Saturday, November 05, 2005

MASTERS OF HORROR's 1st Masterpiece

Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House," adapted by Dennis Paoli and Gordon from one of H.P. Lovecraft's finest stories and starring Ezra Godden (pictured above), certainly lived up to the promise of last week's promo, scoring the new Showtime series its first masterpiece of televised horror.

"Masterpiece" might seem a strong word to use in this context, but I'm thinking about the TV terrors that have survived over the decades to become bonafide classics -- THE TWILIGHT ZONE's "Nick of Time," "Eye of the Beholder" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," THRILLER's "Pigeons from Hell" and "The Grim Reaper," and THE OUTER LIMITS' "The Forms of Things Unknown." Being a limited premium cable broadcast rather than a cultural phenomenon from the three-network heyday, "Dreams" can't touch as many lives with the same immediacy those earlier shows had, but there's no doubt that it's every bit as good, and at least as scary. Years and years from now, it will be one of the episodes for which MASTERS OF HORROR is remembered.

I'm not going to synopsize the story but I may refer to some things in general that you might not want to know about if you haven't yet seen the show, so be forewarned... but whatever I say, I don't think it can ruin it for you.

Despite its contemporizing of the story, as is consistent with Gordon & Paoli's previous Lovecraft adaptations (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND), the imagery of the episode is remarkably consistent with the story's arcane and often involuted descriptions; and where the teleplay introduces its own conceits to lend the story more dramatic enhancement, it pulls no punches. Not only does the episode commit the unthinkable by allowing every fear it anticipates to actually come to pass, it pulls into port on a downbeat note that transcends isolated tragedy so as to seem almost like a death-knell for the human race. To achieve all this with tongue at least partly in cheek is pretty remarkable, and there is little in the scenario (blurred subjective reality, abstract geometric horror, frontal nudity, the threat of violence against children and its fulfillment, the violent death of a nice guy protagonist, etc) that would pass the gauntlet of test screenings necessary to reach a commercial theatrical release. Which is to say that the producers of MASTERS OF HORROR may not be merely being glib when they say they want the directors they hire to explore what frightens them.

I was especially pleased by the geometric horror aspect, which I expected to be something the segment would find some way to overlook; it's a difficult-to-pin-down aspect of Lovecraft that only Lucio Fulci has successfully tapped into before, in THE BEYOND. (Geometry, to me, is in some ways the ultimate horror because it suggests a malevolent intelligence well in advance of anything human beings could combat -- like uncovering a malignance in the very fiber of reality.) I thought Gordon and his cameraman Jon Joffin also succeeded spectacularly in delivering some of the most deliciously Lovecraftian imagery I've seen onscreen, richer and more twisted than the eldritchiana that's figured in Gordon's earlier romps in and around Miskatonic University. And then there's Brown Jenkin, the (unnamed here, except in the end scroll) half-rodent familar of the rooming house witch. When I read Lovecraft's story some years ago, it was this weird character I most cherished about it, and if this screen version isn't quite as tantalizing as the impossible oddity I remember Lovecraft describing, it's nevertheless an audacious attempt and somewhat successful at capturing its complex cocktail of charm and unspeakable repugnance.

Many years ago, circa 1968, Tigon and American International co-produced an adaptation of this story, variously known as THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and THE CRIMSON CULT, starring Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough. Despite that formidable cast, they made a real mess of it -- the "witch-house" was a sprawling, upscale English manor house with perfectly papered walls, Steele was painted green, and Gough was the closest thing to Brown Jenkin, a mute butler silently beseeching innocent visitors to go. Stuart Gordon has come much closer to the bullseye, which could perhaps only be perfectly scored by Lovecraft himself. If you've never read "Dreams in the Witch-House," the original story is the perfect aperitif -- or chaser -- to its new adaptation. Those with sufficient courage can invite the complete text into their senses here.

"Dreams in the Witch-House" airs again on Showtime East and Showtime HD tonight at 11:00 p.m. and tomorrow, Sunday night, at 10:00 p.m. eastern time, with other playdates scheduled throughout the week. For more information (including a photo gallery and a trailer), visit the series website here.

With its second episode, MASTERS OF HORROR has gone from being cause for cautious optimism to the show no horror fan can afford to miss. They've raised the stakes that high, and now we know the incredible is well within their grasp.

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