Friday, June 29, 2012

Attack of the Fishmen: Dagon

For a bookish misanthrope who died seventy-five years ago, H.P. Lovecraft has done well for himself. His creature Cthulhu is an Internet meme, and Lovecraft's name itself is used to describe stories full of ancient and unfathomable evils, insanity, malicious knowledge and revelations about the insignificance of mankind. While 2005's The Call of Cthulhu, a silent film shot in the style of a '20s horror movie, is probably the first and last word in faithful adaptation, other filmmakers have brought Lovecraft to the big screen with less an eye for accuracy and more for entertainment. One director who has taken H.P. from page to motion picture over and over again is Stuart Gordon.

Gordon's first film was Re-Animator (1985), a horror comedy similar in tone to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead (1981). While Re-Animator doesn't exactly follow the events or setting of the serial that inspired it, Lovecraft's original "Herbert West--Reanimator" (1922) was a pulp send up of Frankenstein (1818) and not high literature; Gordon proved that he needn't stay true to all aspects of a story to capture its feel.

Green goo and talking heads: This work is truly the modern Prometheus.
After Gordon's Re-Animator came From Beyond (1986), another modern take on an old Lovecraft tale, and sixteen years after Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon drew Dagon (2001) up from the deeps.

Despite an update and a shift from the East Coast to a secluded Spanish town, Dagon is a fair retelling of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (1936). Ezra Godden, a bargain basement Jeffrey Combs, plays Paul Marsh, who is chased by gibbering man/fish/frog hybrids through Imboca (Innsmouth's sister city), a dilapidated village hiding terrible secrets.

Won't someone please help reunite these long lost brothers?
Perhaps the narrow alleys and secret churches of Imboca also contain revelations about Paul's own past: Why does our protagonist keep dreaming of a strangely alluring mermaid?

No, I said an alluring mermaid. Hold on.
That's really not any better, is it?
To this setup, Gordon adds a heavy dose of squick: The hybrids flay men and capture woman as offerings to their god Dagon so that he may make more hybrids.

As a director, Stuart Gordon does not shy away from questionable scenes, as evidenced by a shot in Re-Animator of a head, ah, giving head. Where his movies and Lovecraft's stories differ is shock and gore. In "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," no visitors are skinned--though guests go missing, they do not reappear later sans flesh; no kidnapped young women are offered up screaming to Dagon, and they certainly don't get their arms pulled off. There's no sexy fishgirl Uxia (Macarena Gómez) and no old men get their faces removed.

Deep Ones give the worst eye exams.
Dagon is an ugly film; viewers are sure to lose a few Sanity points.

This difference between original and update is just a sign of the times. Translating Lovecraft for today's audiences is difficult, since many of his tales consist of protagonists reading or doing research, all described with overwritten prose. While maddening secrets about one's genealogy and the secret history of the Earth might have been enough for the 1930s, Lovecraft's style doesn't work for modern crowds used to blood and body counts. Most movies don't bother emulating Lovecraft's stories, but instead incorporate his themes: An obvious reference to "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" (1936), John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (1995) features a protagonist who enters an insular community, deals with malicious literature, sees strange creatures and loses his mind. Prometheus (2012) is full of Lovecraftian questions about the origin of human life.

Whatever their methods, it's clear that Lovecraft and Gordon were influential. The imagery of Dagon must have caught the eye of the developers of video game Resident Evil 4 (2005), since the story takes place in an isolated Spanish town inhabited by hybrids--not fishmen this time, but Ganados.

Looking for Leon in all the wrong places.
In Resident Evil 4, you're trying to rescue the president's daughter, and the Ganados are infected by a plague that transforms some of them into monstrous amalgamations of body parts; I guess the game is more John Carpenter by way of The Thing (1982) and Escape from L.A. (1996) than Stuart Gordon.

A Carpenter/Gordon mashup like Resident Evil 4 invites further comparison of the two men. Both are major cult directors of the '80s, both use extensive practical effects; Dagon is a grotesque masterpiece of set design and makeup. Neither Gordon nor Carpenter have made anything memorable recently: A dearth due to their use of outdated methods in an evolving environment. Lovecraft’s stories are about new races taking over and pushing out the old. For these great old men of horror, that’s exactly what happened.

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