So hey guess what I found on Hulu? If you read the title and answered, “Season 1 of Masters of Horror” then ding ding ding ding! You win the prize!
What prize, you ask? Why, the prize of reading my thoughts on all the episodes, of course!
Let’s get started…
“Incident On and Off a Mountain Road”: A pretty standard “woman is chased by a monster in the woods”/”final girl” sort of slasher. It tries to spice things up a little by interleaving the story of the girl and the monster with flashbacks to the story of the girl and, er, the other monster, which is to say her abusive ex. Her abusive ex who was a paranoid survivalist, and taught The Girl all the skills she uses to defeat The Monster, because gods forbid a woman ever turn into a badass on her own. At the end, The Girl even thanks her abusive ex, dedicating her victory to him. Urgh. Also: there’s a rape scene. Because of course there is.
“H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House”: I swear to god Lovecraft is trying to crawl his way out of his grave right now to come and punch everyone involved in making this episode in the face. I’ve read the original story–and you can too, if you want–and remember being creeped out by the descriptions of uncanny geometry. Masters of Horror tries to keep this element in by making the Gilman character a physics (?) student, and he even wears a cute Miskatonic sweatshirt and there’s a cameo by the Necronomicon. Despite that, the adaptation takes out all the actual Cthulhu mythos from this Cthulhu mythos story, replacing it with the eminently generic Satan (urgh) and also some message about how women and sex are evil or whatever (double urgh).
“Dance of the Dead”: Protip, girls, if a boy ever “compliments” you by putting down other girls then run like hell because he is an asshole. Based on a Richard Matheson story (which I haven’t read), this is about teenage disillusionment in a post-war America. The title refers to a drug, supposedly developed for the military, but repurposed to make dead corpses of girls “dance” in what, I assume, is supposed to be some kind of comment on the exploitation of women? Or something? IDK. There’s one slightly creepy line in this, where Innocent Heroine Girl asks Generic Riot Grrl about said dancers and GRG answers, “They’re what happens to girls like me” as her maniac grin slowly fades. I’d like to extend a commendation to actress Lucie Guest for that one scene. Too bad we had to focus more on the creepy “romance” between IHG and her Junkie Boyfriend, and also the conflict with IHG’s mum because gods forbid women ever have positive relationships with each other. On the plus side, Robert Englund (a.k.a. Freddie Kreuger) is always good value hamming it up as the creepy necrophiliac club MC.
“Jennifer”: Blah blah blah women are evil blah blah men think with their dicks blah blah blah. I’m not even going to rag on this one for being misogynist. It’s even worst than that; it’s misandrist. But what else can you expect from Dario Argento, I guess.
“Chocolate”: Some dude starts getting visions through the eyes (and other sense) of some woman, up to an including what is essentially accidental psychic rape, as Some Dude experiences The Chick being fucked by her boyfriend. He doesn’t seem to like this much. He does seem to like it a lot better later on when he experiences her masturbating alone in the showerbath. This is the point where I turned off the episode because, hello? Creepy stalkerish much? For the record, judging by the summary on Wikipedia “Chocolate” does try and address this a bit but… eh. I’m still not filled with a desire to go back and watch the end of it. Oh, and for those of you having a “who is that guy?” moment during this episode? It’s Max Headroom.
“Homecoming”: Dead soldiers come back in order to vote out the government that sent them to war. When their plans for peaceful change are thwarted by election fraud… well. Then things get messy. This one is pretty blatantly obviously a black comedy about the Bush administration and a bunch of right wing US media pundits, so your opinion on it will probably depend on your opinion on those topics. I thought it was kinda cute. Also: this is a uniquely US story in that it revolves around the US attitude to both gun control and the repatriation of the bodies of war dead. Huh.
“Deer Woman”: Kind of a rehash of both “Jennifer” and “Dreams in the Witch House” in the “woo~oo~oo women and sex woo~oo~oo!” sense. Also can’t quite seem to decide if it wants to be a black comedy or not, and fails either way.
“Cigarette Burns”: The season’s first nominally interesting/creepy episode, hallelujah! In this, Some Dude is tasked to track down a film which supposedly sends everyone who views it into an orgy of violent nihilism. So it’s kind of like the DARKER and EDGIER version of that Monty Python episode about the joke that’s so funny it kills everyone who hears it. John Carpenter (The Thing, They Live) does a good job with material that can really only be let down by its reveal. Just how bad is the film? What does it show? Sadly, the episode cops out a bit; the film isn’t really that bad per se, it just shows the ritual torture and mutilation of an angel. Said angel’s blood and pain is what curses the film and everyone who watches it, because Satan. And, look. Maybe it’s just me but, like, I’m an atheist. There are two things I find really, really freakin’ scary: unfathomable/unknowable/unstoppable disasters like zombie plagues and Elder Gods, and the evils people do to each other. The one thing I don’t find scary? Like, at all? Satan. Satan is a cartoon supervillain, challenging kids to guitar duels and wondering why so many people keep falling into his house. As an actual villain to be taken seriously in Big Girl horror? He’s kind of had his day. Meh. Oh well.
“Fair Haired Child”: A moderately enjoyable story about a girl kidnapped and trapped in a basement with a boy and demon, who may or may not be the same character (spoiler: they’re the same character). Sort of a “Beauty and the Beast” story, in a way, and though demons are involved, it’s really more about the awful things humans do. Also has some kind of… Ingmar Bergman-y type dream sequences in it. Because Reasons, I guess?
“Sick Girl”: My second favourite episode of the season and one of, in my opinion, only two that meet the criteria of horror in the “disturbing” sense (as opposed to, like, urban fantasy with gore, or whatever). An awkward entomologist gets a new girlfriend and a new bug specimen, all on the same day. Coincidence? Of course it’s not; this is a goddamn horror show! It’s also very much a love story between the two titular girls, and they are so adorkable it’s like… OMG. Imma just die. They’re both so broken and so sweet you just want everything to turn out alright for them. Which is what makes the horror of the ending. Because… they are happy. So… there’s that? I guess?
“Pick Me Up”: Two serial killers fight over who gets to kill the girl. I skipped this one because… urgh. Can we not?
“Haeckel’s Tale”: It’s Clive Barker so you know there’s gonna be a wealth of gross-ass sex. In this case with zombies. Well. At least the woman’s enjoying herself, I guess? Even if all the men aren’t. Incidentally, one day I want someone to write the story of a plucky young Victorian scientist who defies the theological warnings of her elders and manages to defy God and raise the dead… after which things proceed to basically turn out okay. I mean, with some zombies. But basically okay. Now that would be a twist ending!
“Imprint”: Holy hell. Now this is horror, but it’s also Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, and my favourite, Gozu), so of course it’s gonna be awesome. Apparently Miike has been quoted as saying he toned this down to try and make it acceptable for US television. He missed the mark. Like, way, way missed the mark, and the episode was never aired during Masters of Horror‘s original run (though it’s now available on Hulu, etc.). Almost everything about this is spot-on perfect. For starters, it looks fantastic; that really goth-punk 19th century Japanese aesthetic, all larger than life costumes and coiffed hair in tatters (which I’ve loved the look of since I first saw it in Gemini). For seconds it is brutal to watch; there’s an extended torture scene which features very little gore but is just excruciating in its almost understated brutality (and Miike is not shy about forcing you to watch the aftermath, either). For thirds, almost every character here is a woman (yay!), and it uses the theme of sex in an unflinching way that doesn’t end up being inappropriately titillating a la basically every other episode in this season. For fourths, the plot does actually require you to think about it a little (if you can, after the visuals). About the one thing I wasn’t so keen on is that, despite almost everyone here being Japanese, and the story being set in Japan, the characters all speak English. Not just English, but English with that really stilted delivery that’s popular in a lot of surrealist horror.1 I fucking hate that style, but at least if I have to read subtitles I don’t notice it as much. Oh well.
So… yeah. That was Season 1 of Master of Horror. If you’re pressed for time, the three episodes I’d recommend as must-sees are “Cigarette Burns”, “Sick Girl”, and “Imprint” (in ascending order of recommendation).2 If you’ve got a little more time, “Dance of the Dead”, “Fair Haired Child”, and “Homecoming” aren’t too bad either.
Now… to get started on Season 2, I suppose.
- I think there’s going to be a lot of people who think this is “bad acting” due to the actors not having English as their native language. There may be some truth to that, but I also guarantee you it’s a stylistic choice relating to the genre. Go watch some David Lynch films and see for yourself. ^
- And, no, it has not escaped my notice that my two favourites are also the two least “traditional”, in the Western-horror sense… and also the two that feature love between women as their centerpiece, with men only really appearing in supporting roles. Also: body horror. Take all that as you will, I guess. ^