Masters of Horror: Season Two

Masters of Horror: Season Two

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Dream Cruise (Norio Tsuruta). 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 Amazon.com 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

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Airtime
Showtime, Fridays, 10 p.m.
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
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