Sunday, October 22, 2023

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House

The attrition rate at H.P. Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University must be staggeringly high. However, a diligent student like Walter Gilman is sure to make it through to graduation, right? Good luck kid. He just rented a cheap, decrepit boarding house to stretch his budget, but he will not find it to be a restful living environment in director Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story, “Dreams in the Witch House,” a particularly Lovecraftian episode of Masters of Horror, which screens during the Lovecraftian horror series at Anthology Film Archives.

The late great Gordon was the definitive interpreter of Lovecraft, having helmed
Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon, and “Dreams in the Witch House.” Originally, his frequent star and collaborator Jeffrey Combs was supposed to have a role, but it was not to be. His fans will still recognize Ezra Godden from Dagon (especially since he wears Miskatonic sweatshirts in both).

Godden plays Gilman, whose new digs are so cheap, there must be something wrong with them. Unfortunately, he cannot afford anything better. The same is true for Frances Elwood, a young single mother living across the hall with her infant son. On his first night in the building, he helps her with a rat problem. Then he starts having nightmares of rats. Rather disconcertingly, Masurewicz, the weird man on the ground floor, asks if he has seen the one with the human face yet.

The physics student has noticed how the corner of his studio resembles a theoretical portal between dimensions. He later finds similar geometrical figures in the
Necronomicon, which mysteriously finds its way to Gilman in the Miskatonic library, even though it is supposed to be under lock and key. The increasingly agitated grad student deduces his room is the gateway for the shadowy figures that terrorize him at night.

Once again, Gordon shows a keen affinity for Lovecraft’s work. It would be hard to get more Lovecraftian than “Dreams in the Witch House,” which combines science and the supernatural. It is indeed a cosmic encounter that culminates in madness.

Yet, Gordon keeps it all relatively grounded. He had a keen eye for teasing fears out of a creepily lit corner. Again, Godden made a solid Lovecraftian everyman/fall-guy, while Campbell Lane is terrific as the tormented Masurewicz.

Elements like the human-faced rat sound perilously difficult to realize in a non-cheesy way, but the effects look decent, especially given the relatively modest TV budget and the state of special effects in 2005.
Creepshow showrunner Greg Nicotero’s special makeup effects hold up quite nicely.

In real life, Lovecraft was a sad, sickly, bitter, lonely man, so it seems excessive to cancel him for the unsavory opinions he developed while raging against the world in his pajamas. Gordon repeatedly proved the timelines and the eeriness of his tales. “Dreams in the Witch House” is an excellent example. Highly recommended for fans of Lovecraft and Gordon, it screens at Anthology Film Archives with “Cigarette Burns” this Tuesday (10/24) and Sunday (10/29).