Connect with us


Review: Masters of Horror: Season One

Talented filmmakers working on material from genre aficionados, yielding uneven results.

Masters of Horror: Season One
Photo: Showtime

Haeckel’s Tale (John McNaughton). As the final episode of the first season of Masters of Horror, Haeckel’s Tale is representative of much of the series: talented filmmakers working on material from genre aficionados, yielding uneven results. Considering the creative team involved (adapted by series creator Mick Garris from a short story by Clive Barker, directed by John McNaughton) and that it climaxes with a corpse-fucking bride surrounded by a legion of horny zombies, not to mention a demented bloodsucking baby and some intestine ripping carnage, the most shocking thing about this Frankenstein riff is how utterly hackneyed the proceedings are. Set in a vague New England that seems lifted wholesale from Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations, Haeckel’s Tale follows medical student Ernest Haeckel (Derek Cecil) through his failed attempts at raising the dead Mary Shelley-style. Traveling home on foot to visit his ailing father, he encounters grave robbers, a mysterious street mountebank resurrection artist (Jon Polito), and an eccentric family in a cabin overlooking a cemetery, all of whom share purple prose-infused chitchat with our young hero about Life and Death. Corman’s films and the Hammer horror series depended on well-constructed atmosphere that went beyond the use of a smoke machine and fake gravestones. This episode looks so cheap it makes one think that by the time McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) got to shoot, his fellow masters of horror had spent all the production money already. To make up for the highly mannered performances and stately bordering on somnambulant pacing, McNaughton makes frequent and jittery use of zooms to punch into people, places and things, whether it’s dramatically warranted or not. Despite the fact that Haeckel’s Tale is at best a mild curiosity for patient genre fans, it’s commendable that Masters of Horror has given work to some of the horror genre’s finest craftsmen, and if the final product wasn’t always the galvanizing return to form we’d hoped for, at least it keeps these directors in the game. We’d thought John Carpenter had caved in to cynicism and boredom, Dario Argento was coasting on his earlier masterpieces, and Joe Dante’s wonderfully eccentric point of view was being stifled by timid studio heads. These artists and others showed they still had guts and glory—and here’s hoping the second season will bring us more where that came from. That’s worth a few indifferent trifles like Haeckel’s Tale. Jeremiah Kipp

Pick Me Up (Larry Cohen). Pick Me Up, adapted by David J. Schow from his own short story of the same name, observes what happens when a very small group of people stranded on the side of the road after a bus accident are chased and hunted by not one but two serial killers. This isn’t new terrain for a horror film, except Larry Cohen’s new experiment in horror is outfitted with a unique and fascinatingly lacerating hook: its two killers work independently of each other. This may sound uncomplicated, except each man, one a snake-loving hitchhiker played by Warren Cole, the other a truck driver played by Michael Moriarty (doing some kind of twisted impersonation of Christopher Walken), seem metaphysically privy to the other’s work. With the help of editor Marshall Harvey, who was responsible for cutting two of the more acclaimed entries in the Masters of Horror series, Dario Argento’s Jenifer and Joe Dante’s Homecoming, Cohen works on an elemental level to evoke a doctrine of just equilibrium spread out across the film’s scenes. If the killers scarcely bother each other, it’s because their butchery is neatly locked in a balance of power—that is, until Fairuza Balk’s woman warrior comes between them. Because he who claims the woman for himself threatens to tip the scales, the boogeymen naturally butt heads. And just as they spar with each other, so does the film’s unique blend of improvisational fear and humor. It’s always been in the nexus of horror and comedy that Coehn’s films find a portal into strange, undiscovered zones of the American consciousness. Once again, Cohen straddles the line between the sparring sensations of terror and laughter like an expert logroller, summoning a subtly damning but fun commentary on New World Order capitalism. Ed Gonzalez

Sick Girl (Lucky McKee). Although I’m not sure two movie credits qualify Lucky McKee as a “master” of horror, the young director has managed to contribute by far the most compelling episode yet to Showtime’s hit-or-miss series. Like Masters of Horror’s other best segments, Don Coscarelli’s Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and Dario Argento’s Jenifer, Sick Girl pays campy tribute to our sexual baggage. “Connect? You’re into chicks, darling. That’s a scientific impossibility,” a co-worker kids the lesbian entomologist Ida (Angela Bettis) about her female troubles, but given the episode’s delirious final shot McKee probably sees the remark as a challenge. After Ida begins dating Misty (Erin Brown), a mysterious bug sent to her apartment escapes and eats a neighbor’s dog. Soon the bug impregnates Misty (by sticking its appendage into her orifices, no less) and causes her to periodically throw fits at Ida and the homophobic granny down the hall. An oblivious Ida suspects a rift in the relationship but as she’ll soon discover these are just the ups and downs of childbirth! This “gift” is a disapproving scientist’s idea of retribution for an unnatural lifestyle, yet Ida and Misty manage to subvert the right’s oppression and turn it into progress; Ida’s gay-bashing landlord is disposed of, and not only is her relationship with Misty literally consummated, but to the chagrin of anti-gay marriage activists, they also become fully domesticated. Bettis gives another startlingly moving performance after May, acting equally weird but completely different, and McKee works the story with his usual fetish for voyeuristic gazing; characters eye each other but stumble trying to articulate their desires and emotions. This complicated mix of camp and tender romantic feeling owes as much to any horror movie as it does to Douglas Sirk or Mommie Dearest. Paul Schrodt

Fair Haired Child (William Malone). Virginal Tara (Lindsay Pulsipher) leaves school after being taunted for being unable to complete an equation on her math teacher’s chalkboard. Guided by the breadcrumb chords of a remarkable Nicholas Pilke score, the downtrodden lass makes her way home through the woods (natch), followed unassumingly by a van that will suddenly and shockingly throw her to the side of the road like a Raggedy Anne doll. Waking up in the Vermont estate owned by her tormentors, an eccentric musician couple played by William Samples and Lori Petty, Tara appears to have stepped through a wormhole. House on Haunted Hill director William Malone’s talent is one for concocting an ominous mood of dislocation: the New England abode of the film suggests something out of V.C. Andrews or John Irving, with Petty’s fourth-wall-engaging boogeywoman sitting in front of a television displaying an Indian head test card. With time and place dutifully thrown out of whack, Tara is further tormented when she’s thrown inside the couple’s basement, where she encounters a living-dead boy named Johnny and a strange series of warnings on the wall. Malone mitigates the inherent silliness of the story’s plot (Tara is the 12th victim in the musician couple’s rite to bring their son back from the dead) with a series of nervy inventions. Or are they reinventions? A magpie on the surface, the director swipes ideas and rhythms from Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, Floria Sigismondi’s videos for Marilyn Manson, possibly even HBO’s Carnivale, to reveal backstory and scare the bejesus out of Tara—and his audience. One moment the film suggests a Carrie throwback, the next a Ringu riff, and while no scene feels particularly original, the overall pastiche never feels discordant. Pushed forward by ever-shifting tonal and emotional gears, the surface of the film itself evokes the story’s obsession with the metamorphosis of body, spirit and sexuality. EG

Cigarette Burns (John Carpenter). A cinephilic variation on 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns concerns itself with a legendary cult film called Le Fin Absolute du Monde (The Absolute End of the World) that was never shown again after its festival premiere 30 years ago because it drove the crowd to slaughter one another and burn the theater to the ground. A movie conceived of as “a weapon” by its Faustian director, the notorious work reputedly exerts a malevolent power over all those foolish or reckless enough to seek it out (much less watch it), and thus when struggling theater owner and procurer of rare films Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) is hired by wealthy miscreant Bellinger (a sadistically suave Udo Kier) to locate Le Fin for a private viewing, he quickly finds himself haunted by disorienting psychic flashes of the titular reel change marks, which are accompanied by visions of the girlfriend he selfishly drove to smack and suicide. Carpenter’s first output in four years, Cigarette Burns may disappointingly lack the director’s trademark cinemascope cinematography and ultimately succumb to an ill-advised show-rather-than-imply mentality, but—scored by the director’s son Cody with familiar, Carpenter-style synthesized keyboards—it’s nonetheless something of an atmospheric semi-return to form, a chillingly sadomasochistic riff on film’s ability to violently tap into our most primal impulses. It’s a theme of particular relevance to the genre-obsessed auteur, whose career has been spent reveling in, expanding upon and deconstructing the exhilarating, escapist thrills of horror and sci-fi B-movies, and here Carpenter slyly implicates both himself and his audience as complicit partners in this gnawing desire to indulge in on-screen murder and mayhem. More than any preceding Masters of Horror episode, Carpenter’s creepy contribution—indebted to The Ring’s technophobia, the explicitly referenced Deep Red’s infatuation with sight, and The Ninth Gate’s plot—regularly colors its foreboding investigatory narrative with swathes of crimson-stained gore. And in a deliriously nasty climax of spiritual and corporeal union between man and celluloid, the film gruesomely captures the way truly potent cinema feels: as though it were ripped straight out of one’s own guts. Nick Schager

Deer Woman (John Landis). Frivolous and mostly unfunny, Deer Woman finds John Landis goofing off with a horror-comedy tale about a jaded detective’s (Brian Benben) investigation into a series of mutilation murders that may involve a mythical Indian spirit (Cinthia Moura) with the upper torso of a Playboy Playmate and the legs of a deer. Reminiscent of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo (or punk-emo outfit Fallout Boy’s video for “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” but with more gore), Landis’s Masters of Horror contribution treats self-reflexivity as an end unto itself, delivering tongue-in-cheek references to its underlying ludicrousness as well as a wink-wink allusion to Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (the film that largely justifies the director’s inclusion in this anthology). As written by Landis’s son Max, the titular creature kills men not because of any specified historical or societal grievance but merely because their horniness makes them easy targets, and though the episode cannily fesses up to the misogyny of such a setup, what’s missing from its portrait of deadly animalistic sex is some direction or depth. For no apparent reason other than to adhere to (as well as playfully tweak) detective story conventions, Benben’s sleuth is saddled with a past professional trauma that’s relegated him to a desk job working animal attack cases (har har) and an African-American partner (Anthony Griffith) so dopey his demise is preordained the second he opens his mouth, all while Moura’s hoofed supernatural beast flashes, with silent seductiveness, both a few come-hither looks and her tits. The omnipresent jokiness, however, isn’t enough to overcome the nagging pointlessness of this lighthearted monster movie lark, nor the disappointment of Landis treating the Showtime series as simply a venue for throwaway bits about severed body limbs and snapped erections. NS

Homecoming (Joe Dante). Homecoming, Joe Dante’s entry in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, comes across as something of a left-leaning wank job. Although the director has confessed his liberal bias in interviews, I sense his intention was for a more equivocal humanism to prevail, which it does in a handful of the episode’s best scenes. Tellingly these are the sequences that diverge most explicitly from the story’s ostensible inspiration (the 2000 and 2004 American presidential elections) and focus more on the homefront. At its heart, Homecoming is a subversive zombie story in which the living dead (all deceased veterans of an unnamed, though obvious war) arise from their graves and cast votes rather than eat flesh. Dante and teleplay writer Sam Hamm (adapting Dale Bailey’s short story Death & Suffrage) tell the tale through the eyes of two right-wing pundits—campaign manager David Murch (Jon Tenney), his Kennedy-like physicality a satirical blessing in disguise, and Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a sexed-up, Ann Coulter-esque rabble rouser possessed of a lecherous desire for political advancement. The duo’s performances are broad, but it is to Dante’s credit that the characters never seem less than recognizably human. Much like his cinema precursor Frank Tashlin, Dante knows how to create a vivid and heightened cartoon world that, at its best, profoundly comments on humankind’s various achievements and foibles. When the first wave of zombies awake, Dante sets the scene inside a massive airplane hanger, the dead soldiers rising from beneath a series of symmetrically arranged American flags. It’s a charged political image that adheres to no one party or point of view and there are several more like it, most notably during a heartbreaking, eventually bloody interrogation scene where Dante regular Robert Picardo, as a scheming and manipulative presidential adviser, asks one of the zombie servicemen why he won’t speak. “Hurts,” the soldier replies. These great moments unfortunately never coalesce, hindered as they are by the episode’s rather cheap looking HD-sourced visual aesthetic and weighed down by the Murch character’s discordant and contrived backstory, which hinges on a rather unbelievable repressed memory of bloodshed and so fails miserably as metaphor. Certainly the past, present and future of this country is written in blood (violently drawn in a variety of ways by all personal and political factions), but Dante tends to shy away from the gore in Homecoming when he should indulge it. As such, the episode’s climactic mass uprising of veterans (from beneath Arlington cemetery gravestones marked Jacques Tourneur and George A. Romero) is an unfortunate wash, falling far short of the transcendent call-to-arms it so clearly aims to be. Keith Uhlich

Chocolate (Mick Garris). Credit Mick Garris for creating Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, but not for successfully contributing to it. Stephen King’s preferred directorial collaborator when reworking his tales for TV (as well as for theatrical junk like Sleepwalkers and Ride the Bullet), Garris is an unabashed champion of the horror genre who nonetheless wouldn’t know how to stage something scary even if it crept up behind him and stabbed him in the back, and Chocolate (based on his own short story) finds him in typical fright-free form. Jamie (E.T.’s Henry Thomas) earns a living concocting artificial flavors for the fast food industry, yet despite his own incredibly heightened senses, the recent divorcee and frustrated dieter finds himself stuck in a bland bachelor’s life until he begins undergoing out-of-body experiences in which he can see (as well as smell, touch, and taste) through the eyes of a mysterious blond beauty (Lucie Laurier) with a fondness for gourmet chocolate. “It felt like growing up,” is how the lonely Jamie excitedly describes these unpredictable paranormal events. However, after enjoying, from the female perspective, the pleasures of shower head-aided masturbation and missionary sex with a hulking Asian stud (the latter of which hilariously occurs while Jamie’s frightened kid watches his dad uncontrollably writhe and groan on a bed), the incidents quickly begin to resemble transsexual virtual reality episodes. His growing “love” for the woman whose body he periodically inhabits a reflection of his latent desire to embrace his more feminine carnal impulses, Jamie seems to be a prime candidate for serious gender identity issues. Garris’s flat, made-for-TV aesthetic, unfortunately, drags his protagonist’s mental and emotional upheaval into a realm of uncomplicated insipidness, just as his narrative misguidedly ignores the ripe possibilities for probing the underlying anarchic confusion such a situation might produce. Whereas the psychosexual story craves some De Palma luridness or Miike grotesqueries, Chocolate instead plows toward its deflating murder-tinged finale without any hint of suspenseful sensual perversity. Though to be sure, the brief sight of King’s novel Desperation, soon to be a (likely crummy) Garris-helmed ABC miniseries in 2006, does generate a modest amount of anticipatory dread. NS

Jenifer (Dario Argento). Dario Argento’s films all address the varying levels of unease intrinsic in the way we look at the world. His hilariously grotesque Masters of Horror entry Jenifer essays the idea that what we see is not always what is there—that veil of uncertainty, discomfort, and denial that shrouds the director’s best films, most memorably in Deep Red and Tenebre. On the surface, Jenifer plays out as a rather rudimentary men-are-dogs provocation, but Argento interestingly sees the very graphic sex between a police officer (Steven Weber) and the hideously deformed woman he saves one day as an offshoot of the empathy that often develops between victims and their saviors. Argento’s work in the States brings out his more gothic sensibilities (for him, Poe was our founding father) and Jenifer’s auteurist stamp is most visibly felt in its frills and flourishes: the Claudio Simonetti score (part Goblin lullaby, part Bernard Hermann melodramatic ambience), the scary cat, and the lonely overhead from a second-floor window. It’s obvious Argento is not from our neck of the woods (Jenifer’s setting is not an actual place so much as it is a dislocation), but whatever alienation he may feel shooting films and directing actors in the United States gives films like Trauma, The Black Cat, and now Jenifer an interestingly perverse flavor. Argento may be lazily and hurriedly devoted to conveying how Jenifer—of a gene-splice between Laura Dern and Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive baby—will be passed like a baton to the next schmuck who comes to her rescue, but his latest experiment in terror is as grotesque as it is jaw-on-the-floor funny. Characters have absolutely no qualms talking about the hideous Jenifer as if she weren’t in the room, most amusingly when a fat psych ward orderly says, “How’d they get that head on that body?” EG

Dance of the Dead (Tobe Hooper). One would hope this post-apocalyptic bit of splatter-punk from Tobe Hooper, created for a cable series that allows for no-holds barred depictions of sex and violence, would be the long-awaited comeback for the maker of that infernal 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Alas, you’ll have to keep waiting. After society has collapsed, Middle American communities try to preserve their apple-pie values. Virginal Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) works at a small town diner owned by her domineering mother. When a group of young punks resembling the leather-jacket wearing, pulp-talking thugs from a 1950s anti-drug film and their floozy girlfriends swing by the establishment, Peggy meets cute with brooding, mascara-wearing Jak (Jonathan Tucker, one of the victims from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake). Jak tempts Peggy to take a walk on the wild side, and they go out for a night of carousing that leads them to a club hybrid of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Cabaret’s music joints. Robert Englund plays the lecherous MC, who hosts an evening of punk rock lite featuring goth posturing, lesbians, and as a highlight, dancing zombies pushed onto the stage with cattle prods. What should be a ridiculously over-the-top scenario played for campy thrills never actually reaches the grotesque heights it aims for, mainly because the cast ranges from somnambulant (Tucker) to overcooked (Englund). The production design is strictly a B-grade rehash of the familiar, cobbled together on a TV budget. The gross-out effects are never truly repulsive. Much of Hooper’s career has been marked by compromise. One wonders if his taste for the macabre was knocked out of him; now he’s a hackneyed journeyman trying to make a living after being destroyed by the Hollywood factory. There’s the occasional moment in Dance of the Dead where Hooper still allows himself to indulge: two gasmask-wearing garbage men tossing zombie carcasses into a trash can and torching them with flamethrowers is topped by Englund getting an undead blowjob from a zombie mistress. But Hooper lacks the nerve to stand by his transgressions, and resorts to cheap effects like an over-used fluttering camera speed to imply a bad drug trip and sentimental theatrics like a third-act monologue where the villains spin monologues about their past sins that feel ripped from a dud soap opera. Better luck next time Tobe. JK

Dreams in the Witch House (Stuart Gordon). Dreams in the Witch House is a return to form for Stuart Gordon, whose adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories (most notably Re-Animator and From Beyond) took wild turns toward the otherworldly, arcane and comically perverse. Never a particularly cinematic storyteller in the league of his film brat contemporaries John Carpenter, Sam Raimi or Tobe Hooper, Gordon’s strength was using his banal, almost pedestrian approach to moviemaking as glue to hold together unforgettably carnal set pieces. Though the material here feels stretched thin even in the hour-long Masters of Horror format (30 minutes would have sufficed), Gordon is allowed the freedom to delve into his wet indulgences without having to concern himself with the MPAA breathing down his neck for an R rating. If Witch House falls short of Gordon’s Grand Guignol classics, we can’t chalk it up to the limitations of television. Showtime allows him to go whole-hog. This second episode of Masters of Horror offers a suitably likeable Miskatonic University grad student (Ezra Godden) staying at a decaying boarding house. As he works out his thesis on parallel universes, he befriends his neighbor, a single mom (Chelah Horsdal) who talks him into babysitting her infant child while she tries to find a blue-collar job. Gordon teases out the haunted house creakiness and rats that live in the walls, and while its wholly atmospheric we miss the presence of a wild-card character like Re-Animator’s manic Herbert West or From Beyond’s sick scientist Dr. Pretorious. But when Witch House finally kicks into gear, it’s worth the wait: rats scuttling around with human faces, nubile witches that shape-shift from voluptuous sex goddesses to rotting pediatrics during sex (in a clear nod to The Shining), and an uncompromised and crimson-soaked finale involving potential infanticide and the Book of the Dead. Needless to say, it all winds up resolved within the confines of a padded cell. Gordon may have mined this territory before to greater effect, sure, but in these days of PG-13 horror films too timid to alienate their audience, it’s nice to see he hasn’t lost his knack for macabre impropriety. JK

Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (Don Coscarelli). “Expect the unexpected,” someone intones early on in Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, though given that Don Coscarelli helmed this debut episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology, it’s hardly a shock to see the Phantasm filmmaker’s favorite boogeyman Angus Scrimm eventually show his gaunt, pasty countenance. More assuredly directed than any of Coscarelli’s prior features (thanks in large part to Jon Jaffin’s ominously moonlit storybook cinematography, filled with phallic blades and vaginal river canyons), the rapturously fiendish Incident, based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, plays out like a one-woman Texas Chainsaw Massacre set in Wrong Turn’s Southern backwoods. Ellen (Bree Turner) finds herself pursued through the tangled forest by a giant knife-wielding albino freak dubbed Moonface (John de Santis) who makes it a habit of removing his “naughty” female victims’ eyes with a power drill. Interspersed throughout this nocturnal chase are flashbacks to Ellen’s increasingly unstable marriage to lunatic militant Bruce (a balding Ethan Embry), whose survivalist teachings (essential for when urban civilization is overrun by “mud men”) come in handy once Ellen chooses to fight back against her monstrous pursuer via MacGyver-style booby traps. That the film distastefully mitigates Bruce’s vileness by having his abusive lessons ultimately prove useful for the feistier-than-she-appears Ellen is matched by its clever inversion of right-wing survivalist philosophy for proto-feminist ass-kicking. Yet such weightier concerns rarely hinder the ghoulish genre pleasures derived from Incident’s swift pacing, unnerving Edward Shearmur/Chris Stone score, and the sight of the always-sinister Scrimm performing a disturbing rendition of “Dixie.” NS

Cast: Derek Cecil, Jon Polito, Michael Moriarty, Warren Cole, Angela Bettis, Erin Brown, Lindsay Pulsipher, Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Brian Benben, Cinthia Moura, Anthony Griffith, Jon Tenney, Thea Gill, Henry Thomas, Lucie Laurier, Steven Weber, Jessica Lowndes, Jonathan Tucker, Robert Englund, Ezra Godden, Chelah Horsdal, Bree Turner, John de Santis Network: Showtime, Fridays, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon, Soundtrack

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
Sign up to receive Slant’s latest reviews, interviews, lists, and more, delivered once a week into your inbox.
Invalid email address