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
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.

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