Masters of Horror Volume IV (US - BD RA)
Gabe takes a high definition re-glance at the series' best and worst episodes...
For the forth collection of Masters of Horror episodes on Blu-ray disc Anchor Bay and Starz have put selected four episodes, two of my favourites ( Imprint and Home Coming), an episode I missed the first time around ( The Haekeler’s Tale), and the worst episode of the entire first season ( Chocolate).
Christopher (Billy Drago), an American journalist, travels the far-reaching corners of Japan in search of Komomo (Michie Itô), the lost girl he promised to rescue from her life of prostitution with a trip to America. His quest brings him to an island of prostitution and excess. No one seems to have heard of or seen Komomo, but Christopher decides to spend the night anyway. He asks only for the company of a mysterious prostitute (Youki Kudoh) who lurks in the shadows. That night the disfigured woman tells him a disturbing story of her own childhood and her possible connection to his lost Komomo.
When Takashi Miike makes a romantic drama the result is Audition, when he makes a comedy the result is Ichi: The Killer, and when he makes a family film the result is Happiness of the Katakuris. You don’t ask the man to make a balls out horror film if you aren’t expecting something that pushes buttons and generally shocks the system. When Showtime got Miike’s Masters of Horror episode they ceremoniously dumped it straight to DVD, refusing to air it. The shock of the stupidity and chicken shit nature of the dump made the episode an instant classic among fans site unseen.
The episode is a bit of a disappointment overall, but mostly because so much was expected from the director. Imprint is the most impressive looking and most originally structured episode. It’s also the most genuinely disturbing episode, which accounts for its ‘banned’ status. The problems beyond expectations are in Miike’s characterization of himself and his films. The torture scene is very much tacked on, and which grinds the already slow narration to a stop. The commentary track experts bring up the fact that Miike appears to be running down a checklist of perversions and taboos. I’ll go one further and say that Miike was trying to make the movie he thought American audiences expected him too.
Miike has only made one genre specific feature length film, One Missed Call, which was a director for hire gig made to emulate the Ringu mould. This short and Miike’s final episode of Three…Extremes, Box are the only other films in the director’s cannon that can be called ‘horror’ directly. Box is a strangely effective dream of a movie, and more of what one should’ve expected from this Masters of Horror episode. Imprint is a case of a director trying to make the film he thinks his audience wanted him to make, rather than a film that pushed him as a craftsmen.
Basically Imprint doesn’t work until it hits the forty-minute mark (it’s just over an hour long), when Miike seems to stop fulfilling our expectations, and starts being Miike. The imagery is horrifically poetic, the story rolls quickly from stark realism to insane fantasy, and most importantly the director plays humour against horror. It isn’t a smart movie, which Miike can make, the acting is really terrible, and it isn’t as unrelentingly horrifying as we were lead to believe by the Showtime execs, but Imprint is a half special episode, and one that is hard to shake.
The Haeckel's Tale
Young Mr. Ralston comes to an old Necromancer seeking the revival his deceased wife. The witch chooses to tell the lovesick man the story of Ernst Haeckel as a warning before she agree to the revival. Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil) is a young doctoral student following the footsteps of Doctor Victor Frankenstein. He’s found his attempts at scientific revival unsuccessful, and though he doesn’t believe, he seeks the knowledge of the local Necromancer. Later, Ernst learns his father's illness has taken a turn for the worse, and he decides to travel cross-country to meet him. On the road he encounters Walter Wolfram and his lovely wife Elise, a couple with intimate knowledge of the evil of corpse revival.
The Haeckel's Tale starts as one of the series’ best looking and acted episodes. Comparable in its treatment of period pulp to Stuart Gordon’s season two entrée The Black Cat, director John McNaughton’s feature, based on an original story by Clive Barker, is the Masterpiece Theatre episode, for its first two thirds at least. McNaughton, a skilled director mostly known for his dark and dreary debut feature Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but also famous for the shiny excesses of Wild Things, commands his modest budget with genuine power. His actors are some of the best the series has ever seen, and his sets and lighting are reminiscent of classic Hammer horror features.
Problems begin to arise when the last act roles around and structurally one realizes that they’re watching an entirely different movie. The twist in the tale should come as a narrative or emotional shock, but it’s much more of a stylistic shock. The episodes relative class and wit is dampened by a silly and bawdy climax that just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the tale.
It’s a well known fact in the horror community that The Haeckel’s Tale was scheduled to be George Romero’s series entrée, but conflicts with Land of the Dead prevented his involvement. Though I adore Romero’s zombie films ( Dawn of the Dead very well may be my favourite film of all time), I would’ve been disappointed to see him pigeonholed. The episode is a stylistic change up for McNaughton, and for the most part impressive, for Romero I imagine it would’ve been another Creepshow styled exercise in comic book visuals.
Jamie (Henry Thomas) is a lonely, depressed, and divorced young man who creates artificial flavours for food companies. One night he awakens from a dream tasting chocolate he hasn't eaten. Later that night he hears classical music while attending a rock concert, and almost crashes his car when he suddenly sees through someone else’s eyes. Jamie realizes that he is psychically linked to a beautiful young woman that he has never met. When a series of violent image shake him, Jamie decides to track down the woman and finds that her life is not all that it appears to be.
Mick Garris gets to be a member of the Masters of Horror by default because he got the guys together. There aren't many genre fans that would mistake him for a master. Garris made a name for himself through Stephen King television adaptations, his two most successful being The Stand and The Shining, which both still suck. I've personally never been a fan of the man's work, which includes his ridiculous Sleepwalkers adaptation, and Riding the Bullet, one of the most boring King films I've ever seen.
Because he started the show, Garris gets to direct an episode, and it's only fair. I was rooting for him, really I was, but Chocolate is easily the worst episode in what can only be described as an overall disappointing season. The biggest bone of contention is the fact that the concept of a man receiving the sensual input of a beautiful woman would work much better as a porno gimmick than a horror story, a fact that doesn't seem to have fully escaped Garris, who includes a scene where Jamie experiences the mystery woman's vaginal penetration in front of his family, a shower masturbation scene, and the start of a female/male/female three-way.
Henry Thomas is a great actor (we've all seen E.T.), but under such ludicrous circumstance even he's unable to come away with any dignity. The only parts of the film that work are the scenes between him and his estranged family, and the cut back scenes to his interrogation (the story is told to a cop by Jamie, who's already covered in blood, very E.C. Comics style). Any time Garris tries to introduce the supernatural elements the audience finds themselves in late night cable soft-core territory again. It's all too damn silly.
David Murch (Jon Tenney), a spin-doctor for the current presidential administration is confronted on a live TV talk show by a distraught parent who asks why her son had to die in the feudal war the administration started. It being an election year, Murch tells the woman that if he had one wish he'd wish her son back to life so he could explain to her what he died for, in true faux-passionate spin doctor fashion. The next day Murch's wish comes true, and solders start rising from the dead. But these zombies aren't looking to chow down on human flesh, they just want to vote in the upcoming election.
Homecoming is undoubtedly my favourite of the entire first season, which is impressive considering my hesitation towards director Joe Dante’s involvement in the. Dante is the Tex Avery of the bunch—a childlike director with a love for cartoons and old-fashioned comic book scares who developed his skills while cutting trailers for Roger Corman. The only film in Dante’s cannon that might be considered straight horror is The Howling. Though The Howling contains some of the only straight-faced terror scenes in the directors career, the film's underlying themes are comedic. My personal favourites of Dante's are the Gremlins films, which are a perfect mix of Looney Tunes, William Castle, and '50s B-monster flicks. I watch the first film every Christmas, but only consider it a half horror film at best.
Larry Cohen ( Pick Me Up) and Dante were the two wildcards in the Masters of Horror deck. I knew they wouldn't produce boring episodes, but I also knew that their films could easily be the worst of the bunch (well, besides Garris, who we all knew would suck). I immediately knew that Dante had picked the best script concept based on the brief descriptions of each entry when the series was announced. Only a totally spineless and entirely corporate minded director could possibly mess this one up. This isn't to say Dante is lacking in directorial ability, but he did leave himself quite a bit of wiggle room.
Homecoming works because it's so very partisan. Not once does Dante or his actors pretend to be spoofing anything else than the Bush administration and its supporters. Thea Gill's character may be called Jane Cleaver, but we all know the characters real name is Ann Coulter. It's this that polarizes series fans on the episode, and odds are that those who liked the episode are of a left-leaning persuasion, but sometimes this kind of polarization is a-okay, because it gets normally apathetic people talking (or yelling, in most cases). Had the filmmakers at any point lost their venomous edge the entire film would've fallen apart, but Dante and company stick to there guns (no pun intended). It's nice to see some pissed off left-wing entertainment (I'm not including documentaries in this statement) because lord knows we have plenty of classic angry right-wing entertainment (see pretty much anything staring Arnold Schwarzenegger, just don't look too far beneath the surface).
The problem is that I was having so much fun being an impotent angry liberal the first time around that it took a second viewing for me to realize that this was a much bigger idea than a one hour, made for TV film could deliver, not to mention the fact that it's very, very heavy handed. Homecoming is good, but it could've been a classic had it found its way into theatres at a longer length. I also have to also admit Homecoming isn’t particularly scary, nor does it really try to be. This is one of those sad cases of the real world situation being one hundred times more horrifying than the version portrayed in a so-called horror film.
I have Homecoming and Chocolate on R2 PAL release, and Imprint on R1 NTSC release, so comparison on those films was possible. The entirety of season one of Masters of Horror looked very disappointing on DVD, especially considering the high definition source, and Anchor Bay’s ace handling of older and more damaged material. The R2 releases were especially noisy, and none of the releases ever seemed to get ‘fully black’ black levels. This Blu-ray presentation is a definite upgrade, and overall much more consistent.
There’s still an issue with noise, specifically artefacting on edges and blocking in deep reds, but the image levels are much sharper, revealing minute details not discernable on the SD releases. Edges are hard, and contrast is well balanced. The colours are brighter then the original releases, but do not sacrifice blacks, which remain as deep as my set would allow. Chocolate, which looked terrible on DVD, is still surprisingly grainy on Blu-ray, but the other three episodes are crisp and clean.
I noticed little to no difference between these Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and the ones that adorn the original DVD releases. The additional PCM tracks probably sounds great, but I was unable to get it to work on my outdated system. Some fans may be upset at the lack of DTS tracks, but it really doesn’t matter overall (especially if they were to use the same DTS tracks as the UK DVD releases, which was almost identical to the DD track anyway). The series isn’t flatly mixed or anything, but the need for a louder version of the same average tracks is, I think, unnecessary.
Throughout the episodes directional effects are, for the most part, minimal, with some exceptions. The lightning sequence in The Haeckel's Tale is pretty loud and lively, the opening boating sequence in Imprint is subtlety immersive, and the dead screaming at the end of Homecoming is appropriately intense. Music tracks vary from episode to episode in both style and fullness. Most episodes have well centred and clear audio, except in the case of Chocolate), which sounds more like Pro Logic track than a Dolby Digital one.
Even if you must have your Masters of Horror in high definition video, there may be a valid reason to hold onto those old DVDs. Despite the oodles of room available in the Blu-ray format, Anchor Bay has opted to only include the original DVD commentary tracks as extras. Originally the extra featurettes were almost more worthwhile than the episodes, and the additional interviews didn’t hurt either.
Every episode does come with an audio commentary, but of the four tracks only Imprint’s commentary is particularly stunning. Japanese film experts Chris D. and Writer Wyatt Doyle are engaging and entertaining as they try to contextualize Miike’s wacky feature within the realms of their expertise. Neither commentator is particularly fond of the episode, but they still find fascinating links to other Japanese features past and present. Homecoming only features writer Sam Hamm, no Joe Dante, and is generally a bore, and Mick Garris and DVD Producer Perry Martin are just as dull on their track. John McNaughton’s The Haeckel's Tale track is pleasant and informative, with a solid sense of humility, but also not much of a thrill ride.
For Volume Four of the Blu-ray re-release we get three solid samples from the first season and one dud. The previous collections have only carried three episodes, so buyers can consider Chocolate a freebee if they want to talk about bang for their buck. The assumption is that eventually we’ll get a full Blu-ray collection of each season, but those looking to pick and choose could do a lot worse then three fourths success. A direct breakdown goes a little something like this:
The Haeckel's Tale: 6/10
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 11th December 2007
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: PCM 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Director/Writer/Expert Commentaries
Easter Egg: No
Director: Takashi Miike, John McNaughton, Joe Dante, Mick Garris
Cast: Billy Drago, Youki Kudoh, Derek Cecil, Henry Thomas, Jon Tenney, Thea Gill
Length: 242 minutes
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