Spain, 2001. Rated R. 98 minutes.

Cast: Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabal, Raquel Meroño, Macarena Gomez, Brendan Price, Birgit Bofarull, Uxía Blanco, Ferrán Lahoz
Writers: Denis Paoli, based on the story "The Shadow over Innsmouth," by H.P. Lovecraft
Music: Carles Cases
Cinematographer: Carlos Suárez
Producers: Julio Fernandez
Director: Stuart Gordon


Grade: D Review by Carlo Cavagna

Fair warning: gory cult horror is just not my thing. It just isn't. For that reason, fans of the genre will argue that I'm not qualified to write a review of this film. Yet write a review I must, because I attended the press screening, and not writing a review is bad form. If, however, cult horror is your thing, you may wish to take what I have to say with a grain of salt. Sea salt, in this case.

Based on a story by early twentieth-century writer of horror H.P. Lovecraft, Dagon is quite obviously a labor of love by director and devoted Lovecraft fan Stuart Gordon (best known for cult favorite Re-Animator, also based on a Lovecraft tale). The care shows in the faithfulness to Lovecraft's nightmarish imaginings, particularly in the makeup and set design. Despite the low budget, the production value is superior to almost anything put together by John Carpenter, who seems to delight in cheesiness. Yet to a non-Lovecraft fan, Dagon offers little. It's just another straight-to-video flick.

From the "Director's Notes"...

H.P. Lovecraft hated fish. There are stories that when invited to a dinner party, he would turn on his heel and immediately leave if he discovered that a fish course would be served. His disgust of these undersea creatures became an inspiration for many of his best stories, and he incorporated these ideas into what has been called his "Cthulhu Mythos."

Here, Lovecraft created the idea that long before mankind ruled the Earth, it was a battleground between two warring races...the Old Ones who lived on the land and the Deep ones whose domain was under the sea...

All of Lovecraft's stories were carefully researched, so it should be no surprise that Dagon actually existed. Mentioned several times in the Bible, Dagon is the god of the Philistines and is half human and half fish. (The Hebrew word "dag" means fish.) The Philistines offered human sacrifices (often their first born sons) to this dark god. Vestiges of Dagon-worship exist to this day, including the fish symbol of the early Christians and the eating of fish on Fridays.

Dagon is based on the story "Shadow Over Innsmouth." In the story, Lovecraft envisioned a cult devoted to an ancient, malevolent sea-god/monstrosity called Dagon. (In Lovecraft's nihilistic mythology, all gods are malevolent, and the only reason they don't crush us like bugs is the same reason for which an elephant doesn't go out of its way to stomp on an anthill.) One of the concepts of the story is that, if man originally came from the sea, could he not, with a few genetic mutations, go back again? The members of the Dagon cult interbreed with Dagon's sea creatures and become amphibians in reverse. Born human in appearance, they gradually become more fishlike as they age, many of them with unblinking protruding eyes and gills on their necks. Dagon himself is based on the Philistine god of the same name, who is apparently mentioned in the Bible.

It's important to point all this out, because without this knowledge, your chances of appreciating Dagon are radically diminished. The film itself visualizes Lovecraft's ideas well, but elucidates them poorly. What explanations are present are given by actors with accents so thick you can't understand more than a handful of words, Francisco Rabal in particular. What a sad swan song for the legendary Spanish actor, playing the town drunk in a straight-to-video feature and woefully miscast as someone who speaks English.

Even more confusing (and difficult to watch) is the matter of Dagon's sea-minions inhabiting dead human skins (or something), culminating in a graphic scene where a character's face is pulled from its skull. Macarena Gomez in Dagon headgearNot present in the original story, this narrative thread doesn't mesh with the idea of humans mutating to return to the sea. It's present only to up the gore factor.

Dagon's attempts to be more thoughtful and atmospheric than the average schlock are thus hamstrung. Making matters worse, at least a third of the running time is wasted on the protagonist, Paul (Ezra Godden, whoever he is), running around and hiding from shambling fish-people. This comes off no better than a crap zombie flick. Moreover, there are plot disconnects where the movie seems to jump from one point to another at random. In one instance, a character is caught by the fishy residents only to wake up not in their clutches. The ending--the inevitable final revelation and horror--is itself tacked on with little hint or foundation for it weaved into the preceding scenes. To be fair, though, this was also the case with the original story's ending.

The dialogue--not just Rabal's incomprehensible utterances--is appalling. Evidently screenwriter Denis Paoli has never had an actual exchange of words in his life, because he appears to have no idea what human conversation actually sounds like. I refer in particular to the opening segment in which Paul and his sultry girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño, who fortunately speaks perfect English) bicker in the broadest of clichés aboard their sailboat, just before they are caught by the sudden storm that forces them ashore in the unholy village of Imboca, a word meaning "in mouth"--a rough translation of Innsmouth. (Unable to interest Hollywood in his project, Gordon secured Spanish financing and transplanted the story to the Galician coast.)

On the big screen of the old Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, what little Dagon has to offer does shine. The iconography, the makeup, and the not-bad digital effects, so vivid and faithful to Lovecraft, won't look nearly as good on a television screen, particularly in a cropped full-screen format. Unfortunately, without a theatrical release, the television is where most people will have to see Dagon. Lovecraft and Gordon fans probably won't mind, but no one else should bother.

Review © June 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Lions Gate Home Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

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