DAGON. Mystery, horror, and evil
How can one show something that defies human thought, challenges the principles upon which our world is built? Lovecraft’s prose doesn’t shy away; in fact, it revels in detailed descriptions of the horrors and grotesqueries that the characters encounter. Yet, it also leaves enough room for interpretation of these images, allowing us to create the framework of cosmic horror that drives unfortunate characters to madness. Can cinema somehow match our own imagination and even surpass the horror that we, to a large extent, co-create?
The Shadow Over Innsmouth, one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, has always provided me with the pleasure of experiencing a terror that strikes with intensity and palpability, while simultaneously evoking a sense of fantastic, unreal, surreal menace. And though its adaptation, Stuart Gordon’s Spanish film Dagon, may not be the best Lovecraft-based movie, it successfully evokes the same fear I feel with each reading. In both works, the protagonist arrives in a small seaside town, discovering with horror the dark secrets of its inhabitants but also an unsettling truth about himself. It turns out that Imboca (Innsmouth in the story) lives by the cult of the god Dagon, and nearly all the locals are to some extent deformed: some have webbed fingers, others visible gills, chalky white skin, and even bulging, fish-like eyes. Shortly after Paul (Ezra Godden, in glasses resembling a young, innocent version of Herbert West) checks into the dingiest hotel I’ve seen on screen, he becomes the target for both the whole town and strange visions.
Dennis Paoli’s screenplay for Dagon departs from the original, opting for a more cinematic setup (the yacht’s crash results in a forced stay in the town) and a time frame limited to practically one night, whereas in the story, the narrative, though mainly focused on the same events, is supplemented with the protagonist’s reflection years after the Innsmouth nightmare. Lovecraft always saw this perspective as a positive value because it depicted characters not only facing the threat but also already transformed by their encounter with the unknown. Gordon and Paoli do not entirely abandon the crushing awareness of the impossibility of escape, both physically and mentally. However, instead of framing the story within the recollections of a nearly insane individual, they have the main character dream about the strange beauty with sharp teeth (Macarena Gómez) and Dagon’s underwater kingdom even before his encounter with its worshippers. Where do these visions come from? What is their meaning? Is Paul’s arrival in Imboca genuinely a matter of chance? The creators of Dagon suggest from the very beginning what is only revealed in the story’s conclusion, thereby maintaining a sense of impending doom throughout.
Not everything works here. The gloomy atmosphere created by Gordon is so strong that not even overtly satirical moments have much effect. It’s hard to believe that the director responsible for Re-Animator can’t balance horror and black humor, but here, he clearly aims for the former without a clear intention to amuse. The grotesque inhabitants of Imboca are funny in their exaggeration, maybe only due to sometimes sloppy makeup. Even the initial scenes on the yacht, when Paul talks to his girlfriend (Raquel Meroño), and she throws his computer overboard, seem artificial – whether due to dubbing or unconvincing acting. Weak CGI giant squid tentacles won’t scare anyone, at most, they’ll make you roll your eyes in embarrassment. But what about the moment when the main character swaps a tiny lock for a bolt on his hotel room door, deluding himself that it will protect him from the mob invading the room? It’s hard not to feel tension in this scene, while also not fully believing what we’re seeing. The funniest part of it all is that the lock holds out surprisingly long.
In the first scene, we get a shot worthy of Lovecraft, perfectly depicting the enormity of mystery, horror, and evil, as the main character dives deep underwater, entering through a gigantic portal symbolizing Dagon. With this single image, Gordon sets up the entire film, creating a reference point without which the rest of the film would be just another unsuccessful attempt to tackle the prose of the master of horror without the necessary exhibition. Of course, this doesn’t turn the modest Dagon into a blockbuster. It’s a B-movie horror, cheap, European (i.e., with unattractive special effects and cinematography), but in its rawness and pessimism, it’s closest to what the literary original offers. Also, in the ambivalence of the ending, overwhelming in its defeat yet somehow showing a reconciliation with the will of the dreadful deity. Do we interpret the last scene as the worst evil or as difficult-to-accept fulfillment? How much is our humanity worth in the face of the power of the unknown and the immortal? Questions lifted straight from Lovecraft’s prose but rarely present in its adaptations.