Eldritch USA — the midwestern musical horror America has been waiting for

Eldritch USA is much more than the sum of its parts, but there’s a lot to be said about those individual parts. I’ve seen musicals, I’ve seen films influenced by Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery, and I’ve seen Midwestern family dramas, but it’s in the way that Eldritch USA ties them all together that makes it stand out from the pack. Set in the fictional small town of Eldritch, the film centers on Geoff Brewer’s struggle to get out from under the shadow of his older brother Rich. Both work for the local news station KTLU (one of many small but appreciable easter eggs in the film), but Rich’s position as lead anchor keeps him ahead of his brother in fame and attention, where he has spent his entire life. When the two go to investigate a local cult claiming to have uncovered a tome that can raise the dead, the situation deteriorates and Geoff finds himself under the shadow of a much more hostile force.

Y’ask me, what we need in this here country is some good ol’ fashioned family cults. Like Nyarlathothep used ta make.

It may seem like a strange comment, but part of what makes the film work as well as it does is the low budget and decisions it led to. The small cast and crew, topping out at about 60 and 20 respectively, gives Eldritch USA an authentic, homegrown feel that reinforces the smalltown setting and helps ground you in the setting, family drama, and stakes when things start to take a turn for the worse. That isn’t to say that the movie looks cheap. I have seen movies with more than double the budget look half as good, and the final product was only achievable with a wellspring of talent and hard work.

I talked with Ryan Smith, the writer and co-director, about the production. As with many independent films, he needed to take on a lot of extra roles to see it through to completion, doing the visual effects on his own and innumerable other small tasks. Having directed a short based on Lovecraft’s The Terrible Old Man, he wanted to do something more challenging for his first feature film, but also wanted to make sure it stood out from the crowd. Thinking that a musical was the best way to do that, he combined his love of horror with the concept and his recently acquired home of Springfield, Missouri. Missouri Southern University’s acting program provided much needed staff for the eventual shoot, and in late 2018, he got to writing Eldritch USA. Nathan Hurley worked to flesh out the lyrics and write the melodies, and the script was written with songs in mind as a means to move the story forward. Davis Drake then worked as a producer on the songs to round them out.

Speaking of the music, I feel I have to mention my favorite song…but I can’t really. That would spoil one of the best scenes in the movie, built around slowly piecing the song together until it becomes a complete whole at the end.

That song is much like the film itself, actually, built as it is from disparate pieces of concepts and talent. Enough can’t be said about the performances of the leads: Graham Weldin’s weary yet earnest Geoff, contrasted against Andy Phinney’s whipsawing temperament (you’ll see what I mean) as his brother Rich. Mary Joe Greer’s costuming kept the continuity consistent and subtly suggests a lot about each character and their state of mind. David Watson’s cinematography was essential to helping the film feel professional and squeezing in a lot of the jokes. Brittany Greer’s special effects makeup makes a lot of the scenes. Anna Phillips’ contribution with marketing is the reason I found this gem, and I thank her for putting it out there and ensuring I didn’t miss it.

The script and music were finished in early 2020 and a proof of concept was shot later in the year. An early 2020 Kickstarter was successful, but production was stalled by the real-world horror of the ensuing pandemic two weeks later. The team was able to pick up production in August of 2021, losing a solid percentage of their body weight shooting in a barn in the height of the summer. They apparently got some extra cardio in chasing the film’s stunt chicken, which escaped and ran its way through a field of brambles before being caught. See, this is why it’s important to build extra time into any shooting schedule. Things go wrong. Following the main shoot with night and weekend shooting through the middle of December, the film then underwent a period of post-production and was released in April of 2023.

Always a supporter of the weird and independent, the local Alamo Drafthouse gave them a single screening to see what interest it could garner. It sold out in two hours. They gave Eldritch USA another two shows, which also sold out. Every ticket of the eventual ten shows sold out, and since then, Eldritch USA has only been picking up accolades and attention. It picked up four awards and seven total nominations at the Atlantis Awards, and more from the Gencon Film festival, Kansas City Underground Film Festival, FLY Film Festival, and Popcorn Frights Film Festival.

There is reported variance in church hymnals depending on where you go in America.

Right now, Eldritch USA is continuing on the festival circuit. If you want to see it yourself, keep an eye out for more information at the website. I’m sure this is not the last you’ll hear of this film or its team. It’s beyond encouraging to see an oddball genre piece like this succeed, especially after hearing about the tribulations that afflicted its production. At the same time, Eldritch USA is gory, whimsical, fantastical and down to Earth. Its elements are contradictory yet complimentary, and it simply can’t be matched by anything else out there. If this is what Ryan Smith can accomplish with a small team and modest budget, I couldn’t be more excited to see where his career goes next.

Senior Tabletop Editor | [email protected]

John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/

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