Pro-Life (2006)

Starring Caitlin Wachs, Ron Perlman, Mark Feuerstein, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Bill Dow, Chad Krowchuk, Graeme McComb, Benjamin Rogers

Directed by John Carpenter

Expectations: Moderate. Carpenter’s other Masters of Horror episode was pretty fun.

If Cigarette Burns was a good Carpenter attempt at episodic TV, then Pro-Life is an excellent one. It’s quite possible you won’t agree with me, but I found this to be easily one of the most enjoyable and exciting episodes of Masters of Horror yet. If you feel very strongly one way or the other on abortion this episode might bother you, but in the name of good horror fun, I say divorce yourself from the issue and allow the episode to run its course. The entire film revolves around a pregnant teen and an abortion clinic though, so it’s fairly hard not to think about it during the movie!

As the film opens it seems like it might be a simple horror take on the abortion issue, and in a way it is, but as the movie progresses it continues to grow darker and more other-worldly. For me personally, this was exactly the right move to take with this one and my enjoyment just grew and grew as the film went on. The ending is something of a WTF moment, but it works, and I can’t complain too much after being as entertained as I was throughout the film.

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Cigarette Burns (2005)

Starring Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Gary Hetherington, Chris Britton, Zara Taylor, Chris Gauthier, Douglas Arthurs, Colin Foo, Gwynyth Walsh, Christopher Redman, Julius Chapple

Directed by John Carpenter

Expectations: Moderate. I’ll admit it, I am excited to see this. John Carpenter and me go way back.

John Carpenter is a special director to me. During my film snob period, John Carpenter was one of the few genre filmmakers able to cut through my bullshit. His confidence and grasp on storytelling was powerful enough to impress despite the issues a teenage film snob might have. Films like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China. Christ, the man knows how to get the job done and make it fun as hell. So going into this episode of Masters of Horror, I hoped that Carpenter would coming out firing on all cylinders.

Cigarette Burns is a film about films, one of the hardest types of films to pull off successfully. This is because as a self-aware film, it brings itself into our world and out of the realm of fantasy. Our touchstones are their touchstones. Carpenter is quick to establish that this is still fantasy though, when he reveals a pale-skinned, inhuman freak chained to a wall in the house of a billionaire. The rich man wants our hero (Norman Reedus) to hunt down a print of a rare film only ever shown once. When screened for the festival audience, the people went into a murderous frenzy, creating a cinematic myth for the ages. The man chained to the wall isn’t as key as you might think, but the early revelation about him changes the experience of watching Cigarette Burns and, at least for me, separates the film from our world. A parallel universe, perhaps.

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Chocolate (2005)

Starring Henry Thomas, Matt Frewer, Stacy Grant, Jake D. Smith, Michael Curtola, Katharine Horsman, Paul Wu, Leah Graham, Lucie Laurier

Directed by Mick Garris

Expectations: Low. I’m not expecting anything from this series unless it’s a director I highly respect and I haven’t seen enough of Mick Garris’s films to really respect him.

Respectable and well made, Chocolate is a great entry into the Masters of Horror series. Director Mick Garris proves that he’s worth checking out, showing a great sense of suspense and careful plotting. Of his other films, I’ve only seen Sleepwalkers: a fun, if forgettable, early 90s horror romp. Garris loves Stephen King and has directed numerous adaptations of his work so I was surprised he didn’t go down the King path here as well. Chocolate is based on Garris’s original short story, adapted by Garris himself, making for one of the best written and filmed episodes of the series yet.

Starring Henry Thomas (Elliott from E.T.) as an artificial flavor chemist, the film follows him as he begins to have strange sensory losses. It all starts with the taste of bittersweet chocolate in his mouth as he wakes from sleep. As with any mysterious story, the unraveling is the fun, so I’ll leave the synopsis at this. The story does progress is ways you wouldn’t expect, culminating in a fitting finale. My only beef is that the ending itself is somewhat weak, garnering a “That’s it?” and a shrug. It’s not a big concern, as what happens after the fade to black is obvious, but it is a bit jarring. I respect Garris for not completely hand-holding the audience though, and allowing their intelligence to fill in the final blanks.

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Jenifer (2005)

Starring Steven Weber, Carrie Anne Fleming, Brenda James, Harris Allan, Beau Starr, Laurie Brunetti

Directed by Dario Argento

Expectations: Low. I’m still interested in Argento, but he’s done me wrong more often than not.

Jenifer is an interesting Masters of Horror episode, and certainly a good one when compared to the usual quality of these, but what really holds it back is its ridiculously predictable storyline. Literally within the first few minutes I had already guessed (correctly) how the story would end. This makes the task of watching Jenifer a bit of a pointless endeavor, but at least it’s respectably well made, something I can’t say for every episode of the series. For obvious reasons, I’ll refrain from relating any of the plot, as knowing anything would spoil the whole thing.

Jenifer is arguably the best looking Masters of Horror episode yet, featuring none of the visual jank and cheap CG art that has cropped up in varying degrees in every previous episode. The cinematography is nice and the shots are mostly interesting. I also didn’t get the claustrophobic feel that most of the other episodes gave me. The only computer imagery I noticed was a fly bothering two men while eating in the opening moments. Everything else was realized in the real world by KNB FX in stunning, graphic detail. This episode probably has the most graphic gore I’ve seen in the series so far, with severed torsos, entrails and chopped up bodies showing up often. It all looks incredibly convincing and horrific, but because I didn’t care much for the characters, it wasn’t particularly effective in scaring or creeping me out. At the end of the day, gore is great, but I want some story to go with it. That being said, I welcome a fun gorefest with only a modicum of story. Key word being fun.

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Mini-Review: Dance of the Dead (2005)

Starring Jonathan Tucker, Jessica Lowndes, Ryan McDonald, Marilyn Norry, Lucie Guest, Robert Englund, Emily Anne Graham, Genevieve Buechner, Margot Berner, Sharon Heath

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Expectations: Low. This one just looks shitty.

So far Showtime’s Masters of Horror is following an “every other” pattern, where every other movie/episode is shit. I’m only three shows in though, so perhaps it isn’t fair to call it a pattern. In any case, I had all kinds of red flags before I even began watching this one. I haven’t seen a lot of Tobe Hooper’s films, and what I have seen has all been drawn from his early work: Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, Salem’s Lot. If this episode is any indication, he’s lost that youthful spark he once had, constructing one of the most unenjoyable films I’ve seen in a while. It reminds me a lot of modern horror where the filmmakers do whatever they can to push the envelope, but do so without any motive other than to push the envelope. There’s edgy and interesting, and then there’s quasi-edgy and awful. I’ll give you one guess where I feel this one lies.

This is the kind of shit self-important teenagers looking to rebel from their Christian parents will enjoy, because it throws an endless assault of profanity, titties, and leather at you, without any rhyme or reason. The film is deliberately trying for the style over substance method, but it forgets early on that for this to work, the style must be flawless and intoxicating. Again, maybe if I was a rebellious teen. Adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson, Dance of the Dead further convinces me that either Matheson isn’t the genre visionary everyone makes him out to be or I just need to stop watching shitty adaptations of his stories and read some of the original source material. I should hope that his story was a little more coherent and meaningful than this piece of shit, because there’s very little here to care about. There is something of a good twist ending, but it’s not even enough to make me say “too little too late.”

This is by far the ugliest of the Masters of Horror episodes as well, only bettered by the horrid editing. Hooper continually uses a flickering effect to create the illusion of an interesting occurrence, coupled with shaky camera and quick editing. It is the ultimate sensory assault, and one that belittles the audience at every turn. I hated this one a lot more than Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, which doesn’t seem so bad when compared to this. If nothing else, I’m fairly certain that the series as a whole can only go up from here… at least, I sure hope so.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House (2005)

H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House (2005)

Starring Ezra Godden, Jay Brazeau, Campbell Lane, Chelah Horsdal, David Racz, Nicholas Racz, Yevgen Voronin, Susanna Uchatius

Directed by Stuart Gordon

Expectations: Moderate. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every Stuart Gordon movie I’ve seen, but I’m worried this will disappoint like the previous Masters of Horror episode.

Another week, another episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror. After last week’s frustrating entry, I questioned if watching the rest of the series was worth it. My love of Stuart Gordon won out though, as the second episode was directed by the man who brought the world Re-Animator, From Beyond and Robot Jox. And who better to bring H.P. Lovecraft to the small silver screen than his most faithful adapter, Stuart Gordon? After watching the film: no one, that’s who. Dreams in the Witch-House proves once again that Stuart Gordon is one of the premiere horror directors (and one of the most underrated).

The story concerns a college student named Walter who takes a room in a run-down house so that he has a quiet place to study and write his thesis on string theory. The evil look of the house and the shady manager should have clued Walter into something fishy, but alas he’s a horror movie protagonist so of course he moves in unheeded. When strange things start to happen and the rat with the man’s face tells Walter that “She’s coming for you!”, he’s in too deep and nothing can rip him away from the interdimensional shenanigans that threaten his building.

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Mini-Review: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (2005)

Starring Bree Turner, Angus Scrimm, John DeSantis, Ethan Embry, Heather Feeney

Directed by Don Coscarelli

Expectations: Moderate. I’ve wanted to check out these Masters of Horror movies for a while.

So technically this isn’t a movie, being an episode from an original Showtime series, but this series is something special so it deserves discussion. In theory, this series should be everything I’ve ever asked for in modern horror. Gather together a shitload of awesome horror directors that have fallen off the general Hollywood wagon and turn ’em loose without any rules or studio bullshit in their way. Let them make whatever films they want, just as long as they’re fifty minutes in length. Where do I sign? This episode was the one that kicked off the series, and as I’m a ruthless stickler for chronology, I had to start here despite greater interest in other episodes.

Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (what a mouthful) is directed by notable filmmaker Don Coscarelli who did all the Phantasm movies, The Beastmaster and don’t forget Bubba Ho-Tep. He’s never particularly excited me as a director, but I do enjoy a few of his movies. Incident On and Off a Mountain Road isn’t helping his credibility with me at all though, as one of its worst aspects was its poor direction. Nearly every shot is a facial close-up to the point of being claustrophobic. When it’s not a close-up, it’s some shaky handheld “running through the woods” shot that is definitely evocative of the main character’s current situation, but is fucking awful to watch. I should give Coscarelli some credit though, as the version I watched on Netflix Instant is Full Frame 1.33:1 and it looks like the filmed ratio was 1.78:1. This would have helped somewhat with the claustrophobia, but it still doesn’t solve the ridiculous amount of close-ups and shaky cam.

As for the story, it’s fairly interesting, but also predictable and boring. What I mean is that after finishing, I enjoyed the overall story, but watching it play out was painful. The film is told out of order, which always helps a boring story, but I’ve seen more girls being chased through woods by madmen with superhuman strength than I care to count, and this one isn’t anything special. It isn’t without its good moments though, but a few quality KNB FX only go so far. I’d love to say this was great, but I just didn’t enjoy it. At only fifty minutes, it should have flown by in a tornado of scares and gore, but instead it languishes in tired, overused clichés and survival school flashbacks. Oh well, I won’t give up hope for the series just yet.

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