If Judge Patrick Bromley says "yes, dear" to his wife one more time, life will eerily imitate art.
"Why does everything have to have a motive with you people, you know? It's a woman with deer legs. Motive really isn't an issue."—line of dialogue from Deer Woman
With only two real horror credits to his name—1981's An American Werewolf in London and 1992's Innocent Blood—I'm not exactly sure that John Landis can be considered a "Master of Horror." Sure, both films make terrific entries into the genre (and, in fact, I count Werewolf among my favorite horror films of all time), but it's difficult to put him up against directors like Dario Argento or John Carpenter and consider them in the same class. Yet this is precisely what Showtime has done with its horror anthology series, Masters of Horror, which devotes each of its 13 episodes to a single "horror" filmmaker (Argento, Carpenter, Mick Garris, Takashi Miike, and Joe Dante among them) and has been slowly creeping its way out onto DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay. So how does Landis stack up?
Facts of the Case
Seattle, WA—A recent string of brutal murders has left police baffled and victims pulverized into soup. Enter Detective Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben, Dream On, Radioland Murders), a cop who's been relegated to "Animal Attacks" and is wrestling some major demons. He teams up with Officer Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith, Tales From the Hood), a cop with "nothing better to do," to solve the killings, which continue to get stranger and stranger—hoof prints and deer DNA begin to appear at the crime scenes. The evidence all suggests the presence of the mythical Deer Woman (model Cinthia Moura), a Native American legend that's half deer and half woman with a penchant for seducing and murdering unsuspecting men. Uh-huh.
John Landis knows how funny horror can be. That's not to say that Landis makes fun of horror, or that he takes what should be horror and makes it into comedy. There's still plenty of horror to be found in his few genre films. It's just that the horror is offset—for lack of a better word—but how funny it all is. The humor is there to break the tension, but there's more than just that going on. Landis grounds his horror works in the very real world, and his characters confront the fantastic situations they find themselves in by making wisecracks. Sometimes, it's the only way to make sense of something that can't be made sense of.
This is the attitude that the director brings to his entry into the Masters of Horror anthology, Deer Woman (and if you think that title is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose literal, just remember the matter-of-factness of An American Werewolf in London). Of course the premise, about a mythical creature that's half hot Brazilian model and half Bambi, is ridiculous—no one is quicker to point that out than Landis himself. But is it any more ridiculous than a guy changing into a wolf because it's his time of the month? Or a dude in a cape that changes into a bat? Where did the cape go? And when he changes back into a human, guess what? The cape is back! No, let's call it like we see it. There's something funny about these monsters.
There's something funny about Deer Woman, too, courtesy of the script by Landis and his son, Max, and an offbeat leading man turn by Brian Benben (who manages to go the full episode without once ever flashing back to an old TV show). Benben isn't exactly what springs to mind when casting the tortured cop/leading man type, but that's what makes him work—he's smallish and sarcastic, a cynical outsider in a county of podunks and a-holes. He's the classic Landis hero, confronted with the monstrous supernatural but processing it in his own smartass way; imagine if it had been Griffin Dunne, not David Naughton, that had survived the werewolf attack—that's our man Faraday. Benben's performance also allows for Deer Woman to address any of our concerns about the material as they arise; no matter how silly we find it, Faraday finds it even sillier. The short film's best sequence, in which Faraday comes up with three possible solutions to the inexplicable murders, arises from this very notion. It's great stuff.
Like most folks who eagerly anticipated the arrival of Masters of Horror on DVD (from what I've read), I was disappointed to learn that the series would not be released as a season-length box set, but rather would be broken up into 13 individually-released discs. And, like most folks who experienced this disappointment (again, from what I've read), I'm happy to admit that I was wrong—Anchor Bay has made the right choice in breaking the series up, if only for the sheer number of extras included on each disc. I like that the studio recognizes that these discs are just as much about the filmmakers as they are about the films, and the supplements reflect this. After all, the nice people buying these things are doing so as fans of the directors and supporters of the whole idea behind Masters of Horror, not just for the hour-long films that, let's face it, vary in quality. That's why there's just as much time devoted to John Landis and his career as there is to Deer Woman, and, frankly, the Landis stuff is my favorite.
First up is a pair of featurettes focusing on the director: "Animal Hooves" is an interview with Landis about his career and his Masters of Horror project, while "Working With a Master" is a retrospective piece in which cast members of past films (Don Rickles, Dan Aykroyd, Jenny Agutter) talk about working with Landis, singing the praises of his energy, professionalism, and humor. These two features have consistently been my favorite on each of the Masters discs (each entry in the series comes with a variation of them), as they're the pieces that delve most deeply into the filmmakers and their respective careers. It's here that Landis deflates most of what I had hoped to say about Deer Woman by saying it first—he openly articulates his approach to the material and discusses the way he incorporates humor into his horror works.
Also included among the boatload of extras is a trio of interviews with Deer Woman's stars: Benben, Anthony Griffith, and Cinthia Moura. The segments are brief and not much is said, but all three actors seem likeable and enthusiastic about the project. There's also a commentary over the film by Benben and Griffith, in which they share some anecdotes about the production and joke around a lot. It's not a great track—I'm awfully disappointed that Landis himself didn't record one—but it can be a fun listen. Rounding out the major extras are a brief behind-the-scenes piece and a vintage interview from the early-'80s Z Channel, where Mick Garris (who was just a fan at the time, but would go on to become a horror director and creator of the Masters of Horror series) interviews Landis. Most of their conversation is devoted to National Lampoon's Animal House and the "upcoming" Blues Brothers, with only a quick mention of Landis's plans for An American Werewolf in London. The real value of the segment is seeing these two men, essentially strangers at the time, who would eventually go on to collaborate on this project with happy results. Funny how life works out.
A still gallery, a host of trailers for other Masters of Horror episodes, a text bio of John Landis, and some DVD-ROM features (the movie's screenplay and a screen saver) are also accessible.
So, is John Landis a "Master of Horror?" I'm not sure that he is, but I'm not sure about a number of the series' participants, either; at least Landis had two previous credits to his name, whereas Lucky McKee—another "Master"—only had one before signing on (the excellent May, a fact which Judge Mac McEntire astutely pointed out in his review of Sick Girl). At any rate, I'll always welcome Landis's approach to the horror genre. His usual goofy sense of humor and a great leading man performance by the underrated Brian Benben make Deer Woman one of the better Masters of Horror outings I've seen. Here's looking forward to next season's entry.
Not guilty. See You Next Tuesday.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Actors Brian Benben and Anthony Griffith
• IMDb: Masters of Horror
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