Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
I found it, everyone. After subjecting myself to the mental cruelties that were Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon (see links above), I for some reason still decided to check out the Masters of Horror episode, “H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch-House” (2005), directed by…Stuart Gordon. Now, I have not pulled any punches in my negative reviews of Gordon’s previous efforts, but I was at least mildly surprised by this adaptation of Lovecraft’s tale of the same name—one that is itself but a moderate success in the author’s bibliography.
Now, do not take this as praise. All I am trying to say is that this episode is competently directed and only slightly offensive. That’s pretty good by comparison to Dagon or any of the others. Gordon’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” follows Lovecraft’s original story moderately, depicting a college student, Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden), studying Non-Euclidean science mumbo-jumbo (String Theory, kind of) who moves into a famously haunted house, supposedly holding the evils of an old witch and her giant rat with a human face named Brown Jenkin. In this version, Gilman meets a young mother raising a baby, but finds that—in his dreams—the witch is trying to make him do some nefarious things while he sleeps.
Even in Lovecraft’s original story, the plot won’t exactly have you buying a doberman to sleep at the foot of your bed (although I have a working theory that pugs are better at keeping ghosts away—untested). Brown Jenkin is nearly comical in essence, and the name Brown Jenkin isn’t doing him any favors. Still, Lovecraft’s story is fun and builds an effective atmosphere and setting, as is the norm with most of his stories.
Gordon actually succeeds in creating a story that moves along smoothly, logically, and engagingly. The characters actually have just slightly more flavor than Lovecraft’s—which isn’t exactly a huge feat, considering that the author’s strong suit definitely wasn’t unique characterizations—and, despite all of them being cliches, they are believable enough for an hour long horror story.
The direction gives the house a daunting presence, filling it with oddballs like tenant Masurewicz and some geometrical oddities that are slightly off-putting. The storytelling is fairly tight, and motivations are present and clear. Unfortunately, the actual horror sequences themselves lack a similar quality. Gordon still goes for horrifically cheesy effects, not quite accomplishing pure camp and being so far away from creepy that they pull you out of the atmosphere built in previous scenes. Tip: bright, fluorescent colors are not scary.
Still, the solid-enough direction of the other sequences allows for a knowing sigh and acceptance from fans of horror that have sat through cheesy movies before. Gordon can’t shake off the campy qualities that popularized Re-Animator, but he definitely isn’t willing to embrace them fully, resulting in a product that fails miserably at both in terms of actual horror scenes. Still, they weren’t bad enough to make me want to quit watching entirely, and I guess that’s more than I can say for a lot of horror films I’ve seen.
Maybe I’ve become too forgiving of Gordon and horror in general, but considering that the original story here isn’t exactly a masterpiece, I can’t rail on Gordon too hard for making an average piece of filmmaking. “The Dreams in the Witch-House” does have some of his poor tendencies as a director, but luckily they are to a lesser extent. A prime example of this is something that I’ve whinged to the high-heavens about: his portrayal of women. The only female character shows up in one Gilman’s dreams as an apparition of the witch, and for some reason is naked and tries to seduce him. The reasons for this are hazy at best—there’s an invocation of a similar scene from The Shining, but there was actually a point to it there that wasn’t, “Look, naked lady!” Gordon might still have the mindset of a fourteen-year-old boy in regard to women, but this is at least less offensive then his other portrayals.
Again, while there are some brief moments of promise in Gordon’s direction, they are sparse and ultimately fall victim to excessively average storytelling techniques in terms of character, visualization of horror, and writing. The dialogue is solid, but ultimately provides the most basic motivation for characters who don’t stand out much themselves.
Still, if you’re like me and want to see some filmic versions of Lovecraft, then unfortunately settling looks something like this. Lovecraft doesn’t have a Peter Jackson, and most of the talented directors—even those in the horror genre—seem to stay away from this material for whatever reason. Maybe that will change, but until then we will have to look at middle-of-the-road fodder that shouldn’t even really count as middle-of-the-road. Maybe in the age of indie films we can hope for some passionate, smart pieces to start coming out, but I won’t get my hopes up.