Thursday, November 09, 2006
Movies: Worst. Roommate. Ever.
Now that they're on DVD, I'm finally catching up with the first season of Showtime's Masters of Horror series. I know, I know. Dude, look: I've got a full time job, okay? I get to stuff when I get to it. Last night, I got to Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch-House.
The short stories of H. P. Lovecraft are perversely unsuited to film adaptation. I say perversely in the sense that Lovecraft almost seems to have created them a trap for the incautious filmmaker. On one hand, their pulpy origins, genre importance, and seemingly built-in cult audience makes them look like prime material for filming. But the stories are the product of a talent so radically lonely in outlook and essentially literary in bent that the material is almost inherently resistant to visual storytelling.
The world of H. P. Lovecraft is built almost entirely out of isolated and profoundly alone people – they are usually decadent shut-ins, solitary researchers into the mysteries of the unknown, lonely dwellers in ancient houses, and people trapped, sometimes literally, within worlds of their own creation. Those who are not alone are either paired with some near mirror image of themselves (the pair at the center of "The Hound"), keep the company of a inscrutable ciphers (in the case of the Dorian Grey-like Herbert West or the strangely personality-free farm family in "The Color Out of Space"), or they are quickly cut off from their fellows (I'm thinking here of "Mountains of Madness"). To frame it in cinematic terms, Lovecraft's works always have a cast of one. Consequently, they rarely feature any significant human interaction; which is to say they contain conversations and the like, but character development is usually restricted to the main character and his relationship to one of those eternal, unspeakable, and eldritch things that exist in every corner of Lovecraft's world. Furthermore, the stories are really stories that exist entirely inside the head of a single character. And, as they are almost always the stories of a mentality shattered by the infinitely inexplicable, the real meat of the plot is in the relation of the mental state of fear. Lovecraft can only depict this state though a sort of madly tangled language that always seems on the verge of bursting at the seams. It is that beyond-purple prose that is Lovecraft's most distinctive trademark and, without the actual prose itself, without Lovecraft's distinctly off-kilter language, you really aren't left with much. A "literal" adaptation of Lovecraft stories would be a single long-take of some wide-eyed crazy man ranting at the camera for a couple hours.
This makes the career of Stuart Gordon, the go-to Lovecraft adapter, something of a minor cinematic miracle. Dreams in the Witch-House is a fine adaptation of the short story of the same name, and it joins the famed Re-Animator and the unjustly dismissed Dagon, both helmed by Gordon, in the select category of Lovecraft adaptations worth checking out. Gordon has managed this trick by balancing two seemly antithetical approaches: respect for the original mixed with little loyalty to the letter of the piece. Gordon knows that the originals, as written, would make bad movies. They are meant to be short stories and not scripts. So Gordon takes the original and reinvents it, keeping Lovecraft's details, but making a viable film out it. Witch-House is a perfect example of this approach.
A typical of Lovecraft's hero, Gilman, who in the original short story is one of those obsessive hunters of dark mysteries, takes up residence in the cursed home precisely because of its witch-haunted past. He is looking for trouble and finds it. In the film, Gordon makes Gilman a likeable student who is just looking for a cheap and quiet place to finish off his dissertation. He's a point of identification for us who might not spend all our time searching out eldritch things best left undisturbed.
As luck would have it, he finds a cheap room in a rundown house not far from Miskatonic University, where he's doing post-grad work in physics. Shortly after moving in, Gilman notices an odd architectural detail in the home, a series of corners that seem to reproduce a theoretical multidimensional crossing that Gilman has hypothesized as part of his research. He also becomes acquainted with the other residents of the boarding house: a slimy manager, a religiously fanatical old man who divides his time between hard liquor and flagellant-style holy self-torture, and the cute red-headed single mother across the hall. This woman serves as the love interest. My normal reaction to the addition of love interests is a groaning comment about bad Hollywood habits. But, in this case, it works. For viewers to care about Gilman, he cannot be the single-minded, somewhat creepy character Lovecraft created. He needs to be human.
Unfortunately, there isn't much peace and quiet at the ol' Witch-House. Shortly after arriving, Gilman notices the odd architecture of his room resembles a theoretical dimensional cross-over that he's been studying for his dissertation. And, the way food left out means mice, inter-dimensional rifts mean Satantic witches. Before you can say "string theory," Gilman's sleep is being disturbed by visions of a rat with a human face and worse. Before long, the house's resident witch is making a bid for Gilman's soul and ripping the flesh off his back with her talon-like finger nails. As the story progresses, we find out the witch likes child sacrifices (who doesn't?) but needs a human to does the actual dirty work for her. She's got her eye on the infant son of Gilman's new love interest and she wants Gilman to do the stabbing. What's a guy to do?
Like Lovecraft's work, Gordon's film skits goofiness at several points, but ultimately finds its groove and starts chugging along. The effects are fine. Gordon was working with television-sized budgets, and he's got to make do with what he's got. For the most part, the visuals are effective but nothing show-stopping. The major exception to this is the witch's human-faced rat familiar. This character never rises above the level of silly. The acting was better than it probably needed to be. The tension between Gilman and Frances is charming and feels genuine and Godden (a veteran of Gordon's Lovecraft adaptation Dagon) plays Gilman in a naturalistic manner, letting us believe his slide from mild-mannered student to unhinged victim of the unexplained.
All and all, Witch-House is an entertaining, but slight flick that is more Twilight Zone uncanny than genuinely frightening. It fills its hour-long runtime with enough fun to never drag, but you won't spend much time thinking on it afterward. On the lab-tested and mom-approved Canadian Stamps Featuring Fish film rating system, I give this flick a respectable 1980 17-cent Atlantic Whitefish.