As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, if Cabinet Of Curiosities reminds me if anything, it’s the 2005 Showtime anthology show Masters Of Horror which was masterminded by Mick Garris and saw a variety of horror directors gifted with the freedom to craft hour long tales of murder and mayhem. Making the comparison all but complete is the sixth episode of Guillermo Del Toro’s passion project which adapts H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams In The Witch House, a short story that also got the television treatment via Stuart Gordon back in MOH’s second episode. However, while Gordon’s effort lacked the lavish budget displayed by Netfix, it did up the insanity factor by including dead babies, crazy hallucinations and a boat load of sex. Can Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke manage to turn in a version that does justice to Lovecraft’s singular vision that, even in a saner version, still includes a man-faced rat with an Irish accent?
Walter Gilman has been unreasonably obsessed with the supernatural ever since his twin sister, Epperley, succumbed to illness and he witnessed her spirit be sucked away through a spectral vortex and into a freaky, ethereal forest. Even to adulthood, the quest to contact her from the earthly plane fills his every waking hour. Needless to say, this has made him a something of a liability as he’s on the verge of losing his job and his friendship with his loyal buddy Frank, but still he persists, constantly being disappointed by con artists and charlatans who claim to commune with the other side.
However, Gilman has a chance meeting with a couple of Native American gentlemen who sell him an Indigenous drug that finally allows him to cross the barrier and enter the limbo known as the Forrest Of Lost Souls where he finally, but temporarily, is reunited with his long dead twin. Continuing to get epically buzzed off his nut in order to quell his all consuming obsession, matters are considerably complicated by the fact that he’s since moved to a rented room located in the house of Keziah Mason, an executed witch whose malevolent spirit also dwells the Forest and is looking for a route back to the land of the living.
Aided by her familiar, a cackling, human faced rodent by the name of Jenkins Brown, Keziah wishes to take advantage of Walter’s repeated trips to the great beyond and see herself (and her man-rat) reborn once again and Walter, aided by, a fellow resident of the witch house who paints her visions, a reluctant nun and good old Frank only has until sunrise to dispel Keziah, see his sister finally at peace and, most alarmingly of all, not die.
It’s weird that, for a show that regularly steeps its episodes in a sence of Lovecraftian dread, the two weakest episodes of the series thus far are the ones that have been adapted directly from his works. Displaying the same scatter shot pacing and plotting as the previous episode, Pickman’s Model, we’re less treated to a coherent story and more a string of fantasy horror sequences connected by the impressive dark rings under Rupert Grint’s eyes. As per every other episode under the Cabinet Of Curiosities banner, the production values simply cannot be faulted as we’re blessed with yet another rousingly lush period piece (this time 1933) that’s sumptuously shot by Hardwicke’s camera. However, maybe it’s somewhat unsurprising that the director who, in Twilight, helped make bloodsucking vampires all sparkly and shiny, doesn’t quite manage to pull off the horror aspects of the story, choosing instead to up the fantasy levels which makes this tale of undead witches and possession as chilling as an episode of Loose Women. Now, I’m not saying that Hardwicke should have gone the Stuart Gordon route and loaded the episode with child sacrifices and gratuitous nudity (God knows the story’s chaotic enough), but the episode feels remarkably tame when compared to the rest of the episodes so far and feels like a missed opportunity.
However, a lack of genuine scares isn’t even the main issue with Dreams In The Witch House as its main sticking point is the lead character of Walter Gilman, a driven man consumed by the death of his sister who is played with wild-eyed panic by Rupert Grint. As tough as it is not to simply see him as an adult Ron Weasley who’s fallen on hard times while suffered a spectacular LCD flashback, the script does him no favours at all by giving us no real time to get to know him as a person as he melodramatically runs/staggers from scene to scene in seeming in the grip of a constant state of panic. While driven and obsessed characters driven to the edge of reason were usually the bread and butter of Lovecraft’s stories, Grint’s streak of white hair and haunted stare ends up being more irritating than heartbreaking as he’s less a empathetic character than an hour-long whine.
Elsewhere, the more fantastical aspects of the film, while certainly pretty, aren’t actually anything that special with the dark-skinned, ember dandruffed design of the titular witch resembling a number of similar creatures seen in films like The Last Witch Hunter, Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters and other such flicks that undoubtedbly have “witch” and “hunter” in the title. On the other hand, the film ironically handles the most outrageous aspect of the story suprisingly well with the memorable, rasping form of Jenkins Brown being the episode’s amusing standout. Voiced by DJ Qualls (Roadtrip, The Core) as he scampers on bed posts, a screeches support to his master like he’s Keziah’s little creepy hype-man, he’s a tantalising prospect as to how amusingly twisted the episode could have been.
As it stands, while Cabinet Of Curiosities hasn’t had a truly “bad” episode, by my reckoning the show is about 50/50 so far when bouncing between being good and great, but two more episodes to go. Now while a 50% hit rate is actually pretty respectable for an anthology show but with two episodes to go, there’s still time for Del Toro’s passion project to beat the odds. It just maybe needs to focus less on adapting Lovecraft directly and instead keep channeling the author’s sensibilities into tales concerning mind blowing cosmic horror or the senses bending, eldritch horrors that lurk within the walls or under our feet.
A pretty addition to this Del Toro sponsored pantheon, Dreams In The Witch House is nevertheless more of a sleepwalk than a full blown nightmare.