Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources. Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier). Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.
10/21/2016 – Lovecraftian: Dagon (2001)
Directed by Stuart Gordon
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) spent most of his life broke, unknown, and little regarded writer for pulp magazine. It was only after his death did his work gain any recognition and eventually come to be regarded as some of the most influential in horror. He’s largely known in the public for the Cthulhu Mythos and for being quite the racist (they aren’t wrong as the man hated so, so many things most notably African-Americans in a poem who’s name I won’t repeat here) but he’s done so much more. His stories were based in a fear of the unknown, a pervasive nihilism, and cosmic horrors that defy the very nature of reality. They featured inconceivable creatures, locations, and horrors that destroy the minds of those that try and the famed Great Old Ones who exist above mere human concerns while tying together science fiction and the supernatural.
There have been a number of adaptations of his work starting with The Haunted Palace in 1963, a pseudo-Corman-Poe Cycle film (named after a book by Poe) actually based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward which was a fine enough start. Until the mid-1980s however, the majority of his adaptations including Die, Monster Die! and Curse of the Crimson Altar were not very good and are generally little regarded. Today’s director Stuart Gordon would change that with the best Lovecraft adaptation to date, Re-Animator (which would become a series), an awesome horror comedy filled with copious blood. Gordon would later go on to helm most of the notable adaptations of his work in From Beyond (great), Castle Freak, today’s film Dagon, and the Masters of Horror episode “Dreams in the Witch House”. We’ve also been given Dan O’Bannon’s (Alien) The Resurrected and the silent short The Call of Cthulhu which is one of my favorite silent films.
In general, direct and often loose adaptations have been less successful than the films and other works that have drawn from Lovecraftian themes. In the same year he was making The Haunted Palace, Corman also produced X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. 1979 gave us perhaps the most famous title (and certainly the one I’ve been banging on a ton the past couple days) in Alien with later films in the series such as AVP and Prometheus making the comparison even more explicit with its use of Lovecraft trademark ancient aliens and doing their best to adapt At the Mountains of Madness (though sadly killing Guillermo Del Toro’s adaptation). The Evil Dead popularized the Lovecraft creation, the Necronomicon with future films in the series and the TV series especially further strengthening the link with its otherworldly terrors. John Carpenter’s The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness (as evidenced by the name) all dealt with unknowable horrors and love of At the Mountains of Madness, with the final of the three being arguably the best attempt at capturing Lovecraft’s style on screen.
Joss Whedon with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and especially Angel and Cabin in the Woods heavily used the idea of the Great Old Ones, Event Horizon had its characters go mad from the mere sight of another dimension, and The Mist also pulled the other dimension horrors. Films as varied as Ghostbusters, Creepshow, Dark City (one of the greatest films of all time), Phantoms, The Midnight Meat Train, Kill List, Absentia, and Europa Report all pull from his work and generally doing a great job with it. Even True Detective Season One teased with it (and The King in Yellow which influenced his later work and is arguably a predating extension of the Cthulhu Mythos) and Batman with Arkham Asylum explicitly named after a fictional city of his.
Dagon is loosely based on one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and not “Dagon” as you would expect. To be fair to the title though, it sure is apt. The lead is a third rate Jeffrey Combs wannabe who hits random buttons on a computer without it doing anything. He looks remarkably similar and Gordon seems to want to craft him into Combs as Herbert West but the entire movie I just wanted him to die. He sinks the entire movie from the moment he is first on screen (which is why I had to make this my first observation) until the end and he’s in almost every scene. He’s a scene stealing overactor but not even in a fun way and at one point seems to be forcing his own catchphrase in “two possibilities”, a phrase which feels awkwardly shoved in each time. It’s a shame because while very far from perfect, this could have been a decent film with a better lead. To be safe though, it would have helped to replace every single stinking actor.
The film doesn’t help itself by opening with the extremely tired approach of a dream sequence only for our lead to wake up suddenly with scare chord to “fake us out” and it’s not even the only time the film does it. The film doesn’t take long to get going before a quick appearing storm comes over the horizon to ground the boat populated by two couples on a rock. Two go for help when the woman is left pinned in bloody water which resembles oil more than anything only for the two left behind to be attacked by something under water which by all accounts looks like a hot tub jet. The film quickly separate the two leads and I’ll admit it surprised me when it took the woman about two minutes to be yoinked away by some mysterious men with weird teeth and eyes (not even mysteriously off screen). Heck it even threw me for a loop when Not-Combs return to the boat to find no one there and no trace of them and instead of creating some paranoia, they mostly just get over things with no one doubting they were even there.
The film wastes even less time before Faux Combs spots a group of people out in rain who glimpse him, start shrieking, and then try to take him too. There is no build in this film. No building terror as our lead discovers the dark secret of the island. Nope it’s just inept almost slapstick like chase scene into a warehouse full of human skins SPOILERS (including the one husband from before). END OF SPOILERS To be fair, it’s an awesome setting with some gruesome props but we are given no reason to care other than “yep that just ain’t right”. It turns out SPOILERS Catholicism has been replaced with worship of the Great Old One Dagon who grants them all the fish and gold they could desire but who also demands human sacrifice. He also slowly has the residents turning into sea creatures complete with gills and in certain ones (I guess the upper class) have tentacles replacing limbs. END OF SPOILERS This is explained not even half way through the movie in a giant info dump, the laziest form of storytelling. It means that the rest of the film, save one stupid twist is just the story spinning its wheels moving from set piece to set piece.
SPOILERS That twist is that a woman who is treated like a princess but becomes obsessed with our jerk of a lead (which says more about the competition than this dopey motherfucker) and whose her legs have been replaced with the tentacles and some disorder where she has the same creepy wide eye expression the whole movie is actually his half-sister and they are destined to live together in incestuous “bliss”. END OF SPOILERS
All this complaining about the plot may make you wonder how even a potential replacement cast I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago would save the movie any but there quite a few things I really liked. Our “hero” is far outmatched the entire movie and is barely able to stay alive (though it requires everyone in the movie to be a complete idiot repeatedly and repetitively) only to SPOILERS get a downer ending where he isn’t even able to kill himself, his body now badly burned and turning into these creatures he hates and has rejected, now seemingly resigned to his fate serving Dagon. The late film also gives us a few great horror moments in a man graphically depicted being skinned alive in a way that combines the over the top gore of say Re-Animator with a more modern brutality as well as getting to see the mermaid actually step out of generic “the good one” that she seemed to be set up as early by torturing the lead’s lady friend while filled with glee before offering up her naked body to Dagon so the creature can impregnate her. Well I think that was the original intent but Dagon winds up snacking on her leaving only her tied up arms behind. END OF SPOILERS There’s clearly talent on display, it’s just a shame the low budget went entirely to special effects and not to writing or acting.
Bonus Episode #TV-2 – Lovecraftian: Dark Intruder (1966)
Directed by Harvey Hart
Dark Intruder is a fairly early take on Lovecraftian themes that was a failed pilot for a show called The Black Cloak that wound up being released theatrically when it wasn’t picked up for being too scary and too violent. It’s certainly neither of them, but it is more violent than any TV show of the era would be allowed to get away with. It stars Leslie Nielsen as a detective and occult expert who winds up consulting with the police (and to the pilot’s extreme credit, plays this as something that has happened plenty before) on a series of murders involving people being clawed to death and leaving behind miniature statues. Even with Nielsen still in the straight man portion of his career, his character does always trying to keep things light and he’s got almost a Nick Charles thing going. It’s just a shame he doesn’t have a Nora to bounce things off of as he just seems to out of place tonally with everyone else to the point they are calling this out. It’s a remarkably modern style police procedural lead (they all have one be it Richard Castle, Anthony DiNozzo, etc.) in that he cares about his work and has all sorts of connections but tries to make it seem like he doesn’t on the surface and seems to want to joke and flirt his way through.
Nielsen is also given a dwarf assistant who seemed pretty stereotype free and I didn’t notice a single short joke which is a nice change of pace. The pilot’s late 19th century setting is a familiar one and it’s filled with all the atmosphere that setting allows but I sure as hell hoped that they were intending on not making Nielsen look so completely ridiculous. Still, it looks damn good for a TV show of the period if still recognizably something that was shot for TV originally.
The story is pretty standard police procedural stuff wrapped in a fun Lovecraftian coat. Most obviously, there is a bunch of references to ancient gods invented by Lovecraft, but already the pilot seems to be setting up that there are plenty of supernatural and god-like beings out there with our lead the only one who believes and accepts this to be the case. Well that is beside a stereotypical Chinese dealer complete with thin wispy Fu Manchu, distressingly long nails, and thick accent that he consults with who introduces him to the most interesting premise of the show, a mummified demon that must commit seven murders. That’s straight slasher stuff and I was all on board at that point especially when SPOILERS a smaller version of the demon, despite looking like a statue manages to burn Nielsen and scratch him. He may be an expert, but he’s still way out of his depth and dealing with things he doesn’t understand.
The killer takes out the suspense by confessing early but I like that the mystery isn’t who’s doing it, it’s what is causing him to. The mummy is possessing him and trying to permanently switch bodies with Nielsen’s friend. In appropriate Lovecraft fashion, the monster is defeated but no one accepts the truth, the mummy gets buried in his friend’s grave (since they switch back at death in a fairly well done sequence) with his friend’s reputation permanently destroyed, and the only other witness leaving Nielsen to look like a madman. END OF SPOILERS It’s rough around the edges especially in terms of characters, but I really wish we could have seen what they could do with the premise since it is bleak like nothing else and it would have been decades ahead of its time in its supernatural crime procedural format (even Kolchak: The Night Stalker wouldn’t come on for another 9 years). As it is, it’s a fun short film (though just barely short of my one-hour minimum to count as a proper film), with plenty of “what could have been”.
Bonus Episode #B-1 – Lovecraftian: The Call of Cthulhu (1926)
Written by H.P. Lovecraft
It may shock you to learn I haven’t actually read anything by Lovecraft or even one of the many works by others written since in his universe before unless you count starting At the Mountains of Madness before realizing trying to read a novella online is not something I am cut out for. This may feel out of place in a film discussion (more so even than TV episodes/miniseries that I’ve gotten to so far) and I’m far less experienced writing about short stories but what the heck.
The Call of Cthulhu is for better or worse Lovecraft’s defining work. Cthulhu is the first thing most people think of and imagine when they think Lovecraft (and not because of the popular name of the Cthulhu Mythos that makes up his later work) and all despite only being featured in one work and a short story at that (much like Irene Adler from “A Scandal in Bohemia). I’ll even admit my first exposure to him was the awesome Metallica song “Call of Ktulu”.
It’s a distinctive design and concept and I can’t blame people for only taking the time to learn to spell and pronounce one of Lovecraft’s many Elder Gods whose names were presumably created by throwing one of his cats at a typewriter.
The story itself is emblematic of Lovecraft’s apocalyptic log style of writing taking the form of a journal made by a man who appears to be approaching the end. He tells of the research our narrator has conducted based on a sealed box inherited from his great-uncle of various accounts of encounters with the Great Old One Cthulhu, his followers, and stories of his reign in the now sunken city of R’lyeh. The writing itself is full of purple prose, never saying what could be said in five words in any less than dozens. It’s far too overwritten but I’ll confess, it drew me in. The story, now fairly familiar to me, is still compelling and it’s interesting to see everything I wrote about in the many paragraphs above, in the actual flesh of his writing. Beyond the “paid by the word count” style writing, it still has issues such as his relationship to race being just painful to read and the fact that there was nothing really to surprise me in a story whose entire draw is the narrative, but it’s worth the read.