Older Gods (UK, 2023)
I stumbled upon Older Gods as I was scanning new releases on various streaming platforms, hoping for inspiration. Unsurprisingly, the mention of Lovecraftian horror caught my eye. While the trailer didn’t look overly promising, I thought I’d give it a try. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by films that looked unassuming before. Let’s see if this will be one of them.
Older Gods is currently available on Prime Video in the UK.
Chris has made a spur-of-the-moment journey from America to a remote country house in Wales, to investigate the disappearance of his friend Billy. In doing so, Chris has left his heavily pregnant wife behind, with no explanation, much to her dismay and that of his family.
Billy has left a stash of documents and videos for Chris to sift through, much like Professor Angell in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”. These represent Billy’s investigation into a secretive cult and the cosmic entity they serve. A study Billy quotes talks about the roots of their beliefs being in the “Primordial Fear”. This is the very essence of cosmic horror — the madness that comes from truly understanding our insignificance in the vastness of everything.
The cult worships an entity known only as “The Origin”, a deity that dreams our reality. If it were to awake, we might blink out of existence. Rather than placating this god, the cult is trying to awaken it, believing that no one can be insignificant if no one exists. They pursue this goal through acts of murder and torture, each feeding the god and pushing it towards wakefulness.
After spending about two-thirds of the film going through all these notes and hiding from the obvious cultist skulking around the garden, Chris finally takes action. For someone who has dropped everything to come to Wales and find the truth, he is awfully reluctant to actually investigate.
Happily, the film picks up from this point as Chris finally puts down the notes and engages with the cult directly. Will it be too little too late, however, either for Chris or for us as viewers?
Like In the Earth and Something in the Dirt, Older Gods is a product of the early pandemic. It was shot with a small crew and a very limited cast. Much like Something in the Dirt, it largely takes place in a single residence — a house in the countryside, this time, instead of an apartment. And like In the Earth, it makes use of outdoor locations, with fairly obvious social distancing in effect.
I wonder if anyone has written the definitive book on how the early days of Covid shaped media. It was certainly a weird time for television. Even once programmes had moved past using Zoom to connect remote participants, panel shows in the UK were erecting plexiglass barriers between panellists, and chat shows kept guests at such a distance from one another that they all looked rather lonely. This is echoed in the isolation of the actors in these films.
There is also a certain kind of tension in all three that’s hard not to relate to Covid. While only In the Earth explicitly mentions a pandemic, each film deals with some kind of infection, whether pathogens or the spread of dangerous ideas. There is also a sense of the madness of isolation, with characters living outside normal social structures, adopting strange beliefs and behaviours.
Another thing Older Gods made me think about was how much I dislike the presentation of research in most visual media. Of course, it’s difficult to make sifting through piles of notes look interesting on screen. One solution, of course, is to have your protagonist look meaningfully photographs as if they contain all the information and context they might need. Bonus points if these pictures are stuck on a wall.
Older Gods does at least break this up with videos, although I’m not sure that us watching Chris watching a talking head on a screen explain exactly what is going on makes things any more interesting.
I feel guilty for not liking Older Gods. It’s the kind of ambitious indie horror film my conscience tells me I should be supporting. There’s some real imagination in its concepts, and I admire what they managed to achieve under a variety of restrictions. The problem is, however, that it’s simply not very good.
There are parts it gets right. The rationale for the cult is inventive, and the glimpses into its madness are the kind of thoughtful Lovecraftian horror I wish there was more of. This is a story that captures the corrosive effect of cosmic insanity.
When it comes to execution, however, Older Gods falls badly short. With the exception of a couple of supporting parts, the acting is pretty awful. I’m sure the decision to have the protagonist be from Denver was an attempt to make the film more commercial in the US, but having an actor who could do an American accent would have helped.
Mostly, however, there just isn’t enough happening to engage us. Older Gods might have made a terrific short film, but it drags as a feature. There are too many scenes of Chris passively absorbing Billy’s notes and videos. While there is the occasional moment of tension or action, they are smothered by the unrelenting exposition.
Worst of all, what starts as a dark and interesting resolution takes a sudden swerve into cheap sentimentality, dissipating any horror we might have felt. While I understand that the film is trying to explore grief and healing, this ending is so tonally at odds with what came before that I kind of hated it.
Writer and director David Roberts clearly has a good grasp of what makes cosmic horror disturbing. I genuinely hope he revisits the genre someday, only with a stronger film.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Dark August (USA, 1976)
- Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico/Peru, 2022)
- The Banishing (UK, 2020)
- Brooklyn 45 (USA, 2023)
- Bloody Muscle Bodybuilder in Hell (Japan, 1995)
- Pyewacket (Canada, 2017)
- Grave Robbers (Mexico, 1989)
- You Might Be The Killer (USA, 2018)
- No One Will Save You (USA, 2023)
- The Sect (Italy, 1991)
- Last Night in Soho (UK, 2021)
- Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (Spain, 2017)
- 47 Metres Down (UK/USA, 2017)
- The Oskars Fantasy (Philippines, 2022)
- In the Earth (UK, 2021)
- Something in the Dirt (USA, 2022)
- Blood Flower (Malaysia, 2023)
- Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Canada, 1987)
- Older Gods (UK, 2023)
- Come to Daddy (New Zealand, 2020)
- Shrew’s Nest (Spain, 2014)
- Totally Killer (USA, 2023)
- The Premonition (USA, 1976)
- Murder Me, Monster (Argentina, 2018)
- The Gruesome Twosome (USA, 1967)
- Talk to Me (Australia, 2023)
- Gaia (South Africa, 2021)
- Demon (Poland, 2015)
- Juju Stories (Nigeria, 2022)
- El Conde (Chile, 2023)
- The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (Hong Kong/UK, 1974)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!