This week we conclude our "Ranking for Stuart Gordon's Lovecraft Saga." You can check out part 1 and part 2 if you need to get caught up.
5). Dreams in the Witch House (2005): This is the second episode of Mick Garris’ previously mentioned Masters of Horror that introduced me to Gordon as a director. Coming out at the end of the post-Scream cycle of horror, but before the Grindhouse revival, Masters of Horror was an admirable undertaking with a solid first season. Since this is the shortest film in this retrospective, the story is condensed, drastically.
Originally, the 1933 story was a major part of the Cthulhu mythos, but the adaptation chooses to take a more traditional route. So, the aforementioned episode doesn’t involve interdimensional travel; it instead focuses on premonitions of the titular witch. There’s the city of the Elder Gods, the book of Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, the Center of Chaos, or Walpurgis Night for the Lovecraft die-hards. The adaptation omits the beginning and ending elements of the story, stitching together elements to fit the bottle-narrative the episode presents.
The original begins with a folklore student, Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden), renting a room at the well-known “Witch-House,” where two centuries worth of occupants have died under mysterious circumstances. The adaptation’s version of Gilman is a student of String Theory (though that takes a back seat for a good portion of the plot) who rents the room just out of convenience and cheap rent. We’re introduced to an original landlord/building manager, Mr. Dombrowski (Jay Brazeau), who looks (and acts) like Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force. He serves no help to the narrative, and in most other narratives is killed off for the sake of a body count.
Once in the room, we get the highlight of the production design. The house itself is as eerie and decrepit as any seasoned horror fan would expect, but the attic recreates the idea of the “unearthly geometry” of the short to a tee. Without ever overtly drawing attention, the design could create an uneasy feeling even if the house was in good condition.
Early on, in a scene where Gilman pretends to work on his thesis, the witch makes her presence known, with her faint laughter heard beneath the clawing of rats in the walls. It’s a subtle detail that can be missed on the first viewing. The next day, Gilman is introduced to his neighbor Frances (Chelah Horsdal), and her son, Danny, who are dealing with one of the rats. After, the two strike up an acquaintanceship as Gilman is clearly attracted to Frances. She is also an original addition to this adaptation, serving as an easy emotional heartstring for the audience: single mom, bad living conditions, trying to get her life together. This is a film about baby sacrifice everyone, and baby Danny is on the chopping block.
The witch uses Gilman’s attraction to Frances and begins breaking him down through his dreams, introducing him to her human faced rat familiar, and then seducing him. The witch claws a star into his back, marking Gilman. Still skeptical, despite the physical evidence, Gilman seeks explanation. He refuses a crucifix from Masurewicz (Campbell Lane), an old religious immigrant who was once in the same position as Gilman, falling under the witch’s control and participating in the infant sacrifice. He’s also basically a filler character. Instead of burning the house down when he probably could, he just continues to live there. He just prays the witch will stop on her own and bangs his head off a chair in self-flagellation.
During another dream, Gilman is dragged into the witch’s domain where he cuts his wrist, signing his name in blood. He wakes up from the dream screaming, and finds himself in the library at Miskatonic University Library, sitting in front of the Necronomicon for the sake of fanservice. A confused librarian storms in and demands to know how he got the fabled book from the restricted section and screams for the police when she sees that he’s indecent. This is a hilarious out of place scene, serving as the only point of levity throughout the runtime. I’m happy it’s there, but it’s mood whiplash. There’s also a missed opportunity as Susanna Uchatius, the actress playing the witch, is also playing the librarian in the scene.
At the climax, Gilman is able to break the witch’s grip, gouging her eyes out, and takes Danny back to the real world. This is all for not as the rat familiar bites into Danny’s neck as soon as Gilman turns his head. In typical Lovecraftian fashion, he’s institutionalized and tells his unbelievable story. The police report to the doctor that they uncovered infant skeletons in the walls of the room and evidence that Danny died of an animal bite.
The room goes up for rent yet again and the film ends, whereas in the original story, a storm rips the roof off the house, uncovering the evidence after Gilman was already dead. The house is demolished shortly after.
I feel the film has an identity crisis. It doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a campy horror comedy like Re-Animator, or a more serious horror/fantasy like Dagon. Aside from the scene at the library, the film plays the narrative quite seriously. It should also be noted that otherwise, the whole film takes place within the house. Omitted, Gordon would have had a tense, claustrophobic, haunted house film where we’d feel trapped with Ezra Godden’s Gilman. Sadly, the film spends more time than needed with characters who served very little purpose to the narrative.
On a final note, Stuart Gordon’s influence can be seen in the early Splatter films of a young Peter Jackson, especially Deadalive, Jackson’s comedic, zombie bloodbath, starring a wide-eyed, Jeffery Combs-like protagonist. Combs would later play the inept special agent, Milton Dammeranking-stuart-gordons-lovecraft-saga-part-2-of-3.htmlrs, in Jackson’s The Frighteners, the last horror film Jackson would direct prior to Lord of the Rings.
Part 1 of this article can be found here.
Part 2 of this article can be found here.
Rest in Peace
Stuart Alan Gordon
August 11, 1947 - March 24, 2020
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