Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR got off to a start on Friday night, with some occasional bothersome glitches during its premiere broadcast (at least my local Dish Network feed did). I was impressed by the show's general presentation -- it's extremely well-produced, with enticing main titles that catalogue a spectrum of definitions of "horror," and the HD look and sound will offer the next best thing to sitting in a clean theater every week.
PHANTASM director Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," based on a Joe Lansdale story I'd never read before, struck me as a road I've been down several times before. A road accident strands a young woman (Bree Turner) in the woods where she is terrorized and captured by an unexplained subhuman armed with curiously advanced sword-and-sorcery-style cutlery, whose hobby appears to be the manufacture of formerly live scarecrows and whose violent actions are offset by a cute little "shushing" schtick. Our spunky and resourceful heroine is chained up and threatened with a drill press (used to hollow the eyes of the scarecrows-to-be) while another prisoner (Coscarelli dependable Angus Scrimm), driven insane, prattles on, ratcheting up the tension Hooper-style.
What's interesting about the episode is its inventive structure, as the story alternates between the woman's present ordeal, and the arc of a past love story with a survivalist boyfriend, who turned out to be a monster but whose schooling of her in the arts of self-defense prepared her for this ultimate test. The boyfriend is played by Ethan Embry (whom we fondly remember as T. B. Player in Tom Hanks' THAT THING YOU DO!), who gives the episode its outstanding performance and an element of horror that's earned through craft rather than cliché. Alas, it's these interesting qualities which are most sublimated, while the rest (like a showy shot of the "monster" leaping over a road barrier framed by an enormous full moon to become a kind of living Iron Maiden album cover) targets the head-banging, Rue Morgue crowd. This isn't the kind of horror that interests me anymore, and it's a kind that never interested me particularly. Horror rooted in fear of death and mutilation doesn't stick to the ribs, or the brain, the way horror based on the mystery of life and death can do, at least in my humble view. I readily concede that the numbers aren't on my side here, so occasional forays into this kind of horror are probably just good business from the producers' points of view.
Nevertheless, the title of this program leads us, rightly or wrongly, to expect demonstrations of mastery in this art form. The mastery implied should refer to what's going on here, rather than what these directors and writers have acheived in the past. The debut episode of MOH did nothing to excite my imagination, but I was certainly hooked by the previews for next week's show. The trailer for Stuart Gordon's take on H.P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House" (my favorite Lovecraft story) is indicative of an hour that will likely aim a good deal higher. The preview was rich in stylized and quirky imagery, and the glimpses of Brown Jenkin packed a double frisson of chills and laughs, which portends that the director of RE-ANIMATOR may be back to, or near, peak form.
Check Showtime's schedule for airings of "Horror Feast," a 15-minute restaurant round table featuring Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, John Landis and MASTERS OF HORROR producer/creator Mick Garris, where they compare notes on the celluloid that scares (and amuses) them. Everything from THE BLACK CAT to FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER to AUDITION and IRREVERSIBLE gets mentioned, which is kind of reassuring.
PS: Some of you have noticed there was no blog yesterday, but hey, I gave you two blogs on Friday. My original idea was to post something here daily, but I think it may be best to take the occasional unannounced day off rather than risk burning out. Even God took a day off, right? : )