I didn’t have Showtime when “Masters of Horror” aired…over a decade ago…Wow, I feel so old…I eventually caught a few of the episodes when they arrived on DVD, but even though I loved the concept, I never felt compelled to explore the entire series…until now. The gimmick is that every episode is directed by a ‘Master of Horror’, someone whom is prolific within the genre. Each story would function as a standalone film and wouldn’t suffer from the same censorship and rating restrictions that usually plagued television. Despite initially drawing a lot of attention and even some acclaim, ratings would soon decline and “Masters of Horror” would only last a total of two seasons. There would be a spiritual sequel in the form of “Fear Itself” and “Masters of Science Fiction” was…apparently a thing…I can also recall talks of a “Masters of Italian Horror“, but it never materialized. These days, “Black Mirrors” has become the favored genre anthology and nobody seems to remember “Masters of Horror“. I chose to complete revisit the series after noticing that all of the episodes were available on a streaming service I happen to be using and found myself compelled to write about it. Why did “Masters of Horror” have a short shelf life? Why has it faded from the public consciousness? Were these “movies” disappointments, or under-appreciated gems? Let’s find out in this special “Compulsive Franchise Disorder” review series, for I am indeed counting “Masters of Horror” as a ‘franchise’. I’ve chosen to ignore the 4-star rating system, as it just seemed unnecessary here. This critique will only over Season 1.
Episode 1: Incident on and off a Mountain Road (directed by Don Coscarelli)– Ellen (Bree Turner) is in a car accident on a…mountain road…and is pursued by a deranged killer. However, he may have met his match, because her husband was a survival enthusiast who taught her everything he knew. “Incident on and off a Mountain Road” is a consistently entertaining episode thanks to its fun premise, a fast pace and a healthy dose of excitement and tension. There are a few hokey visuals, even though I remember some of them being used to promote the series. They looked cool in the ads, but are silly in the context of the film. Nevertheless, this was more than serviceable, even if it’s ultimately a little forgettable. A solid start for the show, but will “Masters of Horror” build upon this momentum or deflate? Coscarelli is primarily known for doing the “Phantasm” franchise.
Episode 2: Dreams in the Witch House (directed by Stuart Gordon)– A college student (Ezra Godden) moves into a lonely, dilapidated apartment complex to focus on his studies, but is harassed by a witch who has disturbing plans for him…Gordon is most famous for “Re-animator” and the tone of “Dreams in the Witch House” is similar, being grotesque but darkly humorous. I liked it until the ending, which left a bad taste in my mouth, kind of souring the entire experience. Up until then, the episode was being amusing, gross and mysterious enough to keep me interested. Another acceptable entry.
Episode 3: Dance of the Dead (directed by Tobe Hooper)– A post-apocalyptic tale where society has become a cesspool of violence and debauchery…and the dead can be given drugs to re-animate into mindless slaves for vile men…Peggy (Jessica Lowndes), a young woman who has been protected from this ugliness, decides to leave the safety of her home. This is more about world building and atmosphere than it is about story or excitement, which alienated a lot of viewers. I found this setting to be fascinating though, so I liked it. Tobe Hooper was primarily known for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and…his inability to seemingly live up to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”…but he has a lot of interesting works under his belt and this ended up being one of the more interesting episodes of the season.
Episode 4: Jenifer (directed by Dario Argento)– This surrounds a detective (Steven Weber; who also wrote the script) who grows increasingly obsessed with a deformed girl named Jenifer (Carrie Fleming), whom he had rescued from a violent assailant. Unfortunately, Argento’s stylistic touches are absent and the episode is forced to rely on unlikable characters and repetitive sex scenes (seriously, they all seem to sport the exact same positions and camera angles). The gore (and makeup) is pretty good (and daring) and there is nudity, but these are a small oasis in a sea of boredom. Argento is probably the most famous Italian horror director of all time, with hits like “Suspiria” and “Deep Red”. I suspect he was bored of his usual giallo routine and wanted to experiment with something new, as “Jenifer” isn’t conventional horror. It’s more like an erotic thriller with a ‘horror’ aftertaste, but it’s not a very good one. I suppose “Masters of Horror” was smart though to bury one of the weaker episodes in the middle of the line-up and to be fair, “Jenifer” is odd enough that it has earned a cult following. I am probably one of the bigger haters, so this film should not be entirely dismissed just because I disliked it.
Episode 5: Chocolate (directed by Mick Garris)– The gimmick of “Masters of Horror” had been to gather the horror icons, the pioneers of the genre or…at least directors who have notable cult followings…so I was confused as to why Mick Garris was present…I mean, he did “The Stand” mini-series and a few other things, but this is a show called “MASTERS of horror”, not “Guys who made some horror stuff…of Horror”. I found out afterward that the show was his idea in the first place, so I guess he’s entitled to do an episode too. His segment is about as mediocre as everything else he’s done, although I have to give him credit for coming up for the imaginative premise…of both “Masters of Horror” AND “Chocolate“. Jamie (Henry Thomas) eats a strange piece of chocolate and starts having flashes where he lives through the body of a woman (Lucie Laurier), whom he naturally grows obsessed with…I’m fine with the weird concept, but I didn’t buy the guy falling in love with the woman after…feeling her have sex with an Asian guy…We know where the story is going from the opening shot, so I spent the rest of the episode waiting for it to end. Up until that point, little of interest seemed to happen outside of some predictable and awkward scenarios. Once again, it’s more of a subpar erotic thriller than a horror flick. I wasn’t too impressed with the acting or dialogue either. I think it was a mistake to air “Jenifer” and “Chocolate” back-to-back, as they share too many themes and ideas (obsession, eroticism, etc.), so”Chocolate” ends up feeling repetitive just because of its placement in the “Masters of Horror” line-up. Furthermore, nothing burns out audiences more than watching two weak episodes in a row, especially when they’re both straying from the horror genre. The show has begun to bleed momentum.
Episode 6: Homecoming (directed by Joe Dante)– A political satire with some horror elements, “Homecoming” takes place during the Iraq War. The President makes a speech about how if he had one wish, he’d bring back all of the dead soldiers, whom he believes would support the war…He was wrong, as they come back from the dead, but instead of eating people, they just want to vote for the opposing side! “Homecoming” is not scary, but I thought it was amusing and clever. What IS scary is how much this reflects our current political climate…While I liked the episode on its own, I do think it reflects a problem with the show as a whole. There has been too much experimenting with the genre and I imagine a lot of viewers were put off at the lack of traditional horror by this point. It probably would’ve been better to space out these kinds of episodes instead of piling them all together in the middle. Joe Dante is known for “Gremlins” and “The Howling”.
Episode 7: Deer Woman (directed by John Landis)– A disgraced detective (Brian Benben) and a street cop (Anthony Griffith) team up to investigate a series of murders, where the victims appeared to have been stomped to death by a…deer? It’s more of a comedy than a horror, but I found it to be consistently funny. The best scene has to be when the detective is imagining how the murders played out, as each scenario becomes increasingly ludicrous and hilarious! I suppose at its core, it does hit a lot of familiar beats as a mystery/buddy cop comedy, but the strangeness of the premise and the success of the humor made it one of the best episodes of “Masters of Horror”. Landis is probably mostly known for “The Blues Brothers”, but his contributions to the genre include “American Werewolf in London” and the infamous “Twilight Zone: The Movie”.
Episode 8: John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (directed by…duh?)– Seriously John Carpenter, did you have to put your name in the title? I know you directed “Halloween” and “The Thing”, but…actually, I guess doing “Halloween” and “The Thing” does give you that privilege. It certainly doesn’t hurt that “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns” was pretty good! Kirby (Norman Reedus) is hired to track down a ‘lost film’, which was allegedly destroyed after its sole screening drove the entire audience insane…It has a good mystery, a lot of suspense and some imaginative ideas and visuals. What keeps it from achieving greatness though is a flat performance from its star. I usually like Reedus, but he sounds bored here, based off his monotonous line delivery. If “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns” had a more compelling leading actor…or if Reedus was actually invested in the material…it could’ve been a genre classic. Many consider this to be the best episode of Season 1 and while I disagree, it’s definitely one of the better films Carpenter has made in recent times. I’m glad that “Masters of Horror” is finally stepping up its game, as it’s had three successes in a row!
Episode 9: The Fair-Haired Child (directed by William Malone)– Tara (Lindsay Pulsipher) is kidnapped by a couple (Lori Petty and William Samples), who plan on sacrificing her for a ritual that will bring back their dead son (Jesse Haddock). Another entertaining entry! The cast is great, especially the lead actress. Lindsay Pulsipher is very charming and her character is easily the most likable of the “Masters of Horror” protagonists. There is some lazy writing here and there, especially when it comes to exposition and foreshadowing, but “The Fair-Haired Child” had the right amount of thrills, stylistic touches and creepy creature effects to be a good watch. This was directed by the guy who’s mostly famous for “House on Haunted Hill (1999)”, although I know him more for “Creature (1985)“, an “Alien” rip-off that terrified me as a kid.
Episode 10: Sick Girl (directed by Lucky McKee)– A lesbian entomologist (Angela Bettis) meets the girl of her dreams (Erin Brown), around the same time a package containing a bizarre and aggressive bug arrives on her doorstep. I won’t say anything more, because it would be spoiling what ultimately happens. I thought the two actresses had great chemistry and I appreciated how their romance is portrayed like any other romance and not just as eye candy for us dudes. Oddly, it’s when the horror elements start dominating the story (around the half way point) that the episode falls apart. It seems like the movie wants to do too much at once and the tone goes all over the place. I’ve heard that the script was originally supposed to surround a heterosexual pairing and that makes sense. The episode wants to serve as a warning against rushing into a relationship, but it also wants to be a warning about homophobia and the story ends up in a place that torpedoes both messages. In fact, the conclusion outright pissed me off. Not bad, but “Sick Girl” is just as clumsy as it is inspired…and it was very inspired. Lucky McKee is known for “The Woman”, although I haven’t seen that. I have seen “All Cheerleaders Die” though and I hated that shit.
Episode 11: Pick Me Up (directed by Larry Cohen)– Stacia (Fairuza Balk) is wandering through the middle of nowhere, where she suddenly becomes the target of two competing serial killers (Michael Moriarty and Warren Kole). One is a trucker who kills hitchhikers and the other is a hitchhiker who kills whoever gives him a ride. A fun concept with a fun execution thanks to exciting chases, suspenseful stalk sequences and entertaining performances from the cast. Michael Moriarty stole the show, as you never really know what he’s going to do in any of his scenes. Will he be your friend? Or will he kill you? Maybe both? The ending was kind of stupid, but at least it’s more amusingly stupid than frustratingly stupid. “Pick Me Up” isn’t necessarily the ‘best’, but it is one of the most entertaining episodes of “Masters of Horror“. Larry Cohen has had a long and varied career as a writer, director and producer. The “It’s Alive” trilogy is probably his most enduring contribution to horror, although he’s had other cult favorites too. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not familiar with his directorial works, but I’ve seen some of the movies he’s produced and written (“Phone Booth” was pretty good. “Captivity“? Not so much…). “Pick Me Up” actually brought him out of retirement (as a director), but afterwards he went back to only writing and producing.
Episode 12: Haeckel’s Tale (directed by John McNaughton)– A period piece set in the late 19th century, about a genus named Haeckel (Derek Cecil), who wants to use science to bring the dead back to life…and instead finds a supernatural way of doing so…I love period piece horror stories and this one immediately won me over with its atmosphere and setting. Some might dislike the chaotic nature of the narrative, as much of what was established in the first half has little to do with what occurs during the second half. I preferred this though, as it made the proceedings a lot more unpredictable. I love not knowing what to expect, so I kind of loved “Haeckel’s Tale”. McNaughton is mostly known for “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”.
Episode 13: Takashi Miike’s Imprint (directed by…duh: the sequel?)– This comes close to being a freaking masterpiece! “Imprint” is beautifully shot, but also has this grotesque, hellish atmosphere that grew more aggressive as the story unfolded. The content was so disturbing that even Showtime refused to air it! The only reason this doesn’t reach its full potential is because the acting…sucks…Youki Kudoh is the exception, as she turns in one of the best performances of THE ENTIRE SEASON, but Billy Drago is miscast and his attempts to emote are clumsy. The majority of the Japanese cast are obviously struggling with the English dialogue, making me wish that the flashbacks were shot in their native tongue. With that said, I found the story and how it gradually unfolded to be captivating. Set in the 1800’s, Christopher (Billy Drago) travels through Japan, looking for a prostitute named Komomo (Michie Itô), whom he is madly in love with. His journey leads him to a deranged and corrupt island, populated only by whores and their masters. He doesn’t find Komomo, but he befriends a mysterious woman (Youki Kudoh), who might know of her whereabouts…and that is all you need to know, as digging any deeper into the storyline will spoil the fun. Some of the twists and turns are just as nightmarish and grotesque as the imagery, which is incredibly f@cked up itself. I love “Imprint” and consider it to be the best entry in ‘Masters of Horror‘, Season 2 included, which is pretty hilarious considering it was the only one to get snubbed by Showtime. Sure, the acting is a distracting flaw, but I am enthusiastically willing to overlook it because everything else is so…horrifying! Takashi Miike is known for “Ichi the Killer” and “Audition“.
“Masters of Horror” had a good first season. Even though there were a few directors whose credentials as ‘Masters of Horror’ were questionable, the show boasted a really good line-up of filmmakers. Dario Argento, John Landis, Tobe Hooper…They might not have all been recognizable names, but at least the majority of them gave the genre some memorable cult classics, such as “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and the “Phantasm” series. I think “Masters of Horror” mostly fulfilled its promise in hiring actual ‘Masters of Horror’, so that alone made this worth the effort. The majority of the episodes were good, some were even very good, even if there were a few duds too. If “Masters of Horror (Season 1)” made any real mistakes, it would be the airing order. It seemed like they held their best episodes back until the second half of the season, when many viewers would have probably already lost interest by that point. There was too much experimentation and genre mixing during the middle block, while the two worst entries were placed back-to-back. The order of the episodes sometimes deflated my interest and enthusiasm in completing this marathon, as it’s hard to get excited to watch something with middling reviews and has a synopsis that suggests it’s straying from the horror genre…multiple times in a row…I just think they should’ve mixed the episodes up a little bit more, so a strong episode would proceed a weak one and traditional horror would follow experimental horror, etc. Nevertheless, there were a lot more good ones than bad ones and even the bad ones were interestingly bad, so “Masters of Horror (Season 1)” doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. All horror fans should at least consider checking it out.