Anchor Bay // 2007 // 764 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 22nd, 2008
Much Better the Second Time Around
The anthology format has always been a tricky entertainment concept. Not only do you have the disconnected nature of the storylines, the varying levels of talent involved, and the short attention span boundaries of the presentation, but the genre involved can undermine everything almost from the start. Both The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits succeeded because they used the speculative fiction aesthetic to bring messages into their stories. On the other hand, up until Tales from the Crypt, macabre had never had a truly successful omnibus offering. In 2005, Mick Garris hoped to change all that with his Masters of Horror series. His premise was indeed unique -- offer important and influential fright masters from the last few decades a chance to make one-hour "movies," free from the restrictions of standard television censorship. While Season One was rather hit or miss, Season Two was far more consistent. It's now available as the Masters of Horror: Season Two Box Set of eleven DVDs, so fans of fear and the noted individuals behind the lens can judge its entirety for themselves.
With nine single discs and two flippers, the entire second season of Masters of Horror is offered here. Unlike Season One, which had to wait until its DVD release to offer Takashi Miike's Imprint to fans, this compendium represents everything from the series' last year on Showtime. Here are the plotlines for each episode offered:
* The Damned Thing
Sheriff Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flanery, Powder) has been living in fear ever since he saw his father brutally disemboweled when he was a boy. Now, the same unseen force is coming after him -- and causing the same kind of communal chaos that turned one small Texas town into a killing zone.
When Celia and David Fuller move into a small Midwestern neighborhood, they are befriended by Harold (George Wendt, Cheers), an overweight busybody with a supposed heart of gold. Of course, they don't know what sinister secrets he hides in his basement.
* The V Word
Two friends, Justin and Kerry (Arjay Smith, The Day After Tomorrow), decide to visit a local funeral home late one night. Their goal is to see a real dead body. What they find is a more or less abandoned building, lots of scattered corpses, and several large pools of blood.
* Sounds Like
Tech support manager Larry Pearce (Chris Bauer, Flag of Our Fathers) hasn't been the same since his young son died of a mysterious heart ailment. Now there's something wrong with his hearing -- and it seems to be connected to his growing inner pain.
A young girl pleads with the workers at an abortion clinic to kill her unborn baby. The first complication? She's the daughter of a notorious agitator (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) with a history of violence. The second? She claims the child is evil.
Furrier Jake Feldman (Meat Loaf, Fight Club) is desperate to bed a sultry stripper. When he comes in possession of some pristine animal skins, he hopes the coat he makes will lure her to his whims -- that is, before its fatal intent is discovered.
* The Screwfly Solution
When a plague hits the world, turning men into mindless murderers, two doctors (Jason Priestley, Tru Calling, and Elliot Gould, M*A*S*H) must try to find a cure. Slowly, they come to realize that the disease may have been purposefully unleashed to destroy the human population once and for all.
* Valerie on the Stairs
A failed novelist (Tyron Leitso, House of the Dead) moves into a writer's community where he encounters the usual unsuccessful suspects. He also comes across a provocative young woman pleading for his help -- and the demonic presence holding her hostage.
* Right to Die
After a horrific auto accident, dentist Cliff Addison (Martin Donovan, Weeds) must face the prospect of pulling the plug on his comatose wife. Before he can do so, his nosy mother-in-law steps in. It may be his unconscious spouse who has the final say, however.
* We All Scream for Ice Cream
Back when they were kids, the boys of the West End Bunch played a deadly prank on poor Buster (William Forsythe, Raising Arizona), the ice cream clown. Now, almost four decades later, the undead harlequin appears to be back to settle the score.
* The Black Cat
Desperate to save his dying wife, Edgar Allan Poe (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) tries to sell his poetry, but publishers only want his "fantastical" stories. Sinking deeper into a drunken depression, he starts to indulge some of his more violent visions.
* The Washingtonians
When Michael (Johnathon Schaech, That Thing You Do) and Pam Franks return to his late grandmother's home, they discover some intriguing things about American history. Not only is their family tied to the famous Father of our Country, but Washington may not have been the saint everyone says.
* Dream Cruise
Though he hates the water, an American lawyer (Daniel Gillies, Spider-Man 2) working in Tokyo agrees to a boat trip to get some important papers signed. As luck would have it, it's owned by the husband of the woman he's having an affair with, a man with a sinister past.
Talk about your determined double dips! In a strange marketing strategy, Starz/Anchor Bay has already released all of these episodes in their own single disc or standalone presentations. Nothing about this collection has been changed or altered except for the flip-disc concept covering four titles. Yet thanks to a clever box set design (it's shaped like a human skull), we get the same thing all over again in one place. While the storylines and styles are all radically different, there is a decidedly dark and occasionally comic tone. Even though it tries to be its own animal, there is still a reliance on the last-act "twist" a la the infamous EC Comics of the '50s and '60s. Also, at 59 minutes maximum, there is a solid short-but-sweet mentality. Many of these stories skip the outright exposition and go straight for the splatter. Others concentrate a tad too much on plotting, leaving the scheduled scares until the very end. Still, fans should be happy with what is presented here. Last time around, Masters of Horror offered more clunkers than classics. With Season Two, the ratio of good to bad is much more balanced, with more excellence than exasperation.
Let's look at each installment individually, since the only valid way to judge a compilation is via its individual components, beginning with:
* The Damned Thing -- Score: 89
Tobe Hooper has been taken to task over the years for squandering his scary movie cred via some truly awful experiences in dung-like dread. Well, long-timers can finally rejoice -- if just a little. This hour-long look at Texas Tea gone terrifying provides just enough of the director's old-school skill to remind us of why we love/hate him in the first place. Everyone's favorite magical albino, otherwise known as Sean Patrick "Powder" Flanery gives a fine, Henriksen like turn as a doomed Southwest sheriff, with Brendan Fletcher filling in the gaps as the lawman's cartoon character-obsessed deputy. Hooper utilizes the talents of series F/X men Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger quite well, offering up a tasty hammer murder and a funky disemboweling. Still, some may be dissatisfied with the "crude" finale, wondering where all the evocative atmosphere and suspense went to. While not his best, The Damned Thing is certainly better than most of Hooper's recent output.
* Family -- Score: 80
John Landis' Season 2 installment is probably one of the trickier entries. You really have to sit back and let the sometimes silly and obvious story work on you. If you're not willing to let things play out in their own way, to occasionally meander over into comedy and kitsch, then you'll probably hate the journey. Sure, star George Wendt makes an unusual killer, and his basement activities (complete with vats of putrefying corpses) are icky fun. But there are moments when you really don't know where this narrative is going, or how it's going to keep things from purposefully imploding. Luckily, if you make it to the end, you'll be rewarded -- not richly, but you shouldn't come away dissatisfied. This is perhaps the most Tales from the Crypt-oriented offering in the set. It captures that HBO's series irreverent tone without skimping on the blood and guts.
* The V Word -- Score: 77
There is nothing worse than a haunted house tale that cheats. You know the kind -- a frightmare where things go bump in the night without a real grounding in narrative sense or subjectivity. In the case of The V Word, matters are made worse by the introduction of that most tedious of terror icons -- the vampire. Since we anticipate the arrival of the neckbiter from the moment we see the title flash on the screen, all the initial stuff in the funeral home is nothing but false. Then, after we've had some blood sucking, the story strays from its origins and goes literally nowhere. While director Ernest Dickerson is good at handling the contemporary take on the material -- he ties it in to videogames like Doom and Resident Evil -- the minute it turns into a test of friendship, we get a lame Lost Boys without the Coreys or Joel Schumacher. Taken for what it is, The V Word isn't awful. But when you see the ambitions it carries, and the poor way it tries to achieve them, you'll be underwhelmed.
* Sounds Like -- Score: 86
As an exercise in execution over idea, Brad Anderson's creepy Sounds Like also feels vaguely reminiscent of another recent horror anthology. The Tales-like narrative is all build-up, our heroes hearing problem leading up to a classic "gotcha" denouement. Along the way, we have to put up with obvious aural cues, unexplained motivations, incomplete plotting, and a wife character who wears far too much pain on her constantly puffy face. Chris Bauer is very good as our protagonist, a man undone by the untimely death of his son, and we even buy into the reason why his aural faculties have become so pronounced. But at a certain point, we grow tired of all the sonic shenanigans and want a little payoff. The ending, unfortunately, may not be enough for some in the already tested audience.
* Pro-Life -- Score: 82
With John Carpenter in the director's chair, Pro-Life already has a cinematic strike against it. While the Halloween maestro has always been creatively challenging, his recent films have been a decidedly mixed bag. Of course, in this particular format, he seems to have found his niche. His own Body Bags from 1993 was good, and last season's Cigarette Burns got some stellar reviews. This outing, on the other hand, will be viewed as an incomplete success by most. While the tone is definitely dark, and the performances (especially by Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman) are excellent, there are times when the political agenda gets in the way of the terror. Instead, of giving us a simple setup, the screenplay sets up a series of speeches where both sides of the abortion issue can be hashed out. Of course, the guy pouring ammunition into his victims has the least convincing position -- and the fatal last say. Similar to Assault on Precinct 13 and his otherwise underrated Prince of Darkness, this is a decent, if not all together terrifying, attempt.
* Pelts -- Score: 90
Leave it to the Master of Italian Macabre to show up these fledgling filmmakers with his wonderfully atmospheric, wildly improbable, and downright weird raccoons-as-gods goodness. Avoiding the woolly wildlife premise for a moment, it's clear that in the hierarchy of the horrific, few can manage meaty arterial spray like Asia's pop. The deaths here are truly disturbing, no matter their logistical viability, and just as we start to question how furry hides can cause people to off themselves, another incredibly gruesome death is featured. When you add in Claudio Simonetti's absolutely brilliant scoring (so effective in its music-box menace) and the grim, grotesque tone, we recognize why Argento belongs here. Though many involved in this project may not be true auteurs of the awful, this Mediterranean maverick was known for painting his celluloid a "deep red." For those who thought his previous addition to Season 1 (the god awful Jenifer) was lame, this equally bizarre bravado is one of Season 2's very best.
* The Screwfly Solution -- Score: 89
You wouldn't expect such a serious and bleak offering from Joe Dante. After all, this is a guy who gave Gremlins their Looney Tunes craziness and frequently infuses his films with all kinds of humor. Yet in a Howling-like return to form, he delivers an almost epic end-of-the-world scenario in a very short period of time. Thanks to the source material, which provides a thought-provoking concept right up front (men killing women because they are female) and the straightforward way it's handled, we get lost in the logistics. Soon, we find ourselves doing what these kinds of narratives do best -- putting ourselves in the place of the characters and wondering what we would do in their position. While Jason Priestley gets limited screen time, he is very good. So is Elliot Gould, putting on the sarcastic father routine to keep from falling apart. While the explanation for what is going on seems fairly obvious, the reveal is handled well, and with its dour, desperate finale, we get a chance to revel in some serious science fiction for once.
* Valerie on the Stairs -- Score: 81
Whenever this critic sees the name Clive Barker on a project, it is automatically cause for concern. Not that he has anything personal against the supposed heir apparent to Stephen King's horror fiction mantle, but the British scribe has always seemed to overcomplicate his ideas. He can't just have a standard story about writers having difficulty controlling their muse, he has to turn it into a psychosexual back and forth where being enigmatic is everything and clarity is to be avoided at all costs. We get hints of what's happening here and there -- acknowledgments that what we are seeing may not be real, that there is something otherworldly at work in this slovenly literary flop house. But aside from Mick Garris' assured work in the director's chair, nothing else really clicks. The actors are wasted (Christopher Lloyd has maybe three scenes, tops) and the editing suggests that there may have been a longer cut sitting around, able to make more sense of what's going on. In the end, this short film doesn't take away or add to Barker's reputation. Viewers may come away with a decidedly different view of its effectiveness.
* Right to Die -- Score: 80
The notion of a wrongly injured individual haunting another from beyond their comatose state is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it's been the basis for literally dozens of horror efforts. So Right to Die has a strike against it right off the bat. Unless it delivers something different within this archetypal tale, we know where this is going to end up before it even starts. So what does Wrong Turn director Rob Schmidt do? He channels the Terri Schiavo case by adding an ineffectual political/policy angle. The moment Cliff Addison's mother-in-law shows up, looking boozy and beaten and threatening to halt her son-in-law's plans for a "Do Not Resuscitate" order, we expect some courtroom fireworks -- or at the very least, a little mid-story moralizing. But the subtext goes nowhere, and soon we find ourselves hoping that something novel will come from all this. Unless you consider a skinning scene similar to what Argento did better a few episodes back, the answer is Schmidt has nothing new to offer. While it's competently made, Right to Die is one of the lesser titles here.
* We All Scream for Ice Cream -- Score: 89
Like Stephen King merged with a standard '80s slasher, this likable little gem will definitely confuse some viewers. On the outside, it looks like nothing more than It with a healthy dose of sinister sprinkles. But venturing below the surface, we see some wonderful acting turns by Lee Tergesen and William Forsythe, some over-the-top goofiness from Colin Cunningham, and a wonderful sense of atmosphere via old-school frightmaster Tom Holland. Once a fright fan favorite (his one-two punch of Fright Night and Child's Play remain excellent examples of Greed-era goodness), he handles this material with more aplomb than he showed with later efforts like the clammy King adaptation, Thinner. Sure, the ending makes little sense, and it seems like our baddie Buster could have secured his revenge in one angry all-nighter, but Holland's way with the material makes us forgive its occasional flaws. It turns something potentially cheesy into a real work of creepshow fun.
* The Black Cat -- Score: 80
With Re-Animator's Stuart Gordon at the helm and underrated actor Jeffrey Combs essaying the famous writer, you'd think The Black Cat would turn out to be one of Masters of Horror's best. For a while, we get lost in both men's abject greatness. No one understands the basics of fear better than Gordon, and when he's on, Combs can be brilliant. But somewhere near the middle, right around the time Poe has his first "hallucination," we sense that this story is not going to play fair. Indeed, as it continues on its often confusing paths, we lose sight of the scares and instead find ourselves overly interested in minor things like narrative logic and historical accuracy. No one is claiming that this is a precise portrayal of the author's life -- especially when the last-act "twist" plays out -- but since we aren't aware of the reality until then, we find ourselves struggling to make up our minds. On the one hand, Gordon and Combs make this well worth visiting. The end result is mostly forgettable, however.
* The Washingtonians -- Score: 70
In a classic case of goofy premise made even more unappealing by the way it is told, this story of cannibals and hidden U.S. history is pretty stupid. Like Family before, you have to be willing to meet this material halfway. If you don't cotton to the killers in powdered wigs, if you see everyone Franks befriends in this small Virginia town to be an obvious suspect, if you just don't like the way in which the last-act deus ex machina comes out with guns blazing, then this will be one of your least favorite Masters installments. On the other hand, the core concepts are gruesome enough to warrant some attention, and the direction by Peter Medak (Species II, Homicide: Life on the Streets) is very good. Just like genre buffs who don't like slasher films or fans who feel cheated every time a vampire rears his fanged head, this combination of flesh eating and farce will be too much to bear. It's not badly done, just brazen in its desire to shock while making you smile.
* Dream Cruise -- Score: 74
Since J-Horror has long given up its fad gadget novelty, the concept of a similarly styled thriller on the high seas seems double dopey. Leave it to Masters of Horror to prove this point with relish. Since it was originally slated as 90 overlong minutes (and we get every languid moment on the restored DVD), one could easily see how the hour-long version would make little sense. Director Norio Tsuruta (whose minor reputation begs the "Master" moniker) spends far too much time in standard suspense setup. When you add in the frequent flashbacks and foreboding, there's little time for anything else. What saves the experience, however, is the grue. Thanks once again to some amazing special effects, we are treated to smashed skulls, gaping wounds, and severed limbs. In fact, the juxtaposition between the tepid tone control Tsuruta utilizes and the well-placed blood seems odd. Still, after a season's worth of excellent entries (and a few flops), this is an odd way to end it all. Out of the context of a weekly airing, we are allowed to sample Dream Cruise as it was originally intended. It may not have been worth the wait.
When determining the overall value of Masters of Horror: Season Two, the aforementioned charge says it best. This is a far better collection of creepouts than what was offered in Season One. While there is no true breakout classic like Homecoming, it's a consistently good collection. Naturally, there are some inherent barriers to total enjoyment. As stated before, the nature of the format definitely hobbles some of the stories. Episodes like Screwfly and The Damned Thing could definitely go on longer, while something like Family or The Washingtonians would have worked much better as a 30-minute experience. The choice of filmmakers is also interesting. It's nice to see Session 9's Brad Anderson working here, as well as the all-but-forgotten Tom Holland. But the lack of other big names like Romero, Raimi, or Roth is troubling. It seems like Masters of Horror has its own idea about what makes a successful scary movie and wants very little to do with anything provocative, troubling, or taken too far. Indeed, this is not necessarily dreadful for the fans of extreme fear. Instead, there is still a little bit of broadcast conservatism among the blatant offal.
As for the tech specs, again nothing is new here. These are the same digital packages created for each episode when Starz/Anchor Bay released them separately. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen images offered are uniformly good, with specific efforts like Screwfly and Valerie as standouts. There is never any major defect or visual issue, though there can be some occasional grain in the night scenes. On the sound side of things, it's either a messy Dolby Digital 5.1 track or a straight Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix from which to choose. While the twin speaker presentation is good, some may complain about the lack of a carefully balanced multichannel choice. There are times when the music overwhelms the mood, and dialogue can be difficult to hear (some directors clearly tell their actors to whisper, as if that will add some manner of fright to the mix). Still, Masters of Horror provides solid digital dynamics for the most part. As for added content, it's a mixed bag indeed. Almost every episode has a commentary, but not every one features the famous name that made it. Instead, you can wind up with actors, producers, and/or screenwriters. There are a few making-of featurettes, some interview segments, a selection of scripts and production stills, trailers, and other bonus tidbits. Together, they make an already above-average presentation something worth seeking out.
Perhaps it's wrong to complain about the way Starz/Anchor Bay has handled this series release on the home theater format. Sure, for something substantially cheaper, you can own all 13 episodes instead of having to buy several individually. In addition, the packaging should make even the most hardened horror fan smile with sinister intent. Yet just as with any other modern anthology series, Masters of Horror can't help but end up inconsistent. There is definitely more to enjoy than despise here, and it's obvious that some of the mistakes made the first time around were taken to heart. They definitely are not repeated here. But for anyone who considers themselves a connoisseur of the creepy, for those who like their dread visceral, unrelenting, and ballsy, there are far too few examples of such tripwire terror.
If you hated the series the first time around, Masters of Horror: Season Two won't change your overall perception of the show, but if you're willing to give it a chance, you'll definitely come away more scare-sated than before.
Not guilty. While still flawed, this second season of Masters of Horror does a good job of delivering on its promise.
Review content copyright © 2008 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
* English ("Dream Cruise" only)
Running Time: 764 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Cast and Crew on Each Film
* Behind the Scenes Featurettes
* Making Of Featurettes
* Special Effects Featurettes
* Cast and Crew Bios
* Episode Scripts
* Gallery Stills
* IMDb: Masters of Horror: Season 2
* IMDb: The Damned Thing
* IMDb: Family
* IMDb: The V Word
* IMDb: Sounds Like
* IMDb: Pro Life
* IMDb: Pelts
* IMDb: The Screwfly Solution
* IMDb: Valerie on the Stairs
* IMDb: Right to Die
* IMDb: We All Scream for Ice Cream
* IMDb: The Black Cat
* IMDb: The Washingtonians
* IMDb: Dream Cruise