Horror series on television are nothing new. Beginning with shows like The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and Night Gallery (plus the subsequent remakes), and coming up to the present with shows like Carnival, Night Stalker and Medium, we lovers of horror can pick and choose from scary subject matter almost any night of the week. So what’s different about Masters of Horror? It’s a Showtime original series, perhaps similar at first blush to another of the cable network’s horror series, The Hunger (a new story each week, hosted by Terrence Stamp, from 1997-2000), but what sets Masters of Horror apart are the masters …and the horror.
Each episode is directed by a genre genius — Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper — and written by or based on the subject matter of a superlative storyteller — Stephen King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft — but most of all, it is the pure, unadulterated, pulse-pounding horror we bloodthirsty types crave. Creator Mick Garris (The Stand, The Shining TV movie, Riding the Bullet) is definitely on the right track here — he knows that fans of the genre like their poison straight up — you will see few elements of comedy, sci-fi, or fantasy in this series.
Even the show’s opening titles are visceral and chilling: Blood drops drip, setting the stage for the Masters of Horror logo to appear, as an eerie theme song builds in tension. A flurry of imagery including a pentagram, a gargoyle, and a rat decomposing into a pile of wriggling maggots unfurl before our eyes, and then… the show starts.
If the inaugural episode, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, is any indication of what’s to come then fans will not be disappointed.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is directed and co-written by Don Coscarelli (the Phantasm film series, Bubba Ho-Tep), and based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale (winner of the American Horror Award, the Edgar Award, six Bram Stoker Awards, and the author of Bubba Ho-Tep).
The story switchbacks between past and present incidents in the life of Ellen (Bree Turner), but we first meet her in the cover of darkness when she gets into a car wreck on an isolated mountain road. The basic plot itself is nothing unique — a young woman meets up with a big, hulky maniac, she is brutalized, runs through the woods, gets caught, gets away, gets caught again, and so on — but it’s the masterful way in which the story unfolds that grabs you by the proverbial nads.
The cinematography by Jon Jaffin creates a fabulously freaky atmosphere using the light of the full moon, the shadows of passing rain clouds, and knife-stab flashes of lightning. His cool composition is complimented by editor Patrick McMahon’s skilled segues, and the subtle music score compliments everything you’re seeing.
Bree Turner and Ethan Embry (as Ellen’s husband, revealed in flashbacks) are brilliantly cast. It’s a real pleasure to see realistic, normal-looking people thrust into these very unreal situations. Then again, it’s also a pleasure to see the abnormal ones; Moonface (John De Santis) is creepily made up (with style by KNB Studios, who are doing almost all of the series’ shows) and written with true menace. He’s not the kind of killer who will invade your nightmares and joke about it, nor is he the sort of villain who wines and dines you with liver, fava beans and a nice chianti. Then again, he has a bit more pizzazz than other wordless killers like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. You’ll just have to, er, “see” for yourself what I’m talking about. A Coscarelli favorite, Angus Scrimm, has a small but juicy role in the film as a totally cracked, rambling old coot who lives in a basement stuffed with corpses.
And speaking of corpses… If you liked what you saw in House of 1000 Corpses or Jeepers Creepers, get ready for wall to wall cadavers, stiffs and carcasses in Incident On and Off a Mountain Road.
I suppose I would be remiss in my critique of Incident On and Off a Mountain Road if I didn’t confess that I figured out the ending very early on in the story (and I am not usually very good at that at all). However, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the program; I was interested to see how it would all come together and I wasn’t let down.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is Don Coscarelli’s best work in years. He certainly sets a high bar for subsequent episodes, but if anyone can follow his tough act it’s the other masters of horror!
Note: The show begins airing on Friday, October 28, 2005 at 10 p.m. on Showtime, with multi-plays over the weekend.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson