Monday, November 28, 2005

Chocolate, Lite and Dark

The fifth episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series, "Chocolate," arrives with some added pressures attached and I've been looking forward to it with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. The added pressures have to do with the episode's writer and director, Mick Garris, also being the show's creator and executive producer. Of the 13 directors represented in the first season, Garris is (I'm betting admittedly) the ringer, the one not generally thought of as a "Master of Horror." He's got a track record as a director and screenwriter -- he's one of only two men who can be called "the director of THE SHINING" -- but most of his work has been produced for network and cable television, and therefore fairly tame. For him to step up to bat alongside the likes of Dario Argento, Joe Dante, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper is a bit like Bob Geldof insisting that The Boomtown Rats (a terrific but non-A List band, which Geldof fronted) be included on the exclusive bill at Live Aid, which he organized in 1985: "It's my party and my band is damned well going to play." Like Geldof, Garris is well within his rights, but the pressure is on for him to deliver.

Garris's highest profile work to date has probably been his TV miniseries versions of two Stephen King properties, THE STAND (1994) and the aforementioned "King's way" remake of THE SHINING (1997). Both of these are technically well-made and faithful adaptations of very difficult-to-adapt novels, but lacking any kind of unique directorial vision or creative edge. They're good television, sometimes very good, but they are ultimately too moderate, too temperate, too careful to summon the balls-to-the-wall horror of Stephen King at his best.

Part of my anticipation for this particular episode was based on what Garris was demanding of himself by agreeing to play this particular venue. Based on the previous four shows, it seemed that MASTERS OF HORROR, by its own evolving definition, almost had to extend Garris's creative perimeters into areas of violence and sexuality that his work isn't exactly noted for exploring. The major exception: his 1990 made-for-cable prequel, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING -- written by Joseph Stefano -- starred former E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL moppet Henry Thomas as the young Norman Bates, developing into the murderous adult he would become under the twisted tutelage of "Mother" (Olivia Hussey). In a review that I wrote nearly 15 years ago for VW #7, I described PSYCHO IV as "a low-voltage thriller" while praising the daring casting and uncanny performance of Thomas.

It makes good sense, then, that Garris would renew this working relationship for "Chocolate." Thomas (pictured above) stars as Jamie, a recently divorced chemist working at a company that develops artificial food flavoring, whose lonely readjustment to bachelorhood is suddenly besieged by strange phenomena. It begins when his mouth is unexpectedly flooded with the taste of gourmet chocolate. After being dragged to a rock concert by a co-worker (Matt Frewer) who's in the band, his sense of hearing temporarily swaps the hard rock being played with calmer classical music; on the drive home, he is momentarily stricken sightless. In time, Jamie realizes that he is experiencing subjective flashes from someone else's life, waking and sleeping -- a psychic link. In fits and starts he cannot predict, he becomes subject to extended habitations of this other person's body, which he discovers to be female after experiencing sexual intercourse and orgasm the way the other sex feels them. His empathy with this woman's inner life now complete, it turns to full-blown romantic obsession when he glimpses her face in a mirrored reflection, and his impulses turn protective when he experiences her commission of murder, when she stabs her artist boyfriend to death during an attempted rape. When the next of his visions reveals her to live in Vancouver (where MASTERS OF HORROR is actually shot), Jamie drives north there and makes the dangerous move of stepping into her life -- actually rather than literally.

"Chocolate" is based on an original story by Garris which was included in his 2000 short fiction anthology Life in the Cinema. I haven't read it, but the story is not the episode's strongest suit. The premise of psychic links has been explored in films before -- most meaningfully in Douglas Trumbull's BRAINSTORM (1983), but also in THE EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978) and other murder mysteries -- and Garris doesn't make any attempts to rationalize or suggest a cause for this unusual turn of events. This technically takes the story out of the realm of horror and posits it more in the arena of fantasy, not unlike a TWILIGHT ZONE episode (or an episode of AMAZING STORIES, on which Garris served as story editor), where things sometimes happen merely to satisfy an idle curiosity about "What if...?" Again, I haven't read his story, but if Garris's script for this episode had somehow introduced the problem in Jamie's marriage as being associated with his lack of empathy, the phenomena would have at least been given some thematic underpinning. The finale, with Jamie and the woman holding each other at bay with dangerous weapons, seems confused and rushed -- even with the end credits unusually scrolling over the final scene, the episode overstays the program's timeslot by a minute or two. I've heard that the teleplay was cut down from an earlier draft written at feature length, and there is a feeling of dramatic haste and incompleteness. Nevertheless, looking back over the hour, there are occasional sparkles that lend the episode its own distinct character and way of looking at the world. For instance, the vividly imagined or well-observed moment when Jamie spies a blotch on his ex-wife's chest as she's changing clothes in front of him and asks, dumbstruck, without thinking, "Is that a hickey?" A moment like that, and the silent reaction it gets, is worth 10 pages of a guy crying and soliloquizing into his beer.

The episode's greatest asset is... I was going to say "the performance of Henry Thomas" (who, as an actor, can summon the edge Garris's story needs), but in fact, after scanning through the show a second time, I have to say there is not a single instance of bad casting or uninteresting performance in it. Garris would seem to be an actor's director; it's in the performances that his work finds what character it has. And yet, between the good performances and the adequate story, there is a layer or gulf that doesn't feel quite lived-in. As expected, there is an unusual (for Garris) amount of requisite sex and graphic violence in the episode, but even the stuff that happens directly to Jamie feels somewhat vicarious, as if the story is merely referencing the emotions it deals with rather than sinking its teeth into them.

I know Mick only slightly (we both wrote for CINEFANTASTIQUE back in the '70s); I have no idea what sort of life he's had, but I suspect that his art comes from -- to fall back on a convenient and overused musical parallel -- a McCartney place rather than a Lennon place. "Chocolate" is a story about pain and longing, but it's theoretical or conceptual pain/longing rather than a pain/longing that the viewer instantly recognizes as coming from a real and hurting place. As Paul McCartney has said (and I paraphrase), "John had a terrible childhood; I didn't, and if that's what you need to be a great artist, I'd rather not be a great artist." Of course, McCartney is a great artist anyway, and he didn't become a conspicuously greater one after his songwriting partner was murdered, or after his wife died of the same cancer that claimed his mother when he was a young man. So it's not always necessary for pay one's dues as an artist with blood and tears; sometimes sweat alone (i.e., hard work) is enough to push the craft on to the highest plateau. But horror, of all genres, cries out for that "something extra" -- something we find in the work of David Cronenberg and George Romero and Tobe Hooper and other masters going all the way back to Tod Browning and F. W. Murnau. In the cases of all these men, one has no doubt that something very real and very close to them, at one time or another, scared them all shitless -- and they were so traumatized, they consecrated their lives to scaring it back, or at least to thoroughly exploring the emotion to better understand its impact on them. I've never really sensed that "something extra" in Mick's work; he may not have it in him, yet he clearly loves the fantastic and has given a lot of himself to it. "Chocolate" marks an advance in his filmography: while not an especially original or solid story, it feels more personal than much of his past work, and is noticeably more adult. What is most vital here are its characters, their human dimension and their relationships, rather than its horror content. It wouldn't surprise me if Mick eventually produced his best and most successful work in another genre, like drama or romantic comedy.

As you may remember, The Boomtown Rats ("I Don't Like Mondays") played a memorable set at Live Aid. In a similar vein, "Chocolate" finds Mick Garris entertaining at his own party and earning his place onstage. I know this because, although it's not the best MOH episode I've seen, it's not the worst either.

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