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DAGON (2001)

Bleeders Starring: Rutger Hauer, Roy Dupuis, Kristin Lehman. Director: Peter Svatek. Screenwriters: Charles Adair, Ronald Shusett, Dan O'Bannon.
This is a hard film to judge. It doesn't seem to fall into the really awful category, yet nothing about it is really good, either. The overall effect, as Nathan Shumate noted in his review, is of lack of interest. It seems like the director just didn't care what was on screen and failed to shoot it in any interesting, involving fashion. As Nathan points out, there are a lot of potentially interesting and horrifying things in this film. The fact that nothing interesting or horrifying was done with them would be curious if the film were involving at all.

The story is adapted from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear," though he is not credited here. It's been a while since I've read that story, so I don't know how closely this hews to the bones of Lovecraft's theme; I would suspect the basic idea and little else.

The basic idea is that on this remote New England island, there are a bunch of grotesque dwarves living beneath the land in a series of extensive tunnels. They were, centuries ago, a Dutch family called the Van Daams (not, repeat not including Jean-Claude though my understanding is that he's kind of short) who were unhappy with laws against insest and decided to come to America to see if we were more tolerant of that sort of thing.

Whether we were or not wasn't addressed, as it seems they just decided to dig tunnels beneathe their houses and live underground, interbreeding with each other until they finally arrived at their present form. Oh, and they're also hermaphrodites (both male and female in the same body) so they can go screw themselves, to use the vernacular. As noted, their extensive tunnels reach the houses they lived in, once, which are now occupied by other, non-Dutch folks.

What do they live on down there? Oh, that's an easy one. Corpses. See, their main lair is just below the town cemetary, so every new burial is dinner time for them. They've even come to enjoy the taste of formaldehyde. But there's a problem. It seems the owner of the town funeral home has been accused of using substandard wood in the coffins, so all the caskets are being dug up to be relocated.

This deprives the dwarves of their food supply, so they start seeking other sources. Specifically, folks who haven't been buried yet and aren't quite dead, either. The dwarves have these little tools, made of bones and teeth and such, that they use to attack their victims.

Here is where the film falls down. As noted, these are dwarves, many of them grotesquely deformed. Some of them can barely walk. Near the end of the film, when they beseige a lighthouse, it's hard to suspend disbelief that these creatures could be a threat. A well-placed kick should stave in their skulls. Their little tools, while somewhat ingenious, also don't present a credible danger. The fact that they can hook someone in the lower leg with these things, and then drag them to their death, just seems absurd (unless that person is as drunk as the viewer deserves to be). They remind me of George Romero's zombies, in a way, in that any reasonably competant person should be able to escape from them with ease. It's when you're unaware, or overwhelmed by numbers that they become dangerous. The dwarves are like that. If nothing else, the average person has a definite advantage with reach.

Of course, to get around that, the film-makers have the dwarves attack children for the most part. While not drawn-out or overly dwelled on, this is still pretty disturbing--I don't think I've seen a film where so many kids are killed (most film-makers tend to shy away from that, rightly thinking it alienates most audiences). They also attack old ladies and women in general.

Why women? Well, it turns out all the men-folk have gone off en masse on some kind of fishing trip. I have the idea this is supposed to make the dwarves' abilities more potent, since they're attacking a bunch of women. Ladies, how do you feel about that? Thought so.

Of course, Rutger Hauer is there and he's the only person who takes any active measures to deal with the problem. Oh, there's also Roy Dupuis and his wife Kristen Lehman; Roy is there because he has genetic problems and heard his family used to be from around here. Roy is right, of course, and I'm sure it won't shock you to learn that Roy's family is still around. Do I have to add two and two?

In the end, there's the lighthouse battle, and both sides suffer some heavy casualties; when it's over, Roy decides to go back to his roots, if you get my meaning. And the film just kind of stops; the last few scenes take place underground, as Roy catches up on family gossip and what-not.

I'm not sure what this ending is supposed to mean. Even if the islanders and the Van Daams have come to a truce (or just gotten tired or bored), there's no way the townfolk are going to bury people in that cemetary, so the dwarves are still out of food, and I don't think the townfolk will take kindly to more attacks on the living.

No, the two likeliest scenarios are that the military are called in and wipe out the Van Daams (talk about fish in a barrel), or that the townfolk pack up and leave. Either way leaves the dwarves with no options. I guess they could start to eat each other or learn to fish or something.

The film does have a high “ick” factor, but it could have been far more icky than it is. I mean, it could have really made people squirm. But it doesn't. Why? I think that ultimately, the whole "who cares" atmosphere of the film is its undoing; it's hard to invest sympathy when the director doesn't seem to bother with anything other than setting up the film's battle royale.

The only thing I found interesting is the painter at the very beginning of the film. He looks one heck of a lot like Bruce Willis.

Still, there's something about this film that makes it watchable. I keep watching it every now and then to see if it gets better, and it usually doesn't. But some people really like it, some people find things to like in it, other people cut it quite a bit of slack. What does this film have? I think it's the unmade, better film it could have been poking through here and there. As noted above, it has some interesting and horrifying things. They're just not made that way. They're made dull and tired. But they're still there, like the Great Old Ones, waiting for a chance to come through the angles of this film, angles that are all wrong, to come and rule the world that once was theirs.

I can't really recommend this, but I can't dismiss it either. If you're a Lovecraft completist, see it; as for the rest of you, your mileage will definitely vary. In fact, it may vary all over the map, or it may not get you out of the driveway.

Dagon Starring: Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabal. Director: Stuart Gordon. Screenwriter: Dennis Paoli.
If you're looking for the best adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft out there, look no further. Dagon is it, though, if we're going to be truthful, it's not really an adaptation of the story called "Dagon." No, the source story here is "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," one of HPL's most famous works.

The story has been transplanted from early twentieth-century New England to modern times, just off the coast of Spain, but other than that, it's Lovecraft to the letter, wtih dream sequences, creepy, off-looking people, and things clumping around that aren't shown too clearly but you know they're not out looking to help stranded tourists.

In Lovecraft's story, the hero chose to visit Innsmouth out of curiousity; here, fate and an inconvenient storm wreck the boat with the hero and his party, making them visit the town to get help.

They don't get any help.

While there are a number of details changed from Lovecraft, the atmosphere (the shrouding dread, the panicked helplessness, the relentless evil) is perfect. Director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli also did the much better-known Re-Animator, which while good, is kind of spoofy; I think HPL's approval would have been guarded at best. That film starred Jeffrey Combs, and Ezra Godden here looks almost like a Jeffrey Combs clone.

Dagon also follows Shadow's end, which is kind of a downer (and kind of negates everything that happened) but there are hints throughout that this is where we're headed so it's not that much of a surprise. Ezra Godden's character, Paul Marsh, tosses off early in the film that he was born in Spain, but his mother immigrated to the US early on, and wouldn't even let him learn Spanish. So when he's left on his own, he's completely helpless to make himself understood, not that the villagers are eager for conversation. Pretty soon he's on the run.

Since the inhabitants of "Innsmouth" (here called "Imboca") are, er, not really adapted too well to a life on land, the film-makers very cleverly give Godden a sprained ankle early on, so that his inability to escape from them is much more understandable.

The creatures, when seen, are a bit half-hearted, but they make terrific sounds. Squeals, grunts, clicking's really unnerving when they're not around but you can hear them. Some of them, like tentacle-man (who may be the guy on the DVD cover) are good and convincing, but some of them are just OK masks, and gloves with little tentacles and they don't look very realistic. But some of the subtle make-up is very good indeed, like the creepy hotelier, and especially the wall-eyed, pale priest. For the most part, the creatures are shown in quick shots, so we get the gist without the gristle. Since the storm is still raging, everyone's covered up in raincoats and hats and such, which adds greatly to the film's “what the hell is under that cloth?” feel. One guy, who apparently no longer has legs, hauls himself around on a little cart. He gets a hood-wrapped profile shot, and I myself was glad he didn't turn to look at the camera. That's how good this film is with the subtle stuff.

Not that the film is without gore. No, there are a number of bloody scenes, each one shot so that the effects look painful rather than makeup-y. Rather too realistic, for even someone like me who's used to gore effects, is a bit right around the seventy-five minute mark. Let's just say someone is killed in a very slow, painful way, and it's very, very hard to watch.

When you sit down to watch, by the way, you're going to have to time your snacks just right. The first minute or so consists of logos of the many, many companies that contributed to the making of the film. Many of the cast and crew are Spanish, and there are huge amounts of the film where the dialogue is in Spanish (apparently "Gallego," similar to Portugese), but I was never confused as to what was being said (my facility with foreign languages approaches nil). I supposed I could have turned on the subtitling but it was never necessary.

Raquel Merono (as Paul's girlfriend), and Macarena Gomez (as one of the town's leading citizens) are both gorgeous; poor Raquel goes through rather a lot in this film, to say the least. Ezra Godden's Paul Marsh makes a nice, resourceful hero, who goes convincingly from helpless nebbish to capable protagonist. Francisco Rabal plays the old town drunk, who seems to be the only normal inhabitant here. He was well-known for appearing in some Bunuel films, and made his last appearance here. He speaks English but is very hard to understand. Ferran Lahoz is the creepy town priest mentioned before, and he's quite good, projecting a quiet menace and authority without really doing much. (At First.)

Stuart Gordon made at least four Lovecraft adaptations (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak [from “The Outsider”], and this one) and this one is not only the best, it's a genuine gem on its own.

Highly recommended.

The Resurrected Starring: Chris Sarandon, John Terry, Jane Sibbett. Director: Dan O'Bannon. Screenwriter: Brent V. Friedman.
This is an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," the closest that Lovecraft ever came to writing a novel (though some of his stories could be quite long). As with almost all Lovecraft adaptations, it has been updated to the present day, but doesn't suffer for it. (Note: I have never read the original story, so I'm guessing here.) (Another note: I don't think I've seen a Lovecraft adaptation which hasn't been updated to the present day. Lovecraft's early twentieth-century atmosphere of decadence and decay is probably too foreign for modern audiences.)

Chris Sarandon gives a great performance as a scientist who becomes obsessed with the research done by one of his ancestors. A strange, bearded man shows up, and Sarandon starts spending more and more time isolated with him, and becomes more and more alienated from his wife. His wife hires detective John Terry to find out what's going on.

A lot of the developments are easily guessable by someone who's seen a lot of these movies, but the execution is really first-rate throughout. There's a trip through some underground passageways that is shot in such a way that, even though I've seen the film several times, still comes across as very nerve-wracking. It just has a tension that doesn't let go. There's also a grim logic to the developments, so that everything seems to be almost fated to happen. It's very, very Lovecraftian in the sense that man doesn't shape his destiny, his destiny shapes him.

I'm not going to tell any more of the story, as this one really has to be seen without any preconceptions. Most of the reviews of this I've seen tend to go the same route, they want you to experience this one with innocent eyes. If you can find a copy (it's still in print on VHS) it's definitely worth seeing.

In terms of Lovecraft, at least in what we see on screen, this has less to do with the Great Old Ones and is more a story of what "Man was not meant to know..." Though there are some creatures that show up toward the end that are quite startling (if a bit less than convincing). There are also a couple of graphic gore effects, though nothing of (say) Re-Animator level. Chris Sarandon, as noted, is great, easily carrying the changes his character goes through as the film progresses--he always seems natural.

Highly recommended.