Friday, April 5, 2013

Dagon and The Deep Ones In The Movies

Dagon and The Deep Ones In the Movies

H.P. Lovecraft’s short story Dagon was published in November, 1919, in issue number one of The Vagrant (Tchoutoye "Dagon (short story)"). The Stuart Gordon directed movie Dagon was released in 2001 (IMDB). The short story by Lovecraft is a marvelously well-constructed, compact examination of one man’s escape from captivity, only to find himself descending into a hellish Abyss from which he can never fully escape. Dagon the movie is a visually interesting, but ultimately miserable movie experience about a man who starts on a pleasure cruise and ends up running from various fish-like mutations for ninety minutes. It is my intention to explore to what extent the Stuart Gordon movie titled Dagon draws from the Lovecraft story of the same name, and compare and contrast the artistic merits of the story versus the movie “version.” In this exploration I will utilize the opinions of respected movie reviewers, literary critics, and Lovecraft scholars. 

Dagon, a fish God of either Philistine or Babylonian origin (“Dagon the Fish-God”), makes only a very brief appearance in both the story and the movie. In the story, one sentence is devoted to describing Dagon: “Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then” (“Dagon”). (For purposes of this paper, when I refer to Lovecraft’s short story Dagon, I will be referencing the website). In the movie, what we are to assume is Dagon appears only as a huge mass of tentacles that emerges from the bottom of a well to snatch the protagonist’s girlfriend. 

In the story only the protagonist and Dagon appear, though there is an implication that something is coming for the protagonist at the end: “I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it” (“Dagon”), but the movie version is teeming with all sorts of fish-like abominations, which most likely are akin to Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, whom Lovecraft scholar Maurice Levy describes this way: “The Deep Ones… have kept many aspects of their original humanity (56), and are characterized by what Levy calls a hybridism of humanity and “disparate elements of some creature of antiquity” (56). Mostly, they’re just horrific combinations of humanity and aquatic creatures. The movie version does a very credible job in creating a convincing array of  tentacled, gilled, fish-eyed humanoids. This is one of the very few ways I would say the movie version has any advantage over the story. I would also opine the creatures who inhabit this movie are more like the teenage fantasies of a special-effects nerd than the inhabitants of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

 However, a movie can sometimes be the victim of its own success. Allow me to put forward examples like The Exorcist or the needlessly mean and excruciatingly “realistic” movies of Todd Solondz, who directed Welcome to the Dollhouse and the ironically titled Happiness. I doubt very few moviegoers ever walked out of any of these productions whistling a happy tune.  Dagon is similar to these movies in that it is a miserable viewing experience. It is important to note this is Gordon’s intention in making the landscape gray, barren and rainy- and it is this respect that it is most similar to the Lovecraft story, but for the viewer it’s just painful. Lovecraft is able to attain far superior results with just the power of his written word, showing that a million dollars of special effects cannot improve on good-old well-wrought imagery and story telling.

Lovecraft’s Dagon is a very short story in 22 paragraphs, which succeeds amazingly in taking the reader on the descent into horror and madness of a man who escapes from a prison ship, is washed up upon a foreign land, descends into the Abyss, meets a terrifying creature, then spends his life in a heroin-addicted haze, fearing the return of the beast. All of this takes place in 22 paragraphs, and by paragraph four the protagonist has already washed up upon the hellish island. That’s pretty good economy of words. The movie is exactly the opposite. It meanders. There are numerous chases and extraneous encounters with strange beasts that seem more like opportunities to showcase the special effects than moving along the story. One hour into the movie the viewer is still left watching the protagonist being chased around a bleak village by fish-headed mutants, trying to save his girlfriend, but no closer to any kind of landscape or scenario that is similar to the Lovecraft story. Such a drawn-out set up is in stark contrast to the very fast-paced, compact way in which Lovecraft tells the original story. 

Another very apparent contrast between the movie and the story is the internal dialogue of the protagonist. In the story the main character is a tortured man, who has been through an experience so traumatizing he can never forget it and move on with his life. He lives now in a nightmare existence where the heroin is either the cause of, or the only escape from, the nightmares. However, even in his darkest moments of horror on the island, he was a curious and all-too human explorer, who felt “a certain thrill of the scientist's or archaeologist's delight” (“Dagon) at being in such a wondrous, if not perfidious land. The experience is so profound, so numinous to him, that he spends the rest of his life trying to put it in some perspective. In the movie the main character is a goof trying hard to be Bruce Campbell, or even Jeffrey Combs. He has no particular concern for the metaphysical implications of stumbling upon a village that worships a centuries-old Philistine fish god. The Lovecraft character knows his mythology. He understands where he has been and why life can never be the same. Even in the deepest moments of horror he realizes the significance of where he is and what he is witnessing. The character from the movie seems oblivious to it all. He is a hollow character. 

A descent into the Abyss is a key element of the Lovecraft story, but merely a tangential story line in the movie. The character in the story is descending into Hell, and knows it. He makes allusions to “Stygian deeps” (paragraph 13) and references Dore, who illustrated Dante’s The Divine Comedy (paragraph 17), and as he peers into the mound he will soon descend he comments, “Through my terror ran curious reminiscences of Paradise Lost, and Satan's hideous climb through the unfashioned realms of darkness (“Dagon”, chapter 12). These are three distinct references to Hell, intentionally referenced by Lovecraft to illustrate the protagonist knows where he is and knows the consequences of being there. It is interesting to note he uses both Christian and Greek allusions to the underworld. In the movie there are some vague references to a defiled Catholic church, and allusions to some sort of undefined cult that worships Dagon, but no real development of the mythological or theological, or even anthropological aspects of Dagon. Once again, the story is able to exceed winningly in just 22 paragraphs in accomplishing what the film cannot do in over ninety minutes of run time.

Setting is a key element of both the film and story, and once again we have rather sharp contrasts in what Lovecraft wrote and what Gordon filmed. The film Dagon, according to The Internet Movie Data Base, was filmed in Spain, whereas Lovecraft scholar Maurice Levy states “With few exceptions, the Lovecraftian Universe is circumscribed in a well-determined region of the United States (35), and “This choice world is New England” (35). However, we know as readers that Dagon is one of these exceptions, in that the castaway describes himself as possibly being swept south of the equator (“Dagon,” paragraph 3). But, because it is fair to assume the movie Dagon bears more resemblance to the novella The Shadow of Innsmouth than Dagon, and The Shadows of Innsmouth is set in “the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth (Lovecraft 1), we have another disparity between the movie and story versions. 

Descent into madness is a theme that the story explores which is left out of the movie. Here we have warring opinions from two Lovecraft scholars. It is Massimo Berruti’s opinion that Lovecraft is trying to tell us that “only through the utter negation of rationality, i.e. through insanity, that man attains superior knowledge” (Berruti 11). Marilyn Michaud is not convinced. She states that “For Lovecraft, those fictional protagonists who seek to transcend time by entering or searching the “known universe’s utmost rim” (Lovecraft: 427) ultimately face madness and dissolution” (Micahaud "Dream Worlds and Alien Civilizations"). It’s an interesting debate. Ultimately it seems that Michaud may have won the point, and may be interpreting Lovecraft more correctly. The protagonist in Dagon derives no benefit from what he witnesses. He is destroyed by it. It does not make him stronger. Psychoanalyst Otto Rank once postulated that those who have nervous breakdowns are fortunate, because if they come out of it they are wiser and stronger. The key is coming out of it, which the character in Dagon never clearly does. Furthermore, since the character seems like one who appreciates all the depths of human experience and is literate in many cultures and philosophies, we would expect him, of all people, to consider his experience some sort of revelatory gift. He clearly does not. He is running from it. He is in horror of it returning to claim him. He does not want any more encounters with the numinous 

Although the critical works of  S.T Joshi were considered, they are not widely cited here because I find his assertion that a large component in the backdrop of Dagon is the War slightly unconvincing. Of course it’s a fact that WWI drastically changed all the writers and philosophers of that era, I don’t find a great deal of evidence to suggest anything beyond the original setup that the protagonist is an escaped war prisoner has to do symbolically with the War. However I do find of note his opinion that we find creature such as those who populate Lovecraft’s mythos particularly frightening because “we are concerned with a non-human civilization that poses a threat to the dominance of humanity” (Joshi 64). What location can offer more possibility for  uncharted races that have existed far longer and far more successfully than humanity, and that at any time could break into our world, or worse, we could be sucked into theirs, than the deep?

The characters in both the movie and story version find only one way to escape the Hell they’ve stumbled into: suicide. We learn from the narrator of Lovecraft’s Dagon that he has decided “I can bear the torture no longer; and shall cast myself from this garret window into the squalid street below (“Dagon” paragraph 1). Similarly, in the movie version, when the main character learns he is to be mated to his mermaid/squidlike half-sister he immolates his gasoline, but is cast into the water and later “saved” by his sister/mate. 

Reviews of the movie Dagon were generally tepid, as evidenced by a 56% rating at the movie review and rating site, Rotten Tomatoes.  Rob Gonsalves’ review is fairly typical, so I shall excerpt it here and comment. He opines that this is one of the weaker of Stuart Gordon’s adaptations of  H.P. Lovecraft stories. His main objection to the movie is that it’s just not a lot of fun, as earlier Gordon film adaptations of Lovecraft stories, like Re-Animator were (Gonsalves “Rotten Tomatoes).  He goes on to answer the question as to whether Gordon’s movies are faithful the original Lovecraft stories by stating Gordon just takes an original premise and runs with it, which “never fails to piss off Lovecraft die-hards”, to which he replies: “deal with it.” (Gonsalves). In general, Gonsalves liked this movie, but didn’t believe it had similarity to the Lovecraft story. That seemed to be the consensus of most reviewers and Lovecraft fans, though the fans seemed to be a little more angry about it. 

In my opinion, I tend to agree with most of the movie-going and reviewing community. This is an alright movie, a little bit of a downer, and has virtually nothing to do with the story I read by Lovecraft, which I enjoyed immensely. I remember enjoying the movie more when I first saw it in the mid 1990’s, and it’s possible if I hadn’t read the story I would still have enjoyed it about that much. I don’t believe Gordon has done any great service to Lovecraft’s legacy with his films, and when I say that I mean I think he hasn’t really shown a lot of reverence or respect for the original intention of the author. H.P. Lovecraft was a damn good writer, and someone who knew his craft and also knew about theology, mythology and anthropology. There is a wealth of all three in the stories I have read so far, and if Gordon respected that, he would have taken more extensive measures to honor Lovecraft’s legacy rather than just seeming to capitalize off of it by “borrowing” the title and not being faithful to the content of the stories. Also, the cheap gimmicky tricks like having characters wear Miskatonic sweatshirts is just sort of goofy. In my opinion there’s a lot more in the stories that is worthy of being treated as serious movie material and I hope a good version of a movie like The Shadows Over Innsmouth is produced.

To sum, if one were to formulate an opinion about the writer H.P. Lovecraft from viewing the movies rather than formulate an opinion about the movies after reading the stories, that opinion would be based on far less credible sources than Lovecraft deserves. The movies: Re-Animator, From Beyond, Necronomicon, Dagon, The Unnamable are good horror flicks, but not necessarily good representations of the literary works of H.P Lovecraft. In particular, the movie Dagon, while a credible made horror movie, has very little likeness in quality or faithfulness, to the H.P. Lovecraft story.
                                                                                                                                 -Thomas L. Vaultonburg
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