RRM #29: MASTERS OF HORROR, Pt. 1

I no longer have any premium channels on my cable selection. The reason? Sure, if you get HBO or Showtime, you not only get tons of movies but also some quality original series, but my problem was with paying the extra for these channels, but never having the time to actually watch any of them. I loved Deadwood and The Sopranos, but I came to the realization that it just wasn't worth it, especially when I found out that in order to purchase the DVD sets of these series, I need to put half the gross national product of Luxembourg and sign away my firstborn (no problem there) just to get one season of the shows. (HBO highly overcharges for their series, much like Fox did at first, i.e. the exhorbitant amount you initially had to pay for each season of The X-Files -- my collection pretty much stopped after the second season, and I was a hardcore fan through to the end. Now that they have reduced the prices for the extinct series, I might go back and grab at least the new two or three seasons.)

Suffice to say, I cut out the HBO, figuring that the money I would save on a channel I only watched for a couple of shows (the movies are mostly unletterboxed anyway, and I have a NetFlix subscription), I could put towards actually owning Deadwood, as opposed to staring at it longingly through the glass at Suncoast.

As a result of this premium channel boycott, I had not seen the relatively new (now in its second season) Showtime series Masters of Horror, which from its description would seem to be exactly the sort of show that I would call up my cable outlet to have added to my already monstrous bill. Classic horror directors (well, most of them anyway) creating one-hour movies from scripts often culled from classic horror collections or developed by the directors or by horror-aligned screenwriters. Argento, Hooper, Landis, Carpenter -- you know the roll call. Oh, yes... and some upstarts, too, like Lucky McKee and Takashi Miike, which would seem to keep some of the old farts on their toes.

Even before getting to the quality of the series, let's talk a bit more about overpricing. Instead of releasing these episodes (13 to a season, natch...) as a set, each one, owing to the popularity of the directors involved, has been released individually. That's one hour of television for a list price of $16.98. Grabbing them on Amazon will afford them to you for $9.97 apiece discounted. With shipping, that's still well over a ten-spot for slightly less than, in most cases, sixty minutes of entertainment (not counting the extras). You can be the judge on whether that is worth it to you, but I have a NetFlix subscription and the ability to rent them four at a shot. I can weed through them and find the ones that might be worth owning someday. And, because we are in the holiday season, and also because I had been putting this series off for a few months, I naturally put a host of these episodes on the top of my queue.

Despite the names involved, I was still hesitant in approaching some of the episodes, especially given that many of the "Masters of Horror" have generally moved well out of their prime. So, to not only find that the level of quality is extraordinarily high in the series, but that John Carpenter and John Landis, two of my favorites in my youth, have pulled off some of their best work in years, was the most pleasant of surprises. I watched the episodes in ascending order of interest, and because Carpenter had disappointed me so much over the past decade, I started with his entry, Cigarette Burns. The premise, that of a theatre owner who tries to gain capital by pursuing a legendarily evil film on the black market for a shady millionaire (played with reptilian elan by the incomparable Udo Kier), seemed to be the set-up for a bad noir tribute, possibly The Maltese Falcon with a can of film, but the actual result turned far blacker and nasty than I expected, approaching a Lovecraftian malevolence in its payoff scenes. It's the sort of fire that I haven't seen from Carpenter in a long while (though its quite obvious from the score that his composer son is following in his dad's cheesy synth footsteps). In fact, it may be the best thing he has directed since his initial heyday.

Also showing some spirit is Landis, bringing his trademark American Werewolf in London black humor to the fore
for a crack at a Native American mythic figure, Deer Woman. Co-written with his son, Landis' script sports some characters with wonderfully lived-in textures (and only hinted at backstories), as if this were part of an ongoing series of its own. Brian Benben's not-so-Holmesian imagining of the possible theories surrounding the murder that starts the story is priceless enough to have to be seen. Deliciously gory but never actually frightening by any means, this almost comes off the way that I wished the new Night Stalker had been: a bloody, wacky time. (Oh, yeah... and for the more prurient-minded, such as myself, Deer Woman is freakin' hot... hooves and all...)

After the relative successes of the first two discs, I was wholly unprepared for the mild disappointment I received while watching Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch-House, itself also adapted from a festeringly creepy vision by H.P. Lovecraft. It's hard for me to put a finger on why it didn't quite work for me -- perhaps the bad job on recreating the "rat-face" character that haunts the denizens of the ancient house, or perhaps a couple of miscast actors, or perhaps it was the feeling of Gordon going one too many times to the H.P.L. well. While the episode isn't bad at all -- in fact, it's actually well-done despite the above demerits -- but after viewing the first two discs directly before this one, this one left me wanting something a little more from Gordon, especially given what his Lovecraft obsession has driven him to create before. Call it the Curse of the Re-Animator.

There has seemingly been much ado over the bizarre Japanese shockmeister Takishi Miike's entry in the series, Imprint, to the point where even Showtime wouldn't show it in its uncut form. Could it be that his potent combination of prostitution, S&M, pissing, torture, and aborted fetuses just might upset our more puritanical, though hypocritical, bedrock of American society? Nah, couldn't be... I believe that its problems rose merely from the horrid casting of Billy Drago in the main role. Drago was smooth as the villainous John Bly in Brisco County Jr., and was creepily swell in the Frank Nitti role in De Palma's The Untouchables a zillion years ago, but his character in Imprint calls for an actor of a far more sympathetic mein than Drago can muster, especially given his haphazardly over-the-top line renderings in moments where a little more subtlety should have been called upon in the acting department. That he sidesteps this process hurts the surrounding story, and undercuts some of the shock in the scenes to come, where underplaying would have served them better. Drago has his place, but its not in a role like this. It also doesn't help that Miike resorts to having his Japanese actors speaking English, and quite bumpily, when subtitles would have actually added immeasurably to the piece. I said "some" of the shock is undercut by all these mistakes, but not all, and Miike goes to town here with some of his trademarked straight-from-hell savagery. Outside of the relatively staid Chakushin Ari [One Missed Call] (which I adore) and the brilliant Ôdishon [Audition], my reaction to most of the Miike films that I have seen has generally been, "What an asshole," but then I find myself thinking about them for days and slowly building an appreciation for his mindfuck weirdness. Same story here... much like Ichi the Killer, the immediate result was that I wanted to snap the disc in half, but then I couldn't get the goddamn thing out of my mind. Maybe it's not your barrel of sake, but it's for a feeling like this that I even go to the movies in the first place. You know, that happy feeling of needles being jabbed underneath your gumline...

The List:
Masters of Horror: John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (2005, DVD) - 7; Masters of Horror: John Landis' Deer Woman (2005, DVD) - 6; Masters of Horror: Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch-House (2005, DVD) - 5; Masters of Horror: Takishi Miike's Imprint (2005, DVD) - 7.

Comments

You unbelievable bastard. I log on yesterday morning with the idea to do a post on The Masters of Horror, but before I do I check your site out and discover you've apparently been reading my mind.

Get out of my head!

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