The Screwfly Solution (Dante, 2006)

Once again Joe Dante brilliantly utilizes the hour long Master’s of Horror format to craft a devastating commentary on crucial political and social issues. He seems to be the only director Showtime has employed able to grasp the concept of less is more, showing just enough gore to wet the appetites of horror fans and compliment it with a socially relevant and entertaining story. In Dante’s glossy, vibrantly colorful modern day world, men begin killing women at alarming rates, an epidemic that follows a disease vector and has seemingly no beginning nor end. Scientists can’t figure out why these mass murders are occurring, just that it’s some sort of bio-terrorism hell-bent on destroying as many people as possible. Dante creeps through each scene with an eerie attention to the personal fear and horror engulfing his main characters while showing glimpses of the global chaos occurring around them. The Screwfly Solution becomes a brutal critique of man’s ignorance toward the worsening state of the environment and his final solution doesn’t pull any punches. If man is the pest, mother nature must react accordingly. Unlike other Master’s of Horror regulars like John Caprenter, Tobe Hooper, and Dario Argento, Dante has flourished with the time constraints of hour long television, giving tantalizing and horrifying hints to where man might be headed if certain political and environmental problems stay unresolved.

Pro-Life (Carpenter, 2006)

I know John Carpenter, a director I greatly admire for his early films, is capable of making trash; just look at the 1990’s. But his two episodes of Masters of Horror, last year’s atrocity known as Cigarette Burns and now this season’s Pro-Life, display a disturbing trend for Carpenter as a filmmaker. Not only has he abandoned all sense of mood and style, conforming instead to the Movie Of the Week visual look of all the Masters of Horror episodes, but he’s abandoned any semblance of subtext which made films like The Thing so amazing. I could barely make it through Cigarette Burns last year, a jumbled mess of film history and horror. Pro-Life, while improving on the narrative incoherence of Burns, still radiates stupidity with it’s dumbed down thematics and simplistic visions of violence. The story feels amateurish, and the performances are bad even for Masters of Horror. This film could have been made by any hack out there, it’s sad the name connected with this piece of shit is one of true missing masters of horror. Someone needs to write this guy a decent script with some tension and wit. I think I’ll try.

Sounds Like (Anderson, 2006)

Highly pertinent subject matter; director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) excavates the layers upon layers of sound (technological and man-made) which could be driving us slowly insane. Larry Pearce (Chris Bauer), a middle-aged white man who has heightened hearing, ironically works as a manager for a Computer Support Center, monitoring calls and cutting them off if needed. The guy hears everything, for better or worse. Past this setup, Anderson does very little with plot, repeating variations on Pearce’s slow dissent into madness instead of pitting his character within a grander story. I admire this minimalist approach, which does provide ample amounts of brilliant sound design. There isn’t much else though, kind of a hollow narrative shell covered in complex audio cues. I couldn’t help cringe and feel sorry for Larry as his hearing gets stronger, becoming aware of so much bullshit in the world and not being able to do a damn thing.

The V Word (Dickerson, 2006)

Pleasantly surprised with this Ernest Dickerson helmed (Spike Lee’s orginal DP of choice, now director of Bones) Masters of Horror episode about two teens who wander into a funeral home to see a dead bully, but end up being bitten by a vampire (reality has to be thrown out the window here). Dickerson builds tension with the less is more philosophy, and when he abandons this technique later in the episode the scares become less frequent. Lots of underlining comments on video game culture, ethics within the fantasy world, and sacrifice. But Dickerson’s vampire story covers a lot of ground and by the end one feels exhausted, for better or worse. The early scenes in the funeral home freaked me out, especially when scary as hell vampire baddy Michael Ironside starts creeping around.

Family (Landis, 2006)

What an upgrade from last week’s episode. Director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) has crafted a deeply disturbing portrait of the American family gone nuts. From his striking opening tracking shot (moving through a deeply “Christian” house with gospel music and pictures of Cheney and Bush and ending on one of the creepiest images you’ll see in film this year), to his final invasive camera thrust, Family represents what this series should be about; the freedom to use genre as subversion. This second episode in Masters of Horror: Season 2, a monumental upgrade from Hooper’s embarrassment, follows Harold (George Wendt), a seemingly normal bachelor who lives on the end a culdesac in midwestern suburbia. Harold’s secret really isn’t worth divulging, except that it involves skeletons, paranoia, and a nuclear family he has created with the help of acid. Nasty stuff. When two new neighbors, a nice young couple, move in across the street, Harold’s desires and manifestations begin to change his ideal of family. Landis achieves a beautiful synergy between horror and political commentary, seeing the two essentially intertwined. The gore means something to the story, instead of being gratuitous. The characters, frighteningly real in our present day political crisis, play by their own psychotic rules, but surprisingly, within the boundaries of reality. Whatever motivations have forced these strange bedfellows to come together, Landis pokes at their connection with brutal intensity, showing young and old constantly at odds, liberal and conservative melting into one steaming pot of inadequacy. Identity becomes lost through all the hatred, death, and weakness, leaving only the joy of knowing you were once human. By then it’s too late. We’ve become something else. Landis’ film, while incredibly witty and horrifying, has an eire of cynicism and panic about it, attempting to foresee rumblings of pain hiding under the need to protect, at any cost for some of these crazies, “traditional” family values.

The Damned Thing (Hooper, 2006)

Masters of Horror – Season 1 RECAP: Had high expectations for this series and Season 1 is a huge letdown. Only Joe Dante’s Homecoming stands alone as a great episode, although John Landis’ Deer Woman and Larry Cohen’s Pick Me Up had moments of memorable fright. Even though these so-called masters have complete freedom, most simply play it safe with substance and style. Still haven’t seen the just released Miike episode Imprint, which was too crazy to show on cable (huh?). Low points from John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper provided a downright awful display of once-great storytellers dwelling in absurdity and incoherence.

Which brings us to Season 2, with some overlap in directors, the aforementioned Tobe Hooper helming the opener. Amazingly, The Damned Thing, an even more dreadful outing for Hooper than last season’s Dance of the Dead, inflicts not the intended “horror” of the series title but horror of incompetence; a complete disregard for style and quality acting, obvious metaphors and a stab at political critique that even Bush might get.

This film is downright bad, not simply because the story, which involves demonic possession of a small town in rural Texas, shamelessly attempts to display a generational conflict, but has no brass to conjure up scares within this context. It seems the filmmakers and the executives at Showtime feel the need to display extreme gore and carnage in place of any worthwhile horror. But since the possibility of genius still remains (there is another Joe Dante episode this season), I will continue to be disappointed.