Friday, October 11, 2013

Dagon

In 1985, Stuart Gordon directed Re-Animator, an adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story. Brian Yuzna served as producer, Dennis Paoli wrote the script, and nerdy, bespectacled Jeffrey Combs starred as the obsessive, brilliant Herbert West. In 2001, just about all these elements returned for Dagon. Another Lovecraft adaptation, the film was directed by Gordon, written by Paoli, produced by Yuzna, and stars Ezra Godden, a nerdy guy in glasses.

Despite the overlap of creators, Dagon differs greatly from Re-Animator in a number of ways. Re-Animator, featuring a mad scientist using his secret formula to raise the dead, was an outrageous, darkly funny barf-bag movie, featuring scenes of gory death and mutilation in which heads are lopped off by shovels, intestines take on a life of their own, and of course the head gives head sequence. By contrast, Dagon is more or less a straight-up, serious movie with a few laughs that despite some gruesome moments has a stronger emphasis on atmosphere than splatter, ironically making it more faithful to the spirit of Lovecraft than Re-Animator.

The movie actually combines two Lovecraft stories: "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Following some sort of lucrative business venture, Paul Marsh (Godden) and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Merono, who deserves the Barbara Crampton Good Sport Award) vacation off the Spanish coast with another couple, Howard (Brendan Price) and Vicki (Birgit Bofarull), when their boat crashes into rocks as a storm hits. Paul and Barbara head into a nearby decrepit fishing village for help, but when night falls, the weird townspeople begin to act hostile and chase Paul after he is separated from Barbara. Some of the townspeople also seem to have tentacles and gills, and what do Paul's dreams about swimming underwater with a mermaid (Macarena Gomez) have to do with anything?

It's an accomplishment of the film that it takes its basic concept - mutant fish-people - and actually treats them seriously and makes them a credible threat. At first, they seem only a bit odd and slightly threatening with their pale skin, cold eyes, and blank expressions (where's Henry Gibson when you need him?) as Paul and Barbara try to talk with them to get help. The film's first part play off as the vacation from hell as Paul finds him alone in a foreign land where he doesn't speak the language or understand the customs, and the village itself is a rundown slum, dirty slum with no electricity, working phones, or any means to contact help from civilization. Then, the village turns on Paul, and the chase ensues and doesn't really let up (I can't be the only person reminded of Resident Evil 4 when I watch these weird Spanish villagers chase our hero from building to building). Curiously, it never stops raining once it starts, and that just adds to the harsh, hostile atmosphere

Dagon includes a number of Lovecraft's  tropes, namely cults that worship monstrous gods, leviathans emerging from the ocean, and family bloodlines that reveal a terrifying legacy. The people of the town, we learn, worship Dagon, a god from the ocean, and the mutated people with gills and tentacles are his children, the offspring from the human women who have mated with their deity. The movie notches up the creepy ick factor when Paul is nearly seduced by the village girl, kissing her until he pulls back the blanket to reveal her tentacles. There is also a harrowing scene where a tied-up Paul can only watch as another victim has his face carved off, knowing that the same fate awaits him.

Where the movie falters is its revelation in the final moments. SPOILER, we learn Paul himself descends from this same line of mutant fish people. While that's faithful to Lovecraft story and theme, it ends up taking something that feels plausible (stumbling to this freakish village by accident) and makes it hard to swallow. How does the fish girl know about Paul and why doesn't she tell the other villagers who are trying to kill him? And it certainly is awfully convenient that Paul just happens to be vacationing near the hometown he never knew about. There's some talk of destiny and how his dreams guided him there, but it feels far-fetched; after all, it is Howard's boat.

Not helping matters is Godden's performance. It's not bad, but Godden, who is so much better in one of Gordon's Masters of Horror episodes, comes off as too modern and a bit condescending to be endearing or sympathetic. As Herbert West, Combs nicely underplayed the mad scientist part and made him a fun, memorable character in an over-the-top movie, but Godden should be more like Bruce Abbott's character, the average guy we can relate to and root for. He always seems to be complaining about something, and for the tone the movie's going for, he just feels out of place, like he belongs in something more comedic. To be fair, he does much better toward the end of the movie when things start getting really grim.

Overall, Dagon proves to be an effective if occasionally underwhelming Lovecraft. It's not as good Re-Animator or From Beyond, but Gordon demonstrates he still knows how to bring Lovecraft's words to life.

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