When Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR premiered last year, I jumped right into the saddle and wrote immediate reports for this blog, which generally appeared the day after broadcast. In case you are wondering why I haven't been doing the same this year, now that we're two episodes into the second season, my answer to that question is that I haven't been particularly inspired.
Season 2 began a week ago with Tobe Hooper's "The Damned Thing," Richard Christian Matheson's contemporary adaptation of a classic Ambrose Bierce story. Opening with a flashback in which black drippings from a ceiling contaminate a family man with the essence of evil and turn him violently against his loved ones, it becomes the story of the son who survived that event to become the sheriff of his small west Texas town (Sean Patrick Flanery), literally working to hold that inexplicable essence of evil at bay. In the finale, Flanery is attacked by a gigantic, anthropomorphic oil monster that makes one imagine the episode might have been more effectively titled "From Haliburton It Came." (Between this, the "black oil" episodes of THE X-FILES, and the smell of burning oil that accompanied the apparitions of BOB in TWIN PEAKS, a scholarly paper could surely be written about the meaning and increasing role of "Texas tea" in our 21st century horror fantasies.) While an improvement on Hooper's jittery, nihilistic-chic Season 1 episode "Dance of the Dead," "The Damned Thing" suffers from the same lack of directorial engagement. There are certainly thematic ties here to Hooper's best and earliest work, but he seems to have lost the knack to sink his teeth into them, much less chew them to get at their juice. The end result is like watching an earnest cast flail about a maddening sludge of vagueness that builds to an eruption of silliness.
Last night's follow-up, "Family," directed by John Landis and scripted by Brent Hanley (FRAILTY), was likewise an improvement on Landis' previous MOH offering "Deer Woman," arguably the worst episode of the first season. In this scenario, a youngish married couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar), making a new start in the wake of their daughter's death from cancer, move into a house across the street from the rotund and reclusive Harold (George Wendt), and befriend him -- not knowing that it's his habit to abduct strangers, melt them down to skeletons in his cellar, dress them, and interact with them as members of an imaginary family.
Landis may have directed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but his bright and snappy, freshly-acted, self-amused style of direction stands at odds with the basic tenets of the genre. Consequently, though Hanley's script encompasses a good deal of dark territory and cleverly invites us into a subjective view of Harold's psychosis, the story unfolds in the parlance of comedy. This basically defuses much of the tensions inherent in the material, to the extent of making Harold's criminal habits seem no more than a mild eccentricity. The performances are very good and the episode makes some inspired use of contemporary gospel music, which serves as both counterpoint and thematic support while adding to the direction's overall buoyancy. Had the script actually gone somewhere unexpected or original, this one might have won me over, but it just missed.
It's hard to believe that these episodes are the best that Hooper and Landis could dream up, given creative carte blanche. The weak link may well have something to do with the manner by which the directors are selecting or being assigned their material; frankly, I suspect these episodes might have turned out at least marginally stronger had they swapped directors. Hooper has taken the genre to some of its most harrowing extremes with material not far removed from "Family" and would surely have tapped the horror at the bedrock of Hanley's script, and the needlessly murky "The Damned Thing" could only have benefitted from the alacrity of Landis' handling.
Last year, MASTERS OF HORROR debuted with Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off A Mountain Road," which wasn't one of my favorites but had appreciable qualities of script and performance. It was followed by Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House," which seemed to me a classic of TV horror and one of Gordon's best works. The series had some major highs and definite lows after that, but the clear escalation of quality in those first two episodes grabbed me and held on. This year, MASTERS OF HORROR's best opening punch has been to show two of Season 1's lesser contributors modestly outperforming their own meager initial showings. While this may technically represent an improvement, the new season is playing much weaker than last year, thus far. The Big Guns need to be brought on soon if MASTERS OF HORROR wants to hold onto its audience.
RECOMMENDED READING: Check out "Beyond Belief," Richard Harland Smith's blog on his late friend Adrienne Shelly, at MovieMorlocks.com. Just click the appropriate link to the right.