Dagon (2001)


a film by Stuart Gordon, made in Spain 2001, released direct-to-video 2002, running time 98 minutes. In Spanish and English.

Reviewed by nanoteuthis

Rated R

A man dreams of diving through undersea ruins where a beautiful mermaid beckons; as they embrace, she opens her mouth to reveal the knifelike teeth of a predator. A severely wounded woman is trapped in a sinking boat; as a ribbon of her blood curls downwards into the sea, a huge cloud of black ink billows upwards ominously to meet it. These disturbing images are only hints of the horrors to come in DAGON, a film based upon two Cthulhu Mythos stories by H.P. Lovecraft -- "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", as adapted by Stuart Gordon (who had years ago filmed a version of HPL's "Herbert West, Reanimator" under the title of RE-ANIMATOR).

Actually, the title of this current film is misleading. The story "Dagon" -- one of HPL's shorter and less notable works -- has little to do with the film except for the reference to the shipwreck and the eponymous Philistine fish-god. DAGON the film is actually an updated version of Lovecraft's brilliant, vividly written novella "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", transplanted by Gordon from a Massachusetts seaport town to a fishing village on Spain's Galician coast. The name which Gordon gives the village, Imboca, is an inexact Spanish translation of the name Innsmouth. The original story was told in the first person, by a solitary male traveler to Innsmouth; Gordon has added an additional man and some women to the plotline, though most of the film is from the POV of "Paul", the shipwrecked young Spanish-American stockbroker (equivalent to HPL's traveler) who finds himself stranded in Imboca, among people who are not quite.... people.

The first thing that impressed me about this film was its relative faithfulness to the original story. I say "relative" because -- in addition to the shift of time and place -- there were many Hollywood-ish embellishments, obvious (and successful) attempts to get that coveted R rating. As horrific as Lovecraft's stories were, the ultimate horror was always implied -- left to the imagination of the reader -- which made it that much more effective as compared with the almost unwatchable gore towards the end of DAGON. In addition, the Gentleman from Providence was ever the old-fashioned prude, to whom S-E-X was a four-letter word. He would have been appalled at the gratuitous female nudity and expletive-laden dialogue in DAGON -- indeed, there was no vulgar language in his stories, and hardly any women at all (the few that were, were not the sort one would want to see nude!). Gordon also added an element of dark humor to some of the scenes, and even threw in a touch of STAR WARS with a Jerry Springer-ish twist!

That being said.... DAGON captured the atmosphere of Lovecraft's story to perfection. The brooding, rainy skies, the narrow streets, the nauseatingly shabby rooms, the desecrated former church, the shadowy figures hobbling down alleys making guttural inhuman sounds, and most especially the "Innsmouth look" -- or, in this case, the "Imboca look" -- of the villagers, all were done with loving detail by the director, set designers, and makeup artists. Nearly everything about the story was as I'd visualized while reading it, including the not-so-crazy town drunk played masterfully by distinguished Spanish actor Francisco Rabal (who unfortunately passed away after the filming of DAGON). Former unknown Ezra Godden, who is in nearly every scene, gives a harrowing, convincing performance as protagonist Paul. And Macarena Gomez -- yes folks, that's her name! -- in the role of Uxia deserves the Morticia Addams award for being beautiful, sexy, and creepy at the same time. Even the musical score was haunting and atmospheric, a refreshing change from the usual recycled rock songs used in some modern "slice and dice" flicks.

And now for the part you've been waiting for -- the Squiddage! Yes, it's definitely there. Though only hinted at in that initial shipwreck scene, the tentacles later begin to show up in the darnedest places: shooting out of a mouth; in place of arms; in place of legs; and in the climactic "sacrifice" scene, exploding horrifically out of the abyss. There is even a possible cinematic first -- a real live (as opposed to cartoon) "mer-squid", thanks to some top-notch special effects.

Other makeup effects are equally impressive, like the "Imboca look" in all its stages, from an eerie fish-like stare to the complete, hideous transformation. There is also a "skinning" scene so realistic that the only way I could watch it was by repeating to myself, over and over, "It's only a special effect, it's only a special effect...."!

There are drawbacks to DAGON in addition to the ones mentioned above. For one thing, much of the dialogue is in Spanish without subtitles -- I had to rely on my rudimentary college Español, combined with my knowledge of the story, to figure out what was being said. But a viewer without one or the other advantage might be extremely confused. Therefore, I would strongly recommend reading "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" before seeing this film (I would recommend reading it anyway -- it is one of HPL's best works). Also, I had a problem with the nudity. Not out of prudishness, mind you, but because of the old Hollywood double standard -- ever notice how male human sacrifices never have to take their pants off? If Gordon wanted to be faithful to the story, no nudity would have been necessary. But since he envisioned a more graphic fertility ritual, he should have extended that vision to both sexes. In addition, I became rather impatient at the very beginning of the film, where much time was wasted in pointless dialogue between Paul and his girlfriend on the boat. I can understand Gordon's desire to build up the horror slowly -- which he did quite successfully -- rather than inundate the viewer with scary stuff immediately. But the initial dialogue could have been relevant to the story line, or at very least interesting, rather than an annoying, petulant lovers' quarrel just to kill time. And of course, cephalophile that I am, I would have liked to see even more tentacled beings, and to have caught a longer, closer glimpse of the squid-god himself.

Still in all, DAGON is to date the most accurate cinematic adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story I've seen. The video is well worth renting, and from what I've heard -- though I don't own a DVD player -- the DVD is even more so because of its additional material (interviews, background, etc.). I give the video of DAGON a rating of Six Tentacles (out of a possible Eight), and I will close this review as HPL did "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", as quoted by Stuart Gordon at the close of DAGON:

"We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses.... and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever."

-- TD 09/22/02
Original publish date
Sep 22, 2002
About the Author
Tony converted TONMO.com into an octopus and cephalopod interest site in May 2000. (Find out more about how TONMO started by reading this blog entry.) He began his career in the online services industry in 1992, working for companies such as Prodigy, iVillage.com, Reuters and Comcast. Tony and his wife Tania are the owners of Deep Intuition, LLC, which is an entity they created to support their entrepreneurial hobbies and pursuits. He graduated from St. Bonaventure University with a B.A. in Mass Communication and lives in Pennsylvania.


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