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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (2001)

12. Dagon

Despite his long association with H.P. Lovecraft, Stuart Gordon had never adapted any of the author's most famous works. It wasn't for a lack of trying. Starting in the early nineties, Gordon began work on an adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Probably Lovecraft's most famous story after “The Call of Cthulhu,” it proved difficult to bring to the screen. A version with Full Moon nearly came to fruition but fell apart before filming. Gordon didn't give up on the story though. A decade later, Brian Yunza would partner which Spain-based studio Filmax to form Fantastic Factory, a production company specializing in genre films. One of Fantastic Factory's first features was “Dagon.” Despite being named for a shorter Lovecraft story, this was actually Gordon's long-simmering adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Over the years since, “Dagon” has garnered a passionate cult following.

Paul Marsh is on vacation with his girlfriend, Barbara, and two mutual friends. Their boat is stranded outside an unusual village in Spain. Paul swims over to the town, named Imboca. Imboca is not like other towns though. As the sun goes down, Paul discovers that the Imboca villagers are half-human creatures. They worship the dark sea god Dagon and have, slowly over the years, transformed into fish-like monsters. Now, Paul must rescue his girlfriend and escape the village with his life. Little does he know, Paul’s own family has secrets in this town.

Gordon's previous Lovecraft's adaptations were fairly loose, mostly because they were adapting short stories. “Dagon” is also a fairly loose adaptation. However, the film captures the spirit of Lovecraft better than any previous adaptations. The movie features almost everything you associate with the author. There's a sea-side town with a dark secret. There's humanoid fish creatures crawling through the mud, revealing gills, bulging eyes, tentacles and claws. Arcane pacts are made with ancient beings, in decadent and desecrated churches. Human sacrifices are performed to elder gods, giant eldritch creatures who sleep in the ocean. Strange statues devoted to profane entities are seen. The infamous C'thulhu chant is even said on-screen. That Gordon manages to cram all these iconic elements into one film is impressive. In this regard, “Dagon” maybe the ultimate Lovecraft movie.

As a Spanish co-production, “Dagon” shifts “The Shadow Over Innsmouth's” location from a seaside Massachusetts town to a tiny village in Spain. (Amusingly, the town is renamed “Imboca,” a rough Spanish translation of “Innsmouth.”) However, Gordon maintains that New England setting in one important way. Imboca is rainy as hell. A thunder storm rolls in within the opening minutes. After that, rain falls throughout the rest of the movie. So, yes, this is a horror movie set on a dark and stormy night. That cliché works for a reason though. The constant rain provides a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere. Combined with the crumbling buildings and towns, it makes “Dagon's” setting memorably bleak and portentous.

Scripting wise, there's actually not too much to “Dagon.” A solid chunk in the middle of the movie is devoted to a long chase. Paul sees the deformed fish people roaming the streets. They see him. He leaps from his hotel window. He's on the run for most of the rest of the film. It's a simple structure but one that works for the movie. Paul is in a constant state of panic, understandably. By strapping the audience to this character, running from one frightening encounter to the next, the audience shares in his panic. Effectively, “Dagon” doesn't give the viewer much chance to catch their breath. We don't know when the next monster attack will be coming. We only know it'll be soon.

Aside from C'thulhu himself, Lovecraft's most famous creation are the Deep Ones. Humans slowly mutating into fish creatures, their pop culture progeny can be seen in “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and hundreds of other stories. Weirdly, before “Dagon,” we never actually saw them on-screen. It was worth the wait. In “Dagon,” the Deep Ones are portrayed in various stages of development. We see humans that are almost humans, save for their webbed hands or bulging eyes. Soon, more mutated versions appear. Fanged tooth, gnarly gills, and spotted skin show through. At the end, we see a fully squid-headed C'thuloid, an impressive sight. Yet Gordon makes moves to humanize even these creatures. One of the best scenes involves a tentacle-armed Deep One. Paul beats him unconscious, just in time for the creature's grandson to cry over him.

If there's a serious thing holding “Dagon” back, it's the lead performance. This was Ezra Gooden's first feature credit. With his black-rimmed glasses and narrow body, he can't help but strike the viewer as a Jeffrey Combs lookalike. Gooden's approach to the material is very different. He plays Paul as a chronic worrier, hopelessly nerdy and anxious. He's introduced watching his stocks while on vacation. After becoming an unlikely survivor, Gooden begins to play the character in a weirder way. He starts shouting profanity at the fish-people, as if he's some sort of bad-ass action hero. Instead of a dweeb. The performance has grown on me over the years – the unlikely hero is an interesting subversion – but it's not the most likable choice.

There really aren't too many other characters to write about in “Dagon.” Paul's girlfriend is a damsel in distress. His friends are fodder for the fish guys. The Deep Ones are slobbering monsters. However, there is one other really important character in the film. Veteran Spanish character actor Francisco Rabal plays Ezequiel. A homeless drunkard, the Deep Ones let him live in Imboca because he's harmless. After Paul runs into him, Ezquiel explains the town's history. What could've been a dull moment of exposition is instead transformed into a highlight. We see the town, formerly full of good Christians, loose faith after the fishing trade dries up. When God won't send more fish, they worship Dagon instead. Dagon, it turns out, provides. Powered by Rabal's gravelly narration, it's a powerful sequence about how supposedly unshakable faith can be easily molded when the food runs out. It's an idea Lovecraft, with his cosmology of ancient gods indifferent to humanity, surely would've appreciated.

It seems Gordon likes to insert one scene of impressively brutal horror in his Lovecraft adaptations. Maybe he's feels fans expect something to top “Re-Animator's” Head Giving Head scene. So we got twisted body horror and brain-sucking in “From Beyond” and a chained prostitute having her breasts bitten off in “Castle Freak.” “Dagon” is moderately gory usually but one scene stands out. After Paul and Ezequiel are captured, we see how the Deep Ones create their human flesh mask. The homeless man has his face flayed away, while still alive. It's a pretty fucked up moment, featuring plenty of blood and focusing on the character's suffering.

The film's practical effects are actually pretty good. The Deep Ones, especially the squid-headed elder and the octopus-legged mermaid, all look excellent. The gore is solid stuff. However, presumably as a cost-saving measure, “Dagon” features some awkward CGI. The camera peers below the crashed ship, showing an unconvincing shape in the water. Dagon himself leaps on-screen near the end. It's an underwhelming appearance, as the elder god is brought to life by some shaky effects. Worst yet is when Paul's squid-y mermaid dream girl joins him in the deep. The very real Macarena Gomez is traded out for a plastic-y, unconvincing CGI replica. These moments looked bad in 2001 and look even worst today.

Despite its flaws, it's easy to forgive “Dagon” for its pitch perfect ending. Throughout the film, Paul has been haunted by dreams of a strange mermaid. They frighten and intrigue him. Throughout the film, he meets this dream girl. Despite her being a stranger, he's still attracted to her. Even after discovering she has tentacles for legs, he can't deny the siren's call. In the final minutes, we learn she's his half-sister too. As they sink into the deep together, Paul's gills activated and he discovers his true fate. Somehow, “Dagon” makes swimming into the deep with your own half-sister/fish monster lover look kind of appealing.

Freed from the Empire/Full Moon house, Stuart Gordon gets a chance to work with another composer besides Richard Band. Carles Cases provides the music for “Dagon.” His score is beautifully effective. A woman's ghostly singing, from off, as if heard underwater, is peppered throughout the film. This is obviously the siren calling Paul home but it entrances the listener too. Cases also utilizes chanting voices throughout his score, bringing the cult of Dagon to mind. It's a foreboding score, effectively eerie, but maintains an odd beauty to it as well.

“Dagon” would not get a theatrical release in the U.S., instead going direct-to-video. Luckily, the film was released during a time when the direct-to-video market was exploding. “Dagon” was quickly pick up by horror fans. While reviews were slightly mixed, those that love this movie really love it. The cult following remains strong, some saying its Gordon's best film. I wouldn't go that far. An unappealing lead character and some shaky effects detract. Ultimately, “Dagon” isn't on the level of the director's previous Lovecraft adaptations. However, it's a really strong feature. It's worth seeing just to see so many classical Lovecraft elements depicted on-screen. [Grade: B]

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