Eldritch Adaptations: ‘Dagon,’ Stuart Gordon’s Most Recent Failure

Eldritch Adaptations

Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s.  His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.

Film adaptations of Lovecraft are generally inoffensive but rarely good, with the bar set surprisingly low in terms of capturing the quality of the author’s original stories. They tend not to be particularly frightening or well-constructed, and even poorer reflections of the stories that supposedly inspired them.  An exception to the “inoffensive” generalization, though, is the filmography of Stuart Gordon, of which I have reviewed Re-Animator and From Beyond.  Not only were they lazy adaptations, but they were also poorly made for the most part—see the reviews for justification of those claims—and featured abysmal depictions of women to the point that even audiences uninterested in gender representations hopefully noticed the issues at hand.  The two main female characters in each are raped for no purpose, except for the possibility that Gordon can’t think of any point to an attractive woman being in his film if he’s not going to show her breasts and have some form of monster assault her.

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So, I took a short break after watching those two movies  before checking out Dagon (2001).  Gordon had fifteen years to develop as a filmmaker and storyteller, and I heard good things about this movie from Lovecraft fans.  I wanted to have a chance to view it without an instant distaste for it because of Gordon’s involvement.  I wanted to see this movie fresh.  That seemed awfully smart at the time, but I probably should have trusted myself and not sat through another Gordonized Lovecraft flick.  I am going to carefully consider exactly why I disliked this movie so that I don’t just rip on Gordon but instead spell out exactly why Dagon fails as an adaptation and has too many issues as a movie all its own to be lauded beyond sparse successes.

In terms of Lovecraft stories, I would like to note that Dagon is, despite its name, not based on the short story “Dagon”—which I would have loved to see, because “Dagon” has a fantastic atmosphere that, if done right on film, would be great—but rather The Shadow Over Innsmouth, a novella in which a stranger comes to a small town and makes some horrible discoveries.  Innsmouth marks some of Lovecraft’s most engaging writing in regard to setting, and has an uncharacteristic action sequence that is pretty riveting even by today’s standards.

Okay, let’s start with the beginning of this film.  After a title sequence that could easily be the opening credits to a children’s fantasy movie from the eighties, we enter a dream sequence in which the first woman we see is a half-naked, evil mermaid; then, we are introduced to two main characters: Paul and Barbara, who are vacationing off the coast of Spain.  Both of them are intensely unlikeable, with Paul being a work-obsessed, idiotic prick (which is exemplified when he condescendingly tells a slow hotel staffer he would like a “Room-o, please-o”) and Barbara being entirely unable to read body language and destroying a laptop because she doesn’t like that Paul is checking stocks.  After our Intensely Unlikeable Leads have a quick quibble followed by some playful banter, a massive storm comes out of nowhere and the story quickly becomes a fast-paced drama.  The stylistic whiplash bespeaks the poor transitions that make up the pacing of this movie.

The overlay of this with

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The overlay of this with “creepy music” is such a mood killer that it was recommended in Cosmo as a “Sexy Tip.”

I will say that the initial scenes in the town are solid.  The village is a fantastic set, and Paul’s initial exploration of the hotel and his brief moment of rest have a heavy dose of atmosphere that captures Lovecraft’s uncanny ability to evoke the imposing emptiness of eerie locales.  Unfortunately, that atmosphere is captured only sporadically.  Gordon has stepped up his directorial game, but cannot shake off his other weakness, including poor pacing skills, lazy characterization, and other issues that I’ve outlined in previous articles.  In many ways, that made Dagon all the more disappointing, because it had more potential than From Beyond by a long-shot.

I’m going to put a Spoiler Marker from here on out, as I will be discussing events from the rest of the movie.

My hopes deteriorated over the next several sequences: the action sequence, in which the narrator breaks through the doors separating rooms in the hotel to escape the pursuing villagers, is a mainstay of the original story; here, it is short and does not pack any kind of punch.  It was a missed opportunity, but Gordon can do what he wants, I guess.  Immediately after, though, Paul is chased by the villagers through the town, who instead of being at all creepy make moaning sounds and flail about in a way that can best be described as comical.  It’s basically like having 50s B-movie baddies in what is trying to be an atmospheric horror flick.  The combination falls flat entirely.  Also, the village is named Imboca, literally “In the Mouth” in Spanish.  Get it, like Innsmouth? Really clever there, guys.  Really clever.

Following this, an old drunk of the town—perhaps the only remaining person who isn’t some fish-man-combo—coincidentally bumps into Paul and relates the entire town’s history for no reason other than, “We need backstory here and now.”  The story is actually pretty interesting, and is filmed competently, although its unnatural placement pulls away much of its effectiveness. The following scenes get the atmosphere just right again, and I actually enjoyed this brief sequence.

The work put into this set means that someone did their job right. They should've been hired to do every other aspect of the movie.

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The work put into this set means that someone did their job right. They should’ve been hired to do every other job during production.

And then, because why not, Paul stumbles upon the weird mermaid girl from his dream in a room, where she seriously wants to bone him because she is a woman and he’s a male protagonist.  It’s given no justification or context.  Paul is eventually captured and finds Barbara and Vicky—a friend from the first scene, who has been raped and kills herself.  That is some complex characterization, the kind we’ve really come to expect here.  She was trapped under a rock and made a damsel in distress in the first scene, and then the next time we see her she has been raped and thus has no more will to live, which fits in with the fact that her character seems to have no purpose in the plot besides fulfilling archetypal roles for women.

Seriously, there are three female characters in Dagon, one being inexplicably naked and trying to have sex with the narrator; another, the main character’s girlfriend who is tied to an alter—naked—and stabbed a bunch; and the third, a friend who kills herself after she is raped.  Maybe I’m a broken record, but after a while the lack of female characters who don’t have to pick two from the “naked, killed, or raped” bag becomes egregious to a point that even an inattentive viewer should start getting upset.  Also, Gordon’s love for violently brutalizing naked women says a lot about how he thinks of them as human beings.  That is to say, of course, that he doesn’t.

On top of that, though, my biggest issue with Dagon as a horror film is that it soon becomes a pointless gorefest.  A dude is skinned alive, and it’s gruesome.  Gordon almost properly made an atmospheric horror film, but apparently couldn’t pull it off, so he settled for shock scares.  I personally find this type of horror—especially in an attempt to adapt an author who largely succeeds because of his use of atmosphere—cheap and easy.  If Gordon wants to make a horror flick that freaks out an audience by making them go, “Ew, gross!” then he’s free to do so.  I don’t understand, though,  why he keeps going back to an author whose fame comes from making stories that succeed because they lack explicit gore on purpose, in order to let the reader imagine the terrible stuff.

This is less frightening than a two year old attempting to trace a picture of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

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This is less frightening than a two year old’s botched tracing of Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Instead, we are left with an unimaginative horror film that fails to be anything above a tasteless blood-and-guts movie and could not be much further from a Lovecraft adaptation.  Dagon, whether considered on its own merits or in relation to the material that it wants so desparately to be an extension of, is bad.  Moreover, it’s offensively bad, and I think that it’s prime time that someone talk to the people working on these movies about how they view women, because it’s pretty disgusting.  Lovecraft was far from a champion of strong female characterization, but someone working in 2001—eight decades after the original story—should be able to improve upon that aspect, or at least not make it infinitely worse.

I don’t have any more to say about Dagon.  It has more strengths than Gordon’s previous efforts, but those are drowned in terrible qualities that I cannot overlook as a movie lover, Lovecraft reader, or human being.

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