( 1/31/2006 10:38:00 AM ) Bill S.
THIRTEEN MINUS ONE – So Showtime's Masters of Horror has finished its first season, one episode lighter. While the end results have garnered mixed reactions from many horror fans, I generally enjoyed this collection of low-budget mini-horror-flix, if only for the way it seemingly brought guys like Joe Dante back to their Corman-y roots. I know I've touched on individual episodes already, but let's do a quick full run-down of Season One, shall we?
Since we're gonna have to wait 'til Anchor Bay releases Entry Thirteen, that's it for MoH's first season. If none of the episodes aired produced the frisson I remember as a kid, watching Twilight Zone or Boris Karloff's Thriller, the better 'uns had their suitably creepy/disturbing moments. (A little more variety in subject matter would've helped, I'd still say, so let's stay off the highway in Season Two, m'kay?) Considering the disappointingly high percentage of failed major net attempts at bringing the Dark 'N' Creepy into our homes, I'm still heartened by the Showtime series' apparent success. And perhaps by Season Two, Tobe Hooper'll remember the rudiments of modern horror storytelling - after all, he discovered half of 'em!. . .
- "Incident on and off a Mountain Road" – To my eyes, Don Coscarelli's series opener started on a high that unfortunately hasn't lingered due to the repetition of two of the story's primary motifs (Woman Imprisoned in the Middle of Nowhere; There's A Killer on the Road) in two later entries. Befitting its Joe Lansdale source, this was a rough outing – as much for its scenes of its heroine's abuse at the hands of a whack-job survivalist spouse as for its scenes in that creepy isolated cabin – but Coscarelli regular Angus Scrimm is a treat as a crazed cabin captive with a strong case of Stockholm Syndrome.
- "Dreams in the Witch-House" – One of the series' highlights, Stuart Gordon's return to Miskatonic U. approaches the same deadpan sense of horror mixed with chortles that characterized his still-unmatched ReAnimator, but time and budgetary constraints (would've loved to see this as a full-length feature – with at least one good half-glimpse of the Old Ones who populate H.P. Lovecraft's mythos added to the mix) kept this entry from more fully smacking us on the face.
- "Dance of the Dead" – But at least Gordon actually carried us into horror territory, unlike poor Tobe Hooper, whose primary focus in horror filmmaking these days seems to be in garish lighting and set design. An Apocalyptic zombie story that manages to make both the Apocalypse and zombies look stultifying, "Dance" also provides a reminder that – sans post-production vocal treatment – Robert Englund is much more convincing playing kindly aliens than he is seedy degenerate creeps.
- "Jenifer" – Perhaps the first hint that the Showtime series was not going to go as far as it had advertised came with the news that a castration sequence had been snipped from this typically elegant-but-inconsistent Dario Argento adaptation of the Bruce Jones/Bernie Wrightson horror comic about one man's dangerous obsession with a grotesque, cannibalistic (but shapely!) young girl. Gotta admit I was nervous to read that star Steven Weber had written the screenplay for this adaptation – but until he gives us a teenaged beach party that seems to've been edited in from a different flick entirely – I was going along with things. A decent near miss . . .
- "Chocolate" – And then there's series creator Mick Garris' tepid updating on The Eyes of Laura Mars which, but for its occasional glimpses of sliced flesh, could've been a teevee-movie on any of the basic cable channels. I read somewhere that Garris originally wrote this as a full-length feature. We should probably be thankful he was forced to keep to under an hour. In a better world, he'd have been made to give at least a half hour of his time to Stu Gordon.
- "Homecoming" – It's probably fair to state that Joe Dante and Sam Hamm's Johnny Comes Marching Home zombie tale has received more press than any other entry in MoH's first season – and I don't begrudge this pulpishly political entry one drop of the ink it received. To my eyes, its closest comparisons are to underground horror comix produced in the early seventies (Legion of Charlies, in particular), not the horror films Dante cheekily references throughout. Not so much a horror tale as it is agitated satire, it nonetheless displays an admirable willingness to go beyond caricature to produce some disturbingly affecting moments (the amputated zombie soldier on the table, the zombie in a late-night cafe) alongside more campy imagery.
- "Deer Woman" – Remember how disappointed you felt at the end of An American Werewolf in London when the cursed hero's neatly built-up dread-soaked situation came crashing down with an extended auto demolition sequence? Well, director/co-writer John Landis still hasn't learned how to satisfactorily wrap a horror story . . .
- "Cigarette Burns" –Good ol' John Carpenter, on the other hand, continues to show some spunk. Reworking In the Mouth of Madness into the story of a cinemaphile who finds a long lost notorious feature about Le fin du Monde, Carpenter plays with film history, showing more excitement than he's demonstrated onscreen in years. If the end results aren't all that scary, they're undeniably fun to watch. Added bonus: Udo Kier as a nasty Eurotrash millionaire. Now there's a guy who breathes decadence . . .
- "The Fair-Haired Child" – The second Damsel in Distress in a Dark Secluded Place entry. A decent creature, some smart moments of suspense, an ending you can see fifteen minutes before you get to it. I was gonna ask what made director William (the second House on Haunted Hill) Malone a Master of Horror in the first place, but then I saw on IMDB that he was one of the directors on The Others, a 2000 dark fantasy series that was cut down way too soon, so I'm not gonna be snarky after all since this ultimately wasn't that bad an episode.
- "Sick Girl" – Girl-lovin' lady entomologist falls for a free-spirited type who is turning into something awful thanx to some bites by a mysterious South American beetle. In the right hands (think the transformation in Cronenberg's The Fly), this can be creepily unnerving stuff, but unfortunately director/co-writer Lucky McKee squanders too much time on unfunny desperate singles banter.
- "Pick Me Up" – Two urban legends (more than two, actually) met up on the same patch o' deserted country highway: when even a mainstream police procedural like Numb3rs starts riffing on urban legends, perhaps it's time to look elsewhere for your horror. Still, director Larry Cohen gets good mileage out of Michael Moriarty's loquaciously menacing trucker – the primary reason to watch this entry.
- "Haeckel's Tale" – Mick Garris strikes again! – this time, taking one of Clive Barker's bloody sex-&-horror yarns and scripting it in a stilted blend of Deadwoodese & Hammer Films declamation. The results, directed by John McNaughton, are amusing, and Jon Polito, playing a traveling necromancer, is his usual durably shady self. The Berger & Nicotero FX undercut the horror significantly (simply pointing out that a puppet looks like a puppet doesn't make it look any less like a puppet), but the episode's big moment (necrophilia writ large!) carries plenty of that Barker-esque charge. Not sure McNaughton was the guy to go to for this 'un – his sensitivity is too modern to fully carry off to early moments of this period piece – but I bet he'd do a great job on, oh, "The Midnight Meat Train."