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Because I am a dedicated follower of horror, I decided I needed to watch and review this much lauded series which – rather bravely – adopts the title Masters of Horror. I had heard great things about this compilation and it certainly has an impressive catalogue of names attached – but does it live up to the hype? And 7 years after release, does it still pack a punch? 

Episode 1: Incidents On and Off a Mountain Road

Masters of Horror: Don Coscarelli (director) and Joe R. Lansdale (based on his short story)

Synopsis: Lone female fighting for survival against a supernatural killer (moon face) on a deserted mountain road. This killer tortures, mutilates (he removes their eyes with a drill) and finally crucifies his victims.

Review: One of the weakest episodes of the entire series, it’s very disappointing that they chose this mess as the flagship for the series. Think of it as a cross between Jeepers Creepers and Wrong Turn, with an uncomfortable and lazy smattering of the increasingly clichéd and misguidedly misogynistic ‘female emancipation through violence’ theme. Dull, predictable, pointless.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Episode 2: Dreams in the Witch House

Master of Horror: H. P Lovecraft (short story, obviously) and Stuart Gordon (director and Lovecraft aficionado)

Synopsis: Based on the short story of the same name, this is a modern day version which keeps the basic plot in tact but removes all the Lovecraftian ‘astral projection’ aspects of the story. It also changes the characters a little – most notably introducing a love interest (which I thought tightened the story up and made it more personal – sorry Lovecraft purists). The story concerns a young student who rents a peculiar room in a run down boarding house. The mystical dimensions of the architecture warp space and time and allow frightening and malevolent forces into our world.

Review: Unintentionally funny and clearly lacking the budget to do the short story justice, Gordon eventually manages to salvage his adaptation by preserving the dark horror of the story’s final scenes.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Episode 3: Dance of the Dead

Masters of Horror: Tobe Hooper (director) Richard Matheson (short story – adapted for the screen by his son) and Robert Englund (actor)

Synopsis: A science-fiction horror, set in a post-apocalyptic future where a biological weapon named ‘blizz’ has been used against America during world war III. In the aftermath of these disasters, recreational drug use and exploitation of both the living and the dead has become a way of life.

Review: The one sticking point of this film is the totally boring and unsympathetic central character, Peggy. She is neither nasty enough to dislike nor engaging enough to support and we are forced to follow this vacuous airhead simply because she has a pretty – though moody – face. She’s basically a prototype for Bella. She falls in with a motorbike gang who steal blood from victims at gun point and sell it on to the Doom Room – the night club where the eponymous ‘dance of the dead’ takes place. This is a disturbingly nihilistic tale with a particularly unpleasant finale. Shame about the central female – but Matheson never could write women.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 4: Jenifer

Master of Horror: Dario Argento (director)

Synopsis: A cop develops an obsession for a disfigured woman he rescues from being killed by a homeless man. The eponymous Jenifer has a potent attraction and men are drawn to her – despite her hideous face. Jenifer however is unable to curb her carnivorous appetite and destroys all those who fall under her spell.

Review: Maybe you have to be a man to understand the appeal of this creepy tale – but I found Jenifer irritating rather sexy. She simpers and drools her way across the screen like a kicked puppy and savages anyone who crosses her like a rabid dog. The end is obvious and only reached after a laboriously unnecessary tale of inexplicable attraction.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Episode 5: Chocolate

Master of Horror: Mick Garris (director and writer)

Synopsis: A recently divorced scientist begins to have overpowering visions through the eyes of a mysterious and beautiful artists. After witnessing her murder an unfaithful lover during one of these telepathic episodes, he sets out to locate his obsession.

Review: Pushing the limits of the term ‘master of horror’ to include series producer Mick Garris’ offering – comes this total snooze fest. This episode is DULL. I can’t believe they stretched it to an hour. Nothing is explained, nothing is remotely frightening, I didn’t care about any of the characters – and very little happens.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 6: Home Coming

Master of Horror: Joe Dante (director)

Synopsis: A political speech writer for the Bush administration is confronted by the grieving mother of a late war hero on a live TV show. When she asks why her son had to die for a lie he informs her that he wishes he could bring her son back from the dead, so that the boy could tell everyone how proud he was to die for his country. Sure enough, the war dead start rising from their graves.

Review: Proudly leading the charge against the subtle use of allegory in horror and launching the holy hand grenade of irony at its audience, this episode certainly knows what it’s about. Quite how they hammered this much action and irony into 60 minutes is beyond me. It is all rather silly – but it’s meant to be a proud piece of anit-war, pro-soldier propaganda. It’s heart is in the right place, but it lacks any class or dignity for such a serious subject.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Episode 7: Deer Woman

Master of Horror: John Landis (writer)

Synopsis: A detective relegated to investigating ‘animal attacks’ (after the break-down of his marriage leaves him depressed and unmotivated) is called in to investigate the mysterious death of a trucker who appears to have been trampled to death. As more corpses begin to arrive at the morgue and the detective struggles to piece together the inexplicable clues, it seems an elusive Native American woman could be the key to unravelling the mystery.

Review: It’s a John Landis production so its heart is well and truly in the right place – and it’s a quality production. This was the episode that really stole my affection and is my personal favourite. Genuinely hysterically funny, with fantastic characters and great acting – this is a real gem.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Episode 8: Cigarette Burns

Master of Horror: John Carpenter (director)

Synopsis: A rare films dealer is enlisted by a wealthy horrorphile to track down the last remaining copy of La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World) a film supposedly so horrific that it sparked a homicidal rampage at its premier and was subsequently destroyed. Almost everyone who worked on the film is now dead and even those who simply saw it, or merely came in contact with it, have either lost their sanity or been traumatised in some way.

Review: Deliciously tense and disturbingly grandiose – this film oozes Carpenter’s trade mark subversive malevolence and nihilism. I have a love hate relationship with Carpenter but this one hits the spot. The ending, unsurprisingly, is something of a disappointment  – but when dealing with such lofty themes as a horrific movie commissioned by the devil himself, it was always going to have a little too much to live up to. This however is the one episode that will really lurk in the recesses of your imagination.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Episode 9: The Fair-Haired Child

Master of Horror: William Malone (director)

Synopsis: A shy young teen is kidnapped after school by a creepy couple and locked in their labyrinthine basement. There she rescues a young man who is attempting to hang himself. Young love blossoms amidst the horror of the basement – but the fair-haired boy is not all that he seems.

Review: This classy little episode plays out like a dark fairytale with a fair amount of tension, originality and  dark humour. The teenage central characters are sympathetic and well acted, while the older couple are creepy  – if a little cartoonish. This offering is well paced, intelligent and quirky. It fits comfortably into the 60 minute slot and uses its budget well to produce something fresh yet alarmingly familiar from child hood nightmares and grisly bed-time tales. The ending is satisfyingly disquieting.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 10: Sick Girl

Master of Horror: Lucky McKee (director)

Synopsis: A female scientist – with a particular passion for bugs – meets the young woman of her dreams. Unfortunately she also receives a peculiar specimen in the post, whose bite causes mutations…

Review: A bizarre tale, to say the least. Angela Bettis is endearingly quirky and believably eccentric as the lesbian entymologist, Ida Teeter. The rest of the cast range from forgettable to irritating (with the exception of the Lady Bug). The first half of this tale is by far the more satisfying, with the second half feeling long-winded and confused with a smattering of darkly comic moments. A Kafkaesque tale but with more lesbians, pixies and gags.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Episode 11: Pick Me Up 

Master of Horror: Larry Cohen (director) David Schow (writer)

Synopsis: When a coach breaks down in the arse-end of nowhere, two serial killers go head-to-head to pick off the hapless travellers.

Review: Totally forgettable, not as funny as it thinks, lazy scream-rip off. At times genuinely sadistic, this shitty piece of exploitation mixes humour and horror in a way that is unashamedly nasty. Lacking enough originality to make it memorable, or talent to make it meaningfully offensive, this is a low point for the series. I had to fight to focus my attention on this piece of trash and came close to skipping this episode entirely. The acting is horrible. The characters are horrible. The whole thing is pointless, seemingly suggesting that just about everyone who lives in the backwoods is a psycho-killer.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5

Episode 12: Haeckel’s Tale

Master of Horror: Clive Barker (writer)

Synopsis: Umm…zombie erotica?

Review: I really don’t think there’s enough of a story to merit a ‘review’ here. The first period piece to be offered by this series has a very flimsy plot involving investigations into the veracity of a self-proclaimed necromancer and a family who don’t let a small thing like death interfere with their love lives. Ultimately this story is little more than a gross-out tale of necrophilia and killer zombie babies. Clive Barker has made perverse horror tales his stock-in-trade but from such a talented writer I had expected far better things than this low brow offering.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 13: Imprint

Master of Horror: Takashi Miike (director)

Synopsis: An American travelling through Victorian-era Japan in search of his lost love Komomo arrives at an isolated whore house on an island. Here he learns from the disfigured girl that Komomo is dead – and over the course of the night she provides three different stories recounting her own life and the death of Kimomo.

Review: As the episode loudly proclaimed as too extreme for (American) TV, this episode steals much of the attention this series receives. The way this episode plays with perspective and truth leads to inevitable comparisons with Rashomon – but these similarities are purely superficial. This episode is shallow, exploitative and ultimately meaningless. Why was it banned in America? Some would claim because of the horrific torture scenes – but they are no worse than you can see in other episodes (notably Pick Me Up and Incidents). The real reason is that this episode graphically depicts abortion and aborted foetuses – and nothing could upset an American audience more. Is there a deeper meaning to this work? Perhaps a modicum, tacitly alluding to themes of abuse, accountability and misogyny – but ultimately it descends into silliness and fudges the ending in an attempt to appear insightful, but really only highlights its own inadequacies and lack of depth.

Rating: 2 out of 5

A mixed bag in terms of both quality and content, this series certainly provides a sand pit for many recognisable (and some not-so-recognisable) names from the world of horror. More than half the episodes are bad, a couple are middling and 4 are excellent – there’s no 5 star episode, but Cigarette Burns and Deer Woman come closest. It’s unlikely that a non-horror fan would seek this out but most horror fans will find at least one episode satisfying and a handful entertaining. This also provides a good introduction to directors and writers whose work the viewer hasn’t sampled in feature film.  

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