Saturday, October 29, 2011

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 8
Cigarette Burns
Director: John Carpenter
Notable Films: Halloween, The Thing, The Fog
Director Trademarks Present: Apocalyptic, A Medium that Drives People Crazy, Film-Noir Atmosphere, Paranoia, Nihilistic
Plot Summary: Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) is hired by the mysterious Bellinger (Udo Kier) to track a print of "La Fin Absolue Du Monde," a movie said to have been screened only once before driving its audience homicidal. Sweetman accepts the job knowing it can save his ailing theater, in debt to his former future father-in-law Walter (Gary Hetherington). Not helping matters is Kirby is a recovered heroin addict, having hooked his girlfriend (Zara Taylor) before her suicide. He begins a global journey, encountering a host of strange and dangerous people who all warn him away and discovering as he gets closer the film really does possess some kind of power.

French auteur Jean- Luc Godard famously said, "Film is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie." One a character in Cigarette Burns, an aspiring filmmaker who laments the artificiality of Hollywood, has a morbid take on this motto during the making of his snuff film, noting that in one uninterrupted take, the only cut was to his victim. Another character, inspired by "La Fin Absolue De Monde" to make his own movie, literally puts his guts into his work. the reels pulling out his intestines. Film is magic, the movie tells us, but in the right hands, a weapon.

Cigarette Burns is essentially a cinematic retake on Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness, an apocalyptic film about a book that drove people insane. Here, the emphasis is placed on Sweetman's detective work rather than on fantastical, reality-bending powers and creatures from another universe. The result, I think, is something more personal and focused than Mouth of Madness.

What are cigarette burns? Cigarette burns are the little circles that appear in the corner of a film frame to alert a projectionist it's time to change reels. Generally, they are placed at the end of a scene or right after a key emotional moment. Timpson (Christopher Gauthier), one of Kirby's employees, has a habit of removing the cigarette burns from old film prints because they alert the viewers something is about to happen. Without them, Timpson says, it's anarchy because you won't know anything's coming.

Carpenter's episode plays out like a film-noir. We get the dark shadows, the criminal underworld and other assorted weirdos, and an overall sense of nihilism. Our protagonist heads toward his doom as he learns more in a world gone bad. As Sweetman gets closer to La Fin Absolue De Monde, he begins having visions of circles that resemble cigarette burns. Whenever he sees one, something bad happens, and we the audience get a sinking feeling in our stomach.

The film works by accumulating tension and dread at each stop along Sweetman's investigation. Everyone he talks to reveals how they were marked by the film and gives him some new information. For example, a film critic (Chis Britton) who reviewed La Fin after it's only reported screening now lives in a secluded cabin and has spent 30 years writing a new review, saying he failed to warn the world. Later, Sweetman meets the widow (Gwynyth Walsh) of Hans Backovic, the enigmatic filmmaker responsible for the film, and she tells Sweetman how the director's own work destroyed him and almost claimed her. Everything about the episode is ominous.

It probably goes without saying that once La Fine Absolue Da Monde plays in all its glory by episode's end, it's something of a letdown. After all, this is a work we're told may have been produced by Satan and was intended to destroy its audience; could anything live up to that kind of hype? Carpenter does his best to tease and glimpse, but it's much more effective when he portrays how the characters respond to the film.

Acting-wise, Reedus is adequate as Sweetman. No one else is around long enough to make much of an impression except Kier who excels in the creepy foreigner role. He's mysterious, subtly threatening, and quite funny, particularly with how treats the "star" of La Fin Absolue De Monde, a willowy being he keeps chained in his mansion. Kier's reactions toward the film really sell its effect.

Cigarette Burns is a classic return to form for Carpenter. It's bloody, nihilistic, foreboding, and done with a certain degree of class and sophistication. Definitely the standout episode of the season.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Masters of Horror: Deer Woman

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 7
Deer Woman
Director: John Landis
Notable Films: An American Werewolf in London, Animal House, The Blues Brothers
Director Trademarks Present: Comedy-Horror, Modern Characters Confronting Historical Legends, Civilized vs. Nature, Seductive Supernatural Being, Tongue-in-Cheek, In-jokes
Plot Summary: Detective Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben) is a burned-out, cynical cop when he is dispatched with Officer Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith) to investigate reports of a mutilated body. Soon other corpses turn up, and they all share two similarities: they died in a state of arousal, according to coroner Dana (Sonja Bennett), and witnesses reported seeing them with a mysterious woman (Cinthia Moura). Eventually, Faraday and Reed stumble on the legend of the Deer Woman, an American Indian creature that takes the form of a beautiful woman, seduces men, and tramples them to death with her deer legs.

John Landis' horror credentials are more or less tied entirely to his 1981 picture An American Werewolf, an entertaining blend of scares and laughs featuring stellar creature effects by special effects makeup wizard Rick Baker. Other than that, his vampire film Innocent Blood (also known as A French Vampire in America) failed to replicate the same success as Werewolf while his other contributions are limited to his debut film Schlock, a low-budget monster piece with a man in a gorilla suit, and his involvement with The Twilight Zone movie, which is overshadowed by off-screen tragedies. The fact is when people think John Landis, they think John Belushi yelling "Toga!," Jake and Elwood Blues on a Mission from God, and Eddie Murphy in his prime.

Still, it would be wrong to say he's incapable of working in the horror genre. Horror and comedy operate on the same underlying principles: buildup and timing. You get the audience invested in what's happening and then spring the joke or shock on them, and their natural reaction is either a laugh or a scream. And both can contain their fair share of gross-out moments.

With all that said, it's safe to say Deer Woman is Landis on familiar territory: a silly monster movie played straight. Landis described Werewolf as movie in which modern character unexpectedly confront supernatural folklore and finding themselves completely unprepared for it. The same M.O. is Deer Woman, but instead of American college students facing a beast on the moors, you have a cynical detective investigating an American Indian myth.

The episode, co-written by Landis and his son Max Landis, plays out as a police procedural with Faraday, essentially the straight man of the story, accumulating evidence depicting something that cannot possible be the explanation. At one point, Faraday complains the case would be easier to consider objectively if it wasn't so stupid. Later, in the movie's comic highlight, he ponders three different scenarios of how the first victim might have been killed, each progressively more ridiculous.

The titular Deer Woman has no background or obvious vendetta for doing what she does. Why she feels the need to seduce and murder men is never explained, but is there any exposition that would suffice? As the manager of Indian Casino tells our heroes, "It's a woman with deer legs. Motive really isn't an issue here." If anything, she's just letting men be men. She never speaks and only smiles vacuously at them. Only when they're not looking does she allow a flash of malevolence show.

Benben is quite good. As the disgraced cop assigned to "weird cases," he's not the typical aggressive cop but more of a bitter wise ass. It's a different take on this police archetype. I particularly like his response to a mugger who says he doesn't look like a cop.

If you're looking for scares, check out other episodes of the series. I wouldn't rank it as one of my favorite episodes, but it is consistently funny and entertaining.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Masters of Horror: Homecoming

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 6
Homecoming
Director: Joe Dante
Notable Films: The Howling, Gremlins, PiranhaDirector Trademarks Present: Stars Robert Picardo, subversive streak, dark comedy, in-jokes, media and political satire
Plot Summary: While on a cable TV news program, David Murch (Jon Tenney), a political adviser and spin doctor for a U.S. president running for re-election in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war, tells the mother of a soldier killed in action that if he could have one wish, he would wish for her son to come back to tell everyone who important the cause he died for was. Before David knows its, dead soldiers are coming back to life all over the country and marching in the streets, but these zombies are not out to eat human flesh; they want to vote out the administration that sent them to die.

Most Masters of Horror used the freedom the show offered to push the envelope in terms of violence and gore. Joe Dante, however, used the opportunity to make a blunt, polemic political statement against the administration of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. There are many words appropriate to describe Homecoming, but subtle is not one of them.

War is hell, but the ugly truth of it - dead soldiers, maimed veterans, countless lives destroyed - is often shielded from public consumption. The movie makes a point of reminding viewers of the former military policy forbidding caskets of servicemen from being photographed. Covering up reality is a theme. The central characters cause a great deal of pain, but they either don't realize it, ignore it, or enjoy it. But truth will not be denied. The rotting visage of a slain soldier, front and center on national TV or ambling down Main Street USA, cannot be cast aside. It must be confronted.

Although the tone of Homecoming is mostly darkly comic and satirical, Dante works in a number of striking images, perhaps none more unsettling than the scene in which the dead first rise. A military hanger is filled with caskets over which American flags drape while a giant flag oversees everything. The shot is slanted; the morality of the world is out of balance. When the zombies rise, the flags fall by the wayside, revealing the lurking horror obscured by blind patriotism.

The satire stems both from how Dante sends up prominent conservatives and explores the concept of the political and media spin for something as outrageous as the dead coming back to life to vote. Bush is never mentioned by name, nor is any prominent conservative figure circa 2005. The president of the United States is not even a present character (although we hear him speak with a Texas drawl). Instead of Ann Coulter, we get Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), a "constitutional scholar" and dominatrix who resorts to name-calling on political talk shows and acknowledges what she peddles is bullshit. Karl Rove is Kurt Rand (Robert Picardo); he doesn't let a thing like zombies upset a re-election campaign. Jerry Falwell is Clayton Poole (J.W. Carroll), who calls the returning soldiers blessings by God until he learns they're against the war. Then, they're demons from the bowels of hell. These are not three-dimensional portrayals. These are nasty, cynical, hypocritical, power-hungry liars who use the media to spin the news and shape public opinion.

The story plays out like a Tales from the Crypt morality tale, with the wicked getting their just desserts in a dark sense of cosmic justice. David, the only prominent character with a conscious it seems, wishes for the dead to express how they feel about the cause. Rand, angered by the public sympathy the zombies generate, laments if only they could kill someone, the government would have an excuse to round them up. Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.

Homecoming generated a fair degree of attention when it premiered. It certainly was a risk for Dante to make an episode guaranteed to alienate and frustrate a sizable portion of the audience. Some criticized the episode for being an obvious political statement instead of trying to scare the audience as a genre film while others praised it as a bold enterprise. I think, as time goes on, as the obvious political connotations fade, it will be remembered favorably. As long as there have been politicians and media, they have exploited the country's fallen warriors. Now that is a lingering sense of horror.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Masters of Horror: Chocolate

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 5
Chocolate
Director: Mick Garris
Notable Films: The Stand, Sleepwalkers, Desperation
Director Trademarks Present: Stars Henry Thomas and Matt Frewer, Stephen King reference, loneliness, literary, psychics
Plot Summary: Jamie (Henry Thomas) is a lonely, recently-divorced young man who works for a company synthesizing artificial flavors. One night, he wakes up somehow tasting chocolate, even though it's been while since he's eaten any. Other strange sensations follow: hearing soft piano music and pouring wine at a loud rock concert, seeing things that aren't there while driving, and experiencing rough sex with a muscular Asian man. Eventually, it becomes clear Jamie is somehow in tune with the senses of a woman, Catherine (Lucie Laurier), feeling, hearing, seeing, and tasting what she does on occasion. Things turn bloody when Jamie feels her murder her lover. Jamie, in love in a way no one else ever has been, becomes determined to find and help her.

Reading engages the senses. When a writer does his or her job right, you can taste the food, envision the sites, smell the odors, and hear the sounds of everything described. Because reading involves imagination on the part of the reader, your mind fills in the blanks, and you can experience vicariously the world the author depicts.

And therein lies the challenge for a project such as Chocolate: how does a director depict the sensation of taste on film? A movie engages vision and hearing, for sure, but when the other senses are crucial to the story, it's imperative to get those across in a way that doesn't resort to having the character espouse them. Unfortunately, Chocolate doesn't succeed on this front. Instead feeling immersed in the situation, I felt disengaged, more curious than blown away.

Adapting his own short story, Garris also doesn't really mine the story's potential for dark psycho-sexual subtext. Think about it: Jamie discovers what it feels like to be vaginally penetrated. What else could he have felt if the story explored the idea more? Jamie is essentially the ultimate voyeur, privy not only to the object of his desire's home and life but her body. The material might have been more suited for a director such as Brian De Palma (Dressed To Kill, Carrie) to engage and really get somewhere profoundly shocking or disturbing rather than a murder by a scorned lover and a resolution involving fisticuffs and a gun. That feels so tame compared to where the narrative could have gone.

On the plus side, Henry Thomas makes for a sympathetic, honest lead, and his buddy Wally (Matt Frewer, i.e. the dad from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids not played by Rick Moranis) is fun as a middle-aged, part-time rocker. Although his psychic connection is never explained, Jamie suggests because his life is so empty and Catherine's life is so full, somehow he became receptive. Garris does a fine job depicting this dichotomy. Jamie's apartment is a blank, white, sterile place while Catherine's is lush, filled with paintings and drawings, and packed with comfortable, expensive furniture. The mise en scene has several nice touches like that.

Overall, this episode doesn't seem to fit the series. It's not particularly horrific or macabre. Rather, it plays out more like a tragic, supernatural romance but not really succeeding. A nice try but ultimately Chocolate comes off as too vanilla.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Masters of Horror: Jenifer

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 4
Jenifer
Director: Dario Argento
Notable Films: Suspiria, Inferno, Opera
Director Trademarks Present: Obsession, the beauty of horror, shocking gore,
Plot Summary: Cop Frank Spivey (Steven Weber, who wrote the teleplay) shoots a deranged homeless man before he can kill a girl (Carrie Ann Fleming). Before dying, the man utters one word: Jenifer, the name of the girl. Although her body is desirable, Jenifer has a horribly deformed face, can't speak, and it's uncertain if she understands anything. Frank becomes obsessed with her, bringing her into his home, much to the dismay of his family. Soon, Frank's whole life is unraveling as Jenifer uses her body to control Frank and satiate her hunger for flesh.

Jenifer the character's problems are her ugly mug causes the world to treat her with scorn and she ultimately destroys all the men in her life. Jenifer the film's problems are its utter predictability, inability to craft believable characters, and absence of director Dario Argento's bravura sense of style. During my first go-around of Masters of Horror, this was my least favorite episode of the series, and after watching it again, it still is.

The biggest detriment to Jenifer is that once the setup is complete, the resolution is more or less a foregone conclusion. Instead of building an inevitable sense of dread, the film plods to the inevitable. Rather than tightening the screws, Argento throws in freaky sex scenes and shocking images: a disemboweled cat, Jenifer's drooling mouth, and the mutilated bodies of her victims. With all the atrocities piled on, the episode is akin to a freak show; there's no emotional connection, and you're just watching gross things happen.

Frank's family and co-workers don't factor much at all; for him to lose all that, there needed to be a deep connection between, but they're just kind of there and then gone. For that matter, Frank himself is not much a character. We're never sure why he sacrifices everything for Jenifer. It's implied Jenifer has cast some sort of spell on Frank, but that's never really explored.

Aspects of Jenifer herself work better, but she too is inconsistent. She's curiously child-like, more like a wounded animal than a vicious monster. Argento, in the past, has orchestrated death scenes that while viciously graphic and bloody were quite beautiful. That dichotomy of revulsion and beauty is represented in Jenifer. Except for Frank, every other character treats her with scorn or disgust, perhaps suggesting people create monsters. But there are just too many unanswered questions about her: where does she come from, is she human, is she a misguided innocent with grotesque hungers or a manipulative succubus, and why does she eat flesh?

Compared to his past work, Argento's direction is rather pedestrian. His work often felt like filmed nightmares. Not much made sense, but the images were so other-worldly and bizarre, you were drawn in. Except for a scene where Frank drinks in a bar and walks outside with the camera angle is tilted off-balance, Jenifer lacks his usual stylistic sensibility.

Before Masters of Horror, I had never seen a film directed by Argento. Since then, I've seen a number of them, many of them quite good. Personally, I'll stick with those in place of Jenifer. There are a lot of shocking, disgusting, and delirious moments but not enough to carry the film.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2005)

Masters of Horror Season 1, Episode 3
Dance of the Dead
Director:
Tobe Hooper
Notable Films: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, Salem's Lot
Director Trademarks Present: Stars Robert Englund, end of the world, no dignity in death, horror from the family, seedy show business
Plot Summary: The world is devastated by a terrorist attack known as "Blizz." It flutters down like a black snow, but it eats away the skin. Ten years later, 16-year-old Peggy (Jessica Lowndes), having grown up sheltered under the strict watch of her mother Kate (Marilyn Norry), wants to see the world and is drawn to a group of immoral youths, attracted to their leader Jak (Jonathan Tucker). Jak and his buddy Boxx (Ryan McDonald) are blood runners for the M.C. (Robert Englund) of the Doom Room, a den of debauchery in which chemicals and blood are used to make corpses dance for the entertainment of the masses. At the Doom Room, Peggy learns a terrible truth.

Dance of the Dead is based on a short story by Richard Matheson (and the adaptation is written by his son Richard Christian Matheson). The titular act could refer to the "dancing" of the dead bodies. The corpses, comprised mostly of young women, jolt and spring across the stage in a post-apocalyptic, punk cabaret in a twisted parody of life to cheering adulation. When they're used up, the LUPs (Lifeless Undead Phenomenon) are discarded into dumpsters and torched. But they aren't the only ones merely acting alive either.

The world presented in Dance of the Dead is a poisoned one. Whatever Blizz did to the planet and humanity was enough to doom everyone. This is the end of the line, and everyone knows it. They've descended into nihilism and degeneracy, whether it's murder, rape, drugs, or necrophilia. Lording over the decadence is the M.C, and in a standout, maniacal performance by Englund, he indulges the excesses of America's youth.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre famously was filmed in a gritty, almost documentary style, but Hooper eschews that for a more hyper-kinetic, rapidly-kinetic format with overlapping images. The result is a film reflecting its own theme of chaos. Trippy is the word I'd use, particularly during scenes when characters are partaking in drugs. The result is mixed; sometimes it's effective, but other times, it's distracting, making it hard to see what's happening. As I've said in another review, Hooper is not a disciplined filmmaker (which can be a strength or weakness), but it would have helped to reign in this technique.

The other downside to the episode is that the main crux of the story - Peggy's innocence and her immersion into this hostile world, her overbearing mother, and her romance with Jak - is not very compelling. Much more interesting is the M.C. and how he runs his business. That aspect contains so many whacked-out, fucked-up ideas and visuals ( if you think the M.C. is depraved on-stage, you should see him in his dressing room) that it overshadows anything going on with the teens. Every time, the film focuses on the romance and the teen angst, you want to go back to the Doom Room. Everyone there looks like they're having a good time.

The film's structure also felt off. Instead of building to Peggy's revelation and her emergence in the Doom Room, the film keeps cutting away to show it out of context. There's foreshadowing, and there's spoiling the surprise. I think it would have been much more effective to hold off on showing the Doom Room until Peggy gets there, letting us see it with her eyes. That might have made it easier to identify with her.

Despite its shortcomings, Dance of the Dead shows Hooper in, if not exactly top, an energetic and inspired form. It's a mess, but Englund's performance and the nihilistic vision of the future make it a worthwhile entry.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Masters of Horror: Dreams in the Witch House

Masters of Horror Season 1, Episode 2
Dreams in the Witch House
Director:
Stuart Gordon
Notable Films: Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon
Director Trademarks Present: An H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, co-written by Dennis Paoli, warped sexuality, control of human will, disbelieving authority
Plot Summary: A graduate student at Miskatonic University, Walter Gillman (Ezra Godden) moves into a decrepit, 300-year building for the cheap rent and a quiet place to study string theory. He meets and befriends single mother Frances Elwood (Chelah Horsdal) and her infant son Danny, but soon, he starts having nightmares about a rat with a human face. Masurewicz (Campbell Lane), an old tenant with crucifixes covering his walls, warns Walter he is being targeted by a witch for an arcane ritual. Walter is skeptical until the witch puts her mark on him, and he discovers she wants him to sacrifice Danny.

In the DVD extras for Dreams in the Witch House, director Stuart Gordon said his wife, upon seeing the completed episode, threatened to divorce him. I'm not entirely convinced he was joking. This episode was the one I was least looking forward to reviewing. Not because it's because it's bad; it's quite good. The atmosphere is creepy, the performances are solid and sympathetic, and Gordon pushes into taboo territory. The thing is, it might be too effective. This episode, because the characters are so identifiable, is a downer. While not the goriest or most visceral of episodes, Dreams in the Witch House is one of the harder ones to watch.

Based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, the episode purports a 300-year-old witch known as Keziah Mason (Susanna Uchatius) has escaped detection by using inter-dimensional portals, allowing her to traverse different universes. The angles of these different plains of existence, as Walter discovers conveniently, intersect in his room, and when he sleeps, she controls him. Lovecraft famously did not believe in the supernatural, but he was a man of his science. His characters confront the terror of the unknown, exploring it to their death or insanity.

Lovecraft was also something of a misogynist. Women are not typically, if at all, portrayed favorably in his work, and Dreams in the Witch House could be said to be about the fear of women. Instead of a beautiful, loving, maternal figure, a witch is woman who preys on children and is hideously ugly. Just as a woman needs a man for procreation, the witch too needs a man, albeit, for the ritual of destroying a child.

In an improvement over the source material, the film creates the Francis character to be the polar opposite of the witch. In the novel, there was a character named Frank, but here, Francis embodies the ideal woman: she loves her baby and will do anything to protect him. The character is also more complex than one would expect. We can see an earlier mutual attraction between her and Walter, but that eventually gives way to fear and distrust. After all, to the outside perspective, Walter is growing hysterical and possibly dangerous.

Walter himself is a sympathetic character. You can tell he wants to be a protector, but fate conspires against him. In the story, the character had no emotional attachment to the targeted infant; here, it resonates more. He runs the gauntlet from skeptical to curious to frightened to panicked to determined, and finally to doomed.

The witch is effective. Her minion Brown Jenkin is pulled off using a real rat, an animatronic rodent, and an actor in closeup, but it's not particularly convincing in any of them. That aspect is a little silly. Gordon usually infuses his work with a streak of black humor, but that feels curiously absent. Scenes that might be funny in a different context - waking up in a library in your underwear - have more disquieting implications. For shear outrageousness, Gordon once again has his protagonist engage in a gross-out sex act with a monster, although instead of a decapitated zombie head or tentacle monster, it's a shriveled, old witch with four boobs. Ugh.

The ending is dark and disturbing, a Lovecraftian resolution reminding us that death comes for us all, we are at the mercy of forces we can't control or resist, and the society we try to protect cannot or will not face reality. All I can say is Dreams in the Witch House achieves what the series set out to do: push boundaries. I'm just not in a rush to watch it again anytime soon.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Masters of Horror: Incident On and Off A Mountain Road

Masters of Horror Season 1, Episode 1
Incident On and Off A Mountain Road
Director:
Don Coscarelli
Notable Films: Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Beastmaster
Director Trademarks Present: Starring Angus Scrimm, an adaptation of a story by Joe R. Landsdale, survivalism, violation of the dead, misleading reality
Plot Summary: Ellen (Bree Turner) is driving alone along a mountain road when she crashes into an abandoned vehicle, and soon after, she's attacked by Moonface (John DeSantis), a deformed and vicious killer. Moonface chases Ellen through the wilderness, but Ellen, as revealed through flashbacks, is not as helpless as she first seems. Her survivalist husband Bruce (Ethan Embry) has imparted on her different techniques and philosophies, giving her the tools she needs to battle Moonface. At Moonface's lair, she meets Buddy (Angus Scrimm) and learns if she fails, she'll end just like his other victims: crucified with her eyes carved out.

The series opener, Incident On and Off A Mountain Road at first glance appears to be a straightforward chase picture. From Ellen's crash to Moonface's cabin, it starts fast and stays there, only slowing down for the flashbacks. At it's most basic, the film is the final girl-mad slasher confrontation with Moonface in relentless pursuit while Ellen fights back desperately.

But, as Buddy says, the eyes can be deceiving. Eyes are a prominent visual motif, from the killer's M.O. to a great shot of Ellen's eye through the hole of a knife. We can't always be sure that what we see is true. Ellen at first seems completely helpless against Moonface, but she's not so defenseless. In flashbacks, Bruce at first appears charming if a little rough, but by the end of that arc, we learn just how deranged and paranoid he is. Buddy is first mistaken for corpse before springing to life, and we're never sure what his agenda is. A supposedly safe area of the woods is booby trapped, and by film's end, we learn one character is not so innocent, using Moonface's legacy to claim one last victim. Coscarelli has dealt with shifting realities before in Phantasm (what's real and what's a dream) and even in Bubba Ho-Tep (is that really Elvis or an impersonator). Here, the theme is more subtle.

But why does Moonface remove his victim's eyes? "The eyes see all the evil in the world," Buddy intones. The films parallel structure reinforces Bruce and Moonface as foils. Both are vicious survivalists, skilled with deadly weapons, and both live isolated in the woods. Both have elevated themselves as morally superior to the rest of the world. They look at the world and only see evil. Bruce is convinced society is doomed to collapse into chaos and destruction while Moonface, as Buddy explains, kills the "naughty" girls who offer to do "sexy stuff" for him, and he literally crucifies his victims. They even share a similar hairstyle.

While the parallelism between Bruce and Moonface makes for intriguing character study, the flashback structure tends to halt the momentum of the chase sequences. It's a little hard to buy Ellen would have enough time to fashion her makeshift traps with Moonface hot on her heels. More effective are the quicker actions, such as when she uses a desiccated baby skeleton as a club or extracts a bolt from her wounded shoulder to pick at a pair of handcuffs. I suppose it is also of questionable taste that a woman's abusive husband's teachings ultimately prove lifesaving for her.

Overall, I liked this episode. Moonface is one of the nastier villains in the series (I'd like to see him have his own feature film), and Scrimm is hilarious as the crazy old man. It also plays with the conventions, so you're never quite sure what to expect. There's more to it than meets the eye.

Masters of Horror

It started as a joke. A bunch of well-known horror movie directors gathered for an informal dinner in a California restaurant. Directors such as Joe Dante, Mick Garris, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, and others got together to reminisce and have a good time. Amidst all the story-swapping and drinks, they griped about being restricted by timid, commercial-minded studios and the censorship of the MPAA. At the next table, a woman was having a birthday dinner, and reportedly, Guillermo del Toro toasted her a drink and quipped, "The masters of horror wish you a happy birthday." The rest was history.

Mick Garris, most famous for his television adaptations of Stephen King's The Stand and The Shining, took both ideas and developed what became known as Masters of Horror. An anthology series for Showtime, Masters of Horror consisted of 13 one-hour episodes, each directed by one of the biggest names in the genre. The concept of the show was simple: each director would be free to tell whatever story he wanted, free of studio control or outside censorship, as long as it was filmed on budget and in a week. Season 1 debuted in October 2005. A second season, also consisting of 13 episodes, debuted a year later.

I was giddy when this was announced. I followed all the developments on all the websites, read and watched all the interviews, peaked at all the snapshots, and watched every trailer (one for each episode) as they emerged. At the time season 1 premiered, I was a senior in high school, and my family didn't get Showtime. The only episode I saw in its original run was Joe Dante's Homecoming, but other than that, I had to wait for the DVD release. Instead of releasing a box set containing all episodes, the films were released one or two at time and spread out over the course of a year. I remember the anticipation. On their release day, I would fly to the store to get them, watch them as soon as I got home, and devour all the bonus features. It was an exciting time to follow the genre.

The show ran for two seasons before Showtime pulled the plug. It was retooled for network television as Fear Itself. Confined by the limitations of television and commercial interruptions, many of the directors left. That series failed to stir the imagination as Masters of Horror did, and truthfully, judging from reviews, many fans had been disappointed by seasons 1 and 2. Many famous names - George Romero, Wes Craven, Roger Corman, etc. - did not participate while some directors' designation as masters - including relatively new directors such as Lucky McKee and Rob Schmidt - was questioned. Except for two contributions from Japanese directors Takashi Miike and Norio Tsuruta, all episodes were filmed in Vancouver, and many were constrained by low budgets. Bluntly, many viewers said they just weren't scared.

I've always thought that to be a tad unfair to the filmmakers. Masters of Horror appeals to a very select audience, one raised on the gory excesses of The Thing, the dark humor of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the warped reality of Suspiria. Frankly, this is a jaded audience. I'm not saying people don't have a right to feel disappointed or that some of the episodes weren't stinkers, but to write off the entire show, I feel, is a disservice to some pretty inventive and daring filmmaking. Each episode has its director's personal stamp on it, for good or bad. This is why I plan to review every episode of Masters of Horror.

Given the idiosyncrasies of each filmmaker and the anthology nature of the show, I've decided to review each episode as its own stand-alone feature film. Mick Garris has said in interviews, and I agree with him, that no two rankings of the series are identical. Some people prefer John Carpenter's episodes, others favor Dario Argento's contributions, and so forth. Personally, I liked many of the episodes, and there were some I didn't care for. When I finish all 26 episodes, perhaps I'll have my own ranking, but for now, I'm only going to analyze the episodes in a vacuum.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Freshman

Out of all potential cinematic-icon mash-ups, I certainly least expected to see Don Corleone meets Ferris Bueller. One of these characters is a cold-blooded sociopath, a shameless and corrupt manipulator who controls everyone around him, including friends and family, to achieve his aims, and the other character is a mob boss. But when a movie casts Matthew Broderick as an all-American student, just a few years removed from his most famous role, and Marlon Brando, after a lengthy absence from motion pictures, as a mafia kingpin, that's exactly what comes to mind and what we get in The Freshman (1990).

Clark Kellogg (Broderick) arrives in New York City to attend NYU film school but is soon ripped off by a small-time hood (Bruno Kirby). When he tracks the thief down, the guy offers Clark a job working for his uncle who turns out to be Carmine Sabatini (Brando), the powerful and feared local mob boss. Soon, Clark is illegally transporting komodo dragons, being sought after by Carmine's daughter Tina (Penelope Ann Miller), and being chased by the feds.

I refer to Brando's character as Carmine Sabatini, but he might as well be playing Don Corleone. From his makeup to his voice to his mannerisms to how he's lit, Brando is reprising his iconic role. This criminal dignity Brando brings contrasts nicely with the wackier stuff going on. For weird images, I don't think it's possible to top Brando in full godfather regalia walking a lizard on a leash into the sunset amidst rows of corn. Or how when making his proposition to Clark, he randomly grabs and crushes a handful of nuts.

On the other hand, Broderick is far away from Ferris Bueller territory. Instead of the cocky teen shyster who gets everything his way, he's a fairly white-bread guy dragged in deeper and deeper over his head. This is one of those characters where he's the only one not in on the scheme. Everyone around him is trying to play him in some way.

The way the two characters interact provides most of the humor. Carmine is so assured and quiet in his power and authority, he has never problem simply talking Clark into do things that are likely illegal. Clark is so in awe and petrified, he'll do anything Carmine says to get out of the mess he's in.

The filmmakers thankfully resist the urge to turn the film into a series of bits. From Clark's arrival in New York to the final encounter at the dinner in which patrons will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to dine on endangered animals (Maximilian Schell has a hilarious turn as the bizarre chef Larry London), this builds from the mundane to the outlandishly criminal. There's also some effective ambiguity throughout; does Carmine mean it when he calls Clark the son he never had or is setting him up for the fall?

The Freshman could have gone two ways, a thriller or a comedy, and the filmmakers went with comedy. Marlon Brando famously became something of a reclusive parody of himself late in life, but here, it's just nice to see him having fun.