The Dreams in the Witch House has never been, for me, one of Lovecraft’s better stories, though more because it reads like a first draft, with no attempt to bring the story alive for the reader. Its main idea, that the dark powers of witchcraft can be linked with the then-cutting-edge mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry, is the bit that lingers in the memory (that and the creepy witch-familiar Brown Jenkin). Stuart Gordon’s adaptation updates the science (non-Euclidean geometry becomes String Theory — to which Brian Greene’s book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, is an excellent introduction), and of course can’t help but make the story more accessible in this, his contribution to the Masters of Horror series.
Gordon’s previous Lovecraft adaptations include Reanimator, From Beyond and Dagon (actually The Shadow Over Innsmouth). Although he could be described as the most faithful adaptor of Lovecraft’s work in terms of sticking to the events described in the text, he can’t exactly be said to be the most Lovecraftian in tone. You couldn’t, for instance, imagine him adapting The Colour Out Of Space, which is the real essence of Lovecraft’s bleak cosmic horror. But Gordon obviously has fun. The camp and humorous aspects of horror are never too far away, as he himself points out in the commentary for one scene where the protagonist wakes up to find himself in Arkham University’s Restricted Reading Room with a skin-bound copy of the Necronomicon on the table in front of him… in nothing but his underwear.
It’s interesting, actually, to see how the emphasis in a horror story changes when it’s adapted to film. Some ideas that read as horrific on the page (Brown Jenkin, a rat with a human face), come out as more humorous when actually seen. (Gordon’s Brown Jenkin works for me, but more in a dream-like than scary way.) Others, though, are suddenly more horrific. The aspect of child sacrifice comes across as pretty conventional in Lovecraft’s story, but here, where we actually get to see it, is almost unbearable. Gordon says, jokingly or not, that his wife threatened to divorce him because of this aspect of his 50-minute film, and I can quite believe it.