Dagon (R.I.P. Stuart Gordon)

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.

* * *

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 25th, 2020 at 6:31 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Dagon (R.I.P. Stuart Gordon)”

  1. This one is really overdue for a rewatch. I remember liking it a lot back in the days, despite its sudden ending.

  2. Haven’t seen this since it came out and I don’t remember anything about it.

    Will probably rent it in the near future to change that.

    Tonight’s Stuart Gordon memorial viewing: Pit and the Pendulum, which I also have not seen in about twenty years, and King of the Ants, which I have never seen at all.

  3. I watched this in the perfect state of mind. Late at night, half sleep, half awake. And it creeped me out big time. Moody, high on atmosphere and as prposperous the idea of a village of fish people is, it is equally terrifying. This is a Stuart Gordon film that has been slept on for too long.

  4. The Undefeated Gaul

    March 26th, 2020 at 3:45 am

    I mostly remember the live skinning scene, which I found pretty shocking when I saw it at the time – one of those rare shocking moments you really feel in your gut.

  5. “everyone he knows was murdered so he lives underwater as a mermaid’s boy toy”

    Substitute all the murder for “he’s hunted by the feds for treason” and that’s how SPLASH ends. It is an equally terrifying conclusion, in my opinion,

    Like anyone with a brain and eyes and possibly gills, I am a big Stuart Gordon fan, but I am sad to say that I never liked this one, and it’s like 95% because of the total loser of a lead. I look at this guy and I immediately want to look at something else. Anything else. He sinks the movie before it even starts. Similar to CRIMEWAVE, where Raimi wasn’t allowed to cast Bruce Campbell as the lead, you can’t help but wish the movie starred Jeffrey Combs, who would have been in it if it had been made in 1985 like Gordon wanted but Charles Band decided fish people were stupid. (Of course, then we likely wouldn’t have FROM BEYOND and that’s not a trade I’m willing to make.) I should give it another shot because I’ve always felted about disliking it, but I’ve tried watching it twice and both times I thought it was a boring slog with dreary, muddy visuals and an unwatchable hero.

    Clearly this was a movie that Gordon always wanted to make and I’m glad he got to make it without too many apparent compromises. (The lead was supposed to be a “Woody Allen-type comic hero” so perhaps even his utter insufferableness was a creative choice.) I just wish I knew how to enjoy it.

  6. I am afraid to go back revisiting this, as I may find it as much of a boring slog as Majestyk found it. But at the time when I was as emotional exhausted one late night, my brainwaves aligned with this little film perfectly. And I still want to have the experience like an unsullied distant dream til the day I die. Because there and then it was special.

  7. Shoot: I had a similar experience the time I fell in and out of sleep watching C.H.U.D. while I had the flu. I’ve rewatched it since then and it just wasn’t the same.

  8. By the way, am I the only one who ever saw Gordon’s WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT? This one sticks out of his filmography, because it was a charming, life affirming, uncynical heart-on-its-sleeve tale of four people who achieved their dreams by wearing the most beautiful suit ever. Unfortunately Disney kept burying it since its release, probably it was an independent production (Although one by Roy Disney himself!), that they only distributed. I don’t think it ever got a release outside of VHS and I only saw it on TV once.

  9. I remember hating this one and thinking it was stupid upon first watch but then on these here comments on this here website Sir Mix-a-lot made a case for it and I rewatched it and he was right. This is a good and unique one.

  10. I think that DAGON is a piece of outsider art. The artist who made it was working outside of all the normal financial/critical systems, and so the artist could do pretty much whatever they wanted as long as they stayed within their cheap as shit budget. Being an outsider artists requires a lot of personal vision and a lot of don’t-give-a-fuck-ness. And that’s what Stuart Gordon did, for most of his career.

    As outsider art, DAGON makes a lot of sense. Gordon’s not letting any real world problems (lack of budget, lack of a useful leading man) hold him back. So as long as you know that you’re sitting down to watch a weird-ass gorefest from a talented artist who couldn’t actually afford to make the weird-ass gorefest of his dreams, then you’re all set. The movie’s pretty cool–it’s a testament to artistic tenacity. But the seams show. And it’s endearing when the seams show! As long as you know why they’re showing.

    But Lovecraft was also an outsider artist–a weirdo and failure in his own time (even though he did ghostwrite some ridiculous shit for Houdini). But I think Lovecraft’s “outsider” status is why it feels so weird and pretend-y when blockbuster artists try to adapt his work for mass media properties. There’s a reason people love THE COLOR OUT OF SPACE but reject the idea of Tom Cruise in MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. Lovecraft’s an outsider. Outsider art might be the only proper way to adapt him.

  11. I’m gonna put FROM BEYOND first on my list, and if that appeals to me, I will try this and CASTLE FREAK. (Lovecraft himself is someone I’ve tried to get into but had a real hard time chipping through his prose and to push through and appreciate the story.)

    Whether that proves to be a love connection or not, I love that spirit of someone who is doing something because they have a vision and are passionate about it and that explains it. I mean, it’s all the better when there is a real talent and at least some other people can tap into the vision and resonate with it. But even when there is not a lot of talent or the product is not viewed as particularly competent, there is something inspiring about anyone who has somewhat transcended greed, ego, and fear and is really just doing it because they love it and is striving for excellence. I love that idea of *striving* for excellence, because even if you suck, and even if you’re only making the babiest of steps on the path to sucking less, the only question are: Are you trying, and why are you trying (what’s driving you)? The fact that you care and are staying at it is not only more important than the money or recognition but is even more important than the quality of the work itself (not that is irrelevant, of course).

    This just seems like a guy who chose wisely what path to take with all that. I love that. Looking forward to digging in here.

  12. Tried this again on Tubi the other night. I got about as far as the girlfriend throwing Boring Lead’s laptop off the side of the yacht before my attention started wandering.

    But the first attempt at rewatching it in eighteen-ish years still didn’t catch, so that happened.

    Pit and the Pendulum held up real well, on the other hand.

  13. I hate the score and the across the board shoddy acting, but I can’t resists the dripping, rainy atmosphere. I find it oddly comforting and I’ve actually ended up rewatching this one more than RE-ANIMATOR.

    I know you didn’t link to it, Vern, but I’m gonna have to dig up that review of STUCK. I don’t actually remember the details of it very well, but I do remember viscerally disliking it and thinking it was the worst thing Gordon had ever directed. I’m hesitant to actually revisit it.

    EDMOND is one I’ll have to rewatch. I didn’t think it worked at the time. I think it’s one of Mamet’s uglier-and-not-in-a-good-way pieces of writing and Gordon’s heightened genre leanings didn’t do it any favors. But shit, that was also like 15 years ago?

    And for the record, FROM BEYOND is his masterpiece.

  14. This review prompted me to watch this last night. The lock-in we are going through now, the somewhat existential dread of not knowing when this will all end, and a real fear of fish-people made this a perfect watch. Yes, the acting by the lead at least kind of sucked. I loved the old mumbling homeless guy (who I think died soon after the movie as he got a “RIP” mention in the end). I agree with Vern’s appreciation of the hero trying to problem-solve his way out of this. He was always checking the environment for weapons, tools, blocking material and so on. The attempting to screw the tiny slide bolt onto the door was hilariously tense because a) the timing was great and b) wth did he think that would stop? My other favorite problem solving moment was when he confidently pulled the wiring out of the bottom of the car to hot-wire it like we all have seen in the movies, only to connect two wires that caused the horn to sound. Awesome move. I think the obvious cg effects haven’t aged well and I would have been fine if Dagon was just something in the murky black water we never saw. His OG girlfriend being dipped in and pulled back out covered in the oily substance and the look on her face was far more impacting than the site of the critter jumping out at her. Still, if only for the sodden streets and stumbling part fish monster chase this movie was a wonder. So good. Now i need to check out the other works as I have a serious gap in my horror movie experience having only seen the Re-Animator.

  15. Anthony Bradley

    April 2nd, 2020 at 1:09 am

    I do like much of this film, but lord, do I hate the lead. He almost ruins it for me. Combs would’ve been wonderful in the role.

    Just watched King of the Ants the other night. Not really a horror movie, but a crime thriller. This surprised me considering the dvd cover, but I ended up really enjoying it. The structure and lingering on certain locations makes me wonder if it was originally meant to be for the stage?

  16. grimgrinningchris

    January 28th, 2024 at 8:49 am

    Wondering if anyone has caught SUITABLE FLESH’s streaming premiere on Shudder this weekend yet.
    Lovecraft source. Developed by Gordon up to his passing. Script by Paoli. Produced by Crampton and Yuzna. Starring Heather Graham, Bruce Davison, the kid from the Samara Weaving Babysitter movies, Crampton, Dalton Jr (Jonathan Schaech) and with a bit part for Chris McKenna actually playing his character from King Of The Ants.

    I have thoughts. Sadly, not a ton of positive ones despite all of those excellent ingredients.
    Figured this thread was the most appropriate place provided Vern doesn’t review it.

  17. I had no idea SUITABLE FLESH was the CASTLE ROCK of the Gordonverse. I don’t know how I feel about that. I got it because I like the cast and I like Joe Lynch, even though he continues to never quite stick the landing. I fully intend to watch it soon but I don’t know when. I set myself up with some fairly ambitious vintage cinema goals for early 2024 (every Harryhausen, the full Thin Man series, that Bill Rebane box set, a bunch of Joan Crawford) so I’m not sure when I’ll feel like switching modes. I did also pick up that Empire International box set from Arrow (50% off at Barnes & Noble) and that has both DOLLS (with David DeCoteau commentary, always a treat) and ROBOT JOX in it so maybe those will be my segue.

  18. grimgrinningchris

    January 28th, 2024 at 12:52 pm

    Maj- We’ll see if Vern watches or reviews it. It’s definitely worthy of discussion just on its pedigree.
    I’m actually pretty indifferent on Lynch’s past stuff but this one just didn’t work and I have to blame the direction and the cinematography more than the cast, the script or the confines of the budget.

  19. Haven’t seen it yet but I definitely plan to.

  20. grimgrinningchris

    January 29th, 2024 at 4:30 pm

    Good. I know you’ll have lots of thoughts. I have a mini no spoiler/no plot thing if Maj or Vern or anyone else is interested. In the meantime…

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