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Graphic horror films in the theatrical mainstream have always been tamed and sanitized, with the goriest and most explicit pictures given a choice of heavy censorship, or unrated 'second tier' distribution. No matter what ideas one might want to express, the MPAA and the studios force filmmakers to snip away at sexual and violent content to avoid an NC-17 rating. That category was invented to be tougher than an "R" but without the stigma of an "X" -- a reputable niche for movies with artistic adult content. Distributors weren't fooled, and treated NC-17 as simply the new "X." The system effectively blocks extreme horror films, while allowing big MPAA member studios the luxury of negotiating when they have rough content of their own to sell.
In the new splintered entertainment market, last year's hardcore horror anthology series from Showtime and Mick Garris was taken as a welcoming sign. The unrated shockers are organized around "Masters of Horror," directors known for or associated with horror films. In theory, it sounds like a great opportunity to see different styles and approaches to the genre on a more or less equal basis, and without the content restraint imposed by theatrical watchdogs.
This first opus to reach DVD is by Stuart Gordon, the popular director of over-the-top semi-comic gorefests like Re-Animator. He returns to H.P. Lovecraft country with a deadly-straight adaptation of the classic story Dreams in the Witch House.
With every college kid in America aware of Cthulu role-playing games, H.P. Lovecraft is a hot item these days. Plenty of direct-to-video horror items exploit the concept of hidden passages to terrifying alien dimensions, an idea plumbed often in the past by filmmakers like Lucio Fulci and Sam Raimi. With the restraint of censorship removed Gordon could conceivably be free to bring Lovecraft's "unnameable, unimaginable" horrors to the screen.
Gordon and Dennis Paoli's script is compact, intense and to the point. The 55-minute running time isn't wasted on peripheral characters or 'balancing' interests. Walter Gilman is assaulted by supernatural phenomena almost as soon as he settles in his dingy room, a series of shocks that never let up. Ezra Godden and Chelah Horsdal are sympathetic and likeable main characters, even if Ezra's Walter tends to be on the hyper side. In terms of on-screen horror the episode doesn't cheat. Gore abounds in cascades of splattering blood, and the story makes good on its every horrible threat.
Some H.P. Lovecraft enthusiasts may find that Dreams in the Witch House is a perfect horror adaptation. Gordon and Paoli deliver the shocks, but the episode leaves little room for much beyond the gore and the (true-to-Lovecraft) morbid depression. The show is basically an up-market variation on the cheapie direct-to-video efforts. The Showtime cable formula has made nudity essential, so Walter is seduced by a naked witch to keep the fan-boys breathing hard. Frankly, we lose respect for Walter when he's so easily corrupted. Dreams in the Witch House was written as a period piece where the sheltered scholar of Arkham (or Providence, Rhode Island) could conceivable be as naíve as is Walter. After reflexive horror films like Scream, what modern student would consider staying in a rooming house besieged by such terrors?
Walter's nightmare visions are ably visualized. A tiny human-faced rat named Brown Jenkin is a horrible D.T. vision come to life, Nosferatu as a rodent. Walter's fevered visions of transparent walls and sinister shifting alcoves are interesting, if not quite as hypnotic as the fantastic, psychosis-inducing graveyard map in Albert Band's I Bury the Living. Walter is 'forced' into participating in ever-more horrible acts, culminating in a particularly awful slaying only hinted at in Rosemary's Baby. The show might as well be aimed at a splinter audience, because mainstream viewers aren't going to be amused by a conclusion even more depressing than that of The Other. 1
Dreams in the Witch House is morbid grand guignol that eventually rejects psychological explanations for Walter's atrocities. The authorities see for themselves that Walter is a patsy for supernatural forces and not an outright madman. That distinction doesn't make a whole lot of difference, because we can tell that this Masters of Horror is satisfied with delivering the promised goods - nudity, gore, nihilistic doom - and leaving us to contemplate the nasty result. Horror used to be about a lot more than that.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Dreams in the Witch House is a beauty, and the early adopters who recorded cable HD signals on their videotape recorders may want to seek out this disc to sample the ample extras. The enhanced widescreen image is ultra-sharp and the audio track is finely tuned to bring out scratches in the walls and echoey prayers from the room downstairs; the only time the sound design disappoints is when Polanski-like coven chanting is heard over scenes of demonic possession. The rich color in the witch house is ably stylized yet still attractive to the eye, which may detract from the overall mood, depending on one's theories about color in horror films.
A full roster of extras is overseen by disc producer Perry Martin, who guides a commentary with Stuart Gordon and Ezra Godden and directs the main making-of documentary. Additional interview featurettes center on director Gordon (his theatrical history before filmmaking is quite interesting), his crewpeople, actress Chelah Horsdal, and the main KNB special effects master, who introduces us to the animatronic Brown Jenkin.
The peripheral extras render magazine articles on the show unnecessary. The menus offer links to a Stuart Gordon text bio, galleries of stills and storyboards and trailers. DVD-ROM files access the full screenplay, a screen saver and Lovecraft's entire original story. As the work of the creepy bard of Arkham is now considered official 20th century literature, high schoolers may have all they need here for a dandy book report ... the 'not rated' variety.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. As a horror tale I Bury the Living is a frustrating excercise, but Richard Boone's hallucinations around the haunted cemetery map have a grandiose, cosmic quality in keeping with Lovecraft's hidden universes of fear. They were designed by montage expert Slavko Vorkapich. Until the cop-out endng, we're convinced that Boone's reality is being torn apart by Hellish forces.