Dagon (2001)

One of the few good things about being suddenly, unexpectedly (temporarily, I hope) crippled is that I've had a chance to catch up on my film viewing.  I've had Stuart Gordon's Dagon more or less near the top of my "to watch" pile for over a year now, and with yesterday's torrential rain and general gloominess, I figured it was time.

Gordon again turns to Lovecraft as his inspiration for this tale (actually a conflation of two Lovecraft stories, "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"), in which a young couple is stranded in a small Spanish fishing village after a boating accident, though it soon becomes very apparent that all is not bueno in this seemingly sleepy town.  When Barbara (the fetching Raquel Merono) goes missing soon after their arrival, Paul (Ezra Godden) tries to track her down only to be overcome by a horde of garish fishmen.  Or rather men who are slowly transforming into piscine form, including all that transformation might entail (hobbled walking, garbled speech, and grotesque physical mutation).  After a chance run in with Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal), Paul learns the terrible secret of the town, one in which the denizens relinquished their faith in God when fish stocks ran low and turned to an older, more powerful deity, Dagon, who blessed the town with untold oceanic bounty and gold and treasure, but left them cursed with their current plight, the offspring of all his untold trysts with human women being the current crop of fishmen.

First, the good: Gordon succeeds in creating a oppressive and chilly atmosphere where rain and darkness are the norm, and twisty, cobbled streets mirror Paul's own confusion.  The makeup effects are stellar, and the briny disciples of Dagon look as alien as they do human, and embody both of these aspects in their speech and actions as well.  The largely Spanish cast do excellent work as the lurching, slimy humanoids from the deep, minds filled with a singular, murderous intent.  And the small Spanish village of Combarro that was the location of the shoot provides a delightfully damp and depressive tone.  Looks like a nice place to visit, though you'd probably want to stay away during the rainy season.

There are some terrific practical effects, the most notable the scene in which Ezequiel is strung up and has his facial skin stripped from his body.  Again, Gordon looked to the locals for makeup duties, and they come through in spades.  Tentacular appendages and probing probosci simultaneously repulse and delight.

And now, the bad:  I know I must sound like a broken record by this point, but the CGI employed in the film is worse than awful.  Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus provided a better sense of reality than some of the VFX in Dagon.  I think this is an unfortunate side-effect of the year in which the film was made.  2001 had filmmakers excited about the possibility of CGI, even though the technology wasn't quite there to back up the boundless visions of some of the brighter directors.  The technology was in a dangerous nascent phase that allowed directors to employ it without it being fully developed, to the overall detriment of their final vision.  Granted, it would probably have been prohibitively pricey for Gordon and crew to build a massive model of the enormous mer-god Dagon, but he could very easily have taken the route John Carpenter did in In the Mouth of Madness, his Lovecraftian puppet-beasties sprang from the screen and seemed much more menacing than some green-screened squid.  Or even do what he had done earlier in the film and suggest (a la Val Lewton) the kraken-king through creative camera angle and actor responses.  The poorly done CGI is all the more glaring when juxtaposed with the expertly done practical effects, and the whole thing becomes jarring and takes you out of the film.  Regardless, barring the visual let down of the climax and a couple other ill-advised effects throughout, Gordon does a credible job overall capturing the mood of the Lovecraft original.

The casting of Godden as Paul also strikes me as a strange choice - I mean his type is right, but the actor himself can't seem to decide whether to play the role as camp or straight-up, and his wavering between the two leaves the performance wooden.  There isn't a great chemistry (read: none at all) between he and Merono's Barbara, either.  Really the only good thing about his wholly unlikeable persona was his Miskatonic sweatshirt, a sly wink by Gordon at observant Lovecraft fans.

Overall, Dagon is worth a look, for sure, but falls somewhat shy of the best cinematic Lovecraft adaptations.  If you're looking for a Lovecraft-on-film primer, seek out the superior gallows humour of Re-Animator and the ultra-weird, candy-coloured From Beyond (both by Gordon as well), or even older fare such as The Shuttered Room.  I'm not generally an advocate of remakes, but I'd love to see someone (even Gordon himself) take another stab at the Dagon story, either with the complete use of practical effects or prudent use of updated CGI technology.  Let's hope Guillermo del Toro heeds these guidelines when bringing the epic At The Mountains of Madness to the screen in 2013.  Huge fingers crossed on that one, though del Toro has yet to disappoint.

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