The Goddess Revisits Season One of “Masters of Horror”

We’re now in 2015, believe it or not, and jokes about when we can expect to be receiving our hoverboards aside, hopefully it will be a better one than the last. I realize I’ve been neglecting this blog a little, but as with most of you, I was busy over the holidays with just general holiday stuff as well as some of the more personal issues I briefly mentioned in a previous post, and I just never got around to updating this thing as often as I should have. But I’m resolving to do better, and to that end, I’ve decided to do something slightly different with my Favorite Horror Scenes series by discussing the 2005 television show created by Mick Garris, “Masters of Horror” (all episodes of which are available on Hulu for free, if you somehow missed them). This year marks the tenth anniversary of the show’s debut, so it seemed an opportune time for another run-through.

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I distinctly remember there being a lot of buzz about this series in the horror community when it was first announced. I mean, these were going to be hour-long, uncensored, hardcore horror films based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale! Directed by legends like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento! AND IT WAS ALL GONNA BE ON TV, YOU GUYS. Pay TV, sure, but TV nonetheless. There had really never been anything quite like it on television before, and I for one eagerly settled in to watch the moment it was available online.

At the time I enjoyed most of them quite a bit, though I found that ten years later very few of them had made a lasting impression. I had forgotten even some of the better episodes, so it was instructive to watch them all again, and gratifying that many of them were far better than I had remembered.

Just a pale wingless angel taking his eyeless Japanese man out for walkies, no biggie.

Just a pale wingless angel taking his eyeless Japanese man out for walkies, no biggie.

THE GOOD:

Case in point: Episode eight, the John Carpenter-directed “Cigarette Burns.” I hadn’t remembered anything about this episode at all, but on the rewatch it instantly moved into my top three of season one. A great deal of my enthusiasm may be due to the presence of Norman Reedus, who of course in subsequent years went on to megastardom for his role on “The Walking Dead,” but everything in this episode hit the right notes for me this time around. Udo Kier was his wonderful scene-chewing self as a reclusive squintillionaire who hires a man to procure the single remaining print of a mysterious film called La Fin Absolue du Monde, the first and only screening of which ended in madness and murder. There is genuine suspense, an eerie, menacing tone permeating the whole enterprise, and gore galore, including a memorable moment in which Udo Kier’s character threads his own intestines through the projector after his long-awaited viewing of the cursed film. Top notch.

Also very good and worth a mention: The Stuart Gordon-directed “Dreams in the Witch-House,” which very effectively captured the spooky, otherworldly feel of the Lovecraft tale it was based upon. There was also John Landis’s “Deer Woman,” which I remembered disliking the first time around but appreciated much more this time. It’s far more black comedy than straight horror, with a rather absurdist premise based on a Native American legend, but there was plenty of blood, and Brian Benben’s snark-spitting protagonist was hilarious. Lastly, and surprisingly, was Dario Argento’s “Jenifer,” which starred Steven Weber (who also wrote the teleplay, based on a Bruce Jones story). I’ve always been a big Argento fan, but I think we can all agree that his more recent output has been somewhat less than stellar. This episode, though, is quite decent, even though it honestly could have been directed by anyone. It dragged a bit in parts, but the story—about a man being slowly bewitched by a deformed succubus—was suitably disquieting, and the gore was nicely excessive.

The tragic consequence of epic beer goggles.

The tragic consequence of epic beer goggles.

THE BAD:

Episodes I could have done without included, sadly, Mick Garris’s contribution to his own groundbreaking series. “Chocolate” had a flimsy story, lame execution, and just an overall feel of why-bother-ness. Boo. The only other episode I found unforgivable was Joe Dante’s “Homecoming.” Zombies as political satire can be done well, but this came across as so heavy-handed as to be utterly ridiculous, even though I happen to agree with the film’s political stance. Added to that is the fact that the subject matter, current at the time, now comes across as terribly dated and not very relatable. Thea Gill’s ballbusting Ann-Coulter-alike was amusing (and her fate at the end satisfying), but otherwise, damn, tone it down some. You can actually make a point without smashing us upside the head with a wrecking ball, y’know.

He returned from the dead to vote, but the miracle of his resurrection was nothing in the face of Diebold.

He returned from the dead to vote, but the miracle of his resurrection was nothing in the face of Diebold.

THE OKAY:

I enjoyed most of the others, though they didn’t stand out as much as they probably could have. The David J. Schow-written, Larry Cohen-directed “Pick Me Up” was pretty good, with a decent premise (competing serial killers), some genuinely tense scenes, and the always-welcome presence of Fairuza Balk. “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” directed by Don Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale, was also very watchable and included a fantastic turn by Angus “Tall Man” Scrimm. Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” was creepy-crawly fun, with a pleasingly awkward performance by Angela Bettis as a lovelorn lesbian entomologist. The Clive Barker adaptation “Haeckel’s Tale,” directed by John McNaughton, was good, but could have been better given the source material. Same with “Dance of the Dead,” which, given the status of all those involved—story by Richard Matheson, teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, direction by Tobe Hooper, the appearance of Robert Englund as a depraved club owner— should have been incredible, but instead was just serviceable and somewhat disjointed. “The Fair-Haired Child,” finally, was entertaining but ultimately not all that memorable.

You would tell me if I had something on my forehead, right?

You would tell me if I had something on my forehead, right?

THE AMAZING:

You didn’t actually think I was going to leave this one off, did you? Slated to air as the last episode of season one, Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” was already notorious well before its air date, because Showtime (who carried the series) refused to broadcast it, due to its highly disturbing subject matter and intensely graphic violence. It was released to DVD in the latter part of 2006, and is now available on Hulu as part of the regular series. It’s easy to see why Showtime balked (even though they should have known what to expect from Miike, frankly), but it’s also sort of a shame, because this is the best episode of the series by a mile.

Komomo realized, upon reflection, that bobbing for knitting needles was perhaps not the best idea she'd ever had.

Komomo realized, upon reflection, that bobbing for knitting needles was perhaps not the best idea she’d ever had.

Pretty much the entirety of the story takes place inside a Japanese brothel, where an American journalist (played by Billy Drago) has traveled in search of the great love of his life, a prostitute named Komomo who he had promised to rescue and take back to America. Instead, he finds another prostitute with a disfigured face who tells him the increasingly convoluted tale of what happened to the doomed Komomo. The flashback scenes of Komomo’s torture (for supposedly stealing the madam’s jade ring) are horrific, and even a seasoned horror hound like myself could barely get through them, wincing and turning my head away more than once (and yes, you may call me a weenie all you like, but aaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhhh). Additionally, the deformed girl’s recounting of her own wretched childhood, particularly the scenes of her mother dumping aborted fetuses out of a bucket into a stream, were intensely uncomfortable for me, since I had been through my own abortion only a few weeks prior and was still feeling a little strange about it. At the end of the episode, I felt as though I had been run over by a bus, in a good way, if that makes any sense. The best horror should, after all, shake you out of your complacency, and touch you in places where you’d rather not be touched. “Imprint” succeeded on that score in motherfucking spades. A genius piece of filmmaking, but one I probably won’t watch again for another ten years or so, if ever.

Hopefully you enjoyed this rundown! I’m on the third episode of my season two revisit, so keep watching this space for another fun summary to come. Until then, happy 2015, and Goddess out.

 

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Hypnosis Can Go Catastrophically Wrong, You Dig?

All right, I lied. I’m actually going to post one more of these before I start my vacation, only because I’ve really wanted to give this movie some love for a very long time and all my feelings about it came flooding back as I rewatched parts of it on the inter tubes this afternoon. I realize that I took a bit of a turn toward the obvious in my last post about A Nightmare On Elm Street, but I’d now like to make amends for that transgression by going back and giving a hearty shout-out to what I feel is one of the most underrated horror films of the past twenty years.

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Stir of Echoes (1999), directed by David Koepp and starring Kevin Bacon, is based loosely on Richard Matheson’s terrific short novel. Its plot is pretty standard horror movie fare—a creepy psychic kid, hypnosis, disturbing visions of a violent crime—but its execution is deft and chilling, and it still pains me to this day that the film tends to fly a bit under the radar when the best scary movies are discussed, even in fairly well-informed company. I’ve talked to many horror fans who have never even heard of it, and this is a great shame.

Stir of Echoes’s disappearing act from the public consciousness has very little to do with the quality of the film (which is very, very good), and almost everything to do with timing. You see, Stir of Echoes had the misfortune of coming out at pretty much the exact same time as that supernatural juggernaut, The Sixth Sense (in fact, I seem to recall seeing both films in the theater within a couple days of each other). Since movie audiences can evidently only handle one ghostly spookfest per release cycle, Stir of Echoes was left in the dust while The Sixth Sense went on to become a monster hit, the second highest-grossing film of 1999, to be precise (The Phantom Menace was number one, in case you wondered).

Again, this annoys me probably more than it should. It isn’t that The Sixth Sense isn’t a good film; it’s actually pretty decent, and frankly the only one of M. Night Shyamalan’s films that I really enjoyed (and before you ask, no, I didn’t really think Signs or Unbreakable were that great, and all his other films were objectively terrible). But I have to say that I think a large part of its success can be attributed more to that breathtaking “twist” and the word-of-mouth it subsequently generated than any inherent excellence of the film as a whole. And now that everyone and their mother knows what the twist is, the film loses much of its impact upon rewatch.

No such burden dogs Stir of Echoes. While it’s certainly a much more intimate, low-key film than The Sixth Sense, it is also darker and much, much creepier than its more-successful rival. As a matter of fact, I saw a late-night showing of Stir of Echoes with my friend Jen, who often took me along to scary movies because she loves them but is usually unbearably terrified by them at the same time. I was there as the “tough” girl, the horror aficionado who was rarely fazed by anything and could talk her out of her fear if necessary. And yet, ironically, even I absolutely did NOT want to walk across the darkened parking lot after the movie let out after midnight. Not after seeing that.

In brief, the film tells the story of a working class joe from Chicago with a pregnant wife and a psychic son. Said working class joe (whose name is actually Tom) gets hypnotized by his sister-in-law as a party trick, and thereafter begins to see disturbing visions of a neighborhood girl who had gone missing some time earlier.

There are actually two scenes I’d like to discuss, as they sort of bookend each other. In the first one, new-agey sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) is hypnotizing skeptical Tom (Kevin Bacon) and establishing the methods she uses to get her subjects to visualize. “Close your eyes,” she tells him. “Certainly, Lisa,” he says, a little condescendingly. Then we’re thrown right into Tom’s perspective: We see Lisa through his eyes, and the screen goes black from top and bottom, as if we are closing our own eyes. Then we are staring at a black screen and listening to Lisa’s voice, exactly as if we were listening to her hypnotizing us. It’s a simple, but pleasantly eerie effect.

“I want you to pretend you’re in a theater,” Lisa says, and a traditional “live-action” theater stage appears in our field of vision, with patrons sitting in the seats in front of us. “A movie theater,” Lisa specifies. A movie screen descends from the ceiling with a strangely portentous sound (the sound in this whole sequence, I should point out, is very Lynchian in its effectiveness and contributes a great deal to the otherworldly, disquieting feel of the scene overall). “There’s no one there,” says Lisa, and the people in front of us fade away, leaving rows of empty seats. “It’s one of those great old movie palaces,” says Lisa, and sure enough, the plain movie screen transforms into one of those red-curtained beauties, the empty seats before us glowing mahogany in the darkness.

Upon Lisa’s instructions to look around, the camera pans swiftly back with another creepy sound so that we can take in the whole of the gorgeous space. Then things get a little more sinister: “You notice that the walls of the theater are painted in black.” Darkness descends and covers the walls as she speaks. “The seats, covered in black,” Lisa says, and the blood-red seats fall under a shadow. Now that the entire theater is black, Lisa prompts us to focus on the only thing we can see, the white movie screen. It pops out at us with another unnerving sound. Lisa begins to describe letters on the screen that are out of focus, and a word duly begins to appear on the screen, though it is still too blurry for us to read. Lisa tells us to drift closer to the screen, and the camera pans forward, a little unsteadily. As we move closer to the screen with its blurry lettering, Lisa is going on and on about how comfortable and relaxed we are, lulling us into complacency with her soothing voice. Finally, when the white screen encompasses our entire field of vision, the word suddenly comes into focus. “The letters spell ‘sleep,’” Lisa says, and there is the word ‘sleep’ in a typewriter font across the white screen. It fades out as Lisa intones again, “Sleep.” There is a brief moment of blackness. Then, a sudden, startling vision: The front of a house, with vague shadowy figures moving on the porch in a way that suggests violence. Then follows a blue-cast closeup of what appears to be a face in a black mask, and then comes the briefest flash of a distressed girl with her hands clamped on either side of her head.

We are abruptly thrown out of the vision and back to our own perspective with an extreme closeup of Tom’s closed eyes. He snaps out of his trance, sweaty and disoriented. “What the hell was that?” he asks, and then there is a burst of raucous laughter. Another shot from Tom’s point of view reveals that everyone at the party who had been watching Lisa hypnotize Tom is standing there laughing their asses off at his confusion. It’s a fantastically affecting sequence.

The second scene is structured similarly to the first, but takes it to a darker place. Lisa is hypnotizing Tom again, though they’re in the house alone this time, and both are visibly tense because of all the strange phenomena that Tom has been experiencing in the interim. He is impatient with her, as he simply wants to get to the bottom of his visions while she is trying to establish the relaxing state of mind she coaxed out of him during the earlier session. The camera lingers on her face as she again tells Tom to visualize the black theater with the white screen. Then we are seeing things from his point of view again, the white screen before us as in the earlier scene. We drift closer to the screen. There is another shot of Lisa and she tells him that, again, there are letters on the screen. Both we and Tom see blurry letters appear, and even though they are too out of focus to read, it is clearly a different, shorter word than before. Tom gasps. “There’s someone here,” he says, his eyes still closed. “No, the theater’s empty,” says Lisa. “There’s someone else in here,” Tom insists, and in his hypnotic state we see the back of a woman’s head. She is sitting in the front row of the theater as we get closer to the screen. “There’s no one in the theater, Tom,” Lisa argues, perhaps sensing that this session is getting out of her control. She tries to get him to relax by using her standard spiel, but Tom is fighting her, getting closer and closer to the woman in the theater. Finally, amid protestations from Lisa, Tom puts his hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I want you to look at the screen. Look at the screen!” Lisa begs. The woman in the theater turns her face partially toward Tom, and it looks perfectly normal, but then there is a closeup shot of Tom. Suddenly a hand darts out and grabs his face, and we see that the hand is attached to the figure of someone who appears to be wrapped in plastic. The figure makes a weird, distorted roar that almost sounds like a word, though it happens too quickly to make out what the word is. Then we are back in front of the house from the first vision, and there are several quick edits of hands, of Tom’s panicking face, of a figure in plastic, of a screaming girl with missing front teeth being brutalized. There’s a brief shot where it appears that Tom has become either the victim or the perpetrator in his vision.

While all this chicanery is going on, Lisa is frantically trying to salvage the session. “Tom! Tom!” she’s yelling. “LOOK AT THE SCREEN!” Tom finally does as she says and whips his head around to look. And the white screen suddenly looms large in our vision, accompanied by the girl’s screams, and on that screen is a single, chilling word: “DIG.”

That. Freaks. Me. The. Fuck. Out.

It has a similar effect on Tom, I gotta say, who immediately after being confronted with the word, rockets straight out of his trance, out of his chair, and into the kitchen, where he stands in front of the open fridge and just downs an entire can of beer while Lisa harangues him.

We feel your pain, Kevin Bacon. You earned your beer.