The only reason my title for this review describes “Dagon” as “one of the scariest movies ever made,” instead of as “the scariest movie ever made,” is because I haven’t seen every film.
It is certainly the scariest movie that I have watched.
The little known 2001 cult classic is based on H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 novella “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and is directed by Stuart Gordon, who adapted other Lovecraftian tales to the big screen including 1985’s “Re-Animator,” 1986’s “From Beyond” and the 2005 TV episode “Dreams in the Witch House.” The Lovecraftian mythology, filled with evil gods who view humans as playthings to be sadistically tormented, is vividly recreated. While the CGI effects are predictably poor, the makeup work is top notch and the set design transports you to a Spanish village both eerily familiar and menacingly otherworldly. Even some of the supporting characters stand out due to strong performances from cast members Francisco Rabal and Macarena Gomez.
These details are all indispensable to the appeal of “Dagon,” but at the end of the day I recommend this horror film because of how, well, horrifying it is.
This is a movie in which an old man has his face slowly peeled off of his bloody skull while he screams in agony. We see the skins of recently flayed characters, splayed out in the goriest fashion. The story is set in a town filled with grotesque mutants, former humans who have evolved to possess fish-like gills or cephalopod-ian appendages. When they gather to attack the innocent, their ferocious persistence and uncontrollable rage makes them seem truly formidable.
There are visuals in this movie that haunt me years after seeing them, that are burned into my brain. Some of them don’t even show the gore, but merely suggest it — the sweet lady trembling with fear because an evil god has impregnated her with demonic offspring, the grunting fish-people who drape corpse skin over their faces. Watching “Dagon” is like traveling through a haunted house; each scene, presented in the context of a very simple narrative, does its best to craft visual and visceral moments that stimulate nightmares.
The film even, on a philosophical level, offers a deeper level of horror. A key theme of Lovecraftian mythology is that it laughs at the concept of free will. Malevolent higher powers determine the course of your life long before you are conceived, and no effort on your part will take you off of the path on which you’ve been placed. It is the most nihilistic form of determinism imaginable. Worse than nihilistic, in fact, for it argues not that you don’t matter, but rather that creation itself actively hates you. Characters are directly told that they should surrender to fate rather than fight what they don’t like, and this advice proves accurate.
“Dagon” is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen because it appeals to every level of fear that exists in the human animal. It touches the nerves that recoil at hideous monsters, blood, guts, screams and the knowledge of terrible pain, and it whispers ominously to that part of your soul that suspects you have no control over what happens in your life, and that you are headed on a path to unimaginable suffering.
It is, in short, an absolute masterpiece. I recommend it to those who yearn for the liberation of plunging into living nightmares, and then returning to their banal regular lives. Everyone else will probably cringe, gag and turn it off.