Ever since being scared stupid following an opening weekend showing of Phantasm, Judge Dennis Prince agrees that Don Coscarelli is indeed a master.
When it comes to survival, how prepared are you to fight for your life?
Traveling down a dark and desolate mountain road, Ellen (Bree Turner, Sorority Boys) unexpectedly slams into a stalled car. Shaken by the accident, she approaches the other vehicle only to find it vacant, blood stains spattered across the front seats. As she peers over the guardrail into the dark woods below, she spots somebody struggling in the brush. Though she calls out to apologetically offer assistance, she's suddenly confronted with a towering maniac who has the abandoned car's female occupant in tow. Known as the serial killer Moonface (John De Santis, The Thirteenth Warrior), the imposing assailant pursues Ellen into the woods. In her flight to escape, Ellen fashions all manner of traps to slow or stop her adversary, ingenious anti-personnel rigs learned from her once-loving, now abusive survivalist husband, Bruce (Ethan Embry, That Thing You Do). Despite her efforts, Ellen is ultimately captured by Moonface and is imprisoned in his desolate cabin where his horrific intentions are soon revealed.
Masters of Horror was unleashed upon Showtime subscribers during Halloween 2005. The brainchild of producer Mick Garris (TV's The Stand, The Shining), the premise was to collect the most iconic filmmakers of the horror genre, arm them with a tight budget and tighter 10-day shooting schedule, and see what would unfold. To date, the likes of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, and John Landis have delivered entries in this hour-long anthology series. As an interesting by-product and perhaps as additional self-motivation, the participating genre "masters" recognized the need to live up to their newly-dubbed monikers while potentially reaching to raise the bar on their peers; that's what Don Coscarelli did, anyway.
When called about the opportunity to participate, Coscarelli immediately recalled "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," a short story written by cult horror figure Joe R. Lansdale and published in his Writer of the Purple Rage anthology. (Incidentally, this same collection from Lansdale holds the other short story that Coscarelli brought to film, "Bubba Ho-Tep.") Having optioned "Incident" for several years running, Coscarelli finally found the proper showcase to commit Lansdale's grimy and gruesome survival tale to film. Working with co-writer Stephen Romano, the two fashioned a teleplay (cable-play?) and, after just a month's time of preparation, sprinted through a grueling 10-day shoot. The result was a frantic exposition that thrusts us into Ellen's peril within five minutes after the opening titles. The massive Moonface is an imposing new character, chalky complected, bald, and sporting an unusual set of chrome dental work (recall that of Winslow Leach from 1974's Phantom of the Paradise; same orthodonture here). He's a serial killer of sorts who resides in a abhorrent shack deep in the woods with interior and exterior "accoutrements" reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His assaults aren't necessarily random, though, and Ellen learns of his ultimate impetus thanks to exposition provided by none other than Angus Scrimm as a restrained old cretin, Buddy.
Moonface's handiwork, then, is right out of a devil's nightmare and helps this televised terror rise above the usual dreck of made-for-cable crap. Admittedly egged on by his own desire to out-do his terror alumni, Coscarelli pushes the envelop—far—in the graphic content presented here and as conjured from the dutiful hands of Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero (of KNB Effects).
Most challenging about this adaptation of "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road": since the pursuit begins just five minutes into the story, could viewers be effectively engaged in what could likely become an ensuing 45 minutes of a trite killer-stalks-victim routine? Deftly, Romano developed an intriguing back-story, told through recurrent flashback, that reveals Ellen's boyfriend and eventual husband had succumbed to a fanatical survivalist mentality. Although he taught her the skills of weaponry and the techniques and ad-hoc trap making, his demeanor quickly became mentally and physically abusive. By this plot and storytelling device, Coscarelli is able to provide explanation behind Ellen's ability to slow her aggressor's efforts while delivering two concurrent and compelling story arcs. Both ultimately culminate in an interesting twist ending that's certainly satisfying.
Visually, Coscarelli departs from his usual claustrophobic interiors and foreboding hallways (see Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep, or Kenny & Co.) to focus his lens on the dense underbrush of a wooded mountainside. His shots are quick yet precise and not a frame is wasted, most likely out of narrative economics imposed by the scant 51-minutes afforded to him in the final cut. But, since Coscarelli delivers his best work under such budgetary duress, he once again excels in the face of adversity. As rapid as the story unravels, Coscarelli is able to establish his characters quickly yet completely and, therefore, dispenses with overwrought exposition for sake of developing the story proper. If you're the impatient sort, you'll enjoy how quickly the on-screen situation deteriorates here without having to trade off logic or likelihood from a plot perspective.
Credit the actors for helping Coscarelli achieve his goal. Bree Turner performs exceptionally well and lends honest believability as the reluctant but capable combatant, tasked with opposing not only Moonface but also her militant husband. Ethan Embry appears to sink his teeth in this departure role of sorts, casting off his nice guy persona to deliver a stellar showing as the despicably domineering Bruce. And what of Angus Scrimm? An icon in his own right, he likewise shakes off his defining role—the grim and grunting Tall Man guise—to nail his performance as the somewhat affable albeit distinctly disturbed Buddy. Then there's John De Santis as the malevolent Moonface. He has no lines yet his demonic leer shrieks volumes. Definitely, De Santis has potential in this genre.
Although you may wonder why the Masters of Horror episodes aren't being presented in any sort of boxed set, the good news is that Anchor Bay is delivering each entry in stellar fashion. The outer slip case is arguably useless but nice nonetheless, embossed with foil accents. The interior Amaray keep-case contains an insert featuring a portrait of Moonface as well as a fun collectible trading card featuring an artist's rendition of Coscarelli and some biographical notes. The disc itself includes an anamorphic widescreen transfer, framed at 1.77:1. The image quality is clean and crisp although there are several scenes where graininess afflicts the picture (this seems to be curiously restricted to only the studio scenes and not affecting the location shots). The black levels are well rendered here and contrast is controlled in a way that ensures the numerous dark sequences never become murky. The audio is presented in an energetic Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix that offers easily distinguishable surround effects while maintaining clear dialogue throughout. The 2.0 Surround mix is suitable but definitely inferior by comparison.
Anchor Bay has done an excellent job delivering extras on this disc (as with other Masters of Horror DVDs) beginning with two excellent audio commentaries. The first features Coscarelli and Romano along with Anchor Bay disc producer, Perry Martin. Here, Martin poses questions and observations intended to draw out details of the teleplay. The track proves to be active and informative with never a gap of silence. The second commentary pairs Coscarelli with author Joe R. Lansdale in which the two discuss the details of the original story's origins and translation to the film. If ever you've enjoyed the commentaries provided by the perpetually prepared Coscarelli, you won't be disappointed in either of these tracks. Next up is an excellent 24-minute featurette, Predators and Prey: An Interview with Don Coscarelli, in which the director discusses his body of work and his good fortune to be considered a "master." (Of interest to Coscarelli fans is the inclusion of material from the still-unreleased Jim, the World's Greatest.) Next up is Working with a Master in which Bree Turner, Angus Scrimm, producer Paul Pepperman, Reggie Bannister (Phantasm) and Marc Singer (The Beastmaster) provide on-screen insight and anecdotes regarding their working experiences with Coscarelli. There are two brief interview segments, one with John De Santis and the other with Ethan Embrey. Lastly, Behind the Scenes: The Making of Incident On and Off a Mountain Road provides an informative look into the production. The bonuses keep coming in the form of a still gallery, a Coscarelli bio, and even DVD-ROM content. In all, it's practically an overstuffed disc but one that truly celebrates its "Masters of Horror."
Masters of Horror: Don Coscarelli—Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is an excellent disc, both in terms of the well done feature attraction as well as the excellent offering of generally fluff-free extra features. If you enjoy a taut and trim excursion into darkness, you'll certainly enjoy this new release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary: Don Coscarelli and Writer Stephen Romano
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