After a successful first season, Masters of Horror returns with a second (and unfortunately, last) round of tales by some of horror's most revered directors. The first season gave fans some truly awesome entries, and Anchor Bay responded in turn with the first season's crop of DVDs. So what does the second season, and its DVD set, hold for fans this time?
When news first broke about Mick Garris and his idea of having a TV series of one-hour films helmed by well-known horror directors, I was stoked. Horror as a genre was (and still is) looked down upon by many critics, and many directors hadn't been given the proper recognition they deserved. It was about time someone stepped up to the plate to remedy the situation. While not without its faults, the first season made for great TV. Without the politics and bullsh*t to tie down the directors, boundaries were pushed and fans were entertained, just as good art should do.
Where did this leave the second season? Well, for starters, there's no sign of Don Coscarelli, John McNaughton, Larry Cohen, Lucky McKee, William Malone or Takashi Miike. There was little (if no) controversy, and some of the new directors were questionable in their selection as 'masters'. Let's break it down:
THE DAMNED THING, directed by Tobe Hooper Based on a short story written by Ambrose Bierce, the story concerns Kevin, who twenty four years before witnessed his father brutally murder his mother. The monster that possessed his father has returned to claim the now-adult Kevin (Sean Patrick Flannery), who is now sheriff of Cloverdale. Everyone in town, including his wife and daughter, are now in danger as the monster will not stop until it gets what it has come for.
Tobe Hooper picks up where he left off from the first season, and comes out with a bloody and well directed episode. While the CGI is a disappointing in certain spots, the performances by everyone, including Ted Raimi as a preacher(?!), and the suspense more than make up for it. 4 out of 4
FAMILY, directed by John Landis A young couple (Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar) move to a small town after leaving the hustle and bustle of life in Los Angeles. Celia is a journalist and works from home, while David is a doctor in the local hospital ER. One night, on the way home after a night of drinking, they drive their SUV into the mailbox of the man who lives across the road, Harold (George Wendt of Cheers fame). They wake up the next morning to find that he's already repaired it, and soon the seemingly kindly man has been invited over for dinner as the couples' way of making amends for their carelessness. Unfortunately, Harold has a penchant for kidnapping people and melting them down to skeletons and inducting them into his 'family'. After his current wife pisses him off for the last time, Harold sets his sights on Celia for his new wife, whether she likes it or not.
Continuing with the black comedy of the first season's DEER WOMAN, Landis provides another enjoyable episode, if only to see Norm as the psycho next door. Despite the great performances and camera work, the episode isn't exactly what you'd call 'deep'. As long as you go into it thinking 'shlockfest', you'll be okay. 3 out of 4
THE V WORD, directed by Earnest Dickerson Two video game junkies named Kerry (Arjay Smith) and Justin (Branden Nadon) have a thing for violent games. Deciding to take their nerdiness to the next level, the two break into a funeral home to look at the corpse of a recently deceased classmate. Unfortunately, the two cross paths with Mr. Chaney (Michael Ironside), who just so happens to be a vampire in need of a snack. Now creatures of the night, the two boys are forced to accept their fate and their need to feed on the blood of others.
One of the few questionable selections, Dickerson is better known for directing episodes of Heroes than horror (he was a second unit for George Romero's DAY OF THE DEAD, and he did direct TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT). This was one of the first bumps in the road for me, as the episode slows down in the second half due to the low suspense and doesn't quite carry on like the first half. Michael Ironside does his usual bad guy thing and I love him for it. A miss, overall. 2 out of 4
SOUNDS LIKE, directed by Brad Anderson Larry Pearce (Chris Bauer) is a software company call monitor with a very acute sense of hearing. Very acute. So acute that Larry ends up focusing on background noise that folks normally wouldn't pay attention to. So acute that these background noises become deafening, causing Larry some serious discomfort. Despite going to see a therapist to deal with some underlying issues (namely the death of his son and his wife's constant talk of pregnancy), the sounds become louder and louder, to the point where Larry has to silence everything (and everyone) around him.
Whoa. Proving once again that horror doesn't always have to involve gore galore, Anderson takes the unique concept of a person being driven insane by seemingly innocuous sounds and runs with it. The best part is that Anderson makes heavy use of sound to disturb, rather than visuals. Couple that with superb acting by Bauer and Laura Margolis (who plays Larry's wife), and you have a truly horrifying experience. 4 out of 4
PRO-LIFE, directed by John Carpenter Alex (Mark Feuerstein) and Kim (Emmanuelle Vaugier) are on their way to a woman's health clinic where they both work, when they almost run over a woman named Angelique (Caitlin Wachs). The couple take Angelique to the clinic to get her checked out, where they find out she's pregnant. Angelique won't discuss the specifics, other than it happened last Saturday (which is impossible since Angelique is already showing) and that she wants an abortion. Problem is, her father is Dwayne Burcell (Ron Perlman), a militant anti-abortionist and Angelique's father. Dwayne isn't too happy about the situation, so he rounds up his three gun-toting sons and proceeds to break into the clinic to get his daughter. To make matters even more interesting, the father of Angelique's 'baby' shows up as well.
Taking bits and pieces of films like ROSEMARY'S BABY and his own adaptation of THE THING (you'll see), Carpenter has given us a mixed bag of an episode. While Ron Perlman does a good job of playing his character, everyone else is hit or miss. Add to that the fact that the episode's script, despite an interesting concept of who is really the evil in this situation, tends to be jumbled. While the main question by itself isn't a bad one, throwing in more unanswered questions (like why introduce Alex and Kim as a couple if it serves no purpose) and a 'huh?' ending, and the result leaves you with the feeling that the script is lacking polish. Overall, not a terrible episode, but compared to Carpenter's first season entry, CIGARETTE BURNS, PRO-LIFE is the weaker. 2 out of 4
PELTS, directed by Dario Argento Jake Feldman (Meat Loaf) is a furrier hoping to make it big but is surrounded by imperfection at work, and is infatuated with a woman at a gentleman's club named Shanna (Ellen Ewusie), who is repulsed by his advances. One night, Feldman gets a call from a drunk raccoon trapper named Jeb Jameson (John Saxon), who says he's come across the most beautiful raccoon pelts anyone has ever seen, and offers them to Jake at a price he can't refuse. Problem is, Jameson doesn't tell Jake that these raccoons were caught on land where he shouldn't have been hunting in the first place. After swiping the pelts from Jameson's home (which was witness to the brutal deaths of Jameson and his son beforehand), Jake decides to make the best coat ever out of these flawless pelts, with hopes Shanna will jump his bones for it. Unfortunately, the pelts have a habit of making life difficult for whoever comes in contact with them.
Dario Argento struts his stuff once again in probably the goriest episode of the season. Despite a kind of hokey concept and an equally questionable story, Argento counters with good pacing and some effects sequences that really make the episode stand out. This isn't a thinker here, folks, just a statement on the results of selfishness and greed by Jake and Shanna. Both Meat Loaf and Ellen do well playing despicable characters, but everything takes a backseat to the gore, which is unfortunate because Argento has shown in the past that he can do story as well. 3 out of 4
THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION, directed by Joe Dante Alan (Jason Priestly) and Barney (Elliott Gould) are a pair of biologists who have just returned from an assignment in South America, where they had to deal with a massive plague of bugs. Soon, their mutual friend, Bella (Linda Darlow) is assigned to a case in Florida to investigate a rash of brutal killings. When Bella arrives in Florida she is shocked by the details - hundreds of women have been brutally slaughtered by their husbands, male friends and relatives. Once the investigation begins, it becomes apparent that a religious cult known as The Sons Of Adam is involved. Alan and Barney, however, feel that a figure lurking behind the scenes is responsible, using male Floridians as guinea pigs in his mad experiment.
Certainly a departure from HOMECOMING, Dante doesn't put as much politics into this entry as in his first season entry, but still pushes it with the idea of women being victimized. While gory, the episode veers towards the science fiction realm with the notions of a man-made experiment. Also, the story feels like it has been crammed into the hour-long running time, but it still comes across as being effective, especially with the chemistry of Priestly and Gould. 3 out of 4
VALERIE ON THE STAIRS, directed by Mick Garris Rob Hanisey (Tyron Leitso) is a struggling writer who moves into a house for unpublished authors called the Highberger House. Over the years there have been a handful of mysterious disappearances and deaths within the house. Shortly after his arrival, Rob encounters a woman named Valerie (Clare Grant), who no one else appears to see, and that a sinister figure (Tony Todd) seems to have control over her. Rob soon discovers that three of the authors living in the building are writing a book titled “Valerie on the Stairs", and that the characters in the book have come alive.
Based on a story by Clive Barker, Mick Garris should've had a slam dunk with this one. Instead, despite great performances from Leitso, Todd (could this guy get any more creepier?) and Doc Brown himself, the episode plods along with an ending that doesn't really warrant the slow pacing. Some good jump scares, combined with good makeup effects and acting aren't enough to really give this episode the impact it needs. 2 out of 4
RIGHT TO DIE, directed by Rob Schmidt Abby (Julia Anderson and her lovely rack) and Cliff (Martin Donovan), a not-so-happily married couple are talking one night as they drive through the countryside, when Cliff goes and crashes the car, ejecting Abby (wear your seatbelts, kids!). The resulting fire from the accident burns Abby severely, putting her in limbo in the local hospital, hovering near death. Cliff is somewhat in favor of pulling the plug as he knows Abby is suffering and doesn't want to prolong what the doctors tell him will be the inevitable. Every time Abby slips, however, she pays her husband a visit in ghost form, reminding Cliff about the not-so-husbandly things he did in the past, leaving Cliff with more than a moral dilemma.
Despite the misnomer of calling Rob Schmidt a 'Master of Horror', he's certainly on his way with efforts like this. Taking into account the whole Terry Schiavo affair and turning it into a ghost story with more than a few twists makes for a great episode. The makeup effects are downright goopy and disturbing (reminded me of HELLRAISER more than once, and props to Xantha Radley who plays burned Abby), the acting is spot on (no one in the film is as sympathetic as they may seem) and the script leaves you with some rather moral questions that aren't exactly easy to answer. Plus, Julia Anderson and Robin Sydney show more than their fair share of skin.4 out of 4
WE ALL SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM, directed by Tom Holland Buster (played by William Forsythe) is an ice cream man in a clown costume who was killed in a freak accident when a kid's prank went horribly wrong years ago. One night, he returns from the grave in full clown make up to get revenge against the kids who let him die. Instead of going after the kids (now adults) directly, Buster chooses to use the children of the kids. He tracks down these children (many of whom act like they're in a trance, standing around the streets at night) and gives them ice cream cones which, when they're eaten, cause their fathers to melt into piles of goop. Layne (Lee Tergesen), one of the kids who has now grown up, decides to try and stop Buster, before he's next.
KILLER KLOWNS, this ain't. Despite the fact that the look of the film is spot on and the fact that Forsythe is great as a demonic clown, the premise is a little more than silly. I mean, come on, an ice cream truck driver coming back from the dead for revenge? A B-movie idea that unfortunately doesn't get past that with the use of clichés and repetitive events, the Chiodo Brothers did so much better with their film. You'll watch it once for the effects, but other than that, not much more. 2 out of 4
THE BLACK CAT, directed by Stuart Gordon Edgar Allen Poe (Jeffry Combs) struggles to find the inspiration he needs for his next tale of the macabre after his wife Virginia (Elyse Levesque) and her case of tuberculosis take a turn for the worse, leaving Poe struggling to find money for treatment. As Poe sets out to write something commercial enough to earn a paycheck, he starts to have difficulties with Pluto, Virginia's black cat. At first Pluto is just a pain in the ass, but soon enough the goldfish is gone from the bowl, and the bird is found lying bloody on the floor. Poe's anger at the cat turns to rage, sending the writer into a insane frenzy, where the borders of reality and Poe's own mind are blurred.
By far the best episode of the season, Stuart Gordon once again shows his love of Poe by crafting a superb tale with wonderful acting by Combs (who looks unbelievably like Poe) and a story that you can't help but love to be disturbed by. Mixing in various elements of some of Poe's own stories into Poe's real life is nothing short of genius gothic horror. This is helped all the more by Combs' brilliant portrayal of a tormented Poe that can't helped but be sympathized with, displaying a wide array of emotions at the right times. Truly, an underrated actor. If there was one episode from this season you had to see, this is it. 4 out of 4
THE WASHINGTONIANS, directed by Peter Medak Mike Franks (co-writer Johnathon Schaech), his wife Pam (Venus Torzo), and their daughter Amy (Julia Tortolano) move into an old Virginia home that Mike's late grandma willed to him. After they meet with the kindly old man in charge of the estate, Sam (Myron Natwick), they get to sorting out the belongings in the old house, starting with a strange painting of George Washington. Mike finds a note hidden in the frame of the painting that talks about eating children and making utensils out of their bones, apparently signed by Washington himself. Mike tells a few of the townsfolk about his discovery and while Pam has her doubts, Mike is pretty much settled on the notion that Washington was a totmuncher. As Mike sets about trying to spread the word about Washington, he learns that many of the people who live around him are 'Washingtonians', meaning that they will uphold the first President's legacy by whatever means necessary, including the preservation of some of his more unsavory traditions.
Another strange choice of 'master', Medak's one claim to fame has always been THE CHANGELING. Sure, there have been episodes of Tales From The Crypt and Twilight Zone, and his helming of SPECIES II, but can those compare with his first film? Probably not, and neither can THE WASHINGTONIANS. It's done in an over-the-top way that turns goofy and isn't scary. True, the idea of doing a horror film about the idea that the entire United States was founded for all the wrong reasons by all the wrong people is interesting, but Medak hams it up with little to no atmosphere, clichéd characters abound, and scares that aren't scary. Watch it out of curiosity. 1.5 out of 4
DREAM CRUISE, directed by Norio Tsuruta Jack (Daniel Gillies) is an American lawyer working in Japan. When Jack was younger, his brother and he were on a boat and when that boat capsized, Jack's attempts to save his brother from drowning were less than successful. As such, Jack (now an adult) is petrified of boats and of the water. Still dealing with his brother's death years later, Jack winds up having a torrid affair with the wife of one of his biggest clients. Her husband, Eiji Saito (Ryo Ishibashi) invites Jack along on a cruise with he and his wife, and Jack is a little unnerved by this. Does his client know that Jack is sleeping with his wife? Will Jack be able to cope with being on a boat? There's something fishy going on (no pun intended), and Jack soon figures out the truth by learning the hard way that the past always comes back to haunt you.
Clocking in at 86 minutes, this entry by Tsuruta (known for his J-horror efforts like RING 0 and KAKASHI) is the longest of the season, and uses this length in a so-so manner, as character development is sprinkled about, making for a plodding narrative. Once things get going, however, it fares much better. Despite the now-common use of current Japanese-horror ghost stories with the ghost being long-haired and moving in a jerky style, the film is surprisingly gory and fairly intense. Acting wise, Gillies does an okay job but the Japanese cast suffers due to their lines being spoken in English (it's not their fault, really). If they did their lines in Japanese, it probably would've made for a better performance, but even then, the episode wouldn't have won over new fans to the J-horror genre, since that's who is being catered to here. 3 out of 4
Overall, this last season wasn't as strong as the first, but there are still some great entries from upcoming and established directors for fans of horror, so it's a no-brainer to recommend a second helping.
Video: Every entry in the series is presented in an anamorphic 1.78.1 widescreen transfer, and each episode looks great, depending on the style the director was going for. While there are spots in some entries that show compression and aliasing, overall the picture is clean, sharp and just plain looks great.
Audio: Like the video, each episode has the same track options: a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound or a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Obviously, the surround track is the one that each episode should be seen with, as it brings so much more to the episode you're watching (especially SOUNDS LIKE, obviously), making good use of directional sounds and an aggressive mix.
For extras, almost each episode follows the same format: audio commentary, a making-of featurette, an effects featurette, the director's bio, a photo gallery, the episode's script in DVD-ROM format and trailers for the show. The quality of the extras vary for each episode, but for the most part they entertain and inform greatly. Unfortunately, there's no bonus disk like from the first season boxset, which had a group of the directors together discussing various things about the show, about the horror genre, and so on.
Like the first season boxset, we do get a nice special packaging, this time in the form of a limited edition human skull, housing eleven DVDs inside. Yes, we have two flipper discs here, with FAMILY and THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION getting one, and PRO-LIFE and PELTS getting the other. While it's a minor annoyance for some, the real annoyance is the packaging itself.
The discs are slotted into grooves, but only on one side. There's also no foam to stop the disks from moving around inside the case, leaving them open to scratching and scuffing, which unfortunately is almost a surefire thing when you buy the set. Why Anchor Bay went this route instead of the more-secure faux mausoleum look from the first season is beyond me. Just cross your fingers and hope that the discs aren't in too bad of shape when you buy.
Anchor Bay continues from where they left off from the first season and delivers another solid season set that should please fans of the series (and make for a great conversation piece). Despite the fact that there aren't as many great entries this time around, the show ends on a strong note, showcasing some of the best horror the masters of the genre have to offer.