(NOTE: In honor of H.P. Lovecraft’s birthday this month, we’re reposting a classic “Reassessment Files” column from 2013 by Mr. McMahon.)
A Reassessment File by Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
The film DAGON (2001) took me by surprise more than ten years ago. I hadn’t heard about it, hadn’t expected it, didn’t even know that one my favorite directors, Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR, 1985; FROM BEYOND, 1986) was busy with a new project. I wandered into the video store and my eyes bugged out when I saw it under the new releases. If you know Lovecraft at all, you know that his story “Dagon” is one of his shortest, taking up only 5-6 pages of whatever anthology or collection it appears in. There’s no way a lone man investigating a strange island should contain enough story to carry a full-length movie. Reading the back of the box, though, I realized that Gordon and company had really filmed my favorite Lovecraft story of all time– “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
I believe I actually giggled right there in the store.
My excitement didn’t wane the entire time the movie played, either. Every new revelation, every new monstrosity made me giggle anew, and when it finished, I was sure I’d found a brand new favorite monster movie. I was giddy enough about the whole thing to place it up at the five star level, on par with RE-ANIMATOR and John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).
Funny thing was, I never looked at it again. I realized this recently and wondered if there was some deep, unacknowledged reason for staying away. Experience led me to believe that was probably the case.
We meet Paul and Barbara as they wake in a ship’s bunk, both nearly naked and stretching like cats. It looks like morning, and our couple starts out the day like most movie couples, by beginning to have sex and then interrupting themselves by having an argument. Barbara steals Paul’s laptop computer and runs topside to throw it overboard, escalating their petty argument to irreparable levels. Soon after, we learn that it’s almost sunset. “Didn’t they just wake up?” I ask.
We also meet Howard and Vicki, the couple that owns the boat. They shush Paul and Barbara to listen to some strange singing coming from a nearby island. A storm starts gathering with such speed and intensity it can only be supernatural in origin. Things get perilous quickly, and with Vicki below, the ship crashes onto some rocks. They find Vicki with her leg trapped through the hole in the boat. Howard stays while Paul and Barbara take the inflatable emergency raft to the island to get help.
Once there, they meet a creepy-looking priest who leads them to a fishing trawler. The deckhands are draped in black against the rain, and the lower parts of their faces are covered. Paul goes with them to help rescue Howard and Vicki (who by this time have discovered strange things swimming in the water leaking into the boat), while the priest leads Barbara to a hotel to call the Coast Guard. When Barbara cannot get the bug-eyed hotel manager to acknowledge her in any way, she turns to leave and is grabbed by other bug-eyed, masked townsfolk.
Paul discovers the sailboat empty, returns to the island, finds the hotel and discovers Barbara missing while her cigarette lighter rests on the hotel counter. The same bug-eyed hotel manager stares at Paul as he asks about the lighter and his girlfriend. His refusal to respond frustrates Paul, who doesn’t speak Spanish, so he finally barks: “Room-O, please-O.” The manager turns to get him a room key, and the change of perspective reveals gill slits on the man’s neck.
This is a very atmospheric film. Between the non-stop rain and the aquatic mutations on the townsfolk, the sense of danger takes hold firmly and doesn’t let up. Some of those mutations are remarkable. The makeup effects were created by David Marti, who took the Oscar in 2007 for his work on PAN’S LABYRINTH. Besides gill-slits and buggy, unblinking eyes, there are assorted tentacles, fins, shark teeth and more than a few webbed fingers. One of the most memorable creatures was too mutated to walk. He pulled himself along on a kind of skateboard with hands that ended in twisted tentacles instead of fingers. The creep factor of Marti’s work raises the movie above all its flaws.
Ezra Godden (from Gordon’s MASTERS OF HORROR episode DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE, 2005) plays Paul, and does so convincingly enough. The character is unusual for a horror film, though. He’s a whiny, spoiled rich-kid who will not man-up unless he absolutely has to. At least three times in the course of the film he broke down in tears, which, instead of winning my sympathy only made me want to slap him upside the head.
The rest of the cast consists of foreign actors, like Francisco Rabal (VIRIDIANA, 1961), Macarena Gomez (TO LET, 2006), and Raquel Merono as Barbara. There’s a heavy dose of Spanish spoken in the film, and the subtitles are no help whatever. Google Translate doesn’t work on Lovecraft’s tongue of the Old Ones, apparently. Still, though, nothing is lost due to the language barrier. The visuals are rich enough and the plot straightforward enough to clue you in to everything that’s happening, and listening to mutated fish people conversing unintelligibly increases the creep factor.
Writer Dennis Paoli has written some fantastic screenplays in the past, including the aforementioned RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, but he makes one mis-step here that had me shaking my head. In order to build the threat factor of these fish-people, he’s depicted them as skinning the faces off regular people. I thought it was a mildly interesting touch, as well as an opportunity for David Marti to show off a bit, until the congregation of worshippers comes together at the end of the film to summon Dagon. Each of them is wearing a cured skin-mask.
And the questions start: Why do people mutating into glorious fish-beings for the exaltation of Dagon defile themselves with lowly human faces when praying? How do they get the masks on anyway, considering the skins would shrink upon drying out? Where did all these outsiders come from to supply so many townsfolk with so many fresh(ish) masks? I could go on.
As a whole, the movie failed to live up to my memory of it. Still, though, the parts that worked worked really well, and the fantastic creature effects made this a movie that I’ll definitely watch again. In all, it was still a pretty good time, still a lot of fun.
Original assessment: 5 knives.
Re-assessment 3 1/2 knives.
© Copyright 2013 by Paul McMahon