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Review: Masters of Horror: Season Two

Masters of Horror wraps up its second season the way it originally planned to close its first: with an English-language entry from Japan.

Masters of Horror: Season Two
Photo: Showtime

Showtime’s Masters of Horror wraps up its second season the way it originally planned to close its first: with an English-language entry from Japan. Unfortunately, whereas last year’s Takeshi Miike episode, Imprint, was deemed to extreme for Showtime because of its strikingly graphic torture set pieces, Norio Tsuruta’s Dream Cruise is simply torturous, proving to be a last, pitiful gasp for J-horror and its trademark broken-limbed ghouls. As established by the scenes immediately following a brief prologue, Tsuruta knows how to use silence to disquieting effect, keeping things so eerily still that there’s genuine creepiness to the ghostly sounds of a deceased boy (seen as a static, obscure figure) calling out to his brother from just beneath the ocean’s surface. The apparition is the sibling of American lawyer Jack (Daniel Gillies), who as a kid failed to save his brother from drowning and, years later and now relocated to Tokyo, remains terrified of the water—a phobia that proves troublesome when he finds himself out on a yacht with a vicious client (Audition’s Ryo Ishibashi) whose wife he’s screwing. The husband’s plans for revenge, however, are rudely interrupted after the boat conks out and, upon investigating the propeller, he finds himself tangled up in long, black hair resembling that of The Ring’s Samara. From there, Dream Cruise’s sinister calm gives way to tiresome noise, with Ishibashi (displaying a barely adequate mastery of his English dialogue) doing his best to channel Jack Nicholson circa The Shining, a severed hand meekly trying to kill its intended victim, and a batch of supernatural sights that barely engender more than a momentary chill. Per horror dictates, the dead may endlessly return to haunt the living, but it’s hard to see how Masters of Horror serves the genre it champions—much less breaks new ground—by resorting to this type of lackluster repetition of imagery and formulas far past their expiration date. Nick Schager

The Washingtonians (Peter Medak). The title of Peter Medak’s first Masters of Horror suggests a colonial-set romance by Henry James, and though the story looks back to the time of our founding fathers, it is not for amorous purposes, but rather to posit an alternate American history in which George Washington was a cannibal. In the present, a man stumbles onto this truth when he and his family move into the New England home of their recently deceased grandmother, soon finding themselves under attack by Washingtonians, followers of our first president who not only share his fondness for virgin flesh but also insist on preserving the false impression the world has of the man as a cherry tree-chopping do-gooder. First exuding vibes of Medak’s own The Changeling, the film settles into its own unique groove as an interesting political allegory emerges from all the imagery of creepy old people scaring the daylights out of the Franks family. Given the way she gets ice cream all over her face and takes a lollipop from the very stranger she refuses to shake hands with, it’s impossible to feel compassion for young Amy (Julia Tortolano) when she gets into danger, and yet the girl’s obscene cowardice seems to illustrate an interesting point about political naïvete and acquiescence. The film’s humor is pitched way over the top, and though its fantasy of a government conspiracy doesn’t exactly fly (why are federal agents interested in silencing the Washingtonians if neither group wants the truth of Washington’s past known to the public?), there’s bite to the story’s political ambitions. “Eat me! Eat me you sons of bitches!” screams Johnathon Schaech, and before fans of Hush have time to comply with pleasure, the government charges in to restore its idea of peace and order. How this relates to our current state of affairs only becomes apparent with a hilarious punchline that implies that George W. Bush’s unofficial status as our nation’s worst president may be irrevocable unless we learn that a former commander-in-chief ate children for dinner. That or if the White House is willing to lie for the sake of his public relations makeover. Now that’s scary. Ed Gonzalez

The Black Cat (Stuart Gordon). Edgar Allen Poe often dealt with his feelings of inadequacy and guilt through his great short stories, most notably in The Telltale Heart and The Black Cat. Filmmakers as far back as Richard Oswald have been enticed by the latter, whose sensual textures have made it ripe for cinematic adaptation. Now Poe himself is the subject Stuart Gordon’s latest Masters of Horror, an adaptation of The Black Cat that doubles as a biographic reflection on Poe’s creative process. This is not an entirely novel interpretation—another Master of Horror, Dario Argento, incorporated bits of Poe’s life into his own adaptation of the story for the 1990 omnibus Two Evil Eyes—but it is the first to explicitly refer to the story’s famously unnamed narrator by Poe’s name. Though the telefilm is handsomely produced (no doubt expensively), seemingly achieving the impossible by staying truthful to both the original story and the particulars of Poe’s life, from his trouble with alcohol and struggle to write and make money to his wife Virginia’s tuberculosis, the end result feels tidy and predictable. More so than any other Black Cat, the titular feline acknowledges its status as a narrative device with every appearance, and yet Gordon isn’t exactly particular to situate the animal as a manifestation of Poe’s guilt. There are some great moments of inspired horror (Virginia hacking sprays of blood onto her piano) and expressionism (the shadow Pluto casts on a wall recalls the great 1934 abstraction of this story by Edgar G. Ulmer), but Gordon flirts with glibness. The film transpires as a series of psychotic episodes as Poe slips between madness and reality, with Gordon suggesting the author was almost sane once he was able to finally put one of his stories to paper. This may be truthful to the process that torments some writers, but it contradicts what we know of Poe’s history. EG

We All Scream for Ice Cream (Tom Holland). As he’d already (poorly) adapted Stephen King’s Thinner and The Langoliers for film and TV, respectively, Tom Holland was a logical directorial choice for We All Scream for Ice Cream, a tale of a vengeful clown that simplistically apes King’s magnum opus It. Whereas King’s Pennywise is the incarnation of elemental childhood fears, Holland’s vicious jester is a less intimidating ghoul, having risen from the dead to deliver payback to the group of guys who, as boys, semi-accidentally murdered him. It’s a rather traditional return-of-the-repressed scenario in which guilt-ridden Layne (Lee Tergesen), recently relocated to his hometown, finds his old friends mysteriously dying, with flashbacks elucidating the accidental crime against ice cream truck driver Buster (William Forsythe), a mentally-handicapped stutterer who performed comedy/magic routines for his pint-sized customers, that’s the root cause of the current fatalities. Between its past/present structure and the accompanying characterizations of Layne and his pals (which include the decent hero, the sadistic bully, the mean-spirited followers, and the honorable, overweight best buddy), Holland’s tale tediously rehashes rather than reinvents, right down to Layne uttering a variation of Dreamcatcher’s central mantra “Same Shit, Different Day.” More problematic, however, is that its familiar components are a clear cut above its original ones—in particular, Buster’s ploy to sell deadly, voodoo doll-style ice cream bars to Layne and company’s kids, which is too cursorily sketched to adequately exploit its relevant parent-child tensions. In spite of such shortcomings, Holland manages to effectively take advantage of the show’s widescreen aspect ratio, and his use of old-school gore effects is agreeably nostalgic. Nonetheless, the episode’s saving grace is B-movie icon William Forsythe, who makes one seriously sinister—and, more impressively, sympathetic—sicko clown. NS

Right to Die (Rob Schmidt). Right to Die, after Wrong Turn, confirms Rob Schmidt’s talent for pacing and welcome aversion to irony. This neatly structured tele-film begins with a car crash that leaves a dentist’s beautiful wife terribly burned and clinging to life in a hospital bed. As if taking a cue from Dario Argento’s pitiful Pelts, Schmidt mixes sex and violence in ways that are tawdry (fanboys, though, won’t mind Julia Anderson’s boobs, which rival Laura Harring’s in terms of size), but he concocts some unnerving scares for his audience as Anderson’s comatose burn victim waits for the full-body transplant that will allow her to return to the world. In one great scene, a steaming squirt of blood drips on the controls of an MRI machine that will terrorize a sleaze-bag played by Corbin Bernsen. This is Schmidt’s clever visual acknowledgement that he is dealing with a hot-button issue, but the director does not grapple with right-to-life crisis on a political level as much as he does on a twistedly soulful one. Whenever Abbie (Anderson) flatlines, her spirit emerges from her body to taunt her husband Cliff (Martin Donovan), his attorney (Bernsen), and Cliff’s mistress (Robin Sydney). The sight of Abbey’s burned-to-a-crisp corpse skulking toward her victims, a terror revealed to Cliff in one scene by way of his cellphone, is one of the scarier spectacles from this season’s Masters of Horror, and though Schmidt skimps on character nuance in the interest of preserving a last-act revelation, he goes to great and interesting pains to justify Abbie’s woman-scorned vengeance when the guilt-ridden Cliff decides to supply the hospital with his mistress’s skin for his wife’s transplant. The plug is always pulled by the living, but here it is Abbie who exercises her right to die, dying not only on purpose but in the interest of punishing a husband’s chicken-shit audacity to transform her into the last possible woman she would want to become. On numerous levels, Schmidt has created a Masters of Horror that counts as an out-of-body experience. EG

Valerie on the Stairs (Mick Garris). Series architect Mick Garris should have his Masters of Horror membership card revoked after Valerie on the Stairs, a ponderous ghost story that unimaginatively amalgamates various episodes from last season. Based on a treatment by Clive Barker, this tale of an aspiring novelist named Rob (Tyron Leitso) who finds spirits inhabiting a tenement building melds the twisted sexual obsession of Dario Argento’s Jenifer with the haunted-house supernaturalism of Stuart Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch House and the art-becoming-life ideas of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns. It’s repetition of the dullest sort, since Garris not only doesn’t elaborate on those prior, superior efforts’ thematic concerns, but he doesn’t stick a natural-sounding line in his actors’ mouths or dramatize any creepy moments without forewarning music and bumps in the shuddering walls. In discussing his new work-in-progress, Rob sounds like he’s robotically reading an book description, which is still better than the gibberish emanating from the mouths of his neighbors, which include a “cool” stoner, a foul-mouthed Blanche DuBois facsimile, and Christopher Lloyd as a bug-eyed old coot whose primary purpose is to articulate the narrative’s stance that writers are crazy. What’s really crazy is that Candyman’s Tony Todd agreed to don his ludicrously unscary latex costume as the demon Othakai, a beast surreptitiously living in the house whose sexually twisted relationship with phantom beauty Valerie (Clare Grant) is challenged by the arrival of do-gooder Rob. Once Valerie’s identity is revealed, mystery predictably gives way to mutilations, but Garris isn’t capable of delivering a good scare any more than he is of eliciting a decent performance out of Leitso—a failing he shares with Uwe Boll, who featured the actor in 2004’s monumentally awful House of the Dead. NS

The Screwfly Solution (Joe Dante). Because of its trendy politics, Joe Dante’s overpraised Homecoming was the only Masters of Horror from last season to get the attention of the alternative press. Realizing this, producers have asked their slate of horror auteurs to emphasize politics above all else for the second season of the series, except Dante has gone way beyond the call of duty, stuffing his new experiment in terror, The Screwfly Solution, with enough hot-button provocation to not only expand your mind but to also blow it to pieces. Shunning metaphor, Dante imagines a frightening apocalypse when the human reproductive cycle is invaded by an insect virus. The effects are chilling (men, aroused by sex, take out their violent aggressions against women), and as this bioterrorist threat spreads, the world explodes in a testosterone madness that informs housing policies and flights plans. The film’s murders are vicious spectacles of sexual aggression and the flight of one woman to Canada away from her scientist husband (played by Jason Priestley) becomes a nightmare journey for survival that ponders a strange alien interference. In one scene, a star falls from the sky only to change its direction, teasing a would-be wisher; this is Dante’s haunting way of suggesting our political noise has caused a rip in the cosmos. Dante understands the earth as an organism at a precarious point in its evolution, envisioning a planet fighting to resist the pressures the human populace has placed on it, and though the director’s notion of religious zealotry as an automatic symptom of the story’s bioterror is specious to the point of insult, all bases are hit with a startling sense of attention and logic (there’s even a moment during which the effects of the virus on gay men is addressed). Dante is deeply attuned to the way the story’s crisis messes with humanity, forcing us to make startling concessions. In short: Dante has given us a great cautionary tale. EG

Pelts (Dario Argento). First the good: Dario Argento’s second Masters of Horror, impeccably scored by Claudio Simonetti, is just about the goriest thing you can legally see on television. It’s also unpredictable: When Jake (Meat Loaf), a fur trader, starts pestering a stripper, Shanna (Ellen Ewusie, clearly a student of Elizabeth Berkley), you figure it’s only a matter of time before he decides to strip her of her skin. Not so. After father-and-son fur trappers snag a bunch of raccoons (sentinels, according to some old bitty, that hail from a lost city) from some cursed patch of land in the woods, their apparently breathtaking fur pushes people to do (and accept) the damnedest things—things involving bear traps, bats, scissors, sewing needles and Meat Loaf’s cock. Argento’s exploitation nerve twitches unlike ever before, which is to say gore hounds will be pleased. Then there’s the bad. Raccoons? Sentinels of the Lost City? That’s not even the worst of it. When Mia lifts her head up between her stripper gal pal’s legs in order to answer the door, her buddy complains as if Mia was never going to lick her pussy ever again. Even if that was her cause for alarm, this chick is no prophet, unless a deleted scene explains that she too hails from the Lost City. There’s also the wall of the old fur trapper’s house, where Jake conveniently finds one of those funny maps you always see in pirate movies with an x-marks-the-spot that leads him straight to the cursed raccoons. Pelts isn’t just lazy, it’s borderline inane. EG

Pro-Life (John Carpenter). An oversized horned demon appears late in Pro-Life to cradle his recently murdered spider-human offspring, and the scene—exasperatingly silly instead of chilling—helps catapult John Carpenter’s newest Masters of Horror contribution into full-blown cheesiness. A lethargic pastiche of It’s Alive, Citizen Ruth, and the director’s classics Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing, Carpenter’s episode involves the tepid showdown between the staff of a middle-of-nowhere abortion clinic and a psychotic anti-abortionist named Dwayne (Ron Perlman) who stages a siege in order to remove his daughter from the medical center. Dwayne’s 15-year-old girl Angelique (Caitlin Wachs), however, has other ideas in mind—namely, killing the monster living inside her rapidly expanding stomach, which is the byproduct of being raped by Satan. Despite its title, Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan’s story staunchly supports a woman’s right to choose, its minor jabs at clinicians’ arrogance and fathers’ insensitivity to female concerns drowned out by its portrayal of pro-lifers as sadists blindly convinced of their righteousness and more interested in viciously punishing sinners than saving the lives of those they supposedly care about. Unfortunately, after an off-kilter, forest-set intro that suggests nature’s capacity for sexual violence, there isn’t a single intriguing or understated moment in Pro-Life, which deficiently addresses both sides of the abortion issue amid geysers of blood and amniotic goo. Since the climactic ironies (and messages that accompany them) are telegraphed from a county away, what keeps the show’s pulse moderately spry is Perlman, whose even-tempered fervor is unnerving even when McWeeny and Swan’s script forces the villain to illogically take time out of his desperate mission to give the health facility’s bigwig a taste of his own medicine. Certainly, the star’s cool, baritone menace is more energized than Carpenter, whose direction—full of center-image compositions that fail to visualize the tale’s conflicts—is not only languid but, worse for a series defined by its horror auteurs’ idiosyncratic styles, lacking in distinctive personality. NS

Sounds Like (Brad Anderson). Brad Anderson’s Sounds Like is another psychological profile in the tradition of the director’s The Machinist. Larry (Chris Bauer), a tech support advisor at a software company, has a heightened sense of hearing: Not only can he hear the tapping of a fly’s appendages against a pane of glass in THX sound but he can also tell that a psychiatrist’s foot-tapping, nervous breathing and scratching together indicate that the man is lying about quitting smoking. After calling out one of his employees, Larry arrives home to a flurry of maddening sounds. Because his wife’s needlepointing sounds like someone sharpening a pair of knives, is one of the man’s disgruntled employees out to get him? Subtext soon emerges: Larry and his wife, Brenda (Laura Margolis), recently lost a son—not long after Larry’s ears suggested that something was wrong with the boy’s heart. The film’s interesting articulation of Larry’s grief is such that his turmoil tweaks the decibel levels of his immediate atmosphere, from the falling of rain against his windshield to the smoke detector that needs a battery change. The rationale for Larry’s condition seems to be the nature of his work, but it’s not a cause-and-effect Anderson sufficiently dramatizes (which is better than Brenda’s own extra-sensory gift of telling when someone’s pregnant, which get no explanation at all), and through the film relies heavily on its sonic commotion to drag itself toward the one-hour mark, the short is distinguished by its main character’s anguish and Anderson’s understanding of how people cope with pain, finding substitutes for their loss in the world around them. EG

The V Word (Ernest Dickerson). The title of Ernest Dickerson’s The V Word refers to vampires, but its actual allusion is to the epithet-that-must-not-be-spoken (except by rappers), as both terms are labels of reviled outsider status. Certainly, this Mick Garris-penned script feels spiked with racial connotations, its story—about two friends, white Justin (Branden Nadon) and black Kerry (Arjay Smith), who go in search of a dead body and instead find a bloodsucker—appearing to be an attempted commentary on familial and social exclusion. Justin, angry at his father for shacking up with his secretary, convinces Kerry to go to the local funeral home in order to see the corpse of a recently deceased classmate, the nominal goal being to do something exciting and the real one being to assuage their unhappiness by baring witness to the ultimate unfortunate fate. There, they encounter pedophile-turned-vampire Mr. Chaney (Michael Ironside)—named, strangely, after the classic Hollywood horror icon not known for playing Dracula—who enjoys a meal out of Kerry, an act the teenager then reenacts on his best bud. From video game-loving geeks with strained home lives to unholy monsters alienated from their relatives and stuck with a new, undead paternal figure, the two boys find themselves at a crossroads when one of them refuses to satiate his blood hunger. What the protagonists’ differing reactions to their literal/figurative dads is supposed to reflect is never properly articulated by Garris’s script, which grazes past its weightier concerns about race, father-child relations and violent media saturation, the latter tantalizingly touched upon during an intro in which Kerry blasts his way through a gory game of Doom 3. Still, if a squandered opportunity thematically, The V Word nonetheless succeeds stylistically, with Dickerson’s silken, sinister camerawork lending the material—especially during Justin and Kerry’s initial venture inside the shadowy, cadaver-populated parlor—a dose of genuine tension all too often missing from the series. NS

Family (John Landis). The circuitous tracking shot that opens Family quickly conveys the narrative’s central tongue-in-cheek dichotomy, as director John Landis’s camera wends its way from a radiant cherry blossom tree to the interior of a conventional, well-kept home to the basement where the residence’s sole breathing occupant, Harold Thompson (George Wendt), is busy using toxic chemicals to melt the skin off the corpse of his supposed father. It’s yet another vision of sunny suburbia’s dark, sadistic underbelly, a conceit that’s long worn out its welcome and yet one which Landis (working from Brent Hanley’s economical script) manages to plumb for moderately lively gallows humor as well as some discreet political commentary. Harold is a psycho anonymously living at the end of a nondescript Wisconsin cul-de-sac, killing victims, dressing up their skeletons, and then pretending that they’re his relatives. Landis shoots Harold’s stereotypical family conversations/arguments with his bony clan from both the killer’s as well as a third-person perspective, a flip-flopping that lends the Norman Bates-ish sequences a mild dementia in keeping with the story’s ghoulish depiction of middle-class efforts to construct and keep up appearances. When a married couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar) moves in next door, Harold begins lusting after Celia (Monroe) and preparing plans for her inclusion into his makeshift household, a scenario that doesn’t result in much tension but does provide the director with opportunities for ribald fantasy sequences involving Harold’s un-conservative sexual desires. That the fiend’s Republican persuasion is adroitly underplayed is indicative of Family’s refusal to overemphasize any of its various elements. Still, if not as blatant as that found in last year’s Homecoming, Family nonetheless boasts a sly political critique—one in which Wendt’s cheery-on-the-outside, ruthless-on-the-inside serial killer decorates his living room with framed Bush and Cheney photos and, in the story’s climactic ironic twist, receives comeuppance via the kind of torturous methods promoted by his administration idols. NS

The Damned Thing (Tobe Hooper). Tobe Hooper inaugurates the second season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror by rotating, whirling, and shaking his camera with what feels like desperation—an impression in keeping with the fact that The Damned Thing’s tale of an ungodly force unearthed by industrial drilling and unleashed on a rural Texas town more than slightly resembles Stephen King’s 1997 novel Desperation (itself briefly referenced in last year’s Mick Garris entry Chocolate). Yet it’s not King but 19th-century writer Ambrose Bierce’s short story (adapted by Richard Christian Matheson, offspring of the I Am Legend author) that’s the source material for Hooper’s episode, in which Cloverdale sheriff Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flanery) is haunted by an invisible supernatural energy that was set free by his ancestors, drove his childhood community mad, and possessed and then killed his father. Oil drilling was the culprit behind the evil’s initial liberation, but Hooper and Matheson so cursorily gloss over this point in favor of clunky narration and gory splatter that any potential political undertones remain dormant. The Damned Thing’s lack of substantial subtext isn’t nearly as disappointing as Hooper’s wobbly direction, which lurches between flickering spasticity and tepid sedation, the latter characterizing much of the narrative’s middle section involving the emotionally remote Reddle joking around with his idiot deputy (Brendan Fletcher) and attempting to reconcile with the mother (Marisa Coughlan) of his young kid (Alex Ferris). The sins of the father eventually come back to haunt the son, but despite Hooper’s cozy portrait of sleepy Southern small town life—a considerable feat given that the series is produced in Vancouver—there isn’t enough skin-crawling creepiness, much less outright terror, to help offset the plot’s underdevelopment and general B-grade creakiness of the performances. The finale’s degeneration into a cacophonous, convulsive, incoherent visual mess does, however, prove emblematic of Hooper’s increasingly muddled output. NS

Cast: Sean Patrick Flanery, Brendan Fletcher, Marisa Coughlan, Alex Ferris, George Wendt, Meredith Monroe, Matt Keeslar, Arjay Smith, Branden Nadon, Michael Ironside, Chris Bauer, Laura Margolis, Richard Kahan, Ron Perlman, Caitlin Wachs, Meat Loaf, Ellen Ewusie, Jason Priestley, Kerry Norton, Linda Darlow, Brenna O'Brien, Elliott Gould, Tyron Leitso, Clare Grant, Martin Donovan, Julia Anderson, Corbin Bernsen, Robin Sydney, Lee Tergesen, William Forsythe, Jeffrey Combs, Elyse Levesque, Johnathon Schaech, Venus Terzo, Julia Tortolano, Daniel Gillies, Ryo Ishibashi Network: Showtime, Fridays, 10 p.m. Buy: Amazon, Soundtrack

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