Jon’s Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Love MASTERS OF HORROR

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this blog, then you’re a fan of horror films. I’m also going to assume that as a horror fan, you’ve at least heard of the television series Masters of Horror. Created in 2005 by Mick Garris, the idea behind the series is simple: to anthologize the rich diversity of contemporary horror by giving the best directors in the genre a substantial budget and one hour to do whatever they please. The first two seasons of Masters of Horror aired on Showtime to largely critical acclaim. Nonetheless, the show was cancelled in early 2007. The fate of Masters of Horror is uncertain, although Mick Garris has said that Lions Gate will fund a third season sometime in the future.

So if you haven’t heard of this series, then I have ten reasons why you should feel guilty for not watching it. But not to worry, you can see all of the current episodes on DVD. If you’ve already seen the series, then consider these to be ten reasons why you should be demanding a third season.

#10. “The Washingtonians,” directed by Peter Medak

The series has been noted for its controversial depictions of graphic sex and violence, but one of its other noteworthy characteristics is the way in which it uses horror as a metaphor for social issues and for our general cultural climate. In this installment from the second season, Peter Medak takes good old-fashioned American conspiracy theory to horrific new heights. It turns out that our founding fathers had a not-so-toothsome little secret, which their followers will kill to protect. The premise is outrageous and parodic and makes fun of conspiracy nuts who like to imagine that evil cabals are actually in charge of our government. It’s a lot of fun to watch. Think of it this way: this episode is the lovechild of X-Files creator Chris Carter and Cannibal Holocaust creator Ruggero Deodato.

#9. “Pelts,” directed by Dario Argento

Argento needs no introduction. His work has famously tranformed blood, gore and violence into aesthetic spectacles of sight, sound, and ritual. Argento’s “Pelts” (from season two) features a premise that shouldn’t work. Meat Loaf stars as fur trader and clothing designer who discovers a mystical race of raccoons (yes, I said raccoons) and decides to trap and kill them in order to make his crowning achievement – a hauntingly beautiful full-length fur coat. He does so not only to revitalize his floundering fur business, but also to impress an exotic dancer he’s become violently obsessed with. As I said, this ridiculous premise shouldn’t work, but it’s incredibly effective and functions as Grimm’s fairy tale in a modern setting. While Argento does allow, naturally, a good bit of camp, he presents this story with an intriguing blend of menace and esoteric ambience that somehow works. The soundtrack is brilliant and Meat Loaf plays his part with considerable skill in endowing his character with a kind of relentlessness worthy of Melville’s Ahab.

#8. “Pick Me Up,” directed by Larry Cohen

Not all of the premises for Masters of Horror are as unlikely or outrageous as “Pelts.” The idea behind “Pick Me Up,” which aired during the first season, is simple. What would happen if the villains from two different genres of horror films found themselves in the same movie? And no, I’m not talking about Jason Vs. Freddy. This is much more subtle and much more fun. In “Pick Me Up,” two iconic horror cliches (the hitchhiker maniac and the truck driver predator) finds themselves at odds as they compete for the equally iconic damsel-in-distress. All the while they wax philosophic about the key differences behind their approaches and methodology. Of course, this sort of meta-cinema borrows heavily from Scream, but the approach taken by Cohen is in some ways even more effective and amusing. This one’s an absolute must-see for even casual fans of the horror genre.

#7. “Deer Woman,” directed by John Landis

As with Argento, Landis needs no introduction. The legendary film director teams up with son Max in season one to present the most charming episode of the entire series. The story centers around Dwight Faraday, a hard-bellied, noir style detective who is down on his luck. As a cop, he’s been put out to pasture as an “animal detective,” which means he’s only given cases that somehow involve animals. He has a chance to jump-start his dead-end career when it turns out that a mysterious animal has been implicated in a series of strange and gruesome murders. Part cop movie, part comedy, part supernatural suspense, this episode (which, in this writer’s opinion, really should have been titled “A Native-American Deer Woman in New Jersey”) is simply too much fun to pass up.

#6. “Dreams in the Witch House,” directed by Stuart Gordon

Gordon has made a career out of adapting stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dagon are all successful in capturing specific aspects of Lovecraft’s work. “Dreams in the Witchhouse,” which aired during the first season, is the most successful adaptation of Lovecraft’s subtle tone of ambient dread and eerie, atavistic menace. Based on Lovecraft’s story of the same name, Gordon’s film tells the story of Walter Gilman, a young student who unwittingly finds a portal to another world and falls victim to a demonic and seductive witch. As the two worlds overlap, Gilman becomes increasingly deranged and unsure of how (or even if he can) prevent himself from becoming both victim and perpetrator in the witch’s schemes.

#5. “Jenifer,” directed by Dario Argento, and “Imprint,” directed by Takashi Miike

I couldn’t settle on just one film for #5, so I have to call it a tie. Both of these films have one thing in common: they help justify Master of Horror’s reputation for being unabashedly graphic and for putting gore and sex back into horror films. “Jenifer,” from season one, is undoubtedly the most stomach-churning installment of either season. “Jenifer” is about a police detective, Frank Spivey, who takes pity on a horribly disfigured woman. He takes her into to his home, but this turns out to be much, much more than he or his family bargained for. Jenifer has an appetite for small dogs, cats, children, and just about anything else she can catch in her grotesquely large mouth and sharp, oversized teeth. Her monstrosity is punctuated by the fact that she is also strangely sexy and seductive. Her sexual appetite is equaled only by her voracious and horrifying literal appetite. She is, in other words, a nightmarish inversion of every man’s fantasy. Try as he might, Spivey cannot bring himself to get rid of her, which forces him to take increasingly drastic measures.

Miike is well known for his brilliant special effects that make you want to squirm in your seat. He also has a nearly fetishistic obsession with exquisitely painful and elaborate torture scenes. His “Imprint” is about, well, I don’t exactly know what it’s about. And neither will you. But if you haven’t seen it, don’t let that stop you. The story begins simply enough. It takes place in 19th century Japan where an American journalist is visiting one brothel after another iin search of his lost love who he left behind years earlier after vowing to return to her. He learns that she’s been working as a prostitute under a cruel and vicious madam and eventually finds the last person to see her alive. After that things get confusing. He finds that his beloved hasn’t exactly had a happy life in his absence as she was tortured nearly to death because the other prostitutes where jealous of her kindness and decency which eventually lead to her killing herself out of shame. He learns all of this from the woman who betrayed her, a monstrously deformed and psychotic victim of incest, brutality, and god only knows what else. And she has a talking hand growing out of the back of her head. Don’t ask me why. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, but the film is unsettling to the point of being nearly unwatchable. This episode was slated for season one, but was pulled for being too violent. That speaks volumes, given the nature of the series, but you can still easily find it on DVD. If you have a strong heart and plenty of intestinal fortitude, then you’ll find this episode to be baffling but intriguing. If you watch this, and think it all makes clear, perfect sense, then I have two comments: 1) you’re really scary, and 2) you really need to post a concise interpretation, as I’d love to understand it too.

#4. “Family,” directed by John Landis

Lohn Landis’ second installment in season two is more akin to Hitchcock’s Psycho than his odd and charming “Deer Woman.” “Family” is about Harold, a seemingly all-American family-man and good neighbor, brilliantly played by George Wendt (Norm, from “Cheers”). Norman Bates was so creepy because you just knew there was something sick behind that boy scout facade from the first minute he appeared on screen. Harold has the same quality. He has a goofy, 1950s quality about him that isn’t so much lovable as just unsettling. Harold’s family undergoes a crisis when he meets his new neighbors, a young husband and wife. Both families, it turns out, have a few skeletons in their closets. This episode also features some really great music. It’s creepy that Harold has such good taste in music, and even creepier perhaps that I found myself liking it too. Peter Bernstein, a long time Landis collaborator, did the soundtrack. The fact that Harold listens to really great old-time gospel music still puts a wicked smile on my face.

#3. “Sounds Like,” directed by Brad Anderson

Bran Anderson directs this episode in season two. It is arguably the most emotionally charged installment, reminiscent of his brilliant work in the film Session 9. “Sounds Like” is the story of a buttoned-up quality control agent who spends his days carefully monitoring the telephone conversations of the telemarketers who work for him. He can skillfully detect every nuance, every subtle variation in tone well enough to avert potential problems before they manifest over the phone. After the tragic death of his son, his gift increases exponentially, until his hearing becomes supernaturally acute, and eventually overwhelming. He finds it impossible to work, impossible to rebuild relationships with those around him, and impossible to maintain his composure. Instead, he becomes trapped in his own world where every banal detail is amplified and distorted, reminding him of his suffering and loss. He finally reaches his breaking point. “Sounds Like” is an intelligent and gripping study of the difficulty of recovering from a loss and the tragic depths to which our grief can take us.

#2. “Cigarette Burns,” directed by John Carpenter

I’ll argue that this is some of Carpenter’s finest work. It’s certainly one of the best episodes of Masters of Horror. The tone and tenor of the film is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s “In the Mouth of Madness” and The Ninth Gate, a gesture I take as deliberate since this is a film explicitly and self-referentially about the horror genre. “Cigarette Burns” is about a connoisseur of rare films who goes on the trail of the long lost and infamous film La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), a horror film so pure and so perfect that it inevitably drives its audience insane. Legend has it that the film derives its attraction and power from that fact that the director filmed an actual angel being de-winged. Cigarette Burns” is an intelligent and daring film that asks such questions as: Why do we watch horror films? What sort of faith do we put in them, or in the directors who make them, to scare us but not to truly scar us? What is the role of film and art? Should we seek the angelic and the spiritual, or admit that we’d prefer to revel in the infernal and the spectacular? There are plenty of episodes in the Masters of Horror series that offer old-fashioned and unapologetic cinematic spectacle, and I love them. Carpenter’s installment achieves this, too, but it also forces you to ask yourself why you love it.

#1. “The Black Cat,” directed by Stuart Gordon

Everything about “The Black Cat,” from season two, is brilliant. Gordon co-wrote the story, which cleverly surmises how Edgar Allan Poe might have found his inspiration for his famous short story “The Black Cat.” The premise will be of interest to fans of Poe, but also interesting in its exploration of the creative process, and the sacrifices it demands. Jeffrey Combs plays Poe, and this is his best work since Re-Animator, and perhaps of his entire career. His version of Poe as a tormented, but loving and concerned husband is thoroughly convincing and fun to watch. This episode proves that Gordon not only has a gift for set design and special effects, but a brilliant gift for pacing and establishing tone. The film is both convincingly 19th century while also uncanny and menacing. Poe was a pioneer in the art of the short story and its structure of gradual exposition, sudden climax, and emotional catharsis. Gordon not only captures the mood of a Poe story, but this particular pacing as well. The entire Masters of Horror series would be worth it for this one episode alone.

6 Responses to Jon’s Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Love MASTERS OF HORROR

  1. Nick V. says:

    I was wondering why neither of Joe Dante’s shorts, HOMECOMING and the SCREWFLY SOLUTION, made it on you list. HOMECOMING is about as pure a zombie satire as you’ll find outside of a Romero film, and even then, I think HOMECOMING is a better/tighter story utilizing the dead for its fingerpointing ends about society, or specifically the current administration and its pundits(the Ann Coulter anti-herione made my day) than say DAY OF THE DEAD’s take on the Cold War(anyone remember the original John Sayle’s script that would have had American zombies fighting Russian ones…dear god, thank god they didn’t have enough money). And SCREWFLY is about four different kinds of disturbing: domestic violence, male entitlement, plague, and ultimately the apocalypse.

    This isn’t a criticism of your selection(admittedly, I haven’t seen all of the ones you selected, including your top two), I’m just curious.

    Plus Corey offered to harrass John Carpenter into making THE THING II if I wrote something. Corey, do one better, find out where Rob Bottin is hiding and he IS apparently hiding.

  2. Jon says:

    Hey Nick, thanks for joining the discussion. I’ll admit that I had a heck of a hard time selecting just ten episodes (even though I cheated and really include eleven). I agree with everything you say about “Homecoming” and “The Screwfly Solution.” They’re really great. “Homecoming,” seemed especially daring to me, and politically important, but mostly just fun to watch. My particular selection is no doubt subjective, but I also wanted to pick episodes that I think speak to the tone and tenor of the series as a whole. I think the series is trying to 1) make us all excited about horror again, 2) put old fashioned sex and gore back into horror, and 3) allow horror directors to really strut their stuff. I liked both of Dante’s episodes, but in my opinion they didn’t seem to capture the real essense of the series (they seemed more like really intelligent and well-made Twilight Zone episodes to me). And I don’t think they’re emblematic of Dante’s best work. Not in the same way that, say, John Landis seemed to really hold nothing back with “Family” and “Deer Woman.” Again, this is all 100% subjective, and probably splitting hairs, as, really, the entire series was worth the price of a Showtime subscription.

  3. Corey says:

    i found dante’s entries to be far too heavy-handed for my tastes, despite liking the concepts of both very much. however, dante’s commentary tracks are always incredibly entertaining and he seems like such a nice, fun-loving guy i can’t help but let that elevate my opinion of his work to a degree.

    also — jon. you write for this site… get yourself an avatar, buddy. :)

  4. Nick V. says:

    Thanks for the responses, guys. I agree that HOMECOMING is especially a guilt pleasure for the liberal minded and basically preaching to the converted like a Michael Moore doc or Al Franken book. And those films don’t go for the jungular like JENIFER or DEER WOMAN which similarly look at male and female sexuality in, Jon, your above mention criteria of “old fashioned sex and gore,” two attributes to which neither Argento or Landis are strangers.

  5. Note: This entry was written for the final girl film club. see more reviews of Suspiria there, courtesy of stacie’s final girl blog.

    The plot of Suspiria can be effectively summarized by the title of my favorite Warren Zevon song – “Bad Luck

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