Sunday, October 16, 2011

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.

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