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DVD Review: Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House

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Stuart Gordon’s late-career resurrection continues apace with the disquieting Dreams in the Witch-House. Gordon made his bones as the go-to (maybe the only) guy for watchable adaptations of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and he lives up to that identity with this, an episode of the uneven Showtime series Masters of Horror. This is not his best Lovecraft adaptation (Re-Animator will forever hold that title), but it’s the closest to the tone of the stories.

Witch-House sees grad student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) renting a room in a shabby part of town. The place is small and crummy — the clothes chest lacks bottoms in its drawers — but it’s cheap and there’s a cute single mother named Frances (Chelah Horsdal) living in the next room. Walter begins to suspect that things are not as they seem, however, when his work with string theory shows the shape of his room to possess the perfect diagram for an interdimensional portal.

And then the rat with the human face shows up. There are some sinister goings-on in this house dating back some 300 years, and it’s up to Walter to try and put a stop to it before history claims more victims. But how do you stop an ancient evil when your waking life is a nightmare?

Right from the title, it’s pretty clear that this is going to be a rubber-reality movie. Gordon’s introduction of this, with the reveal of Brown Jenkin (the man-faced rat), is well played – the revelation comes after a scene in which Walter fights off a rat in Frances’s room. We’re primed to expect more rats, but not rats with supernatural powers. From there, he blurs the lines between the dream world and the real world until they’re indistinguishable. (Interdimensional portals will do that.)

On the set of DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE, a crew member shows director Stuart Gordon how to perform the Crane Fist style.

What separates Witch-House from the normal variety of rubber-reality film is the use of the dream state to represent Walter’s loss of control in the situation. He starts as the confident hero figure; however, as the witch’s powers and intentions become defined, his resolve breaks down (for reasons, which the narrative makes clear). By the point of the climax, he’s a blubbering mess driven to insanity by forces beyond his comprehension or control. This is classic Lovecraft in its design – the Everyman who finds something that man was not meant to find. Gordon’s worked with Lovecraft’s material for so long that these ideas seem as much a part of his ethos as they do Lovecraft’s. (Even his non-Lovecraft projects have an air of these forbidden-knowledge thematics, i.e. King of the Ants.)

It’s up to Ezra Godden to make us understand why Walter becomes a blubbering mess, and it’s here that the film stumbles across its major weakness. Godden’s a repeat player in Gordon’s world, having also starred in Dagon, and he represents something from which a lot of later Gordon works suffer – his acting is likeable but a bit talent-deficient. He comes off blandly, and while he’s not as offensive as Chris McKenna (who single-handedly ruined King of the Ants); he’s also not really cut out for this type of work. He’s the kind of pleasant chap who plays second fiddle on a hit sitcom for a few years and then does movies on Lifetime and Sci-Fi.

Fortunately, Godden’s failings are not enough to sink this messed-up movie. Gordon’s moody direction blesses Witch-House with a thick sense of dread. His use of shadowy lighting not only amplifies the creepy atmosphere but also serves a thematic purpose, as it gives the idea of things half-seen. Moreover, his expertise in the genre keeps the hour-long running time lively and stuffed with sex and violence. It’s brisk and fairly amusing in a spooky way for about the first half.

Then the nastiness kicks in; the closer Walter gets to the truth, the grimmer the proceedings become. The climax to the narrative arc comes with an image so unexpected that my eyeballs nearly exploded from the shock. Gordon’s horror films thrive on this kind of taboo imagery (the key example being the ‘head’ scene from Re-Animator), but this may be the first time that there hasn’t been a black joke spring-loaded inside the grue. The message is clear: This is meant to shake you up and remove your safety net. It’s supposed to hurt. And after all, isn’t this what horror is supposed to feel like?

About the DVD extras: Anchor Bay’s double-stuffed DVD kicks off with a commentary featuring director Stuart Gordon and lead actor Ezra Godden. Gordon stays fairly chatty throughout, whether discussing the themes that ran through Lovecraft’s work (fear of women pops up a lot), the benefit of a limited-location script when shooting on a tight budget or the difficulty the cast and crew had in dealing with the story’s subject matter.

He also touches on the question of fidelity in adaptation, essentially saying that while he loves and respects the source, he’s not averse to changing things to better suit a film or tossing in extra sex and gore. (This may be why he’s one of the few who’ve managed to render Lovecraft successfully in the medium of cinema – he aims for fidelity of tone rather than fidelity of material.) Godden’s comments are sparser, but he does discuss how he prepares for roles like this, as well as offering his observation that rats are easier to work with than babies. Dagon, the previous collaboration between the two, is referred to as ‘that fish zombie movie.’

In addition, there are five featurettes:

Dreams, Darkness and Damnation: An Interview with Stuart Gordon: A lengthy and informative chat with Gordon about his background in theater, his early career successes and Witch-House. Best comment: After discussing the initial resistance to Re-Animator, since as a theater director, he was expected to make an art film, he mentions that the film went on to be a hit at Cannes, saying, “It was an art movie after all.” Best Witch-House trivia note: The rat in the film was named Mr. Happy.

Working With a Master: Stuart Gordon: Gordon’s working habits and strengths are discussed by people who’ve worked with him, resulting in a lot of flattery and some interesting tidbits (Gordon’s wife, for instance, reveals that he’s really quite squeamish). Ken Foree, who worked with him on From Beyond, jokingly complains that Gordon still owes him 5,000 lire; Barbara Crampton is still really, really hot.

On Set: An Interview With Chelah Horsdal: In an uncommonly insightful featurette, the actress who plays Frances worries that she may have ruined the infant actors’ future love life, theorizing that because of this film they’ll never want to date redheads. She also discusses the creation of a backstory for Frances to help her understand the character better and touches upon the idea of the narrative containing ‘twin mothers’ (a concept also advanced by Gordon in the commentary). Way better than Norman Reedus’s featurette on the Cigarette Burns DVD.

SFX: Meet Brown Jenkin: A quick piece where Howard Berger of KNB FX shows us the various puppets and robots (five in all) that went into the realization of the film’s rude rat-thing. It still blows my mind that this guy, responsible for a lot of the goriest effects of the last twenty years, just won an Oscar.

Behind the Scenes: The Making of Dreams in the Witch-House: A collage of making-of footage that offers a neat peek at Gordon’s low-key directorial style. While there’s nothing here as unduly amusing as Cigarette Burns‘s Udo Kier moaning, “This is gross!” we do get to see Stuart Gordon’s impersonation of David Byrne.

Also on the disc are still-photograph and storyboard galleries. The former provides a thorough look at all aspects of the production; the latter bears out Gordon’s garrulous talk of his storyboarding process, as three of the film’s major set pieces are laid out down to the last movement.

The extras are rounded out by trailers for the first eight episodes of Masters of Horror (also on the Cigarette Burns disc and, presumably, every disc to come) and an absurdly informative bio for Gordon. (I don’t know what’s cooler – that he gave David Mamet his first big break or that he, with frequent collaborator Brian Yuzna, came up with the idea for and was originally slated to direct Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.) Anchor Bay generally pulls out all the stops for their DVDs, and this is no exception. It’s a great package.

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About Steve Carlson

  • http://www.genericmugwump.com/ Aaron Fleming

    I thought the first half hour was enjoyable enough, but the latter half descended into a rather ropey silly mess. As I had read the story prior to watching it I was probably expecting too much, what with those esoteric dream sequences.

    But yeh, of course Gordon’s not gonna have them in there, and adaptations are going to be different. But this was far from his best Lovecraft adaptation, which I still hold is the extremely under-rated From Beyond.