Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dagon (2001)

The Movie: Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) has been suffering strange, reoccurring nightmares recently. They involve the bottom of the ocean; bizarre, inhuman ruins; and a beautiful mermaid (Macarena Gomez) with a mouthful of fangs. Said dreams are disrupting his current vacation; a boat trip taken with his girlfriend, Barbara (Raquel Merono), and their friends Vicki (Birgit Bofarull), and Howard (Brendan Price), off the coast of Spain to celebrate their newly gained wealth from the stock market.

Unfortunately, things are about to get a whole lot worse than nightmares. A freak storm crashes the boat on a rock, leaving Vicki badly wounded and the vessel stuck. Paul and Barbara make their way to the little village on the nearby shore for help; but Paul gets separated from his friends, and they inexplicably disappear.

Paul finds the little fishing village of Imbocca a strange and terrifying place. The people are unfriendly, and seem to bear a variety of deformities; and worse yet, quickly seem determined to kill him. Trapped in Imbocca with the hostile natives, Paul desperately seeks word of his friends and a way out.

However, that’s far from the worst of it. The drunken derelict, Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal), tells Paul the history of Imbocca; a few generations back the village suffered from a fish shortage. In desperation, the people turned to the worship of Dagon; a demon-god from the depths of the ocean. Their descendents, Imbocca’s current inhabitants, are both fanatical worshippers, and half human offspring, of Dagon.

But what really complicates things for Paul is when he meets Uxia; high priestess of Dagon, and the mermaid who’s been turning up in his nightmares. As Paul is drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness that is Imbocca, it turns out that he has a far more personal connection to the horrible place than he could ever have suspected…

The Review:

Two possibilities…"

It’s long been accepted as true, to the point of cliché, that to be a good artist one must suffer. As many of those who have followed my writings, particularly my most recent entries on my Living Nightmares blog (there’s a link on my profile if you’re interested), for the past two and a half months have probably guessed, I have recently had reason to reflect on the subject. Ultimately, I disagree with that conclusion; although I can see how it might be reached.

I am of the view that it’s not the suffering that produces artistic talent; I doubt there’s a single one of my readers who hasn’t encountered some really bad “art” that somebody made about their suffering, particularly if you have any familiarity with the Goth or Emo scenes. I think the suffering comes into it because it is such a human universal. All of us, with no exception, suffer to some degree during the course of our lives. Art provides a particularly effective channel for the negative feelings that come with suffering while still keeping it somewhat socially acceptable. In fact, I have to wonder if that isn’t the whole reason art came into being in the first place; symbolically raging against that obnoxious fellow tribesman on the wall of the cave instead of clubbing him over the head and pissing off the rest of the clan for it.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a pulp writer around the beginning of the 20th century. He had a profound effect on the areas of horror and science fiction, and a slightly lesser but still significant effect on fantasy. Also, it’s pretty obvious just from reading his works (backed up by accounts of people who knew him) that the man had major issues and neuroses. Most of the horrors in his body of work touch upon a particular list of issues and subjects that strongly affected him on an emotional level.

Lovecraft is probably best known for his “cosmic horror,” a term he coined to describe a subgenre of horror based around living in an actively hostile or lethally indifferent universe. The majority of his most famous horrors are dangerous to us humans in the exact same way that we are to ants. While it is extremely bad when they notice us and decide to meddle in our puny little lives; the far more likely outcome is that they will simply step on us without ever realizing that they have done so, or even that we were ever there to be stepped on in the first place. Unfortunately, while this subgenre can create extremely effective written stories when done right; it presents some major difficulties when it comes to trying to translate the horrors to a visual medium such as movies.

Fortunately for makers and fans of movies, however, Lovecraft wrote some more “down to Earth” horror stories as well. The movie Dagon is based, not, as we might expect, on the short story of the same name; but on the novella the Shadow Over Innsmouth, one of his best and most well known works. Shadow Over Innsmouth , aside from being a very effective horror story, also contains a large amount of the personal fears and issues that Lovecraft regularly included in his stories; sins of the past coming back to plague future generations, fear of age, xenophobia, bad blood, tainted family heritage, the ocean and all that dwells in it, the list goes on.

Another interesting thing that appeared in much of Lovecraft’s work was an amazing collection of hang-ups about sex. Now, Lovecraft was, at least as far as his writing was concerned, the quintessential Victorian gentleman, albeit a generation or two late; and therefore kept sexual matters extremely discrete. He only had one story, the Thing on the Doorstep, that even had anything like a main female character; although considering the story centers around the fact that it’s really her father possessing her body, there is plenty of room for argument whether that really counts. Still, if you look just below the surface of much of Lovecraft’s work you’ll notice a lot of focus on unnatural breeding and unhealthy family heritage’s. Shadow Over Innsmouth, again, is probably his best known example of this theme, the inhabitants of this decaying city all being half-human hybrids who mate with repulsive sea creatures. I must note an interesting discrepancy here between Dagon and its source material; the movie goes the traditional exploitation route where the women are used as breeding vessels for the horror, whereas in the novella (and at least one or two other stories where Innsmouth is mentioned) Lovecraft’s setup is men who are forced to take inhuman wives.

Dagon was put together by the same team who made the twistedly delightful Re-animator, but they are two very different movies. Dagon, in many ways, is a much more reserved and, ultimately, mature, work. There is humor, but it’s far more subtle and straight-faced. Likewise, unlike the older movie, Dagon slowly but surely builds up to its exploitation friendly elements instead of letting them right out of the gate. During the course of the movie, we in the audience learn about Imbocca with Paul; starting out with subtle yet disturbing hints about what’s going on, and gradually building up to the terrifying truth. When we first meet the people of Imbocca, for the most part they just seem creepy humans, mostly covered up, with maybe a few small deformities to show that something’s not right; one guy has webbed hands, one guy has gills, none of them seem to blink. Seriously, watch the actors carefully, they really don’t blink. It’s incredibly creepy.

However, as the plot goes on we are witness to an ever growing catalogue of deformities; tentacles, inability to walk upright, etc. It is only by the end that we get to see the full glory of these freakish monstrosities. Similarly, the gore, when it does come, is pretty gruesome; but we don’t actually get it until late in the film, when we’ve been witness to various clues about what’s going to happen, making the actual scene even more effective.

In Paul Marsh we have a very sympathetic and identifiable protagonist. However, looking at other reviews on the internet I have found a general dislike for him. I suspect that this is because Paul is a bit too identifiable for most viewers. Since we tend to watch these kinds of movies for escape; we oftentimes come to expect a hero who’s more like a fantasy ideal of ourselves. In Paul, we get a hero who’s a lot more like what we’d actually be like in the same situation than most of us are comfortable with.

Paul is not the uber-confident action hero so many Hollywood movies would make him; he’s a spastic geek who’s well aware that he’s in over his head. When Paul tries action-movie type stunts, they tend to do him at least as much harm as good. For example, in one scene early on Paul escapes an attack on his motel room by the classic action-movie stunt of jumping from his window and through a glass ceiling. The end result; he twists his ankle and limps for the rest of the movie. Or, there’s another scene where he’s struggling with one of the creatures and head butts it. It works, but Paul’s opponent is not the only one clutching its head in pain. In short, Paul gets a lot more beaten up throughout the course of the movie, and suffers a lot more of the consequences, than a lifetime of exposure to Hollywood has lead us to expect.

Likewise, Paul pretty much blunders through most of the film. He makes mistakes, he dithers, and he does some pretty stupid things. Personally, I’m sure that what happens when he tries to hotwire a car would be the very best-case scenario were I to attempt it. He is able to finally rise to the events, but only competently, never in a cinematically easy or simple matter.

I felt that the character of Barbara was also well done. Admittedly, she only appears for a small portion of the movie, but she’s a far cry from the helpless, simpering heroines we usually see. In a few parts she’s actually stronger and more competent than Paul.

The final character that really caught my attention was Uxia. Macarena Gomez is simultaneously dead sexy and downright creepy in the role; the original siren who you know is bad for you, but you are drawn to nevertheless. Gods help me; I’d happily go for Gomez tentacles or no tentacles.

The final thing I’d like to draw attention to is the general atmosphere and setting of the film. Dagon perfectly inspires the feeling of being caught in a hostile location where you are completely out of your depth. The little village used, for starters, is subtlely modified so that on first site it’s very easy to believe that inhuman creatures live here. The makeup effect on the Imboccans, and the noises they make, are also wonderfully creepy. The soundtrack is effectively eerie, especially one number used in several spots that turns one of Lovecraft’s nonsensical cries to the Old Ones into a kind of Gregorian chant. Finally, in what I thought was a clever touch, the Imboccans don’t speak Spanish, but Galician. Galician is similar to Spanish, but it’s actually a language in and of itself, albeit one not used so much anymore. This insures that if you have any familiarity with Spanish, hearing the villagers speak will sound kind of alien.

In conclusion, Dagon is, to my mind, the best Lovecraft movie adaptation made thus far. It covers the main points of its source story perfectly, with only a few cosmetic differences; Lovecraft might have a little trouble with some of the modern horror movie techniques, but I think he would approve. Dagon also works very well as a stand-alone horror movie. It is extremely well made, effective, and scary on multiple levels. Another must-see if you’re at all serious about horror.

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