Film Review: Dagon (2002)

We’re still waiting for a high budget, no bullshit film adaptation of an H.P Lovecraft story. There have been notable efforts over the years. For instance, recent Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro  bent over backwards to bring an adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness to fruition a few years back. The film was going to cost well over $100 million and carry a hard R-rating. Naturally, in the pre-Deadpool/Logan era – you know, before modern, R-rated blockbusters were all the rage – it went down like a ton of bricks.

Filmmakers have been much more successful in creating films indebted to Lovecraft. The most successful of these is undoubtedly the Alien franchise, which channels the bleak cosmic pessimism of several of Lovecraft’s stories with panache and verve. Ironically, one of the most recent Alien films, 2012’s Prometheus, is even partially credited for torpedoing del Toro’s similarly-themed At the Mountain of Madness.

Despite this lack of high budget, studio-backed films, there has been no shortage of direct Lovecraft adaptations produced over the decades. And this is where we can start talking about 2002’s Dagon, a low budget Spanish horror film directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli. Dagon takes its name from Lovecraft’s 1919 short story, which told this legitimately scary story about a man who encounters a nearly indescribable sea creature that makes him go completely insane. Yet despite this being where the film sources its name, the eponymous monster Dagon is only referenced in passing in Gordon’s movie. The film is more of a direct adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s most iconic works: The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

Dagon‘s main characters are Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Meroño). They are a young couple vacationing off the coast of Spain in a yacht with their married friends Vicki and Howard. When a sudden storm breaks out, their boat is slammed against a rocky outcropping, damaging the vessel and injuring Vicki. Unable to tend to Vicki on their own, Paul and Barbara strike out for help, making for a small, grey and dilapidated fishing town that hugs the shoreline.

The hamlet’s denizens, however, are anything but helpful. Instead, they are silent, eerie and threatening, with a deformed and degraded appearance that mixes human and aquatic attributes. And when Barbara disappears, the implied threat posed by the community suddenly becomes very real. Paul is left to fight for his life against the town, eventually discovering the horrible truth behind its freakish nature.

Similar to the movie Black Death, which was the subject of my previous review,Dagon is clearly the product of a minuscule budget – but even more so. The film has a rough, borderline amateur quality. The imagery often looks flat and uninteresting, and the sound design feels sparse, uninvolving and occasionally even drops out or becomes weirdly muffled. Additionally, the costumes range from the pretty good (primarily some of the costumes of the town’s residents) to the laughable, with Godden wearing this comical “Miskatonic University” sweatshirt that looks like a home-made Halloween costume. Similarly, the effects are remarkably inconsistent. Those that fall within the realm of the tangible, such as makeup and prosthetics, are semi-convincing, even somewhat impressive considering what must have been very real financial limitations. However, the film’s sparse use of CGI is downright laughable, perhaps the biggest horrorshow element within the entire production.

Similar sentiments apply to the film’s acting. While the actors bring a lot of energy to the table, a great deal doesn’t work. For example, it’s never entirely clear what tone the actors are going for. It sure isn’t naturalism. Nearly all the performances are massive and bombastic, with a great deal of screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth. And while this is appropriate considering the extreme and grotesque circumstances each character is living through, it’s not incredibly compelling. The one exception might be Macarena Gómez Traseira as the insane priestess Uxía Cambarro. Her wild bug-eyes, wispy voice and insane grins are amazing to watch. Conversely, the acting never feels as if it is being informed by an intentional attempt at black comedy, except maybe for Godden’s work as the hapless and then later intrepid Paul.

If there is a more uniform element of the production it is the tenor and to some extent the quality of Stuart Gordon’s direction. His film is a clear labor of love, and one not completely beholden to the original texts of Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Instead, Gordon’s film is defined by a clear reverence for those writings. And Dagon does also have some moments that click purely on the merits of their filmmaking. There is genuine tension in certain sections of the movie, such as a taught scene where Paul flees the towns citizens from his decrepit hotel room. Similarly effective is the initial shipwreck sequence and the immediate aftermath. After Paul and Barbara leave to find help on the shore, Vicki and Howard remain on the boat. Gordon depicts the black mire featured so predominantly in the short story Dagon bubbling up through a hole in the boat’s hull, which really does elicit a palpable feeling of dread.

Yet the film is truly lacking on a conceptual level. Gordon puts the audience through an exhausting journey, but he never really gives us a reason to care about the plight of Paul and Barbara. Additionally, due to budgetary issues, Dagon is never captures the pure grandiosity of Lovecraftian fiction. You aren’t able to get a sense of Dagon as a godlike being or the notion of how infinitesimal human beings are in the face of the cosmic void.  Finally, the abject cruelty on display throughout Gordon’s Dagon is, at times, overwhelming, particularly when it involves sexual cruelty. While these themes are present in Lovecraft’s work, they are much more nuanced, typically only communicated through suggestion. And while the merits of both approaches can probably be debated, what is clear is that the cinematic approach taken by Gordon does not make for the most enjoyable viewing.

You don’t have to read too many Lovecraft stories to recognize that his work is likely  notoriously difficult to adapt to a medium like cinema. The thinly-drawn human characters; surreal tones; esoteric themes; and epic, godlike creatures that populate many of his stories likely pose massive challenges to filmmakers – both from an artistic and fiduciary perspective. Yet even with all of its flaws and aesthetic limitations, Gordon’s film is a minor triumph in Lovecraftian cinema. It is a reverent adaptation that provides beats of potent horror within a unrelenting chase narrative.

Yet the film doesn’t pack the punch that a blockbuster adaptation might. With enough resources and talent both behind and in front of the camera, a filmmaker might indeed be able to fully translate a Lovecraft text, capture the author’s unique blend of celestial, body and supernatural horror. Dagon is not that film unfortunately, but it is an admirable attempt. But life will be fine even if a great, glossy and expensive adaptation never comes together. Lovecraft’s stories and books will still be there. And those that are interested will always be able to dive down through black abysses of the man’s corpus and dwell in the wonder and glory of his stories forever.

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