First, he brought us a re-animating fluid that looked suspiciously like Mountain Dew and activated the most ravenous, insatiable zombies this side of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead trilogy. Soon afterwards, he took us to another sensory dimension where brain-hungry beings roamed free while writhing, worm-like pineal glands exploded from foreheads. Since the gory glory days of “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond” (1985 and 1986, respectively), however, director Stuart Gordon has veered away from horror to tackle big-budget screenwriting and producing (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”), sci-fi (“Fortress”), and fantasy (“The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit”). Granted, he’s always thrown his fear-film loyalists a bone here and there (“Dolls,” “Castle Freak”), but his days of being known primarily as a horror specialist have long since passed.
Until now. “Dagon” is Gordon’s latest fright film, and it’s the first since “From Beyond” to really go for the gusto and push the envelope. While not a perfect movie, “Dagon” crams its wild, over-the-top concepts down our throats with so much conviction that we can’t help but get swept along for the ride. Just like “Re-Animator” sold us on the idea of a lecherous severed head, and “From Beyond” made a case that the pineal gland might well be the encasement of a sixth sense, “Dagon” tosses us onto a Spanish beach where mutant fish people prey on hapless visitors.
That’s right. Fish people.
Before you chuckle at such a preposterous concept, try to envision anything more terrifying than the shark attacks in “Jaws.” Gordon’s aquatic offering couples a fear of the water – and all that lurks beneath – with the notion that humans might be genetically linked to a strain of gill-sprouting sea mutants. It might sound hokey (indeed, “Dagon” was passed over by numerous studios who, in the words of Gordon himself, found the story “just too damn weird”), but there’s something inherently creepy about scales, tails, and murky depths that gets under the skin. Indeed, author H.P. Lovecraft, who provided the source material for “Dagon”, allegedly despised fish to the point of leaving dinner parties where seafood was served.
“Dagon” begins as young lovers Paul (Ezra Godden) and Barbara (Raquel Merono) toast the success of lucrative business ventures from aboard a sprawling yacht. Paul comes across as a money-fixated yuppie who prefers tinkering with his laptop to making out with his frustrated love interest. Soon, she’s tossing his computer overboard, and urging him to loosen up. Unfortunately, the relaxation is short-lived. A freak storm impales their vessel on a sharp reef, and the duo is forced to abandon ship. Soon, they wash up near an unnervingly quiet fishing town. Residents gradually shuffle out of the woodwork, but they appear flat, emotionless, and physically incomplete. Bulging, buggy eyes remain open when they should blink. Strange, aquatic sounds drift across the village, like murmurs from a vocal school of dolphins. Clearly, there’s something fishy in the dilapidated streets of Imboca.
The remainder of “Dagon” sees the couple fending off the growing legions of mutated townsfolk, through a series of chases. The film culminates in a scene of ritual sacrifice, with the foxy Merono dangling over a pit, while a mammoth, barnacled beast chomps at the bit beneath, eager to snatch up the tasty human morsel. Think of the climactic set piece from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” seasoned with a gory twist.
“Dagon” is a larger production then its predecessors, with all the strengths and weaknesses that this bigger scale entails (or should that be entrails?). There are scenes shot underwater, on land, and underground, creating an epic reach, but some are clumsily staged (the opening storm hosts thunderclouds that look like something recycled from an outdated Hammer vampire flick you might find on the tube at 2:00 a.m.). Under the strain of this massive scale, much of the fiendish, witty humor that branded Gordon’s earlier Lovecraft-inspired outings is missing (the film is sparse on dialogue). However, the director’s legacy lives on with gore galore and another trademark damsel in distress image that falls in line with Gordon’s earlier, rather sexual set-pieces (remember Barbara Crampton fending off fiends Carl Hill and Dr. Pretorious?).
Stuart Gordon’s twisted imagination has been re-animated with “Dagon.” Call it the dark, scaly underbelly of “The Little Mermaid.”