Welcome back to the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Next up in the spotlight series on horror writer/director Stuart Gordon is “Dreams In The Witch House,” a short H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that Gordon created for the television program “Masters of Horror.”
“Masters of Horror” was a television series on Showtime that ran for two seasons from 2005-2007, specifically featuring short films (under 1 hour) developed by notable horror directors and writers. Apart from Stuart Gordon, the series spotlighted such notables as Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen, John Landis, John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Clive Barker, and many others. “Dreams In The Witch House” aired in the first season of the show, and Stuart Gordon later returned to the second season of the program with an episode adapting the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Black Cat.”
“Dreams In The Witch House” is based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story published in 1933, and is Stuart Gordon’s fourth film adaptation of his works. Dennis Paoli once again returns as Stuart Gordon’s writing partner on “Dreams In The Witch House” and “The Black Cat”, but to date these two “Masters of Horror” episodes are the last works they have collaborated on.
The effects on “Dreams In The Witch House” were provided by the KNB EFX group, an Emmy and Academy Award winning outfit that has worked on productions such as “Django: Unchained,” “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” “Army Of Darkness” “Drag Me To Hell,” “Kill Bill,” “Casino,” “Reservoir Dogs,” and “Grindhouse.” They undoubtedly provide one of the strongest aspects of the film, particularly with the incredibly creepy human-faced rat effect and the concluding “chest-burster” sequence.
The cinematography on the film was provided by Jon Joffin, who has done extensive work on television movies, and worked on a number of early episodes of “The X-Files.” The production design for the movie was provided by one David Fischer, who is best known for his work on “Friday the 13th Part VIII” and “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical.” Last but certainly not least, the music for “Dreams In The Witch House” is provided by Richard Band, brother of Charles Band, who also scored a number of Stuart Gordon’s earlier films, including “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” and “Castle Freak.”
The cast of “Dreams In The Witch House” is led by Ezra Godden, who re-teamed with Gordon after working together on another of his Lovecraft adaptations, “Dagon.” The human-faced rat, Brown Jenkin, is played by a Ukrainian magician named Yevgen Voronin, who was cast based on his facial structure, and has done no acting work before or since. Chelah Horsdal was given her role because she exuded an atmosphere in her audition that was both “maternal and vulnerable,” making her more than believable for her part of a struggling single mother. She has since appeared in television shows such as “Hell on Wheels” and “Arrow,” and has been getting consistent work over the past few years. The old man character, Masurewicz, was initially going to be played by long-time Stuart Gordon collaborator Jeffrey Combs, but he unfortunately had to back out at the last minute. His replacement was Campbell Lane, who proves to be capable (though unremarkable) in the role.
“Dreams In The Witch House” follows a young physics doctoral student who is working on completing his graduate work. The story starts when he decides to rent a room in a secluded house so that he can focus on his work, but his accommodations quickly prove to be much creepier than he initially suspected. He befriends a young mother who is also a tenet in the home, but slowly starts to lose his grip on reality as he repeatedly sees a small creature that appears to be a rat with a human face. The apparent hallucinations become more vivid and disturbing as time goes on, and the promising young mind begins to consider that his research may have other-worldly applications.
“Dreams In The Witch House” is not as over the top or fun as many Stuart Gordon movies, but it is pretty solid for what it is. It is certainly better than your average TV horror film for sure, at the very least. It does have your typical Lovecraft downer ending, which probably didn’t sit well with many, especially given the fact that it involves a particularly bloody child sacrifice. A bloody baby death is something you do not get very often in any genre, and many people found that to be a particularly upsetting aspect of the movie, (including Stuart Gordon’s wife, interestingly enough).
Among the complaints I have seen about this film are that it doesn’t have enough true scares or horrifying moments. I think there is at least a case to be made there, but I feel like Lovecraft stories shouldn’t rely on shocks or jump-scares, but are more crucially reliant on atmospheric horror: something I think “Dreams In The Witch House” nails down pretty well.
The DVD commentary track for “Dreams In The Witch House” offered some fantastic insights from Stuart Gordon, including the following quotes:
“A good actor can make you believe anything, a good effect sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t”
“In horror…you always have to find a different way to get under people’s skin”
“[the actors I use] are not afraid to make themselves look ridiculous…if the character isn’t scared, why should the audience be scared? If you have an actor who won’t be afraid, you need to get another actor”
According to Stuart Gordon, “Dreams In The Witch House” was regarded as his ‘truest’ Lovecraft adaptation by many in attendance when he screened it at the Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, OR. Lovecraft fans are definitely split on Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, particularly over his often apocryphal inclusion of nudity in the features, and sometimes dramatic alterations from the source material.
Overall, this is a pretty well crafted short film, especially considering the limited time and budget devoted to it. Gordon clearly enjoys Lovecraft and this story in particular, and has said that he wanted to do this adaptation since the 1980s. For those that might complain that Gordon’s works are too often tongue-in-cheek, this is the perfect work to show that he can take on horror without any side humor.
“Dreams In The Witch House” is a pretty strong recommendation from me. It is definitely a slight departure from the usual Stuart Gordon fare in that there is little to no comedic element to be found, but it is a pretty fantastically creepy and unsettling Lovecraft adaptation that is easy for any horror fan to enjoy.
Interestingly enough, the source material for “Dreams In The Witch House” inspired another adaptation: a Lovecraftian rock opera of the same name, which can be checked out in part on YouTube. I’ll recommend checking that out as well, if only for the novelty of the thing.