CC: The Dark Sleep (2012)

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

CC: The Dark Sleep (2012)

"The Dreams in the Witch House" is a short story by H. P. Lovecraft, part of the Cthulhu Mythos genre of horror fiction.  Written in January/February 1932, it was first published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales.

Walter Gilman, a student of mathematics and folklore at Miskatonic University, takes a room in the Witch House, a house in Arkham thought to be accursed.  The first part of the story is an account of the history of the house, which has once harbored Keziah Mason, an accused witch who disappeared mysteriously from a Salem jail in 1692.  Gilman discovers that for the better part of two centuries many if not most of its occupants have died prematurely.

The dimensions of Gilman's room in the house are unusual, and seem to conform to a kind of unearthly geometry that Gilman theorizes can enable travel from one plane or dimension to another.  In his dreams Gilman is taken to a city of Lovecraft's "Elder Things", and even brings back tangible evidence that he's actually been there.  Several times his dreaming self encounters a bizarre "congeries of iridescent, prolately spheroidal bubbles", as well as a trapezoidal figure, both of which seem sapient.  It is hinted that these may be the extra-dimensional forms of Keziah and her familiar.

Of much more direct concern, however, are Gilman's nightly dream sojourns with the old hag Keziah Mason and her rat-bodied, human-faced familiar Brown Jenkin, sojourns which he increasingly believes are actually happening in the real world.  One night, Gilman dreams Keziah, Brown Jenkin1, and the infamous "Black Man2" force him to be an accomplice in the kidnapping of an infant.  He awakes to find mud on his feet and news of the kidnapping in the newspaper.

On May Eve (Walpurgis Night), Gilman dreams that he thwarts Keziah from sacrificing the baby, only to have it killed by Brown Jenkin.  Coming back to wakefulness in this plane, Gilman hears an unearthly cosmic sound that leaves him deaf.  The next morning, Gilman is found dead in his room in the Witch House, a hole burrowed through his chest and his heart eaten out.

The landlord then abandons the house completely, and when it is finally demolished years later, a space between the walls is found filled with children's bones, a sacrificial knife, and a bowl made of some metal that scientists are unable to identify.  A strange stone statuette of a star-headed "Elder Thing" is also found, and these items go on display in the Miskatonic University museum, where they continue to mystify scholars.

The Dark Sleep (2012)

  • Genre: Horror
  • Directed: Brett Piper
  • Produced: Mark Polonia
  • Written:
    • H. P. Lovecraft (Story “Dreams In The Witch House”)  
    • Brett Piper (Screenplay)
  • Starring: Taylor Nicole Adams, Bob Dennis, Steve Diasparra, Ashley Galloway, Ken Van Sant
  • Music: Jon Greathouse
  • Cinematography: Matthew S. Smith
  • Editing: Unknown
  • Studio: Bayview Entertainment
  • Distributed: Bayview Entertainment
  • Rated: NR
  • Release Date: 16 April 2013
  • Running Time: 80 minutes
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English

Literary adaptations can be a tricky thing.  If a movie sticks too closely to the written word, it can be accused of being unimaginative.  If it strays too far, purists will accuse it of losing sight of the source material.  Things really get thorny when an older story is updated to modern times.  Even if it retains the core material, it may lose some of the charm or the symbolism which applied to the time period in the original story.  Or it may just completely go off the rails.  The latter is the case with The Dark Sleep.

Nancy Peterson is an author who is looking for a quite place in the country so that she can work on her new book. She obtains a fairly secluded house from her ex-husband, Pete.  She's happy with the property, but she's confused by the odd mural in the basement.  Pete states that one of the conditions of taking the house is that she can't disturb the mural.  As she's getting a house for free (something she forces Pete to do), Nancy doesn't worry about the mural.  During her first night in the house, Nancy has terrible dreams and is convinced that she sees a giant rat.  These odd dreams continue -- sometimes Nancy is on what appears to be an alien planet and sometimes she's in the forest near the house.  Bothered by this, Nancy convinces her sister, Kelly, to come and stay with her. Kelly also brings along Walter, a man who knows a little something about the mural.  Nancy is about to learn that her nightmares are more real than she thinks and that they can have life or death consequences.

The Dark Sleep is very, very loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Dreams in the Witch House".  The story concerns a college student who moves into an old house and encounters dark forces there.  There are some similarities between Lovecraft's story and The Dark Sleep, and it's clear that Writer/Director Brett Piper chose a few things at random.  Both stories have the rat-like creature named Brown Jenkin.  Both have the main character leaving their bedroom and traveling to another dimension.  And both have a stone with one of Lovecraft's creatures on it.  But, that's where the concrete similarities end.  For the rest of the movie, Piper brings in elements which would be more at home in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, such as having to rescue someone from a dream dimension.

Even with a short-story to fall back on, The Dark Sleep seems very devoid of a cohesive story.  The movie is made up of vignettes involving Nancy's dreams and her daytime conversations with others.  There's no narrative flow to the story.  And we have to question many of Nancy's actions.  She clearly hates Pete and it's made clear that getting the house from him is something she feels that she is owed.  But, when wacky things start happening, she blames him.  Don't take a house from someone you hate!  Nancy's reactions to the odd occurrences is hard to swallow and we wonder why she simply doesn't leave.  The finale sees the story really come unhinged and the coda (again) feels like something from A Nightmare on Elm Street or Phantasm.

Piper isn't the first to take a stab at adapting Lovecraft, but few have turned in such an oddly low-rent effort.  Most everything about The Dark Sleep smacks of a shoe-string budget.  The acting is amateurish and one can't help but wonder why a second take wasn't done at times so that we don't have to watch the actors tripping over their lines. And then we have the special effects.  Let's just assume that Piper and his crew were going for a throwback look with their use of green-screen and stop-motion effects.  There's nothing wrong with these techniques, it's just that they look especially bad here.  The scenes where Nancy visit the other dimension look like something from a Sid & Marty Krofft show from the 70s.  Even for something taking place in a dream, it all looks fake and it will pull you right out of the movie.

The oddest thing about The Dark Sleep is that Lovecraft devotee Stuart Gordon made a much more faithful adaptation of "The Dreams in the Witch House" for the Masters of Horror TV series.  This doesn't mean that Piper couldn't take a stab at it, but when someone whose name is synonymous with Lovecraft has already done the story, maybe you should look elsewhere for inspiration.  As it stands, there is no reason to recommend The Dark Sleep.  The story is a mess, the acting and special effects are embarrassing, and it's never scary or sleepy.  Avoid The Dark Sleep and simply take a nap. It will be more entertaining.

 

Notes:

1.  “Brown Jenkin”, Mason's familiar, is "a small white-fanged furry thing", "no larger than a good-sized rat", which for years haunts the witch house and Arkham in general, "nuzzl[ing] people curiously in the black hours before dawn".  The creature is described:

Witnesses said it had long hair and the shape of a rat, but that its sharp-toothed, bearded face was evilly human while its paws were like tiny human hands. It took messages betwixt old Keziah and the devil, and was nursed on the witch's blood, which it sucked like a vampire. Its voice was a kind of loathsome titter, and it could speak all languages.


2.  “Black Man” - Appears as a hooved, hairless, man with pitch black skin and Caucasian features. - Nyarlathotep is worshipped by witch covens in this form.

Nyarlathotep is a name used for various characters in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and other writers.  The character is commonly known in association with its role as a malign deity in the Cthulhu Mythos fictional universe, where it is known as the Crawling Chaos.  First appearing in Lovecraft's 1920 prose poem of the same name, he was later mentioned in other works by Lovecraft and by other writers and in the tabletop role-playing games making use of the Cthulhu Mythos.  Later writers describe him as one of the Outer Gods.

Nyarlathotep differs from the other beings in a number of ways.  Most of them are exiled to stars, like Yog-Sothoth and Hastur, or sleeping and dreaming like Cthulhu; Nyarlathotep, however, is active and frequently walks the Earth in the guise of a human being, usually a tall, slim, joyous man.  He has "a thousand" other forms, most of these reputed to be maddeningly horrific.  Most of the Outer Gods have their own cults serving them; Nyarlathotep seems to serve these cults and take care of their affairs in their absence.  Most of them use strange alien languages, while Nyarlathotep uses human languages and can be mistaken for a human being.  Most importantly, while the other Outer Gods and Great Old Ones are often described as mindless or unfathomable, rather than truly malevolent, Nyarlathotep delights in cruelty, is deceptive and manipulative, and even cultivates followers and uses propaganda to achieve his goals.  In this regard, he is probably the most human-like among them.

Nyarlathotep enacts the will of the Outer Gods, and is their messenger, heart and soul; he is also a servant of Azathoth, his father, whose wishes he immediately fulfills.  Unlike the other Outer Gods, causing madness is more important and enjoyable than death and destruction to Nyarlathotep.  It is suggested by some that he will destroy the human race and possibly the earth as well.

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