Masters of Horror Vol.1 (John Carpenter / Stuart Gordon) Review
The horror anthology series has long been a favoured one of television producers, ostensibly to show that, when the will takes them, they can be slightly more edgy than an evening full of soap operas, camcorder mishaps and reality television might suggest. A once-great film studio like Hammer produced the very reasonable Hammer House of Horror whilst the Friday The 13th television show, which was unrelated to the series of films, showed that even as ropey a concept as a shop full of haunted antiques could produce the occasional gem. Only a matter of months ago, the television series The Hunger made its way through my to-review pile of discs but demonstrated the fault with such shows - being made to be broadcast on television, they're never particularly frightening, often choosing to look away from the horror than face it.
In the course of producing Masters Of Horror, series creator Mick Garris (The Stand) came up with a way to circumvent this problem - take the show to DVD only and pass television by entirely. And so Masters Of Horror would give free rein to a set of famous horror film directors without fear of interference nor censorship. Such was the confidence in this enterprise that even notorious Japanese director Takasi Miike (Audition, Ichi The Killer) was asked to contribute alongside such other masters of the genre as John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento and Larry Cohen. All seemed set for horror to claim that direct-to-DVD was no longer an insult, more a means to produce an original anthology series without the meddling of a television channel.
Then Showtime became involved and Takasi Miike, who was the single leftfield entry in the series, found that his contribution, Imprint, a story about a deformed prostitute in a period tale set in Japan, was removed from the broadcast schedule and left as a DVD-only release. Dario Argento was then asked to take a second look at his contribution, Jenifer, thanks to scenes of cannibalism and Masters Of Horror, despite the best of intentions, looks to be just one more horror anthology, albeit one with a quite remarkable pedigree.
Thanks to Anchor Bay, who are releasing Masters Of Horror in the UK, this first release sees the contributions by John Carpenter and Stuart Gordon released both on their own or, as reviewed here, as part of a two-disc set. Gordon's entry is Dreams In The Witch House, adapted from a story by HP Lovecraft, which sees student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) take a room in a rundown house near to Mistatonic University, where he's studying the possible links between parallel universes. As Gilman sleeps, he dreams of a rat with a human face appearing to him, telling him that, "She's coming for you!" As his life takes ever stranger turns, he is seduced by a beautiful woman who, before his eyes, transforms into a hideous witch, who leaves her mark on Gilman, in the form of scratches on his back, sufficiently deep to draw blood. The next night, Gilman is pulled underneath his bed before awakening at Miskatonic University in the rare books section of the library, holding on to the Necronomicon, the Book of the Dead.
Carpenter's Cigarette Burns is from an original script by Scott Swan and Drew McWeeny and it concerns a film, Le Fin Absolue du Monde, that was long rumoured to be destroyed when its first and only showing ended in a riot and the slaughter of those that were witness to it. Ballinger (Udo Kier) is a collector of memorabilia concerning the film, including what appears to be a member of the cast, chained to a pedestal in his cellar, but he has never seen the film. He makes contact with independent theatre-owner Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus), who, for a fee of $200,000, agrees to find out what became of those involved in the production of the film and to buy any remaining prints. This takes him to Paris, where, the closer he gets to the film, the further down into a personal hell he descends, where frightening hallucinations and bloody violence follow him. Finally, and with the only remaining copy of the film in his hands, he pays a return visit to Ballinger, who has planned a final showing of the film, one that Ballinger's ghostly prisoner has long waited for.
Neither hour-long episode will be unfamiliar to anyone who's followed either director - Cigarette Burns owes something to Carpenter's own In The Mouth Of Madness whereas Dreams In The Witch House treads the same steps as Gordon's From Beyond, where he successfully mixed grisly horror and comedy with an ease that is uncommon. This shouldn't be particularly surprising as behind the talk of this being a small-screen rejuvenation of horror by thirteen of its leading lights, there's also the sense of no risks being taken, more that the series is giving an expectant audience those things they clamour for - blood, gore, an occasional laugh and a sense of unease.
Of the two, Carpenter's 18-rated horror is the more successful, with a shocking snuff moment halfway in that's so good, it's a too-early climax to the film and one that it never really recovers from. Of course, what we eventually see of Le Fin Absolue du Monde is a disappointment - after three-quarters of an hour building it up, was it ever to be anything else - but the pay-off isn't Carpenter's point, more the build-up to it that shows horror isn't necessarily to be found in a film but in the world around us. Indeed, the black-and-white footage of children waving spades at an angel or of fingernails dragged along a brick wall are on a par with a trick-or-treater draped in a white sheet but there's a confidence with which Carpenter builds up the feeling of horror such that the actual showing of Le Fin Absolue du Monde is irrelevant. What matters is that Le Fin Absolue du Monde is, in Ballinger's words, a little piece of heaven before an eternity of hell and Carpenter certainly impresses this upon the viewer, being a piece of art that obsesses Ballinger and, increasingly, Sweetman, who, though wary of the film, begins to feel its effect as he pursues the last remaining print.
Gordon's film is less effective but no less knowing, liberally using Lovecraftian source material and references in a bid to reach out to the average horror fan, flattering them with literary references whilst rewarding them with gore. His rat with a human face is just one gag amongst many, as is Gilman's being marked with a pentacle scratched into his back but he mixes this is moments of real horror, including a sacrificial dagger being held to the throat of what looks to be a real infant.
Neither, though, would cut it as a real feature, being just too obvious. The story of Cigarette Burns is just one more telling of the story of a work of art so dangerous as to drive those who see it insane, with the only inventive moment being one that looks to prove the existence of an afterlife. Dreams In The Witch House is just a bit more Lovecraft from Stuart Gordon, being a familiar story of the occult bursting into this world through the unlikeliest of doorways. Entertaining enough on DVD, or on television, but not quite the promised rebirth of horror on the small screen nor yet proof that straight-to-DVD is as much a mark of quality as a theatrical release.
Canada may well have something of a film industry, rather than just a convenient location for an American one, but one must hope that they come to DVD looking better than these. It's not that Anchor Bay, who are well experienced in horror, have done a poor job, more that the limitations of the production have left Masters Of Horror looking ordinary. Not even John Carpenter, whose legacy includes The Thing, Escape From New York and Starman, can bring much sense of style to the material, leaving it bland and, ironically, lacking in blood. The DVD transfer isn't bad but Anchor Bay look to have done what they can, which isn't much - both episodes look soft, often too dark and without much colour.
Typically of Anchor Bay, there's a choice of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS audio tracks, all of which are very good with the latter two only adding more presence to the soundstage. Again, though, these tracks reveal the limitations of the production with the dialogue often sounding lost amid the effects, although, I grant you, this may have more to do with a lack of confidence in it more than any failure to mix it correctly. Finally, there are English subtitles on each of the features.
Given how Masters Of Horror was originally destined for DVD, each release comes with a brimful of extras, which are largely mirrored across the discs, described as follows:
Commentaries: Cigarette Burns has two - one from John Carpenter, the other from Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan - whilst Dreams In The Witch House has a session with Stuart Gordon, Exra Godden and Anchor Bay's Perry Martin. Anyone who's listened to John Carpenter talking alone on some of the DVD releases of his previous films will know what to expect here and he doesn't disappoint, being honest and forthright about his involvement in the Masters Of Horror series. McWeeny and Swan come over as fanboys lucky to be making their first feature, whilst playing up the arrogance that comes with being industry figures but it's the Dreams In The Witch House commentary that works best, taking advantage of the three contributors to look at the various aspects of the feature, the series of which it's a part and the DVD release.
Behind The Scenes: The Making Of...: Titled so to leave nothing to the imagination, these are simply quick-edits of various parts of the production, clips of which - from Cigarette Burns (3m52s) and Dreams In The Witch House (7m14s) - will be familiar should you watch the rest of the features on the discs.
Working With A Master...: Believing that you can learn something of a director by those they work with, this lets us into John Carpenter's (18m54s) working methods by interviewing Greg Nicotero (the 'N' in KNB), Keith David (The Thing), PJ Soles (Halloween), Keith Gordon (Christine) and Sam Neill (In The Mouth Of Madness) with the most enjoyable insight being his basing of the fight in They Live on the equally marathon boxing match of The Quiet Man. Similarly, the feature on Stuart Gordon (24m15s) sees Brian Yuzna, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (The Dolls), Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs talk about Gordon with particular focus on Re-Animator, his most famous film.
An Interview With...: John Carpenter (18m08s) and Stuart Gordon (20m58s) appear on their individual discs beginning with an overview of their respective careers before discussing the work in hand - Cigarette Burns and Dreams In The Witch House. Whilst Gordon looks much less angry than he does on the pencil drawing on the front of the DVD for his feature, Carpenter now looks old indeed but talks about his career with a great deal of wit and intelligence, which will be familiar to anyone who's followed his sometimes chequered career.
On Set: And Interview With...: Just when you think this is all about the directors along come the actors with Cigarette Burns offering an interview with Norman Reedus (7m17s) whilst Dreams In The Witch House sees Chelal Horsdal (7m17s) recounting her experiences of working with Stuart Gordon as the single mother who's the focus of some unwanted attention from Walter Gilman.
Script To Screen: These are the literally-titled features that begin with a reading of a scene from the script before showing the rehearsing and shooting of said scene, ending with the cut that appears in the final feature. In Cigarette Burns (36m40s), the focus is on Ballinger showing Sweetman his prisoner as well as seeing Fung blinding himself whilst in Dreams In The Witch House (42m39s), it's a scene in the mental hospital followed by a conversation between Gilman and Masurewicz before ending with Gilman's seduction by the witch who haunts his dreams.
Visual Effects: Brown Jenkin of KNB has a feature (5m08s) all to himself on the Dreams In The Witch House disc before Lee Wilson, Visual Effects Supervisor on both Cigarette Burns (2m07s) and Dreams In The Witch House (1m51s), takes the viewer through the various effects used in the features.
Finally, there are Outtakes/Bloopers, Stills Galleries, Biographies for John Carpenter and Stuart Gordon, Screen Savers and, as DVD-ROM content, copies of the scripts for Cigarette Burns and Dreams In The Witch-House as well as HP Lovecraft's original story.
Yet I can't help but feel that Masters Of Horror on DVD is shortchanging its audience who might have preferred to lose some of the extras in favour of buying the entire series in one box set rather than in thirteen individual releases. Coming in this fashion, it could well prove to be an expensive hobby should you choose to complete the set but with no sign of a boxset, there may well be no alternative.
In all other respects, though, Anchor Bay have, however, done a sterling job on the discs with more extras than the actual features deserve. For that, they are to be congratulated but given the patchy and expensive nature of the release of the entire set, they may not be financially rewarded.