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 four.
"Imprint" follows a dour visitor, Christopher (Billy Drago), as he finds his way to a desolate island off the coast of Japan. He's searching for the object of his desire, a woman named Komomo (Michie Ito). Instead, he ends up spending the night in the company of a mutilated whore (Youki Kudoh), who regales him with tales of her childhood and the eventual fate of Komomo. The thing is, the stories don't add up. Christopher keeps pressing on, finding more and more sordid sides to the yarn as it unravels. But the truth lies even deeper than Christopher suspects.
Takashi Miike is one of my all time favorite directors in any genre. He's as brilliant as he is idiosyncratic, as surprising as he is prolific. His films ooze style, but they don't want for substance. "Imprint" is his first English-language work, and while it's not his most nuanced, it does provide a decent capsule summary of what sets him apart from his contemporaries. "Imprint" was infamously rejected by Showtime, who felt that the episode was too disturbing to show on the air. It's not difficult to see why. We get graphic depictions of torture, abortions, incest, child molestation, and more. But it's to Miike's credit that "Imprint" doesn't feel like a parade of hot button imagery. The story twists in on itself, echoing Rashomon and other multiple perspective pictures, forcing the viewer to continually change their perception of almost all the characters. And, in Miike's inimitable fashion, by the end you're not sure if you've seen the world's grossest horror film or the darkest of black comedies, or something less definable. "Imprint" is the only episode of Masters of Horror to feature a director currently in his prime. And while there are some flaws, it's by far the best the series has to offer in either season, and worth a viewing or three.
Joe Dante directed this odd little piece, about Iraq War casualties coming back from the grave to vote the current President out of office. Batman (1989) scribe Sam Hamm put the script together, unapologetically making a work by the Left for the Left (in his own words). I had heard awful things about this episode, but honestly, despite its heavy handedness, there's a certain silly charm to it, provided that one is capable of laughing at our current political situation. Dante regular Robert Picardo gives a memorable performance in a gleefully sleazy role. Not half as bad as I was lead to believe.
The mind of Clive Barker is translated through John McNaughton's (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) lens, and the result is one of the more interesting entries in the Masters of Horror series. When Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil), a medical student, defies his teacher and attempts to gain the secret of reanimation, he encounters a necromancer (Jon Polito) capable of achieving the goal, but at a very high price. McNaughton lays on the Gothic stylings to generally good effect. There are plenty of dark graveyards shrouded in rolling mists and creaky old men with words of warning on their lips. While I myself am a fan of Clive Barker's writing, I have not read the story on which this episode is based, so I don't know how good of an adaptation it is. The highlight comes in the creature effects, especially during one particularly...cold scene in a graveyard.
Mick Garris was the creator of Masters of Horror, and in "Chocolate" he finally gets his chance to follow in the footsteps of the greats he had gathered. Henry Thomas plays Jamie, a man whose life is irrevocably altered by visions of a mysterious woman, as seen through her own eyes. Garris adapted the teleplay off of his own short story. It's an odd choice, as it's certainly the least horrific of all the episodes. The visions aren't particularly scary or thrilling. And once Jamie finds the girl whose life he's secretly sharing, it's only to get to a climax that anyone with half a brain could see coming a mile away. It's a bit of a disappointing way to end the season one set, but it's the only truly weak episode on the disc.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Anchor Bay presents all four 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. In general, the transfers look good, but not great. The biggest problem is in the shadow detail and drop off to black. I think some of the episodes, particularly "Imprint" and "Haeckel's Tale," have a lot more hiding in the darkness than these transfers can provide. "Chocolate" and "Homecoming" have brighter color schemes, making them pop a little more.
Anchor Bay offers both Dolby Digital 5.1 and lossless uncompressed PCM 5.1 for all four episodes. "Imprint" in particular benefits from the lossless, with Miike's sound design pervading the surrounds, often catching the audience off guard. "Homecoming" has an incredibly straightforward mix, perhaps to go hand in hand with the message. Neither "Haeckel's Tale" or "Homecoming" has particularly impressive mixes, but the dialogue in all the episodes sounded audible, without any distortion.
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 "Imprint" by Author Chris D. and Writer Wyatt Doyle: These two critical commentators are quick to point out the problems they have with the episode, sometimes forgetting to actually dissect what we're seeing. By the end, they're more forgiving, but I would have loved to get the comments of someone actually involved with the production.
- Commentary on "Homecoming" with Writer Sam Hamm: Hamm gives a commentary that's easily as enjoyable as anything else on the disc, unafraid to speak his mind. He makes plenty of humorous deadpan comments about how he had to tone down the comments of the Right Wingers in the episode from what they say in real life, and is quick to point out how disappointed his son was to have his cameo ruined by being intercut with a sex scene.
- Commentary on "Haeckel's Tale" by Director John McNaughton: McNaughton was not the first choice for "Haeckel's Tale," but he seems quite proud of what he did with it. He talks quite a bit about his shooting style and the creature effects.
- Commentary on "Chocolate" by Writer/Director Mick Garris and DVD Producer Perry Martin: Martin prods Garris throughout the episode, getting him to talk about adapting his own work, shooting on such a tight schedule, and working with the actors. Surprisingly, very little of the commentary covers the larger topic of the show.
Masters of Horror is a fun but uneven show. This anthology offers the best episode of the series, two of the better entries, and a lesser piece to cap things off with a whimper. Still, the fact that this disc has "Imprint" in high definition alone makes the disc worth it, and the fact that you get two other good episodes in addition is just icing on the cake. While the presentation and selection of extras could be stronger, there's still enough quality here to warrant a look. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.