Stuart Gordon’s ‘Dagon’ Offers Sublime Damnation
Years before True Detective made cosmic horror a hot commodity in pop culture, director Stuart Gordon tackled several H.P. Lovecraft stories as feature films. Movies like Reanimator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak filtered Lovecraft’s ideas through the prism of lurid, eighties-style gore and nudity. Actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton also appeared in all three, helping establish a tone of absurdly serious pulp. But whatever deviations Gordon may have taken from the text, he clearly understood Lovecraft in a way previous filmmakers had not. This approach is why the 2001 film Dagon remains one of the best articulations of Lovecraft’s work yet put to screen.
Though it bears the name of another Lovecraft short story, Dagon is an adaptation of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Gordon adapts the story freely—switching the location from New England to Spanish Imboca and altering several important events—but the tableau remains the same: a decrepit, rainy small town whose inhabitants have become fish-human hybrids.
Much like Gordon’s previous Lovecraft films, the movie still has copious amounts of violence and sex. Dagon even has a bloody flaying that goes far beyond anything on Game Of Thrones. But what makes Dagon unique is how it captures the raw fatalism inherent to Lovecraft’s work. More than Gordon’s other movies, this one is about a broken person coming to recognize his alluring, inevitable destiny.
Ezra Godden stars as the nerdy and neurotic Paul. Paul’s company has recently made him rich, and he celebrates off the coast of Spain with his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Merono) and their friends. But the man is miserable; he’s anxious and keeps having strange nightmares about a beautiful mermaid showing off her fangs.
Godden bears more than a passing resemblance to Jeffrey Combs—minus the latter’s extreme onscreen charisma—and for Gordon, this referentiality is the point. Paul is a more hapless and cowardly character than the likes of Herbert West because he’s never really been where he belonged. For all of Paul’s rationality, it is a string of nightmares and disasters that at last bring him to his destiny. Once Paul and Barbara arrive on Spanish Imboca, the character is forced to confront the meaning of those dreams and the nature of his true self.
The key to this is Uxia, the literal woman of Paul’s dreams. Played by Macarena Gomez in a great, feverish horror performance, Uxia recognizes Paul—or “Pablo” as she calls him —while he’s on the run from Imboca residents. The two immediately embrace, but Paul is understandably terrified by Uxia’s massive tentacle legs. Uxia is simultaneously the most gorgeous and deformed of the Imboca residents—the town’s webbed hands and prosthetics a triumph of low budget effects—and one of the most devout. At one point, Paul whines that if Barbara becomes Dagon’s consort, her spawn would be another fish-man hybrid. Uxia, her eyes frighteningly large, exclaims, “Yes—to live in joy, with Dagon!”
Paul’s desire for and repulsion from Uxia are the chief engines driving the movie. His feelings are so inexorable that they appear in one another’s dreamscapes. Uxia cries that he can’t love Barbara because “You do not dream of her!” And where Paul is rational, always focused on “two possibilities” for everything, Uxia is immersed in what lies beyond. Their love is seemingly wrong and transgressive, but somehow it feels exactly right for “Pablo.”
In direct contrast to Paul’s inexplicable pull towards Imboca is Ezequiel (Francisco Rabal), the last human inhabitant of the town. In an incredible flashback, Ezequiel tells Paul the story of how Imboca came to worship Dagon. The fishing village turned to Dagon in exchange for prosperity, but this required human sacrifice and female consorts for the evil god. Soon, Ezequiel’s Christian parents were both killed, and the place was overrun by human-fish offspring. The whole sequence is devoid of sound save for narration and score, and it’s one of Dagon’s highlights.
Like Society and several other horror texts, Dagon is centered around the notion that your life has been a lie. Nothing is what it seems, and our true nature can be something both beautiful and truly horrible. As repulsed as Paul is by the Imboca creatures, he soon gains a limp like them and begins to suffer abdominal pain. Ezequiel and Vicky try to stay true to themselves and die in the process; Barbara does the same and becomes a consort for Dagon. Paul, meanwhile, isn’t sure who he is, only that he isn’t one of them.
Or is he? In the climax, Paul is confronted by Uxia and her now monstrously deformed father. The man tells him that “You are my son.” He was Pablo all along, the son of both a human mother who fled Imboca and Uxia’s half-brother. Paul tries to deny the truth, but something ultimately brings him back to where it all began. “A dream is a wish,” Uxia tells him. “You will be my brother—my lover—forever.”
Paul immolates himself in response before diving into the water with Uxia. Beneath the sea, his sides grow healthy gills. Uxia, smiling, then swims alongside Paul into Dagon’s lair, the camera pushing into the dark. The opening scene had Paul on the outside of the eye-shaped cavern, only looking in—by the last shot, he is finally delving inside, ready to “dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.”
Despite its humble direct-to-video origins, Dagon remains a powerful work of horror. It takes Lovecraft’s notions of fate and family entirely seriously, even as it indulges in fun genre tropes. But most importantly, Dagon shows how the Lovecraftian figure of the Other is both alluring and terrifying. If you succumb, you’re damned—but what a strange, sublime damnation that can be.