In Lovecraftian horror, the imagery tends to be grand. Mountains, mansions, ancient gods. Vengeful tentacle monsters rising from the seas. Evil so deep it’s unfathomable. Madness so complete it consumes all. But the beauty of Lovecraftian fiction is that its cosmic-scale horror can manifest in prosaic situations – and in cinema, on low budgets – because its true horror lies not in spectacle, but ideas. Part of the point is that the imagery involved is too horrifying to see without going mad, which is perfect for low-budget productions – as long as they get the ideas right.
Rebekah McKendry’s new feature Glorious shrinks the unknowable cosmos to a new level of mundanity, in the grimiest, funniest take on Lovecraftian horror this side of Re-Animator. Taking place entirely at a rest stop, and almost entirely in its unsanitary public restroom, this horror-comedy succeeds in both of its mashed-up genres, and then some. It follows True Blood himbo Ryan Kwanten as Wes, a man who’s recently seen serious interpersonal trauma and flees to the rest stop to drink a shitload of liquor, wallow in emotion, and burn anything that might spark undesired memories. But while attempting to puke out his hangover the next morning in the restroom, a voice (the great J.K. Simmons) comes from the next-door stall through a beautifully-graffitied glory hole. The voice claims to be an ancient god. It demands an unpleasant, but necessary, sacrifice. And given that it’s trapped Wes in this restroom, it’s worth taking seriously.
As wild as that sounds, I promise it’s only the setup. There are more surprises in store, and the script absolutely revels in its exploration of the premise.
An elder god stuck in a roadside toilet and speaking through a glory hole isn’t just funny; it’s a brilliant budget-conscious idea, and one that McKendry milks for every drop of primordial goo she can squeeze from it. Save for the odd glimpse of detail, the creature itself remains hidden, but its presence becomes more palpable, and more terrifying, the further the story develops. Glorious‘ action might be confined to one room, but its stakes span the universe. McKendry somehow makes this cosmic glory hole hilarious and scary, thanks to claustrophobic production design, photography that maximises its potential, surreal lighting to shake things up visually, some terrific smash cuts, and especially the well-integrated performances of the two leads, who likely never interacted on set at all.
A major part of what makes Glorious so effective is the decision to cast lovable grump Simmons as its antagonist. A voice role that could easily have been overplayed, Simmons’ articulate and measured character is a perfect confection of comedy and terror, a destructive and unknowable demigod who sounds like your next-door neighbour. That’s inherently amusing, but it’s a testament to Simmons’ skill that he can be frightening as well, winding the film’s tonal balance around his little finger (or tentacle).
While most attention will fall on Simmons, purely by virtue of his character’s nature, it’s important to highlight Kwanten’s commitment as Glorious’ questionable protagonist. Appearing in nearly every frame of the film, Kwanten threads a similarly tricky needle to Simmons, with the added challenge of carrying the entire narrative on his back. Wes is off-balance before he even ventures into the restroom, and Kwanten plays his unhinged role in a way that inspires sympathy, curiosity, and apprehension in equal measure. And as the situation gets more and more twisted, Kwanten’s natural likeability keeps the audience invested enough to make the script’s gut-wrenching turns land with the impact they deserve.
By the time Glorious reaches its shocking and bloody climax, it’s played escape movie, absurdist comedy, psychological thriller, cosmic sci-fi, and body horror. But what’s remarkable are the elements that make Glorious a kind of ethical allegory. Change the setting (a lot, to be fair) and this could be a Twilight Zone or even a Star Trek episode, a parable wherein a morally-compromised protagonist must make a sacrifice to help the greater good. Under the genre trappings, this is a story that stabs at the parts of ourselves that are most uncomfortable. Not bodily organs, although they certainly get some attention; Glorious is more interested in probing the deeper ways in which we hurt others. It can be subtle or blatant, accidental or deliberate, but we know when we’ve done wrong, no matter what pretence we construct to live with ourselves, and sometimes we need to be forced to atone. I certainly didn’t think I’d be moved to self-examination by a Lovecraftian glory hole movie, but here we are.
For a movie that goes to such dark places, Glorious is remarkably light-hearted, and not just thanks to its comic premise. There’s actually a strong throughline of faith in and respect for the universe and the life in it, which shines through the bleakness represented by miserable Wes and his extradimensional captor. Though it’s mostly accomplished through dialogue as opposed to visuals – for all its creativity, this is still a film set in a public restroom – Glorious pulls off ideas much bigger than it has any right to.
There’s not much more to say without giving away the delights contained within this film. Glorious uses finite resources to paint a picture of infinity. It’s gross-out comedy, eldritch horror, and morality play, all crammed chaotically into a toilet stall, and it’ll surely gain fans for its creative approach to a thoroughly well-trodden subgenre – an approach that’s simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and extremely sincere. Some might say glory holes are eldritch horror already. Glorious proves it.