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 two.
There are three episodes from the first season of Masters of Horror that made the entire endeavor worthwhile. They are Don Coscarelli's "Incident On And Off A Mountain Road", Takashi Miike's "Imprint", and Dario Argento's "Jenifer". Steven Weber pulls double duty as writer and actor in this stunning piece, playing Detective Frank Spivey. By pure chance, he happens to come across a man planning to chop up a defenseless girl (Carrie Anne Fleming). Spivey shoots the man and saves the girl, whose face is hideously deformed. With no one to take care of her, Spivey takes her in, over the protests of his wife and son. Things quickly turn sour as Jenifer begins to display violent tendencies, such as killing the family cat. However, she also manages to seduce Spivey, winding him around her finger. Soon he loses his family, his job, everything he cares about, all to be with her. With Jenifer.
Dario Argento is one of those directors whose work helped shape modern horror, but whose later works have been decidedly disappointing. But like contemporary John Carpenter, Argento uses Masters of Horror to find himself again. Weber's script, adapted from a cult comic by Bruce Jones, is a potent mix of sensuality and horror. Carrie Anne Fleming does an incredible job of making herself desirable despite the state of her face. And what a piece of make-up that face is. Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero did the effects work for all the first season of Masters of Horror, but their work on "Jenifer" is unparalleled. The face is truly disturbing: a bizarre combination of the grotesque and the fascinating. As much as the audience is reviled by Jenifer, they're also drawn to her, much like Spivey himself.
Steven Weber once again proves that he doesn't get nearly enough work. He's the emotional anchor for the story, the man who finds himself unable to escape Jenifer, even at the cost of everything he ever valued. He also does an excellent job with the script, leaving Argento free to focus on the visuals. And considering the groundbreaking work he did in Suspiria, "Jenifer" is rather subdued. Rarely do we see wide swaths of color blanketing the screen. But that doesn't mean Argento is being lazy. In fact, it's a nice departure from his normal style, and lets him play with framing or mise-en-scene in a way that he might not normally. All the elements dovetail beautifully, creating not just one of the best episodes of Masters of Horror, but one of the best pieces of horror filmmaking I can think of since Audition.
Ida Teeter (Angela Bettis) loves two things: bugs and women. Unfortunately, the former usually scares away the latter. But things start to look up when she meets Misty (Erin Brown, better known as Misty Mundae to porn fans), and the two hit it off. She also gets a particularly interesting bug from an anonymous donor in South America. She gets so excited about her new relationship with Misty that she doesn't even seem to care that the bug, which seemed aggressive, has escaped. Perhaps she should have paid more attention, because the bug bites Misty, causing her to act in increasingly erratic ways. Eventually, Ida realizes that something is terribly, terribly wrong.
Lucky McKee may not be a "master of horror," but he is certainly one the genre's most interesting up-and-comers. He gained some critical notice for his offbeat film May, and continues his winning streak with the charming "Sick Girl." The episode displays many of his signature devices: Lesbians, people driven to obsession, and a twisted sense of humor. Most of the episode actually plays as a domestic comedy, with just flashes of horror popping in throughout. Angela Bettis goes right off the deep end as Ida, throwing in funny voices, mannerisms, and anything else she can do to make the character stand out. It's often funny, but sometimes can be a little too much. Erin Brown proves that she actually can act, even if she does get naked (not that I'm complaining). And the creature and make-up effects are top notch. It's not the best of the season, but it's very high quality and a heck of a lot of fun.
Brian Benben (dear god man, where have you been since Dream On?) stars in this humorous Native American horror tale by John Landis. He plays Detective Dwight Faraday, a disgraced cop who, due to the accidental death of his partner, is stuck taking calls about animal attacks. However, he gets pulled out on a call when a trucker is found practically turned inside out inside his truck. Logic dictates a killer is on the loose, but the evidence points to an attack by a deer. Meanwhile, a very attractive but silent woman is seen picking up men, who are never seen again.
A lot of the directors pulled for Masters of Horror made their names by crossing horror with humor. Joe Dante did this with Gremlins, the aforementioned Lucky McKee has done this with all of his work, and John Landis did it with An American Werewolf In London (which gets a nod here, if you can catch it). Here, Landis puts himself firmly in the humor camp, using the patently ridiculous setup to create some hilarious set pieces. Brian Benben is wonderfully deadpan as Dwight. Anthony Griffith is less successful as Dwight's partner, with several cringe-inducing line readings. The episode works best when Landis is indulging in his silliest whims, such as a great sequence where Faraday tries to imagine how a man would be gored to death by a deer while locked in his truck. When the actual horror elements get introduced, they're less interesting. However, on the plus side, we do get several shots of a topless Brazilian model who is flat-out gorgeous. It's clear this episode would never be something Landis would have pursued for a full feature, but it works pretty well as an hour-long entry in an anthology.
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. I noticed a slight improvement in skin tones and color reproduction from the first volume. Detail is good in all three, but especially in "Jenifer," and "Deer Woman" has a nice sense of depth. I was quite pleased with the image on display here.
Anchor Bay offers both Dolby Digital 5.1 and lossless uncompressed PCM 5.1 for all three episodes. The sound mixes for "Jenifer" and "Sick Girl" are both quite impressive: nice use of directionality and good aural range. There are some especially sickening sounds in "Sick Girl" that really get a boost from the uncompressed PCM mix. "Deer Woman" is a little more flat and less directional.
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 "Jenifer" by Writer/Actor Steven Weber and DVD Producer Perry Martin: Perry Martin acts as a moderator, prompting Weber to talk about all the aspects of production. For his part, Weber is more than happy to provide information on the genesis of the project, working with Argento, Carrie Anne Fleming, and more. He also does quite a good imitation of his director.
- Commentary on "Sick Girl" with Director Lucky McKee, Actors Angela Bettis and Jesse Hlubik, and Composer Jaye Barnes Luckett: Lucky McKee heads a delightful round table commentary, filled with more in-jokes than you can shake a stick at. In between the rapid fire gags, McKee also manages to throw out a couple of informative tidbits (and tit bits) about the production.
- Commentary on "Deer Woman" by Actors Brian Benben and Anthony Griffith: Brian Benben reminds us all that he's a highly talented comedian in this commentary, tossing out off-the-cuff jokes effortlessly. Griffith, on the other hand, proves he has no knack for comedy, as his role here seems to just be saying "Right, right," whenever Benben makes a joke. Worth it for Benben.
Masters of Horror is a fun but uneven show. This anthology offers three episodes from the first season, and this time around they chose three of the better ones. "Jenifer" in particular is a stunner, the best work Dario Argento has done in years. But all three episodes have something worth watching, and the commentaries are also a good time (although I would have liked to get the rest of the extras from the DVD's). The image and sound quality both seem slightly improved from the first volume, and when you add it all up, this disc becomes Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.