BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jul 23rd, 2002 •

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Malevolent humanoid life from the sea – I’ve been hungry for it ever since 1947’s MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID. Okay, Ann Blyth’s pouting invocation was just an ocean-dwelling ‘JAP’. But still it got me hot for whatever other seductresses were wiggling around in the deep. That and the writings of William Hope Hodgson.

Here are two very successful mermaid tales, one from the peerless imagination of H.P. Lovecraft, the other a melding of an old AIP cheapie with the Irish legend of the ‘silkie’. Both are well directed. Actually DAGON is one of the year’s better films, despite the fact that theatrical screenings are almost impossible to find. I caught it at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives. Director Stuart Gordon and Screenwriter Dennis Paoli were in attendance. When I told Gordon I thought it was his best film, he looked at me ambivalently – I guess you’re not supposed to say that to the man who made RE-ANIMATOR.*

I hardly need to acquaint you with H.P. Lovecraft. Underappreciated, or at least undercompensated, in his lifetime, the scholarly, neurotic New Englander wrote horror stories for pulp publications which profoundly influenced all horror thinking that followed. (For me, ‘The Color Out of Space’ rivals the best of Poe…in fact it rivals any short story I’ve ever read.) Predominantly mood pieces, they evoked a palpable dread of otherworldly, malignant civilizations pressing in on our own, determined to gain dominion. His overriding literary invention of the ‘Cthulu’ mythos was adopted and enlarged on by other writers in the field to the extent that historians and biographers later accepted it as real. ‘Dagon’ (1917) was his first published short story, and it was very short…not enough flesh and bones to hang a feature film on…so the filmmakers delved into a later story of similar bent, called ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ (1931), which contained an uncharacteristic amount of action for Lovecraft. Gordon mentions on the commentary track that the name of the Spanish town, translated into English, is ‘In the mouth.’
DAGON deals with a race of sea creatures that ooze up into a dank, lonely sea coast town. (80% of the film is drenched in rain, real or manufactured, a remarkable logistical challenge for the crew.) Four tourists happen upon this pernicious mise en scene after their boat encounters difficulties, and the rest involves one of them (Ezra Godden), a reluctant hero in the classic sense, on an unsettling search for help and a missing boatmate, descending deeper and deeper into a maelstrom of foul horrors.

Godden gives a harrowing performance; the story really disallows him any alternative. The commentary track reveals that the actor made the choice of wearing glasses due to his love of Harold Lloyd. Gordon states that in the third act, Godden obviously abandoned Lloyd and became Clint Eastwood. Not true; Lloyd would have gone just the way the protagonist does – his third acts typically became less humorous and more violent.

The cast also features an actress named Macarena Gomez, whose striking features have been compared with those of the iconic Barbara Steele (BLACK SUNDAY, 8 1/2) – an utterly unique, sinister beauty. I can’t go quite that far, but I would call her a meld between Steele and Mathilda May (from Tobe Hooper’s LIFE FORCE) I’m not sure she can act, but I’m certain she could seduce me into wrecking my ship on the shoals anytime she wanted.
Incidently, when Ms. Gomez speaks Dagon-ese in the film, she is actually speaking a real language. I challenge you to figure out which it is…before finding the answer on the commentary track.

The DVD has two commentary tracks, both featuring director Gordon, one with screenwriter Dennis Paoli, the other with actor Ezra Godden. On the first, the director and screenwriter spend much of the time discussing Lovecraft, which makes perfect sense since several of their films are based on the author’s work.

This is one to add to your home library. Even if horror is low on your list of favorite genres, there will arise occasions where you’ll want to lay your hands on one, and rather than have your guests cry “Not ‘The Exorcist’ again”, slap this one on them. Sadly for Gordon and company, though good for you, not that many folks will have seen it.SHE CREATURE is a fish story that hits all the right notes…except for logic. The production value, script, casting choices, performances, effects, lighting, direction…all these elements are highly satisfying and serve the same goal. It’s a warm, nostalgic piece that makes you feel as if you were visiting one of those classy old horror flicks of yesteryear, one that managed not to show its budget, and charmed and impressed even while it scared (and I’m not referring to the AIP library here – those budgets showed; think Hammer, and then some.) And the DVD mastering appears to recapture every detail, every rich color in the film’s palette, every suspenseful or shocking sound effect.

The year is 1905. Angus (gothic-faced Rufus Sewell), owns the eponymous Angus Shaw’s Roadside Attractions, and his good-natured girl friend with a past (Carla Gugino), who is the film’s protagonist, plays a mermaid in the side show. These two struggling young con artists stumble upon the real thing – a manacled mermaid in the basement tank of a loony old local (Aubrey Morris, in a pure Hammer turn). Shaw returns and takes it from its owner, much to their his and his girlfriend’s, and his sideshow cronies’, eventual regret.

The script has holes big enough for a tuna to swim through. But at the time, you may allow yourself to be swept up by the talented ensemble (in front of and behind the camera, and including the camera) and enjoy all the fanciful ideas. There are many references to mermaids in world history, and to their insidious modus operandi, many of which are referenced herein, but one that isn’t touched on is the ‘silkie’ of the Irish isles. Listen to ‘Joan Baez, Volume 2’, for her sensationally melancholy rendition of the song about a merman who comes up on land and impregnates a woman, then returns to the sea, only to return years later to claim his young son. SHE CREATURE, perhaps not intentionally, comes closest to this legend, and it has the Baez song’s poetry as well. It also injects a healthy dose of horror into the proceedings – which the song, wisely, chose only to imply – as well as its own, fanciful ideas which reside neither in mythology nor anywhere else but the filmmakers’ minds.

Just as SHE CREATURE, charming and effective though it is, is no DAGON, so Rya Kihlstedt, lovely and eerie as the title character, is no Macarena Gomez in the looks category. She is, however, the better actress; her interpretation is so creepy yet seductive, it’s hard to take your eyes off her, and that’s a siren’s gift. Curiously, her bio indicates that she has been choosing other film projects with titles suggestive of water-oriented scenarios, even if they don’t turn out to be: HUDSON RIVER BLUES, ARCTIC BLUE, and even DEEP IMPACT.

Carla Gugina, as Lillian, whose life is most perversely affected by the mermaid, is a compelling actress, though they give her a big montage in the second act (the by-now old-hat deNiro routine in front of a mirror) which stops the narrative flow cold. Did they need to pad the film in order to fit HBO’s time requirements? On the commentary track Shane Mahan reveals (much to Stan Winston’s surprise) that the director is currently dating his leading actress, but given the sincere work he did on the film, I find it hard to believe that writer/director Gutierrez would showcase her talent in a way that sacrifices the film’s drive.

Gutierrez, a surprisingly young guy (as seen in the paltry ‘making of’ doc) is not on the commentary track. That honor goes to Special Makeup artists Stan Winston and Shane Mahan. It’s Winston’s company that co-originated the gig, but he pretty much kept hands off, letting Mahan supervise all the films in the HBO series. The two of them ramble on, heartily enjoying their own banter, to the point where it becomes offputting. However, midway in they indulge in some lighthearted gay humor as regards the cast and themselves, which may not have been exactly ‘pc’, but sure goosed up the commentary. Many facts also come to light which further ennoble the film team, such as that it took seven artists three weeks to come up with designs for the mermaid,(with spectacular results), and that it was a mere eighteen day shoot. And it’s amusing to hear that the film is really a remake of WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, and was meant to be released under that name, which explains several references to the mermaid as a ‘colossal beast’ in the script, but the title was changed on them to another AIP entrée which bore less of a resemblance to the script.

I’m thrilled to own this sweet little gem, and I recommend it to you. DAGON is a work of art; SHE CREATURE isn’t, quite. But it’s still a keeper, if your shelves have more than enough room.

*. If you want to see DAGON on a big screen, go to Salem, Massachusetts, on Saturday, October 26th. It’s a fun place to be anyway on Halloween weekend, but at the Museum Place Cinemas at 1 Church Street, filmmaker Rob Fitz (GOD OF VAMPIRES) will be showing several horror classics from noon to midnight as part of his Horror Fest 2002, and evening selections will include DAGON (Gordon’s own 35mm prints), and Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

(Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment) 2002.
98 mins / Rated ‘R’ / 16X9 formatting of 1.78.1 aspect ratio / Dolby Digital

DVD Features:
Production commentary with Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli.
Production commentary with Gordon and Ezra Godden. Storyboards. Production Artwork. Trailer

Directed by Stuart Gordon.
Screenplay by Dennis Paoli.
Creative Producer Brian Yuzna.
Production Designer – Llorenc Miguel.
Director of Photography – Carlos Auarez.

Ezra Godden, Francisco Rabal, Raquel Merono, Macarena Gomez.

(Columbia/TriStar) 2001.
89 mins / Rated ‘R’ / Both Widescreen and full screen versions / Formatted for 16X9 sets / Dolby Digital.

DVD Features:
Creature EFX commentary by Stan Winston and Shane Mahan (in charge of effects for ‘Creature Features’ series). ‘Making of’ Featurette.
Photo Gallery.

Written and Directed by Sebastian Gutierrez.
Produced by Lou Arkoff, Stan Winston and Colleen Camp. Director of Photography – Tom Callaway.
Music by David Reynolds.
Production Designer – Jerry Fleming.

Rufus Sewell, Carla Gugino, Aubrey Morris and Rya Kihlstedt.

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