BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE MASTERS OF HORROR SERIES: Interim Report

By • Aug 28th, 2007 •

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(Anchor Bay)

John Landis’ DEER WOMAN
Dario Argento’s JENIFER
Lucky McKee’s SICK GIRL
Stuart Gordon’s HP LOVECRAFT’S DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE
Don Coscarelli’s INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD
John Carpenter’s CIGARETTE BURNS

I don’t get Showtime on my cable plan, so these are the first opportunities I’ve had to watch the ‘Masters’ series. There is definitely something cumulative about them, and there are several more to go, so perhaps I should have waited. Let’s call this an interim report.

The series, cobbled into concept and production by Mick Garris, was a thrilling notion. Our best horror genre stylists – Argento, Miike, Cohen, Romero (hey wait a minute…what happened to Romero?) – set practically loose in a one hour format, on a liberally disposed cable source, had fans revved on a planet-wide level. But concept may have exceeded capability.

The results are interesting, and in ways troublesome, and those same devoted fans were quick to criticize. A favorite episode would often be singled out, and the rest trashed. Everyone knows that fans are a tough crowd, but what was really happening with that series?

50-60 minute films are short features, like the ‘B’s of old, (though the “Masters’ series, despite ‘B’ budgets, manages to summon up ‘A’ appearances). Other examples: Orson Welles’ IMMORTAL STORY – 58-62 mins; Bunuel’s SIMON OF THE DESERT – 40-45 mins; Robert Florey’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE – 61 mins.; Peter Watkins’ THE WAR GAME – 49 mins; Gerard Damiano’s LET MY PUPPETS COME – 45 mins; Reginald Le Borg’s THE MUMMY’S GHOST – 61 mins; William C. McGann’s SH! THE OCTOPUS – 54 mins. HOP-A-LONG CASSIDY – 60 mins.

The episodes I’ve seen so far have disconcerting similarities in art direction and cinematography. A revolving crew (who’d previously worked on ‘The X Files’) made itself available for the productions, so in a sense this became a studio personality imposing itself on the directors’ work. It’s one thing if it were an ongoing narrative – like ‘The X Files’ or ‘CSI’ – where consistency of mise en scene were mandatory, but this was the directorial work of a dozen very different psyches, working off original and independent screenplays. Think of MGM, or Warner Bros., or the distinctly European Paramount of the 30s and 40s. You could tell which studio’s films you were watching, regardless of who was directing, because of telltale visual markings. MGM considered shadows to be the equivalent of dirt – they were the upper class studio – and I was bored stupid by the look of those films; I’m only starting to appreciate them now. I was more of a noir man, a German expressionist guy, though I couldn’t verbalize it when I was growing up, and so I favored the Universal and Warner Bros looks. Paramount was a little too exotic for me.

In just that way, the Masters’ series has its studio-imposed personality, and I believe that this may have been a large part of what some viewers reacted against. The photography throughout tends to be crisp and clear, with bold colors, even though lit darkly – there are no grainy, gritty productions so far. The art department tends to be working in overdrive; set design, props, wardrobe, all make themselves felt, often more strongly than plot. The result is that these departments have homogenized the series to a degree; it all feels a little too clean and redundant for its own good. But amid the difficulties of finding a way to allow the directors their very separate voices, some special moments, scenes, and even entire episodes, have been created.

DEER WOMAN, the Landis episode, was the 7th (12/9/05) in order of release, and is firmly entrenched in the ‘50’s horror flicks the director must have loved so much as an adolescent – innocent ‘B’ fodder like THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE – with humor intentionally added instead of being unintentional as was the case with many of those ‘B’ classics. It also feels like an homage to the revered 70s TV series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER – in which a nearly-hapless protagonist stumbled weekly onto a supernatural scenario in an otherwise normal world, no one believed his findings, and he managed to roust the antagonist, leaving no evidence to prove that he was right after all. Considering these influences from more innocent times, there was no way the gore- or sex-meters were going to register off the scale as in later episodes.

DEER WOMAN is about a Wendigo-like Indian spirit, taking form as a gorgeous, busty babe (definitely more revealing than in the flix of the 50s, but also right up Landis’ alley – remember his show ‘Dream On’?) who haunts the American Indian casinos. The casting of Brazilian Cinthia Moura as the titular (forgive me) character is visually spectacular, but budgetary limitations keep the effects subdued until the third act, at which point – too late, but you really must see it – Landis successfully recaptures the era of the ‘B’ to a ‘T’. Those last ten minutes are as good as the third act of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US, or even the climaxes of some of the 40’s FRANKENSTEIN sequels. You’ll know exactly what I mean. I wish he could have spread more of it throughout the narrative. He didn’t, so it’s not a keeper, but it is a rental.

H.P. LOVECRAFT’S DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE (2nd in the series, telecast on November 4th, ’05), Stuart Gordon/Dennis Paoli’s entrée, achieves a palpably Lovecraftian tone. Gordon does passable-to-excellent Lovecraft, most successfully, to my mind, with his feature DAGON. This one’s solid enough, intelligently written, with mood and detail to spare. It’s a respectable work, though finally lacking in punch.

Don Coscarelli’s INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD (the first episode out of the gate, a Halloween entrée, on October 28th, ’05) is a simple, classic campfire tale. Shot well, cast well, flowing along as if the most popular camp counselor was at the helm, making all the kids’ hair stand on end with his grisly tale. Lead femme screamer Bree Turner is Coscarelli’s extremely good fortune – she’s a capable actress, visually and physically riveting, and I hope she goes on to a rewarding career. Making a guest appearance is Angus Scrimm of PHANTASM fame. I anticipated this obviously nepotistic gesture as certain disaster in the making. Fortunately I was wrong – his is a great bit of grimly comic relief, and the best performance he’s given to date. Smaller in its goals than some of the others, this is nonetheless the best installment I’ve seen, tight, consistent and artistic.

Dario Argento’s contribution, JENIFER, the 4th to be shown, is a ribald blast. Even though it’s an adaptation of a comic novella, it also manages to be pure Argento, playing into the director’s unrepentant fascination with sexual perversity/violence. It’s perhaps even raunchier than his previous features have been because he could get away with attributing its decadence to a pre-existing source, but I’m not fooled.

Leading actress Carrie Anne Fleming, who performs marvelously throughout, is facially deformed by a not-terribly-convincing prosthetic. However, without it her face is visually wrong for the role, so the mediocre appliance is preferable. She’s undoubtedly got a career ahead of her, and she’s a looker, but she’s not a classic Argento heroine without the face-piece.

JENIFER is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with the sexes reversed. It should be double-billed with Etore Scola’s PASSIONE D’AMORE , which deals more realistically with the idea of a man being sexually obsessed with an ugly woman. (It’s not that Argento’s a dirty old man at heart, it’s that he’s a horny adolescent kid.) This takes that conceit and stretches it like silly putty. The title character is grotesque beyond endurance. She’s not, for instance, akin to the featured female zombie wearing Greg Nicotero’s prostethic in LAND OF THE DEAD, where there’s something sexy beneath the twisted Ms. Sardonicus face. There is no way anyone could find anything erotic in this countenance. Yet she has a phenomenal body, and that – in Argento’s world – is all it takes. Screenwriter Steven Weber also plays the lead, a cop who rescues the lass and then falls into orbit around her. He’s an Argento everyman type, and his descent is upsetting. Nudity and gore abound, and in the supplemental featurette entitled “So Hideous My Love’, we get to see three shots that were removed from the film for being deemed too strong for TV…and apparently home video release as well, since they haven’t been restored. But they should have been; they would have reversed anyone’s mixed feelings about the episode, and represented a step forward in deliciously gratuitous exploitation. (Maybe some day. Argento admits he wouldn’t be disappointed to see them back in.)

The score by Goblin, a group long associated with Argento, is quite good, whether aping Hitchcock/Herrmann, or striking out in new areas, and is another plus for this episode.

Elder Statesman John Carpenter unfolds a picaresque mystery decorated with ungodly images, in what was the 8th episode, CIGARETTE BURNS, first shown on December 16th, ’05. I didn’t warm up to the investigative protagonist (Norman Reedus), nor buy some of the pretentious dialogue from cast members such as Gwynth Walsh. But it’s funny how one endearing performance can tilt the balance toward the positive, and that piece of work was the product of Udo Kier. Can anyone honestly tell me that in his Warhol days it could have been predicted how fine an actor he would become? His scene with Willem Dafoe outside in the dark in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE was that film’s only magnificent moment. Kier enriches anything he’s in nowadays. He’s wonderful in CB, and near the end, eager to luxuriate in the find of a lifetime, he walks into the screening room, where a little table holds a single champagne glass and bottle to complete the experience; it’s a touch of genius, perhaps the only one in the entire series (but then, there are still several to go…)

Lucky McKee’s episode, SICK GIRL, is the sole episode (so far) that really feels like a feature film. The relationship between the two lead actresses is so enjoyably fulfilled that I occasionally wished there weren’t a monster plot lurking beneath it, that’s how much fun I was having with their performances. Angela Bettis is an absolute delight as an uptight lesbian entomologist. Erin Brown is the quirky object of her desires. Formerly a ‘Z’ film soft core scream queen, Brown ratchets up her resume with a competent, amusing performance, and you’re rooting for both of them all the way; you’re even dismayed when the horror insinuates itself into their idyllic romance. McKee gets the most out of both actresses (and actresses seem to be scoring big time in this series), and his co-authored script manages to be both witty and worrisome. Ms. Bettis reveals in an accompanying featurette that her role was originally written for a man, and that she kept some male characteristics in the performance. One thing’s for sure, same-sex on screen is no longer something written with the purpose of being shunned or punished (except by the closed-minded antagonists in the episode, who we are clearly meant to despise); in fact, it’s used for comic relief here, and much mileage is mined from it.

On my yearly lists – best film, best performances, best art direction, best use of locations, etc – I have a list of ‘best moments’. And there’s one here – SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER – when the landlady goes over the banister. The image of her splayed legs and skirt in ungainly mid-tumble is so perfect and funny I had to run it back immediately.

There is an almost wall-to-wall score for this installment, and in the end credits we are informed that it can be had on a CD.

Did I mention how much I like the box cover art for the series? Lovely matte finishes are the first tactile things you encounter, then the actual box and disc slide out from inside this second cover. The supplements have been attended to with great care – including featurettes on the directors, actors, production, etc. And though I began this review by pointing out how homogenized the series was on some levels, after perusing these mini-reviews you can see that each episode has its own virtues and directorial trademarks, so… There are plenty of reasons to own some of these discs, even if you already caught them on the tube.

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