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.