The famous fish god Dagon appears in both the H.P. Lovecraft story and the 2001 film of the same name. But the latter is really a retelling of The Shadow Over Innsmouth (1936). The film follows the original story fairly closely in some places, though Lovecraft purists will be unhappy with some of the liberties taken with the plot. As in most movie adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, the material has been modernized chiefly by adding women as characters. This brings with it much needed characterization and fleshing out of relationships.
Readers of Lovecraft are probably familiar with The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Like the story, the film has a happy ending—of sorts. The lead character is eventually reunited with his family and with his heritage. As for his friends, well, not so much.
In Dagon (2001), Paul, a successful young stock broker, is sailing off the coast of Spain with his girlfriend Barbara and an older couple. Paul is revealed to be very single minded, all about business, and incapable of letting go of work long enough to enjoy the vacation with his friends. “There are two possibilities” he tells his girlfriend Barbara, “life is binary.” This encapsulates his very left-brained philosophy, but also foreshadows a much more tortuous choice he must make later on. Aggravated, Barbara tosses his laptop with all his business statistics into the ocean.
A mysterious storm blows up and wrecks the boat on some rocks. The couples separate, and Paul and Barbara try to make it to land to get help. They arrive in a rundown fishing village called Imboca, where it always appears to be raining. By a ruse set up by the villagers, Paul and Barbara are separated from each other. Paul winds up staying in the local hotel—from here the story closely resembles The Shadow Over Innsmouth, as the main character must flee the clutches of marauding bands of gibbering villagers through the wet shiny streets. Barbara has vanished completely.
This is a very wet movie. There is water, blood and sometimes an evil black oiliness everywhere. Sinks, toilets, tubs, and the bottoms of boats are all awash in sloshing filthy water. In one disturbing scene, Paul is splashing about inside an otherwise normal looking house—except for the eight inches or so of dark liquid covering the floors. The horrific end of the movie occurs as Barbara is about to be lowered into an immense cavernous well of frothing sea water. Even everyday plumbing seems a conduit for horror and revulsion. The ubiquitous moisture unites all the scenes of the film into one enormous nightmare.
The people of Imboca—I use the term loosely—all have the ‘Innsmouth look’: shambling gait, guttural speech and glassy eyes. Though they appear relatively easy to escape, their relentless pursuit is the stuff of frightening dreams. During a lull in the chase, Paul meets Ezequiel, an old battered alcoholic and the last person in Imboca with his humanity still intact. Ezequiel tells Paul the history of Imboca, and the changes that came with the new religion of Dagon worship.
There is an interesting flashback here. Ezequiel remembers a time in his childhood when the fishing village suffered economic hardship and ruin. A sailer arrives, bringing a new religion from across the sea that will ensure not only an adequate supply of fish but ample gold as well. The villagers all soon convert to the new faith, even accepting ritual human sacrifice. In one compelling series of visual images, a Spanish Catholic Church is systematically desecrated. Its statues are pulled down from the walls and sledge hammered to bits, as is the old parish priest who impotently tries to prevent this horror. Emblems and idols of the new Dagon-worship are installed and the violent apostasy becomes complete.
Surely the origin of this scene—graphically depicted in the film and hinted at in Innsmouth—is Biblical. One can imagine very similar scenes of destruction and violence as the ancient Israelites succumbed to the native religions of the Canaanites and Philistines, who actually worshipped a version of Dagon.
There are numerous references to Dagon in the Old Testament. It being the Hebrew Bible, he does not get much good press, as deities go. Dagon was the god of the sea and of a sea going people, reportedly half man and half fish. But he was also connected with fertility, and grain, especially corn. He was the national god of the Philistines, who occupied the Mediterranean coast of ancient Israel. Father of Baal, he was also a source of pernicious idolatry, which the Israelites were compelled by their prophets to extinguish in the Promised Land.
Dagon (2001) contains numerous Lovecraftian references that fans will enjoy spotting throughout the film. The most obvious is that Paul at one point wears a “Miskatonic” sweat shirt. The famous chant “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” is heard at various times. Paul later discovers the door to a secret passage by the altar in the desecrated church—it leads down to the rim of a gigantic well where congregants may commune with the deity. He has recurring dreams which foreshadow events as well as establish a psychic link with a Dagon priestess. There are other examples, I am sure.
The film also contains several playful visual metaphors. Early on, Paul’s hand is snagged by a fish hook as he clambers about in a boat—the first of many incidents of copious blood flow. Later, Imbocan villagers are able to capture him by dropping a net. Paul is clearly the fish they are trying to catch! More sensitive viewers should be forewarned: there are several scenes of horrific gruesomeness, (think of scenes from movies in the Hellraiser series, but with more technically proficient special effects). Two of the women, impregnated by Dagon, are understandably disinclined to carry the spawn of the fish god to term, and come to a ghastly end.
Paul is ultimately unsuccessful in rescuing himself or his friends from their gruesome fate, despite numerous clumsy attempts. This is very much in the spirit of a Lovecraft story: the hero eventually must acquiesce to fate and forces beyond his understanding. However, two of the women—Paul’s girlfriend Barbara and the Dagon priestess Uxia—are strong characters in the film. He must choose between the two of them. Barbara symbolizes the beleaguered remnant of humanity, both in the village and in his heart. The otherworldly Uxia represents an uncertain and mysterious future, but also a repressed memory. The choice recalls his philosophical statement in the beginning: “life is binary.” In the end, Uxia must rescue him from self-immolation when he is too fearful to choose for himself.