The best parts of last year’s Halloween Binge were the surprises. Movies like Phenomenon and The Return of the Living Dead were all the more exciting for how little I knew about them. They were campy and frightening and super entertaining, and caught me fairly off guard. Well I should have known trying to recreate a spontaneous discovery would’ve backfired. I decided, more or less on a whim, to watch Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptation Dagon. I’d read articles arguing that Stuart Gordon was underrated (certainly The Re-Animator gets mentioned a lot) and I like Lovecraft. I was also hoping the oceanic setting might tickle some of my personal fears. The first ten minutes or so actually did too. Even with the crappy low-budget CG a few of those shots pinged some sort of deep-rooted fear, seriously surmounting some SyFy level effects. That all seemed decently promising, marking Dagon as a potential guilty pleasure film.
That was before it become apparent that Dagon isn’t very good. I wanted to like it, I really did, but it was pretty inept. The low budget really does a lot of damage for one thing. You’d think horror filmmakers of all people would be good at effectively utilizing a low budget, but Stuart Gordon crams Dagon full of bad CG and terrible props. There’s one good costume, and one good practical gore effect, and everything else is burlap sackcloth and drawn on blood. Special effects should never sink a movie, but they are illustrative of the dips in quality in Dagon. And it’s legitimately distracting. It does look like a TV movie, and it’s hard to be scared by clumsy CGI tentacles. Course the special effects aren’t the only problem. The performances are weak and confusing. One character, playing a Spanish local, speaks in such an indecipherable pirate voice I legitimately missed every second line he said (in fact the whole movie has problems with audibility). There’s a whole major revelation I googled because, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand the growling monster voice explaining stuff. This is a movie that seems convinced that you could skin a man alive with a knife made of gold(!) and that you can effectively make a gold-knife prop by spray painting a kitchen knife. It’s inept to the point of feeling like something people would watch ironically.
So that left me confused. What was it people saw in Stuart Gordon and in this movie in particular? It wasn’t well crafted, it wasn’t well acted, and it wasn’t frightening. I suppose it was fun. Watching the protagonist go from zero to randomly cheating on his wife to repulsed in the span of a few seconds was pretty fun. The spooky ocean stuff up front was fun. The scripted clumsiness of the protagonist was good for a few laughs too. Most of the movie’s middle section is either the protagonist running from super boring monsters or listening to an overlong and uninteresting flashback. That middle section was repetitive and bland.
I could see the film making a valiant effort at redeeming itself in the finale. It gets suddenly grim quickly, which was cool. There’s almost sex with a crazy-eyed tentacle lady, offscreen sex with a Lovecraftian fish god, someone gets skinned alive, and the protagonist starts dual wielding blinged out kitchen knives and cussing. That’s the fun side of goofy. It all culminates with a surprising amount of pyrotechnics, one half-decent monster, a pulp style dangling nude sacrifice, some terrible CG, and a pretty solid twist. All this leads to an ending that actually feels Lovecraftian, which, up until the twist and the ending, had been a largely missing portion of this Lovecraft adaptation.
Because Dagon isn’t really a Lovecraft movie. Despite nominally being an adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s better anti-race-mixing stories, Shadow of Innsmouth, the tone isn’t really Lovecraftian at all. I mean, I’m happy they left the man’s politics behind, but why is it so hard to effectively capture the tone of one of horror’s most influential figures? If there’s anything Lovecraft didn’t do it’s camp. His stories weren’t really much of a lark. I knew Dagon wouldn’t be proper Lovecraft adaptation going in however, Stuart Gordon isn’t known for that sort of thing. However the ratio of fun camp to monotony in Dagon was bothersome. There’s definitely some fun stuff, but too much time is spent running through the rainy Spanish town. Even the moments that interrupt these bits help elevate the movie a bit but, as much fun as they could be, the bits before were actively annoying at times, which is pretty damning. I’d rather they were boring than actually drive me from the movie.
It came down to little things. The frustrating quality of the sound design, which made not only Spanish McPirate hard to hear, but the protagonist’s voice too. They were mixed behind the rain, which isn’t ideal during a scene filled with revelations and explanations. Ditto the climactic revelation. Bane-voice has nothing on this movie. The effects were bad, sure, but they were also lingered on and returned to several times. Little things like gold knives threw me from the movie way more than I would have anticipated, and the trope ridden script meant I could bet on just about every further occurrence with a fairly high success rate.
The best that could be said about Dagon is that it’s fun. Intentionally so at times and unintentionally so at others. We laughed watching it, which is nice I guess. There are bits that hit a crazy enough timbre that it’s pretty enjoyable. But the movie as a whole is ridden with too many niggling problems. Watching it was a rollercoaster, rocketing between frustration and entertainment, and occasionally traversing tunnels of accidental entertainment. It’s too inconsistent for me to actually recommend it. Yet there are definitely chunks that I would consider worth watching. It’s one of those entertaining messes, so I guess it larger depends on an individual viewer’s tolerance.