Written by: Dennis Paoli (screenplay), H.P. Lovecraft (original stories)
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabal, and Raquel Meroño
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“What happened with all people in this town?"
"They're changing. Changing to go into the sea."
"They're changing. Changing to go into the sea."
During his commentary for From Beyond, Stuart Gordon mused that he believed “sex and death go hand in hand” and that “the two are life and death.” The two were especially intertwined during Gordon’s heyday, which saw so many slasher films conflate sex with death that Scream would make an entire bit out of it a decade later. But where those films made a glib, gratuitous connection at best, Gordon’s work did so with a genuinely unsetting perverseness that became one of his trademarks. Speaking of things that go hand-in-hand, this was especially true of his H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, starting with Re-Animator in 1985 and stretching all the way to 2005’s “Dreams in the Witch-House.” Over this 20-year period, Gordon crafted a delirious tableau of intermingled flesh and gore, with Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak forming an unofficial trilogy of sorts (let’s call it the “Jeffrey Combs & Barbara Crampton go through hell” trilogy).
But what of Dagon, the overlooked post-script that Gordon brought to the screen in 2001? Both the timing and a lack of Gordon’s usual troupe of actors have relegated it to being the other Lovecraft adaption, one that rests somewhere apart from that original trio. And while it’s fair to say Dagon doesn’t really earn a place alongside those career-defining masterworks, it’s nonetheless a twisted little tale that captures the breadth, width, and unfathomable depths of Lovecraftian depravity. It’s also arguably the one that goes straight for the audience’s lizard brain with its dizzying spiral into an bacchanalia of sex, splatter, and conspiracy. In short: some of the most fucked-up shit Gordon ever put on-screen. We’re talking mermaid sex and everything.
Like Castle Freak, it’s also soaked in a Euro-gothic ambiance, as Gordon takes viewers to seaside Spain, where Paul Marsh’s (Ezra Godden) vacation is wrecked by a sudden storm. He and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño) flee for the shores of Imboca, leaving behind wealthy benefactors Howard and Vicki (Brendan Price and Birgit Bofarull) to the raging sea. They immediately meet a strange menagerie of cagey dock-workers and shifty innkeepers; something is clearly amiss on these bleak, rain-soaked sleeks even before Paul and Barbara realize the entire town is actually a bunch of fishmen, a discovery that sends them down a rabbit hole to discover Imboca has been at the mercy of a pagan cult for several decades.
An adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” Dagon slips from the stuff of lucid, sun-splashed daydreams to feverish nightmares in a hurry. Idyllic blue skies and breezy, sea-salt ambiance are fleeting here: Gordon gives us maybe five minutes of tranquility before unleashing total hell upon these characters, some of whom don’t make it past the opening scene. All that’s left of Howard are some tattered, bloody rags and his flayed skin, and when Paul finally reunites with Vicki, she’s missing her legs and rambling on with a horrific story about being forced to mate with a giant demon god. You know the deal. There’s a manic, “what the hell is going on?” sort of energy to Dagon that I like, even if the script isn’t the most graceful at untangling all the knots.
At one point, it resorts to an extended flashback when the lone surviving human (Francisco Rabal) explains how the town came under the influence of a charismatic priest who converted the natives to a pagan religion demanding blood sacrifice in exchange for riches. While it stalls the film’s propulsive energy, it’s nonetheless crucial in building the mythology and mystery surrounding Imboca and kicks the door down to all of the really weird stuff Gordon wants to explore. You’d think Dagon is plenty weird enough, what with its fishmen, flayed human skins, and a cult that continues to worship at the altar of a sea-beast, but it manages to grow even more strange with the introduction of Uxia Cambarra (Macarena Gómez), a descendant of the original priest and now the cult’s leader. Uxia looms large over the entire film, first appearing in Paul’s nightmares, where he dreams of having sex with a mermaid before she bares razor teeth and tentacles.
Uxia’s connection to Paul forms much of the climactic intrigue of Dagon. The threat she and the cult pose is both carnal and existential, with the former taking immediate precedent. We are dealing with an ancient god who needs to fuck to endure, after all. Uxia wielding this sort of seductress power over Paul flips the film’s dynamic on its head a bit; where most of the film sees Dagon preying upon women, audiences are suddenly confronted with a man reckoning with a sexual crisis that grows more squeamish with each new revelation. Paul’s recurring nightmares become sick reality once Uxia lays everything—and I do mean everything—bare, revealing that this trek to Imboca was no accident but instead a fulfilment of cosmic destiny.
Despite the obviously limited resources, Gordon dares to go big and weird, which is honestly the only way to go when tackling this sort of Lovecraftian horror. What it lacks in budget, it more than makes up for with a commitment to dwelling in that repulsive, slimy space that Lovecraft’s aquatic terrors occupy. Dagon is marked by a gross dampness that doesn’t relent, and Gordon’s decision to essentially drown the characters and his audience reflects the subconscious, existential horror lurking at the center of Lovecraft’s best fiction.
Yes, old, unfathomably large gods dwelling in the unseen depths of the universe are scary, but what’s more scary is what they represent: a topsy-turvy view of the universe where man dwells below something on the food chain. Without relying too much on creature effects, Gordon captures this simply with the suggestion that Imboca has transformed into some kind of purgatorial waystation between the world as we know it and the world as the Old Ones would have it: with mankind completely upended into a confused tangle of perverse sex and violence. Genuine menace lurks in this sleepy, seaside town, one that’s been prowling below the depths, waiting to re-emerge and take back its domain with its slimy, inhuman tentacles.
Granted, there are times when Gordon can’t help but try to imagine a physical presence for Dagon and its otherworldly horrors. He does so with some dodgy special effects that keep this one from achieving those rubbery, gooey practical heights of his best work. Practical gore thankfully remains a priority, but the CGI work make for unnecessary and unsightly embellishments to an otherwise impressive effects showcase. Likewise, you can’t help but wonder if Dagon wouldn’t have been a little bit more memorable with Jeffrey Combs playing Paul. It’s almost too obvious that it was written with him in mind since Godden comes across as such a knock-off: he’s mercurial and off-putting like Comb’s characters so often are, but he lacks that kind of smarmy, unconcealed contempt that made them so indelible. Godden isn’t bad—he’s simply lacking the gravitas that Combs likely would have brought to send Dagon up a notch or two.
Otherwise, Dagon deserves to be hailed as a worthy effort from Gordon, a filmmaker whose demented playfulness was his defining trademark. You get plenty of that here, too: Gordon had a knack of playing a premise just straight enough, allowing him to dip into moments of wry humor or outright camp. With Dagon, there’s a barely concealed impishness rumbling beneath everything, almost as if you can see Gordon off-screen baring a mischievous grin as everyone wonders if he’s really going there. He goes there and then some, gleefully stringing the audience along to the pivotal moment when Paul defiantly yells “fuck Dagon!” “Yes,” Uxia dryly answers, giving sardonic voice to that signature preoccupation with sex and death. Did you think it would go any other way with Gordon at the helm?
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