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.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road:
When I originally saw this episode, directed by Don Coscarelli, I thought it was one of the few that proved the endeavor was worthwhile. Watching it again, I'm not so sure that holds true. The episode stars Bree Turner as Ellen, a woman caught alone on a mountain road by a hideous monster-man known as Moon Face (John De Santis). Unfortunately for Moon Face, Bree has been trained to survive by her estranged husband, Bruce (Ethan Embrey). Each struggles to overcome the other in the monster's wooden shack.
"Incident" has one great thing going for it: Atmosphere. Coscarelli knows how to use the sparse mountain location for all its worth, letting darkness become a constant danger. Moon Face's cabin feels like an homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with dead bodies and skeletons strewn about all over the place. The fights between Ellen and Moon Face mark the best parts of the episode, being visceral and well cut. Far worse are the flashback scenes to Ellen's marriage with Bruce, which seem to exist solely for the purpose of training her. They are clumsily written, with no dimension to the characters. If we had more of the here and now, and less of the back then, "Incident" could have been a minor classic in Coscarelli's catalogue. Still, the flashbacks do offer a decent payoff at the end (even if it's a bizarre turn that doesn't have much internal logic to it).
Dance of the Dead:
Easily one of the worst episodes in the entire series, Tobe Hooper's outing is best left forgotten. The story is all but incoherent, involving all kinds of threadbare plot points that are barely explained and result in oddball performances by actors who have done far better than this. Worst served is A Nightmare On Elm Street's Robert Englund, who should have been a natural for the role of MC (after all, isn't that what he's been for several of the later Nightmare sequels?). But he's given no room to play, forcing him into a hackneyed "risque" role that does neither him nor Hooper any credit. This is one better left unseen.
Pick Me Up:
Another weak entry in the series, Pick Me Up finds the normally imaginative Larry Cohen playing things relatively straight, with no mutants or demons or aliens to be found. The basic plot revolves around a murdering truck driver played by Michael Moriarty. Moriarty, well known as the original D.A. on the absurdly long running Law & Order series, has seen better days. Since he got the boot from L&O, Moriarty went into a significant downward spiral, and this episode hasn't done much to bring him out of it. On the other hand, his hard times does bring a sense of history to the truck driver that isn't in the script. Cohen can't decide if he's making a black comedy or a suspense thriller, but "Pick Me Up" barely works as either. Fairuza Balk is criminally underused and the episode has an aimless feel to it that kills any suspense it may have had.
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. "Incident" looked surprisingly soft at times. The flashbacks were intended to look less harsh, but even some of the shots of Ellen on the road lacked definition. It's not terrible, just less than I expected. "Dance of the Dead" and "Pick Me Up" both are up to the standard Anchor Bay has set with the previous two releases, with a nice level of detail and color definition.
Anchor Bay offers both Dolby Digital 5.1 and lossless uncompressed PCM 5.1 for all three episodes. "Incident" is the highlight for sound, with Moon Face having no dialogue of any kind. Much of the suspense comes from what you're hearing, versus what you're seeing. "Dance of the Dead" has a blaring industrial soundtrack that gets the bass pumping. "Pick Me Up" has some nice LFE activity from the rumble of the trucks, but has the least interesting mix of the three.
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 "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" by Writer/Director Don Coscarelli, Writer Stephen Romano and DVD Producer Perry Martin: A surprisingly technical commentary, this group track rarely ever deviates from the minutiae of shooting the episode.
- Commentary on "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" with Writer/Director Don Coscarelli and Author Joe R. Lansdale: Lansdale, the author of the story on which "Incident" is based, joins Coscarelli for a far more interesting track. Lansdale is the real gem, delving into the inspirations that led him to write the story.
- Commentary on "Dance of the Dead" by Director Tobe Hooper and DVD Producer Perry Martin: Another technical track that, given the episode's cheap look, offers very little of interest.
- Commentary on "Dance of the Dead" by Writer Richard Christian Matheson: Son of famed author Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend, currently being bastardized by Will Smith), Richard Christian Matheson makes "Dance of the Dead" sound far more intriguing than it actually is. Much of this seems to stem from the episode's short runtime, which cut out many of the themes and ideas Matheson had envisioned.
- Commentary on "Pick Me Up" by Director Larry Cohen: Larry Cohen proves he's not lost his touch in this engaging and hilarious commentary. Jumping from subject to subject like an anxious flea, Cohen makes this drag of an episode much more bearable.
Masters of Horror is a fun but uneven show. This anthology offers three episodes from the first season. Perhaps as a favor to the audience, Anchor Bay decided to package together three of the most disposable episodes. "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" has moments of brilliance punctuated by some glaringly on the nose screenwriting. "Dance of the Dead" is a total mess from start to finish. "Pick Me Up" finds Larry Cohen slumming for television. Neither of the three are strong enough to warrant a purchase, and of the special features, only Larry Cohen's commentary is really worth hearing. Rent It.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.