Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Dagon (2001)

HP Lovecraft adaptations aren’t that easy to do. One needs more than a few rubbery tentacles and a ‘Yog Sothoth’ thrown around here and there to evoke HPL’s sense of other-worldly dread. It’s even more difficult to get that right and make your subject matter sexy in places as well. HPL’s writings weren’t exactly known for their throbbing eroticism, and while purists may throw up their hands in horror one of the reasons I like Stuart Gordon’s and Dennis Paoli’s approach to the material is that they have a fine sense of the sexy as well as the horrific. Not that it always works - FROM BEYOND, their follow-up to the wonderful REANIMATOR, was a bit of a misfire, but thankfully a few years later all went very well indeed with DAGON. In some ways that shouldn’t be surprising, as their version of HPL’s THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH had been on the cards for years, first with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures before languishing in development hell for so long by the time it appeared under this new title many fans had all but forgotten about it. Thankfully DAGON was worth the wait. It’s hardly a faithful adaptation but its depiction of some standard Lovecraftian tropes (the rotting fishing village, the ever-present motif of water, sunken ruins leading to even deeper horrors) are among the best ever put on film. I’ve always loved DAGON, not least because it always reminds me of holidays in Wales when I was a lad, when it was always raining and the soaked narrow streets of whatever God-forsaken village we had ended up in this time were bereft of all but the gloomiest of locals. My imagination didn’t have to do much to put me in horror movie territory.
In fact it’s partly because Gordon et al have got the atmosphere nailed so perfectly that I’m willing to forgive the sometimes cheap-looking digital effects and the sometimes rubbery-looking tentacles. The fact that said tentacles are often seen in association with Macarena Gomez (probably the sexiest high priestess in movies for many a year) or clutching at a naked Raquel Merono (who essays the helpless struggling victim role very nicely) while she’s suspended in chains over a pit probably helps. A lot. When not causing or being in peril both these actresses acquit themselves admirably otherwise as well, and Gomez in particular should have been used in more horror pictures (apart from an appearance in TO LET from the TV series PELICULAS PARA NO DORMIR I’ve not seen her in anything else). The actors fare a little less well but Ezra Godden is very good in the lead as the doomed Paul Marsh. Francisco Rabal in his last movie role is old Ezequiel and sadly despite numerous viewings of DAGON I still have to switch the subtitles on when it’s his turn to speak.
  Special effects are plentiful and may well be a bit rubbery but thankfully some skilful editing dwells more on the suspense of the various chase sequences rather than the monsters who are doing the chasing. Finally, Carlos Cases’ music score is really rather good and does a much better job of encapsulating Lovecraft for me than any number of avant-garde electronic dub artists I’ve had the misfortune to experience in the last couple of years. Sadly it’s not available on disc, and it should be.
DAGON is a great piece of low-budget horror cinema, filmed in Spain with a cast of extras who for the most part look as if they were born to play their roles. Perhaps the biggest shame is that Gordon et al didn’t get to do more of this kind of thing with the same crew, and possibly even the same cast. I for one would have loved to see Macarena presiding over a Cthulhu cult At the Mountains of Madness.


  1. I also like Dagon, great lovecraftian movie.

    Francisco Rabal is a great actor...I love him in the movie Sorcerer(dir. William Friedkin). Played a great hitman.

    Looking forward to Mountains of Madness.

    Other excellent lovecraftian movies:

    Necronomicon(I esp. liked the first story and the filler ins were great too).

    Call of Cthulhu short film: Fan made B&W film of COC. Great stuff.

    At the Mouth of Madness: Well its not lovecraft but certainly lovecraftian

    Equinox: kinda in a middle ground on this movie but it is creepy with a slightly lovecraftian touch to it.

    The Curse: Well a modern day adapt of Colour out of space. well done.

    The Ressurected( with Chris Sarandon): Another great lovecraftian piece.

    Reanimator: Classic

  2. Excellent set of films there. I'm waiting for THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS to come out.

  3. Agree that Dagon is an outstandingly atmospheric piece of Lovecraftian cinema, rubber tentacles and all, and very much agree about the spectacular impact of Macarena Gomez. An actress who would be doing a lot more of this sort of thing in an ideal world where there actually was a lot more of this sort of thing.

    Speaking of which, Whisperer in Darkness is out and available on DVD direct from HPLHS. It's lavish and professional looking, clearly a labour of love and well worth seeing.

  4. Good review, a corker of a horror movie. Makes you wish Stuart Gordon was still working regularly.

  5. Cheers, Mark! I wish Gordon had had an early Roger Corman-type career. It's a real shame.

  6. I absolutely love "Dagon". In some aspects, it is my favourite Stuart Gordon film. "Re-Animator" was brilliant in terms of nasty humour and deserves its cult film status, but "Dagon" is brilliant in terms of feel and atmosphere. I find it a much scarier film than "Re-Animator", a much purer horror film, in a way. The protagonist's journey of exploration through the village, the hotel, the chase scenes... Wonderful creepy stuff. And the film contains what is probably the best gratuitous naked girl sacrifice scene of all time.

    Are you planning on reviewing "Castle Freak" sometime? It's another underrated Gordon film I like a lot, with him teaming up with Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton again.

  7. DAGON's just brilliant isn't it? I've only seen CASTLE FREAK once, at about 3am in New Orleans having consumed the better part of whatever was behind whichever bar I was in so my memories are a little hazy and weren't good at all. If you think it's worth looking at I will but my initial drunken impressions were not good!

  8. I mentioned "Castle Freak" because it was also filmed in southern Europe (Italy), with a core cast of English-speaking actors and European extras. So it has some similarities with "Dagon" in terms of production. That said, "Castle Freak" is definitely one of Gordon's lesser films and not nearly as brilliant as "Dagon".

    I liked it well enough, though. A great deal of my liking probably has to do with the fact that I have this massive geek boy crush on Barbara Crampton. Discounting that, and trying to assess the film objectively, I would say that it hovers somewhere between "average" and "good". I liked seeing Combs team up with Crampton again, playing a couple this time. Their chemistry is decent - hardly the best acting ever seen, but better than what one would expect in a direct-to-video horror flick. The castle provides some nice location shots. The story of the "monster" is quite poignant and makes do without supernatural plot elements, which I always find an interesting variation from the norm. Plus, there is the usual Gordon gore, with a few genuinely icky scenes.

    At the end of the day, "Castle Freak" does not quite manage to pull it all together to really create a successful film. But it has its moments. Is it a must-see? Certainly not. Is it worth looking at? That depends on one's personal definition of "worth looking at"! For a Lovecraft and Stuart Gordon completist like me, it is, but obviously, not everyone has to share these preferences.

  9. Well done, John, for writing such an interesting and informative article. Being a horror writer myself, and having just bought a few Lovecraft books to sample, I was very keen to know just how many movies have been based on Lovecraft's stories. One of the ones that especially sticks in my memory is the episode in Masters of Horror, namely The Dreams In The Witch House, which I thought was a really good adaptation of Lovecraft's story. Thought the rat hybrid, Brown Jenkin, was brilliantly presented too.

    1. Thanks! That episode of MASTERS OF HORROR was, of course, also directed by Stuart Gordon - it's one of the best episodes of that patchy series I think, the other being John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns.

  10. Hi John, I think a worthy addition to your Lovecraft film page is one I saw a few weeks back called 'Banshee Chapter'. Based loosely on 'From Beyond', it combines supposedly real life MK-Ultra type experiments with unwilling participants in the 60's and 70's with elements of the Qliphoth, beings from beyond our reality, although they are not mentioned as such, I think they fit easily into that strange HPL otherworld 'alien' beings.