Saturday, November 18, 2006

Masters of Horror: H.P. Lovecraft's 'Dreams in the Witch House (2005) review

Amazing is the only-word I can find to express how good this short-film is. Mick Garris deserves thunderous-applause for initiating what will probably be the most-important development in horror in over 20-years, and possibly ever. While Stuart Gordon has done Lovecraft proud with ReAnimator (1985), From Beyond (1986) and Dagon (2001), this simply excels-them in capturing the dread and cosmic-horror in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Insofar as horror goes, this is Gordon's finest-addition, and maybe the best translation yet of Lovecraft-to-film. I read the short-story 20-years-ago, and this summarizes it well. Lovecraft-purists are going to have their hackles-up, but the omissions and changes still capture the spirit of the original and do not detract from the basic-thrust of its plot. Frankly, an exact translation of Lovecraft to screen would be boring and slow. It would feature protagonists who aren't very easy to relate-to, and they wouldn't even be likable--something you need in a movie so that the audience can use them as a surrogate for themselves. How else can one be drawn-in?

Yes, the cloven 'Black Man', and a trip to the surface of another planet are not-present, which is fine. Do we really want to see Lovecraft's racism on-display, especially when he rejected-it at the end of his life? The answer is a resounding no, and it does no justice to Lovecraft or who he was when he died. People also tend-to-forget that in some areas, Lovecraft can get tedious, often going-on for too-long with descriptions of things, or he just meanders in some literary-twilight. Yes, you can actually improve-upon some of his work, I contend. Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon have achieved this feat, and where Lovecraft was bad at warm-characters, the writer(s) and director compensate. I truly love and care about the characters in this story, especially the mother and her child. The fears of this story are so primal and basic--everyone fears for a baby in a movie, it's true.

What excites me so-much about this short-film is how effectively it conveys many of Lovecraft's themes: the fear of losing-one's-mind, the fear of women, the fear of the unknown, the fear of a loss-of-control, the fear of mortality, and-then-some. Also very exciting is how well Gordon and screenwriter Dennis Paoli realize the Witch--I would say this is the best-depiction of what the Puritans, and Medieval Europeans thought witches were, and what they did. Usually, they try to steal babies to sacrifice to some dark-power. But Lovecraft's genius was taking physics-theory to explain witchcraft, and a witch's powers. This is unique for writers of his time.

To the uninitiated, H.P. Lovecraft's tomes seem to have appeared, fully-formed, but he was an avid-scholar of New England folklore and the literature of horror. Much of the rule-book he uses for the witch and her powers and actions are from the writings of Cotton Mather and other Puritanical leaders, thinkers and witch-hunters. It's likely he even consulted the witchfinder's-manual, 'Malleus Malificarum.' Lovecraft didn't believe in the supernatural as a reality, but he did accept the possibility that odd-phenomena did exist, and could be explained by science at some point. This would be known as 'supranormal', and that's the type of tale we have here.

So, while this tale and many-others written by him seem fantastical, some elements are not-entirely implausible based on his scientific-philosophies! 'Dreams in the Witch House' is not-unlike a rational-mind trying to grasp how a witch could be possible, scientifically. This little crumb-of-plausibility is a component of what makes the writings of H.P. Lovecraft so scary, and so contemporary. Even educated adults can entertain their reality, and this film captures this reality in every respect. People tend to forget that modern-science comes from alchemy, after-all! The story concerns Walter Gilman, a Physics-major, who has found a room at 300-year-old house in Providence. Yes, in the short-story, Walter already knows the reputation of the house, but I think it was wise for film to omit this. Walter represents we, the audience, and this is a story of curiosity, discovery, and tragedy. Walter notices that his theories on multiple-universes, and his mathematical-maps resemble the shape of a corner of his room. In time, he begins to have dreams of meeting a familiar--a rat with a human-face, perfectly in-keeping with the lore of witches! Eventually, it becomes clear from an older-tenant, and other dreams, that the witch is very-much alive within the house, and has found a way to live for centuries in another dimension. She wants Walter (us) to fetch her a child, the infant-son his neighbor.

There is a sense of dread, sorrow and inevitability in Walter's situation that echoes the victims of witches in lore. It is a situation without-much-hope, the only exit being death or insanity, so very Lovecraftian. Anchor Bay/IDT have done a perfect DVD, no-complaints here. The transfer is perfect, the audio is perfect, and the extras are incredibly-generous and substantial for the most die-hard-fan of Stuart Gordon. Richard Band's score is wonderful, and makes this story all-the-more timeless in its sorrow, grimness and evocation of mystery. It has been 12-years since Band has done a score for Gordon with his excellent score for Castle Freak (1994), I cannot sing his praises enough. It has been too-long, and thank-God it finally happened. The entire Masters of Horror series promises to be superb, a great-day for true fans of horror. Gordon and his collaborators are now filming his version of Poe's 'The Black Cat' with Jeffrey Combs (Reanimator)!