Dagon (2001) Retrospective

Paul Marsh has a dream that he discovers a mermaid with razor-sharp teeth while scuba diving into a strange underwater building. Paul awakes on a boat off the shores of Spain, where he is vacationing with his girlfriend, Barbara, and their friends Vicki and Howard. A sudden storm blows their boat against some hidden rocks. Vicki is trapped below deck and Howard stays with her while Paul and Barbara take a lifeboat to the nearby fishing village of Imboca. During their absence, an unseen creature from the deep attacks the two in the boat.

On the shore, Barbara and Paul find no one about and venture into town until they eventually reach the church, where they find a priest. Barbara convinces him to help them, and the priest speaks with two fishermen at the docks, who volunteer to take either Paul or Barbara to the wreck. Despite Paul’s misgivings, Barbara stays to try to find a phone in order to call the police and a doctor while Paul goes to help their friends.


Vicki and Howard are mysteriously missing, however, and Paul is taken back to Imboca, where he is sent to the hotel that Barbara was supposed to have gone to. But she is missing as well and Paul is left to wait for her in an old, filthy hotel room, where he dreams of the mermaid again. His fitful rest is disturbed by a large gathering of strange, fish-like people approaching the hotel and is forced to flee. He ends up in a macabre tannery full of human skins, where he discovers Howard’s remains. He escapes the tannery by starting a fire and finds momentary safety with an old drunkard named Ezequiel, the last full-blooded human in Imboca.

Ezequiel explains to Paul that, many years ago, the village fell on lean times and turned from Catholicism to the worship of Dagon, converting the church into his temple. This brought marvelous wealth to Imboca in the form of fish and gold, but also horror when Dagon demanded blood sacrifices and human women to breed with. These were, respectively, the fates of Ezequiel’s father and mother. Paul begs Ezequiel to help him escape. Ezequiel relents and takes Paul to the Mayor’s manor, so he can steal the town’s only car. Ezequiel distracts some Imbocans long enough for Paul to slip inside, but he accidentally honks the horn while trying to hot-wire the engine. Forced to flee into the manor, Paul finds a beautiful woman named Uxia, the mermaid from his dreams. She saves him from discovery, but when he finds that she really is half-fish, he flees in horror, despite her pleas for him to stay.


Paul narrowly escapes a horde of villagers in the car, but ends up crashing. He is caught and thrown into a barn, where he is reunited with Vicki, Ezequiel, and Barbara. The three plan to escape, but the attempt is foiled. Having been raped and impregnated by Dagon, the traumatized Vicki kills herself. Paul and Ezequiel are separated from Barbara and end up in a butchery, where they are chained and given a chance to join the worship of Dagon. When they both refuse, Paul apologizes to Ezequiel, who thanks Paul for helping him to remember his mother and father, who died resisting Dagon and the cult. He is flayed alive before Paul’s eyes as they recite the 23rd Psalm together.

Paul is saved by the appearance of Uxia, who informs him that he has no choice but to join them. He offers to stay with her in return for Barbara’s release, but she insists that Barbara must stay and bear Dagon’s child. When Paul seems to concede, Uxia tells the priest of Dagon to make arrangements for their marriage. After Uxia leaves, Paul escapes, killing the guards and the priest. He starts looking for Barbara, collecting a can of kerosene on the way. When he reaches the church, apparently intending to burn it down, he instead discovers a hidden passage that leads below ground to a ritual chamber. There a congregation of Imbocans watch Uxia prepare Barbara to be offered to Dagon; she is chained by her wrists and lowered nude into a deep pit leading to the sea. While the Imbocan congregation and Uxia call to Dagon, Paul attacks, dousing several villagers in kerosene and setting them on fire. He winches Barbara back out of the pit, but Dagon has already raped her and she pleads with him to kill her. Paul refuses and the monstrous Dagon himself grabs Barbara and tears her bodily from the winch, claiming her as his new consort and leaving her severed hands and wrists still in their chains.


The uninjured Imbocans assault Paul, but are halted by Uxia and a monstrously deformed Imbocan who is revealed to be Uxia’s and Paul’s father. Uxia explains that Paul’s human mother escaped from Imboca years ago, but now that Paul has returned, he will be her lover and they will dwell with Dagon forever. Trapped, Paul pours the last of the kerosene over his own body and sets himself on fire. Uxia grabs him and dives into the water, where Paul sprouts gills. With no choice left, he follows Uxia down into Dagon’s undersea lair.

After over 15 years and a couple of false starts, the movie which should have followed up 1985’s surprise cult hit ReAnimator and 1986’s From Beyond has finally become a reality. Dagon is the third movie produced in Spain by Filmax under their Fantastic Factory label; following his appointment in 1999 as the Factory’s head (along with Julio Fernández), American producer Brian Yuzna at last found himself in a position to greenlight the project which he, Gordon and writer Dennis Paoli had intended to be the third in a series of Lovecraft adaptations.

For the record, the director stresses that the original script for Dagon predates the unrealized Shadow adaptation. “In actuality, this was a script we wrote a year after we did Re-Animator, Gordon reveals. “Brian Yuzna and I chose this story because it was Lovecraft’s scariest.”

“We tried to stay very faithful to Lovecraft,” Gordon notes. “I went back and reread both stories very carefully when we were working on the script. When we put the flashback in initially, it was a much more expanded sequence. We even showed them going to the South Sea island and meeting the native tribe that was worshipping Dagon, and it turned into a whole other movie. Working with Brian and Dennis, we boiled it down and focused on the impact on this town.”

In addition to returning to Lovecraft, Gordon relished the opportunity to make a movie with his old collaborators. Beyond the HPL films, he and Yuzna co-wrote the story for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and he worked on the scripts for the Yuzna directed The Dentist and Progeny. However, “Dagon is the first time since From Beyond where I was the director, Brian was the producer and Dennis was the writer, so it was a reunion of the group,” Gordon smiles. “It was quite wonderful. It’s a project that we started a long time ago and to actually, finally be able to make this movie after talking about it and dreaming about it for so long was great.”

The working dynamic between Gordon and Yuzna, as well as their friendship and mutual love for the material, has always been the heart of their successful collaboration. “Our relationship has stayed pretty much the same,” Gordon says. “We’re all friends. Brian is great, because he’s the opposite of your typical studio where they always try to tone everything down. He’ll keep saying, ‘I think you can make this a little bit weirder. Let’s see if you can make this more bizarre. Is there some way to make this scarier? Is there some way we can make this more outrageous?’ He challenges you. I always say we bring out the worst in each other.”

It was the job of production manager Llorenç Miquel to turn this appealing place into the sinister and threatening village of Imboca-a Galician rendering of Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. In this task, he has had an ally in the weather: The winter of 2000 is the wettest on record, and the perpetually rain-soaked cobbled alleyways and damp, grimy stone facades of the fishermen’s cottages help evoke a brooding atmosphere of gloom and doom-as well as putting the cast members through it!

The most intricate set built for the film was a dank, vaulted chamber in which the town’s sacrificial victim dangles over a deep well, awaiting the not-so-tender mercies of the ravenous Deep Ones. The scene involved two sets: that above the pit, and the pit itself. “We had a great production designer by the name of Llorenc Miquel,” said Gordon. “He built that pit, which was actually forty feet deep. It was interesting, because the exterior, the outside of the pit, was an actual location that we found. We built the mouth of the pit there and the actual interior of the pit was on a stage that was somewhere else. That was a large, forty foot pit, and we were able to open up the sides to get a camera in there. It was an enormous scene. We had people set on fire and everything. That sequence took about a week to shoot.”

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“The most difficult scenes were those where Paul and Barbara are in that little inflatable raft and in the open sea. There were days when you’d think we were making THE PERFECT STORM. I mean, these waves were twenty feet tall. We were in a camera boat close to them, but they were on their own. We also wanted the boat to look like it was deflating, so we had half the air taken out of it and water was added so they could be bailing. It could have been a dangerous situation. Raquel is a very feisty young lady—she began whooping and laughing as if she were on a roller coaster ride. No one else could complain after she did that. She was great, and so was Enza Gaston, who played Paul. He was very strong as well.”

Gordon was finally able to lens his production on the northwest coast of Spain, in the small coastal town of Combarro.

“It’s just above Portugal, on the Atlantic Ocean in an area called Galicia,” said Gordon. “It’s a Celtic Region of Spain, where they even play the bagpipes. It’s very Lovecraftian, with lots of superstitions about witches and ghosts there. Julio Fernandez, the owner of the Spanish company, comes from that area and he recommended it.
“It’s an ancient fishing village that goes back to medieval times, built on rock, and granite. On a sunny day it is very charming, but when it gets overcast it has this spooky feeling to it. We had our art department come in and board up some of the windows to make it look even more sinister then it would normally look.

“The inhabitants of the town were really great and are in some of the scenes. In the flashback scene where they’re pulling in the nets, those are the real people who live in the town.”

A sense of brooding dread permeates the atmosphere of the film, generated largely by the rain that constantly pelts the town and allows the inhabitants to hide their deformities beneath cloaks and rain gear. “We did use a lot of rain towers,” said Gordon, “but it is extremely rainy there, anyway. It’s like the Pacific Northwest in the United States. From fall until spring, it’s constantly raining. We shot this in December, and it was pouring rain all the time. We were soaking wet; it was the hardest shoot I’ve ever done. Fortunately, we had a good group, so they kept everyone’s spirits up.

“I don’t speak Spanish. I wish I did. I speak enough to get by. I was lucky that most of the actors I was able to get spoke English, although the language that they speak in that region is not Spanish, its Gallego. There are five different languages spoken in Spain.

“Imboca is the name of the (fictional) town. It is actually a play on words, because the town in the Lovecraft story is called Innsmouth, and imboca means ‘in your mouth.”

The weather was the biggest challenge facing Gordon and his crew. A sundrenched sky would not be conducive to the damp gloom that overhangs the town; this film demanded cloudy skies. “The thing that worried us the most was the weather,” said Gordon. “It was one of the few movies that, if it was a sunny day, we couldn’t shoot. The weather really had to cooperate, especially those scenes at the beginning on the boat where it starts out as a sunny day and then gets overcast and stormy. We were working with a real sailboat, so if it got too stormy we would worry because the boat was so close to the reef. All this stuff was beyond human control, really. Luckily, everything fell into place. There was one day when I said, ‘God is my gaffer.

Although the wide-eyed, twenty-two year-old Macarena Gomez is making her feature film debut, she has some Spanish television experience. Originally a dancer with extensive ballet training, Gomez studied acting in London—consequently, her English is excellent. This was a boon to the non-Spanish-speaking Gordon. As soon as the director saw Gomez he knew he had found his Usia. “Those enormous eyes of hers were wonderful,” he said. “She has an otherworldly quality, and she’s absolutely tiny. She has innocence about her but something evil as well, which is a real interesting mixture. When we were at a couple of fantasy festivals, people were comparing her to Barbara Steele. “She was also extremely brave. We were shooting her mermaid stuff in a tank. The water was freezing cold, and we were trying to warm it up. She had a stunt double who went in the water and jumped out immediately and said, ‘This is too cold, I can’t do this. ‘ I went to her and I told her that her stunt double had refused to work in the tank unless we warm it up. I assumed she would do the same, but she asked to try it and she ended up doing the whole scene. She’s a wonderful actress with a great attitude. That was the thing about this shoot: It was the most physically demanding shoot I’ve ever done, but the people involved were so terrific it turned out to be great fun.”


“At first I thought to myself, “My first movie audition and it’s with an American director-my God, what’ll he be like?'” Meroño says. “I expected to find myself face-to-face with some sort of very serious, po-faced guy, but when I met him I realized that he’s very accessible, really easy to talk to and open to suggestions, because he always takes the time to listen. I ended up calling Stuart ‘Papa Noel’ [Santa Claus].”


People may well admire Merono’s form during DAGON’s finale, but it will be her departure from this mortal coil that’s likely to leave the greatest impression. “What a good sport she is,” said Gordon. “I wanted that scene to be more disturbing. I wanted that last image of her to sort of stay with you. We joked about it and Raquel said ‘I guess I’m not going to be in the sequel.’ We wanted her death to really hurt. We wanted to twist expectations.

“We had so many people being set on fire in that scene that it took a full day. We had a whole stunt team doing that scene. In one sequence, we set four people on fire at once, which is rarely done. We had a great stunt coordinator.”

Another problem facing Gordon was the ability to get up to forty people in their nautical makeup—some with tentacles flapping from their faces-on-set at the same time. Each actor’s makeup could take up to several hours to apply. “The region inspired a lot of the makeup,” said Gordon. “They’re very fond of octopus dishes there, and you see a lot of octopus and squid. It seemed fitting that the characters transform into creatures like that. There was a lot of work done-after all, the mutation of each person would be different. We kind of looked at it as an illness: These guys are in the early stages; this is more advanced; and so forth. The final stage would be where they were ready to go into the ocean. We had a guy who was a choreographer and mime who worked with the actors and showed them how to play the movements of the different characters. There was a lot of attention given to that.

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One company that has been involved in all of Fantastic Factory’s productions (and a great many more besides) is the Barcelona-based FX firm DDT. For Dagon, the team (headed by founder David Martí) has been required to construct and apply the countless prosthetic appendages–notably shark like teeth, bulging eyeballs and webbed hands-that transform several cast members and a host of extras into the nightmarish progeny of the undersea monstrosity of the title. Their pièce de résistance, however, has to be the final unveiling of the fully mutated cult leader (appropriately named Xavier Combarro, after the real-life village location), a gooey, wheezing, gurgling abomination complete with spiny fins, rubbery membranes, goggling eyeballs and thick, slimy tentacles-a praiseworthy attempt to pull off a truly Lovecraftian monster with the fairly limited resources available.

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Macarena Gomez plays Usia, the nightmarish version of a mermaid-all beauty above the waist but a mass of slithering tentacles below—who haunts Paul’s dreams. When Paul first meets Usia, she’s in bed and it is only when she uncovers her “legs” that he realizes the horror that confronts him. “That was a mechanical effect,” Gordon explained. “The whole bottom of her body was mechanical. We used CGI for the shot where the tentacles come out of her mouth. When you see her slithering across the ground, it was a combination of the two.”


“They did all the makeup effects,” said Gordon. “An incredible guy named David Marci is the genius who runs that company he got his training with Dick Smith. He’s top-notch in terms of prosthetic effects and mechanical effects. I was pretty involved in designing the look and working it out with him. He did an incredible job, as you can see with a town full of monsters. It took about a year to make the film and put it together.”

Early in the film, the establishing shot of the village of Imboca as seen from the sea-which would once have been a classic glass matte job-will provide the first display of their CGI work. It’s a panoramic vista of the crumbling cluster of waterfront dwellings, with the Gothic pile of Xavier Combarro’s mansion looming on a hillside in the background More digital retouching is required to get around a potential continuity problem. The traditional Galician hórreoswooden grain stores built up on stone legs-are especially plentiful in Combarro, and at one point in the plot, the heroes are held captive inside one of them. In keeping with Spain’s Catholic past, these constructions are usually adorned with prominent crosses on the roofs. However, according to the story, the inhabitants of Imboca have spurned Christianity and embraced the cult of Dagon. A little digital trickery will transform the symbols into pagan icons.

Stuart Gordon

Carlos Fernández
Julio Fernández
Miguel Torrente
Brian Yuzna

Dennis Paoli

Carles Cases

Ezra Godden as Paul Marsh
Francisco Rabal as Ezequiel
Raquel Meroño as Barbara
Macarena Gómez as Uxía Cambarro
Brendan Price as Howard
Birgit Bofarull as Vicki
Uxía Blanco as Ezequiel’s mother
Ferran Lahoz as Priest
Joan Minguell as Xavier Cambarro

Cinefantastique v34n06

2 thoughts on “Dagon (2001) Retrospective

  1. Great review and overview of an excellent movie. One of Gordon’s lesser works, but one of his best. For me, his second best after Re-Animator.

    Liked by 1 person

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