When last we left this Masters of Horror rewatch, I was lamenting the fact that a number of the episodes in the Showtime anthology series don’t feel like they really represent their namesake filmmakers accurately. The series premiere, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” is a great hour of television and one of my favorite episodes of the series while not really feeling like a Don Coscarelli film. Based on my memory of the show, I thought this was a sound thesis and one I would see proven out over the course of this rewatch. Then along comes “Dreams in the Witch House”—only the second episode of Masters of Horror —to blow my whole theory out of the water. This is a Stuart Gordon-directed episode that feels very much like a Stuart Gordon film.
Season 1, Episode 2: "Dreams in the Witch House"
Director: Stuart Gordon
Original air date: November 4th, 2005
Reuniting Gordon with screenwriter Dennis Paoli for another Lovecraft adaptation, “Dreams” casts Ezra Godden (who also starred in Gordon’s previous Lovecraft adaptation Dagon) as Danny, a graduate student who rents a room in an old house so he can complete his thesis. Unfortunately, this particular house is cursed by a witch who intends to work through Danny and commit unspeakably evil acts—namely, the murder and sacrifice of young children. The house is protected by an old man (Campbell Lane), who explains that he used to live in Danny’s room and now remains in the house to constantly pray and keep the witch at bay. Danny’s arrival, as well as the presence of his neighbor (Chelah Horsdal) and her baby boy, find the witch growing more powerful. Maybe too powerful to be stopped.
Since the first time I saw it—and I should mention at this early juncture that I saw these episodes as they were released (individually) on DVD, as I was not a Showtime subscriber at the time of the series’ airing—my memory of Gordon’s “Dreams in the Witch House” has been confined mostly to the visual of a rat with a human face. It’s the kind of nightmarish visual that’s hard to shake, and apparently something of a fixture in Lovecraft stories. This witch’s “familiar” has even been brought to the screen previously in Charles Band’s Lovecraft adaptation “The Evil Clergyman,” one segment of the proposed anthology Pulse Pounders that was never finished (though “Clergyman” is available as a standalone DVD release and is quite good, with no less than David Warner playing the man-faced rat). The special effect in “Witch House” is surprisingly well-realized, a mixture of puppeteering, forced perspective photography, and closeups with actor Yevgen Voronin (his only credit!) as the “face” of this awful rat monster. It’s the kind of thing I never knew could be so horrifying until Gordon put it in front of me, and the role it eventually plays in the events of this story make it that much worse.
Revisiting “Dreams in the Witch House” successfully makes the case that there’s more to the episode than just "Rat with Human Face" (not to be confused with his more popular cousin, "Spider with Human Head"). This installment is much more of a piece with the rest of Gordon’s filmography than I originally realized, even beyond reuniting him with some of his previous Lovecraft collaborators (Paoli, Godden). The combination of sexuality and graphic violence that informs so much of Gordon’s work is fully on display, as is the gradual escalation into full-on madness that acts as a trademark of his best movies. Hell, even the neon pink light that appears to mark the arrival of the witch calls back the aesthetics of From Beyond, and I don’t think that’s an accident.
Gordon, perhaps more than any of his fellow Masters of Horror, used the Showtime series as a way of self-reflexively commenting on and encapsulating his career. Between “Dreams in the Witch House” and “The Black Cat"—Gordon’s contribution for season 2 (and, to my memory, the single best episode of Masters of Horror of them all)—the director saw this television project as a way to not just direct whatever material he could being given total creative freedom, but also to explore what a “Stuart Gordon film” really means. He’s working with Lovecraft and Poe—basically the fathers of literary horror—but still presenting their work through the lens of his auteurist sensibilities. He’s not just adapting Lovecraft; he’s adapting Lovecraft as a Stuart Gordon film. Two decades into his career as a filmmaker, that means something.
"Dreams in the Witch House" Score: 3.5/5
Up next: It’s the first Masters of Horror episode from my favorite filmmaker: Tobe Hooper’s “Dance of the Dead!”