It is often whispered amongst horror aficionados that, in spite of H. P. Lovecraft's unquestionable influence on the genre, the works of the venerable horror author are difficult to translate to either the small or large screen. Nonetheless, director Stuart Gordon (with more than a little help from his screenwriting partner Dennis Paoli) has built his cinematic reputation around his celluloid interpretations of Lovecraft's work. And though most of Gordon's Lovecraftian films are well made, commercially successful, and popular with genre fans, few (if any) of them are clear reflections of the Lovecraft pieces that inspired them. At best, Gordon's films use satire to evoke the nihilistic subtext of the author's original work (e.g., Stuart Gordon's 1985 audience favorite RE-ANIMATOR) or pay simple homage via mood, setting, or character monikers (such as Gordon's 1995 direct-to-video CASTLE FREAK or his 2001 opus DAGON).
However, with "Dreams in the Witch House" (a.k.a., "H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams In The Witch House"), Gordon's 2005 entry in Showtime's cable-TV series MASTERS OF HORROR, Gordon comes closer than ever to actually translating a Lovecraft story to film. True, the director and his writing partner Paoli have still done a bit of creative redacting--most noticeably, the story is moved forward from the 1930's to the present day, and there is the addition of a few high-profile characters--but most of the changes serve only to overcome the characterization shortcomings of Lovecraft's original work. (Many literary scholars agree that, while it is an engaging piece thematically, "Dreams in the Witch House" is not Lovecraft's best literary work in terms of character and style.) In truth, this film short is, overall, quite faithful to the plot, mood, and theme of the original short story.
Ezra Godden--who genre fans will recognize from his turn as the lead in the aforementioned DAGON--portrays Walter Gilman, a graduate student at Miskatonic University who seeks a quiet, low-rent flat in Arkham, Massachusetts, where he can work on his physics thesis. In a rather sinister, miasmic house built sometime during the early 17th century, Gilman finds a room that suits his needs and, after dickering a bit with the churlish landlord, he hastily moves in.
Not long after settling into his new digs, Walter notices that the odd angles that make up one particular corner of his room bear a startling resemblance to the inter-dimensional gateway that he is working on in his thesis. However, by the time Walter finally accepts that his suspicions are correct and that the corner of his room is, indeed, a doorway to another universe, he fears that he may be too late to stop the witch-like creature that has been surreptitiously slipping through the doorway and terrorizing his neighbor (Chelah Horsdal) and her infant child.
In spite of its short run time (55 mins), small budget, and an excruciatingly short production schedule, "Dreams in the Witch House" does not come across as a run-of-the-mill made-for-cable film. Gordon's direction is tight and skillful, drawing upon his experience in both theater and film to create a perfect mood that, while intricate to the narrative, never upstages the actors or the action. The acting is top-notch, especially that of leads Godden and Horsdal. Godden is delightful as a nerdy, contemporary Woody-Allen-esque hero, and Horsdal, in spite of her stunning beauty, is able to believably portray a woman who is strong yet still approachable and vulnerable. Jon Joffin's often breathtaking cinematography also helps belie the film's meager budget, providing provocative visuals, unusual camera angles, and some in-the-camera trickery that are often only seen in studio blockbusters.
Gordon has stated that he avoided the use of CGI in this film because he feels that Hollywood's ubiquitous use of sterile computer FX is beginning to bore audiences. Instead, "Dreams in the Witch House" features old-school puppetry, trained animals, in-the-camera tricks, and real-time lighting effects. Combined with Gordon's signature use of copious gore--not to mention a short nude scene featuring the gorgeous Ms. Horsdal--the film takes on the delightful and refreshing aura of an '80s horror flick, hearkening back to Gordon's earlier films like RE-ANIMATOR while still exuding the his cinematic maturity as a writer/director.
The DVD from the cool folks at Anchor Bay offers a pristine transfer of "Dreams in the Witch House" in anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1 aspect ratio). In addition, the disc offers loads of cool extras, including a feature commentary with director Gordon and actor Godden; interviews with the director and actors; a featurette on Gordon's career as a director of horror films; DVD-ROM goodies; and more! Well worth amazon.com's reasonable asking price.
In short, "Dreams in the Witch House" is a highly entertaining and notable entry in the horror genre, and it is arguably the best entry hitherto in Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series. Indeed, in spite of its made-for-cable origins, the film rivals many full-length horror films released in theaters these days, and all serious genre fans should consider adding the film to their growing collections.