Dagon (DVD)

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Dagon (DVD)

In its finished form, Stuart Gordon's micro-budgeted Dagon runs about 95 minutes, but it could be a minute tighter without the dozen or so Spanish financiers listed in the opening credits, which is like the director's equivalent of rattling a can on a street corner. It's a sad reality that smart, ambitious, independent horror films—even from Gordon, the director of the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator—have no place in American theaters. Instead, they're quietly shuffled off to video and DVD outlets, where they face the additional indignity of competing for shelf space with the latest Maniac Cop sequel. But the credits are the only place where Gordon's meticulous production seems scraped together; as with his best work, he makes the most out of limited resources, and his keen attention to craft transcends budgetary considerations. Gordon and his longtime collaborators, producer Brian Yuzna and screenwriter Dennis Paoli, originally intended Dagon as a follow-up to Re-Animator and the next horror-comic vehicle for its star, eerily funny cult icon Jeffrey Combs. The Gordon of yesteryear would likely have pushed Re-Animator's slapstick kineticism to the fore, but now his style seems relatively stately, with an emphasis on macabre atmosphere and a story that's slower to reveal itself. On one of two DVD commentary tracks, Gordon and unknown lead actor Ezra Godden talk about Harold Lloyd as an influence, but Godden's similarities to Combs are uncanny, as if Gordon were Jimmy Stewart molding a second Kim Novak in Vertigo. Defined by a pair of dark-rimmed glasses that fog up or slip off at inopportune moments, Godden plays a newly rich investor turned reluctant hero when his friend's yacht smashes on the rocks near the Spanish coastline. With their friends trapped below deck, he and girlfriend Raquel Meroño seek help in the nearby fishing village of Imboca, but find the town overrun by strange, zombified inhabitants. As the mutants chase him through the streets, Godden comes across an old drunk (the late Buñuel favorite Francisco Rabal, speaking in shattered English), who tells of the town's pagan allegiance to Dagon, an ancient sea creature in need of fresh human sacrifices. Dollar for dollar, Gordon gets more out of expressive lighting, old-fashioned creature makeup, and sparing (though surprisingly terrific) CGI effects than most filmmakers do on vastly bigger budgets. Dagon's first half, especially, makes the village's past and present come alive through a creepy, suggestive gothic ambience, occasionally punctuated by well-placed jolts of violence. Once all the twists are revealed, however, Dagon settles for a rote finale, losing some of its distinctive flavor to ritualized nudity and gore. But even then, Gordon has the courage to take his vision straight into a dreamy, frightening abyss.

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