,000 budget came from fans of Lovecraft; $20 here, $50 there. They’re all credited at the end. Those that donated also got a very cool, rare RTI lapel pin (only 500 made) with art by Toren Atkinson (singer of Darkest of the Hillside Thickets).

    2. Most of the film was made with a crew of about six, and not always the same six. For the Zadok allen shot as he walks by the train tracks, I was recording sound and walking along with the mixing board. We were trying to walk at the same pace as the actors so you don’t hear six sets of footsteps.

    A little kid was watching us film, and when I went over to talk to him, I handed him an info pamphlet. His older brother came by and said to me, I swear,:”Are you Aaron Vanek?” (yes.) “I Just want to say I love your movies.” I was blown away. Andrew Migliore, the producer, smartly then wrangled the two brothers into the movie, and they wrangled cable and did boom for us that day!

    3. In my mind, RTI inspired Stuart to make Dagon. This isn’t confirmed, but he saw my movie at the Lovecraft Film Festival one year, talked to me about it, saw how large the Lovecraft audience was, and then, years later, made Dagon. He also did it (mostly) seriously, not cheesy. I think RTI (and the Lovecraft Festival) had a hand in the directional shift of Stuart’s movies (and helped revive his career).

    4. We’ve wanted to release an RTI DVD for years. In fact, I HAVE A REMASTERED VERSION OF IT ON MY HARD DRIVE RIGHT NOW. But I have no money to release it, and I think Andrew is shuttering Lurker Films (rumor, not confirmed). Does anyone know how I could stream it and make money off of it, say, a dollar a download?

    5. I am running the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival® – Los Angeles on Sept. 11 this year. If I don’t lose my shirt on the venture, it may become the main Lovecraft Film Festival. This is the last year of the main Portland Film Festival run by Andrew Migliore. After 15 years, he’s burned out. Doing one all by myself, I can see why.

    Thanks again for the reanimation of the VHS!

    Aaron

    PS-There’s one VHS tape of RTI left that keeps appearing at the Adventure Retail booth at San Diego Comic Con. I helped sell the second one this year. Ebay often has one of these tapes every few months.

  2. Brian M. Sammons

    Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for stopping by and giving us an inside look at this great hidden gem of a movie. I hope that one day you can bring it out to the wider masses with a wonderful DVD.

    Oh, and a little tentacled-faced-birdie told me that there might be an upcoming CetM about another one of your films. You, and all my fellow cinecephalophiles, should stay tuned for that. Keep watching the skies…I mean waves!

  3. Ted Mowery

    It would be great to see RTI available streaming via Amazon.

    I’d glady pay $20 for a DVD remaster copy!!

    Otherwise, i have to find a combo dvd/vcr unit and use that to play the rare VHS of it i own.

    Its a true shame there isnt more widespread appreciation for authentic genre work like RTI, i finally abandoned a project of my own i worked on for a few years – my wife and i are currently suffering through “pickmans muse” and i brought up your movie – thats how i found this post.

    I think i’ll at least see if i can locate a copy of the yellow sign on dvd.

    Dont lose heart, your work is really great!

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