Judge Russell Engebretson quickly surmised that the Witch House is a bad place to catch forty winks.
"The real secret of making horror movies is to go too far."—Stuart Gordon
Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden, Dagon), a Miskatonic University math student working on his thesis, seeks cheap, quiet lodging in the town of Arkham, Massachusetts. He finds a room for rent in a rather sinister old house built sometime in the mid-1600s. After a bit of dickering with the surly landlord, Walter moves in and unpacks his meager belongings. Later that evening, while doing calculations on his laptop computer, Walter notices a startling resemblance between his geometrical computer graphic and an oddly angled juxtaposition of ceiling and walls in his room. His musings are interrupted by frantic screams from the other side of his wall. He sprints into the hall and finds his next-door neighbor clutching her baby and pirouetting about her room as she tries to fend off an attacking rat.
After chasing off the rat, Walter learns his neighbor is Frances Elwood (Chelah Horsdal), a single mother who is two months behind on her rent and about to be evicted. During one of their visits, he explains his studies on string theory and how he believes that intersecting dimensions might create a gateway from one universe to another. They take a liking to one another, but their nascent relationship is jeopardized as Walter finds himself subject to bizarre visions of a human-faced rat, and later a witch-like figure that seems to slip into his room by way of the strangely angled corner.
This 55 minute feature—the fifth of thirteen episodes shot for the Showtime cable channel—was conceived by creator Mick Garris as a showcase for well-known (and some not so well-known) horror movie directors. It was meant to be a series that would not be constrained by any form of censorship. Violence, gore, and taboo subjects were encouraged. This particular episode was helmed by Stuart Gordon and scripted by Gordon and Dennis Paoli.
Dreams in the Witch House is a reworking of the H.P. Lovecraft short story of the same name. Stuart Gordon alters the story by placing it in the present rather than the 1930s, and he adds the characters of Frances Elwood and her infant son, Danny. There are other differences between the script and story, but the movie does a fine job of conveying Lovecraft's bleak vision of humankind, one in which our reality is a flimsy construct to protect us from beings of unspeakable malignancy that lurk on the "outside," relentlessly seeking an entrance from their plane of existence into ours.
Director Stuart Gordon places a premium on characterization. H.P. Lovecraft was concerned mainly with the depiction of a cosmic struggle—one that humans were fated to lose—against evil, unfathomable beings. Although Gordon (along with the typical horror aficionado) admires Lovecraft's stories, he understands that the author does not translate well to the movie screen. Lovecraft's fiction is littered with flat, passive characters, doomed to fail by their inaction (and just what can a person do when only a glimpse of an Outsider is enough to drive one mad?) Stuart Gordon adds characters to the Lovecraftian mythology that the viewer can identify with and care about, which of course is how suspense is generated. You do not want to see these people suffer or come to harm, and Gordon has mastered the art of when to twist the knife in just the right places to make the audience squirm.
The film's avert-your-eyes squirm factor owes a large debt to the wonderful cast. Every actor's performance here is spot-on. Ezra Godden, who is in almost every scene, is the quintessential nice guy—smart, slightly shy, and completely likable. For this role, he loses the black horn rim glasses and Woody Allen mannerisms that he affected in Dagon. The Allen shtick worked well in that film (it was done at director Gordon's suggestion), but that approach for Dreams in the Witch House would not have been suitable for the character of Walter Gilman. Godden plays it just right. Chelah Horsdal, an actor I had never seen, is simply remarkable in the role of a vulnerable, protective mother. The repulsive human faced rat (played by Yevgen Voronin, a Checkoslovakian magician) manages to be simultaneously funny and disturbing. According to Gordon, his rodent-like face required a minimum of make-up.
In addition to the small, fine cast, the atmospheric setting provides the requisite amount of creepiness to the proceedings. For the horror movie, as in real estate, location is everything—and Stuart Gordon certainly has an eye for the perfect location. Dagon may have been filmed in Spain, but the decaying fishing village was an uncanny simulacrum of Lovecraft's fictional city of Innsmouth. Likewise, the ancient house with its peeling white paint and black windows is precisely the Witch House I imagined when reading the story. Gordon also eschewed the use of CGI, which he feels many viewers are beginning to find tiresome, and instead used puppetry, trained rats, and real-time lighting effects. Thanks to the copious gore and short nude scene, the film has the look of a late 70s to mid 80s horror film (and that is intended as a compliment). Considering the wee budget and brutally short film schedule, this short feature is a triumph.
The DVD sports a first rate anamorphic transfer. The picture is sharp, clear, and displays good contrast with plenty of shadow detail even in the darkest interior scenes. The Dolby 5.1 surround is clear during the softer dialogue and handles the screams and musical crescendos with aplomb; the rear channels kick in to good effect when needed without sounding intrusive.
The extra features are numerous and uniformly excellent. Even if you don't care for this particular Stuart Gordon offering, the extras are indispensable for a Gordon fan. The film at hand is discussed in some detail, but there is plenty of retrospective material that covers Gordon's career all the way from his stage troupe, the Organic Theater, to the present day. One of the extras is a PDF file of the script. A comparison of the movie to the script indicates that some trimming was done. In spite of the overall fine performances, I think the film might have benefited from an additional twenty minutes or so of dialogue and a slower buildup to the climax. In any case, it's a low priced DVD and worth a purchase just to hear Stuart Gordon's wife describe her husband's squeamish reaction to gore laden films.
I have not seen any of the other programs in this series, but I was impressed by this episode. I must admit that I have a fondness for several of Gordon's Lovecraftian outings, in particular Re-Animator (everyone's favorite), From Beyond (still not available on DVD in the U.S.), and Dagon (released as a direct-to-DVD transfer and rather poorly received stateside, but according to Gordon's wife, quite popular in Europe).
In one of the featurettes, Gordon expresses real surprise that his usually supportive wife was upset by the direction the script took. I don't believe I'm giving away too much when I say that there is no happy ending in store, and the denouement might disturb some viewers. But if you're a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and Stuart Gordon, resistance is futile—just buy the damned thing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Dreams, Darkness, and Damnation: An Interview with Stuart Gordon
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