Thick, gray sheets of rain and images half-seen behind battered village shutters and doors, and behind: beauty and horror, alien and old and hysterical.
Dagon is one of my favorite horror films, and I saw it first last week. Now in limited release and headed for DVD, the movie is a remarkably creative piece that accomplishes two seemingly at-odds mean cinematic feats: it successfully adapts H.P. Lovecraft, one of the last century's most unfilmable writers, and it does it with humor that enhances the horror rather than detracts from it.
It's hard to put good humor in horrorI was always one of the critics who was a little turned off by the hamminess of films like Stuart Gordon's Re-animator or the out-and-out camp of farce like Toxic Avenger. But now Gordon himself has come back to his beloved H.P. Lovecraft with a much more mature style of cinematic humor reminiscent of the sad comedy of Evil Dead II. Example: there's a moment when our hero, Paul (Ezra Godden) tries to steal a car to get away from some strange creatures chasing him. After he manages to sneak into the car, he rips out the wires below the ignition to hotwire the car. This is the first movie I've ever seen that ends this sequence the way it logically should if Paul is anything like me.
The movie opens with a boating accident, as two couples sailing on a boat off Spain hit a sudden storm and wreck on some high rocks. With one of the party injured, the young couple Paul and Barbara take a raft in the storm to the decrepit fishing village they see nearby.
Stuart handles these early moments brilliantlyit's rare to see so clearly that moment when the characters cross a threshold into another world, as the atmosphere suddenly turns foggy and strange and the pair begin to search the deserted village for help. They find a strange, dilapidated church, and a priest whose distant eyes would tell you or I not to trust him at all. Gordon plays the shouldn't these guys get the Hell out of this town motif well by keeping us aware that the heroes are trying to help their injured friends. By the time that duty is less compelling, it's too late.
Dagon unfolds Dagon are the villagers, who wear human clothing and more and haunt the village in some strange imitation of human life. The best humor of the story comes when we see these creatures trying desperately to act like people. Who are they? People, or their descendants, whose souls and bodies are in the thrall of something very old.
The village itself is a movie world created from whole cloth, flooded with rain and ominous, and just dripping with literacy of films that have gone before. Watch how Gordon passes along the other-worldly lessons of Argento's Suspiria with the corridors of the hotel Paul stays in, or even calls back to City of the Dead with its use of one of horror cinema's most sublime creepy triggers: barely seen figures in the distance, just in frame. Movies like City of the Dead and Let's Scare Jessica to Death, in fact, seem to have informed Gordon's work here: Dagon rests squarely in the camp of stories about protagonists who fall into other-worlds-right-around-the-corner. But it stays fresh not by keeping tongue in cheek, but by daring to find the hero's situation as funny as it is. Gordon has moved past camp and irony and into black comedy.
Dagon is such an inventive, joyously creative horror film that critics are having a hard time figuring out what to make of it. Most of them have focused on assets and called them liabilities, unwilling to succumb to the film's spell. They don't like accentsmuch of the explanatory dialogue belongs to the person least equipped to deliver it, Spanish actor Francisco Rabal, whose accent is so thick you can only catch every third word. Personally, I think Gordon did this on purpose: we have to strain to understand the old man, which heightens our sense of panic. Nothing in the movie works the way other horror movies would have them, and that seems to disturb critics. Genre is supposed to be predictable while we leave creativity to art films.
How inventive is DAGON? So inventive that you'll probably be catching it on DVD instead of in a theater.
But the touches add up: I love that Paul is a hero who behaves more or less like a normal guyhis fighting is clumsy, his panic realistic, and his tenacity inspiring. He sometimes does stupid things that come across as very, very believably stupid.
Playing a key role in the film is Macarena Gomez, whose face alone is a special effectwith a fragile, sharp, wide jaw and huge, liquid eyes, Gomez appears barely mortal, as if she's sidestepped into our dimension. She's a magnificent discovery and the part she plays would crush beneath anyone else.
Dagon closes in on you and gets stranger and stranger, and ends in a place as different from the tranquil sailing vessel and the drizzling village as any place can be: an entry to the realm of H.P. Lovecraft's Deep Ones. Stuart Gordon's work has matured and given us a classic horror film that fans of the genre simply cannot ignore.