When a television series has the audacity to tout
itself as "Masters of Horror" , some scepticism is the natural response, but Mick Garris has really managed to pull a rabbit (or should that be 13 rabbits?) out of the hat with an impressive roster of genre favourites.
The list of accomplices spans nearly forty years of horror from Dario Argento to Miike Takashi, all given the remit to make a one hour show with "no holds barred". The Showtime series has proved successful enough to spawn a second helping and, in order to get UK viewers up to speed, Anchor Bay are releasing the first series on DVD. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the releases are staggered, two at a time, rather than as a whole series box-set. The first double bill consists (strangely) of episodes 5 and 6, although each episode is entirely self-contained so this is not really a problem.
Episode #5 – H. P. Lovecraft’s "Dreams in the Witch-House"
Stuart Gordon once again returns to H.P. Lovecraft (as he has done from his debut Re-Animator onwards) in this contemporary re-working of Dreams in the Witch-House. Walter is a student of the Miskatonic University in need of a quiet room to concentrate on his studies. The cheapest place, naturally, has an uncouth landlord and a gibbering self-flagellating madman in residence. Next door to Walter resides single mother Frances, and her baby Danny. Walter’s studies in string theory and other dimensions soon become more than theoretical as the angled walls in his room appear to contain doorways to another universe, and a very frightening one at that. Plagued by visions of a man-faced rat and a beautiful/hideous witch, Walter is not the only person concerned for his sanity, or the safety of others.
The single main location allows Gordon to maintain a sense of claustrophobia and, like From Beyond (1986), much is made of simple lighting and predominantly in-camera effects. These techniques allow actors to react more naturally and produce a better sense of verisimilitude than that which CGI would produce. Walter’s descent into madness is mirrored by the audience’s doubt in him as much as the other characters. Of course reading from the Necronomicon and being part of inter-dimensional intercourse with daemons means the prospects of a happy ending are slim. Dreams in the Witch-House offers an enjoyable descent into madness. Gordon manages to make Lovecraft’s occasionally oblique writing accessible without dumbing down the feeling of dread, menace or the fragile grip on sanity that we mortals possess.
Episode #6 – "John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns" John Carpenter has also dallied with H.P. Lovecraft in his work, although more obliquely than Stuart Gordon, most notably with In The Mouth of Madness (1994) and the Nigel Kneale homage Prince of Darkness (1987).
Similar themes are given a contemporary twist in
Cigarette Burns where media, rather than literature, is given the power to drive men to insanity and murder. The Necronomicon substitute here is the film La fin absolute du monde by obsessive director Hans Backovic, a film so powerful that it caused the audience at its only official screening to turn on each other in an unbridled orgy of murder. The only extant print is believed to be lost, but wealthy nutter (he has a de-winged angel extra from the film chained up in his house) Bellinger wants to see it before he dies and hires film memorabilia detective Kirby to trace it. Kirby must find the film despite the increasingly violent visions and the descent into the seedy underbelly of the film/occult world.
Cigarette Burns (a neat image incorporating psychotic visions, the reel markers on celluloid and the endless ciggies puffed away by many Carpenter protagonists) is a succinct cross between (the dreadful) 8mm (1999) and the (thoughtful) Ninth Gate (1999). Naturally this
doesn’t make it 8 ½ (sorry!) but a simple, inevitable, detective story that leads to a shocking conclusion. What sets it apart is that, like In the Mouth of Madness, it is knowingly self-referential about the process of filming and editing, without going into post-modern overdrive. Film is shown as having a bond between maker and audience. We are told Backovic "abused that trust that we place in film-makers", a line that absolves genre film-makers from the blame of media witchhunts by placing the deadly film at the feet of a fictional boogeyman. Hollywood is the real implicit enemy ("I detest the falseness of Hollywood") here, but there is an unholy alliance between those who applaud independent free-thinking cinema and those who "abuse the trust". Carpenter reinforces this in a number of key scenes. When Kirby finds himself at the mercy of a snuff moviemaker, having just witnessed a live scene from his latest flick, his captor pontificates: "One take. One uninterrupted shot. The only cut was to her. This is truth." But the scene is deliberately edited. Earlier, a temporal cut is so purposeful that it jars the viewer as much as the protagonist – in this sense we have glimpsed the character’s confusion for ourselves.
Despite the simple detective premise and hokum occult overtones Cigarette Burns offers a more thoughtful examination into the role of the media and the manipulation of the viewer without getting bogged down with academic baggage. There’s plentiful gore along the way, jumps and another fine turn from Udo Kier. A fine way to pass an hour.
Anchor Bay’s decision to release Masters of Horror piecemeal may well make for expensive times ahead but there are some compensations – each director gets his own disc and also it leaves plenty of room for an exhaustive range of extra features. For those with the stamina these far outweigh the running time of the main show – interviews, commentaries, retrospectives, "making of" documentaries etc. There are even full versions of the screenplays and screensavers (Mac users are also catered for). Roll-on the next double bill.