Friday, October 17, 2014

Dagon (2001)

Dagon is yet another adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story directed by Stuart Gordon. Although - for those curious about tracking down the source material - it is not, in fact, an adaptation of the short story titled "Dagon", but rather the novella titled "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". Like many of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, this one is narrated in retrospect, by a man who has experienced some decidedly eldritch horrors, and is, usually, on the verge of committing suicide, going completely mad, or else embracing an alternately horrible (yet no less inevitable) fate, having once and for all cleared his conscience by bringing the truth of his experiences to light.

Perhaps this narrative method is more difficult to utilize in the audiovisual (versus the written) medium - although I still think you could make it work. On the other hand, a good portion of the mythology of the story in The Shadow Over Innsmouth is told through long passages of static dialogue. As such, there are some definite liberties taken in the film adaptation of the story, although it does ultimately touch on all the major points. Most notably is the fact that the setting is relocated from New England to Spain, a few more characters are thrown in so the protagonist is not entirely alone on this expedition, and the movie gets more up close and personal with the unholy rituals hinted at in the story (which is probably for the better, because that's kind of the payoff in a movie like this one).

The basic gist of the story is this: the protagonist comes upon a ramshackle coastal town with queer inhabitants who don't quite seem human. They worship Dagon, the fish god (who has some unspecified connection to the Cthulhu mythos). The written story (in classic Lovecraftian style) is a little more subtle (if not entirely unpredictable) in its gradual revelation of the inhabitants' "condition". The movie is a bit more blunt, although it does save some surprises for later on. The way the inhabitants are portrayed is really well done, I think - both convincingly unsettling, and perfectly in line with what I think Lovecraft was probably going for. Although the occasional digital effects leave something to be desired, the practical effects (including makeup and prosthetics) are mostly exceptional, and really add to the otherworldly feel of the setting. Though I do feel that certain scenes must have been written in to the script just to have a few gore set-pieces, as the original story (as few of Lovecraft's stories seem to need to do) does not rely overly much on gore to effectively disturb the reader.

The characters are maybe not the most sympathetic, and the town drunkard's history lesson is spoken in such a strong accent that it's actually very difficult to understand at times, so the movie is not without its flaws. Nor is it a perfect Lovecraftian adaptation, though it much better captures the right spirit than Re-Animator did, for example. But, it does plenty of things right, and foremost of all is the fact that this movie sets itself apart from any other movie you could compare it to, with the both highly imaginative and unsettlingly creepy aspects courtesy of Lovecraft's tortured genius of a mind. And while From Beyond tackles that one characteristic element of Lovecraft's stories - the idea that things exist beyond our capacity to sense or understand them, and that they are so terrible that attempting to do so (often through dreams) can lead only to death or madness - Dagon presents (and explores the connection between) two other elements: the worship of ancient, unspeakable gods, and the existence of creatures whose alien-ness is frightening, but whose partial humanity implies a far more terrifying conclusion.

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