Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Dagon

2001
Dir. Stuart Gordon

Despite its title, Gordon’s film is not an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story of the same name. While it certainly borrows elements and themes from it, Dagon is an adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s 1936 novella which tells of a Miskatonic University student’s fateful visit to the titular dilapidated coastal town to study the architecture and weird folklore. While there, he encounters hostility from the bizarre locals who are revealed to be amphibious mutants; the result of an ancient pact between the towns forefathers and a race of sea dwelling creatures known as the Deep Ones…

Gordon had planned to direct an adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth back in the 80s, but funding constantly evaded him. When his friend and collaborator Brian Yuzna founded the Spanish production company Fantastic Factory in the early 2000s, Gordon was finally able to realise his project. Dagon is a no nonsense, old-fashioned feeling horror flick that hits the ground running and rarely pauses for breath. With its atmospheric locations, creepy set pieces and grotesque monsters, it remains relatively faithful to the source material, with Gordon conjuring an air of foreboding dread and tension Lovecraft would be proud of. His assured direction and brisk pace help maintain suspense as events consistently go from bad to worse for our hapless protagonists; fresh-faced businessman Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño). Once they are stranded on the island of Imboca after their yacht runs into a reef during a storm, the film gradually becomes one long chase scene, building in tension and atmosphere as they discover the islanders plan to sacrifice them to an ancient ocean dwelling deity called Dagon.



The locals illicit a strange combination of pity and repulsion; hobbling around with their deformed bodies they seem ill at ease on land. It’s revealed they are the result of years of mating between their forefathers and the Deep Ones. The make-up effects are strikingly effective and all the webbed extremities, tentacles and bloated, pulsating gills help establish the queasy look of the creatures as described by Lovecraft. Some of 'em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, starry eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain't quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of the necks are all shriveled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst - fact is, I don't believe I've ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Animals hate 'em - they used to have lots of horse trouble before the autos came in. Some critics have suggested that Lovecraft’s handling of the morbid unions between different species in Innsmouth reflected his own not very nice opinions on interracial marriage.



CGI is used sparingly, and while some of it has dated, the practical make-up effects still stand up. The rain-soaked location also enhances the weird atmosphere, as Paul attempts to take cover in various half-submerged and dripping shacks, town houses and abandoned churches. As Yuzna’s production company was based in Spain, the action is shifted from Lovecraft’s preferred New England setting to the island of Imboca off the coast of Spain. Gordon really taps into the same putrid feelings of unease and disgust Lovecraft evoked through his presentation of the locals and their ungodly cross-breeding, but he goes a step further with some of the violence. Don’t forget, this is the man who brought us the splat-fest that is Reanimator. He can do gore. Characters are flayed, stabbed, immolated, ritualistically sacrificed to a giant sea-beast and forced to procreate with the amphibious denizens of the island. Icky stuff.

Ezra Godden is perfect as the reluctant hero who gradually discovers he shares an ancestry with the residents of the island. Mild mannered, clumsy and at times really rather cowardly; he is often thwarted by his own inadequacies and a few moments of dark humour are drawn from his desperation. Godden ensures he’s still a very likable character, and one we root for. At times he resembles a young Jeffrey Combs; he can certainly muster the same zany charisma of that particular Gordon/Lovecraft stalwart. He is ably supported by a cast of mainly Spanish actors, including Luis Buñuel favourite Francisco Rabal as Ezequiel, the town’s resident drunk and last remaining human who reveals the sordid history of the place to Paul.



Gordon also incorporates elements of Lovecraft’s short story Dagon, a little slice of terror detailing the nightmarish encounter a sailor has when he is marooned on a landmass revealed to be part of the ocean floor, mysteriously risen to the surface. While exploring its fetid environs he spies a number of carved pillars and something unspeakable that crawls out of the dark sea to straddle them in an ungodly act of worship. The bulk of the narrative is taken up by descriptions of the landscape, atmosphere and feelings of terror they instil in the narrator. It all culminates in psychological meltdown and a haunting finale.

Kudos must go to Gordon for retaining much of Lovecraft’s characteristic hopelessness. His tales usually don’t end well for his protagonists, and while Dagon could arguably be described as having a ‘happy ending’ (Paul’s creepy underwater dreams foreshadow his fate and ties with the fishy residents of Imboca), it’s a fitting end that hinges on one of Lovecraft’s major preoccupations: tainted ancestry.

4 comments:

Aylmer said...

I really miss Stuart Gordon. Wish he'd start directing films again.

Kelvin Green said...

For me, this is the most successful of the Lovecraft movie adaptations. There were some aspects that didn't work so well, but on the whole Dagon gets it right.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Love this one, the atmosphere is so thick! And that location they filmed in was so perfect for their story, it just naturally added to the dread. The gore is amazing on this one!

Yeah H.P. Lovecraft can get racist, this is true, but I guess he was a victim of the way the grand majority of people thought at the time as well.

Interesting how in the film Marsh ends up being one of the fish people in the end...I don't remember if this is how Lovecraft's story ended or if this was an element that Gordon and Denis Paoli added to the story, but in any case, the ending to this film would be an anti-racists message if he was always one of them in the end, meaning, we are all the same?

James Gracey said...

Me too, Aylmer - there are still a couple of his titles I've yet to see, but I've loved everything else, especially his Lovecraft adaptations. I recently watched Stuck, which was great. The oddball humour really worked.

Agreed Kelvin. With Dagon, Gordon really nails much of what makes Lovecraft so effective.

Absolutely, Francisco - while there's no getting away from Lovecraft's unsavory personal opinions, there's no denying they were generally held by a majority back then. That said, I believe Lovecraft was basically misanthropic - no one really comes off well in his work. We're all doomed in the end.