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.

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