Masters of Horror: Volume One (UK - DVD R2)
Gabe Powers reviews the first volume in Anchor Bay's Master of Horror series...
Note: I've already reviewed both Dreams in the Witch-House and Cigarette Burns. I'm including them as shorter versions of my previous reviews.
Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch-House
Based on a short story from master of the macabre (and noted racist), H.P. Lovecraft, Dreams in the Witch-House concerns a young man and the dreams he experiences living in a house haunted by a witch. Lovecraft was always one for synoptic titles. Said young man is named Walter, and he's looking for a quiet place to study inter-dimensional string theory (like you do), at Miskatonic University (go pods!). And if that wasn't quite enough Lovecraftian lore for you, I'll also toss in the fact that he's in the town of Arkahm, and the Necronomicon is part of his studies.
Walter finds a great deal in a dilapidated housing complex where the landlord is willing to rent cheap, in exchange for no trouble. His next-door neighbor is a kind young woman with a baby and no job. Downstairs lives a hermit who prays while beating his head against a chair every night. One night, Walter realizes that the corner of his room is the exact dimensions necessary for the theoretical inter-dimensional portal he happens to be currently researching. Faster than you can say Mi-Go, the Fungi from Yuggoth, Walter begins to suffer nightmares involving a hideous witch who comes to him in the guise of his attractive neighbor. The witch is coaxing him into murdering his new love interest's baby, and it seems that inter-dimensional travel isn't quite as theoretical as it once was.
I love Stuart Gordon films. Though he only has two real ‘classics’ under his belt, the Lovecraft inspired Re-Animator and From Beyond, even the weakest links in his directorial chain are enjoyable films. I really enjoyed Dolls, The Pit and the Pendulum, Dagon, hell, even Robot Jox was a blast. This respect and admiration for the man and his films makes this review particularly painful. Dreams in the Witch-House isn't very good; in fact, it verges on downright boring.
The film's problems are mostly material based, the script is filled with non-events and blandness. I cannot fault any of the actors, especially not Ezra Godden who plays Walter like a young Jeffrey Combs, equally funny and endearing. I also cannot fault Gordon's direction, which is assured, and basically very true to Lovecraft's story. Why Gordon loves this particularly un-frightening tale enough to film it is a little beyond me. There are plenty of grand ideas and images to be found in Lovecraft's lore, why settle for a simple witch story that doesn't bear the distinctive mark of the author, besides the constant mention of the surrounding world (Walter wears his Miskatonic University t-shirt the entire film). Even the ethereal element of the inter-dimensional wall is kind of incidental, as it seems the witch really does just live in the walls.
John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns
Down and out professional film sleuth Kirby Sweetman is offered the chance to find the only remaining print of a film long thought erased from existence, La Fin Absolue du Monde, ‘The Absolute End of the World’. The film was rumoured to have caused mass hysteria during its original screening, in which the audience dissolved into a quivering mass of murder and mayhem. Everyone who's anyone in the film world knows the legends, and all those who seek this forbidden film are reportedly haunted by the evil within it.
John Carpenter is one of the true mavericks of modern cinema. His varied work includes a multitude of genres (though with the exception of Starman, very male-centric genres), and at least three truly classic works, Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Even the lesser films of his early output, The Fog and Christine, have a multitude of hard earned fans. Up until 1992, which saw the release of the unequivocally awful Memoirs of an Invisible Man, even the director's weakest films held camp or sentimental value.
As time goes on, Carpenter has begun to falter to movie-brat syndrome, the creatively fatal disease that seems to strike every member of the early '70s independent film movement, especially those who made a name in the field of fantasy/horror (prime examples are Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, etc.). These days, the name John Carpenter above a title is about as exciting as prostate cancer, after the release of such "gems" as John Carpenter's Vampires, and John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. This decline in quality has also seen a decline in output, begging the question, has Johnny lost his touch?
Cigarette Burns was written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, two head contributors over at the granddaddy of Internet fan sites, Aintitcoolnews.com. It's painful and clear from the outset that the script as a whole will be easily categorized as movie geek verbal diarrhea. The idea of the ultimate film fanatic and collector in search of the most elusive foreign horror film is referential enough, but the addition of the questing hero's age, and life's ambition to run his own grindhouse, not to mention the film critic who's been writing the same review for decades preaching the power we put in our filmmakers, is very heavy handed. Don't get me wrong, this is the kind of script I'd probably write, and there are some nice ideas here, but the fact that these guys are writing about themselves, or rather, their ideal selves, is pretty indisputable, and more than a little awkward.
Though I'm going to assume this script had been in the works for years, the parallels to the J-horror blockbuster, Ringu, are hard to miss. The stories are different, but at their base involve the search for reasoning behind haunted film. And seeing hallucinatory cigarette burns is pretty close to seeing hallucinatory grainy, digital rings. I'd also like to add that this subject was covered rather eloquently in John Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness (a fact the director does acknowledge in his commentary track), which covered the same bases, only in the form of a haunted (or possessed) trash novel, rather than snuff film.
There are some lazily ‘hip’ editing techniques that don't fit in with the director's personal aesthetic, which are obviously made in post without much directorial input. This is a short film that suffers from a lack of polish, and it comes so close to greatness at times that its overall lethargy comes as a crushing blow, especially to fans that have invested a lot in this particular director's craft. For the most part, considering the projects boundaries, it works, with the exception of the sloppily concocted cigarette burn effects, and the briefly glimpsed footage from the monstrous film itself. Both look like they've fallen out of a homemade death-metal video. It's a case of the filmmakers showing us too much, and not letting the audience's imagination fill in the impossibly abstract blanks.
Don Coscarelli's Incident On and Off a Mountain Road
When Ellen's (Bree Turner) car breaks down on a deserted mountain road in the middle of nowhere, she encounters a monster-like serial killer named Moonface who is intent on killing her. Ellen has had training, as we see in flashbacks to her recent relationship with a semi-nutty survivalist, and will not go down without a fight. A game of cat-and-mouse soon shifts as Ellen fights back, but how far into madness is she willing to go?
Don Coscarelli is an enigma. One has to give him all the credit in the world for sticking by his strange concept films, to the point of being one of the only filmmakers to have made every film in two series. He's best known for the Phantasm and Beastmaster films, and recently found success with Bruce Campbell on Bubba Ho-Tep, the story of a geriatric Elvis fighting an ancient mummy with the help of an elderly black man that swears he's John F. Kennedy. The Phantasm films are a kind of 'love them or hate them' affair, but have always been imaginative and energetic, not to mention full of good scares. They are the director's greatest additions to the genre.
For his entree in the series, Coscarelli seems to have decided to throw his audience a curve ball, and has made one of the most straightforward horror stories of the bunch. With the film's final act twist we find ourselves in Tales From The Crypt territory, but for the most part this is a gritty survival story. The interspliced flashbacks add character development, and rarely interrupt the flow of the main plot. Unlike almost every other film in the series, the one-hour format suits the film very well.
Coscarelli works well within the confines of his budget, ensuring the film never looks too cheap. The problem here being that the film's lack of larger ambition works both ways. It works, but no one really seems to be pushing themselves at all. There are only two touches that make sure we as an audience know this is a Don Coscarelli film, the inclusions of elaborate booby-traps, and actor Angus Scrimm. Otherwise, there's no way even a fan could tell who directed this film without being told, which kind of goes against the creed of the show. So then, in conclusion, this is one of the better entrees, but it's due to playing it surprisingly safe.
Mick Garris' Chocolate
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 sees through someone else’s eyes while driving. 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, 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. 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 horror 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 series. 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. This fact 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 starts to experience 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.
John Landis' Deer Woman
Down and out Detective Faraday has been put on desk duty in the animal related crimes unit of his precinct after a big error in judgment. He's called to a murder where the victim has been so mangled that it is not clear whether it was a man or a beast. It becomes clear that it is, indeed, a human, but the cause of death is mysterious. It appears that the man was crushed to death by delicate deer hooves. Over the next few days more victims are found. Against his cohort’s wishes, Faraday investigates the strange series of brutal murders, only to find that the perpetrator may be a beast out of Native American legend.
John Landis is a master of comedy, who painted the town red in the 1980s. Along the way he made two horror/comedies, but this does not make him a 'Master of Horror', a fact that Landis himself agrees to on the DVD special features. Landis is an amazing student and fan of horror cinema, however, and his varied friendships in the field have perhaps earned him the honor of the title.
Personally, I've only fallen in love with two of Landis' films, The Blues Brothers and his most successful horror film, An American Werewolf in London. My problem with the director started when I read about his sorted affairs on the set of The Twilight Zone Movie, which led to the deaths of three people (read more about it here). For some reason I can forgive Roman Polanski's statutory rape, and Elia Kazan's black list testimonials when watching their films, but Landis' story just stuck with me. He seems like a nice guy, and I regret these feelings, especially when I suppose to be objectively reviewing one of his films.
Deer Woman is silly, but works surprisingly well because of how seriously and realistically the horror aspects are treated. This is the same formula Landis used so successfully in American Werewolf, and the two films are complimentary (Landis even makes mention of the events of American Werewolf at one point. The scares aren't really all that scary, but I laughed aloud at some of the jokes. The best bit is one where Detective Faraday sits in bed and envisions three possible ways a man could be beaten to death by a deer's hoof.
Landis' entree is also one of the meatier ones, a detail that will not be lost on the gorehounds in the audience. It also fits more neatly into the one-hour format than any of the other episodes. I honestly find very little wrong with Deer Woman, which also benefits from some great dead-pan performances from Brian Benben as Detective Faraday and Sonja Bennett as morgue worker Dana. The dialogue, co-written by Landis and his son, is appropriately witty, and any fat has been trimmed. This one isn't a mind-blower, but it gets the job done.
Lucky McKee's Sick Girl
Introvert entomologist Ida Teeter (Angela Bettis) is awkward, and can't seem to find a lover that will tolerate her insect collection. One day Ida finds Misty (Erin Brown), and the two are a perfect fit. A loving relationship ensues. Around the same time, Ida receives a mysterious package containing an as yet undiscovered insect. The insect escapes and hides within Ida's pillow. During their first night of hot and heavy petting, the bug bites Misty, and she begins to transform emotionally and physically.
Lucky McKee is by far the youngest and least polished of the Masters. When he came to the project he only had one release under his belt, a very personal little thriller entitled May. May isn't so much a horror film as a romantic tragedy, about a tortured and lonely sole looking for love (on the extra features interview, McKee states Taxi Driver as a major influence). The finished film is fantastic, and was garnered studio interest in the young director.
McKee followed May up with The Woods, a sort of plot driven, 1960s version of Dario Argento's Suspiria. Even though the studio (MGM) insured that the film M. Night Shaymalan was making at the time ( The Village) wouldn't use the same title, they didn't ensure a release, and the film was lost during the Sony buy out. The film finally saw a recent DVD release, and garnered some surprisingly luke warm reviews from critics and fans. Personally I adoured the film, and recommend a clear mind viewing to any horror fan.
Sick Girl is very much a Lucky McKee film. From its themes to its actors, there's nothing studio imposed here. In his first two films the director explored sexual relationships between women. In May there is a vague bisexual relationship between Bettis and Anna Faris, and in The Woods there is an implication of love beyond platonic between some of the girls. In Sick Girl there's no more, um, beating around the bush, so to speak. Ida is a lesbian, and she's fallen in love with Misty (played by Erin Brown, who's better known as soft-core starlet Misty Mundae. I actually got to meet her at Flashback Weekend in Chicago recently, but hadn't actually seen any of her films at the time, so didn't really have anything to say to her). The relationship is not that of simple male audience titillation, but is just as endearing and affecting as the best filmed hetero relationships.
The problem with Sick Girl is that it isn't a horror film, it's a romantic comedy that takes an abrupt dark turn. It may actually be the best romantic comedy I've seen in years. Ida and Misty are both awkward individuals, and though I'm sure some viewers will find their personality ticks obnoxious, I smiled the whole way through their meeting, dating, and falling in love. Bettis is obviously the superior character actor here (actually, maybe the most underrated in Hollywood), but Brown exhibits some skill, and shows real promise as an actress. But the question remains, does the film disserve criticism because it isn't horror, even if it's still a well-crafted piece? I'm not sure.
The horror elements almost get in the way of the romance, and the film isn't quite long enough for the transition between the two genres to effectively blend. The insect stuff is strictly b-movie, and mostly played for laughs. The only horror comes out of the way Misty treats Ida when she begins to transform, and the way Ida's homophobic land lord treats the couple romance. This isn't the most successful film in the set, but it may be the most interesting. I hope that McKee's bad studio experience, and the so-so reception of both The Woods and Sick Girl won't tear him away from more full-length feature work. I think he's the most exciting genre director of his generation.
Joe Dante's Homecoming
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 dies it a feudal and ongoing war. Murch tells the woman that if he had one wish, he'd wish her son back to life so he could explain to him why he died. 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 want to vote.
Homecoming is undoubtedly my favourite of the entire series (I've seen all but two as of this writing), which is saying a lot considering the fact that director Joe Dante was always one of the least impressive on the list. Dante is the Tex Avery of the bunch, a childlike director with a love for cartoons and old fashioned comic book scares. The only film in his cannon that viewers may consider a straight horror film is The Howling. Though The Howling contains some of the only straight faced 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.
I said in my solo review of Larry Cohen's Masters of Horror entree, Pick Me Up, that I always felt that Dante and Cohen were the two wildcards in the deck. I knew they wouldn't make anything boring, but I also knew that their films could easily be the best or worst of the bunch. There was a brief description of each entree in Rue Morgue magazine when the series was announced, and based on it I immediately knew that Dante had picked the best script. Only a 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.
The film is great because it's so very partisan. Not once does Dante or his actors pretend to be spoofing anything else than the current presidential administration, and its supporters. Thea Gill's character may be called Jane Cleaver, but we all know the characters real name is Ann Coulter. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, but that's about it. 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-OK, because it gets 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 they stick to there guns (no ironic 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 Swartzenegger, just don't look too far beneath the surface).
In the spirit of the film, I have to admit that I get great pleasure out of watching my political opposites getting some hard-core comeuppance, and I'm not inclined to apologize. The problem is that I was having so much fun being angry the first time around that it took a second viewing for me to realize the fact 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 was good, but it could've been a classic had it found its way into theaters at a longer length. And like Sick Girl I have to also admit that 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'm very, very, very disappointed in IDT Entertainment and Anchor Bay. These films were originally made specifically for these DVD releases (the Showtime idea came later), and they've put very little effort into making them look even serviceable. The Region 1 counterparts have their problems with cross-colouration and general graininess, but they stand far taller than their UK release brethren.
The interesting thing is that the quality of these films varies from disc to disc. Some episodes (like Sick Girl, for instance) are only lacking in detail, while others (like Chocolate) have been mastered using NTSC to PAL conversion techniques. The NTSC to PAL episodes suffer from every complication in the digital video book. They're filled with grain, their colours bleed, there's no even gradation, and there's a lot of low-level noise. Worst of all is, of course, the frame rate issues. No matter how bad a transfer may be, I can usually overlook it, with the exception of frame rate issues. They drive me crazy.
Every episode is anamorphically enhanced though, so I can't complain the whole way 'round, but it's really the only good thing I can say. Again, even the better looking episodes are fuzzy, and lacking detail. This inherent fuzziness is less noticeable on a standard tube television (I watched some of the commentaries on a smaller TV in my bedroom), but the noise and grain are still hard to overlook. Very disappointing.
Some fans are excited by the R2 Masters of Horror releases because they have DTS audio, but this audio may've caused some of the video compression issues due to its size. Not to mention the fact that the track is entirely irrelevant as it sounds like a bassier version of the Dolby Digital tracks found on the R1 DVDs. I'm not going to pretend the episodes sound bad or anything, but they hardly seem worth the trouble.
Directional effects are, for the most part, minimal. Music tracks vary from disc to disc, as the music itself varies from film to film. Some episodes have a fuller score than others, and thus have fuller audio output. Most episodes have well centered and clear audio, but some (like Chocolate) act more like Pro Logic tracks than Dolby Digital or DTS ones. On these episodes dialogue seems to come out of all three front speakers at all times.
The extras on these discs are just as much a reason to own them as the films. Anchor Bay has gone out of their way to supply as many featurettes, interviews, and other extras as necessary. Each disc is basically identical when it comes to the kind of features, so instead of going disc by disc, I'm going to look at each kind of extra as a whole.
Every disc has at least one audio commentary, Cigarette Burns and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road have two. The only commentary tracks not including the directors are Homecoming, which only features writer Sam Hamm, and Deer Woman, which features actors. The best of the bunch, of course, goes to commentator extrodinare John Carpenter, who is always entertaining to listen to. Some of the directors are a bit on the dull side, but everyone's sure to mention how honored they were to be a part of the series. None of the tracks were all that impressive, but worth at least a single listen.
My personal favourites of the discs' extras are the Working with a Master, and director interview featurettes. These usually run between 15 and 25 minutes, and do a great job of running down the director's back story and film histories. They aren't ever entirely complete (except for McKee of course, who only has four films to his name), but are often more interesting to watch than the actual films. Working with a Master brings together colleagues and friends of the directors to talk about their careers. The focus on these featurettes tend to shift towards the Masters of Horror series, but there is enough of the old to keep fans knowledgeable.
Every disc features at least two, but sometimes three or four on set interviews with cast members. These often are little more than director brown-nosing sessions, but occasionally some real insight is found. An especially interesting person is Sick Girl's Angela Bettis, who's actually close friends with director McKee, and could offer up some genuine history behind the film and the character. I think these, and the director interviews could've easily been edited into the Working with a Master featurettes to create on, big, cohesive documentary (which Anchor Bay almost did for the R1 release of Takashi Miike's episode, Imprint).
The Behind the Scenes sections are fly-on-the-wall footage set to music (usually part of the particular film's score). Filmed as add-ons to the interviews during the featurettes (so that they weren't talking heads only), none of these are particularly entertaining, and show surprisingly little of each director's methods.
Some of the discs feature footage from Mick Garris' old public access TV show Fantasy Film Festival, where he interviewed genre favourites. They're actually good interviews, and the old fashioned, made-for-TV look is priceless. The interviews also have a decent run-time.
Every disc is finished off with a brief script to screen comparison, which are never all that interesting, director biographies, trailers, and some fun ROM content, including the original scripts and screensavers.
After the initial disappointment of a series of short films made by classic genre directors not being all that great wears off, one can appreciate the fact that not all these films are necessarily bad. I'm happy the show got a second season, and hope the producers have learned from some of these mistakes. The DVDs feature some truly awful video transfers, which vary from disc to disc, but the special features are great, especially the retrospective documentaries.
Here's an episode break-down if anyone was curious how I'd score them alone:
Dreams in the Witch-House: 4/10
Cigarette Burns: 5/10
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road: 6/10
Deer Woman: 6/10
Sick Girl: 6/10
Review by Gabriel Powers
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 23rd October 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Surround English
Extras: Commentaries, Featurettes, Behind The Scenes, Trailers, Interviews, Script to Screen, More
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Don Coscarelli, Mick Garris, John Landis, Lucky McKee, and Joe Dante
Cast: Henry Thomas, Ezra Godden, Norman Reedus, Angela Bettis, Bree Turner, Udo Kier, Jon Tenney
Length: 334 minutes
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