Dagon (2001) Review

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The Shadow Over Innsmouth novella on which Dagon is based, is my go to H.P. Lovecraft story. It has everything you could possible want in a horror story: the lone heroic detective, a creepy town, paranoia, weird cults and secrets, sinister fish-people, and a series of horrific revelations. Therefore, I find it strange that it has largely been neglected by the film industry.

As Lovecraft stories go, Innsmouth is perhaps the least visual and budgetary ambitious. There was Cthulhu (2007) but I’m not going to count that as a real adaptation. The now defunct video game studio Headfirst Productions made the rather excellent Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth though I specifically wanted to talk about the film industry.

So it’s a good job that Stuart Gordon is ol’ reliable for campy Lovecraft adaptations. You can always count on the guy; it’s like getting praise from your girlfriend whenever you take the rubbish out. Gordon’s 2001 Spanish adaptation of the novella is a largely direct and faithful re-imagining of Lovecraft’s work. That’s despite the fact that, for some reason, someone chose to name the film after a completely unrelated Lovecraft story. That short story is about a man who is stranded on an island and watches the titanic Dagon dance around a ritual site – basically the warehouse scene in Footloose but with more gills.

But what do you want, we’re getting pure Lovecraft material here.

The plot for Dagon is as follows: yuppies are idiots. Young couple Paul (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Meroño) are holidaying off the coast of Spain with their friends after celebrating Paul’s success on the stock market. Paul is the sort of American Psycho reject who’d obsess over business cards, checks out the clothes adverse captain’s wife, and tells his girlfriend he’s “not enjoying himself” when she’s ‘below deck’ as it were. Though he’s not so square that he doesn’t dream about strange ruins under the ocean and hot carnivorous mermaids.

During an incredibly CGI storm, the yacht comes into trouble. Paul and Barbara are forced to flee the vessel in a life raft, and head to a nearby coastal town hoping to find help for their trapped friends. This being a Lovecraft movie, one thing leads to another and in short order Barbara is missing, and Paul is hunted by the town’s residents. It happens – one minute you’re criticising the local cuisine, the next you are the local cuisine.

Dagon is a wonderfully Lovecraftian movie. The town of Innsmouth (here, Imboca) genuinely feels old. We know Dagon is set around the film’s release due to the protagonists’ clothes and laptops, but Imboca is a shoddy little crumbling town with only one antique Ambassador-style car, and next to no technology. There’s a strange moment were the town hotel has an American style neon hotel sign, but it’s not enough to distract from the film’s authenticity.

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Gordon carries the film at a deliberate pace, piling on the unsettling imagery straight-away, from the shadowy façade over the gloomy town to the grey-faced inhabitants with bags under their eyes and webbed hands. It’s clear immediately that this isn’t somewhere that’s going to throw out the welcome mat, or at least one that’s not made of human skin. From the moment Paul is attacked at the hotel, forcing him to flee, Dagon becomes one continuous hide and seek movie. If only Paul could declare cupboards are off-limits and then proceed to hide in them for the next six hours.

There are a few things I don’t like, some of the special effects are a bit ropey – the CGI is extremely apparent. The worst offenders are the initial crash sequence, and a few of the town’s fish people look bit naff – with fake looking tentacles and such.

Given that this is a Stuart Gordon film (based on a Lovecraft story) the tone is extremely hammy and campy. The acting is over-the-top in parts. One particularly amusing scene sees town drunk and sole human Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal) adding much-needed backstory but completely lowering the tone.

At one point Ezequiel talks about the fate of Paul’s friend, stating that Dagon’s “had her”, and “he’s fucked her”, for what is supposed to be a big dramatic moment it feels a bit Father Jack Hackett. One fight scene between Paul, Barbara, and the cultists is rather old-school Adam West style Batman.

But the camp is never a deal breaker, and fits the pulp nature of Lovecraft’s work rather well. This is a piece of fiction in which a town worships a fish-god who has established a murder and rape cult, and the breakdown of humanity is represented by gills and tentacles.

Despite his low budget, Gordon does get the look and atmosphere of Lovecraft down. Dagon looks suitably imposing in his brief appearance, as does Paul’s hideous ‘true’ father – who is one of the Deep Ones. And he’s also pretty liberal with the tits too. With Barbara being stripped off as she gets sacrificed to Dagon, and Uxia (Paul’s destined fish-person lover) (Macarena Gómez) spending less time with her clothes on than a life model stuck in a time loop.

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