I have stared into the abyss of unspeakable madness, and in it I saw myself. I was taller, had darker hair, and was wearing a Miskatonic University sweatshirt, but other than that, the likeness was both striking and disheartening. His name was Paul, and he was the protagonist in Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. I didn’t like him at first, and then at some point during the movie, I realized that I probably didn’t like him because he was the protagonist I and many of you would be — confused, irritating, panicky, awkward — rather than the protagonist we like to assume we’ll be — manly, brave, competent, and possessed of 20/20 vision. Of all the unnameable horrors that are HP Lovecraft’s stock in trade, none is perhaps more terrifying than staring into the eyes of a spastic dweeb with ill-fitting spectacles and realizing with horror that, yep, that’s me.
Let’s set the clock back a bit to 1985. I was in 8th grade and already pretty well into horror films and weird stuff. A couple guys named Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna made a film called Re-Animator. Gordon and Yuzna were plying their trade under the aegis of Charles Band’s Full Moon production company, the same production company that gave us awesome films like Trancers and Troll and Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. Working with screenwriter Dennis Paoli, they penned a script loosely based on one of the lesser stories by acclaimed horror and science fiction pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft. The movie, however, was infused with a wicked sense of black humor quite unlike anything one was likely to find in the morose writing of H.P. Lovecraft, where everyone is too busy brooding and trembling and realizing things with terror. Suffice it to say that the movie blew minds, and to this day it’s heralded by many as a classic of horror cinema.
Although theirs may go down as the most storied example of some degree of success, Stuart and Yuzna were not the first people to try and adapt the notoriously unadaptable pulp horror of Lovecraft. The trick about Lovecraft has always been his mind-bendingly difficult fiends — things described as so hideously evil that looking at them… even thinking about them… would drive a man insane. That’s setting the bar for depiction pretty high, and while you can get away with vague insinuation and simply stating “it was the most terrible monster ever” in a pulp story, the visual medium of film demands that you make good on the boast. And a special effect is almost always going to let you down, or be regarded with a smug, “Oh, I could have thought of something way scarier.” Which you probably did when you were reading the book and it didn’t matter. The imagination can conjure things that the screen (at least at the time) could not reproduce.
Roger Corman tried it anyway, adapting The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward into the film The Haunted Palace. Unfortunately for Corman and Lovecraft, American International Pictures had no faith in the ability of Lovecraft’s name to pull in the kids. Since Corman was in the middle of directing a bunch of very popular movies based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, AIP decided to slap Poe’s name, rather than Lovecraft’s, on the movie (although to hear Sam Arkoff tell the story, it was Corman who proposed the name swap). Director Daniel Haller tried it twice, both times at AIP as well. The first was Die Monster Die, a foolhardy attempt to adapt one of Lovecraft’s most visually challenging stories, The Color Out of Space. How, after all, do you make a movie that successfully creates an alien color that hitherto had not existed in our universe and then convince people that the color is scary? Try it all you want, and you’re just going to end up with some awful grayish lavender.
Unable to pull off such an impossible feat, Haller simply made Die Monster Die a movie about a meteor whose radiation turns Boris Karloff into a monster. Bits and pieces of the original story remain, but the overall effect is lost, partly because so much of the story is unfilmable, and partly because star Nick Adams exhibits none of the characteristics of the typical Lovecraft protagonist. Lovecraft’s main characters are terrified by more or less everything in the universe. Ancient books, gilded tiaras, peculiar doorknobs — you name it, and someone in a Lovecraft story found it too horrifying to even comprehend. But Nick Adams? Nick’s the kind of man who, when faced with pretty much any terror you can think of, would just sock it in the jaw, then hop in his sportscar and zip off to the nearest bar for a scotch.
Not a bad movie, Die Monster Die, but it’s bereft of any of the creepy dread that makes a Lovecraft story. It was years later, but Haller tried again with The Dunwich Horror. In my opinion, while the movie once again differs considerably from the source story of the same name, it’s a great little horror movie that gets much closer to the mark of feeling like a Lovecraft tale, thanks in part to a subtly unhinged performance by young Dean Stockwell. While nothing like the Wilbur Whateley of the Lovecraft’s story (who was a hulking man goat, rather than a creepy fop), Stockwell’s characterization is oddball enough to invoke some of that awkward dread so essential to Lovecraft’s appeal.
Other attempts, most of them forgettable, pepper the cinematic landscape. But with the success of Re-Animator, Gordon and Yuzna became the go-to guys for Lovecraft adaptations. The followed up their first successful attempt with From Beyond in 1986, another adaptation of one of the author’s lesser known stories. Assembling the same cast, director, producer, and screenwriter as Re-Animator, From Beyond wasn’t as runaway popular as was its predecessor, but it is still fondly regarded and has gotten more popular with age. Gordon and Yuzna’s two movies weren’t necessarily any more true to the tone of Lovecraft’s work than Die Monster Die. What they did was set out to make Lovecraft’s stories conform to their own idea of what would make a good movie. Thus, there is more sex, more black humor, more gore — but still something undeniably kindred with the original stories. Lovecraft purists may disagree, but since the duo were working with some of Lovecraft’s less popular stories, not that many people were upset.
Gordon and Yuzna also wisely chose movies where the focus wasn’t on some ancient and inexpressible evil or a particularly sinister color that doesn’t exist. Re-Animator relied on monsters and villains that could be realized on screen without looking disappointing. They also chose a story that doesn’t rely on the protagonist being chilled to his soul by every single thing in the world. One of the biggest hurdles for readers of Lovecraft is the need to buy into his universe. If you can’t accept the terror he claims is omnipresent, then his stories can be somewhat difficult to swallow. If you don’t find gambrel rooftops nightmarish, Lovecraft’s insistence on their inherent scariness may leave you cold. You have to willingly buy into his universe, to accept that something is spooky when he tells you it is — even if it isn’t.
The short story Dagon is the perfect example. It’s a simple tale, a mere couple pages, about a sailor who finds himself stranded on some new hunk of land that has been thrust up from the depths of the ocean. At some point, he finds what looks to be the remains of a temple or altar, and then a big fish frog thing comes and prays to it. And that is supposed to be so scary that you would kill yourself just thinking about it. Most people would find being stranded in the middle of the ocean considerably more terrifying than seeing a big fish thing slither up to a rock, but not Lovecraft. The man’s capacity to be spooked by fish and cephalopods is truly boundless. No Jacques Cousteau, this Lovecraft fellow. Lovecraft wants you to be afraid of toady monsters and fish guys, when in essence, neither of these things are all that terrifying. Shocking, yes. And perhaps you wouldn’t rush up to befriend them. But I would hazard to guess that many people in the world, even those who aren’t Jacques Cousteau, would be as exhilarated as they would be terrified of such a creature.
After From Beyond, though, Yuzna and Gordon parted company. Each worked on their own separate Lovecraft projects, among other films. Yuzna produced Necronomicon, starring Re-Animator‘s Jeffery Combs as HP Lovecraft in a wrapping story for an anthology film with shorts directed by the likes of Christopher Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill), Shusuke Kaneko (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, the 1990s Gamera film), and Yuzna himself, as well as directing Bride of Re-Animator. While I like a lot of what Yuzna does on his own, his films as director are often wildly uneven (as discussed in the review of Faust: Love of the Damned). While Yuzna was busy with that, Stuart Gordon directed Castle Freak, based on Lovecraft’s The Outsider and also starring Jeffery Combs (as well as fellow Re-Animator/From Beyond alumnus Barbara Crampton). Castle Freak was made for Full Moon Entertainment, the same production company as made Re-Animator. Yuzna started his own production company, based in Spain. In 2001, Yuzna and Gordon reunited for Dagon, produced under Yuzna’s Fantastic Factory banner. Fans who were still keeping track of such things were pretty excited about the two men working together again.
While Dagon takes its title from what I have to say is not one of Lovecraft’s better moments as a writer, the movie’s story is actually an adaptation of one of his better and best known stories, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, in which the mysterious deep sea god-monster Dagon plays a part. Dagon also reunites Yuzna and Gordon with screenwriter Dennis Paoli (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak). Expectations from nerds like me were pretty high. For the most part, Dagon lives up to expectations. It’s not as deliciously perverse and enjoyable as Re-Animator, but it’s a good film that tackles a more ambitious source story and hews pretty close to Lovecraft’s original. It also gives us a nerd for a hero — not as quivering and craven as the standard Lovecraft hero, but also very far from the usual notion of the good guy.
Said nerdy hero is Paul Marsh (Ezra Godden, Band of Brothers), a young guy who has just made a fortune on the internet (didn’t we all?) and is celebrating by heading out to sea with his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Merono, also in Yuzna’s Beneath Still Waters) and their friends Howard and Vicki. In an unusual twist for a horror movie, they all seem like decent people, though Paul’s nervousness over losing all the money he just made keeps him glued to his laptop until such time as Barbara sees fit to throw it overboard. A freak squall catches them all off guard, wrecking the ship and leaving Vicki with a broken leg. Paul and Barbara depart in a life raft for the nearby mainland to seek help while Howard stays with Vicki in the boat’s partially flooded cabin. Unfortunately, it seems that something more sinister than a mere ship wreck is about to become their primary problem.
On the mainland, Paul and Barb find themselves in the typical creepy little town where everyone is all freaky acting and stares a lot. Only when the local priest (Ferran Lahoz) shows up is Paul able to communicate their situation to someone who seems to comprehend him. Against his better judgment, Paul returns to the marooned boat with a couple weird-seeming local fishermen while Barbara stays behind with the priest. No sooner is Paul out of site than Barbara is abducted and spirited away. Paul, in the mean time, finds the wrecked ship now deserted, with no trace of his friends. Returning to the village, he is alarmed to find Barbara gone, but is reassured that she has been safely housed in the local inn. Upon arriving at the inn, Paul doesn’t find Barbara, though he does find her lighter. He also soon finds that the town (named Imboca in the movie rather than Innsmouth, though Imboca does mean “in mouth” in Spanish) is populated by mutant freaks, some horrifying combination of human and deep water marine life, and they have decided it’d be fun to spend a rainy night hunting down and killing their new visitor.
Much of Dagon‘s running time is comprised of Paul’s desperate flight through the seemingly inescapable labyrinth of the crumbling village, mobs of bug-eyed, tentacled creatures always close behind. Most of this sticks pretty close to The Shadow Over Innsmouth. While it changes the motivation for arriving in the decrepit old village (a ship wreck instead of general curiosity) and the location of the village (somewhere along the coast of Spain instead of somewhere along the coast of New England), and adds a girlfriend into the mix, once arrived in town the action is more or less the same. Particularly well executed is Paul’s ordeal in his own room at the inn, where first he is mere disgusted by the squalid nature of the abode then becomes terrified once he realizes the hall is crowded with things that want his blood. Although the comedy in Dagon is not as pronounced as it was in Re-Animator, it’s still present and evident in scenes like this. Paul, realizing that there is no lock on his room door, desperately scrambles to remove a tiny deadbolt from the bathroom door and screw it into the main door. That the lock is so tiny it could hardly stop a child from knocking in the door never seems to cross his mind. He also spends most of the movie doing his best to look threatening to his pursuers while brandishing a small pocketknife the likes of which are often given away as novelty items at conventions.
But mostly, he spends the pursuit struggling with his glasses, and it is here, even as I rolled my eyes at Paul’s constant flailing and silliness, that I had my revelation and began to identify with the poor guy. I wear glasses. I can’t get contact lenses, Aside from hating having things poked into my eyes, any time I put in contact lenses, my eyes turn red and puffy and I start looking like Lucy returned from the dead in that disco-y version of Dracula starring Frank Langella. So I wear glasses, and I don’t really have any sort of esteem issue about it. I like the way the glasses look. But I spend a lot of time fiddling with them. Pushing them up when they slide down my nose. Wiping them ineffectually on my shirt when it rains. Peering over them uselessly when they fog up. Dagon represents one of the first times I can remember the hero in a horror film having to deal with the same crap for the entire movie. Not just the “oh jeenkies, I dropped my glasses” routine, but the real stuff with which we bespectacled lot must daily contend. It’s pouring rain in Imboca, and Paul’s glasses seem to stay on his face about as well as mine do.
He also manages to hurt his leg escaping his room through a window, so he can barely even walk, let alone run (and to his credit, Godden remembers to limp for pretty much the entire movie). Every time he gets annoyed and has to push his glasses up, or wipes them off only to discover that all he did was smear the water around on the lenses, I felt his pain. And every time he took them off in frustration and realized how little he could see without them, I knew where he was coming from. Like me, Paul can sort of see without his glasses — enough to identify approaching fishman monsters, but not enough to be able to effectively evade them in an unfamiliar setting.
Pretty much everything Paul does as he tries to run and hide from the throngs is only marginally successful, or it’s totally unsuccessful. He makes some stupid decisions, but they’re stupid decisions we can understand a human making, rather than stupid decisions that are made simply because the plot needs to be moved along. Eventually, he runs into a mad old man, Ezequiel — the only other human in the town — who tells him the story of how Imboca came to be. Although he is human, Ezequiel was allowed by the monsters to remain alive, mostly because he was drunk and crazy and thus determined to be a harmless curiosity.
Paul’s night only gets worse when he stumbles into the mansion of the town’s “mayor,” and discovers, among other things, the creature’s daughter, Uxia (Macarena Gomez) — who happens to be the spitting image of a mermaid from a dream Paul often has. Unfortunately, it turns out that mermaids aren’t as sexy as you’d think a woman with half the body of a fish would be. Her recognition of Paul as a man in her dreams as well does save the poor dolt’s life, though, and keeps him from having his skin yanked off to be used as a clever “I swear I’m totally human” disguise by one of the locals. Paul eventually discovers the whereabouts of Barbara (as well as Vicki), but by then you get the feeling that nothing is going to end well for our harried heroes. Everything culminates in the catacombs beneath the village, where the locals gather to summon the ancient Dagon to rise up and claim a new bride, with only one dorky Miskatonik University student standing in the elder god’s way.
There’s a lot to like about Dagon. For starters, it’s well paced and well-written. Paoli creates a relatively believable world that plays on the basic fear of being trapped in an unfamiliar and increasingly hostile (and bizarre) location. Once Paul is plunged into danger, he never really gets a break. No matter where he goes, it seems like the locals who know the town better are less than a step behind. Lovecraft’s original spent the bulk of its time with the same scenario, and for once, it’s a fear that most people can relate to without having to make huge sacrifices to Lovecraft’s tendency to tell you something was scary rather than writing to convince you that something was scary. A fish guy alone is not all that terrifying, but being chased through a crumbling old medieval village by a whole population of fish guys who want to strip away your skin and/or eat you? Who can’t relate to that?
Fishlike nature of your attackers aside, there’s a real-world analogue to the situation, which makes it a lot easier to find scary than, say, a weird color we’ve never seen before or some geometry that can’t exist in our universe. I actually spend… not a lot of time, but some, trying to imagine colors that don’t exist. It’s hard, because I work on occasion as a designer and thus own one of those Pantone color swatch booklets, which pretty much covers everything. I can’t conceive of a color that doesn’t exist, but I can understand perfectly the threat of being chased through the streets by a group that wants to kill you in some magnificently horrifying fashion.
When the movie launches into its third act, there is less that’s scary about it and more that simply feels doomed. Dagon’s temple is a nicely “lavish on a low budget” affair, and by the time we’re there, the actors inhabiting Paul and Barbara have been genial enough (without ever being all that deeply fleshed out) that we actually care about what happens to them. If you look at a picture of Ezra Godden in anything other than Dagon, you might not see him as a spastic geek, but he plays it to the T here without ever going over into campy Eddie deezen territory (although Dagon starring Eddie Deezen…). A fish out of water amongst fish out of water. The character of Paul undergoes a believable transformation during the night (it’s one of two transformations he’ll have to endure), from clueless to moderately competent (but never so competent as to exceed the limits of believability) as terror gives way to adrenaline and, finally, grim determination. As much as I disliked him in the beginning, I liked him in the end. Like I said, he is about as good a hero as we ourselves would become.
Spanish Actress Raquel Merono disappears for a large portion of the movie, and she doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Barbara when she is on screen, but she affects a natural charm and unpretentious beauty that makes her easy to like. As they did with Barbara Crampton’s character in Re-Animator, this Barbara is a basically likable young woman. When something bad happens to her, we don’t revel in it. It means that even though this movie is full of fantastically weird stuff, the viewer can develop a very real bond with the two leads. It makes the tense moments tenser. Other horror films should take a page from the book of Paoli, Gordon, and Yuzna. Give us characters we can care about, and we’ll care more about your movie. Or give us a slightly unlikable character, but don’t make them a caricature of jerks, and make their journey from dork to hero believable.
The third character buoying much of the movie is Macarena Gomez’ Uxia. As an actress, she’s fine. But as a presence that is intoxicatingly beautiful yet somehow disturbing and not quite right… for that, she’s perfect. Sort of like Barbara Steele in that sense. You know there’s something sinister about her, something strange, something that will most likely destroy you or turn you into a fish monster, but you walk toward the flame anyway. Of course, Uxia happens to have the lower body of an octopus, so that makes her easier to resist than Barbara Steele.
The rest of the cast is suitably weird as well, mostly Spanish locals speaking a weird dialect and aided sometime by the prosthetics (as Brian Yuzna often does, some ill-advised CGI has been inserted in amongst otherwise top notch make-up and practical effects), but mostly the actors are just good at being weird and awkward. The only thing missing here is Jeffery Combs, whose ability to convey quirky weirdness is unmatched. Some day, someone will put him and Kyle McLaughlin in a movie together, and we’ll all be unsettled by the results.
Dagon is also helped by the location. Although gambrel rooftops and Cyclopean architecture were always scary to Lovecraft, the crumbling old stone buildings, nasty inns, and dank, dark maze of cobblestone streets that comprise Imboca seem distinctly more menacing. The entire town is as drenched in shadows as it is in rain, and Gordon shoots it all in a way that keeps the viewer off-kilter and in unfamiliar territory. I’ve often said that the best way to scare someone (other than throwing a cat at them from inside a kitchen cabinet) is to take something familiar and tweak it just slightly, so that there becomes something unsettling and eerie about it — sometimes so subtly so that a person can’t ever quite put their finger on what’s wrong or why they feel unsettled. The town of Imboca accomplishes this nicely. It looks like your standard old European village, but there’s something wrong with it. Something not quite human about it. Of course, once the fish monsters and tentacle girls (finally — a woman gets to attack a man with tentacles — take that, Japan) emerge, it’s considerably more obvious what’s wrong with the town.
It’s good to see Stuart Gordon back in the director’s chair for a Brian Yuzna produced Lovecraft adaptation. Apart, the two are capable of making some pretty good movies. But together, especially with Dennis Paoli along for the ride, they compliment each other and elevate the game beyond what they can do on their own. Dagon walks the line between horror and comedy more deftly than did Re-Animator, which tended to give in with youthful exuberance to its more outlandish tendencies. Dagon is a more mature work. It still has its absurd moments, but Yuzna and Gordon are older and more experienced now, and they temper the film with a steadier hand. As a result, Dagon may not as much pure ridiculous fun as Re-Animator, but it’s still a good horror movie. And it manages to be scary from time to time, where as Re-Animator was often gross, usually sick, always weird, but rarely scary. Yuzna’s hand brings more action and forward motion to the movie, but Paoli’s script and Gordon’s direction serve as buffers against Yuzna’s tendency to indulge his taste for the goofy (again, see Faust: Love of the Damned… or Bride of Re-Animator, for that matter).
After this movie, Gordon, Yuzna, and Paoli went their separate ways again. Stuart Gordon made a few more films and directed another Lovecraft adaptation for an episode of the Masters of Horror series, called Dreams in the Witch House (the same Lovecraft story that 1968’s Curse of the Crimson Altar is based on). Brian Yuzna produced and directed the third Re-Animator film, Beyond Re-Animator, which was greeted with mediocre response, then directed Beneath Still Waters, which feels vaguely Lovecraftian despite not being based on anything by Lovecraft. A lot of people hate Beneath Still Waters, but I quite like it.
So far, whenever the three come together, they end up making something really good. It’s hard to unseat Re-Animator as the top of the heap — it was first, after all, and the initial giddy shock of seeing it all back in the 80s is hard to top — but I really like Dagon a lot. It’s the most “Lovecraftian” of any of the Lovecraft adaptations, together or apart, and not coincidentally the one that bears the closest resemblance to the original story. I can’t believe it’s been so long since the trio reunited. Lightning has struck three times — Re-Animator, From Beyond, and then Dagon.