Stuart Gordon Spotlight: “Dagon”

Dagon

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Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog’s two week spotlight on writer/director Stuart Gordon! Next up is 2001’s “Dagon,” which sees Gordon dive back in to the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft.

“Dagon” is a loose adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the only one of his works to be published as an independent book (as opposed to a section of a magazine) in his lifetime, with a whopping printing of 200 units. The film adaptation changes some major details from the story, most notably the location (from New England to Spain), and the nature of the creatures (from frog-like to octopus-like).

“Dagon” once again reunited Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon on what would be one of their longest-running projects (taking over 15 years to ultimately see to the screen). Paoli took sole writing credit on “Dagon,” which was unusual given how often the two have acted as writing partners. “Dagon” was initially written to be made as a follow-up to “Re-Animator” in the 1980s, and was intended to have Jeffrey Combs in the lead. However, for a handful of reasons, “From Beyond” ultimately got precedence, putting “Dagon” on the back-burner for what wound up being well over a decade.

The cinematography on “Dagon” was provided by Carlos Suarez, an acclaimed Spanish cinematographer who has been working since the 1960s, but has never really branched outside of his home country.

The music on “Dagon,” which is only used sparingly in the film, was composed by Carles Cases, another Spanish member of the crew who has never particularly branched outside the world of Spanish-language cinema.

The special effects on “Dagon” were provided by DDT, an acclaimed Spanish special effects outfit that has worked on films such as “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” where their skill in creating creatures has been excellently showcased.

A number of members of the production design and art team from “Dagon” would later work with producer Brian Yuzna on “Beyond Re-Animator,” the second of two dubious sequels to Stuart Gordon’s initial 1985 adaptation.

The cast of “Dagon” is led by Ezra Godden, who would later reunite with Stuart Gordon years later for “Dreams in the Witch House.” The British actor modeled his character of Paul on a combination of Woody Allen and Harold Lloyd, creating a sort of oddly comic and out of place protagonist. The cast also features the acclaimed Spanish actor Francisco (Paco) Rabal in one of his last on-screen performances before his death, as well as the first film role for actress Macarena Gomez.

dagon3 dagon7The story of “Dagon” follows four Americans  on a boating vacation, where they suddenly and mysteriously become shipwrecked just off of the Atlantic coast of Spain. In their search for medical help on shore, it quickly becomes clear that they have stumbled upon a peculiar and hostile village with a number of hidden secrets.

In the DVD commentary for “Dagon,” both Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon mention the concept of the story being a “battle of the gods.” Dagon was not just an invention of Lovecraft, it was based on a fish-god of the same name mentioned in the Old Testament as being the deity over the Philistines. Appropriately, there are a number of sequences showing conflict between Christianity and the Dagon-worshippers: notably, an extensive flashback sequence that depicts the revolution of the town from being Catholic to following the sea-god Dagon.

Apparently, Stuart Gordon was worried that there would be issues with finding Spanish extras willing to desecrate Christian symbols for this sequence. Hilariously, the cast and crew were more than happy to oblige, and reportedly destroyed all of the spares  off-screen as well, claiming it was therapeutic.

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The intersecting crescents “eye” symbol for Dagon was developed specifically for this film

Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli include a number of small details throughout “Dagon” that become more noticeable upon re-watching the film. For instance, none of the native islanders are ever shown blinking, a detail pulled from the source material that is meant to point to their “fishy-ness.” There are also a number of repeated phrases and actions on the part of Paul: he frequently mentions “two possibilities,” and is often faced with dichotomies throughout the film. Paul is also shown experiencing stomach pain, which becomes more intense and pronounced as the film goes on. Ultimately, the source of the pain is revealed to be a set of gills that have developed around his ribs. Personally, I would think that the sensation of growing gills would differ a little bit from a stomach cramp, but I have also never experienced a transformation into a fish-person.

Those with a keen eye will notice that the Godden’s character of Paul wears a sweatshirt throughout the film bearing the name “Miskatonic University.” That fictitious school features prominently throughout Lovecraft’s works, and is directly featured in Stuart Gordon’s previous Lovecraft film adaptation, “Re-Animator.”

“Dagon” reportedly had a total budget of 4.2 million euros, a total that it didn’t even come close to meeting in a limited Spanish theatrical run. The movie currently holds a 6.3 rating on IMDb, and has Rotten Tomatoes scores of 56% from both audiences and critics, a rare case of consensus. No matter how you cut it, “Dagon” was not a successful feature.

Criticisms that I have seen of the movie have claimed that it was too specifically catered to fans of Lovecraft, while others have claimed that despite its attempts, it proves that Lovecraft’s style simply can’t be adapted to film in a way that is simultaneously successful and faithful.

Personally, I have a few issues with the film, but none of them specifically relate to the adaptation. I think that the changes made by Paoli were sensible, and that there is nothing inherently prohibitive about this story that would prevent it from making a good movie. Hell, I think Stuart Gordon came pretty close here to having one of his best films.

Unfortunately, there are definitely issues with “Dagon.” First off, Ezra Godden’s Woody Allen act is just distracting, and completely fails to extract any laughs. Worse yet, his development into a hero seems to happen inexplicably, and his final twist even moreso. I could see exactly how Jeffrey Combs might have managed this character, and if things had turned out different, I think he could have nailed it. Godden struggles to convey intensity, and never seems genuinely terrified. Combs has an ability to portray those things, while also pulling off a side of humor. Godden tried to do that, but he doesn’t have the same kind of balancing capabilities or the comedic chops to do so. While none of the performances were outstanding (Gomez was also distractingly awful at times), no one had the same amount of screentime or responsibility as Godden, and he just couldn’t keep it all together.

dagon1dagon4Apparently, there was some internal debate on the production over whether or not Dagon should be shown in the conclusion. There were a handful of poor decisions here that wound up just about sinking the movie for me. First, Gordon relented, and allowed Dagon to be shown on screen at all. Second, Dagon was depicted solely with low-budget, 2001 CGI. Third, CGI was used inexplicably and interchangeably with (really good) practical effects throughout the film. Computer generated special effects, with rare exception, age horribly, and that is absolutely the case with “Dagon.” Worse yet, there was no reason to have a full shot of a giant monster at all in this movie: Lovecraftian horror is atmospheric, and relies a lot on what you don’t see, and I believe Stuart Gordon knows that. This movie could have been pulled off with only a glancing shot of Dagon (“Cabin in the Woods”,  “Cloverfield”) or just by showing the results of his actions. However, I think I understand why that decision was ultimately made.

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dagon6 Seriously, the practical effects look ok

“Dagon” was a low-budget production, and in 2001, I imagine the computer effects featured were expensive. For whatever reason, it was decided at some point in the production that certain aspects of the film needed CGI. My guess is that the effects shop pushed it, and showed off the capabilities of their CGI department, and maybe even cut the production a good deal. At that point, I imagine the “in for a penny, in for a pound” logic took over, and decisions were made to get everything possible out of the money that was sunk into the effects. Thus, we get a number of CGI shots that look awful now, but were probably impressive then, including Dagon himself. Regardless of what the logic was, it still looks awful, and cheapens the look of the movie as a whole. Those kind of missteps are like a pin in a balloon for me, and can sink my opinion of a pretty good movie pretty quickly.

Overall, “Dagon” is not one of my favorites in Stuart Gordon’s filmography by a long-shot. There are a lot of things I like about it: the location, the monster designs, and the practical effects, for instance. However, the moments of poor CG just about spoil the whole thing for me, and most of the acting is really disappointing (or at worst, grating). There is a general lack of genuine intensity, and the whole movie feels hollow for it. If this movie had happened in the late 1980s with Jeffrey Combs (and probably Barbara Crampton, I would assume), I’m sure that the result would have been stronger on all fronts. Not only would the cast have been more capable, but the option and temptation of adding the extensive computer generated effects wouldn’t have been there due to technological and financial constraints. Worst case scenario, they would have attempted a practical solution to include Dagon at the end of the movie anyway, and I would be willing to bet that it would still look better (and certainly age better) than what made it onto the screen in 2001.

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I’m saying they sacrificed the film’s quality

All of that said, “Dagon” is still a pretty fun horror movie, and doesn’t deserve the generally scathing reviews that it garnered. The upsides are very strong, and there is certainly some entertainment value to the movie. “Dagon” is worth giving a shot, but I wouldn’t put it on the top of my Stuart Gordon list by any means.

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