Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Camera Obscura
    by John Joseph Adams
May 2006

Just another adaptation horror story

Stuart Gordon made his name in Hollywood by looting Lovecraft's tomb. He continues his desecration of Lovecraft's body (of work) with this adaptation of "Dreams in the Witch-House."

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House
IDT Entertainment
Director: Stuart Gordon
Writers: Dennis Paoli & Stuart Gordon, based upon the short story by H.P. Lovecraft
Starring:. Ezra Godden, Campbell Lane, Chelah Horsdal, Jay Brazeau
DVD Release Date: March 28, 2006

Rated NR / 55 minutes / 2006
(out of four)

Masters of Horror is a new horror anthology television series that debuted last year on Showtime. The idea is that each standalone episode (the ad material refers to them as "one-hour movies") will be written and directed by so-called "masters of horror." The masters Showtime corralled include Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist), John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing), and Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins), among others. This episode's master is Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Dagon).

Though the series puts the emphasis more on filmmaking masters than on masters of prose, several episodes are based upon short stories by accomplished horror writers, including Dale Bailey, Joe R. Lansdale, and Richard Matheson. Dreams in the Witch-House is based upon the short story of the same name by that unquestioned master of horror, H.P. Lovecraft.

Walter (Godden) is a graduate student at Miskatonic University, studying String Theory. He's broke and in need of a quiet place to live and study while he finishes up his dissertation. He finds a room for rent in an old, run-down house which has been divided into apartments. It's not pretty, there's a strange man, Masurewicz (Lane), living in apartment two, and the manager, Dombrowski (Brazeau), is a jerk, but it's cheap, so Walter takes it. He soon befriends the woman living in apartment three--Frances (Horsdal)--by chasing off the rat that was menacing her and her baby.

But, as one might expect in this situation, strange things start happening. First, Walter hears some strange banging noises and religious chanting one night. Then, he has some very strange dreams--first, of a rat with a human face, that warns him "she" is coming for him. But that's not all. Walter's thesis involves a theory that says if you know where two planes of existence intersect, then you can figure out how to travel from one dimension to the other. And Walter soon discovers that the oddly formed corner of his room is structured like the model in his String Theory work.

Walter's dreams become progressively more and more disturbing and vivid, and Masurewicz, who has lived in the house for nearly his entire life, provides some dire warnings about the sort of thing that goes on there. But these warnings don't do Walter any good, as he finds himself under the thrall of a powerful witch, who is intent on sacrificing Frances's baby...and using Walter as her instrument to do it.

Dreams in the Witch-House was a good choice to adapt, and Stuart Gordon, on paper at least, was a good choice of director--after all, he'd directed two previous adaptations of Lovecraft's work: Re-Animator and Dagon. However, Gordon is more of a "master of schlock" than a true master of horror. There's very little that's scary or terrifying here; Gordon's ham-handed filmmaking style robs Lovecraft's story of most of its visceral power.

The mediocre acting of Godden (Walter) doesn't help much either. He's sufficient as the lead when he's just playing the part of the poor college student, but when things start turning hairy and the real horrific elements start making themselves known, all the requisite emoting and reacting are rather beyond his range. Who knows though, he might be capable of real acting; I expect Gordon directed him to act the way he does since it plays into the whole schlock feel the film seems to be going for.

Horsdal and Lane, meanwhile, are solid in their supporting roles, Horsdal as the innocent, down-on-her-luck single mother, Lane as the crazy old man with prophecies of doom. Brazeau chews scenery as the apartment manager, but his role doesn't make or break the film.

There seems to be a large community of horror fans who actually seem to prefer this style of horror filmmaking, so for them this episode might be a big hit. I admit I don't get it. There are also people who still prefer the super-pulpy SF adventure stories of the Golden Age era (the ones devoid of characterization), and I don't get that either. But for the most part print SF has moved beyond that, just as print horror has moved beyond the cheesy/cheap scare. Why is it that Hollywood so often seems out of sync with literature?

It may sound as if I'm being needlessly harsh with Gordon, but the episode is just good enough for the viewer to see what it could have been if it were in the hands of a more competent director, and such films are often more frustrating than those that are complete train wrecks.

DVD Extras
Available Audio Tracks:
English (Dolby Digital 5.1), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround)
Commentary: Stuart Gordon (writer/director), Ezra Godden (actor)
Featurettes: "Dreams, Darkness and Damnation: An Interview with Stuart Gordon"; "Behind The Scenes: The Making of Dreams in the Witch-House"; "Working With a Master: Stuart Gordon"; "SFX: Meet Brown Jenkin"; "On Set: An Interview with Chelah Horsdal"
DVD-ROM: Original Screenplay (PDF), The original story "Dreams in the Witch-House" by H.P. Lovecraft (PDF); screensaver
Misc.: Stuart Gordon biography (onscreen text); Still Gallery; Storyboard Gallery; Trailers
(out of four)

For a DVD that's only one episode of a television series, this disc is loaded with extras. It includes commentary by Gordon and Godden, five featurettes, a text biography of Stuart Gordon, and still (yawn) and storyboard galleries (double-yawn).

The disc also features some DVD-ROM extras, including: the episode's screenplay and the complete text of H.P. Lovecraft's original short story (both in PDF format), along with a screensaver, which is basically a slide show trailer for the episode (with music).

The featurettes all serve their purpose, and fans of the episode and/or Stuart Gordon in general will be in heaven. Listening to Gordon speak about filmmaking and horror, it's easy to see why he was chosen to direct this episode. He sounds passionate about Lovecraft and horror, and seems like a sharp guy. But passion and sharpness will only take you so far. In the interview, Gordon also mentions that he wasn't able to get into the only filmmaking class offered by his college; it's shame, really--perhaps there he would have learned the difference between quality and schlock.

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