Dagon is a title that H.P. Lovecraft fans will recognize as the name of one of his stories. Elements of that story are present here, but this film is principally based on "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," a story that is widely, if not universally, considered to be among his half-dozen or so greatest works. Director Stuart Gordon originally conceived Dagon as a follow-up to Re-Animator, but movie studios wouldn't bite on his aquatic concept. Longtime Gordon collaborator Dennis Paoli wrote a screenplay, but the idea was shelved until producer Brian Yuzna gained the support of Spain's Fantastic Factory studios fifteen years later.
There were advantages to filming in Spain. Production costs were lower. The protagonist's status as an outsider in a foreign land adds depth to the sense of unease. The Spanish shoot meant that Francisco Rabal was available, a casting coup that would have been unthinkable in the United States. That's comparable to getting a film great like Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles or Alec Guinness for a supporting role in a low-budget horror film. No, this is not like an alcoholic Joan Crawford winding down her career in any production that would have her. Rabal was a respected member of the film community to the end of his life, and he just happened to be a Lovecraft fan.
H.P. Lovecraft's stories are well-respected and influential, but are notorious as stories that translate poorly to film. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" is perhaps the most filmable of all of Lovecraft's classic stories, because it features more action than most and takes place entirely in a material plane. It is also among his longest stories, which helps when creating a feature length film. Dagon is a remarkably faithful adaptation of its source despite the introduction of sexual, social and extreme horror elements that did not exist in the original story.
The movie opens as the protagonist, Paul Marsh, dreams of scuba diving a gigantic, ancient, underwater ruin where he finds a beautiful but frightening mermaid. He wakes up on a boat, off the coast of Spain, with his girlfriend Barbara. Paul is what was then called a dotcom millionaire. Remember those? He is an uptight young man whose frequent nightmares do nothing to ease his stress level. Barbara and Paul have little time to argue over his need to relax before a sudden, fierce storm drives their boat onto some rocks and severely injures their companion, Vicky. The two seek help in the nearby fishing village, Imboca, whose name roughly translates to "in mouth," like "Innsmouth." The village is creepy and appears vacant and stuck in time. Its few visible residents look and sound strange and appear hostile, and its temple is decorated with a symbol that Paul has seen in his strange dreams.
Paul gets a ride to the wrecked boat from some fishermen, but his friends are by now missing and Barbara has disappeared from the town. He checks into the town's only hotel to wait for her and sees that the previously deserted streets are now filled with people who are coming for him. His escape from the throng leads him to the town drunk, Ezequiel, who gives him the 611. Or whatever number they call for information in Spain. Or would call, if there were a working telephone in Imboca. Ezequiel tells how in his youth, the fishing on which the town depended had dried up. A stranger came and told the people that if they renounced their God for a god named Dagon, the fish would reappear. They did and they did, but Dagon then demanded sacrifices. Ezequiel is now the last human in a town full of half-human hybrids who are slowly morphing into immortal aquatic creatures.
"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" isn't long enough to fill out a feature-length movie, and this is where the story starts to diverge. Paul evades the townsfolk with Ezequiel's help. Both are captured, but not before Paul meets the girl of his dreams. The mermaid. In real life she lacks the tailfin and rows of sharp teeth, but she also dreams of Paul, knows his name without ever having met him, and has a really weird surprise for him.
The captive Paul is reunited with Barbara, Ezequiel and Vicky, but the men are taken to the torture chamber after a failed escape attempt. The ensuing scene, in which a particularly harsh exfoliant (a flensing knife) is applied to Ezequiel, is one of those over-the-top sequences of merciless shock that Stuart Gordon seems always to incorporate into his films. Paul is saved from following in Ezequiel's brutally slow and excruciating torture death by the last-minute entrance of Uxia, the little mermaid. She informs Paul that he has been spared because he belongs to her, but Barbara belongs to Dagon.
Paul by now is beaten to hell and can barely walk, but he grabs a gas can and hobbles over to the Esoteric Order of Dagon Hall No. 329 for some payback. It's a thing, though, and you know how those never go: as planned. This is not a Hollywood film, and its conclusion, while satisfying, is by no means a typical happy Hollywood ending. It ties up loose threads while preserving the source story's plot twist.
Use of foreshadowing is excellent. As the storm catches the boat, a glass of wine spills and runs down the side of the boat like blood. Casual bits of dialogue take on great significance later, like the offhand mention that Paul was born in Spain. The ending is set up very smoothly and there is little wasted dialogue.
Sound effects are used very effectively and are an important but easily overlooked element of the original story. The Imbocanos emit inhuman sounds such as dolphin squeals and frog-like croaks. Paul's movements through town are accompanied by strange barks and guttural whispers. These sounds are often far more chilling than the Imbocanos' physical appearance, which is rarely revealed in full.
Paul's klutziness is a nice touch of realism. He's a whiz kid who made a fortune in the stock market but, when it comes to getting things done, Barbara is far more decisive and efficient. He moves clumsily and gets hurt a lot. He jumps over a rail and belly-flops instead of landing like a Hollywood-style graceful gymnast. When he hurts himself, he limps through the rest of the movie. There are none of these injuries that magically heal through sheer willpower and determination or "invincible hero" nonsense. He's just a regular guy trying to survive, and he doesn't automagically become good at running and fighting for his life. His accumulating injuries add a layer of realism and continuity.
Paul is also unheroic in his lack of forcefulness. He knows that the hotel desk clerk has seen Barbara, but rather than try to beat the information out of him, he resorts to smartalecky mockery of the clerk's unblinking stare. Paul, like many of us, is more Woody Allen than Bruce Willis in this predicament.
Dagon revives another staple of the Gordon/Paoli horror film: the naked girl in strange peril. Barbara is hung up in chains for more than five jiggly minutes from the beginning of the sacrifice scene until its disarming conclusion.
The acting is here and there. Annette Bening lookalike Birgit Bofarull is a little too happy as carefree Vicky, but she's harrowing and intense as troubled Vicky. Similarly, Raquel Meroño somewhat overdoes the smiley optimism as Barbara. She displays a lot of strength in the role and makes me wish that Barbara's character had been better developed. If there's a knock against the Yuzna/Gordon/Paoli team, it's that they're good with male characters but neglect female characters, who generally take the form of either mean nurses or body count fodder.
Macarena Gomez is effective with her dialogue but overdoes the creepy eyes to the point of comedy during the sacrifice scene. She resembles a more malevolent, Spanish Christina Ricci. It's easy to imagine that she might actually be some kind of beautiful, mutant aquatic monster except that a mermaid really should be a more graceful swimmer. Francisco Rabal has tremendous gravitas, but he doesn't speak English and at best is barely comprehensible. That's a problem, as he's the one who narrates the flashback that reveals Imboca's secret.
The Dagon cult was a crucial part of the original story, but the film gives it further development as a theme of religious intolerance. Here it is a coldblooded killer of a priest instead of an opportunistic businessman who leads the town's change. This theme is carried through the torture scene. Ezequiel lived his life broken by the guilt of having bowed down to the idols of the priests who murdered his father before his eyes. On his final day, he finds redemption by standing up to evil. He recites the 23rd Psalm all the way through his conversion into a nice throw rug that any fish/squid/frog/man would be proud to display in his/her/its home/tank/lilypad/domicile/cavern.
The film updates Lovecraft's story in the right ways. The additional characters bring personal elements to the story that Lovecraft never achieved. These characters, their language and their relationships are modern, but Imboca itself might as well exist in the 1800s. The script is faithful to the original's storyline and intent. Gordon, Yuzna and Paoli do a great job of maintaining the story's integrity while stamping it with their own style and viewpoint.