In 2005, Showtime aired an anthology horror series called Masters of Horror. Famous and well-regarded horror directors were invited to create hour-long short films about anything they wanted. The show ran for three seasons, the third airing on NBC as Fear Itself, and the results are as varied in style and quality as the horror genre itself.
The second episode of Masters of Horror is Stuart Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House. This is a loose adaptation of a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. A graduate student rents a room in a boarding house so he has a quiet place to study. He’s working on non-Euclidian geometry, specifically the theory that there are multiple planes of existence that intersect at specific unusual angles. The house is strange enough on its own with a bitter landlord, broken furniture, and an aggressive rat problem. Then the student notices one of those intersections he’s researching is the corner of his new room. What a gift to be able to study the real world implications of theoretical mathematics and physics as the student begins to experience the influence of another dimension on his daily life.
Dreams in the Witch House is basically a Lovecraft mashup of weird cracks, madness, and the ever looming presence of Miskatonic University. The rooms and tenants are inspired by different Lovecraft stories, characters, and archetypes. The student’s own story is full-tilt non-Euclidian geometry, which is used as an excuse to do anything in this style.
Writer/director Stuart Gordon is no stranger to modern Lovecraft adaptations. He’s probably best known for Re-Animator, adapted from the story “Herbert West, Re-Animator.” He also wrote and directed two other Lovecraft films: From Beyond and Dagon. Most of his horror work is clearly inspired by that Lovecraft style and mythos. Gordon tells over the top stories about some unimaginable horror pushing people to madness. There’s also a dark, absurdist sense of slapstick comedy sprinkled throughout his films that really balances out a nice sense of tension and release for the audience.
Everything right and wrong with Dreams in the Witch House is the result of this being a Stuart Gordon film. The cinematography and sound design are wonderful. There’s a real sense of wonder as the story shifts dimensions that is achieved entirely with clever lighting. A vibrant purple light creeps into frame, flickering in and out of existence as the different dimensions collide. This is accompanied by a soundtrack of chanting and whispering at night that is the perfect cinematic device to adapt the madness of Lovecraft to the screen. Gordon is probably the director who has come the closest to figuring out how to really make Lovecraft’s writing feel natural onscreen with his strong vision for technical cinema.
However, everything about the film is really broad. Gordon loves a rubber-faced leading man and Ezra Godden (who starred in Dagon) is excellent at that. If something is scary in a Gordon film, it’s meant to make you run out of the room in terror. If something is gory, it will make the elevators in The Shining look tame. And if something is meant to be funny, it’s going to be slip on a banana peel and wink at the audience while doing it levels of slapstick comedy. There’s a theatricality to Gordon’s work that can be very polarizing even within a single film.
In the context of Stuart Gordon’s work, Dreams in the Witch House is about what you would expect. The technical execution is solid. The story and acting is a little hammy. There are some solid visuals that will hang with you for a while. He’s a master at building suspense in that Hitchcock-style. Gordon lets you in on secrets that the characters onscreen won’t uncover until later on in the story. This is not his biggest cinematic triumph, but it is undeniably his work.
Now take the episode to the broader context of horror cinema. Dreams in the Witch House is not the best. It’s not terrible, but it never really comes together in a way that makes sense as a finished product. It’s a greatest hits reel of a film director being told to do whatever he wants with someone else’s money. Stuart Gordon is not the only director to take this approach in Masters of Horror, but he is the first to get his episode aired. This is nowhere near the worst episode in the serie; it’s just not one that I particularly enjoy going back to.
Content warning: nudity, gore, violence against children
Next up: S1E03: Dance of the Dead, directed by Tobe Hooper.