Masters of Horror: Volume 1 (UK - DVD R2)
Gabe checks out Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter's Masters of Horror additions...
Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch-House
Based on a short story from master of the macabre (and noted racist), H.P. Lovecraft, Dreams in the Witch-House concerns a young man and the dreams he experiences living in a house haunted by a witch. Lovecraft was always one for synoptic titles. Said young man is named Walter, and he's looking for a quiet place to study inter-dimensional string theory (like you do), at Miskatonic University (go pods!). And if that wasn't quite enough Lovecraftian lore for you, I'll also toss in the fact that he's in the town of Arkahm, and the Necronomicon is part of his studies.
Anyway, Walter finds a great deal in a dilapidated housing complex where the landlord is willing to rent cheap, in exchange for no trouble. His next-door neighbour is a kind young woman with a baby and no job. Downstairs lives a hermit who prays while beating his head against a chair every night. One night, Walter realizes that the corner of his room is the exact dimensions necessary for the theoretical inter-dimensional portal he happens to be currently researching. Faster than you can say Mi-Go, the Fungi from Yuggoth, Walter begins to suffer nightmares involving a hideous witch who comes to him in the guise of his attractive neighbour. The witch is coaxing him into murdering his new love interest's baby, and it seems that inter-dimensional travel isn't quite as theoretical as it once was.
I love Stuart Gordon films. Though he only has two real ‘classics’ under his belt, the Lovecraft inspired Re-Animator and From Beyond, even the weakest links in his directorial chain are enjoyable films. I really enjoyed Dolls, The Pit and the Pendulum, Dagon, hell, even Robot Jox was a blast. This respect and admiration for the man and his films makes this review particularly painful. Dreams in the Witch-House isn't very good; in fact, it verges on downright boring.
This is the first in the much hyped cable series Masters of Horror to see DVD release (or second, as Carpenter's episode sees release in the same set, see below). The series is made up of thirteen hour-long horror films, each directed by a different master of the genre. Though the use of the word 'master' is a bit of a misnomer, as the directorial line-up includes William Malone and Mick Garris, Gordon's episode was one of the more promising, as it was yet another return to his beloved Lovecraft.
The film's problems are mostly material based, as in the script is full of non-events and blandness. I cannot fault any of the actors, especially not Ezra Godden who plays Walter like a young Jeffrey Combs, equally funny and endearing. I also cannot fault Gordon's direction, which is assured, and basically very true to Lovecraft's story. Why Gordon loves this particularly un-frightening tale enough to film it is a little beyond me. There are plenty of grand ideas and images to be found in Lovecraft's lore, why settle for a simple witch story that doesn't bare the distinctive mark of the author, besides the constant mention of the surrounding world (Walter wears his Miskatonic University t-shirt the entire film). Even the ethereal element of the inter-dimensional wall is kind of incidental, as it seems the witch really does just live in the walls.
One of the big selling points series creator Mick Garris constantly pushed during production was the fact that Masters of Horror would not look or feel like a TV show, but thirteen separate, made for the cinema short films. If Gordon's (or Carpenter's) is any indication, the masters have failed on this front, because the film looks undeniably cheap. Not only cheap, but somehow everything is very obviously made for television. This isn't, unfortunately, something I can quite put my finger on, but there is that feel of non-theatrical release all over the film.
John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns
Down and out professional film sleuth Kirby Sweetman is offered the chance to find the only remaining print of a film long thought erased from existence, La Fin Absolue du Monde, ‘The Absolute End of the World’. The film was rumoured to have caused mass hysteria during its original screening, in which the audience dissolved into a quivering mass of murder and mayhem. Everyone who's anyone in the film world knows the legends, and all those who seek this forbidden film are reportedly haunted by the evil within it.
If Kirby ignores the warnings and finds La Fin Absolue du Monde, an eccentric and rich movie collector (Udo Kier, chewing the scenery with some restraint) will pay him two hundred thousand dollars for his troubles, money which will pay off sweltering personal debts. But the closer Kirby gets to the film, the closer he comes to understanding the madness the film is alleged to cause in all those who come into its contact. His sordid past begins to haunt him in the form of hallucinatory cigarette burns (the round changeover cues seen in the corner of the frame during a theatrical screening) scorched into his mind.
John Carpenter is one of the true mavericks of modern cinema. His varied work includes a multitude of genres (though with the exception of Starman, very male-centric genres), and at least three truly classic works, Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Even the lesser films of his early output, The Fog and Christine, have a multitude of hard earned fans. Up until 1992, which saw the release of the unequivocally awful Memoirs of an Invisible Man, even the director's weakest films held camp or sentimental value.
As time goes on, Carpenter has begun to falter to movie-brat syndrome, the creatively fatal disease that seems to strike every member of the early '70s independent film movement, especially those who made a name in the field of fantasy/horror (prime examples are Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, etc.). These days, the name John Carpenter above a title is about as exciting as prostate cancer, after the release of such "gems" as John Carpenter's Vampires, and John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. This decline in quality has also seen a decline in output, begging the question, has Johnny lost his touch?
As I stated previously, the announcement of the Master's of Horror was very exciting, for me in particular. The idea of a return to form for these genre titans was almost too good to be true. Two episodes in, I'm starting to think my expectations were a little excessive. Carpenter's entree isn't nearly as weak as Gordon's, but it doesn't come close to making up for a decade of dashed hopes and recycled clichés.
Cigarette Burns was written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, two of the head contributors over at the granddaddy of Internet fan sites, Aintitcoolnews.com. It's painful and clear from the outset that the script as a whole will be easily categorized as movie geek verbal diarrhoea. The idea of the ultimate film fanatic and collector in search of the most elusive foreign horror film is referential enough, but the addition of the questing hero's age, and life's ambition to run his own grindhouse, not to mention the film critic who's been writing the same review for decades preaching the power we put in our filmmakers, is very heavy handed. Don't get me wrong, this is the kind of script I'd probably write, and there are some nice ideas here, but the fact that these guys are writing about themselves, or rather, their ideal selves, is pretty indisputable, and more than a little awkward.
Though I'm going to assume this script had been in the works for years, the parallels to the J-horror blockbuster, Ringu, are hard to miss. The stories are different, but at their base involve the search for reasoning behind haunted film. And seeing hallucinatory cigarette burns is pretty close to seeing hallucinatory grainy, digital rings. I'd also like to add that this subject was covered rather eloquently in John Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness (a fact the director does acknowledge in his commentary track), which covered the same bases, only in the form of a haunted (or possessed) trash novel, rather than snuff film.
The acting is solid, especially every scene concerning cult icon Udo Kier, who's got to be the most reliable man in the business (the guy even managed to pull Swarzenegger's horrible End of Days out of the gutter for 3 or 4 glorious minutes), and lead Norman Reedus, who you may have seen being obnoxious in Guillermo del Toro's otherwise solid Blade II. I'm glad it was just the character, and not the actor that was lacking in that film.
The biggest problem with the film is, like Gordon's episode, the undeniably made-for-TV look. I know that TV schedules are shorter and budgets are tighter, but I've seen plenty of filmmakers overcome these limitations—most notably Carpenter himself, who's early television work, including his Elvis biopic, is far above average, and Takashi Miike, whose television work is almost indescernible form his theatrical output. Carpenter does well here, but he seems to be half-assing it in the name of efficiency.
There are some lazily ‘hip’ editing techniques that don't fit in with the director's personal aesthetic, which are obviously made in post without much directorial input. This is a short film that suffers from a lack of polish, and it comes so close to greatness at times that its overall lethargy comes as a crushing blow, especially to fans that have invested a lot in this particular director's craft. For the most part, considering the projects boundaries, it works, with the exception of the sloppily concocted cigarette burn effects, and the briefly glimpsed footage from the monstrous film itself. Both look like they'd feel out of a homemade death-metal video. It's a case of the filmmakers showing us too much, and not letting the audience's imagination fill in the impossibly abstract blanks.
Carpenter can still shoot a better film with two weeks, fifty bucks, and his eyes closed than most popular Hollywood directors could with six months, enough money to feed five million starving children for five years, and the best glasses money can buy. The scenes that work, which I don't want to give away, work in spades, and some even achieve the level of skin crawling creepiness that the director hasn't achieved since the days when Kurt Russell was burning things that were weird and pissed off.
So one would probably think that an H.P Lovecraft adaptation should be pretty dark, and maybe even a little washed out when it comes to colour. This is, more or less, a forgone conclusion. I don't know what Dreams in the Witch-House looked like during its original airing, but here its overall darkness is overwhelming. At times I simply couldn't make out what was going on screen, but not in a way that benefits the film. This darkness leads to some low-level noise and blocking, but because everything is so dark, this problem goes by almost unnoticed. Grain levels are low, and I noticed no edge enhancement, even when objects and characters moved from total blackness to light.
Cigarette Burns is a minor improvement. Like Gordon's film, Carpenter has opted for a lot of darkness; he even mentions in his commentary his cinematographer's fondness for natural light. This overall darkness doesn't muddle the image like that of Anchor Bay's other Masters of Horror release. In a side-by-side comparison it appears that Carpenter's film also has higher detail levels than Gordon's, and the image is softer and more palpable. This leads to presume that either Carpenter's production was better equipped, or that Gordon was really going for a muddy look for his short.
The only other conclusion I could draw would be that Anchor Bay spent more time ensuring that Cigarette Burns looked good, which doesn't seem logical. There are some minor aliasing issues, as is the occasional compression noise, but this transfer is satisfactory, if not exemplified.
I made the mistake of listening to most of this particular film in Dolby Surround, because I've let myself become too acquainted with DVDs that default to Dolby Digital tracks. Once I figured out my mistake, I was pleasantly surprised by both film's effective, yet subtle soundtracks. Though the music in Gordon's flick was nothing outwardly special, and there wasn't much aggression to the track, spooky directional effects and an atmospheric LFE track are prevalent and solid. There were no noticeable errors in volume levels, and dialogue was clear and cantered.
Cigarette Burns is slightly more aggressive in the effects arena, the titular burns themselves can be pretty noisy, and emit their sound from which ever speaker coincides with their appearance. An interesting note is that the music, which is above average, but nothing jaw dropping, was composed by Carpenter's son, Cody. Most fans know that Carpenter usually acts as composer on his own films, and this use of someone else’s music, albeit his son’s may be evidence of the director's somewhat admitted disinterest in the project.
Both made for the tube movies don't exhibit the visuals of most theatrical releases, but audio wise, they could easily be mistaken for more extravagant productions.
Anchor Bay really knows how to entice fanboys, and these discs are no exception. Both are pretty loaded, more so than either film really deserves honestly. Fortunately, the best extras concern themselves with the directors themselves and their earlier (better) work. My favourite features were the ‘Working with a Master’ and director history segments, which could've been easily edited together into two larger segments, one on each director.
The director's history segments, entitled ‘Celluloid Apocalypse’ (John Carpenter) and ‘Dreams, Darkness, and Damnation’ (Stuart Gordon) are both a little on the short side, but when coupled with the ‘Working with a Master’ segments, are pretty inclusive histories of the director's and their work. Had they been just a little more in depth, and had they included every film in each artist's repertoire (Gordon's Sci-Fi work is glazed over pretty quickly), these docs would've been worth the price of the discs alone. I'm very partial to the histories of artists I respect, and am very appreciative of the work that went into each doc, including interviews with colleges and actors who've worked with each master throughout their careers. Though basically fan material, there is dignity and respect to be found here. It's too bad that rights issues keep footage from the films to clips from public materials like trailers.
The second best feature subheading is the audio commentaries. Gordon's film features the director himself and lead actor Ezra Godden. It's an entertaining track, though a tad on the lethargic side. Both commentators must be constantly questioned by the DVD's producer in a vain effort to keep things moving. I get the feeling that Gordon is one of the most laid back dudes in all the world, based on just about everything I've ever seen him in. Carpenter's solo track is as uniformly fun as pretty much every commentary track he's ever worked on. Carpenter is actually pretty critical of his and the writer’s work, making some of my critical points in a more demur fashion. McWeeny and Swan's dual track is weak in comparison, but fun enough to listen to simply because of their enthusiasm, and the fact that they represent basically a whole generation of film geeks who got their first script made by one of their idols.
The rest of the features are snippets of behind the scenes footage, effects breakdowns, and text info under various creatively worded headings. Strangely, the digital effect explanations and blooper reels are under an additional menu marked ‘Special Features’. For the most part this is the usual promotional stuff lesser DVDs tote as special, but it's all welcome enough, except for the script-to-screen comparison which just plays the audio of a specific scene while typed script pages slide ever so slowly by. The section labelled ‘Behind the Scenes’, on both discs, is really just a glorified music video, and the interviews are all pretty brief, but thanks to the solid director docs and Carpenter's commentary, they're really just some lesser icing on a pretty tasty slice of cake.
Also included is some fun sounding DVD-ROM stuff that I couldn't get to work on my MAC computer. Oh well.
As an optimist and a fan, I'm hoping that Anchor Bay is perhaps saving the best for last. These shorts were crafted by two of my favourite filmmakers, and even with the wide girth of lightweight I was willing to give them, I have to admit my great disappointment, especially in Gordon's episode. I've heard some fan's say that Carpenter's was the best of the series, which I really hope isn't true, because it's average at best. I hold out hope for Argento's episode, because I always hold out hope for Dario, Dante's episode, because it has possibly the best concept behind it, and Miike's episode, because nothing sounds better than a Miike horror film that was too much for even the so called Masters of Horror to release. I'll also look forward to Lucky McKee's episode, as he's the youngest of the bunch, and has the most to prove. Keep the faith, and stay tuned.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 28th March 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Extras: Dreams in the Witch-House: Commentary track with Stuart Gordon and Ezra Godden, Dreams Dreams, Darkness and Damnation, Working With a Master: Stuart Gordon, The Making of Dreams in the Witch-House, SFX: Meet Brown Jenkins, On Set Interview with Chelah Horsdal, Bloopers, Trailers, Stills, Stuart Gordon Bio, DVD-ROM, more. Cigarette Burns: Audio Commentary with John Carpenter, Audio Commentary with Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, Celluloid Apocalypse, Working with a Master: John Carpenter, The Making of Cigarette Burns, On Set Interview with Norman Reedus, Bloopers, Trailers, Stills, John Carpenter Bio, DVD-ROM, more.
Easter Egg: No
Director: Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter
Cast: Ezra Godden, Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Chelah Horsdal
Length: 110 minutes
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