Written by: Dennis Paoli & Stuart Gordon (teleplay), HP Lovecraft (short story)
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Ezra Godden, Campbell Lane and Jay Brazeau
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“She's comin'... She's coming for you."
The second episode of Masters of Horror features not one, but two masters in Stuart Gordon and H.P. Lovecraft, a combination that already conquered both the big screen and small screen multiple times before. This time, Gordon targeted Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House,” one of the author’s stories from his “Cthulhu mythos” that involves the typical Lovecraftian weirdness (in fact, it debuted in an issue of Weird Tales, appropriately enough).
Gordon’s adaptation transports the tale to modern times, where Miskatonic University grad student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) rents a cheap room in a decrepit boarding house. His neighbor is Frances Elwood (Chelah Horsdal), a young mother with an infant son who is struggling just to pay her rent; they bond over their mutual dislike of the dilapidated place, particularly its landlord (Jay Brazeau). After a few days, Walter begins to uncover the building’s sordid history, as it’s housed bloodshed and witchcraft for generations; now, he’s being targeted to carry out the witch’s next sacrifice.
Gordon is pretty much the cinematic authority when it comes to Lovecraft, though the results have been rather diminishing each time out. Re-Animator is the unquestionable masterpiece, which gave way to the minor pulp-classic From Beyond, which then begat a couple of DTV outings in Castle Freak and Dagon. So I suppose it follows that he’d eventually bring Lovecraft to TV, with this being a rather basic translation of the author’s vision to the screen. It’s a story that works well in short form (obviously), and Gordon cuts right to the weird heart of it, focusing on the dream sequences and the other oddities.
Since he’s not working with nearly the budget afforded him for his effects-laden masterstrokes, Gordon has to make due with small-scale weirdness, such as superimposing Yevgen Voronin’s face onto a body of a rat to realize the character of Brown Jenkin, the witch’s rodent harbinger. The effect is crude, but oddly effective, as are the dream sequences, marked by an ethereal light and sexual tricks that see the witch trying to seduce Walter into joining her. Gordon effectively compensates by delivering a suffocating feel of strangeness from the outset--Walter notices a crevice in the corner of his apartment, then bumps into a borderline insane old tenant that clues him in on the fact that he’s moved into the threshold of an inter-dimensional rift that the witch has used to carry out her work.
Unfortunately, a few touchstones have been omitted in the truncation; the original story ties the events back to 17th century Salem, and Walter’s nightly sojourns take him to some fantastic dreamscapes, such as cities of Lovecraft’s “Elder Things.” Lovecraft originally set the story around Walpurgis too, an oddly dropped detail that would have added a bit of atmosphere to the proceedings. Gordon is at least faithful to the story’s mean streak--it’s ballsy, violent, and even a little sad thanks to Gooden’s performance. He’s probably meant to subtly remind us of Jeffrey Combs, particularly his character in From Beyond, who was obsessed but good-natured, unlike his more infamously obsessed but cantankerous Herbert West. Anyway, Gooden is a good sad sack that eventually earns a lot of sympathy when he’s forced to commit heinous acts against his will, and his relationship with Horsdal adds some heft when she and her son also get drawn into the plot.
A cameo from the likes of Combs or Barbara Crampton probably would have been a nice nod--there’s certainly roles for each of them, but I guess it just wasn’t in the cards. Otherwise, I don’t have many complaints about Dreams In the Witch House, which earns a spot alongside Gordon’s other Lovecraft works (though you obviously adjust expectations considering the medium). It’s a bit of a stage-bound tale that thrives on the Lovecraftian unknown well enough, and it delivers a nice, gory shocker at its climax. Like its Masters of Horror cohorts, Anchor Bay released it to an features-packed disc that includes a commentary with Gordon and Gooden, five different behind-the-scenes looks that focus on the making of the film, trailers, a still gallery, a storyboard gallery and some DVD-ROM supplements. The presentation is similarly fine, as the anamorphic transfer is complimented by both 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo tracks. You can catch this one streaming on Netflix, but I think it’s good enough to earn a place on the shelf along with Gordon’s other Lovecraft works. Buy it!
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