Lovecraft finally done right, from the director of THE RE-ANIMATOR—just pay no attention to the cover
Byline: JASON HENDERSON
Reviewed Format: DVD
Stars: Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabal, Raquel Meroño, Macarena Gomez, Brendan Price, Birgit Bofarull
Writers: H.P. Lovecraft (novel), Dennis Paoli (Screenplay)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Distributor: Lions Gate Films
Original Year of Release: 2002
Extras: 16x9 widescreen; 2 audio commentaries with Stuart Gordon featuring writer Dennis Paoli and actor Ezra Godden; storyboards, production artwork; English and Spanish subtitles, trailer
Movie Grade: A Disc Grade: A
Thick, gray sheets of rain and images half-seen behind battered village shutters and doors, and behind: beauty and horror, alien and old and hysterical.
Dagon is one of my favorite horror films, having landed on that short list after its release this Summer. The movie is a remarkably creative piece that accomplishes two seemingly at-odds mean cinematic feats: it successfully adapts HP Lovecraft, one of the last century’s most unfilmable writers, and it does it with humor that enhances from the horror rather than detracts from it.
It’s hard to put good humor in horror—I was always one of the critics who was a little turned off by hamminess of films like Stuart Gordon’s Re-animator or the out-and-out camp of farce like Toxic Avenger. But now Gordon himself has come back to his beloved HP Lovecraft with a much more mature style of cinematic humor reminiscent of the sad comedy of Evil Dead II. Example: there’s a moment when our hero, Paul (British actor Ezra Godden) tries to steal a car to get away from some strange creatures chasing him. After he manages to sneak into the car, he rips out the wires below the ignition to hotwire the car. This is the first movie I’ve ever seen that ends this sequence the way it logically should if Paul is anything like me.
The movie opens with a boating accident, as two couples sailing on a boat off Spain hit a sudden storm and wreck on some high rocks. With one of the party injured, the young couple Paul and Barbara take a raft in the storm to the decrepit fishing village they see nearby.
Stuart handles these early moments brilliantly—it’s rare to see so clearly that moment when the characters cross a threshold into another world, as the atmosphere suddenly turns foggy and strange and the pair begin to search the deserted village for help. They find a strange, dilapidated church, and a priest whose distant eyes would tell you or me not to trust him at all. Gordon plays the shouldn’t these guys get the Hell out of this town motif well by keeping us aware that the heroes are trying to help their injured friends. By the time that duty is less compelling, it’s too late.
Dagon unfolds the details of its horror at a steady pace, in layers that make you cringe and laugh as the strange, aquatic creatures who inhabit the village appear. The monsters in Dagon are the villagers, who wear human clothing and more and haunt the village in some strange imitation of human life. The best humor of the story comes when we see these creatures trying desperately to act like people. Who are they? People, or their descendants, whose souls and bodies are in the thrall of something very old.
The village itself is a movie world created from whole cloth, flooded with rain and ominous, and just dripping with literacy of films that have gone before. Watch how Gordon passes along the other-worldly lessons of Argento’s Suspiria with the corridors of the hotel Paul stays in, or even calls back to City of the Dead with its use of one of horror cinema’s most sublime creepy triggers: barely seen figures in the distance, just in frame. Movies like City of the Dead and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, in fact, seem to have informed Gordon’s work here: Dagon rests squarely in the camp of stories about protagonists who fall into other-worlds-right-around-the-corner. But it stays fresh not by keeping tongue in cheek, but by daring to find the hero’s situation as funny as it is. Gordon has moved past camp and irony and into black comedy.
Dagon is such an inventive, joyously creative horror film that critics are having a hard time figuring out what to make of it. Most of them have focused on assets and called them liabilities, unwilling to succumb to the film’s spell. They don’t like accents—much of the explanatory dialogue belongs to the person least equipped to deliver it, Spanish actor Francisco Rabal, whose accent is so thick you can only catch every third word. Personally, I think Gordon did this on purpose: we have to strain to understand the old man, which heightens our sense of panic. Nothing in the movie works the way other horror movies would have them, and that seems to disturb critics. Genre is supposed to be predictable while we leave creativity to art films.
How inventive? So inventive that you’ll probably be catching DAGON first DVD, instead of in a theater.
But the touches add up: I love that Paul is a hero who behaves more or less like a normal guy—his fighting is clumsy, his panic realistic, and his tenacity inspiring. He sometimes does stupid things that come across as very, very believably stupid. In the commentary, Ezra Godden reveals he patterned his performance after Woody Allen and Harold Lloyd, the glasses-wearing, accident-prone everyman from the silents. It’s a fascinating choice.
Playing a key role in the film is Macarena Gomez, whose face alone is a special effect—with a fragile, sharp, wide jaw and huge, liquid eyes, Gomez appears barely mortal, as if she’s sidestepped into our dimension. She’s a magnificent discovery and the part she plays would crush beneath anyone else.
Dagon closes in on you and gets stranger and stranger, and ends in a place as different from the tranquil sailing vessel and the drizzling village as any place can be: an entry to the realm of HP Lovecraft’s Deep Ones. Stuart Gordon’s work has matured and given us a classic horror film that fans of the genre simply cannot ignore.
About the DVD.
As if to make up for the lack of theatrical exposure DAGON received, Lions Gate has prepared a DVD release that is certainly better than that received by most theatrical releases—certainly those that lose money at the box office. The only negative is the DVD’s misleadingly cheesy cover (instead of some mysterious wispiness and Macarena Gomez, we get a dark shot of a howling half-human creature—leading one to think this movie is the sort of exploitative cheese that it’s distinctly not.)
But where recent DVD releases of movies like THE HOWLING have appalled me with the sort of accidental manner in which things are thrown on, DAGON has the goods I’m looking for: subtitles in two languages, a library of production art shots and storyboards, and most importantly, commentaries.
Both commentaries on the DAGON DVD feature director Stuart Gordon, one with lead actor Ezra Godden and the other with Screenwriter (and Gordon’s former college roommate) Dennis Paoli. This is a brilliant idea, because we get the thoughtful Gordon focusing on story-construction issues with his writer and production issues with his actor. By focusing the conversation, the conversations seem more genuine and helpful than a lot of DVD commentaries I’ve reviewed, where various people are thrown in and just sort of ramble.
We learn a lot of neat tidbits, such as that Macarena Gomez, an actress I regard as her own special effect, was willing to do her underwater scenes in freezing coastal water. Or that the whole film was done with a handheld camera, leading to its claustrophobic sense. As a writer, I’m most interested in the director’s reports of various drafts of the script, and how shifting the action from New England to Spain changed the feel of the film. I also found that some of the commentary vindicated the director for some of his choices—we learn he deliberately avoided subtitles in the theater, to heighten the confusion felt by the lead.
DAGON is one of those films that makes you shake your head in sadness at the odd machinery that gets some poorly made films released, and some well-made films swept straight to the home. What is beginning to be different is that with the right DVD support, that doesn’t have to be a tragedy.