2001, R, 98 min. Directed by Stuart Gordon. Starring Macarena Gomez, Francisco Rabal, Raquel Meroño, Ezra Godden.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 28, 2002
Director Stuart Gordon and producer Brian Yuzna -- the filmmakers whose very first feature film Re-Animator in 1985 attained instant cult status and remains to this day a touchstone of modern horror filmmaking for its adroit blend of grotesque imagery and humorous self-awareness -- are back with this new H.P. Lovecraft-inspired fish story, Dagon. The film shows that their signature traits -- horror so extreme that it borders on camp -- have remained steadfast even though Dagon is hampered by some clunky scripting (by Re-Animator co-scribe Dennis Paoli) and middling performances. Filmed in Spain as a straight-to-video feature, Dagon demonstrates that the filmmakers still ascribe to their small-budget and exploitation roots, putting most of their money up on the screen by way of creature effects, make-up, production design, etc., along with a mild infusion of some gratuitous T&A. The look of the movie and the effects is fantastic, with scenes often shot amid a soupy bluish-gray haze that heightens the fear factor and set designs and closeups that reveal a careful attention to detail. The story starts out as many a horror tale does: Nubile travelers cast adrift in a storm (or lost in the woods, out of gasoline, etc.) seek shelter among a coastal outpost of strange humans who are mutating into nasty fish zombies (or a deserted cabin of flesh-eating psychos, blood-sucking vampires, or otherwise inhuman beasties). Adapted from Lovecraft's “Cthulhu Mythos” (which posits that ancient evolution was a battleground between the Old Ones who lived on land and the Deep Ones whose domain was the sea), Dagon's humanoids from the deep worship the monstrous half-human/half-fish god of the sea Dagon (who in the Bible is cited as the god of the Philistines). This gives rise to some of the movie's most fantastic imagery, images that not only conflate the Christian sign of the fish with the Dagon worshippers' iconography but also tosses in fleeting images that call to mind all sorts of religious symbolism and ideological signposts. Unfortunately, when the “Dagonistes” assemble en masse, they move with roughly the speed of George Romero's zombies in Night of the Living Dead -- which means that healthy human beings should be able to outrun these slow-moving amphibious creatures and escape to safety in a neighboring town: end of story. But that would deny us the fun of the chase, although Dagon's Ezra Godden (Band of Brothers) is no great shakes in the charisma department. Most damaging to the film is the use of Spanish actors delivering lines in heavily accented voices that render important pieces of plot information incomprehensible. The speeches by Spanish acting legend Francisco Rabal are the most upsetting, as he delivers several important pieces of background information and his words can only be understood intermittently, leaving large swatches of storyline in its wake. Rabal died shortly after filming Dagon and the film is dedicated to his memory, although this performance as an English-speaking Spaniard is hardly a just epitaph. When it comes to the horror though, Dagon delivers. Be prepared for truly disturbing images of things like human skin being peeled off the head of a live human victim with a fish-gutting knife, and so on. Fans of horror and Stuart Gordon's work should find Dagon an intriguing ride and welcome this theatrical opportunity to screen the film before it is released on video next month. Non-fans are more likely to fixate on the film's more admittedly fishy aspects. (Stuart Gordon will attend the 7pm screening on Saturday.)