I'm a huge fan of horror movies, although there are precious few horror movies I actually go see. My tastes tend to run to movies that successfully surround you in a frightening, oppressive atmosphere, and creep you out via the power of suggestion — the minority of what gets made — rather than simply seeking to shock you with appalling gore — the majority. Not that I don't appreciate a good gorefest, but that sort of thing has to be done very cleverly and stylishly for me to find it anything other than cheesily exploitive. Red dye and Karo syrup cost a filmmaker nothing, thus any no-budget video hack can slap together a gore movie and call himself a filmmaker. Good horror filmmaking is like anything else: it succeeds via the filmmakers' understanding of the language of cinema and storytelling excellence. Throwing guts at me and calling yourself transgressive will usually earn you a sneer, monstrous egotist that I am!
So it was with some cautious apprehension but general optimism that I looked forward to Showtime's heavily ballyhooed series Masters of Horror, whose brief was that it would be a series to allow the finest horror directors free rein to take off the gloves and do what they do so well. That the series has not, in fact, accomplished that is a greater disappointment to me than any of the particular episodes and whatever individual flaws they might have.
As I don't want to take up hours of your time detailing every episode so far shown and going into each and every nitpick I have in anally-retentive and eye-glazing detail, I'll pick out the two episodes I was looking forward to with the greatest enthusiasm and explain my disillusionment with each. I'll start by saying that sometimes having high expectations can be a thing to lead to disappointment no matter what. But I think it's sad we live in a world where the reality of what kind of entertainment we get makes low expectations the only sensible approach.
First of these is Jenifer, directed by Italian giallo master Dario Argento. Argento is a cult director if ever one existed. Virtually unknown among the great unwashed, he is as close to a deity among the committed horror geek community as you're likely to find. His 1977 masterpiece Suspiria is an exemplar of both what he's so excellent at, and what it is that mainstream American audiences simply would not get about his approach to horror cinema. Argento is not a director known for gritty realism of the sort that American audiences demand. You'd never get a Silence of the Lambs or Se7en out of him. What Argento makes are almost horror fantasies, films that exist in an exaggerated nonreality where wide-eyed about-to-be-murder-victims run dazedly around overdecorated, garishly lit sets to the strains of pounding synthesizer-based prog-rock music, while their killers set up wildly and unnecessarily complicated means of offing them that would confuse even Rube Goldberg on a good day. His best movies are meant to play like actual nightmares; eschewing strict logic for the confusion of violence and disorientation. In Opera, the killer, obsessed with a young ingenue, forces her to watch him kill all her friends by tying her up and taping needles under her eyes so she can't close her eyelids! Why? Because it's fucked up.
Thus it is that Argento's reputation as a "master of horror" has something to do with the bloodiness of his films, to some extent. But it is principally rooted in his approach to the language of cinema. It isn't just that his films' victims meet graphic deaths. It's in how those deaths are crafted, staged, lit, shot, and edited. How they are scored and sound designed. It may be style over substance, but to Argento, that's how he gets the job done. To him, a horror film is about feeling the experience, not understanding it on an intellectual level. Like a madder version of Hitchcock, whose dictum was to "put the audience through it." Show one of Argento's movies to a friend of yours whose only experience with horror is the Friday the 13th or Elm Street franchises, and he'll whine that the blood looks fake, or that the acting is lousy (of course it is; Italian movies record no sync-sound as S.O.P., and all dialogue is ADR'ed, not necessarily by the actor who's onscreen). But the dyed-in-the-wool horror fandom revere him without exception. They understand something mainstream viewers don't.
So now the tragedy: Jenifer, the first Argento-directed work likely to reach a substantial American audience in about 25 years, sucks. And it sucks because at no time does it allow Argento an opportunity to do the kinds of things he's known for, that make him the "master of horror" that this whole series is supposed to be honoring simply by being on the air in the first place. Not once do we get one of Argento's showstopping setpieces, on a par with the famous (and revolutionary at the time) Louma crane shot from 1982's Tenebrae (in which the camera pulls away from the window of a house, goes over the roof of the house, peers in several other windows, then comes to rest in a room on the other end of the house, all in one take). Nor do we get the delerious music, although the episode is scored by the same musician from the 70's band Goblin, who scored most of Argento's classics. What we get is a thoroughly bland and predictable story about a succubus who invades the life of a police detective, to the boredom of all.
After the tragedy, the irony. I suspect Argento's trademarked excesses were kept in check mostly because of a blasé script that never created a platform for them to be displayed. But I also expect that they were kept in check by network execs and producers who feared that Argento's normal style would be too over-the-top for American TV audiences, and thus made sure he'd never be able to go as hogwild as he's capable of doing — you know, to really be Dario Argento. If so, isn't the show betraying its own intent? It reminds me of the fate of John Woo, who, after establishing a rep in the late 80's as the world's greatest and most daring action director simply by exercising no restraint in piling on where most action films held back, came to America from Hong Kong, and made the stylistically castrated yawners Hard Target and Broken Arrow, two action movies so generic in their execution there was no reason for them not to have gone straight to video. (By the time he made Face/Off, American studios were finally letting Woo do his thing, but by then the style he'd pioneered had been totally knocked off by Robert Rodriguez and gone passé. By the time Woo made M:I-2 for Tom Cruise, all the fans he'd made from The Killer and Hard Boiled had dismissed him.)
I have hopes for Argento's return to form, though. He has since announced to the orgasms of fans everywhere that he is now in prepro on Mother of Tears, the long-promised third film in his "Three Mothers" trilogy, which so far includes Suspiria and Inferno. I'm nervous about his use of American screenwriters, whom I fear may supress Argento's stylistic flourishes under a tediously explained "logical" storyline. But if said screenwriters are real fans of his, unlike the writers of Jenifer (one of whom was its star, the congenitally bland Stephen Weber), we may be in for a real comeback!
Next we come to John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns, from a script by Scott Swan and Drew McWeeny (who's known for posting to AICN as "Moriarty"). Here we have a case where a true "master of horror" does, in fact, a fine job, but is let down by weak material. The episode has a neat premise: a film researcher heavily in debt and in danger of losing his theater is hired by an eccentric gazillionaire — played with gusto by the great Udo Kier, doing that decadent Eurotrash thing he's perfected since the early 70's — to track down the only existing print of an obscure film titled La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), the one screening of which at a festival in the 70's drove its audience to mass hysteria and murder.
Thus the episode bears some similarity to the plot of Carpenter's underrated 1995 horror-satire In the Mouth of Madness, which was all about the relationship between art and audience. But I had a number of immediate nitpicks with Cigarette Burns; some minor — I found the protagonist miscast, though not disastrously so — but others larger. For one thing, Carpenter has long voiced his dislike for directing lengthy, expository dialogue scenes (which he calls "thankless"), and such scenes make up about 70% of the episode. Talk, talk, and more talk, and Carpenter soldiers through it all as best he will. Some of these scenes work fairly well, in that Swan and McWeeny do come up with dialogue that builds upon the mystery they're developing surrounding this deadly film, and Carpenter has the scenes shot and lit effectively. It's almost enough to make you ignore the similarities not only to In the Mouth of Madness but also The Ring and Videodrome.
There are a couple of other scenes where Carpenter is allowed to drop a real surprise in our laps, also. Despite the overall talkiness of the script, and despite Carpenter's reputation — going back to Halloween — for preferring the power of suggestion to graphic explicitness, there's one beheading scene here that's probably the most brutal thing Carpenter's ever put to film. And it shocks not because it's so grisly, but because, in the context of what we've been watching, it's sudden and unexpected, yet it fits in logically with the story's overall premise about the effect this lost film has upon those obsessed with it.
But the biggest problem with Cigarette Burns is its facile ending. Throughout the story, I kept thinking to myself, "You know, they're building up the mystique of this lost movie to such a humongous level, I bet they'll never pay it off at the climax." And they don't. All along, we've been getting speeches about how dangerous this lost movie is, about how its equally mysterious director wanted to go beyond film narrative and assault his audiences, about how film as an art form should not be about simple escapism but a true force for changing the world, demolishing comfortable preconceptions, and just plain rocking your boat.
And then Carpenter and the script make the mistake of actually letting us see some clips from the movie in the final scene (once the protagonist has rather anticlimactically located it for Kier). And what do we get? Well, you know, garden variety shots of mayhem, violence, people in cages screaming, an angel having its wings cut off (a supernatural element to the story that is never built upon satisfyingly). All in all it looks like the kind of thing you'd see in any music video from a Scandinavian death metal band. And this kills the whole show. The function the lost movie served in the story was that of a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin, and that it should have remained. They should have never actually let us see any of it, because as long as its supposedly insanity-inducing content was allowed to exist only in our imaginations, it was a scary concept. To show it at all took that away from us, and robbed the element of the story that was its entire driving force of the force it had.
Carpenter is limited in other ways here as well. Widely known for his excellent use of the 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio, here he's forced to use the standard 16:9 aspect ratio that's become the HDTV norm. So much dialogue is required to develop the story and build up the mystery surrounding the lost film that Carpenter is given little to no time to build scenes using the kind of slow-burn suspense he's employed in movies like Halloween, The Thing and Prince of Darkness. In the end, while it's great to see Carpenter back in the saddle and masterfully directing even middling material, it's a shame that middling material was what he had to work with. If Cigarette Burns had been a feature — and it shows signs of straining to be one — Carpenter would have been able to display what a real "master of horror" is capable of. But then I bet you anything the goddamn MPAA would have never allowed him to get away with that beheading scene.