Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House (DVD)
Starring Ezra Godden, Chelah Horsdal, Campbell Lane
Directed by Stuart Gordon
Released by Anchor Bay Entertainment
The news that Stuart Gordon would be behind an episode of the first season of Masters of Horror was almost a relief to me. There are few directors working today that have produced more memorable films than Gordon; Carpenter is one. Craven another. Romero, definitely... but ultimately it's a short list, and Gordon is certainly deserving of the Masters title.
"Dreams in the Witch House" is based on an early H.P. Lovecraft story, one that pre-dates the Cthulhu mythos, and has been a passion project for both Stuart and screenwriter Dennis Paoli for a long time. The duo had always wanted to see it realized on film, so when the Masters opportunity came up it was the perfect fit. The result is one of the more disturbing entries in the first Masters series and, for me, the one that got closest to the root of what the entire project was about.
"Dreams" is the story of a student by the name of Walter Gilman (Godden, star of Gordon’s last Lovecraft masterpiece, Dagon) who finds a room for rent in the somewhat rundown, 300-year-old titular home. He’s not interested in comfort, just quiet and privacy; a place where he can concentrate on his schoolwork and developing his theory. That theory has to do with the existence of multiple planes of reality and how, when the angles meet at the right place, a portal between realities can be opened. This is firmly in keeping with Lovecraft’s original story, though in that tale the principal character moves into the house because he knows a room exists with these exact angles. In the filmed version, Walter only figures it out upon close examination of his room, and is amazed at this stroke of luck.
His next-door neighbor is an attractive single mother named Frances (Horsdal), who he meets when she starts screaming one evening and goes over to investigate. Seems a rat is tormenting her and her baby, and he saves them by shooing the rodent into a hole in the wall and boarding it up. When he tries to tell the landlord about the rat he’s dismissed but another neighbor, Mazurowitz (Lane, in a role originally meant to be filled by Jeffrey Combs) notices him and asks a rather peculiar question; did the rat have a human face?
That night, Walter has what he believes to be a dream about a rat with a human face and goes to Mazurowitz, who tells him the story of what happened to him. There is a 300-year-old witch that lives in the house, using the angles in Walter’s room to travel through space and time. She is determined to stay alive, but can only do so through the sacrifice of infants. Mazurowitz admits he’s trapped there, having done the witches bidding for many long years, and now he fears it’s Walter’s turn. At first he doesn’t believe it to be possible, but the witch appears to him in person and almost forces him to kill Frances’ baby through no will of his own. The dreams, if one is to believe that's what they are, get worse, until he wakes up in the library of Miskatonic University with the Necronomicon opened in front of him and sees just what the witch needs to stay alive. He tries to fight it, but in the end she is just too strong for him.
The end of the episode is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen put to film, and it’s amazing that Showtime let it stay in, even if the story did require it to end the way it did. Stuart said many times that his wife of 20+ years threatened to leave him when she saw it, and I’m sure he was only half kidding.
It’s not just the shocking images at the end of "Dreams" that makes his episode work so well, however; it’s Gordon’s inherit ability to bring so much life to his characters. During the multiple extras on this disc (which I will be getting to in a moment), it’s mentioned over and over again that Godden and Horsdal were able to rehearse together for a few days before shooting started, allowing them to get comfortable with each other than the roles they’d be playing. This connection translates to screen well which makes the story more believable because you care about these people and the danger they’re in. Godden especially does a great job once again (he owned Dagon from start to finish) and damnit I wish he’d get more work. All in all, "Dreams" was one of my favorite entries in the entire series, and not just because it was made by one of my favorite directors.
On the DVD side, Anchor Bay proves that they know what the horror fan wants to see with these discs and have loaded them with all sorts of extras that tell both the tale of how the episode was made as well as why Gordon is considered a Master of Horror.
First and foremost we have the commentary with Gordon, star Ezra Godden (back to his natural British accent, something you would never suspect him of having in his roles), and DVD producer Perry Martin. Martin does a great job of keeping things moving along, not that Gordon or Godden need a reason to talk about the episode, and it’s filled with anecdotes and history as only Stuart can tell. It’s definitely a fun track, though a lot of the information presented is mentioned in other features as well, so you won’t miss much if you choose to watch it without.
"Dreams, Darkness, and Damnation: An Interview with Stuart Gordon" is exactly what the title implies; a talk with Stuart about his beginnings in Madison, Wisconsin and later Chicago, Illinois with the Organic Theater Group, his first foray into film (the groundbreaking and unforgettable Re-Animator) all the way up to his work on Masters. Stuarts non-genre films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (which he and Brian Yuzna co-wrote), The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, and King of the Ants aren't covered, but they are mentioned in the lengthy text biography of the director, which is a great read in and of itself.
The next featurette is the 23-minute "Working With a Master: Stuart Gordon", featuring people like Barbara Crampton, wife and frequent cast member Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Jeffrey Combs, Ken Foree, and Brian Yuzna discussing what it’s like to work with Stuart.. This is easily the best feature on the disc; not that the rest of them are particularly bad or good, but this one really shines through because you get a much clearer idea of what Gordon is like as both a director and a person. Anchor Bay did a stellar job getting the right people together to discuss the man’s career, as well as compiling the footage that plays during the conversation and editing it all together to make it fast-paced and fun.
Next up is the 8-minute "On Set: An Interview with Chelah Horsdal". The star discusses how she got involved in the show, what kind of research and internal struggles she went through playing the role, and of course how it was working with Gordon. Then there’s "SFX: Meet Brown Jenkin", a look at the creation of the rat creature that makes Gilman’s life miserable featuring a chat with Howard Berger. This one’s fast, too, but goes to show how good the KNB folks are and how quick they can come up with solutions to all sorts of demands.
Finally, we have "Behind the Scenes: The Making of Dreams in the Witch House", which is just a compilation of footage shot on-set. Usually this kind of featurette bores me to tears, but here it’s edited together in such a way as to keep flowing well, and gives you a look at the kind of prep that went on prior to shooting. Rounding out the disc there’s a set of trailers for other Masters episodes, a still gallery, DVD-ROM copies of the script, a screen saver, and the H.P. Lovecraft story on which it’s based.
I would be remiss not to mention the packaging for the DVDs. Admittedly, when I first saw what AB’s approach to them would be I was a bit taken aback, the painted covers was something I was not expecting, but when it’s in your hands you can really see what a great job they did with it. The slipcase features a metallic, shinny MOH logo and signature by the director, and each DVD in the series comes with a very cool trading card with the painted image of the director on one side and quick facts about their history on the other. One other thing I noticed which goes a long way to demonstrate that this series is about the directors first and story second; the title on the side of the DVD is simply Masters of Horror: Stuart Gordon. No mention of the title of the episode at all.
So there you have it, folks. I hope this rather exhaustive look at the second Masters of Horror DVD is enough to convince you that Anchor Bay loves both this series and the fans that support. It. They’ve gone to great lengths to be sure that these short films are given as good, if not better, treatment than some of the features they release, and to that end I say they’ve succeeded admirably.
Audio commentary by Stuart Gordon & Ezra Godden
"Dreams, Darkness, and Damnation: An interview with Stuart Gordon"
"Behind the Scenes: Making Dreams in the Witch House"
"Working with a Master: Stuart Gordon"
"On Set: An interview with Chelah Horsdal"
"SFX: Meet Brown Jenkin"
Stuart Gordon text bio
Collectible Masters of Horror Trading Card
DVD-ROM screenplay, screensaver, and orignal H.P. Lovecraft story
5 out of 5 Mugs O' Blood