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A Lovecraft film faithful to the spirit of his writings
on May 26, 2004
"Dagon" is not as bad as you think that it is for most of the first two-thirds of the movie, but you do not really know that until you get near the end of the film at which point you have an opportunity to rethink the problematic elements that were threatening to overwhelm it up to that point. Otherwise you are constantly wondering why Paul (Ezra Godden) is still alive because this guy outlives a couple of cats in this movie.
This 2001 horror film is based on a pair of H.P. Lovecraft stories, "Dagon," an extremely short little story that was one of the first pieces the author got published, and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." Lovecraft was my favorite horror writer when I was a teenager and I have been always disappointed with what happens to his work on the silver screen or on Rod Serling's "Night Gallery," which did a couple of his short stories including "Pickman's Model" (if I had my druthers I would make "At the Mountains of Madness" into a movie).
The story begins with a quartet of Americans in a sailboat off the coast of Spain, approaching a old fishing town, when a storm suddenly and strangely appears, driving their boat onto the rocks. One of them is hurt, so Paul and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño) head for shore in the dinghy to get help. However, the town seems almost deserted and the people they encounter are, to say the least strange. The next thing we know Paul is on his own and starting to get in way, way over his head in terms of being in trouble, especially since some of the things in the weird dream he had are starting to show up in the real world.
There are several things working to the advantage of director Stuart Gordon's film. First, a lot of the people in this town speak Spanish (and another language) and there is no attempt to translate any of what they are saying. If, like Paul, you know very little about the Spanish language (or the other language) then you are can identify with the character's sense of isolation because he does not understand what is being said to him either. Second, if you are looking for scenes in horror movies that have you squirming in your seats if not averting your eyes from what you are seeing, then "Dagon" is one of those films. You see, the natives have a peculiar use for hapless visitors that come to their town. Third, they found Macarena Gómez to play the mysterious women from Paul's dreams. I looked at this unknown actress with her wide eyes and all I could think of was that this was the reincarnation of Barbara Steele, except the star of "La Maschera del demonio" (a.k.a. "Black Sunday") is still among the living. Suffice it to say that Gómez provides an interesting blend of exotic beauty and psychotic horror.
Working against "Dagon" is the fact that Paul pushes his luck repeatedly through most of this film and even if he is wearing glasses and is the weaker person in his relationship with Barbara he keeps surviving situation after situation in which mere mortals should end up being dead. Also, the makeup and special effects for the monsters (it is a Lovecraft story; there are monsters; he usually avoids describing the monsters as anything other than monsters too terrible to describe but in a film you get to actually see them) are pretty much on the B-movie level, which I suppose is what Gordon is really going for here. Then there is the fact that female nudity, which is so earnestly avoided at all of the early opportunities in the film, suddenly becomes abundant in the last act. Also, for most of the movie the music is really two slow (and the roll of the final quotes is even slower).
The scale tips in favor of this film because it is arguably the most faithful adaptation of Lovecraft to date and because it has a scene that really gave me the wiggins. Obviously "Dagon" is not really faithful to the two stories on which it is based, but my point is that Dennis Paoli's screenplay honors Lovecraft's body of work in terms of the Deep Ones and the entire Cthulhu Mythos, which is more important than tossing in references to the "Necronomicon" or Miskatonic University. Plus Gordon films a lot of the big action scenes in the rail, which usually works well even when you are not making a horror film. But the most important things here is that fans of Lovecraft's works will not feel he was abused by this film, which forgives a great many faults all things being considered.