Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Retro Review: DAGON (2002)

(Spain - 2001; US release 2002)

Directed by Stuart Gordon. Written by Dennis Paoli. Cast: Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabal, Raquel Merono, Macarena Gomez, Uxia Blanco, Brendan Price, Birgit Bofarull, Ferran Lahoz, Joan Minguell, Alfredo Villa, Jose Lifante, Javier Sandoval, Victor Barreira. (R, 98 mins)

Going back to his days as the founder of the Organic Theater Company in Chicago in the late 1960s, Stuart Gordon has always been a versatile director of stage and screen. But it's his association with the works of H.P. Lovecraft that have cemented his place in horror film history. Beginning in 1985 with the Empire Pictures cult classic RE-ANIMATOR, Gordon, along with screenwriter Dennis Paoli, and (with one exception) producer Brian Yuzna, created a quartet of Lovecraft adaptations that, while not completely faithful to the source, nevertheless generated a renewed interest in the influential horror writer whose work was never really discovered until after his death in 1937. Gordon's Lovecraft projects updated the settings and were very much the works of their maker, but RE-ANIMATOR and 1986's FROM BEYOND managed to brilliantly convey the essence of Lovecraft in spite of the liberties taken. Gordon moved away from Lovecraft for a number of years, directing 1987's DOLLS and a pair of sci-fi films with 1990's ROBOT JOX and 1993's FORTRESS, in addition to scripting Abel Ferrara's 1993 sci-fi/horror outing BODY SNATCHERS. He probably got his biggest commercial payday by creating, with Yuzna and their DOLLS screenwriter Ed Naha, the storyline behind the 1989 Disney hit HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS. Their script (originally titled TEENY WEENIES) was ultimately rewritten by Naha and Tom Schulman (DEAD POETS SOCIETY), and Gordon was replaced as director by Joe Johnston, but his "story by" credit remained and the film spawned two sequels, a TV spinoff, and a Disney theme park attraction.

Empire eventually folded by the end of the 1980s and was more or less reborn as Charles Band's Full Moon Productions, whose signature franchise remains the PUPPET MASTER series. Gordon and Paoli collaborated on Full Moon's 1991 Poesploitation entry THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and would eventually revisit the Lovecraft universe for Full Moon with 1995's CASTLE FREAK (based on the short story "The Outsider"), which also reunited RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. Yuzna, meanwhile, directed the 1989 cult classic SOCIETY and kept the RE-ANIMATOR series going on his own by directing 1990's BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR and, much later, 2003's BEYOND RE-ANIMATOR. He also helmed 1991's SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT 4: INITIATION and 1993's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 3, along with a pair of Corbin Bernsen video store staples with 1996's THE DENTIST, co-written by Gordon, and its 1998 sequel THE DENTIST 2. By 2000, Yuzna set up shop in Barcelona, working with Spanish producer Julio Fernandez's company Filmax, creating a horror-focused subsidiary division called Fantastic Factory. Yuzna reconnected with Gordon and Paoli and Fernandez agreed to produce DAGON, the last (so far) of Gordon's Lovecraft feature film adaptations.

Based only partly on "Dagon" and more on "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," DAGON opens with young stock market wunderkind and Miskatonic University grad Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden) and his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Merono) on a yacht with his business partner Howard (Brendan Price) and his wife Vicki (Birgit Bofarull). A powerful storm brews and the boat crashes into some rocks, sinking off off the coast of the nearly abandoned fishing village Imboca. Paul and Barbara make it to the shore and get help from a strange priest (Ferran Lahoz) with webbed fingers, who has two hooded men take Paul to what's left of the yacht. Howard and Vicki have disappeared, and when he returns to the village, Barbara is missing as well. The priest puts him up in a decrepit, filthy hotel where the desk clerk (Jose Lifante) has visible gills. The Imbocan villagers begin pursuing Paul through the hotel and the town, and he finds an unlikely ally in elderly vagrant Ezequiel (veteran character actor Francisco Rabal in one of his final films; he died before it was released). Ezequiel tells Paul of the dark secret of Imboca: it was once a poor Christian village ("Imboca" meaning "town of God") during his childhood until evil Capt. Camborra (Alfredo Villa) brought a curse on the residents, swaying them to worship "the great god Dagon," convincing them to turn their backs on Christianity and in exchange, Imboca prospered with an endless supply of fish and the discovery of gold in the surrounding sea. But the riches have a price, and Imbocans must pay in the form of blood sacrifices to Dagon, a hideous monster whose forced couplings with Imbocan women propagates a species that's half-human and half-sea creature.

Francisco Rabal (1926-2001)
There's a twist in the tale that comes much later, and it's not exactly stealthily foreshadowed by Paul's recurring dreams--even before the yacht sinks--of being underwater and seduced by a mermaid (Macarena Gomez) who turns into a monster or a strange formation of birthmarks visible around his ribcage ("Your dreams brought you here...every dream is a wish," he's told). After a slow build, DAGON has moments that are quite terrifying, especially in the way the relentless Imbocans never stop pursuing Paul no matter how fast he runs or how desperately he tries to hide. They're deformed but look mostly human, and move like aquatic beasts on land, shambling and slithering about in the background. Paul's tentative friendship with Ezequiel, who will eventually sacrifice himself in an attempt to save Paul, provides some legitimate emotion, especially in an unexpectedly moving scene where the Dagon-worshipping Imbocans are torturing the frail Ezequiel by skinning him alive as he defiantly shouts Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd...") in Spanish and is soon joined in English by Paul. Setting aside some CGI that's primitive in that distinctly "early 2000s" sort-of-way, Rabal is simultaneously the best and most problematic aspect of DAGON. Gordon gives reams of vital exposition to the actor, but a combination of the character being barely literate and Rabal's English being largely garbled and unintelligible is frustrating if you don't turn on the subtitles. At the same time, Rabal makes Ezequiel such a terrific character that, for a while, he becomes the heart and soul of DAGON, which helps make the Psalm 23 scene so powerful. The film closes with a heartfelt dedication to Rabal, "a wonderful actor and an even better human being."

DAGON went straight-to-video in the US in 2002, shortly before Gordon briefly reinvented himself as a bit of an indie auteur with 2004's bizarre oddity KING OF THE ANTS and 2006's EDMOND, a collaboration with David Mamet. Now 70, Gordon's last film to date is 2008's excellent black comedy STUCK, with white trash nurse Mena Suvari plowing into homeless Stephen Rea and promptly driving home and parking in her garage...with Rea still stuck in the windshield and bleeding out. Gordon did revisit Lovecraft once more, with DAGON star Godden, a British actor who briefly became the director's go-to Jeffrey Combs-alike, for "Dreams in the Witch-House" a 2005 episode of the Showtime series MASTERS OF HORROR. Just out on Blu-ray from Lionsgate's "Vestron Collector's Series," even though Vestron Video was long gone by 2002 (I guess it's "Vestron" in spirit), DAGON isn't the best of Gordon's Lovecraft works (that would be RE-ANIMATOR), but it's perhaps the most effective at capturing the vividly unique, nightmarish quality of Lovecraft's writing.

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