We continue our article of Stuart Gordon with part 2 of 3 from last week's article "Ranking Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft Saga."
3). Castle Freak (1995): From the ashes of the fallen Empire Pictures, founder Charles Band formed his flagship, Full Moon Entertainment, to begin producing low-budget films for the rising direct-to-video market. While visiting Band’s office, Gordon noticed a poster of a hunchback being whipped. When asked, Band said, “that’s our new film,” Castle Freak. We have a castle, and we have a freak. We have no script from there.” Gordon asked for the project, knowing that working with the low budget would give him creative freedom. Thus Castle Freak went into production as a loose adaptation/continuation of Lovecraft’s The Outsider, in the vein of From Beyond, building from its source material.
The short story is a pretty straightforward one; a man in complete isolation for his entire life finally breaks free of his chamber. While exploring, the first living being he encounters is the most terrifying creature he has ever imagined. The twist is that he’s looking in a mirror. It’s an ending that leaves the reader feeling sympathetic for the narrator’s devastation, and one of a few that doesn’t end in madness.
The film follows a family of three who visit an Italian castle that the father recently inherited, being the only living heir to the Duchess. However, the Duchess’ deformed son, the titular Freak, has been chained in the basement for his entire life and has only known torture as a companion. After breaking free, the freak roams the castle, undetected by the parents. However, Rebecca, the blind daughter, can hear the freak, as he takes a lecherous fascination with her.
You probably know where this is going. The majority of the plot is Rebecca trying to convince her parents, John and Susan, that there’s something in the castle with them, but they’re too preoccupied with their failing marriage to believe her, though John does begin to suspect there’s something haunting the place. This attempt at mystery would play better if the freak wasn’t already established beforehand.
In a similar twist to Dagon later on, we learn that John and the freak are half siblings due to John’s father running off with the sister of the Duchess, leaving her with their deformed offspring. John, in an effort to save his family from the sickening intentions of the freak, throws him and the half-brother off the roof of the castle.
The majority of the plot is a lot of padding, mainly focusing on Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton arguing, which gets on your nerves after a while. Realistically, yes, they establish that John’s drunk driving caused the blindness in Rebecca and caused the death of their son, but there’s never really a moment where they try to even talk about it for long. John is basically just a punching bag until his moment of heroism, taking insults from Susan, and harassment from a police official who is the main reason they don’t just leave the castle. Jessica Dollarhide’s Rebecca is really only in the movie to be undermined and potentially abused by the film’s monster, which is definitely not the best representation for a female or those with a physical handicap. This recurring trope does get a little old after a while.
The only real form of praise is the look of the freak, an absolutely disgusting full body suit that slowly loses the bandages covering it, revealing more impressive detail. That, plus performer, Johnathan Fuller’s commitment to such a horrific character with little humanity or real dimension.
Otherwise, this is by far the weakest entry and a good runner for Stuart Gordon’s weakest film. Despite having freedom of creativity, the film feels like it was made on a rushed schedule. The handheld camera feels unwarranted and doesn’t really give the location any sense of weight or scale. The violin score by Band’s brother, Richard, is distractingly upbeat for the type of narrative Gordon was going for. This is the same composer as Re-Animator and From Beyond I should add.
An unfortunate throw-away of an interesting concept, but a remake of this one is completed and awaiting a festival release, so fingers crossed that this concept can be taken in a direction worthy of it.
4). Dagon (2001): Probably the most ambitious film Gordon was able to direct, Dagon has the most locations, sets, extras, and scope of any of the films on this list. It’s dark, gritty, and almost oozes with its slimy atmosphere. The film feels slippery, with every scene incorporating water in some capacity, and the handheld cinematography enhances the disorientating sensation like the viewer is about to drown. The creature effects look pretty top notch, at times. I really want to like this film, but Dagon and the other subsequent entries lack one necessary element: it’s not fun.
Originally written back in the 80's and intended for a 1991 release, the film proved too expensive for the time. It was shelved until producer Brian Yuzna co-founded Fantastic Factory, a Spanish co-production company in the vein of Empire, and produced genre-fair on a budget (including the underrated Faust: Love of the Damned). With production moving to Spain, the location of the setting, Innsmouth, New England, was changed to an island village called Imboca. Oh, did I forget to mention that Dagon is an adaptation of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" rather than the "Dagon" short story? Well, now that we have that sorted out...
While on vacation off the coast of Spain, stockbroker Paul Marsh, his girlfriend Barbara, and his wealthy friends/maybe employers, Howard and Vickie (their relationship isn’t really looked into), are caught in a freak rainstorm. Their boat crashes into a rock, pinning Vickie, and sends Paul and Barbara to seek help on shore. On land, the two are split up, as Paul, along with two locals return to the now deserted boat, while Barbara goes to find a phone.
Paul returns empty-handed to a hotel in Imboca, where nobody can tell him of Barbara’s whereabouts. From there, the majority of the film becomes a survival horror/chase movie as the villagers, who are revealed to be Deep-Ones, (or just Fish People), hunt Paul down for their deity, Dagon. Another element in the film’s favor is that Paul is actually resourceful and able to think quickly on his feet, despite his situation. Being a man who has most likely never been in a fight, the action scenes are appropriately awkward as Paul goes toe to toe with humanoids unequipped to be on land for very long. Where the Deep-Ones are a threat in numbers, they are mostly easy to dispatch in single doses.
Along the way, Paul stumbles upon Ezequiel, the town’s resident old drunk, and the last full human in the town. Ezequiel relays how 70 years prior, Imboca fell on hard times. The residents were poor and starving, and turned from Catholicism to worshipping Dagon, after one of his followers brought fish and gold with a ceremony in his name. In return, Dagon desired blood sacrifices and fertile women (hence the generation of human/fish hybrids). Ezequiel, being a harmless drunk, is pretty much just left alone to his own vices. He reluctantly leads Paul to the mayor’s manor in an attempt to steal the only car in town.
Unable to hotwire a car from the 1940's, Paul draws attention to himself and flees into the manor. He discovers the mayor’s daughter, Uxia, whose image he has seen in dreams. She keeps Paul safe from her father, but Paul flees at the discovery that Uxia is a mermaid with large tentacles in the place of her legs.
This all builds up to Paul confronting the villagers before they can offer Barbara to Dagon in exchange for a longer life-span. Paul fails, and Barbara is dragged down into the ocean by Dagon’s CGI form. Uxia reveals to a distraught Paul that she and Paul are siblings and that Paul’s human mother fled Imboca with him; however, now that he has returned, the two of them are destined to be intertwined in Dagon’s domain. This explains the shared dreams. Unable to go on, Paul attempts to free himself through self-immolation, but Uxia throws herself and Paul’s burning body into the pit. Underwater, and with the flames put out, Paul’s gills sprout, and he follows Uxia to Dagon’s domain.
It’s a pretty heavy and bleak ending, failing to save your loved ones and now trapped with their killers, unable to die. It’s an element that almost saves the film. All of Gordon’s Lovecraft films have bleak endings in fact, but Dagon’s overall dower feel leaves the viewer drained by the end. There’s no levity, and no intentional humor. Where it exceeds in capturing the feel of the short story, Dagon sacrifices a sense of charms. What we do get is laughably bad CGI that stands out like a sore thumb against the previously praised, practical elements.
Had this film been made in its initial time, Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton would most likely have been cast as our human leads. Here, Paul is played by Jeffery Combs lookalike, Ezra Godden, who is able to carry the film by being in 95 percent of the runtime. Sadly, Raquel Meroño, Brendan Price, Birgit Bofarull as Barbara, Howard, and Vicki are under-directed and underused throughout. Howard is gone after two scenes, with Barbara and Vicki’s only purpose in the script to be captured and be subjected to off-screen violation by Dagon. Macarena Gómez as Uxia is an underused highlight, as she’s the only one who feels like a Stuart Gordon character, wide-eyed and able to project. I’d have to really dock this film points if it got a mermaid wrong. However, a real stand out is the final performance of acclaimed Spanish actor, Francisco Rabal, as Ezequiel, who enters the grand tradition of classically trained actors participating in low budget horror in their twilight years. Rabal, despite his frail state, shows commitment to the craft and gives humanity to what amounts to a throwaway character.
Dagon by itself is a solid film, and a solid adaptation of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." It’s just an out of place film for Gordon. Though I appreciate this film for standing out, I can only chalk this one up as an acquired taste. It has its moments, but with how little it gives some of its characters to do, I can only defend it so much. It honestly missed a glorious opportunity to have Combs and Crampton play Howard and Vicki, just for fan service.
Be sure to tune in next week for our final segment part 3 of 3.
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