Director: Stuart Gordon
Stars: Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabbal, Raquel Merono
Before I watched this movie there were a few good things going for it as well as a few bad things. First of all, I am a HUGE fan of all things Lovecraft – and a movie based upon both the stories Dagon and Shadow over Innsmouth I would have watched regardless. Second, director Stuart Gordon – Re-Animator, From Beyond and that really odd King of the Ants movie from 2003 (we’re just going to forget about Robot Jox and Space Truckers – okay!) On the border between Bad and Good is Producer Brian Yuzna. Sure, he produced Re-Animator and directed its sequels. Society wasn’t a bad film and I have a strange, ironic love for his Return of the Living Dead III – he also wrote and directed Silent Night Deadly Night 4 which was so Bad it almost cancels out any good he’s done. (On a sidenote: Yuzna also co-wrote and produced Honey I Shrunk the Kids which, not a bad movie, makes NO SENSE given everything else Yuzna’s done). The fishiest thing of all (pun is certainly intended) is why hadn’t I heard one whisper or mention for this movie in the 11 years since it’s release. If it was a quality film and especially a quality adaptation of Lovecraft’s work I would have heard somebody say something about it at lease once in 11 years. Well…. here’s an example of Dagon:
What the hell is that? Is that a special effect? That looks like some pretty shitty CGI right there. Also – I don’t remember women vomiting octopus tentacles in ANY Lovecraft story so you’ve already lost points for being a faithful adaptation to Lovecraft’s work. Bad CGI and a questionable interpretation of Lovecraft’s works are two of the things that have made this movie generally forgettable. But how about the rest of the movie?
The film’s opening credits are rather unimpressive: bad underwater CGI mixed with an awful 90’s made-for-cable-TV font that just doesn’t impress me as being a professional production. The scene itself that kicks the movie off is a dream sequence with a guy underwater in Dagon’s lair having a run-in with a fish woman. The scene itself doesn’t bother me as it is rather in spirit with the story Shadow Over Innsmouth as the main character in that story was drawn to the town of Innsmouth for reasons he couldn’t quite explain. Unfortunately the movie does not quite stick with that particular theme of the story so this dream sequence ends up being a horribly forced attempt at foreshadowing as well as just a misplaced jump scare for shits-and-giggles.
Waking up from this pointless nightmare we meet our protagonist Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) – who looks EXACTLY like Jeffrey Combs. I imagine they would have wanted the face of Herbert West but settled for a cheap knock-off instead. Ezra Godden may LOOK the part but he certainly doesn’t fit it very well. Anyway, Paul is on vacation with his “woman” Barbara. I say “woman” because it’s never really specified if she is his girlfriend, wife or fiancee. Some dialogue establishes that they are millionaires, Paul having successfully played the stock market or something like that. He opens up his laptop to check some work stuff which pisses Barbara off. She snatches away his computer and tosses it into the ocean. Now there were SEVERAL things wrong with this sequence that immediately irked me:
1. Barbara’s indignation is completely unwarranted. She is with this guy that is a self-made millionaire. He runs his own business and she is on vacation using HIS money. But NO, she’s going to throw a FIT about him checking on the business real quick during the vacation that HE PAID FOR!
2. She tosses his laptop into the ocean! Paul even shouts at her that he had no backups – she might as well have thrown his whole business into the ocean. Real caring lover you are, Barbara. Fucking bitch. Why does she do this? Because the whole “we’re on vacation”excuse for conflict is an old and tired cliche used by the laziest of writers to create a fake sense of conflict and character development.
3. There’s these other people on the boat. Some old couple that is in no way related to either Paul or Barbara. Yes, Paul is so rich that they have to share this yacht with strangers? I do not understand. How quickly this movie contradicts any sense of character development.
4. None of these people can act worth a damn.
Simply put, ten minutes in and the movie has created a set of unlikable and underdeveloped characters. I can’t care about these people and what they go through. Failure to create any sort of immediate interest in these characters is just falling into the tired tracks of every other generic horror movie. As for Barbara – I just want her to die as soon as possible. Every second that horrid woman continues to draw breath is another second that this movie continues to suck.
Their boat is currently anchored offshore from some eerie-looking Spanish town. HOLD ON! This is supposed to be an adaptation of Shadow Over Innsmouth, correct? Innsmouth is in New England. It’s not a Spanish coastal town! This town is also called Imboca which just sounds like someone decided too late in the game that Innsmoutho didn’t sound good enough and made a half-assed change. Why is this set in Spain instead of New England where Shadow Over Innsmouth actually took place? All this does is create a strange, almost racist air that it’s not the people of Lovecraft’s stories that are spooky – it’s just Spanish people that are spooky. Creating a cultural barrier between the characters and the setting is just needlessly complicated and distracts from the heart of the story too much.
A storm moves in and instantly dashes this boat on some rocks. The old people are immediately attacked by some unseen water monster so I guess whatever their names were is pretty irrelevant. Paul and Barbara take the life raft and head into the eerie Innsmouth-wannabe to look for help. At no point do these to actually convey a real sense of unease. This is clearly a village of shady acting fish people. A normal person’s reaction: “Holy shit! This is a village of evil fish people! I need to get the fuck out of here!” Paul and Barbara’s reactions: “That guy has gills. I suppose that’s interesting.” Barbara vanishes at the hands of fish people only seems a bit inconvenienced by this as he just waits in a hotel room. It’s only when hordes of evil and hungry fish people descend upon him that he decides – “Hey, things aren’t right here.”
A few words about these Lovecraftian fish people. They are actually the highlight of this movie. These are traditional make-up effects as opposed to CGI and it looks pretty damn awesome. Each fish person looks unique – mutated in their own special way somewhere between sea creature and human being. This film may half several faults but these children of Dagon are not among them – these are actually where the movie succeeds. When one reads Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth – these are the hideous beings that come to mind. The imagery of these Lovecraftian terrors is perfect. There are even a few suspenseful moments in the film that triumph only because of how awesome these fish people look. On the negative side, however, they speak muddled Spanish. Instead of the dead tongue of the Old Gods that Lovecraft’s monsters speak – we just get Spanish as spoken by a person underwater. What was wrong with the speeches in Lovecraft’s work – did you just not know how to pronounce them and decided to settle on Spanish instead. Make-up = WIN but Dialogue = FAIL!
The majority of the film is Paul running away from the fish people. Sometimes he evades capture, sometimes he is captured but manages to escape. Overall, not too suspenseful especially since Paul makes some dumbass decisions. For instance, he’s in the mansion of the leader of the fish people. There’s a “normal enough” looking girl there. Paul recognizes her as the same evil fish-beast from his dreams. Instead of fleeing in horror he takes a moment to make out with this woman. The fuck?! Explain to me how Town full of fish people + woman in the house of the fish leader + woman that’s in his nightmares = okay to stop and have sex. And then he is surprised to discover that she’s mostly octopus? Seriously, Paul is just an aggravating mess of bad writing.
There comes a point where Paul happens to run into a native of the village that has, for generations, avoided capture and conversion by the fish folk. The man tells Paul the backstory of the village. Of course he voices over this flashback in the most unintelligible and muddled dialect ever. I honestly couldn’t understand a damn word that fell out of this man’s mouth, but the flashback is actually present well enough visually that it really didn’t need narration at all. Imboca was a little fishing village and one year the fishing was very poor. A stranger came to town and told the residents that their problem was praying to this stupid Catholic God who would never provide fish for them. He encourages them to pray to the Old Gods – like Dagon – instead. To prove his point he holds a little beach-side seance and summons Dagon. With the Old Gods on their side the town hauls not only a bounty of fish from the ocean, but gold as well. This greed fuels a new passion for Dagon as they destroy all the Catholic imagery in the town and devote their lives to Dagon full force. During this process, they started to mutate into the fish people they are today. The flashback is actually quite well done, very entertaining and in the spirit of Lovecraft’s work. The only negative thing I can say about it is that it’s voiced over by drunken voice that just sounds like some sloshing a bucket of wet crap around.
Now for the ending. Barbara is sacrificed to Dagon and it is glorious. I actually cheered when this stupid woman met her end. Of course the CGI mess that was Dagon looked horrible, it still killed her – mission complete. Paul starts to destroy the fish people during their ritual but their priestess makes a revelation – Paul is actually one of them… He’s actually this woman’s brother. Does this need a little bit of explanation? YES IT DOES! There is a throwaway line at the very beginning of the film that Paul doesn’t really know where comes from. One cannot build a twist ending around a scrap of dialogue that was so inconsequential. Especially since the character was so poorly developed and a lot of that development contradicted itself one would have needed to make this one facet of his past a bit more relevant in order to create a character arc from it. Paul swims down into Dagon’s lair with his sister and they proceed to mate – wincest? This ending was HORRIBLE! Shadow Over Innsmouth had a pretty similar ending, with the protagonist realizing that he was one of these fish people. But that twist stemmed from proper story and character development and the ending fit for that particular story. With Shadow Over Innsmouth the protagonist willingly walked into this village as the result of some fascination or subconscious calling that he couldn’t quite explain until the very end of the story. Paul Marsh, on the other hand, received no calling to wander into this town – their boat crashed and this was the nearest village, he came here out of convenience, NOT because of destiny. The fact that he ends up being one of the fish people from this town is just a ludicrous coincidence. The film strayed too far from its source material that when it tries to end the same way it ultimately fails. Yeah, Barbara’s death had me cheering but everything that followed was just ANGER and me shouting and throwing things at the television.
Netflix predicted that I would give Dagon 3 stars and they were right.. In fact, I did give Dagon 3 stars. It is just a completely average movie. I didn’t hate it but I’m not going to run around singing praise to this film either. The CGI was terrible, the characters unlikable and it’s faithfulness to the work of H.P. Lovecraft was flirted between tenuous and outright offensive in its liberties. On the plus side, however, Shadow Over Innsmouth is a fantastic story and this movie at least inspired me to read more Lovecraft (or re-read at this point). As I said before, the make-up effects for the fish people were fantastic. In fact every special effect that didn’t use CGI looked stunning. It was clear that these people knew their strengths were in the traditional presentation of visual effects and limited the use of CGI to just a few quick sequences. Overall… If you’re a fan of Lovecraft and looking to kill 90 minutes you could do worse than Dagon. For the most part it’s respectful of its source material so Lovecraft fans would appreciate it (The won’t love it but they’ll appreciate it). For people not familiar with anything H.P. Lovecraft… well… it’ll just be a weird movie that you might actually enjoy.