When Don Coscarelli first started tinkering with the idea of adapting a Joe R. Lansdale story for the big screen, he optioned the rights to two - Bubba Ho Tep and Incident On And Off A Mountain Road. Based primarily on page count and length, he opted to make Bubba Ho Tep into a feature first and he kept Incident in limbo for a little while. Enter Mick Garris and the Masters Of Horror series. When Garris approached Coscarelli to come up with something, he already had the perfect source material, and thus was born this (somewhat loose) adaptation of Incident On And Off A Mountain Road.
So what happens in this brisk fifty-one minute exercise in cinematic tension? It's not complicated – a woman named Ellen (Bree Turner) is driving late one night on a dark and desolate road that takes her through a forest when she wrecks her car. She blacks out and flashes back to time spent with her ex-husband, Bruce (Ethan Embry), a survival nut who taught her a few tricks in case she should ever need them and who had a penchant for roughing her up every once in a while.
When Ellen wakes up, she starts walking away from the car to look for help. Almost immediately, she runs into a massive hulk of a man with a ghoulish pale white face (John De Santis) chasing down, with the obvious intent of killing, a young woman. Ellen's survival training kicks in but after a tense chase, it's not quite enough. She gets caught and finds herself tied up in a remote cabin, corpses strung up outside, alone except for the presence of one strange old man (Angus Scrimm of the Phantasm films) who wants to sing – he's obviously nuts. Ellen figures there's got to be a way out, but it's not going to be easy to figure out where it is and how to pull this off…
Despite some fairly noticeable changes made to the short story on which the movie is based, Coscarelli's entry in the Masters Of Horror series does a pretty good job of bringing the grit and the tension of Lansdale's writing to the screen. A few differences of not are that in the original story there is no strange man in the basement of the cabin and there's very little background given on Bruce's character, but, as Coscarelli explains during the commentary and the featurettes, he and co-scripter Stephan Romano felt it was necessary to flesh things out a little bit more to bring the running time in at close to an hour. The changes might irk purists, but the fact is that they work quite well and they give us some much needed character development for Ellen, making her plight all the more interesting and heartfelt.
Long time fans of Coscarelli's work know that more often than not his films tend to lean as much, if not more so, towards the fantastic rather than the horrific. That changes here, as Incident On And Off A Mountain Road is very much a straight out horror movie in the vein of recent chase/survivalist horror films as Wolf Creek and The Hills Have Eyes (take you pick on that one, the original or the remake!). It's not going to change the world and it isn't a particularly original work but it is a well crafted story of frightening suspense with some solid kill scenes, an eerie villain, a sympathetic heroin, and a really good twist ending. If it feels like it's being done by the numbers that might be because it is, but it's pretty tough to call this one anything but solid.
In terms of the performances, Bree Turner makes for a good lead, she's got a sympathetic look to her and you want her to make it out of the house of horrors that she finds herself in alive. Embry isn't particularly memorable but he's definitely good enough in the role and he does a fine job of playing the survivalist wing nut type. The best performances in this one, however, come from John De Santis and especially Angus Scrimm. You'd think that with Scrimm being so instantly identifiable from his Phantasm performances that it would be hard to see him and not think of the Tall Man but he pulls it off admirably. De Santis doesn't have much in the way of dialogue but he certainly looks menacing enough and he brings an intimidation to the movie that helps things out considerably.
The 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer presents the movie in its original aspect ratio and for the most part, the image looks very good. There is some edge enhancement present in a few scenes as well as some shimmering and aliasing in spots but there's very little to complain about otherwise. Black levels are strong and deep (which is good because aside from the flashbacks this entire movie takes place in the dark), there are no issues at all with print damage, dirt or debris on the picture and there's a very pleasing level of both foreground and background detail present throughout the picture. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and the reds are well defined without bleeding through.
Anchor Bay presents Incident On And Off A Mountain Road in your choice of a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track or a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track. Both mixes sound very good with plenty of lower end bass response and some very nice instances of channel separation throughout. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. There were a few spots on the 5.1 mix that could have been a little more aggressive but otherwise things sound really good here especially during the last few minutes of the production while Ellen is in the cabin. Also worth noting is that the music sounds very crisp on this disc. There are no alternate language tracks or subtitle options available.
Anchor Bay has recorded two completely different commentary tracks for this DVD. The first track is with director Don Coscarelli who is joined by script writing cohort Stephan Romano. This track is fairly technical in nature as the two men discuss some of the changes that they made to the book, revisions to the script, and a lot of pre-production planning. They talk about some of the effects work that KNB rigged up for the cabin scene and interestingly enough they tell us where the corpses were recycled from (they were meant to appear in a certain big budget remake of Clonus that shall not be named…!).
The second commentary track is with Lansdale again, though this time he's joined by the champion mojo storyteller himself, Joe R. Lansdale. One of the most disappointing aspects of the Bubba Ho Tep DVD was that there was no Lansdale commentary track, and thankfully Anchor Bay have seen fit ensure that this time around he was brought in to give us his take on the adaptation of his work. He and Coscarelli obviously get along really well. Considering that he's an author by trade it shouldn't shock anyone to learn that this track is primarily concerned with the story itself and again, some of the changes that were made along the way. Lansdale explains where some of the ideas came from as he wrote the original short without belittling Coscarelli's alterations (in fact he seems pretty impressed with the way that his material was further fleshed out). This is a thoroughly enjoyable and completely entertaining track that should appeal not only to Lansdale fans but to anyone interested in the very principals of storytelling.
From the commentaries we move on to the featurettes, and there are three unique pieces to explore here. The first featurette, Predators And Prey is a nice sit down discussion with Coscarelli who gives us a nice overview of his career starting with early and less popular films such as Jim: The World's Greatest (his first feature as a director) and Kenny & Company, both of which predate Phantasm by few years. Speaking of Phantasm it's interesting to hear how he initially decided to do a horror film primarily to make some money after his first two features didn't do so well. He talks about how Beastmaster was taken out of his hands and how he wasn't happy with the final product and he talks about how Mick Garris got him on board to collaborate on Masters Of Horror where he finally got the chance to bring Incident to life. There's some repetition here what with all the information given on the commentary track but it's a really fun and engaging discussion none the less with some great clips from throughout his career.
The second featurette is entitled Working With A Master and it's a series of interviews with those who have worked with Don Coscarelli, past and present. Everyone in here from early collaborators like Marc Singer to Coscarelli main stays like Angus Scrimm give their thoughts on the man and his work and wouldn't you know it? They all pretty much agree that he's one of the nicest director's you could hope to work for in addition to having a lot of talent and being able to make the most of a low budget. Lest you think that this is nothing but twenty minutes of various people kissing Don't ass, it's not, it's actually very interesting and very informative as each of the interviewees has a story to tell about what project they worked on with Coscarelli, so as such it functions as a sort of scrapbook look at his filmography.
The third and final featurette is a twenty minute behind the scenes segment. Presented without much in the way of a narrative context this isn't quite as interesting as the two that came before it but if you want to get a feel for life on the set of this movie, this does the trick. Most of the emphasis here is on the stunts and the effects work, so this does do a nice job of showing us 'how they did it.'
Anchor Bay has also included two quick interview segments. The first is with John De Santis and he explains to us how much work went into getting him in make up for the shoot and what it was like to worth with that much latex on you face. The second one is with Ethan Embry who talks about his character for a little bit but otherwise doesn't say much of note. Rounding out the supplements on this release are a Don Coscarelli text biography, trailers for the first batch of six Masters Of Horror entries and a few other Anchor Bay horror titles, a still gallery, a storyboard gallery, and if you're DVD-Rom equipped you'll find the screenplay, and a screensaver.
While Coscarelli's entry isn't the high point of the first season, Incident On And Off A Mountain Road is a very strong exercise in grisly suspense and visceral horror. It's well paced, well acted, and wonderfully composed from a technical stand point. Anchor Bay's DVD delivers in the audio and the video departments and has a wealth of great supplements that makes this one come highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.