I watched this for the 'thon in 2004 and I knew it was a must-see for my Lovecraft roundup this year. This movie is great! I upped my rating a full star from my last viewing. Fifteen years after tackling From Beyond and Re-Animator, director Stuart Gordon goes for a Lovecraft tale again and really nails it.
The opening grabbed me right away. Like a lot of writers of his era, Lovecraft liked to build up to the big reveal, sometimes until the very last line of a story. One of the mysterious hints he liked to throw in would be artifacts of strange races: buildings or idols or statues that by their very nature suggest non-human agencies at work. Dagon opens with a diver exploring an underwater pit surrounded by carvings that do just that (you can see the tiny diver in the lower right corner above). At this point in my explorations I think I can declare that there as probably the most purely Lovecraftian image to ever grace a movie screen.
The short story "Dagon" is far too short to make a movie out of, but a related story called "The Shadow over Innsmouth" provides the bulk of the narrative here. Innsmouth is a small, isolated Massachusetts fishing town that allies itself with bizarre creatures from the sea, loathsome fish-people who worship the god Dagon.
The movie moves the action to Imboca, a fishing village in Spain, which is an excellent choice since it's pretty hard to imagine any coastline in Massachusetts that's appropriately isolated in this day and age. We have the briefest of times meeting our two hero couples. There's Paul, an nerdy investment genius who has just struck it rich -- that this just happened recently calls into question how he got his incredibly gorgeous wife Barbara, but I'm too glad she's on the team to complain. Howard and Vicki are the investors who just made Paul wealthy, and they're all celebrating with a trip on Howard's sailboat. In about the time it took you to read that sentence, things start going rapidly south. Their trip takes a nasty turn when a sudden dark storm rears up, impaling their boat on a large rock which busts through the hull and viciously pins Vicki's leg. Paul and Barbara head into the nearby village for help, and things just get weirder.
The air of menace is brewed superbly. First the town is mysteriously empty. Its narrow, winding streets provide a background I'm sure H.P. himself would have loved, just dripping with a brooding atmosphere that is centuries old. When the denizens do begin to appear, it's not reassuring at all. There's an immediate sense that something is just plain wrong here. It's a feeling much like that in the original Wicker Man, except on a highly accelerated schedule.
By nightfall the menace is in full gear. An aspect of the Innsmouth story was that the mixed breeding of the humans and the Others would produce offspring that would start their lives looking like regular people...for a while. Without too much in the way of effects, it becomes clear that the townsfolk are hiding all manner of progressive deformities beneath their scarves and trenchcoats. An angry mob of these folks is the stuff of nightmares, as they lurch around on twisted legs, reach for you with long, rubbery fingers and call to each other with sounds that resemble seal barks and dolphin clicks more than normal speech. As we tour more of the town, the variations on this transformative property unfold with tasty results.
In a way, this movie outstrips Re-Animator, just by dint of being a Lovecraftian experience that's so much wider in scope. This doesn't have a character like Herbet West, but it does have the character of the town itself, and on that it hits the bullseye. There are a couple iffy effects, and there's one character whose accent made me need to turn the subtitles on a bunch of times, and it's these elements that keep me from slapping five stars on this sucker. But this is good, scary stuff, with some impressive late-stage gore and a building horror that culminates in some bad news for pretty Barbara and good news for anyone wondering if they're going to get to see her naked and dangled over a pit. Old Howard would've loved this, I'm certain.