Two decades ago, back in the distant mists of 2002 (damn, I’m getting old), director Mick Garris organized what has to be one of the most epic horror dinner parties of all time at a restaurant in Sherman Oaks, California. In attendance were such genre stalwarts as John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro, Stuart Gordon, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, Larry Cohen, Don Coscarelli, and Bill Malone. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall (or in the soup, I suppose; it was a dinner party, after all).
Garris’s proposal to his esteemed colleagues was something like an anthology series, but not really resembling anything that had been done before. Over the next couple of years, Garris approached some other directors and asked them if they’d be interested in contributing as well, and many of them—including Dario Argento, Lucky McKee, John McNaughton, Takashi Miike, Brad Anderson, and Tom Holland—agreed. I distinctly remember there being a lot of buzz about the project in the horror community when it was first announced; I mean, these were going to be hour-long, uncensored horror films based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale! Directed by horror legends! AND IT WAS ALL GONNA BE ON TV, YOU GUYS. Pay TV, sure—Showtime, specifically—but TV nonetheless. There had really never been anything quite like it on television before, and I for one eagerly settled in to watch the moment it was available online.
At the time I first watched them, I enjoyed most of them quite a bit, though over the years my memory of them slowly faded. I had forgotten even some of the better episodes, so it was instructive to watch them all again recently, and gratifying that many of them were far better than I had remembered. Let’s take a look back at both seasons of the iconic Masters of Horror, and see how it all shakes out.
SEASON ONE: THE GOOD
Case in point: episode eight, the John Carpenter-directed “Cigarette Burns.” I hadn’t remembered anything about this episode at all, but on the rewatch it instantly moved into my top three of season one. A great deal of my enthusiasm may be due to the presence of Norman Reedus, who of course in subsequent years went on to mega-stardom for his role on The Walking Dead, but everything in this episode hit the right notes for me this time around. Udo Kier was his wonderful scene-chewing self as a reclusive squintillionaire who hires a man to procure the single remaining print of a mysterious film called La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), the first and only screening of which ended in madness and murder. I love stories about cursed movies, and this is one of the best examples yet made. There is genuine suspense, an eerie, menacing tone permeating the whole enterprise, and gore galore, including a memorable moment in which Udo Kier’s character threads his own intestines through the projector after his long-awaited viewing of the cursed film. Top notch.
Also very good and worth a mention: the Stuart Gordon-directed “Dreams in the Witch-House,” which very effectively captured the spooky, otherworldly feel of the Lovecraft tale it was based upon. There was also John Landis’s “Deer Woman,” which I remembered disliking the first time around but appreciated much more this time. It’s far more black comedy than straight horror (which is pretty consistent with Landis’s usual MO), with a rather absurdist premise based on a Native American legend, but there was plenty of blood, and Brian Benben’s snark-spitting protagonist was hilarious.
Lastly, and surprisingly, was Dario Argento’s “Jenifer,” which starred Steven Weber (who also wrote the teleplay, based on a Bruce Jones story). I’ve always been a big Argento fan, but I think we can all agree that his output after about the mid-1990s has been somewhat less than stellar. This episode, though, was quite decent, even though it honestly could have been directed by anyone. It dragged a bit in parts, but the story—about a man being slowly bewitched by a deformed succubus—was suitably disquieting, and the gore was nicely excessive.
SEASON ONE: THE BAD
Episodes I could have done without included, sadly, Mick Garris’s contribution to his own groundbreaking series. “Chocolate” had a flimsy story, lame execution, and just an overall feel of why-bother-ness. Boo. The only other episode I found unforgivable was Joe Dante’s “Homecoming.” Zombies as political satire has been done well, but this came across as so heavy-handed as to be utterly ridiculous, even though I happen to agree with the film’s political stance. Added to that is the fact that the subject matter, current at the time, now comes across as terribly dated and not very relatable. Thea Gill’s ball-busting Ann Coulter stand-in was amusing (and her fate at the end satisfying), but otherwise, damn, tone it down some. You can actually make a point without smashing us upside the head with a wrecking ball, y’know.
SEASON ONE: THE DECENT
I enjoyed most of the others, though they didn’t stand out as much as they probably could have. The David J. Schow-written, Larry Cohen-directed “Pick Me Up” was pretty good, with a decent premise (competing serial killers), some genuinely tense scenes, and the always-welcome presence of Fairuza Balk, who is one of the raddest chicks ever.
“Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” directed by Don Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale, was also very watchable and included a fantastic turn by Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm.
Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” was creepy-crawly fun, with a pleasingly awkward performance by Angela Bettis as a lovelorn lesbian entomologist.
The Clive Barker adaptation “Haeckel’s Tale,” directed by John McNaughton, was good, but could have been better given the source material. Same with “Dance of the Dead,” which, given the status of all those involved—story by Richard Matheson, teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, direction by Tobe Hooper, the appearance of Robert Englund as a depraved club owner— should have been incredible, but instead was just serviceable and somewhat disjointed. “The Fair-Haired Child,” finally, was entertaining but ultimately not all that memorable.
SEASON ONE: THE AMAZING
You didn’t actually think I was going to leave this one off, did you? Slated to air as the last episode of season one, Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” was already notorious well before its air date, because Showtime refused to broadcast it, due to its highly disturbing subject matter and intensely graphic violence. It was released to DVD separately in the latter part of 2006, but is now available to stream as part of the regular series (it’s all on Tubi for free, as of this writing). It’s easy to see why Showtime balked (even though they should have known what to expect from Miike, frankly), but it’s also sort of a shame, because this is the best episode of the series by a mile.
Pretty much the entirety of the story takes place inside a Japanese brothel, where an American journalist (played by Billy Drago) has traveled in search of the great love of his life, a prostitute named Komomo who he had promised to rescue and take back to America. Instead, he finds another prostitute with a disfigured face who tells him the increasingly convoluted tale of what happened to the doomed Komomo. The flashback scenes of Komomo’s torture (for supposedly stealing the madam’s jade ring) are horrific, and even a seasoned horror hound like myself could barely get through them, wincing and turning my head away more than once (and yes, you may call me a weenie all you like, but YIKES). Additionally, the deformed girl’s recounting of her own wretched childhood, particularly the scenes of her mother dumping aborted fetuses out of a bucket into a stream, were intensely uncomfortable to watch. At the end of the episode, I felt as though I had been run over by a bus, in a good way, if that makes any sense. The best horror should, after all, shake you out of your complacency, and touch you in places where you’d rather not be touched. “Imprint” succeeded on that score in motherfucking spades. A genius piece of filmmaking, but one I probably won’t watch again for another several years or so, if ever.
Now, let’s jump right in and begin discussing season two. The quality of the second season of Mick Garris’s generally excellent series was a lot more consistent than the first, in the sense that there were no particularly terrible episodes, but there weren’t really any jaw-dropping, “Imprint”-quality ones either, though many of them were quite good, and all were at least watchable.
SEASON TWO: THE DAMN GOOD
There were two episodes that, for me, stood out as being the best examples of what season two had to offer. The first was “Family,” directed by John Landis and featuring the lovable George Wendt (of Cheers fame) playing brilliantly against type as a suburban serial killer and corpse collector. I’m not entirely sure if the concept for this story was at least partly inspired by Miriam Allen deFord’s 1961 short story “A Death in the Family,” which it strongly reminded me of (and which I discussed in my previous post about Stories That Scared Even Me). John Landis’s “Family” ends up going off in a different direction than that story, though, and has a great twist ending. George Wendt imbues his schlubby, lonely bachelor psychopath with such pathos that it’s hard not to feel bad for him, even while he’s killing little girls and old ladies to deflesh and add to his happy skeletal family. Twisted, tragicomic, and great.
The second standout of season two, the Rob Schmidt-directed “Right To Die,” recalled the furor over the Terri Schiavo case and starred the terrific Martin Donovan, who I’ve been a fan of since his numerous appearances in Hal Hartley’s films in the eighties and nineties. Donovan plays a dentist who has been cheating on his wife with his buxom assistant; shortly after the wife finds out, she and her wayward husband are involved in a terrible car accident in which all of the wife’s skin is burned off. Initially engaging in a legal battle with his mother-in-law for the right to turn off his wife’s life support, Dr. Adulterer soon changes his tune when it comes to light that his wife is now able to open up an enormous can of supernatural scorned-woman whoop-ass whenever she flatlines. Since I’m always down to see an asshole get his just desserts, this episode was a satisfying, gory, and somewhat surprising ride.
SEASON TWO: THE PRETTY DAMN GOOD
Several of the other episodes, while not quite to the caliber of the aforementioned, were still reliably entertaining. “Sounds Like,” directed by Brad Anderson from a short story by Mike O’Driscoll, was like a really, really good Twilight Zone episode, and recounted the sad tale of a suburban middle-manager type guy who loses his son to a rare heart condition and subsequently develops hypersensitive hearing that eventually drives him insane. Very low-key in the gross-out department, but a nice slow burn of suspense and escalating tension.
“Pro-Life,” John Carpenter’s taut tale of a determined, fifteen-year-old pregnant girl and a demonic battle in a besieged abortion clinic, was also pretty fantastic, with Ron Perlman giving a chilling performance as the girl’s fundie nutbag father. Intense, violent, and genuinely frightening, even if the whole “devil-baby” angle was a touch cheesy.
Dario Argento’s “Pelts” was the Italian maestro’s second contribution to the series, adapted from a short story by F. Paul Wilson. The somewhat ridiculous premise sees a fur trader (played by Meat Loaf!) getting his hands on some beautiful raccoon pelts that magically make everyone who works with them do unbelievably gory things to themselves that mirror what was done to the dead animals. Squicky, over the top (it IS Argento, after all), and lots of fun.
The Joe Dante-directed “Screwfly Solution,” while not nearly as overblown as his first-season “Homecoming,” still tackled hot-button sociopolitical issues (feminism and male aggression, in this case), but in a far less obnoxious way than his first foray in the series. I thought it was still a bit too glib and a tad on the nose for my taste, but overall I quite enjoyed it. The episode posits an apocalyptic-type scenario involving an unknown biological agent that ramps up male hostility to the point where the men are killing off all the women on earth. I should also add that this episode featured both Jason “90210” Priestley AND Elliott “M.A.S.H.” Gould as high-echelon environmental scientists, which is probably something you can’t say about any other movie in history. So there’s that.
Also decent was “We All Scream for Ice Cream,” directed by Tom Holland from a short story by John Farris (with a teleplay by the great David J. Schow). Bearing shades of Stephen King’s It, this straightforward tale of supernatural revenge sees a mentally-slow but well-liked (and clown-clad) ice cream man “accidentally” killed by some miscreant children. Years later, a sinister ice cream van prowls the small town’s streets at night, seeking to revisit the sins of the fathers upon the sons, as it were. Well-executed and fairly creepy.
Rounding out the “pretty damn good” category, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of “The Black Cat” featured the amazing Jeffrey Combs as a tormented Edgar Allan Poe living out a couple of his more famous short stories (or is he?). I thought the ending was something of a cop-out, but I’ll forgive it (this time) because the performances and gore were solid and the episode as a whole was pretty great, with some brilliant comic touches. Likewise with “The Washingtonians,” directed by Peter Medak from a short story by Bentley Little. The premise was so utterly bizarre, and the execution so overdone and absurd, that it circled all the way around to being awesome again. Intensely gory, and one of the funniest—and easily the wackiest—episodes of the series.
Also quite good was the final episode, Norio Tsuruta’s “Dream Cruise.” Glacially paced, and pretty standard J-horror all around (complete with long-haired female wraith), but with a story that held a few surprises, lovely cinematography, and a nice creep factor. A worthy end to the series.
SEASON TWO: THE JUST OKAY AND THE DISAPPOINTING
A few of the episodes, while not bad per se, were just not as good as I was expecting, given the talent involved. As much as I adore the stories of Ambrose Bierce, for example, the Tobe Hooper-directed adaptation of “The Damned Thing” (with a teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, no less) was not particularly engaging or memorable, making me question the decision to make it the inaugural episode of the second season.
Also a disappointment, and for similar reasons, was “Valerie on the Stairs,” directed by series creator Mick Garris from a terrific short story by Clive Barker. I’m a huge fan of Barker’s stories and novels, but his fantastical creations are somewhat hit or miss when adapted to screen, and this one seemed more miss than hit. Tony “Candy Man” Todd played a fetching demon, and Christopher Lloyd was his pleasingly manic self, but the episode seemed flimsy, slightly repetitive, and a tad silly, with an anticlimactic ending let down by cheesy special effects.
The Mick Garris-directed “The V Word” (and I hate to say it, but Garris was kind of 0 for 3 on his own episodes of the series he created, in my opinion) was not a total waste of time, but not an experience I’d care to revisit, either. The V could have stood for literally anything else—vagina, perhaps, or velveteen, or vivisection, or even Vivian Vance, for fuck’s sake—and I would have enjoyed it more, but since the V stood for “vampire” (oh…those), I was less than enthused, especially when whiny teenage boys were added into the mix. Watchable, but overall, meh.
And thus completes my revisited rundown of Masters of Horror. Agree? Disagree? Care to start a virtual fistfight over which were the best episodes? Let me know. Until then, as ever, keep it creepy, my friends.
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