Friday, March 29, 2013

Masters of Horror: Season One (2005)

Masters of Horror is a series of one-hour short films that ran on Showtime, directed by many of the seminal horror directors of our time. The idea originated from a series of cordial dinner outings shared by a group of directors (many of which are represented in this series) spearheaded by Mick Garris. The project is unique in that it gives each director a clean slate to work from, to produce a short film in ten days, with practically nonexistent interference from any studios or higher-ups, to be run on television. I have just finished watching the first season, so I will review each of the episodes below. It may be worth noting that I did not watch the episodes in the order that they aired, but rather in the apparently random order they came in my box set.

Title: Jenifer
Director: Dario Argento
You might remember his film...Suspiria (1977)

Premise: Steven Weber stars in a screenplay he wrote based on a short comic about a man's unhealthy obsession with a feral creature that possesses the body of a beautiful woman, coupled with a monstrous face.

Opinion: I suppose I was expecting something a little more "colorful" from Dario Argento, but Jenifer left me feeling kind of lukewarm. It's a good story, and I really like that it approaches the topic of sex and sexual obsession, but the story really isn't that deep, and you can pretty much see where it's going after the first five minutes. Still, it is an interesting premise, although I'm not convinced that the male libido is so strong that a man would protect a carnivorous monster just because she's got a great rack, unless there's something supernatural at work. Dario brings his Italian sensibilities to the picture, which means he's not squeamish about the marriage of sex and violence like so many Americans are, although the result is that he was one of the only directors on the project who had to make a few cuts to his picture. In spite of the theme and the unflinching gore, I found this episode struggling to lift itself above "TV anthology horror" quality.

Title: Cigarette Burns
Director: John Carpenter
You might remember his film...Halloween (1978)

Premise: Norman Reedus (Daryl on The Walking Dead) stars as a cinephile and rare film finder hired to track down an obscure French film (La Fin Absolue du Monde, "The Absolute End of the World") which is rumored to have the power to whip everyone who watches it up into a mad frenzy of ultraviolence.

Opinion: I was genuinely impressed with this episode, which kept my attention glued to the screen throughout. Credit goes to the actors and director, of course, but also to the story, which, as an artist keenly attentive to issues of censorship and the power of art over people's lives, I found to be utterly fascinating. I agree with the director that the idea of a film being a weapon that induces violence is cockamamie, but as a fantasy it thrills the mind, and this episode explores under what fictional consequences might such a thing actually be possible. It is, in a Cartesian sense, a horrible vision of the natural progression of the idea that art moves people. Furthermore, it plays on the excitement every film buff experiences when in search of rare and infamous films.

Title: Pick Me Up
Director: Larry Cohen
You might remember his film...It's Alive (1974)

Premise: Two very different but equally charismatic serial killers match wits against one another when they both encounter a bus full of travelers broken down by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

Opinion: I wasn't familiar with Larry Cohen going into this episode so I didn't know what to expect, but it turned out to be really excellent. The two killers - one a hitchhiker and the other a trucker (named Walker and Wheeler) - are both really captivating on screen, and despite being villains, become your favorite characters. I suppose that means this episode isn't all that scary, as you're never particularly rooting for their victims, but it is lots of fun. You get to see their two different approaches to the trade, and how they clash when they both set eyes on the same prey. Very much recommended.

Title: Incident On And Off A Mountain Road
Director: Don Coscarelli
You might remember his film...Phantasm (1979)

Premise: A woman tries to escape a mutant serial killer in the mountains after a car accident, while thinking back on her relationship with the man who taught her the survival skills she'll need to stay alive.

Opinion: A fairly straightforward premise proves to be a rather clever and interesting juxtaposition of storylines, chronicling the lead actress' evolving relationship with a survivalist, and how those experiences have given her the knowledge and confidence to face her life-threatening chase through the woods with strength and ingenuity. For once, we get a heroine who is not helpless - even if some of her MacGyver-meets-The-Goonies antics (challenge: build a tripwire slingshot with a stick, a pocket knife, a pair of panties, and a length of skirt, and do it in the dark, before that deformed homicidal psycho catches up to you!) at times stretch the audience's credulity - that ultimately leads to a fresh and original ending. The balance of suspense and comfort between the two interposed storylines is handled exceptionally well. If this episode did not engage me quite as enthusiastically as Pick Me Up or Cigarette Burns, in the end it proves itself to be a worthy addition to the Masters of Horror series.

Title: Homecoming
Director: Joe Dante
You might remember his film...The Howling (1981)

Premise: The dead rise - but it's not brains, it's suffrage they want in this political satire condemning the Bush administration's unpopular war in Iraq.

Opinion: One of the great things about Masters of Horror is that - especially in conjunction with the DVD special features - it places an emphasis on the director, giving him more of a character and a personality than you might get by just watching movies through the years. Joe Dante was an unfamiliar name to me, but in addition to working on the Roger Corman-spearheaded Jaws knock-off Piranha, he also directed one of my favorite werewolf movies - the classic The Howling - as well as Gremlins, which, despite its comedic approach, gave me nightmares when I watched it as a child. Even though politics isn't really my thing, I respect Joe Dante for having the guts to tell a story with such a blatant political agenda. And despite it's - what some may call 'preachiness' - it's pretty entertaining, too. Although the premise's requirement that the zombies be sympathetic and not frightening characters detracts from its horror value, it does on the other hand present a refreshingly original (if irretrievably dated to the Bush administration) take in what has become an oversaturated subgenre of horror.

Title: Chocolate
Director: Mick Garris
You might remember his film...Stephen King's The Stand (1994)

Premise: The mastermind behind Masters of Horror Mick Garris writes and directs this psychological horror about a man who develops a psychic connection with a woman and is able to experience her feelings and sensations from the inside out.

Opinion: When I started watching Masters of Horror, the main question that hung on my mind was, knowing TV's reputation compared to film, could these master filmmakers manage to create a series whose quality exceeded that which one would expect from a TV anthology show? And so far, the evidence has been pointing overwhelmingly to "yes". Chocolate, despite being more of a psychological thriller than a straight horror, is no exception. In fact, it manages to conjure one of the creepier and more believable middle-of-the-night intruder-in-the-house scenes I can recall seeing. The premise is pretty interesting, and invokes a good bit of mystery, if it is a fairly arbitrary device to provide most of the piece's horror. Still, the character and his experiences are fascinating, and this story does include some sex and nudity. So, it's definitely no waste of an hour.

Title: Dreams In The Witch-House
Director: Stuart Gordon
You might remember his film...Re-Animator (1985)

Premise: In this adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story, a graduate student rents a room in an old house that is haunted by a witch hiding out in an alternate dimension who seduces victims into committing heinous deeds.

Opinion: I don't know whether to credit H.P. Lovecraft for the story - and his uniquely effective approach to horror - or Stuart Gordon (who has directed several other H.P. Lovecraft story adaptations in the past), but this episode of Masters of Horror was excellent. The crossing of these two minds is, perhaps, a match made in hell, as Gordon's approach to horror is equally impressive. He doesn't believe there is such a thing as "going too far", and he thinks the most effective horror stories are those where the creator breaks the rules, so you don't know what to expect (an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree). In this story, the life of an innocent baby is in jeopardy, a witch takes advantage of string theory (for real!) to manipulate space and time, and her familiar - a rat with a human face - crawls around creeping people out. Plus we get a glimpse of the Necronomicon! Leave it to Lovecraft to get the creative juices flowing: I feel inspired to finally get around to reading his stories, as well as checking out some of Stuart Gordon's other films.

Title: Dance of the Dead
Director: Tobe Hooper
You might remember his film...Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Premise: Robert Englund (the original Freddy Krueger) stars in this adaptation of a Richard Matheson story as the MC of a gothic night club in a war-torn, post-apocalyptic, urban wasteland.

Opinion: Jessica Lowndes is illuminating as the last piece of innocence in a land ravaged by chemical warfare, even as she is seduced and corrupted by a group of punk thugs. This story is a dark and energetic look at an apocalyptic world where everyone has lost something, and few have the luxury to cling onto any sense of decency or morality. It's a pretty good story, but I unfortunately have to count the erratic cinematography against it. I know Tobe Hooper (who also directed Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist) has good reasons for making that stylistic decision - and it does put you into the zero-to-sixty mindspace of these characters - but it really detracted from my enjoyment of the episode with the constant camera movement and double, triple, quadruple images. A more judicious use of that device might have proved less annoying, but at least, the quality of the material underneath that filter was very good.

Title: Deer Woman
Director: John Landis
You might remember his film...An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Premise: A Native American legend about a half-woman, half-deer seductress comes to life in this tale of a jaded police officer's hunt for redemption.

Opinion: As to be expected from the man who directed Animal House and The Blues Brothers, John Landis mixes some humor into his episode of Masters of Horror. But, I'm happy to say, it's an intelligent and straight-faced humor, that doesn't undermine the horror of the piece. In fact, I like what he said in the interview special feature about trying to approach [both comedy and] horror with realism - not in terms of the supernatural themes, but in terms of the character's reactions to what's going on; that also has the effect of making them both more likable and more relatable. In this case, the characters recognize the absurdity of the concept of a deer woman seducing and then murdering men, but they're forced to accept the premise by the evidence that appears before them, while the mythical killer's own credibility and dangerousness is not reduced by its statistical and scientific improbability. The result is a pretty fun, if silly, story - and in truth, horror isn't always about being scary, it's about having a good time, too.

Title: The Fair Haired Child
Director: William Malone
You might remember his film...House On Haunted Hill (1999)

Premise: A schoolgirl is abducted by a distraught couple to feed a monster they summoned in a Satanic ritual to bring back their drowned son.

Opinion: To be honest, this was the first episode in a while that I felt was struggling to lift itself above TV anthology quality (in spite of that premise). However, the monster was very creepy - thanks to an effective design and the director's unsettling use of camera tricks. It looked and felt almost like something that could have escaped from The SCP Foundation. There is also a surreal element to this episode, sometimes bordering on the absurd. It wasn't bad, at all, but the basement ordeal drags a bit, and the ending, while twisty, just has too much of a happy-positive feeling. The bad guys aren't supposed to get their comeuppance, and the good guys aren't supposed to live happily ever after - as rarely happens in real life - that's part of what makes a good horror so unsettling.

Title: Sick Girl
Director: Lucky McKee
You might remember his film...May (2002)

Premise: A quirky entomologist enters a sweet romance with an erratic artist, which is disturbed by an aggressive monster bug that impregnates humans.

Opinion: The odds are against Lucky McKee. He's one of the newest and least experienced directors called on to the Masters of Horror project, his episode's story - about a parasitic bug - could easily fall into TV anthology territory, and his episode is as much romantic comedy as it is horror. And yet, he manages to churn out one of the more entertaining episodes in this series. He decides to make the protagonist female, thus allowing himself the opportunity to tell a somewhat more unusual story of an endearing lesbian romance. And the actress opposite the lead is none other than Erin Brown a.k.a. Misty Mundae - my favorite softcore porn actress! I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw her in this role, and she was perfect for it! The constant presence of the bugs that the lead is so enamored with maintains a creepiness factor throughout the story, even before the real horror erupts - and when it does, it's suitably devastating. I'm really impressed with what this unfamiliar director has done with his opportunity to join the Masters of Horror, and I'm intrigued by the other directing projects he's done so far.

Title: Haeckel's Tale
Director: John McNaughton
You might remember his film...Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Premise: In this period piece adapted from a Clive Barker story, a man in mourning seeks the aid of a necromancer to bring back his deceased wife, and learns of the horror of love that transcends death.

Opinion: I was very excited to see Clive Barker's name attached to an episode of Masters of Horror, as he is an excellent writer, who writes disturbing and original stories. And John McNaughton succeeds at bringing this story to life, without shying away from the disturbing element of sexual perversity that flavors many of Barker's stories (not least of which includes the sadomasochistic overtones in Hellraiser). In this case, we have what I can enthusiastically report is the most erotic zombie sex scene I have ever seen, thanks in no small part to the casting of Leela Savasta who, as an art model, is not only comfortable with nudity, but possesses a flawless physical beauty. Other horror contained in this episode includes some re-animated dogs, which have that same excellently creepy feel as the dog in The Fly II which I love to fear so much. Additionally, the story is structured in a way - not unfamiliar in Clive Barker's stories - that it doesn't quite go in the predictable and cliched direction you might expect, instead ending up somewhere disturbing on a wholly novel level. Excellently done.

Title: Imprint
Director: Takashi Miike
You might remember his film...Audition (1999)

Premise: An American visits a notorious brothel in Meiji era Japan in search of his lost love. But the story he extracts from a prostitute gets increasingly disturbing the closer he comes to the truth.

Opinion: I had been looking forward to seeing Takashi Miike's episode of Masters of Horror ever since I started watching the series, after he impressed me with the deeply disturbing Audition years ago. Here, he does not disappoint. Imprint is easily the most unsettling episode in this series, which has the crucial distinction of being the only episode that Showtime wouldn't air. The setting of a seedy Meiji era brothel is intriguing, and the story just gets darker and darker as the protagonist plunges down the rabbit hole, delving into the past of one of the prostitutes - beautiful, in spite of her disfigured face - and her cohabitation with the woman he loved. The torture scene is brutally uncomfortable, in that uniquely subtle Japanese way, which distinguishes itself from the more aggressive American approach. I'm very happy that the Masters of Horror made a point to include a director to represent Asian horror in their series, and I couldn't be happier with their choice of Takashi Miike. If there is one complaint I have against this episode, it's that the actors' thick Japanese accents are at times hard to understand. I would just as soon have watched the episode in Japanese with English subtitles, but I understand this episode was filmed with an American audience distinctly in mind.

In conclusion, I can say that I am very impressed with the first season of Masters of Horror. It exceeded my modest expectations of a television anthology series, and lived up to its promise given the level of talent involved. Most importantly, I had a lot of fun watching these short films, and learning more about the directors behind the camera. Doing so has repeatedly sparked my inspiration, and led me to seek out many of the other titles several of these directors have previously worked on. I look forward to getting an opportunity at some point in the future to see the second season of Masters of Horror, and I urge all dedicated horror fans to give this series a look!


  1. Awesome! Great review, very illuminating treatment. I thought you might like this, since Horror Fest is over I thought this might be an adequate substitute.

    As a diehard TVphile I do have one minor, minor note to contend: TV's reputation as compared to film. That may have been true in the past, but in the post-Sopranos world TV is as consequential a force as film, culturally speaking. Masters of Horror is itself an aspect of this wave. Is The Walking Dead not on par with or better than any recent zombie movie?

    As far as anthology horror TV goes, I can't blame you there, you're right it can often be terrible... but I'd argue that's the modus operandi for anthology horror films as much as for anthology horror TV. In fact Tales from the Crypt (film) and The Twilight Zone (film) are generally considered inferior to their TV counterparts. I mean, you're 100% right about the *reputation* of TV and horror anthology, it's just not necessarily an accurate reputation.

    Ooh and since you mentioned sex & nudity being worthwhile in the Chocolate review, you should definitely watch The Hunger. It's available on Netflix, *another* anthology horror show from Showtime but this one was from the 90s. The stories aren't spectacular but the show has a creepy vibe and every (?) episode is full of sex & nudity, verging on soft core porn.

  2. Yeah, this is a great substitute for HorrorFest!

    You're right, I did kind of get TV quality and horror anthology quality mixed up. When I think of horror anthologies, I instantly think of TV, even though some of them do come in the form of feature films.

    Softcore porn, you say? I'm there!