I wasn’t particularly impressed by the first season of Masters of Horror, I have to say. I watched it all, sure, but there was only one truly great episode (Lucky McKee’s Sick Girl), a couple of quite good ones (John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, Tobe Hooper’s Dance of the Dead), and lots and lots of pointless dross (er, pretty much everything else). The series’ definition of the word “Master” didn’t really bear much scrutiny, either: although some of the directors are legitimately legendary, having crafted some of the best horror movies of all time, others … were just sort of mediocre. And still others just hadn’t really made enough movies to deserve the “Master” label – much as I love Lucky McKee’s episode, and indeed May, making (at the time) one horror movie doesn’t really make one a “Master”, surely?
The only reason I’m telling you all this, I suppose, is so you’ll appreciate just how daft I am – even with a track record as uninspiring as that, I was still eagerly awaiting the next season of Masters of Horror. But happily for me, for once, my unrelenting optimism and stupidity paid off, because the second season is a lot better than the first.
Not that there still aren’t some complete stinkers. Let’s do the episode breakdown:
Dario Argento’s Pelts
John Carpenter’s Pro-LifeAs the title suggests, this is a pretty issue-led story. Ron Perlman plays a religious nut bent on shutting down an abortion clinic, mostly by parking outside and shouting, but when his daughter gets mysteriously and speedily pregnant, she runs to the clinic for help. And then all Hell, quite literally, breaks loose. Like Pelts, this got sort of silly towards the end, but it didn’t really stray into ridiculousness; the TV budget shows, but it doesn’t destroy the episode. One of the death scenes had me lacing my fingers over my eyes and whimpering until it was gone. And actually a little while past. Not nice, at all. But then this is a horror show, so that’s actually a point in its favour.
John Landis’s FamilyJohn Landis’s Deer Woman was one of the worst episodes of the first season, so I really wasn’t looking forward to this, in spite of the fact that John Landis directed my favourite movie of all time, American Werewolf in London. But Family was brilliant! George Wendt stars as a lonely man who is quite literally building himself a family – killing people he takes a fancy to, melting their flesh, and then rebuilding and dressing their skeletons to play a part in his bizarre little play-life. When a young couple moves in across the street, he takes a liking to the wife, and though his current skeleton-wife warns him off, he moves in on his prey… only to discover they weren’t quite what they seemed.
Honestly, I clicked what was going on (well, almost; there was one facet I didn’t guess) really early on, but the story is really well constructed, occasionally funny, incredibly creepy, and generally really really good. Yay!
Rob Schmidt’s Right To DiePing! That noise was the sound of the term “Master” finally snapping. Stretched to breaking point by the inclusion of the man whose only well-known film is Wrong Turn. Which sucks. Seriously, does the roll call make any sense to you? Argento, Carpenter, Landis… Schmidt? One of these things is not like the rest; one of these things does not belong. Although Right To Die was better than Pelts, so there’s that.
Actually, it started off surprisingly well. A man and a woman whose marriage is obviously troubled are in a car crash; while he’s thrown free, she’s trapped inside the vehicle as it goes up in flames. A hospital manages to just about keep her alive for a couple of days, but the husband is in favour of switching off her life support. A media circus soon springs up around the case – and he soon changes his mind when the vengeful ghost of his wife starts visiting him every time she flatlines. Now, he desperately wants her to stay alive, at all costs. But time is running out – she needs a skin transplant, and soon. There’s a really obvious ending to this episode that would wrap it up into a perfectly neat, ironic package. Schmidt misses it and instead goes for a completely nonsensical, unsatisfying ending; the main protagonist suddenly starts doing odd things, a flashback fills in details that could have been given at the start of the episode without affecting anything else adversely, and the ending just Doesn’t. Make. Sense. Bah.
Joe Dante’s The Screwfly Solution
The episode suffers because the main female protagonist is so utterly lacking in intelligence or sympathetic qualities, so it’s hard to root for her when you can see she’s constantly putting herself in danger’s way through her own arrogance. Throughout the episode, she seems constantly on the verge of realising something crucially important, only to be distracted by something shiny. So that’s a pity. But otherwise, this is brilliant.
Stuart Gordon’s The Black CatThere have been way too many adaptations of this story. Argento’s version (as part of the Two Evil Eyes anthology) was brilliant, and this just doesn’t measure up. I’m not sure it’d measure up to anything, really; this just sucks. It’s about how Edgar Allan Poe wrote the titular story – whilst plagued by alcoholism, writer’s block, poverty, and a consumptive wife and her naughty cat. The episode is completely incoherent, merging Poe’s hallucinations with reality to the point it’s impossible to know what’s going on. Jeffrey Combs seems to be channelling Sean Penn, while his wife looks unmistakeably like a product of the 20th century. Gordon’s previous Masters of Horror episode, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House, was also a failure, which is weird and disappointing since Gordon’s adaptations of Re-Animator and The Beyond were awesome. Maybe he’s just picking bad stories to adapt – Dreams in the Witch House is pretty unfilmable, and The Black Cat is just old hat now.
Mick Garris’s Valerie on the StairsMick Garris created the concept of the Masters of Horror series, for which he should receive some credit, but I can’t help feeling like that’s the only reason he’s allowed to play with the big boys. His adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was dreadful, if faithful, and his previous episode, Chocolate, was an exercise in futility; a fantastic idea that cried out for a good writer to make a decent go of it and was cruelly denied. Valerie on the Stairs, similarly, misses its mark. It’s set in a bizarre charity house for unpublished writers; they get free room and board and space to write, until such time as they get published, then they’re out on their ear. New boy Rob Hanisey has only been in his room five minutes when he starts seeing ghosts – but are they ghosts, or just phantoms conjured by the frustrated imaginations of not-very-good writers?
Rob is played by Tyron Leitso, which means nothing to anyone except me, because Tyron Leitso was in House of the Dead. He looks about a million times prettier in this than he did in that – and this is relevant, I promise! – which makes him seem kind of miscast, because his character is meant to be a troubled alcoholic, but he just looks like, well, an underwear model. Um, he also misdelivers some lines, and part of the blame for that has to go to Mick Garris for failing to direct properly. The other person worth mentioning in this is Tony Todd, aka the Candyman, who plays (what else?) the big scary demon of the piece. Which is kind of awesome, but he’s barely in it. I’d actually managed to wipe the ending from my brain, so when I started writing this review I’d forgotten how hilariously dreadful the ending was. Oh dear. Oh, it was bad. So bad. It hurts. Ow. Make it stop.
In conclusion, then – the first half of the second season of Masters of Horror seems, overall, to be better than the first season was. There are at least three great episodes here, with Right To Die counting as another half a great episode, while Pelts, The Black Cat, and Valerie on the Stairs are all virtually unwatchable rubbish. If they issue DVDs with just two episodes on them, like they did with the first season, Pro-Life, Family, and The Screwfly Solution are definitely worth picking up. The others… well, the best that can be said for them is that at least they’re only about 55 minutes long, so you won’t have to waste too much time on them.