2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch-House

Stuart Gordon's late-career resurrection continues apace with the disquieting Dreams in the Witch-House. Gordon made his bones as the go-to (maybe the only) guy for watchable adaptations of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and he lives up to that identity with this, an episode of the uneven Showtime series Masters of Horror. This is not his best Lovecraft adaptation (Re-Animator will forever hold that title), but it's the closest to the tone of the stories.

Witch-House sees grad student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) renting a room in a shabby part of town. The place is small and crummy - the drawers have no bottoms - but it's cheap and there's a cute single mother named Frances (Chelah Horsdal) living in the next room. Walter begins to suspect that things are not as they seem, however, when his work with string theory shows the shape of his room to possess the perfect diagram for an interdimensional portal. And then the rat with the human face shows up. There's some sinister goings-on in this house dating back some 300 years, and it's up to Walter to try and put a stop to it before history claims more victims. But how do you stop an ancient evil when your waking life is a nightmare?

Right from the title, it's pretty clear that this is going to be a rubber-reality movie. Gordon's introduction of this, with the reveal of Brown Jenkin (the man-faced rat), is well-played - the revelation comes after a scene in which Walter fights off a rat in Frances's room. We're primed to expect more rats, but not rats with supernatural powers. From there, he blurs the lines between the dream world and the real world until they're indistinguishable. (Interdimensional portals will do that.)

What separates Witch-House from the normal variety of rubber-reality film is the use of the dream state to represent Walter's loss of control in the situation. He starts as the confident hero figure; however, as the witch's powers become more cleary defined, his resolve breaks down (for reasons which the narrative makes clear). By the point of the climax, he's a blubbering mess driven to insanity by powers beyond his comprehension or control. This is classic Lovecraft in its design - the Everyman who finds something that man was not meant to find. Gordon's worked with Lovecraft's material for so long that these ideas seem as much a part of his ethos as they do Lovecraft's. (Even his non-Lovecraft projects have an air of these forbidden-knowledge thematics, i.e. King of the Ants.)

It's up to Ezra Godden to make us understand why Walter becomes a blubbering mess, and it's here that the film stumbles across its major weakness. Godden's a repeat player in Gordon's world, having also starred in Dagon, and he represents something from which a lot of later Gordon works suffer - his acting is likeable but a bit talent-deficient. He comes off blandly, and while he's not as offensive as Chris McKenna (who singlehandledly ruined King of the Ants), he's also not really cut out for this type of work. He's the kind of pleasant chap who plays second fiddle on a hit sitcom for a few years and then does movies on Lifetime and Sci-Fi.

Fortunately, Godden's failings are not enough to sink this messed-up movie. Gordon's moody direction blesses Witch-House with a thick sense of dread. His use of shadowy lighting not only keeps the creepy coming but also serves a thematic purpose, as it gives off the idea of things half-seen. Moreover, his expertise in the genre keeps the hour-long running time lively and stuffed with sex and violence. It's brisk and fairly amusing in a spooky way for about the first half.

Then the nastiness kicks in; the closer Walter gets to the truth, the grimmer the proceedings become. The climax to the narrative arc comes with an image so unexpected that my eyeballs nearly exploded from the shock. Gordon's horror films thrive on this kind of taboo imagery (the key example being the 'head' scene from Re-Animator), but this may be the first time that there hasn't been a black joke springloaded inside the grue. The message is clear: This is meant to shake you up and remove your safety net. It's supposed to hurt. And after all, isn't this what horror is supposed to do?