Friday, January 06, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror, Episode # 2: "Dreams in the Witch House"

Stuart Gordon is no doubt a solid choice to direct this second episode of Showtime's Masters of Horror. After all, this is an H.P. Lovecraft story (adapted by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon), and Gordon has worked brilliantly with Lovecraft source material before, giving the world two eighties classics, The Re-Animator (1985) and the vastly-underrated but genius, From Beyond (1987).

But (and this is a big but, so-to-speak), "Dreams in the Witch House" is a pretty confusing, meandering and overlong episode of this new show. As I wrote in my previous post, what seems suspenseful, concise and brilliant at thirty minutes becomes flabby and dull for an hour, and this effort suffers from that syndrome. Rod Serling learned this lesson with The Twilight Zone back in the early 1960s when The Twilight Zone went (in its fourth season) from being a half-hour to an hour. Guess what? By the fifth season, the show was back to a half hour. Anthologies just don't hold up (usually...) for sixty minutes.

"Dreams in the Witch House" concerns a physics student from Miskatonic University who rents a room in a creepy, sleazy boarding house. He's working on a theory about the intersection of universes, and soon realizes - from the scratching noises in the wall - that this very house (which is 300 years old) represents one such nexus. In fact, an evil witch and her familiar, a talkative rat with a human face, go to-and-from dimensions willy-nilly, stealing away human babies for ritual sacrifice. The witch seduces the Physics student because she needs a male to perform the ritual, and plans to use him as her "arms" for the next murder, of a lovely neighbor's child, Danny.

Although the story is pure Lovecraft, it's just too slow and repetitive to be particularly effective or involving. How many times do we need to see the protagonist fall asleep and wake up in a different locale, before we get the concept? Why - if different universes are aligning behind the walls of his room - can they be breached using just a hammer and a strong arm? It doesn't appear that the lead character actually signs his name in blood in the Necronomicon, so how is it he is made servant to the witch?

There's some exciting sex scenes in this episode to be sure, and some frightening gore, but ultimately this one just doesn't hold up for me. Bummer. I'm really disappointed.

When I think of Re-Animator or From Beyond, I think of an almost lunatic pace, and of Gordon's devilish, wicked sense of humor. Those are the two elements that kept those productions afloat and - indeed -transformed them into latter-day classics. Yet the pace in this episode is leaden, and there's really not much humor. Instead, - with the human-faced rat scurrying around, it all just plays as kind of ludicrous and campy. There's no surprise or real sting in the climax either. The lead is set up as a murderer, nobody believes his wacky story, and he's committed to an asylum. As a long-time fan of horror, I predicted all those plot points well in advance of their occurrence. Which would leave just style and pace as a way to impress me...

I want to stress that I'm a huge admirer of Gordon's work, and that - at a half hour - this episode could have moved along at a dynamite clip. Gordon is rightly a "Master of Horror," but if I wanted to give a dissertation on his many talents and skills in the genre, I'd book a screening of Re-Animator or From Beyond, not this episode.

I understand why H.P. Lovecraft was selected as source material (there's hardly any better in terms of classic horror...) but you know something? I'd like to see how Gordon does with a story outside the Lovecraft canon...I mean, the first episode of Masters of Horror really landed Don Coscarelli in new territory. His work has been either humorous (like Bubba Ho-Tep) or weird and esoteric (like Phantasm). His installment on Masters of Horror, by contrast, was a straight-on survival/chase story along the lines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or some such thing. The result is that his show revealed a new side of the director. I came away convinced - heck yeah - this guy IS a master of horror.

In the final analysis, "Dreams in the Witch House," while diverting enough, really doesn't show me any new shades of a talent I've long admired. I hope the series returns for a second season, and we really get to see Gordon strut his stuff. He's a great director...

5 comments:

  1. while gordon has had great success taking marginal,largely overlooked lovecraft stories and adapting them as vehicles for his own unique, and kinky sensibility, i've heard convincing arguments that his lovecraft adaptations aren't very lovecraftian. i would agree with this, concluding that the story elements come from lovecraft, but the visceral, over the top insanity of it all is pure gordon. its notable that he tends to use stories lovecraft considered disposable, as the most highly regarded lovecraft works, like the colour out of space, aren't really ripe for film adaptation, leaning heavily on a spooky evokation of the "indescribable." after all, how do you depict a colour that's not on our current spectrum. interestingly, i read somewhere a film and literature scholar identifying the original "ghostbuster" as the most successfully lovecraftian film. this never occured to me, but thinking about it, made perfect sense.

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  2. Ghostbusters as the most Lovecraftian film? That's an interesting thought, and since I watched the film recently, I think I understand why. I know many people have written me to tell me how Space:1999 and Babylon5 on TV both evoke Lovecraftian principles. And of course, that Star Trek episode "What are Little Girls Made of," might as well be called a Lovecraft homage, what with the civilization of the "Old Ones." Regarding Masters of Horror and Gordon, I would just like to see the director try something different. Like Coscarelli did.

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  3. Anonymous10:35 AM

    I must be one of the only geeks on Earth that has no idea what "Lovecraftian" is. I know Lovecraft wrote the story Re-Animator was based on but that's really it. What are some of his themes and ideas that are in "What are Little Girls made of?" or "Ghostbusters"? School me some oh wise one.

    -Chris Johnson

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  4. Hey Chris!

    I'm not wise or spectacularly well-informed about such things or anything like that, but here's some (very) basic info on/about H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and his writing.

    His books (which straddle the line between fantasy and horror...) are considered highly symbolic works, and also often feature a common element: a malevolent race that existed here before humanity.

    "The Old Ones" on the Star Trek episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of" are one example of such a people, but think too of John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness, where something on "the other side" of our reality - something ancient and evil, is trying to break in.

    Lovecraft was reportedly the originator of the "Necronomicon," a fictional witch's book, as an important ingredient in horror literature, and it has appeared as "the spur" for such popular films as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead (a very Lovecraftian movie; with ancient demons from another dimension possessing humans in this one).

    "Zool" (sp?) in Ghostbusters is also a so-called demon from another dimension, trying to force his way back into our reality and assert his power here. In Babylon 5, which I mentioned, some people see The Shadows of being Lovecraft-inspired.

    Part of what makes Lovecraft so special is his unusual and enigmatic turn of phrase. He's the master of the un-description, so the problem for a filmmaker is how do you portray in film a horror that is unnamable and indescribable in visual terms?

    Some Lovecraft-inspired films other than the ones I've mentioned here are The Dunwich Horror, and The Curse (starring Wil Wheaton!).

    I don't know if anything I just wrote makes sense, or is helpful, but maybe it's a place to begin...

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  5. Anonymous9:21 AM

    Thanks John! I appreciate you taking the time to explain that to me. I looked online but couldn't find any simple, basic information. As a certain Vulcan we all know and love would say . . . fascinating!

    -Chris

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