By Tom Kapr
Last October, I undertook the self-imposed challenge of watching 30 horror movies in 30 days. I called it “30 Days of Madness,” and though it stretched me as a film critic, as a writer, and as a human being, it also stretched my sanity more than once. This is the time of year I always get back into the horror genre, and it’s no wonder why–such a fascination is ingrained in many of us and only intensifies at this time of year because of the annual arrival of Halloween and the movie traditions that accompany it. I wanted to do another horror series this season, but nothing on the scale of last year’s madness, so I’ll be watching the first season of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series and recording my impressions here at the Rant Pad.
Masters of Horror ran for two seasons between 2005 and 2007. Created by Mick Garris, perhaps best known for his televised adaptations of Stephen King novels, the premise is simple: 13 episodes a season, each episode a one-hour mini-movie made by a director known for his or her work in the horror genre. During my 30 Days of Madness last October, I reviewed two episodes from season two. “The Black Cat” is still one of my favorite works of horror ever; “The Washingtonians” is still one of the worst things I’ve ever sat through. With these two diametrical examples to go by, I know I am to expect a vast divergence in quality from one movie to the next. Hopefully I’ll find some good horror flicks along the way.
Masters of Horror #1.1 — Incident On and Off a Mountain Road
I have a love/hate relationship with the horror genre: I love horror as a genre. I’m drawn to it. I love that it can explore aspects of the human experience in ways that a more straightforward dramatic piece can’t. It can be thrilling. It can be therapeutic. But I hate that so much of the genre is crap.
I don’t mean that I hate that most of it is cheesy. And most of it is cheesy. But I can enjoy a cheesy horror flick. When I say crap I mean, purely unpleasant sadistic crap with no redeeming human value. So much of the genre is pessimistic in nature, and I hate pessimism. (And I realize the inherent irony of saying “I hate pessimism.”)
Horror should horrify, by definition, but it should be a way to explore the macabre, not to revel in it.
I had hopes that Phantasm writer/director Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” (which is a terrible title, by the way) would be a story of female empowerment in the face of victimization–a push back against the majority of the slasher genre in which so many girls make so many stupid decisions and then lay back screaming and begging and take what’s coming without much of a fight. After all, the premise was that a young woman has a car accident on a lonely mountain road and is victimized by a crazed backwoods killer, but recalls the lessons she learned from her survivalist husband to fight back. And she does, eventually. But the moment the killer throws the knife at her and misses, and it becomes embedded in a log inches from her head, and instead of grabbing the knife she runs away, after she’s already made the decision to fight back–well, then the premise is lost on me. At that point, it’s just bad writing.
Bree Turner as the heroine and John DeSantis as "Moonface." Do I need to specify which is which?
But that bad writing slowly turns into ever-more disturbing writing. We get to watch the other girl being terrorized by the killer get strapped to a table, alive, and have an electric drill put through her eye. We get to watch, in flashback, the ways in which the heroine’s survivalist husband (played by Ethan Embry) becomes increasingly paranoid about survival, going from teaching her survival methods to terrorizing her with them and eventually tying her up and raping her for weakness. Rape is just as valid a part of a dramatic work as any other part of the human experience, though I believe it should only be depicted if absolutely necessary, and here it does inform later revelations about the lead character and how she survives, but the final outcome is so cheap and schlocky that it the rape scene loses all validity. (A note on Ethan Embry: he certainly stretches his acting beyond the goofy, charming characters he’s best known for, and he’s actually quite believable as a militia nut, but I just personally don’t want to see him in the role of a man who would victimize and rape his own wife. I’d much rather remember him for Empire Records, That Thing You Do!, and Can’t Hardly Wait.) Finally, we get watch the heroine become, not just the victor in her struggle, but swing completely to the other side of the spectrum as she continues to kill in cold blood. (Side note:Phantasm villain Angus Scrimm, one of the best horror star names ever, has a supporting role as a creepy old man. Shocker.)
And I haven’t even given away the big twist which, everything else aside, I have to admit, I did not see coming and is pretty effective.
Mostly, this is just one of those bleak, heartless, unrelenting slasher flicks that tries to pack as much awfulness as it can into its 50-minute running time. I see no value in such productions. It’s a thin line between this and torture porn. Hopefully, subsequent episodes will be more about exploring human fears and the unknown aspects of life and psychology that scare us, and less about cheap violence.
I can almost hear you asking, Why do you watch so much horror when you have so many problems with so many of the most prevalent themes and filmmaking methods of the genre? As a person with such a strong interest in horror and such strong feelings about violence in movies, I wonder that myself sometimes; but perhaps, reading some of my earlier writing on the genre will give you a better understanding of my fascination with it.