Horror is not in a good place right now. Thanks to Saw, it seems the predominant trend is lots of gore, little story, no character. There have been a few recent highlights (I actually loved Rob Zombie's Halloween remake), but overall we've been inundated with total crap lately (another Saw, a piss-poor remake of Pulse, etc.). So when I heard Showtime was planning a weekly series that gave a platform for legendary horror directors to make an hour-long story, I was pumped. After all, we were looking at brand new content from the people who brought us The Thing, Re-Animator, The Howling, Suspiria, and many others who helped make some of the best horror of the past thirty years. Granted, some of them were past their prime (when was the last time John Carpenter has done anything worth watching?), while others haven't really touched on horror in years (Joe Dante's last film was Looney Tunes: Back In Action), but anything these guys do should be better than the movies we've been getting from Hollywood, right?
Well, some of it was and some of it wasn't. Masters of Horror is now in its second season, and each new episode is a roll of the dice. On the one hand, there's a lot of uncreative work being done. On the other, there's some brilliant stuff, and sometimes it's from the same director! No matter what, though, it's always fun to tune in each week and see whether or not we'll get a masterpiece, total crap, or something in between. No matter which episodes you like, you're able to rewatch them at your leisure thanks to Anchor Bay. Each episode (including the unaired "Imprint" by Japan's rebel director Takashi Miike) has been released on a budget-priced DVD, with a good helping of special features. Then, for those who wanted them all at once, they released a series box with some attractive packaging. And now Anchor Bay debuts the series on Blu-ray with two anthology collections. Each collection features three episodes, along with the accompanying commentaries. This review is for volume one.
John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns:
John Carpenter shucks the malaise and poor writing that has marred the later period of his career with this stylish and intriguing episode. Norman Reedus (The Boondock Saints) plays Kirby, a revival theater owner who hunts down rare prints for cash. As the show begins, he's hired by Bellinger (Udo Kier) to find an infamous film long thought destroyed: Le Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World). The film was only shown publicly twice, and each screening ended in destruction and death. Kirby, haunted by memories of the suicide of his girlfriend, takes the job. The journey takes him around the world, and into a strange place where the surreal meets the real, perhaps at his own peril.
John Carpenter is one of the all-time horror greats, the director of the seminal slasher Halloween, as well as other horror classics like The Thing. However, for well over a decade now, his career has just been one disappointment after another. Ghosts of Mars and Vampires were not just commercial disappointments, but artistic ones as well. It were as if they were directed by an entirely different person. Luckily, Cigarette Burns proves that Carpenter isn't entirely out for the count. Perhaps the show's tight 10-day schedule forced him into re-disciplining himself. Either way, the end result is easily one of the best episodes of Masters of Horror. Some of the imagery is electric, and the premise, that a film could be so powerful as to incite violence and death, is very intriguing. Not everything works, though. Carpenter shows just a little too much of Le Fin Absolue du Monde, weakening its mythical status. But overall, this is the best work Carpenter has done since his similarly-themed In The Mouth of Madness.
H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams In The Witch House:
Stuart Gordon returns to the well of Lovecraft once again, but the end result is one of his least compelling adaptations. Ezra Godden (who previously worked with Gordon on Dagon) stars as Walter Gilman, a graduate student at Miskatonic University. He's doing a thesis on a subsection of String Theory. He thinks that certain angles provide intersections that could allow people to travel between universes. He takes a room in a dilapidated old house. In the apartment closest to him is a single mother, Frances (Chelah Horsdal). He gets close to her when he helps rid her apartment of a large rat. Upon hearing of the rat, one of the first floor tenants tells Walter that it's actually a rat with a human face, and that his arrival foretells the coming of a dark witch. Walter shakes off the old man's warnings as superstitions, but he does hear rats in the walls, and notices that one corner of his room contains an intersection of angles just like the one he theorizes could be the gateway between universes. Soon he starts having violent, bizarre dreams, and they seem to be seeping into his waking life.
Stuart Gordon is the premiere adapter of H.P. Lovecraft's work. His breakthrough film, Re-Animator, was so successful that it actually got the then unavailable Lovecraft short story back into print. His latest Lovecraft tale, Dagon, was a masterful mix of atmosphere and creature effects. And "Dreams In The Witch House" is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, so I could not wait to see Stuart's take on it. Unfortunately, this episode is easily the weakest of all of Gordon's forays into Lovecraft's work. The original story was one of the author's most conceptually complex and narratively dense, and not even Gordon can make that work in just an hour. The build-up and sense of inevitability necessary to make the piece work just isn't there. That's not to say it doesn't have its small pleasures. Ezra Godden is easily the best discovery Gordon has made since Jeffrey Combs, and he's equally as enjoyable here as he was in Dagon. Chelah Horsdal works well as Frances. In fact, most of the cast work in their respective roles, and we even get a quick glimpse of the Necronomicon. The movie maintains a fairly consistent level of quality, it just isn't up to the level of Gordon's best work. It's still a good sight better than some of the other Masters of Horror episodes, such as...
The Fair-Haired Child
William Malone has perhaps the weakest pedigree of all the Masters of Horror directors, and it shows in this weak entry. Tara (Lindsay Pulsipher), an outcast teenager, is abducted by a couple (William Samples and Lori Petty) and thrown into their basement. While in there she finds a boy, Johnny, (Jesse Haddock), and saves him from dying. The two try to find a way out, a quest made all the more frantic by the discovery of several rotting body parts and a warning carved into the wall: "Beware The Fair-Haired Child."
When your greatest cinematic achievement is Feardotcom, you know that somehow, somewhere, your career has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Malone's idea of scary is to put his audience into sensory overload, hoping that doing so will sufficiently distract people from his lack of ideas. He continues this trend with "The Fair-Haired Boy," a thoroughly bland and predictable piece of generic horror. The problems start right away. For example, Tara is shown to be the object of derision from other kids at school. Why? We're never told. It's just window dressing. I guess you could make the point that her outsider status makes her a target for the kidnappers, but it's not a necessary addition. Also, every plot twist in the episode is so obvious that I could see it coming a mile away, and I can't believe Malone actually put them in. And while the creature make-up looks pretty cool, it's rendered ineffective by Malone's bungled handling of the monster's mannerisms. He gives the monster the same stupid jerky motions he gave to the ghosts in Feardotcom and House On Haunted Hill. This effect has never been and will never be scary. Later he even throws in some terrible CGI effects, just in case we missed all the other bad choices he's made throughout the episode. Simply awful.
The Blu-Ray Disc:
Anchor Bay presents all three episodes of Masters of Horror in their original aspect ratio of 1.77:1. They're in AVC-encoded 1080i. Yes, 1080i. The show originally aired on Showtime, which broadcasts in 1080i, and it looks like Anchor Bay was too lazy to go back and do another transfer to get 1080p. Still, what we get looks pretty good. Detail is good, but not great. At times it looked like the skin color was a little too warm, but not overwhelmingly so. Aside from that, color reproduction was solid, with good shadow detail. Rarely did I have a problem with interlacing issues, although a few high contrast black-and-white scenes exhibit some slight issues.
Anchor Bay offers both Dolby Digital 5.1 and lossless uncompressed PCM 5.1 for all three episodes. Aside from the terrible opening title sequence, the audio feels rather bland. I didn't notice too much use of surrounds, except for some of the more intense moments in "The Fair-Haired Child." Dialogue was always clear and audible, I just think more could have been done to take advantage of the audio capabilities available.
When originally released on DVD, each episode of Masters of Horror came with a decent helping of extra features, including commentaries, featurettes, and more. Only the commentaries have been ported over from the DVDs for this Blu-ray release, which is disappointing, considering standard definition supplements would not have taken up much space and most likely would have fit on the disc.
- Commentary on "Cigarette Burns" by Director John Carpenter: At one point in the commentary, Carpenter jokes, "I'm just a director for hire," and while it's clear that he takes more pride in the work than that, at times his commentary feels a little perfunctory. Specifically, he often falls into the trap of simply describing what is occurring on the screen. Still, he's always enthusiastic about the piece, and comments on just about every location they used for shooting (by the end you'll be very cognizant of how little Vancouver looks like Downtown Los Angeles). Worth a listen despite the less interesting segments.
- Commentary on "Cigarette Burns" by Writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan: A much more lively commentary, McWeeny and Swan are justifiably proud of their baby, especially since it's their first work to get produced. For a writer to have their first work directed by John Carpenter must be a dream, and the two say as much, mentioning that Carpenter was one of the reasons they began writing in the first place. They talk a lot about being on the set, and earlier drafts of the script, and generally have a good time.
- Commentary on "Dreams In The Witch House" by Writer/Director Stuart Gordon, Actor Ezra Godden, and DVD Producer Perry Martin: Gordon and Godden, along with some prodding from Martin, joke amongst themselves while discussing the episodes. Gordon speaks at length about the changes he had to make for time and modernization, while Godden talks about working on the set and the Lovecraft influences.
- Commentary on "The Fair-Haired Child" by Writer Matt Greenberg and Director William Malone: Right at the beginning of the commentary, writer Matt Greenberg gives director William Malone credit for an idea, and Malone explains that the idea was in the original script. This is just one example of how the two constantly point out decisions that were made of out budgetary constraints or a producer's whim, to the point where it seems as if no actual creative decision went into the making of the episode. And judging by the final result, that might very well have been the case.
Masters of Horror is a fun but uneven show. This anthology offers three episodes from the first season, but only two of them are any good, and of those two, only "Cigarette Burns" leaves any kind of lasting impression. This Blu-ray disc only offers 1080i resolution, and a less than impressive sound mix. Also, the only supplements held over from the individual DVDs are the audio commentaries. Unless you're a major fan of all three episodes, this isn't worth a purchase, although "Cigarette Burns" and "Dreams In The Witch House" are worth seeing at least once. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.