Two Cents Film Club Loves the Craft of DAGON (and Stuart Gordon)

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

H. P. Lovecraft is experiencing something of a revival of late. For years, “Lovecraftian” was an easy shorthand for people to bandy about in relation to their own horror tales, with no deeper meaning beyond that at some point our hapless heroes would run afoul of something slimy with tentacles. Possibly from space.

But in recent years we have seen a new wave of artists in film, literature, and even video games, who are not just slapping Cthulhu into their work and calling it a day but are actually wrestling with the implications and deeper meanings behind Lovecraft’s work, including the virulent racism at the heart of much of Lovecraft’s conception of cosmic horror. Richard Stanley recently returned to feature filmmaking with the highly regarded adaptation Color Out of Space, and just this past month popular fantasy author N. K. Jemison dropped The City We Became, an original novel that updates and re-contextualizes some of Lovecraft’s pet themes for the modern era.

Stuart Gordon was ahead of this curve, as he so often was. From his origins in the Chicago theater scene where his company was the first to put on David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, to the stunningly high-quality effects and carnage in his low-budget first Lovecraft adaptation, the cultishly adored Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon operated by his own rules, at his own pace, making movies that sometimes took years for audiences and culture to catch up to.

Gordon revisited Lovecraft multiple times throughout his career, often working with a combination of the same collaborators. Dagon saw him re-teaming with Dennis Paoli, who co-wrote all of Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, with a movie that sits at the axis of his career. Shortly after Dagon, Gordon would largely abandon traditional horror in favor of off-beat, often grisly crime thrillers and dramas.

Dagon (actually more inspired by “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” than the story “Dagon”) follows hapless yuppie scum Paul (Ezra Godden) as his vacation goes awry and he finds himself stranded in the nightmarish town of Imboca, pursued by the relentless mutant locals. Seems that long ago, the townspeople swore fealty to the titular fish-god and now they have truly gruesome plans for anyone foolish enough to stumble into town.

We lost Stuart Gordon this past week, but he leaves behind a truly unique filmography. Not all of his experiments worked, and some worked better than others, but there are no other movies like Stuart Gordon movies, and there was no other filmmaker like Stuart Gordon. And there never will be again.

Next Week’s Pick

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Join us as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original (and best) live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, available on Netflix!

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

It’s a shame that Ezra Godden is no Jeffrey Combs. There’s a lot about Dagon that works — the structure is solid, Stuart Gordon ramps up the tension and the grotesque nicely, there’s some really cool makeup design work, and the music/audio is delightfully creepy. But between the “not quite there” CGI of low-budget early-00s movies and the main character being something of a cold fish (sorry), it never realizes its full potential.

Luckily, even fulfilling part of that works out pretty damn. The “oh no, town of creepy cult people” setup plays breezily through the stuff that would be the most dull navigate, in order to move quickly on to the red meat of conspiracies, nasty monsters, and ritual sacrifices. There’s a nuts and bolts function to the script, and a playfulness to the directing that keeps the nastiest material from becoming too sickening.

Dagon may be “No Re-Animator,” but it uses Gordon’s signature stamp to make something a little different with a lot of tentacles. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Justin Harlan:

This tale of a town that worships a deep sea god really took a while to hook me. It picked up with some well done gore and clever flashes of violence, but I found myself clock watching far too much, feeling as if watching the film was a bit of a chore. The bursts of intrigue weren’t enough to grab me fully and, ultimately, the experience of this film was less spectacular than I’d hoped.

That said, there are certainly things to appreciate. Some of the practical effects are exceptional. The more exploitive elements of horror and sexuality were used well and helped the film’s pacing, punching up the less exciting moments with something titillating. The film has a good look overall, as well.

However, I never found myself engulfed by Dagon. Be it the often clunky writing or my own personal hang ups of some sort, it just didn’t reel me in. Cool effects and creature design still made it worth watching, though… that I surely can’t deny! (@thepaintedman)

Brendan Foley:

There’s just something about this fucking movie.

There are better horror movies than this. Hell, there are multiple Stuart Gordon-Lovecraft movies better than this. As Agnew pointed out above, any time the movie dips into CGI it face-plants completely, and Ezra Godden as the lead is a near total dud, even taking into account that Lovecraft protagonists (including in the other Gordon movies) are always ineffectual dweebs who affect nothing as they fail their way through a particular tale.

But even so, there’s just something about this goddamn movie that makes it wildly effective on me in a way that most other horror movies simply are not. This one shakes me, in a way that I don’t find especially entertaining. It’s like this movie is a strain of chickenpox that I never developed an immunity to, so even as it bounces harmlessly off others I’m stuck lying in bed with cold sweats and fever.

Dagon has to keep halting its momentum to ladel on exposition, but during the long stretches that play out with little-to-no dialogue, where the focus is instead on sustaining a suffocating mood of dread and doom, on the astonishing practical designs and make-up, and on the truly nauseating outbursts of gore and violence, it achieves a ferocity and terror that still stuns me.

I watched Dagon years ago and always remembered it being earth-shatteringly scary and upsetting. Many years, and many, many horror movies later, it has lost almost none of that initial impact. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I definitely count myself a fan (though not an expert) of Stuart Gordon, and Dagon, which I finally watched for the first time, prompted by the director’s passing, is my new favorite.

While Gordon has done a lot of Lovecraft material, most of it is very much his updated, modern spin on things, often focused more on science fiction trappings than Lovecraft’s themes of isolation, madness, and ancient abominable horrors too great and terrible to comprehend or describe. Where his other films dip their toes into Lovecraft’s world, Dagon jumps into the deep end of the pool — a decaying seaside town consumed by evil, cursed fish-people, an eldritch sea god, the works.

My favorite video game is Resident Evil 4 (2005), and in retrospect I realize that Dagon, a new movie at the time, was a very heavy influence on its both style and setting. If you love either one, be sure to check out the other. (@VforVashaw)

Further reading:

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