Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Classic Sun: Stuart Gordon's Dagon

Stuart Gordon, a veteran of 60's experimental theater, first burst onto the screen with his extremely loose adaptation of HP Lovecraft's short story, "Herbert West, Re-Animator".

Re-Animator, as the film was called, was a salacious and bloody black comedy that proved to be a surprise hit in the gore-hungry 80's movie scene. Gordon followed Re-Animator up with an even more unfaithful Lovecraft adaptation, From Beyond. As the mid-80's horror craze waned, Gordon seemed to fade with it. He stayed busy, but little he produced seemed to garner much attention (outside of his work on Honey I Shrunk the Kids, that is).

So to his more casual fans it was a shock when Gordon re-emerged with a new Lovecraft film in 2003 called Dagon. Based primarily on the short story "Shadow Over Innsmouth" (although it incorporates a few elements from the tale it takes it name from), Dagon follows the path of Paul Marsh, a yuppie internet millionaire vacationing with friends on a sailboat off of the coast of Spain. A sudden storm whips up smashing the boat against a reef, forcing Paul and his girlfriend Barbara to seek help in the fishing village they were anchored near. Paul and Barbara discover that the townspeople of Imboca ( a pun on Innsmouth) are not your usual Spaniards but an taciturn and fish-belly colored lot who loath having strangers in their midst. Perhaps the boat had drifted to the coast of England in the night.

Inevitably, Paul and Barbara are separated and Paul discovers to his horror that the denizens of Imboca are barely human. Returning to the sinking boat he finds that his two English pals have been taken by the sea and he returns to Imboca to find Barbara missing as well. Then he checks into the dodgiest hotel in filmic history. Almost immediately he is set upon by the monstrous townspeople (in this case they are various sea-creature/human hybrids) and pursued through the rain-besotted and generally water-logged town. He encounters an old drunk (played by the incomprehensible Francisco Ribal) who tells the story (blessfully accompanied by reenactments) of how Imboca had faced financial ruin when the fish catches began to thin.

Then a young firebrand stormed into a local church and told the residents that if they changed allegiance from their impotent Christian god to the almighty god of the sea Dagon, they would be blessed with not only all the fish their boats could carry, but huge bounties of gold from the ocean floor as well. Desperate, the townspeople agree and slit the throats of the dissenters (the local priest, the drunk's father) and soon Imboca was flush with fishes and riches. The only catch is that soon everyone was sprouting gills, tentacles, fins, unblinking eyes...

In the extended chase through the vile village (did you know that according to psychologists, the most common nightmare is about being chased? ), Paul runs into the gorgeous Uxia, a mysterious bed-ridden girl who has haunted his dreams. It's love at first unblinking sight, only problem being that Uxia is bed ridden on account of the 8 foot tentacles attached to her hips. Then its back to the chase until Paul and the old drunk find themselves strung up for some fileting. Then in a lovely bit of cinematic poetry the old drunk's face is torn from his head as he gurgles in protest. Paul escapes and guts the gutters and descends to an underground lair where he is once again reunited with Barbara, who unfortunately is hanging over an open pit awaiting some hot interspecies sex between her and the town's redoubtable squid god, Dagon. 

And oh yeah, the lovely Uxia- the apparent mistress of ceremonies- is carving our Barbara's skin with a golden ceremonial blade. Paul makes a vain attempt to rescue Barbara, but she's fish-food. Paul then finds out that he and Uxia are not only siblings, but are each other's fiance. Then she takes him to meet her parents, well her father and he comes to meet him, not the other way around. 

Anyhow, Uxia shows Paul the handy new gills he's spouting on his torso and Paul reacts by dousing himself with kerosene and lighting himself up. Uxia grabs the big dummy, tosses him down the well and hops in after him. Underwater, Paul discovers that not only can he breathe, but his charred flesh is melting away and revealing his new look. 

He and Uxia then swim off to live happily ever after and the final line of Innsmouth fades into view- "and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever. "

An uncommon type of happy ending, to be sure, but Dagon is not your usual horror movie. It is a symbolic parable of personal transformation. Water, which permeates every single frame of the film, symbolizes the Unconscious Mind, the emotions, and sexual desire. In one regard, Dagon can be seen as a parable of male adolescence. In the opening scene, Paul is on a boat with his girlfriend, who is not seen unclothed here and with whom he resists making love. Up on deck he is in the company of the older, English couple who own the boat. 

Paul later wears a Miskatonic University sweatshirt, that being the mythological college based in New England. This collision of symbols (old and new England) identifies the older couple as Paul's parents and the chaste nature of Paul and Barbara's bed-sharing identifies them as siblings.

Paul's entry into Imboca symbolizes an adolescent leaving his family and experience the challenges of the world on his own. Uxia represents the transformative power of romantic love and the sacrifice ceremony with the vaginal well in the catacomb symbolizes sexual love taking the young man away from his role in the family. Barbara's loss represents the family being torn away from sexual awakened young man. Paul meeting his squid-faced true father and his spouting of gills symbolizes the final ascension into manhood with all its terrors and responsiblities. Paul and Uxia's final descent into the well and into the ocean represents the idealized view of marriage when two adolescents are transformed into adults and share the riches of sex, the emotions and the unconscious.

There is an occult level of symbology at play here as well. The ocean represents the deep and abiding ancient Mysteries and the fish people represent those who are transformed and alienated forever from the mass of humanity. At first, Paul sees them as monsters coming to destroy him, when in reality they are initiates coming to take him to his true destiny. When, in an early scene, Barbara throws Paul's laptop into the ocean she is showing him that his true business is in the world of Mystery and not in the ordinary world of numbers and sums. Barbara too is transformed by her experience in the mysteries but cannot tolerate the experience. She represents the exoteric world of everyday life and she cannot follow Paul to his new life. Uxia, as his occult bridesmaid, is his sister because all those who pursue the mysteries are underneath it all, the same.