Today I watched Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2001)
Loosely based on the H.P. Lovecraft story The Shadow Over Innsmouth and not his story named Dagon ironically, this film is another entry in Stuart Gordon’s long list of Lovecraft adaptations. It goes without saying that he is the preeminent film maker of said adaptations, no one does it like him, or as often. The story here concerns a young stock market millionaire who is supposed to be on vacation off the coast of Spain but just can’t relax. Him, his girlfriend, and their two boat owning friends don’t have much time though before a storm kicks up and they are stranded in a decrepit fishing village. Said village is inhabited by evil fish men who worship an evil sea god named Dagon, so obviously our protagonists have a problem.
In my opinion The Shadow Over Innsmouth may be one of Lovecraft’s most well written works, it’s also all about the horrors of interracial coupling. The film really tiptoes around the issue of it’s source material being so incredibly racist in a way many genre fans and critics often do. For some reason many of the people who defend and celebrate horror and fantasy art treat the deeper themes of the works in the same manner as the critics who deride it, conveniently forgetting that said themes do exist when they prove troublesome. H.P. Lovecraft was racist, he didn’t just live in racist times, he wrote this story about an alien force using interracial coupling as a method of attacking the civilized world.
Again though, the movie really tries to avoid the topic, implying that the fish men are the result of simple transmutation or the like. Yet, in the finale, the racism rears it’s ugly head and I will now spoil it for the purposes of discussing it. The film uses the same twist ending as the book in which the main character realizes he is already half fish person because his mother is from Innsmouth or the movie’s Spanish equivalent, and apparently being half a fish is a terrible fate for no reason offered other than ew, gross. In the film he even goes so far as to light himself on fire because he realized he is bi-racial. Now in his defense the fish people are the product of a god who demands human sacrifice and he is going to be forced into an incestuous relationship with a half sister he never knew. But still his actions are overboard and scream of the demonization of the different.
I do think that there is a way in which the essential tone of this story can be adapted with the racism and troubling morality removed, this is just not the one to do it. Because despite all his outdated ideals, Lovecraft did pioneer a unique brand of horror and helped bring the genre into a more cynical modern age. It can be easy to get caught up in that legacy though and to forget the problematic elements of his work when both sides of him deserve to be discussed equally. Because of it’s failure to address these fundamental issues when dealing with many Lovecraft works in a modern context, this film is a flop. 2/5