I’ve been thinking a lot about Castle Freak and the origins of both the original and the remake, where Stuart Gordon and Tate Steinsiek along with Dennis Paoli and Kathy Charles respectively draw from and adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s stories to create their own cinematic narratives. In my own article on Gordon and Paoli’s Castle Freak, I considered what would happen if they — or someone else — had told the story of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and used that protagonist to replace Randolph Carter in “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”: essentially stitching together another story to tell a whole other tale. In fact, I’ve engaged in similar speculation before when considering what might have happened if in their cinematic adaptation of From Beyond, someone had incorporated elements of “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” and “The Thing on the Doorstep” alongside “From Beyond” to create a whole other kind of narrative.
All of this thought is derived from my experience watching Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space, which is an adaptation of Lovecraft’s novella of the same name: where Stanley takes the main story, which is meatier — if you will pardon the unintentional pun with the word meteor given the story premise — and made it feel like it was part of Lovecraft’s whole Cthulhu Mythos on screen through word-dropping names, institutions and geographical locations: with the potential to explore more through The Dunwich Horror. Stanley seems to want to continue through “The Dunwich Horror” while Steinsiek and Charles have already grafted it onto Gordon’s offspring derived from “The Outsider” and seem to want to go and make their own retroactive mutation of Re-Animator: though how much of it will be from Gordon, or from the serialized narrative of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” with their own twist is another matter entirely.
I find it interesting how when thinking about Castle Freak I wanted to go the entire ghouls and Dreamlands route, where there is a thin line between the waking world and dreams reaching into inhuman realities in a sort of terrible dark fantastic odyssey — definitely a part of the Cthulhu Mythos with “The Dream-Quest” and “Pickman’s Model” — while Steinsiek and Charles went into some good old Yog-Sothothery with “The Dunwich Horror” grafting.
But Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli also had to expand on the matter of another reanimated Mythos experiment much in the way Steinsiek and Charles did, and West might have done as a filmmaker utilizing the bodies of other stories as he did during his stint with his partner in one of the serials — or chapters — set in World War I.
I am thinking about Dagon. And by focusing on Dagon, I am looking at Lovecraft’s infamous novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and where else it leads. “Dagon” itself is the title to another Lovecraft short story about a former soldier who, after fleeing being captured by Imperial German forces, finds himself on a piece of land emerged from the ocean inhabited by non-human ruins, and what ultimately in later stories in the Mythos become the Deep Ones: aquatic humanoids that worship their own Great Old Ones. This unnamed protagonist is hospitalized after returning to civilization, and he attempts to kill himself when he can’t get anymore morphine to drown out the feelings of terror associated with his memories of dealing with the creatures, and the idols of their god Dagon, but there is this implication that at least one of them tracked him down to finish the job. This story is one of Lovecraft’s earliest to introduce the Cthulhu Mythos, and the rest of the elements of Dagon, and the Deep Ones are expanded in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
Gordon and Paoli themselves simply take the title of this first short story, or the name of the deity of Dagon, and simply adapt — or transplant — “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” into another clime entirely. Gordon and Paoli’s 2001 film Dagon takes place in Spain, in the town of Imboca: the equivalent to Innsmouth. The town itself is just as water-logged and rotten as the costal town in America. While Robert Olmstead in “The Shadow” is a student from Oberlin College fascinated with antiquarian studies and his own genealogy — a thing that never ends well in Lovecraft stories — Paul Marsh (played by Ezra Godden) had been a graduate of Miskatonic University, and is vacationing on a yacht with his girlfriend and their older friends before a storm seems to appear out of nowhere and force at least the two of them to seek help in Imboca.
Paul does have some foreboding about the situation as he’s been having dreams about a mermaid or siren beckoning him and revealing her fangs. He is also filled with no only a sense of dread, but as he says to his girlfriend Barbara (Raquel Meroño), a lack of purpose as well. There are also some unexplained pink slashes on his ribs at the very beginning film, and he is always having medication for a stomach ailment presumably caused by stress.
There are differences between the two stories: “Shadows” taking place during Prohibition, and Dagon in the early aughts, and the main character of the former being alone, and the latter having his friends and a lover as well as a female entity interested in his existence. The horror in the novella is more subtle through Olmstead’s description of smells, and the strange “Innsmouth look” of its inhabitants — that uncanny valley of not quite human tinged with no small amount of xenophobia in the writing, while it becomes very clear to Paul Marsh and Barbara that most of the people in Imboca are not human at all, and even those that pass are definitely not normal: almost ridiculously so.
The film is blatant about it. The people of Imboca are pretty ineffectual mobs who take too long in chasing Paul around, and lose him every time, whereas the citizens of Innsmouth slowly do subtle things such as manipulating the door locks at the inn that Olmstead is staying at, or conveniently making it clear the bus out of their town isn’t working so that they can grab him during the night. Olmstead is more worried about saving himself, while Paul wants to find his girlfriend who goes missing in Imboca: even after he is told that she’s dead.
Fascinatingly enough, :Robert Olmstead and Paul Marsh do see the gold that the Deep Ones are infamous for possessing, and the implements they make out of it. However, while Olmstead sees an example of an ornamental crown or tiara held at a museum, which the people of Innsmouth had been trying to get back for ages, Paul and Barbara simply see the priestly inhabitants — Imboca’s version of the Esoteric Order of Dagon that rules in Lovecraft’s Innsmouth — wearing them, and in particular their High Priestess.
The designs of the Deep Ones, and the Deep One-human hybrids of Imboca are fairly on par with their descriptions from Lovecraft. Apparently, Bernie Wrightson — an American artist famous for his illustrations of Frankenstein, and being the co-creator of Swamp Thing — created many designs for what was going to be a Shadow Over Innsmouth film in 1991: some of which made it into the Dagon adaptation instead. The rituals of the Deep Ones are made clearer in Imboca, with many of them wearing the flayed skin of the humans they have captured for sacrifice and, presumably, food given that some of the bodies are being held with animal meat in storage. It’s strange because I don’t think the Deep Ones of Innsmouth eat humans, and they don’t wear human skins: for disguise, ritual, or otherwise, but it is an interesting conceit for the creepiness in that film. Like I said in my other post before this one, “nameless and blasphemous rites” which, surprisingly this time around are not orgies.
The parallels between the short story and the film are fairly straightforward, though Dagon tends to be more graphic and illustrate exactly what happens. Both Lovecraft’s Obed Marsh and Orpheus Cambarro are sea captains that corrupt their desperate towns respectively with promises of sea bounty, and gold: save that while Innsmouth had a massive human uprising that needed to be put down by the Deep Ones with their shoggoth servitors and Elder Signs, and the survivors were forced to interbreed with them, Imboca mostly had compliance with a few dissenters that were useful as sacrifices and examples of what happens when one defies the god Dagon.
Ezequiel, the old man is played by Francisco Rabal, is pretty much Imboca’s equivalent of Old Man Zadok (Zadok Allen) who is one of the few humans left in Innsmouth. Yet while Zadok mostly just tells the story of the Deep Ones infiltration and control of Innsmouth, going as far as to say Marsh found them during his travels in the Pacific and the Caroline Islands interbreeding with peoples there — and then being disposed of “off screen” for saying too much to an outsider — Ezequiel also explains his past, albeit with a very thick accent that’s easy to miss every other word, and actually helps Paul Marsh out until he is pretty much skinned alive by the priest of the village.
It is made clear that the Deep Ones have mated with humans in Imboca over a period of time, yet Dagon is different from “Shadow” as Dagon himself, this Great Old One from the sea, is more prevalent and puts on a physical appearance: going as far as to, of course, need human female sacrifices to … impregnate in the village’s rituals. This is what happens to one of their friends, and then eventually Barbara herself.
Robert Olmstead somehow manages to flee Innsmouth, perhaps even being let go, and informs the American government that — essentially — takes all of Innsmouth’s citizens into concentration camps, and even damages the underwater cities of the Deep Ones with their submarines. But Paul Marsh doesn’t run away, but attempts to set the church where the inhabitants conduct their rituals on fire … and fails. He fails to both rescue or kill Barbara, who is pregnant with Dagon’s brood, and to kill the rest of the villagers.
At the end, both Olmstead and Paul learn the terrifying truth of their origins. After Olmstead leaves Innsmouth and calls the authorities on them, he investigates his family tree and realizes that his grandmother Eliza Orne had been related to the Marsh family, and he begins to physically transform into a Deep One. This revelation: that he isn’t human, and he inadvertently committed genocide on his own people almost breaks Olmstead, bringing him almost to the brink of suicide by an automatic rifle. Instead, he dreams of his grandmother and ancestor Pth’thya-l’yi — who are still alive due to the immortal lifespans of the Deep Ones — and they order him back to them, to pay a penance for his actions but to nevertheless take his place among them. He ends up rescuing his cousin from a sanitorium who is more transformed than he is, and hopes to live out their lives in the underwater city of Y’ha-nthlei.
Paul Marsh meets the High Priestess Uxía Cambarro — the mermaid from his dreams — who almost seduces him, and it is only at the climax of the film that her father, who is mostly transforms, stops the villagers from killing Paul with the revelation that Paul is his son from a mother that fled Imboca, and the half-brother of Uxia. I didn’t know, when I first saw this film, that Paul’s last name was Marsh otherwise it would have been a dead giveaway as to who, or what, Paul truly is. Uxia and some of the other Imbocan villagers are strange in that they have octopus tentacles instead of amphibian features, seemingly another departure from Lovecraft’s depictions of Deep One physiology, though it may have been combined with aspects of Cthulhu. It is worth noting that I recall them reciting the chant “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” which refers to Cthulhu as opposed to Dagon, though Cthulhu is part of their pantheon, and is noted as such in “Shadows Over Innsmouth.”
Paul Marsh, realizing that he is a Deep One hybrid and having lost the woman he loves, and knowing his half-sister wants to be with him for all eternity with Dagon attempts to burn himself alive with kerosene (for some reason, the Deep Ones in Dagon possess a fear of fire), but Uxia stops him and throws the both of them into the grotto under the church, making the stripes on Paul’s ribs turn into gills and making his transformation complete. There is your usual horror cinema titillation with female nudity and sex scenes, especially in Stuart Gordon’s horror, though it is strange not to see Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs having any roles in this Lovecraft adaptation, considering they were in Re-Animator, From Beyond, and even Castle Freak. Dagon‘s production value feels a little wonky — especially in its special effects — but the ending is very Lovecraftian, and it fits well with its original source material.
Most of Lovecraft’s stories don’t have female characters in them, or relationships depicted, though sex here is illustrated as something grotesque and horrible much like Lovecraft would obliquely refer to it in his writing. And this becomes more prevalent in a film like Chad Ferrin’s 2020 film The Deep Ones.
The Deep Ones is a movie made almost two decades after Gordon and Paoli’s work, with a dedication to the memory of Gordon Stuart similar to that of the Castle Freak remake. Ferrin, the director and writer of this film, also does something with Innsmouth and Dagon. However, unlike Gordon and Paoli, he doesn’t take Innsmouth and attempt to transplant it into another geographical locale, but he attempts to reinvent it.
In this film, the characters do not find themselves in Innsmouth but a small, gated community off the Californian coast called Solar Beach. The cultists here, as the couple’s friend Deb comments, seem to be a tamer version of those who might attend the Burning Man Festival, but they resemble more the stereotype of swinger couples: of older men with younger wives that engage in communal rituals. Certainly, Russell Marsh — again, that old Marsh family — played by Robert Miano seems more like Hugh Hefner than the masked and deformed High Priest father from Dagon, or the shadowy and unseen Barnabas Marsh from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In fact, if anything Russell resembles more of a sea captain, at least in aesthetic: which would make him closer to an Obed Marsh of sorts. His wife, Ingrid Krauer, played by Silvia Spross has more of a Stepford Wife feel, as Kim Newman in his own review of the film notes about the entire situation.
The protagonists themselves are a couple named Alex and Petri (played by Gina La Piana and Johann Urb respectively) that are grieving over a miscarriage and attempting to heal and start over again at an Airbnb that is Russell and Ingrid’s home. The creepiness here isn’t so much the surroundings that look immaculate, even beautiful, but the incredible intrusiveness of the Marshes and their insular community. Literally, the entire house is secretly hooked up with surveillance cameras even as the Marshes invite themselves back into the Airbnb to “take care” of the younger couple, putting some unknown substance in their food, and having their doctor friend, who for some reason is played by the actor Timothy Muskatell in drag, take a urine sample from Alex to look at her fertility.
You can already see where this is going. Hell, even the gate outside of the Marsh residence made Airbnb has the same Esoteric Order of Dagon symbol as the one in the church in Gordon and Paoli’s Dagon. And the good doctor’s husband, who helps host their party at their own residence for the younger couple, has the first name Obed. The cultists themselves do not look mutated, or have that strange fish-like Innsmouth look. In fact, they just resemble affluent rich white American citizens but it is their blandness that makes them so disturbing, and their pervasive, reasonable explanations for strange things. This pervasiveness does become a little heavy-handed when Russell is able to hypnotize Petri with his gold cigarette case: making him “look into the light.”
As far as I know, Deep Ones and their followers in Lovecraft aren’t capable of hypnotism or even changing people without Deep One blood into something inhuman. It was smoother for me with Dagon because we find out Paul is a Hybrid like his half-sister Uxia and from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” we now they can communicate with each other in some kind of communal dream which, given the fact that they are related to — and even worship Cthulhu, especially given how they also make that iconic chant to him “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Iä!” (Hail! … Cthulhu Dreams!”) — makes a lot of sense. But the fact that Russell uses gold to mesmerize Petri does track with the fact that the Deep Ones possess this ore with abundance and use it to maintain power over humans. Innsmouth did have a gold refinery created by Obed Marsh after all, and Dagon did bring gold to Imboca in the film of his name.
Again, fascinatingly enough, the Marshes and their neighbours have access to a special wine, which they ply Petri with in their seduction of him, that they create in their own personal refinery amongst their locally grown food substances: those Marshes and their refineries. It is also interesting to consider that Alex explains to Deb that Petri might see the father-figure in Russell that he lost with the death of his own father, and then you realize that Dagon in the Cthulhu Mythos is referred to as Father Dagon.
I’d tempted to think of The Deep Ones as something of its own genetic splicing with the Mythos by Ferrin, except for one other element. It isn’t the Deep Ones that we do see, which are few and far between, though there is a young girl with webbed fingers and a fish-face here and there. Rather, it is the addition of a fascinating character named Ambrose Zadok. This is the female analogue to Zadok Allen from “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” played by the excellent Kelli Maroney — and easily the best thing, aside from the villainousness of Robert Miano, about this film — who is looking for her lost daughter: a daughter that we realize isn’t missing, but was taken by the Solar Beach cult to their master Dagon. Ambrose is desperate, nearly deranged with grief and fear for her child, and her presence is explained away — gaslit — by the Sheriff who has never heard of Mayberry or Andy Griffith: I mean, seriously, these Deep Ones and their human converts are trying to infiltrate into human society, and they were doing so well. How couldn’t they know about the all-American Andy Griffith Show?
The cultists are indeed fairly good at seeming normal, but there is always something a little off, or a little zany about them. They are awkward, almost cringe-worthy in how they view the protagonists as potential converts … or sacrifices. Kim Newman mentions that their all-white upper-middle class background almost speaks volumes about privilege, and racism in Lovecraft and America. Just like in Dagon, we also see Dagon but the person playing him is smaller than the giant in Gordon and Paoli’s film, and like Paul Marsh and Barbara neither Alex nor Petri — like a dish where specimens are observed and experimented upon — escape, and they join the madness.
There are elements that put me off of The Deep Ones. The production value is different, almost made-for-television. The film’s over-reliance on the theremin’s sound effect for bizarre and creepiness becomes almost campy after a while, and I found that despite having Petri and Alex possessing their own little couple ritual based on how they first met, they were forgettable, and their friend Deb is irritating. In fact, I feel like they were lampoons of the normal white couple of privilege who have the resources to rent a high-end Airbnb, and can afford to ignore the bizarre nature of everything going on outside of their sphere, and the suffering of people like Ambrose Zadok until their final transformation into the Stepford cultists that they want to be. They start this entire film off wanting what the Solar Beach community wants: children and family, and they get exactly that. Granted, Alex does try to think of Ingrid — Marsh’s wife — when she and Deb realize she had been captive, as we’d seen at the beginning of the film, until seemingly brainwashed into becoming pregnant with Dagon’s child.
This is another aspect as well. It seems being pregnant with a child of Dagon is to have something of a symbiote that continues hypnosis by infiltrating the body: as we get with Ingrid’s womb-tentacle into Petri’s mouth after he’s first mesmerized. It’s similar to the tendril and eventual vaginal eye that comes out of Rebecca Whateley and her Freak sister in the Castle Freak remake as they are children of Yog-Sothoth. We also see in Dagon that Ingrid has the ability to psychically possess Petri after the death of her husband, and herself. Indeed, at the end of the film, both Alex and Petri are acting like Ingrid and Russell respectively when welcoming another couple into the Marsh home that now belongs to them. Aside from the symmetry of the film ending much like it begins, with a woman running and then succumbing to fear, and acceptance of the unknown, what seems to happen to Petri at least is reminiscent of the mind transfer ability seen in “The Thing on the Doorstep” with Asenath Waite, or Ephraim Waite, which is appropriate I suppose when you consider that these Lovecraft characters also came from Innsmouth, and perhaps learned that spell there.
When looking back at Chad Ferrin’s The Deep Ones, I can appreciate the Mythos elements and what he does with “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but I feel like there is a missed opportunity with Kelli Maroney’s Ambrose Zadok character. The interactions between her and Russell Marsh in her car, which he can somehow just go right into — which makes me think he and Ingrid do have some powers of their own — stand out the most, especially when he confronts her about how “she knew what she wanted” and “she knew the price.” That is a story all in itself, and I feel like that while it is appropriate that Deb dies being distracted by that creepy little Deep One Hybrid girl reminiscent of the children she’s left with her sitter, it may have been even more effective if that’s how Ambrose dies — with the implication that she made her own compromise with her daughter’s life and had second thoughts far too late — instead of being lured out with her voice, and all but killed off-screen.
I like to compare these films and their source material together. It makes me think about what a big production or an adaptation of “The Call of Cthulhu” might look like. Cthulhu, Father Dagon, and Mother Hydra represent a polytheistic idea of dreams and nightmares being one with reality, and how humankind is not that far removed from what they are. Water is another theme: a medium of magic that can call on, and summon things between worlds, or force us to see that they already exist among us: oddity hiding right in plain sight. I have always been interested in the Deep Ones, in the idea of people secretly having non-human ancestry that manifests and they become the beings that they are truly meant to be. I can even see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water playing with this idea: where the Amphibian Man can be seen as just as much of a Deep One as a Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Elisa Esposito is a Deep One-Hybrid abandoned by the side of a river: with slashes on her neck that become gills with the Amphibian Man. I’d love to compare “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and Dagon with The Shape of Water.
Suffice to say, that tropical literary embryonic tissue that Herbert West and his assistant experiment with keeps growing into different ligaments and directions, continues. I wonder what other mad scientists and filmmakers will make of it all next. Can we always see the same horror twice? Is it always going to be the same deep, dark, dream?