Thursday, August 16, 2018

Scary Movies XI: Dagon

“Imboca” is Spanish for “Innsmouth,” so H.P. Lovecraft fans should know this quaint Spanish coastal village will not be very hospitable to strangers looking for help. Alas, poor Lovecraft fans have seen their literary idol fall out of fashion with the professionally outraged, so the Film Society of Lincoln Center deserves some credit for programming Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, an Iberianized adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” as part of the “Tainted Waters” sidebar during Scary Movies XI.

Super-rich investor Paul Marsh was enjoying a cruising vacation with his lover Barbara and their somewhat older friends Howard and Vicki, until a freak storm smashes them into a reef. He and Barbara just barely make it to shore in the damaged dinghy, but the village of Imboca does not exactly spring into action to help them.

In turns out, Imboca turned its back on Catholicism to worship the water demi-god Dagon. Marsh recognizes the pagan symbols and the priestess Uxia from his dreams. Unfortunately, they are nightmares. The long-lived Imbocans were rewarded with nets overflowing with fish and weird, Geiger-esque jewels, but there was a catch. They have started becoming hybrid fish creatures themselves. Evidently, it has been a while since Imboca sent a sacrifice Dagon’s way, so they do not intend to waste Marsh and his friends.

Dagon definitely fits the “tainted water” theme. This is probably one of the dampest films ever, with constant rain, boating accidents, and all kinds of icky-looking stagnant water. If you get out of Imboca without being sacrificed by the fish people, definitely get yourself a tetanus shot.

Of course, that means it is just drenched in ominous atmosphere. Living up to his reputation as the best filmmaker for translating Lovecraft on screen, Gordon instills Dagon with a tangible feeling of ancient evil. There is also a manic, one-darned-thing-after-another vibe to the film. It is all completely nuts, but it never gives viewers time to formulate questions.

Raquel Meroño is a highly charismatic scream queen, so it is a real disappointment when Barbara is sidelined for most of the second act. However, Ezra Godden is mostly a worthy stand-in for Gordon’s regular leading man, Jeffrey Combs—and the Miskatonic University sweatshirt is a nice touch from the wardrobe department. The late great Spanish actor Francisco Rabal (who worked with Buñuel, Antonioni, and Visconti) is terrific as Ezequiel, the town drunk whose conscience is reawakened by Marsh’s example. In another nice touch, the film is dedicated to his memory.

Granted, Dagon goes off the rails in the final ten minutes, but up till then it is a solid, entertainingly creepy Lovecraft adaptation. Honestly, if you want to watch Lovecraft films, you had better see them while you can. The Social Justice Warriors already had the World Fantasy Convention discontinue the bust of Lovecraft crafted by Gahan Wilson as their literary award. It is a sure bet they will next petition streaming services to drop Lovecraft films—after all, they are vocally hostile to the First Amendment. Lovecraft lived a miserable life mired in poverty, ill-health, and isolation (all of which bring out the worst in people). His bitterness is understandable, but unfortunately it manifested in racial prejudice and a general contempt for religion.

He was also the most influential American horror writer since Poe. To simply make him vanish Soviet-style would incalculably impoverish our culture. So, watch Dagon because it is a fun film and to protest the Vandals threatening at the gates of the fantastical canon. Highly recommended, Dagon screens Sunday afternoon (8/19), as part of this year’s Scary Movies.