Fantastic film! It's faithful to Lovecraft's oppressive bleakness, being a humourless, harrowing descent into hell (and you thought that Welsh holiday village was nasty!), but after a rewatch I decided that it's lots of fun too. It doesn't wink, crack wise or otherwise pander to the MTV generation. It's so honestly grim that you've no idea at all whether the hero's going to live, die, commit violent suicide or be tortured to death by sanity-devouring monsters and die in a splutter of bloody gurgling screams.
Once the opening scenes are out of the way it feels like a seventies horror movie, which I mean as a compliment. It's a balls-out, single-minded slice o' nastiness with no compromises whatsoever to studio bosses or test audiences. Lovecraft fans will love it, possibly even if they normally don't like horror films. They might have to look away for the scene with the leather-skinning knives, but they'll adore the way it's faithful to Lovecraft's spirit. This film is dripping with atmosphere, yet if you're in the right mood this makes it wildly entertaining as our hero's tribulations heap upon each other like the world's most evil comedy routine. This hideous seaside town is so painstakingly evoked that it becomes a character in itself, perhaps the most important in the film, and it almost becomes a game to see just what further crimes against dignity and sanitation it can attack us with next.
Despite the title, this film has little to do with Dagon (7 pages) and instead borrows extensively from The Shadow Over Innsmouth (82 pages). Guess why. You'll recognise scenes, plot elements, characters and even the film's last line, but overall it feels more like a loving homage to Lovecraft in general than an adaptation of any single story. That hellish black mire is straight from Dagon, not The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and the film's dream sequences are more characteristic of Lovecraft's work in general than they are of the specific dreams in either of those aforementioned short stories. Ezra Godden wears a Miskatonic sweatshirt. In my opinion, anyone looking to adapt Lovecraft should watch this film. It's respectful, treating its source material like literature rather than the usual "steal the basic plot and a few character names" approach that's common for adaptations. Yuzna and Gordon's love and respect for Lovecraft would be obvious even if you didn't know about their other films like Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986).
The Shadow Over Innsmouth was set on the Atlantic seaboard, in a Massachusetts fishing village. The short story called Dagon was set in the Pacific in World War One. This movie however is set in present-day Spain... which works brilliantly. On the one hand, the film grounds itself by starting off in a recognisable setting of yachts, holidays and dot-coms, which makes the later otherworldiness all the more effective. This also allows a few brief scenes of sun, sea and unclad ladies. But on the other hand, the film's Spanish fishing village is horribly convincing as an abode of inbred subhuman monsters, with the linguistic barrier being the final sadistic touch.
The fish-men are arguably even better than Lovecraft's versions. The Shadow Over Innsmouth simply ascribes fish characteristics to Innsmouth's bipeds, with flabby lips, scaly skin, bulging fish eyes and queer narrow heads. They're fish on legs, basically. However Stuart Gordon didn't confine himself to the piscatorial, instead creating the creepiest and most unpredictable bunch of motherfuckers you'll ever see. You're never quite sure what deformities might be coming next, but you're in no hurry to find out... and even when there's nothing you can put your finger on, the film still keeps you on edge. You may not know what's wrong with that hotel receptionist, but that doesn't stop him being the creepiest receptionist ever. Lovecraft would have been proud.
Lovecraft's greatest gift was perhaps that of keeping you in mortal dread of the half-seen and suggested. Dagon's gore is pretty nasty when it comes, but for the most part it keeps you afraid of... well, you're not entirely sure, but it's pretty damn effective. The CGI looks cheap, but this is 2001 we're talking about.
Then there's The Girl. I'm not talking about the hero's girlfriend, Raquel Merono, who's worth your time but not extraordinary. No, this film contains the most beautiful, eerie, sinister girl I've ever seen. It's a must-watch just for her. She's so beautiful that she's almost deformed, with huge eyes and a face that makes you shiver in fear even as you fall in love with her. So she's a monster. I'd want to marry her anyway. Watching this film back-to-back with Galaxy Quest will make you reconsider your prejudices about sex with squid. The actress doesn't get too much dialogue, but she achieves a huge amount through movement, physical presence and of course getting out her tits.
I should also mention Francisco Rabal, a Spaniard who gives the movie's best performance but sadly died before the movie was finished. He has quite an accent, but it's nothing that can't be sorted out by learning Spanish and watching the film a few hundred times. Dagon is dedicated to his memory and rightly so.
Incidentally, when watching this I'm always reminded of Night of the Living Dead. You've got a slightly geekish young guy in thick-framed spectacles off on a jaunt with a girl called Barbara.
First time around, the conclusion didn't seem to fit. In a sick, twisted way it seemed to be almost a happy ending, which felt a little odd after ninety minutes of unrelenting horror even if it is also deeply fucked up. However further viewings have made me forget any such problems. What's not to like? It's clearly foreshadowed, it adds another dimension to the story and it's true to Lovecraft's original vision. Its imagery also brings us full circle from the opening dream sequence, which is cool. This film is set to become one of my favourite and most-watched movies. Highly recommended.