No filmmaker has been more successful at bringing the work of H.P. Lovecraft to the screen than Stuart Gordon, and perhaps no Stuart Gordon film is more successful at adapting Lovecraft than 2001’s Dagon. It may not be as focused and entertaining as Re-Animator, the first Lovecraft adaptation from Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli, nor is it as wild and colorfully gory as their second, From Beyond, but Dagon gets at the spirit of Lovecraft more faithfully than their more popular and better-known efforts. It may just be the most Lovecraftian movie ever made.
Adapted from Lovecraft’s 1931 novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Dagon casts Ezra Godden as Paul, a stockbroker vacationing in Spain with his girlfriend (Birgit Bofarull) and some friends, when a storm hits and destroys their boat. Paul and his girlfriend are brought to a small fishing village called Imboca, and, while searching for the rest of their missing party, begin to make some disturbing discoveries about the people of Imboca. It turns out the village worships the god Dagon, who demands blood sacrifices and mates in exchange for fish and financial reward; the result of his unholy bargain is a race of fish people intent on turning Paul and his friends into either sacrifices or mates.
Just reading the plot description for Dagon—small coastal villages, enormous demon gods, fish people—it’s safe to say that the movie is one of Gordon’s less commercial offerings, which goes a long way towards explaining the film’s near-burial upon release; it only ever came out theatrically in Spain, where it grossed about $140,000 total. Here in the US, the movie went straight to DVD (and premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel, which is how I first saw it) and didn’t fare a lot better. Dagon is a tough sell. That’s because a lot of Lovecraft is a tough sell, but Gordon’s special gift to this point was to find a way of adapting it to make it more palatable to mainstream audiences. With Dagon, however, he has no interest in making it more palatable. He tells the story he wants to tell in the way he wants to tell it. This kind of freedom was really only possible because the movie was made in Spain as part of producer Brian Yuzna’s Fantastic Factory deal, responsible for a number of low-budget genre efforts all made with Spanish financing.
The result is kind of a mixed bag. I love the ambition and the purity of Dagon in terms of bringing Lovecraft’s vision to the screen, and it’s certainly unlike any other horror movie I can think of. Gordon and Paoli have never shied away from weirdness, making their work more challenging than a lot of their contemporaries. There is a willingness to go places and show things here from which almost any other filmmaker would back down, and one of the great things about Stuart Gordon is just how uncompromising he has always been as a director. Dagon is a movie unwilling to compromise, which is exciting for horror fans who feel that too often they are seeing the same ideas repeated again and again in movies.
At the same time, Dagon constantly feels like it’s on the verge of careening totally out of control—it’s almost too big and too wild for Gordon to wrestle into something coherent. There’s a histrionic tone set early on that never quite settles, so the film is played at a tonal and emotional volume of 11 from start to finish in a way that can be draining. The mix of European and American actors is somewhat uneasy, too, making it difficult to discern if the performances being given are actually bad or if there’s just something getting lost in the translation. And because the movie is so massive and requires such imagination, the early-2000s CG effects don’t always serve the material as much as they should. There are a handful of practical gags that are nightmarish and textbook Gordon—one skinning scene is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon—but the need to realize much of what Lovecraft writes requires a heavy reliance on computer effects that either weren’t advanced enough at the time or outside of the movie’s budget. It doesn’t always feel like the work of Stuart Gordon, a filmmaker who loves to go over the top, but usually does so within a fairly confined setting and limited scope. That’s not the case here. Dagon can’t quite go over the top because the movie never establishes where the top is.
But the years have been good to the movie, which has been discovered and appreciated over time for just how singular and strange and faithful it is to the tone of its source. Lionsgate has now commissioned a special edition Blu-ray release of Dagon as part of their Vestron Video Collector’s series, packing it with bonus features that only help improve the movie’s reputation as being ahead of its time and possibly Stuart Gordon’s most underrated film. The 1080p HD transfer is solid, if a little less forgiving of the computer-generated effects than the standard-def DVD was, and the lossless audio track has some pretty cool separation effects to help sell the atmosphere of the film and heighten the insanity in the final 30 minutes.
Where the disc really excels, though, is in the bonus content: there are two feature-length commentaries, both carried over from the original special edition DVD release, the first from Gordon and Paoli and the second from Gordon and star Ezra Godden (who would reunite with the director a few years later for his Masters of Horror episode “Dreams in the Witch House”). A brand-new video interview sees Gordon interviewed by filmmaker Mick Garris, while an interview with producer Brian Yuzna explains how the film came together and attempts to place Dagon within the larger framework of Lovecraft adaptations. Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi is also interviewed, speaking to the film as an adaptation. There are a couple of archival interviews shot during the film’s production, the original electronic press kit featurette and the original trailer, but what’s coolest about the supplemental section is the amount of stills, production art, and, best of all, conceptual artwork that’s been packaged together. Even if the finished film can’t live up to some of the designs, scrolling through these images is a reminder of just how wild and imaginative Dagon manages to be.
I’m not ready to make a case for Dagon as being one of Stuart Gordon’s best movies—he has made too many films I love for me to successfully argue that—but I’m not sure he’s ever made a movie more interesting than this. It feels like a film his whole career was building towards, one that could only have been made after several successful Lovecraft adaptations; by the time he finally got the chance to make it (and it had been kicking around for quite some time, but, as I said, it was a tough sell), he was skilled and confident enough as a filmmaker to just go all in on the Lovecraftian insanity. As a movie, it can be a little uneven. As an adaptation, though, it’s a nightmare come to life. Hail Dagon.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 4/5