You know how it is: you have these reoccurring nightmares about a sexy mermaid, and then you’re on a yacht trip with your girlfriend and an older couple, and a violent storm hits out of the blue and the boat wrecks and your friend is injured and you try to get help on the nearby island of Iboca but everyone’s weird and people have noticeable gills and tentacles and shit and a homeless guy explains to you that years ago a guy convinced them to give up Christianity and worship the sea god Dagon, who is different than Jesus in that he requires his followers to throw him women to impregnate with immortal monster babies. We’ve all been through it, and H.P. Lovecraft wrote about it in 1931, so Stuart Gordon made a movie about it in 2001.
Gordon is a rightfully designated Master of Horror, but I think deserves more recognition than he receives. Every time I watch or rewatch one of his movies it ends up being better than expected or remembered. In this case it still had the same issue I remembered, but it’s pretty good. Maybe pretty good plus.
Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden, Band of Brothers) is some financing asshole who spends the movie thinking he’s dealing with an emergency, when in fact he’s shedding his entire life and moving on. In the beginning his girlfriend angrily tosses his laptop in the water to get him to stop working. He’s pissed about losing important files, but really none of that will ever be relevant to him again.
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When I found out today that Gordon had passed away, I went to post links to my reviews of some of his films. And I discovered that although I had rewatched DAGON during my Halloween viewing, I never finished a new review. The three paragraphs above are all I had in my notebook.
I did finish a review of it 18 years ago when it came out on video. At the time I called it “slightly above average” and noted, accurately but too harshly, that it could really be improved by a lead with a stronger screen presence. But I knew it would be worth revisiting. When Wes Craven died in 2015 it was a wake up call to show my appreciation for the “Masters of Horror” while they were still with us, and Gordon was the one I ended up focusing on most. I had already discovered that FROM BEYOND was way better as an adult, and that I had been totally missing out by not having seen FORTRESS. So I caught up with THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, which I loved. DOLLS was still pretty good. CASTLE FREAK was way better than I remembered. And last year I reviewed THE DENTIST, which he didn’t direct, but wrote with his longtime partner Dennis Paoli, and it too is interesting and unique.
DAGON (which has a screenplay just credited to Paoli) is a good collection of Gordon obsessions: trying to capture H.P. Lovecraft on film, pushing weird creature FX and cinematic sexuality far beyond the point of discomfort, questioning religious zealotry. The title is taken from a Lovecraft short story, but the plot is from his novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. With a budget of $4.8 million – low, but almost ten times what he had for CASTLE FREAK – the project bounced around for years, moving from Vestron to Full Moon, with work by legendary makeup artist Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST, SCANNERS) and artist Bernie Wrightson (creator of Swamp Thing, designer for GHOSTBUSTERS, LAND OF THE DEAD, THE MIST) abandoned along the way. This version of it finally landed at Fantastic Factory, a Barcelona-based genre label started by Gordon’s early producing partner Brian Yuzna (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, DOLLS, HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS) and Julio Fernández (THE MACHINIST, [REC]). Though filmed in English, it has a largely Spanish cast, and Lovecraft’s New England setting was shifted to Spain.
Many films have tried to translate Lovecraft’s ancient gods and indescribable otherworldly sights and hues into cinematic language. DAGON is the only one that dives deep into the author’s rampant fishphobia. It’s all about a revulsion (and also sexual attraction) to scales, flippers, fins and tentacles. It’s a feverish nightmare about the things that go splash in the sea, that inhabit the deep, that were here before we evolved and don’t feel like changing much. The weird, the wet, the clammy. And even when there’s nothing aquatic on screen, there sure as hell is something damp. Storm clouds, violent waves, torrential downpours, flooded streets and rooms, leaky roofs. I’m pretty sure the negatives themselves have mildew on them, if not barnacles. I bet it was absolutely torturous to film. They must still be toweling off all these years later.
There are many classical horror elements. Paul and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño, BENEATH STILL WATERS) are outsiders who get stranded in a strange, old place. They have a hell of a time finding people in the town, and when they do, they act strangely toward them and lie to them. When they bring locals to the dock to help rescue their friends Vicki (Birgit Bofarull, THE DEAL) and Howard (Brendan Price, NAUGHTY WIVES, 11-11-11), who are trapped on the sinking boat, they end up separated. Vicki and Howard are not on the boat, and Barbara is not at the hotel they tell Paul she’s at, and now he’s alone and fucked.
It’s a terrible vacation, not relaxing at all. The hotel is a total wreck. I guess his sexy mermaid dreams aren’t that bad, but it’s weird when the mob of fish people show up and chase him around, and it’s a total bummer and not cool when he finds Howard’s skin hanging up in a tannery. At least he makes a new friend, Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal, SORCERER), a homeless drunk who is the last land-person in Imboca, who tells him the whole story of how they got fished out.
Paul seems like the classic douche-who-must-redeem-himself-through-heroic-actions. You kinda don’t like him at all and want him to get sat on by a whale or something, but he’s trying to rescue, or even sacrifice himself for, his lady. And he turns into a bit of an action hero. There are lots of very involved sequences about running, hiding, unscrewing things, sneaking around, trying to hotwire the only car in town. Very visual and problem-solving-based as opposed to standing around talking. I like that. And in the process you hear these bizarre vocal cord sounds and get these quick glimpses of dudes in mobs chasing after him, flashes of deformed hands and gills and shit, very creepy.
I also like the casting of Macarena Gómez (WITCHING & BITCHING) as Uxia, who he meets and recognizes from his dream before finding out she too is a fish. She’s got big, strange eyes.
Gordon does a good job of shifting from unsettling to tense to exciting to just straight up slimy bugnuts freakout crazy bananas. It really plunges deep into the bowels of unrelenting what-the-fuckness. There are a few very fake looking low budget digital effects, but since they’re generally in a context of trying to create imaginative weirdness, they’re easy to forgive.
Warning: when they ritualistically lower a chained Barbara into a pit for Dagon, it’s not for him to eat her. Paul tries to dump kerosene on the Imbocans and burn them alive – an excellent move – but his rescue attempt fails in a viscerally disastrous and fucked up way. It’s this all-watery-hell-breaking-loose ending that made me realize yeah, I really do like this one. Especially in the final moments. This is a BIG HONKING SPOILER of course. In the end, Paul has completely failed at everything, and Uxia explains to him his connection to the town and that it’s his destiny to be her lover. Time to commit suicide, he decides, and the only method he has is extremely fucking painful: dump the kerosene on himself and light it. So he does.
But she jumps on him, pushes him into the water. He sinks. And he breathes. He has gills.
Oh. Okay. So that’s it, then. He follows her. Forget the stock reports and spreadsheets. I’m off to worship Dagon and fuck a squid-woman.
Wikipedia says “With no choice left, he follows Uxia down into Dagon’s undersea lair,” which is technically true. But I took it as acceptance. Yeah, now that I think about it, this might be a good life. Most movies don’t take you that far over the edge. At most they’re, like, the hero is pushed over to the dark side and is willing to kill the villain even though he knows it’s wrong or something like that, they’re not everyone he knows was murdered so he lives underwater as a mermaid’s boy toy. That’s a pretty drastic lifestyle change, in my opinion.
I wonder if Aquaman has seen this movie?
Though DAGON is far from my favorite thing by Stuart Gordon, it has one quality that is very important to me in the work of auteurs: I can’t imagine any other director wanting to, or knowing how to, make this particular movie. Gordon was a true original.
He made four more films after this: KING OF THE ANTS (which I believe I wrote the very first review of, and loved at the time), EDMOND (which I’m glad I haven’t seen yet, because I have something left!) and STUCK (which I won’t link to here, because it’s a very negative review, but maybe I’ll revisit it). He also did two episodes of Masters of Horror and one of Fear Itself.
Gordon started in theater (his Organic Theater Company production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago established David Mamet as a playwright), and it was kind of like his screen and stage careers merged when, in 2009, he directed Jeffrey Combs’ one-man show Nevermore… An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, and in 2011 when he produced, directed and co-wrote Re-Animator: The Musical. I’m always skeptical about that sort of thing, but I’ve heard nothing but praise for it, and it does seem like a movie that would adapt well for the stage. In 2014 he directed Taste, based on that horrible true story of the guy who put up an ad for someone to let him kill and eat them. Brian Collins, writing for Birth Movies Death, called it “a very funny but also somewhat touching and sad story of two lonely men who have gone to extremes just to make the sort of human connection that comes naturally to their acquaintances and coworkers.” According to Variety it was very gory, including a graphic dick dismemberment. Sounds great!
Sadly, attempts to make movie versions of Nevermore and Taste never came to fruition. But it sounds like he was having a fun time on stage, where he got to do what he wanted.
Thank you, Stuart Gordon. I’m sorry to see you swim off into the deep, or melt into another dimension, or whatever this is. But you left a mark on us. R.I.P.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.