Monday, October 17, 2011

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House

Masters of Horror Season 1, Episode 2
Dreams in the Witch House
Stuart Gordon
Notable Films: Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon
Director Trademarks Present: An H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, co-written by Dennis Paoli, warped sexuality, control of human will, disbelieving authority
Plot Summary: A graduate student at Miskatonic University, Walter Gillman (Ezra Godden) moves into a decrepit, 300-year building for the cheap rent and a quiet place to study string theory. He meets and befriends single mother Frances Elwood (Chelah Horsdal) and her infant son Danny, but soon, he starts having nightmares about a rat with a human face. Masurewicz (Campbell Lane), an old tenant with crucifixes covering his walls, warns Walter he is being targeted by a witch for an arcane ritual. Walter is skeptical until the witch puts her mark on him, and he discovers she wants him to sacrifice Danny.

In the DVD extras for Dreams in the Witch House, director Stuart Gordon said his wife, upon seeing the completed episode, threatened to divorce him. I'm not entirely convinced he was joking. This episode was the one I was least looking forward to reviewing. Not because it's because it's bad; it's quite good. The atmosphere is creepy, the performances are solid and sympathetic, and Gordon pushes into taboo territory. The thing is, it might be too effective. This episode, because the characters are so identifiable, is a downer. While not the goriest or most visceral of episodes, Dreams in the Witch House is one of the harder ones to watch.

Based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, the episode purports a 300-year-old witch known as Keziah Mason (Susanna Uchatius) has escaped detection by using inter-dimensional portals, allowing her to traverse different universes. The angles of these different plains of existence, as Walter discovers conveniently, intersect in his room, and when he sleeps, she controls him. Lovecraft famously did not believe in the supernatural, but he was a man of his science. His characters confront the terror of the unknown, exploring it to their death or insanity.

Lovecraft was also something of a misogynist. Women are not typically, if at all, portrayed favorably in his work, and Dreams in the Witch House could be said to be about the fear of women. Instead of a beautiful, loving, maternal figure, a witch is woman who preys on children and is hideously ugly. Just as a woman needs a man for procreation, the witch too needs a man, albeit, for the ritual of destroying a child.

In an improvement over the source material, the film creates the Francis character to be the polar opposite of the witch. In the novel, there was a character named Frank, but here, Francis embodies the ideal woman: she loves her baby and will do anything to protect him. The character is also more complex than one would expect. We can see an earlier mutual attraction between her and Walter, but that eventually gives way to fear and distrust. After all, to the outside perspective, Walter is growing hysterical and possibly dangerous.

Walter himself is a sympathetic character. You can tell he wants to be a protector, but fate conspires against him. In the story, the character had no emotional attachment to the targeted infant; here, it resonates more. He runs the gauntlet from skeptical to curious to frightened to panicked to determined, and finally to doomed.

The witch is effective. Her minion Brown Jenkin is pulled off using a real rat, an animatronic rodent, and an actor in closeup, but it's not particularly convincing in any of them. That aspect is a little silly. Gordon usually infuses his work with a streak of black humor, but that feels curiously absent. Scenes that might be funny in a different context - waking up in a library in your underwear - have more disquieting implications. For shear outrageousness, Gordon once again has his protagonist engage in a gross-out sex act with a monster, although instead of a decapitated zombie head or tentacle monster, it's a shriveled, old witch with four boobs. Ugh.

The ending is dark and disturbing, a Lovecraftian resolution reminding us that death comes for us all, we are at the mercy of forces we can't control or resist, and the society we try to protect cannot or will not face reality. All I can say is Dreams in the Witch House achieves what the series set out to do: push boundaries. I'm just not in a rush to watch it again anytime soon.

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