Stuart Gordon Retrospective: Dagon

Dagon is actually the first Stuart Gordon movie I ever watched, back in 2001, and I instantly discovered that I had been remiss in waiting so long to celebrate this guy’s catalogue.  He’s now one of my favorite directors and the very first person I chose to kick off my new retrospective series—mostly for the excuse to rewatch his many exceptionally strange films. Gordon has long impressed me as a prolific artist who defends the quality of his vision, circumventing the frustrating production company system when necessary to deliver high-caliber films that are entirely his.

As quickly as Re-animator, Castle Freak and all the rest became established favorites of mine, I’ll always have a cozy place in my heart for the peculiar little Dagon.

 

dagon poster by you.

Gordon tried for years to bring H.P. Lovecraft’s 1932 novella The Shadow over Innsmouth to the silver screen; when he finally succeeded, it was as a modestly budgeted straight-to-vid release under the umbrella of no fewer than nine production companies and ten distributors. But he eventually did succeed in achieving this odd, sinister Lovecraftian opus that most production companies outright rejected due to the bizarre material. Gordon’s steadfast screenwriter Dennis Paoli skillfully adapted the novella, as well as giving a titular nod to the Lovecraft short story “Dagon.”

The opening of the film lets us know what we’re in for, with a hushed, tranquil underwater dream sequence that abruptly changes into something grotesque and horrific.

gia 2 by you.

eep! by you.

These twisted images exist in the brain of our protagonist, Paul, currently sailing off the coast of Spain with his gorgeous girlfriend Barbara and their two friends, Vicki and Howard. Paul is played by Ezra Godden, who may have trouble shaking the label of The New Jeffrey Combs, as he’s Gordon’s new favored lead, is cast as Herbert West in the upcoming House of Re-Animator (yes!), and, well, he looks just like Jeffrey Combs. He’s also wearing an ugly orange Miskatonic sweatshirt for the majority of the film, so at least the nod is intentional.

barbara paul by you.

Spanish actress Raquel Meroño plays Barbara. I liked this actress quite a bit; she’s stunning and gutsy. Godden takes some time to embrace—in the Herbert West tradition, he’s pushy and obnoxious and it took my most recent viewing of the film to realize that this is a successful acting choice by Godden, who grows more sympathetic and engaging by the film’s end.

Because, yeah, at first, you seriously hate the guy. He and Barbara are newly rich due to some invention of Paul’s, who is ostensibly a genius. A whiny, materialistic, selfish genius who is rigidly preoccupied with checking the stocks on his laptop rather than making out with his scantily clad girlfriend or gazing at the sumptuous blue expanse that envelops their sailboat. He probably regrets not taking advantage of that lovely view when a mystifyingly abrupt storm rushes in to enshroud their boat, the sky pregnant and tangible with ominous clouds and the titanic waves threatening to capsize them. A crash and an injury force Paul and Barbara to take the life raft to the nearest shore, a mildewy island of damp grey buildings and no discernible residents.

Unhappily for Paul and Barbara, this little village of Imboca is not as vacant as it seems. After searching for assistance in a dank church bearing strange emblems and the words Esoterica Orde de Dagón, they encounter a pale, staring priest (Ferran Lahoz) who offers to help them, but suggests our two heroes separate in order to rescue Vicki and Howard more efficiently. As Barbara leaves to locate the police, Paul promptly discovers that Imboca is a fishing village like no other.

church by you.

Dagon rapidly builds in suspense as Paul meets hundreds more of Imboca’s strange citizens. The creature work in this film is sensational; the inhabitants of the island are all wildly varying (yet invariably repulsive) hybrids of man and sea creature; tentacles, gills, bulging eyes and webbed fingers are the least of it.

webbed by you.

gills by you.

fish man by you.

Dagon becomes almost unbearably tense as Paul eludes capture by these worshippers of Lovecraft’s fish-god Dagon. He’s continually shadowed by clammy, gripping tentancles, and we learn that he actually is pretty smart as he begins to navigate the island without arousing their notice. After one particularly gripping escape, Paul encounters the only fully human resident of Imboca, Ezequiel—a brilliant and affecting performance by veteran Spanish actor Fransisco Rabal in his final role.

ez by you.

Ezequiel is a roaming sot who drinks to bleach his mind of the painful memories he has of Imboca as it was when he was a young boy: a “pueblo de Cristo” whose citizens were good but poor people after fish became scarce in the sea. After beseeching Jesus to help them and receiving no answer, the Imbocans turned to a charismatic new priest who promised them riches beyond imagination if they would abandon Christ and embrace Dagon. The sea became rich in fish and even gold; the Imbocans destroyed their Catholic iconography and fully turned to the Order of Dagon.

priest 2 by you.

little ez by you.

Ezequiel decides to help Paul escape, but they run into trouble once Paul collides with the mysterious creature in his dreams, Dagon priestess Uxía Cambarro (an alluring Macarena Gómez). Paul is powerfully drawn to Uxía by a force stronger than he can deny, stronger than his concern for Barbara or his revulsion for the freakish Imbocans. He’s forced to examine the source of his strange dreams and forceful attraction to Uxía despite her grotesque deformity.

gia paul by you.

fish legs by you.

Stuart Gordon accomplishes so much with this movie. The modest budget allows for some spectacular impact; the story, the creatures, and even the limited effects resonate long after the credits roll. Dagon creates a sensation of being drenched; the moist, clammy atmosphere and solid dread of the film make the viewer feel heavy with water-laden clothes, as if trying clumsily to run away from an unnamed something that approaches nearer and faster with each terrifying scene. Gordon draws meaningful and weighty performances from his cast. Ezra Godden’s character Paul travels a long, twisty arc from the grousing, self-absorbed fool at the beginning of the film to the enduring, dignified hero who resigns himself to no fate other than the one of his choosing at the end. Godden may be The New Jeffrey Combs, but he’s earned the honorific.

paul 2 by you.

Raquel Meroño as Barbara exhibits strength, wisdom and integrity throughout the film. Barbara can take care of herself, and you know I like that in my female protagonists. Francisco Rabal’s Ezequiel is heavy with grief, regret and, at last, redemption. And Macarena Gómez as Uxía is shimmery with longing and hope, while carrying a darker weight inside her.

gia 3 by you.

The ending is fierce, surprising and beautifully strange, culminating in a title card bearing a quote from Lovecraft: “We shall dive down through deep abysses…and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.”

creepy seal by you.

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7 Responses to “Stuart Gordon Retrospective: Dagon”

  1. wow! i’m so intrigued!

    i really appreciate this review, marla, because this is the kind of movie i would normally decline to view, because i’ve got this (obvious) fear of horror movies.

    but yr review gave me a thoughtful and, yes, dazzling glimpse of a film that is obviously much more than a horror film… you made it sound intriguing and sad and most of all, beautiful.

    i can already tell i’m gonna love this retrospective idea!

  2. Oh man I love this movie so much! It really does stand out as one of the most genuinely strange and haunting movies I’ve ever watched. Not to mention – HOW DID THEY DO THE SKINNING SCENE?!?! Half a lifetime later, that scene, as well the ending, still resonate perfectly in my mind. It’s a small, strange miracle that this movie got made. Thanks for bringing it back!

  3. Oh man, Jerry, I KNOW?! That scene is insaaaane. I can just barely watch it, peeking between fingers and chewing knuckles. I almost put a pic of that on here but I didn’t want to a) spoil it for anyone and b) give Sarah nightmares.

  4. MUCH APPRECIATED!

  5. I like this movie because it seems like it has so many chances to be bad, cheesy, or just annoying. Somehow it isn’t any of these things. It’s oddly intriguing and attention-capturing. It’s got a few moments that would make anyone squirm but overall is just really tense. All of the make up is really well done every time I watch this movie, I find something else to love about it.

    I can’t wait to see your other Stuart Gordon movie reviews. He’s got some real gems.

  6. bhojpuri video songs…

    […]Stuart Gordon Retrospective: Dagon « Danny Isn't Here, Mrs. Torrance[…]…

  7. […] to sing a Mass for you.” Read more about the Roman Catholic Church connection to Dagon here.DIHMT Dagon is actually the first Stuart Gordon movie I ever watched, back in 2001, and I instantly […]

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