Having recently read and dug Mike Dubisch's Lovecraftian graphic novel, Weirdling, I was feeling in the mood for more modernized trips to CthulhuLand. Fortunately for me, I had a grocery store bought DVD of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon on the shelf of movies-that-I-would've-viewed-earlier-if-my-free-time-weren't-filled-with-watching-Corner-Gas-reruns. About halfway into the flick, I began feeling dumb for not having pulled that puppy off the shelf months ago.
After all, director Stuart Gordon and scriptwriter Dennis Paoli are responsible for what's arguably the greatest Lovecraft low-budgeter ever lensed, Re-Animator. And within the rest of Gordon's admittedly erratic filmography (Space Truckers, anyone?) is a host of other entertaining genre exercises. I'm particularly enamored with his children's horror pic, Dolls, which years after its release can still elicit a knowing chuckle from me or my wife whenever one of us dramatically intones, "The killer dahhls!" So why didn't I slip Dagon into the DVD player the first chance I got? Perhaps it was Lion's Gate's slightly cheesy packaging, with its decidedly unscary creature on the front cover. Looks like something Forrest Ackerman would've rejected as a cover to Famous Monsters of Filmland back in the early '60s.
The movie itself, however, proves better than its packaging – even if budgetary
constraints do interfere with its monstrous CGI-drenched finale. An adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth," Dagon does Gordon's usual slick job of capturing the source material as it highlights the more lurid horrors lurking between the original prose. The film itself looks great: shooting in Spain with a largely Spanish crew and actors, the director makes maximum moody use of his Old World setting.
The movie follows two well-to-do American couples as they're boating off a Spanish coastal village. The older of the two are essentially fodder to establish the perils to be faced by our hero and heroine – Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Merono) – once a sudden storm strands them in the village of Imboca. Turns out the locals, in Lovecraft tradition, have abandoned their Christian ways to worship an underwater deity named Dagon. To demonstrate their fealty, they offer up all unfortunate women who happen across the village to the sexually ravenous god, while skinning alive any equally unfortunate male outsiders and keeping the skin as outerwear for local festivities. Several generations of these edifying practices have transformed the villagers into half-fish monsters – save for Imboca's half-crazed drunken geezer (Spanish actor Francisco Rabal), who exists to both provide the back story and suffer the movie's most prolonged and grueling demise.
Paoli & Gordon keep Dagon moving quickly and provide enough smart fake-outs to compensate for the story's familiar structure. (Once you learn, early in the movie, that Paul's originally came from Spain, you can guess exactly where the movie's heading.) Godden's bespectacled hero, amusingly bedecked in a Miskatonic U. sweatshirt, is convincingly wimpy as the put-upon protagonist. In one memorable moment, he attempts to hotwire the village's only car to escape his pursuers – an act you know he's just seen done in movies – only to have the car's horn start honking once he puts two wires together. His gorgeous girlfriend Barbara comes across as the tougher of the two, though as any Lovecraftian knows, mere human fortitude isn't really enough when you're up against an Elder God.
Even if the film's final moments falter (a tentacled village beauty, played by the haunting-eyed Macarena Gómez, is an especially unfortunate misstep), taken as a whole Dagon is efficiently gripping. One of the flick's funniest/creepiest moments doesn't require any real effects at all. In it, Paul is stuck waiting in what has to be the most godawful hotel room in all Europe – as shadowy villagers gather outside in the streets below. Watching our hero tear off the room’s grungy bedspread, it's a toss-up as to which is more unsettling: a village worth of inbred Spanish mutants or the appalling accommodations. So who needs CGI beasties when you're facing a toilet that’s worse than the one in Trainspotting?