Monday, April 17, 2006

Master's of Horror:
Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch House

“She has come. Your soul is in peril.”

This second installment in Showtime's Masters of Horror series features an adaptation of a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Stuart Gordon has made a career for himself adapting the works of H.P. Lovecraft to the screen. Quite a feat considering that many of Lovecraft's stories are virtually unfilmable. Gordon has a knack for finding the workable elements in Lovecraft's stories, making these films seem more like collaborations than adaptations. Re-animator and From Beyond may not be pure Lovecraft, but they are pretty wild rides in their own right.

I was concerned when I saw that Ezra Godden was starring in this episode. It was Godden's performance that, in my mind, sabotaged Gordon's previous Lovecraft adaptation Dagon. It seemed obvious that he had been cast for his physical resemblance to Jeffrey Combs, star of From Beyond and the Re-animator films, and Godden's character required a range he seemed incapable of displaying. This was unfortunate, since Dagon had some of purest Lovecraftian moments of any of Gordon's adaptations, but the film as a whole didn't work.

In Dreams in the Witch House, Godden plays Walter Gilman, a grad student at (where else?) Miskatonic University. He's working on his thesis in String Theory and he needs a cheap, quiet place to study. He finds just that in a run down, vermin-infested, 300 year old boarding house. His neighbors include a seemingly crazy old man who chants loudly and beats his head against a table top at all hours of the night, and a single mom named Frankie. Both Frankie and her baby son Danny take a shine to Walter after the young student chases a rat from their room.

There are some strange anomalies in the boarding house's construction. The corners of Walter's room intersect in a bizarre manner very much resembling the intersecting plains of a String Theory diagram on his laptop. There seems to be a link between these strangely connected walls and the witch that begins appearing in Walter's dreams—if in fact they are dreams. The witch seduces Walter in these visions and compels him to commit horrific acts. It seems she and her companion—a rat with a human face—need a baby for a sacrifice, and she has her eye on little Danny next door.

Gordon doesn't quite hit this one out of the park like Carpenter did with Cigarette Burns. While not exactly predictable, the story does follow a fairly linear path, and anyone familiar with Lovecraft's work knows not to expect a happy ending. Gordon does capture the Lovecraft spirit, though, and the presence of The Necronomicon, rat-infested walls, and bizarre architecture (reminiscent of the oft-sited “cyclopean temples”) are hearteningly familiar.

Godden redeems himself nicely with this film. He manages the transformation from a studious nerd to a terrorized and tortured soul with believability, and the absence of horn-rimmed glasses makes his resemblance to Reanimator character Herbert West far less noticeable. As with John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns, the one hour format works to the story's adavantage, allowing for a pace that more closely resembles that of a short story. The witch manages to be both sinister and seductive, and the man-faced rat, though not always convincing, still gets points for character.

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