Friday, January 06, 2006

TV REVIEW: Masters of Horror, Episode # 1: "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road"

I think it's terrific that Showtime has devoted time and energy to this new horror anthology series, Masters of Horror, and after getting through some writing deadlines, I've finally had the opportunity to take a gander at a few installments. So far, I really like what I see.

The first episode, "Incident On and Off A Mountain Road" is directed by Don Coscarelli, the genius who gave the world Phantasm (1979) and Bubba Ho Tep (2003). The Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, guest stars in this episode, which also features Bree Taylor and a pumped-up Ethan Embry. The source material is Joe K. Lansdale's short story, adapted by Coscarelli and Stephen Romano.

This episode deals with a motorist named Ellen, who - on a cold and dark road in the middle of nowhere - runs into a terrible speed trap set by what appears to be a ghoulish mountain man (replete with metal teeth). This pale, bald monstrosity chases her through the woods and forests of the nearby mountain terrain, but Ellen is steeled to fight back by her (mostly bad...) relationship with her former husband, Bruce (Embry).

Even while pursued by this strange local devil, Ellen hears the voice and words of her survivalist husband. "I believe anything can happen to anyone at at any time, in any place," he warns in the first memory, featured as a flashback. "Crazy always works," he advises, when things get rough for Ellen. And "When all else fails, try anything," that inner voice suggests in the moment of greatest crisis and least hope.

So what we get is a grueling, harrowing hour of Deliverance/Wrong Turn-style drama that sort-of resembles 1970s savage cinema, as Ellen tries to claw, scratch and bite her way to freedom. This becomes especially important after she is captured and taken to the mountain man's strange house, where he straps his victims to a table and carves out their eyes with a nasty-looking drill-bit.

Ultimately, Ellen does fight back (with some gory blowback), just like hubby Bruce would want her to; but the episode ends on a unique twist involving Bruce, and I don't want to spoil the climax for those who haven't seen it.

Suffice it to say that I was held rapt by the episode, and involved wholly in Ellen's plight from start to finish. The flashback structure (similar, in fact, to Lost's) actually has a point to it - tracing Ellen's relationship with Bruce - and plays as critical in the denouement.

I've always been of the opinion that anthologies work best at a half-hour length, and I think immediately of The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, or even Tales from the Crypt. There are exceptions to that rule, to be certain, and The Outer Limits (original) leaps to mind. This first installment of Masters of Horror works pretty darn well at the hour-length, in part because the performances are good; in part because of the feature-film production values and "Rated R" gore quotient (from special effects gurus Nicotero and Berger at KNB). Yet, a word to the wise here...the show would work even better at a half-hour.

Of the three Masters of Horror episodes I've screened so far, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" is not only the best acted, but the best paced of the bunch. Which is probably why it's the lead-off episode. At close to an hour, there's too much a chance for these shows to drag, instead of feeling punchy and suspenseful, and indeed my concern is validated with the second show. But that's the subject of another post...


  1. i always knew coscarelli had it in him to do some brutal horror, perhaps an anthology was the best place to stretch that muscle. the fourth phantasm hinted at some very nasty (in a good way) torture. he definitely has the real deal horror skill set, but has honorably followed his phantasm muse, which is gory horror, but goes to some more interesting, dreamlike places. i would classify the phantasm series as uncanny. coscarelli's devotion and auteurship of this surreal, unusual, wonderful franchise is commendable. so angus schrimm, the tall man, is alive? somehow i thought i heard he was dead, and blamed that for coscarelli departing phantasmland to do bubba ho tep (a fun movie with excellent characterization from its two leads).

  2. Hey George!

    I was very impressed with Coscarelli's installment of MOH. He surprised me with the intensity and gruesome quality. I've associated him with just what you called "surreal" films - I love the Phantasm movies - but this was interesting in that it was more grounded in reality and the qualities of the "Savage Cinema"