Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on November 4, 2005, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Nestled somewhere between the over-the-top outrageousness of Re-Animator and the serious paradimensional frights of From Beyond, Dreams in the Witch-House is Stuart Gordon’s latest venture into H.P. Lovecraft territory and another satisfying entry in the Masters of Horror series. The director has said that the ultimate subject matter of this particular HPL tale is something no studio would touch, and without giving away the particulars, let’s just say that Showtime has allowed him to bring his tale to its uncompromising end with no restrictions. Yet at the same time, Gordon doesn’t wallow in the story’s more shocking elements for their own sake; they feel inevitable, rather than gratuitous.
It’s ironic that this hour-long segment shows a bit more strain in expanding Lovecraft’s short piece than did Gordon and co-scripter Dennis Paoli’s previous HPL features—also including Dagon, with which Dreams shares star Ezra Godden. Here he (somewhat overenthusiastically) plays Walter Gilman, a graduate physics student—at Miskatonic University, natch—who moves into a room in a rundown old house to work on his “string theory” studies of parallel universes. Other than the grouchy landlord and a strange elderly man who lives downstairs, the only other tenant is a young woman named Frances (Chelah Horsdal), whom Walter soon befriends, and her baby. Oh yes, and a large rat that first frightens Frances and then shows up in Walter’s dream—bearing a human face.
This is one of several black-humored moments sprinkled throughout Dreams in the Witch-House that help sustain interest in the essentially conventional storyline. Others include a sight gag involving that elderly neighbor which seems inspired by Monty Python and the Holy Grail, of all things, and a brief appearance by a librarian played by Donna White, who acts like an Una O’Connor for the 21st century. It’s not all fun and games, though—in Walter’s second dream, a robed witch appears before him, drops her cloak and we’re back in Gordon’s world of explicit sexuality and bloodshed. And as the story goes on, Walter realizes that’s he’s being compelled toward a destiny with a very unpleasant punchline.
Thanks to Jon Joffin’s photography and a vintage feel to the settings and props (other than Walter’s laptop), Dreams bears an old-fashioned atmosphere that feels appropriate for a Lovecraft adaptation, even if most of the author’s more familiar tropes don’t play a part in the story. (The Necronomicon puts in an appearance, though, and I can’t help thinking that Walter’s last name is a homage to the author’s fascination/revulsion with aquatic creatures.) Richard Band, another veteran of the Gordon/HPL oeuvre, contributes a properly eerie and melodramatic score, while KNB EFX contributes modestly scaled but seriously uncomfortable-to-watch makeup FX gags. They’re particularly so during the climax, and in an epilogue that feels as if it’s had a bit too much stuffed into it. But hey—when it comes to a Stuart Gordon work, you can’t really complain about excess.