“Masters of Horror: Season 1” deserves credit for not only being good, but for also snagging a diverse group of prolific horror directors. There were seasoned filmmakers, younger visionaries, cult favorites, and makers of classics, all of different nationalities, styles and subgenres…and most of their contributions to the show were good! However, I disagreed with the line-up of their episodes, as it seemed like there were too many experimental pieces, some barely resembling horror, released in a row. After a certain point, I was beginning to feel like “Masters of Horror” was downplaying its titular genre a bit too much. Furthermore, the best episodes were among the last aired, so marathoning the show was an uneven experience. Nevertheless, there were enough stellar entries that I was still game for Season 2. Would it correct the mistakes of Season 1? Would it acquire another impressive line-up of horror directors? Or will it lose its novelty appeal and get progressively worse? Let’s find out in this Special edition of “Compulsive Franchise Disorder“!
Episode 1: The Damned Thing (directed by Tobe Hooper)– Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre“) returns to the director’s chair, following his impressive ‘Masters of Horror‘ debut, “Dance of the Dead”. His new short surrounds Sheriff Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flanery), who witnessed a mysterious force tear his Father apart back when he was a mere child. Now traumatized by his bloody past as an adult, he begins to notice the same symptoms which lead to that fateful night, but is he going crazy or is the mysterious force making a comeback? “The Damned Thing” is one of those movies that I would describe as ‘almost good’…which is somehow worse than ‘bad’. I thought Tobe Hooper did a phenomenal job with the build-up, as the town becomes increasingly unhinged, making the various encounters and interactions amongst the townsfolk surprisingly nerve-wracking. I love how the supporting cast all seem afraid, as if they know something horrible is coming, but aren’t sure what it is or what they can do about it. Tobe Hooper plays up that feeling of impending doom effectively, although I wouldn’t say ‘masterfully. While ‘Masters of Horror‘ loves playing up the black comedy, I felt its inclusion here only diminished some of the tension and at times, became outright distracting. Yet I was still on board with this short, until…ugh, the ending. I had thought Sean Patrick Flanery was handling his subdued characterization well enough, but his low key performance never rises beyond a growl, even when the scene requires it. Emote, damn you! EMOTE! Don’t just mumble and look mopey when you’re family is in immediate peril! In the end, the big pay-off…everything that the movie has been building up towards…is a crappy CGI monster…The laughable effects and Flanery’s acting ended up causing a ripple effect, making me turn on the things I initially liked about “The Damned Thing”. It was so close to greatness than its climactic fall made the entire experience so frustrating! It was a bad way to finish the short and arguably a worse way to kick off the season…
Episode 2: Family (directed by John Landis)– Harold (George Wendt) is your friendly, neighborhood serial killer, whose family is comprised of the skeletons of his victims…and when a nice, young couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar) move in next door, he starts looking to expand his family…John Landis (“Masters of Horror, Season 1: Deer Woman”, “An American Werewolf in London“) makes another demented comedy and dresses it in a horror attire. “Family” is one of the more highly regarded entries in Season 2…and I didn’t care for it…Admittedly, I had to seriously think about this, as the direction is stylish and the cast all have great chemistry. Wendt in particular is a lot of fun to watch. However, I think the problem is that the episode relies too much on the ‘big reveal’ and the twist isn’t anywhere near as clever as it thinks it is. The ending is foreshadowed too much in some areas, leading me to accurately predict where the story was going, yet it also cheats in order for the reveal to make any sense. I don’t like twists where the previous actions or interactions of certain characters becoming confusing in hindsight. Overall, it’s nicely made, but it did little for me.
Episode 3: The V Word (directed by Ernest R. Dickerson)– If you’re wondering who Ernest R. Dickerson is, he’s primarily known as a television-based director, working on shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “Heroes”. He has a few movie credentials to his name (“Surviving the Game”, “Bones”, Demon Night”), but I don’t know if these qualify him as a ‘Master of Horror’…Nevertheless, his debut contribution was fine, if a bit underwhelming. Two obnoxious teenagers (Arjay Smith and Branden Nadon) sneak into a funeral home to see a dead body, but instead they encounter a vampire (John Saxon). Dickerson pays tribute to different eras of vampire flicks (1920’s, 1980’s, etc.), although he adds a few unique touches to the formula. He delivers some thrills, chills and decent tension, especially during the first half. Nothing stands out as exceptional though and the characters got on my nerves rather quickly, which becomes a problem when the suspense relies on our emotional investment in their plight. The pacing starts to lag around the half way point and there are some unanswered questions that might even count as plot holes, but “The V Word” was…entertaining enough? Unfortunately, we’re 3 episodes into the season and they’ve all been kind of middling, which may have contributed to audiences losing interest.
Episode 4: Sounds Like (directed by Brad Anderson)– “Sounds Like” is one of the bleaker episodes of “Masters of Horror”, as it takes you into a journey of madness, as experienced by Larry (Chris Bauer), whose sense of hearing is heightened so much that sharp noises cause him physical distress…and they’re getting worse…I wasn’t sure if I liked “Sounds Like” at first, as Larry is a very unpleasant protagonist and the slow pacing only amplified his dour behavior. Yet Brad Anderson (“Session 9”, “The Machinist”) patiently built up that tension until I started to FEAR Larry. The acting and music are top notch, perfectly complimenting the mood and “Sounds Like” might be the only “Masters of Horror” entry to contain actual emotional resonance. I had to seriously suppress some sniffles…*sniffles*…With that said, even now, I don’t think I want to watch the episode again. It is a somewhat frustrating experience, but I suspect that Anderson wanted us to feel perpetually uncomfortable and he probably wanted to drag out that feeling for as long as he could. “Sounds Like” is not for everybody and perhaps it’s not even for me, but it is probably one of the more stellar episodes and I respect it for trying something different, without straying too far from the horror genre.
Episode 5: John Carpenter’s Pro-Life (directed by John Carpenter)- John Carpenter sure wants his audience to be fully aware that John Carpenter is the director of this John Carpenter movie, which I think might be directed by John Carpenter. A young girl (Caitlin Wachs) stumbles upon an abortion clinic, demanding that the doctors terminate her pregnancy. Unfortunately for all of them, her Father (Ron Perlman) is a fanatic pro-lifer and he is willing to murder (har har) them all in order to ‘save’ her. “Pro-Life” struck me as incredibly uneven. Sometimes the suspense is agonizingly effective, the special effects are really good and Ron Perlman can be terrifying as the antagonist. Other times the staging is so laughably amateurish that I started to wonder whether Carpenter was striving for a silly B-movie vibe and Ron Perlman will deliver his lines as if he’s about to fall asleep. The supporting cast also alternates between good and bad, so I’m not really sure what John Carpenter’s intentions were…Despite this, I was consistently entertained thanks to the swift pacing and a finale that enters some crazy territory. I am glad to see the quality of “Masters of Horror” picking up, but this season has yet to produce anything definitively ‘good’.
Episode 6: Pelts (directed by Dario Argento)– This is a cleaned up, condensed version of an old critique that I wrote years ago, back when my website domain was freewebs. I wanted to point this out because I chose not to revisit “Pelts” and am relying on my memory and my original writing. Meat Loaf stars as Jake, a sleazy fur trader who acquires some gorgeous pelts that will definitely put his career back on track…except everyone who touches them subsequently mutilates themselves to death…Argento’s last contribution to “Masters of Horror” (“Jenifer”) continues to be my least favorite episode, but “Pelts” functions as a quasi-redemption for me. Is it good? Not really, although there is some goodness to be found within it. The visual style is reminiscent of a grim fairy tail thanks to the colorful art design and polished cinematography, which I found to be appealing. The gore effects are great, simultaneously being gross and darkly humorous. I also enjoyed the efforts of the cast, with Meat Loaf being so charismatic that you almost forget about how unlikable his character is. But the plot is difficult to take seriously, in contrast to the film’s very sincere message about animal cruelty and it becomes progressively sillier as time moves along. I also thought the script was structured very sloppily, such as how the kills take place during flashbacks. This drained the potential for suspense, as we already know their fates by the time we see them perish. Overall, the episode was just OK, providing decent fun without leaving much of an impact.
Episode 7: The Screwfly Solution (directed by Joe Dante)– A plague causes the sexual urges of males to manifest into homicidal rage, not only putting all females in danger, but also threatening the future of humanity. This episode is more science fiction than horror and to its credit, the story is armed with a lot of interesting ideas about global warming, religious mania and misogyny. Yet the problem with “The Screwfly Solution” is that it seems to think it’s smart, even though its characters are really f@cking stupid. The daughter PISSED ME OFF SO MUCH at times that I even began rooting for her demise, because she is THAT dumb. I didn’t find the episode to be either suspenseful or exciting, but Joe Dante keeps things reasonably interesting by emphasizing the scale of this pandemic. I really felt like the world was in peril, but the mood was killed by some…questionable…acting. Much like Joe Dante’s previous “Masters of Horror” entry (“Homecoming”), the performances are somewhat broad, but it was justified in “Homecoming” because it was supposed to be satirical…Was this supposed to be satirical? I don’t think so, as sometimes it got really depressing. Either way, it runs out of momentum around the final 15 minute stretch and I started to get bored…and then it ends on a note that can only be described as ‘So bad, it’s kind of funny‘, which also betrays the established tone. As much as I hate to say it, “The Screwfly Solution” was an unsatisfying mess that’s nowhere near as intelligent as it wants to be and it’s my least favorite episode of Season 2…so far?
Episode 8: Valerie on the Stairs (directed by Mick Garris)– Rob (Tyron Leitso) is an aspiring writer who moves into a boarding home that exists specifically to house aspiring writers, even though most of them are a little loony. He starts seeing visions of a woman named Valerie (Clare Grant), who may either be a ghost or a figment of his imagination, but he falls for her and gradually grows obsessed. Mick Garris continues his streak of mediocrity, following “Chocolate” and I was initially concerned that this would be inferior to “Jenifer”. I was taken aback by the abundance of cheap cliches, from dream sequences to jump scares to conventional, tension building, visual cues. The aesthetics and parts of the premise were somewhat reminiscent of Stuart Gordon’s “Dreams in the Witch House” from Season 1, while the tale of obsession was encountering all of the same stumbling blocks that ruined “Chocolate”. I just didn’t buy this ‘love’ story and I grew bored, even though “Valerie on the Stairs” boasts a pretty impressive cast (which includes Christopher Lloyd and Tony Todd). Yet I have to admit that the second half kind of won me over, as the story enters some unusual territory that actually justifies the cliches and Mick Garris gives us some nasty gore effects. I don’t think “Valerie on the Stairs” was ever good, especially as I swear characters were having the same conversations over and over again, but it ended up being tolerable enough. Mick Garris is not a ‘Master of Horror‘ by any stretch of the imagination, but I appreciate his efforts to do something a little different with both of his episodes.
Episode 9: Right to Die (directed by Rob Schmidt)– Cliff (Martin Donovan) and Abbey (Julia Benson) are a married couple who survive a grisly car accident, but Abbey is left in such a poor state that Cliff decides take her off of life support…except the closer she is to death, the stronger her spectre becomes and she’s feeling quite murderous. “Right to Die” wasn’t bad, but something about it felt…off. The characters, their interactions, their reactions, their decisions and their dialogue all feel phony. I couldn’t decide if the acting was the problem (it’s subpar), or if director Rob Schmidt (“Wrong Turn”) was struggling with the tone. He might’ve been aiming for dark comedy, but nothing about the content seemed especially amusing to me, so I don’t know what he was going for. The special effects are really good though and there are some suspenseful scenes surrounding them. “Right to Die” is drawing inspiration from “Hellraiser”, which is always cool, but the overall episode was underwhelming. The ending only drew attention to this, as it concludes with a whimper.
Episode 10: We All Scream for Ice Cream (directed by Tom Holland)– The director of “Child’s Play” makes his ‘Masters of Horror‘ debut with the flawed, but entertaining, “We All Scream for Ice Cream”. Lee Tergesen stars as Layne, who has just moved back to his hometown with his family. Unfortunately, his childhood friends are being killed by…voodoo Ice Cream…given to their children by a demonic clown…It’s a pretty bizarre premise, but it’s nice to see a fast paced thrill ride after so many experimental, slow burn stories. It moves quickly thanks to a sense of urgency and Holland sprinkles creepy and grotesque imagery throughout the running-time. There are some cheesy moments though and even worse, the acting from the children is pretty awful. Nevertheless, I enjoyed myself and this is probably one of the more stellar episodes of season 2.
Episode 11: The Black Cat (directed by Stuart Gordon)– This was…bizarre…I still can’t decide whether this was a good episode or a bad episode…It seems to have been well received by the majority of its audience, but I spent a lot of my viewing experience a little frustrated. Edgar Allen Poe (Jeffrey Combs…holy shit, Jeffrey Combs is Edgar Allen Poe!? F@CK YEAH!), the famous poet, is going through a difficult time in his life. His wife Virginia (Elyse Levesque) is terminally ill and he’s struggling with both writers block and alcoholism. His frustration begins to bubble… I won’t spoil where the story goes, but it’s an adaptation of “Black Cat”, except Poe is actually in the story instead of just writing it. The problem I had with this episode is that Poe is a very irritating protagonist. He never seems to learn from his failings, he’s constantly moping around and his descent into madness seemed contrived. Whereas the protagonists fall in the actual short story of “Black Cat” felt in line with the character, Poe’s characterization is all over the place. The ending does explain this, but it wasn’t worth the headache the writing was giving me for the first 50 minutes. Nevertheless, Combs does great in the roll and the art direction was pretty good too. It’s always impressive when they craft a period piece with a limited budget and make it look authentic enough. There are a few “HOLY CRAP” moments that are amongst my favorites in “Masters of Horror”…But “Black Cat” wasn’t easy to get through and often felt like a watered down, costume drama version of “Sounds Like”. Everyone else seems to like it though, so it’s probably worth a watch.
Episode 12: The Washingtonians (directed by Peter Medak)– Not every director involved with “Masters of Horror” is an actual ‘Master of Horror’, but Peter Medak is unusual in that he directed “The Changeling”, often regarded as a classic…and “Species II”, often regarded as…not a classic…His contribution to “Masters of Horror”, “The Washingtonians”, is just as entertaining as it is a mixed bag though. The story is a little difficult to describe, but it’s about a family who’s staying in their recently deceased Grandmothers house in order sort through her property, but they stumble upon a conspiracy. It turns out that George Washington was a cannibal whose bloodthirsty past was sanitized to help cement his legacy as the father of the United States and a secret society is determined to keep this a secret. “The Washingtonians” has some cliches that I’m getting tired of, especially coming from “Masters of Horror”. How many times can I see a family move into a new house and encounter an evil? But its gradual descent into the ridiculous won me over. It’s campy and absurd, but I generally enjoyed myself.
Episode 13: Dream Cruise (directed by Norio Tsuruta)– “Dream Cruise” is unusual in that it’s the only episode to be released (on DVD) as a full length feature, clocking in at about 87 minutes. The director is Norio Tsuruta, who had thrived during the rise of J-horror, with his “Premonition” being considered among the genres elites. The story follows Jack (Daniel Gillies) and Yuri (Yoshino Kimura), a pair of lovers whose relationship has one problem- Eiji (Ryo Ishibashi), Jack’s client and Yuri’s husband. Eiji is sort of crazy and he might know about their affair…This becomes especially nerve wracking when he invites Jack to go on a boat trip with them…and then things start to get weird. “Dream Cruise” has some flaws, ranging from some awkward line delivery to weak sound mixing. It also feels like it couldn’t quite sustain its running-time, as some scenes felt padded and repetitive. Yet “Dream Cruise” was still pretty damn good! Norio Tsuruta builds up the tension and atmosphere effectively, filling the screen with some impressively creepy imagery. Even though Jack and Yuri are flawed protagonists, they were still likable enough for me to root for and Eiji is one scary dude. Does he know about Jack and Yuri’s relationship and if so, what is he going to do to them? The suspense is often built around these simple questions, so Eiji’s presence alone made me uneasy…and this is BEFORE the more frightening stuff begins. There is a sudden shift in genres that actually caught me off guard, which is always a nice feeling. Once again, the Japanese ‘Master of Horror’ provided my favorite episode of the season. “Dream Cruise” is the winner of Season 2!
“Masters of Horror: Season 2” was definitely a step down from the first season, but do you know what? This show was always going to have a limited shelf life. There just aren’t that many true ‘Masters of Horror’ out there, which is why they brought back so many of the same directors. John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento, John Landis, Joe Dante and Tobe Hooper are among the biggest names of the genre, but they don’t have an unlimited supply of creativity at their disposal. In fact, they were all kind of past their prime by this point, which is probably why they took the jobs in the first place…and this isn’t even considering the limitations of the medium (budget, time, censorship, etc.). The novelty was already beginning to wear off in 2006, as “Masters of Horror” acquiring the likes of Argento or Dante for a second round of episodes is not going to excite us as much as “Masters of Horror” acquiring the likes of Argento or Dante for the first round of episodes…We’re now used to their presence on the show, but who else is going to grab the attention of the fanbase? Wes Craven would’ve been a contender, but he politely declined because his career was still thriving, albeit more as a producer than as a director. George Romero and Roger Corman are considered ‘Masters of Horror’ too, but for whatever reason, the deals with them fell through. James Wan, Alexandre Aja, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth were all on the rise at this time, but that’s also kind of the problem…Rising stars are going to want to focus on their movie careers and will generally see television work as beneath them.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining too much, as the line-up of filmmakers was still pretty solid. Rob Schmidt and Brad Anderson might not have been the hot commodities that Eli Roth and James Wan were during this period, but they were well liked by the fanbase, with many thinking Anderson was the future of horror- even if he ultimately wasn’t. Tom Holland and Norio Tsuruta both had important contributions to the genre as well, filling in the void left by John McNaughton and Don Coscarelli. Furthermore, while the inclusion of John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper isn’t going to have the same draw as it did for the first season, they are still true ‘Masters of Horror’ and I will gladly watch anything they do. But had “Masters of Horror” continued, the concept would’ve deteriorated a little more each season until the so called ‘Masters of Horror’ were just…any horror-based director…So I think it’s better that it ended with Season 2, which while middling, was still fine. There were only a few episodes that rose above mediocrity, but very little fell beneath it. Furthermore, I actually thought the order of airings was a little smoother this time around, making the overall season relatively easy to binge watch. I’ve taken some shots at Mick Garris, but he is the Father of “Masters of Horror” and he should be a proud one if Season 2 was the worst he could do with the concept.
There was…sort of a Season 3 though…”Fear Itself” was a repackaged version of “Masters of Horror” and was also put together by Garris. The only returning directors were Brad Anderson, John Landis, Ernest Dickerson, Stuart Gordon and Rob Schmidt, but the new ones included Darren Lynn Bousman (“Saw 2–4“) and Ronny Yu (“Freddy Vs Jason“), who were very prolific at the time. I recall watching the first few episodes and thinking they were decent, but my attention drifted elsewhere and I didn’t even notice when the show was unceremoniously cancelled. There was also a spin-off of “Masters of Horror“, called “Masters of Science Fiction“, but it must’ve been a flop because very little information exists about it. I remember rumors of an upcoming “Masters of Italian Horror“, but as far as I know, the idea is burning in developmental hell…which is a shame, because it would’ve been cool seeing Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi return to the genre. Will I ever review “Fear Itself” or “Masters of Science Fiction“? Maybe, but it depends on convenience, time and interest, so don’t expect it anytime soon. Overall, the “Masters of Horror” marathon was fun and interesting break from my normal reviewing routine…but I’m ready to get back to my normal ‘Compulsive Franchise Disorder’ format!