In 2004, much to the delight of fear fans everywhere, Showtime launched the cable series 'Masters of Horror.' The brainchild of filmmaker Mick Garris ('Psycho IV,' 'The Stand,' 'Riding the Bullet'), the anthology show would bring together the great directors of modern horror, each given carte blanche to direct an hour-long installment free from the usual strict constraints of television censorship (and, some might say, good taste). Though critical reactions were mixed, the show was a hit, and has enjoyed two successful seasons on Showtime (with a third planned, although whether it will be back on Showtime is still up in the air).
Licensed to Starz Home Entertainment (formerly Anchor Bay) for home video release, the distributor made the controversial decision to eschew the traditional season box set approach for the series' original DVD release, and instead spread out the episodes as a series of single-disc releases -- a pricey proposition for the show's fans, and one that was greeted with a great deal of criticism.
Now, for the Blu-ray debut of 'Masters of Horror,' Starz is releasing the first season in four separate volumes over the next few months. Will the high-def debut of 'Masters of Horror' live up to fans expectations? Read on...
For 'Masters of Horror: Volume 1,' Starz picked three episodes from the first season, seemingly at random. "Cigarette Burns," "Dreams in the Witch House," and "Fair-Haired Child" are shown out of sequence with respect to their original airdates, and so far as I can tell, there’s no thematic thread tying these episodes together. Instead, all that unifies them is the marquee value of the three filmmakers behind the camera (John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and to a lesser extent, William Malone). The results are just like the series itself -- pretty darn schizophrenic.
"Cigarette Burns" kicks things off. Recovering heroin addict Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) ventures to the creepy old mansion of a millionaire film collector (Udo Kier) to locate a rare print of a film called “La Fin Absolue du Monde”. As the legend goes, the film was shown only once, and its very nature drove the audience into a crazed frenzy resulting in mass bloodshed before the theater went up in flames. After a series of increasing bizarre (and grisly) encounters with a variety of weirdoes affected by the film, Kirby finally discovers that the rare print really does live up to its reputation -- with deadly consequences.
A small-screen partner to Carpenter’s post-modern treatises like 'Prince of Darkness' and 'In the Mouth of Madness,' "Cigarette Burns" is clearly the director's statement on the idea that horror movies themselves can have some sort of corruptive influence on their viewers. Unfortunately, in terms of craftsmanship, it continues the director’s career downslide. Whatever interesting ideas there are floating about in the episode are mired by a talky narrative, weak acting, sluggish pacing, and a general feeling of hackwork. The subplot about Jimmy's haunting visions of his deceased girlfriend, who apparently died as a result of a drug overdose, also never pays off (it does, however, give Carpenter another excuse to get his actress to flash some gratuitous, ready-for-cable T&A).
To Carpenter's credit, he never does quite reveal the images on that lost film, instead leaving it to our imaginations to fill in the blanks. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able to show similar restraint with the rest of the episode, as it quickly degenerates with a detour into torture porn, only to climax in a silly orgy of gore excess. It has some plusses, but coming from Carpenter, "Cigarette Burns" can only rate as a disappointment.
"Dreams in the Witch House," directed by Stuart Gordon is a more consistent effort, although its story lacks the intellectual grist of "Cigarettes Burns." College student Walter Gilman (Ezra Godden) has just rented a loft in a building in the New England town of Arkham. While studying "inter-dimensional string theory" in his courses, he is haunted by nightmares of a 17th-century witch and her pet rat with a human face. As his visions become increasingly more terrifying, Walter must prevent the death of his neighbor’s baby at the hands of the witch -- or is it he himself who’s being groomed to be the murderer?
Based on a short story by H.P Lovecraft, the Gordon episode seems to show a nice reverence for the source and handles Walter's mounting psychosis well. Stylistically however, the episode is a disappointment, with the witch and the rat-human completely lacking in visual wit and panache. Having never read the original story, I can't compare the two endings, but I found Gordon's wrap-up (he also co-wrote the teleplay) to be frustrating in its simplicity and neatness. On the bright side, Godden delivers a strong central performance (particularly in the concluding scenes), which gives the episode more punch than it might have had.
"Fair-Haired Child" wraps things up. This original tale concerns itself with 13-year-old Tara (Lindsay Pulsipher), who is kidnapped and locked in a basement with the creepy young son Johnny (Jesse Haddock) of a scary older couple (William Samples and Lori Petty). During Tara's incarceration, she will have to bond with Johnny if she hopes to get through the night.
I found this episode to be mostly dreck. William Malone, working off of a screenplay by Matt Greenberg ('Halloween H20') never paints the elder couple in any sort of believable light (the hammy performances by Samples and Petty don't help). We also know right away that something isn't quite right with little Johnny, so as the episode drags on and on, from the confusing flashbacks to one poorly-lit and executed suspense sequence after another, up until the inevitable reveal, which unfortunately just isn’t very scary. "Fair-Haired Child" is one of the weakest of the entire first two seasons of the series and an unfortunate way to cap an otherwise solid first volume of 'Masters of Horror.'
As 'Masters of Horror' is an anthology series with a rotating line-up of filmmakers (as well as directors of photography), it is no surprise that each episode varies wildly in style from the others. Starz presents all three Volume 1 episodes in 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 video (framed at 1.78:1). As I caught most of the show when it was first cablecast on Showtime HD, I can say that despite not being 1080p, these are a nice (if not overwhelming) upgrade over the original airings.
Each of the three episodes are united by pristine prints, with strong blacks, well-modulated contrast, and vivid colors. "Cigarette Burns" is probably the most naturalistic, and thus gets the edge in terms of overall detail. By contrast, "Fair-Haired Child" is quite stylized, with the hot whites and tweaked colors sometimes making the image flatten out and look artificial. "Dreams in the Witch House" falls somewhere in between (and is the least memorable visually). Drawbacks on all three episodes are primarily problems in the shadows -- black crush is a bit steep at times, often making fine textures blur into nothing. There is also some obvious video noise, although it’s hardly severe. I also noticed motion artifacts, largely on slow pans, which result in some jagged edges.
Despite these issues, considering the source material and the pleasant upgrade over the broadcast versions, overall I found the quality of these transfers to be quite good. Here’s hoping that Starz can maintain this level of picture quality on future 'Masters of Horror' Blu-ray releases.
Starz has elected to go with uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround audio (48kHz/16-bit) on all of its Blu-ray titles so far (including theatrical titles such as 'Halloween' and 'Evil Dead II.') 'Masters of Horror' gets the same treatment, although unfortunately the sound design on all three of these episodes give this track little to work with.
"Cigarette Burns" is the most boring -- it's entirely front-heavy and may as well be stereo. "Dreams in the Witch House" and "Fair-Haired Child" are more involving (especially the latter), with at least some discrete effects and better bleed of their scores. None impressed in terms of envelopment, and sustained ambiance is quite lacking across the board. On the bright side, dynamic range has decent heft, and we do get fairly low bass (at least for a cable series). Dialogue can excel, particularly on "Cigarette Burns," with every word audible. Still, none of these episodes are at all sonically memorable.
Although this new Blu-ray compilation includes each of the audio commentaries from the original standard-def DVD discs of these ‘Masters of Horror’ episodes, unfortunately all of the additional video and text-based materials (featurettes, biographies, and more) are absent, making this extras package something of a disappointment.
I was most excited to listen to the two commentaries provided for 'Cigarette Burns' as I felt that the episode had some intriguing ideas, even if they ultimately result in a narrative quagmire. John Carpenter contributes the first track; the second features co-writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. It's too bad the trio didn't just sit down together, because Carpenter sometimes veers off into silently watching the flick, and his two young charges could have easily filled the gaps. I was also disappointed that Carpenter rarely touched on the themes of the story, instead preferring to drop superficial production memories and giggle with glee at all the gore. The writers are much more energetic and insightful about the nature of the material and the thrill of working with Carpenter, one of their genre heroes.
"Dreams in the Witch House" features director Stuart Gordon and actor Ezra Godden, moderated by DVD producer Perry Martin. Gordon dominates the discussion, and it's clear his respect for H.P Lovecraft runs deep. Godden touches on a few of the performances, but his comments are modest. Martin is a gracious moderator, rarely intruding except to ask questions when the going gets slow.
William Malone is joined by writer Matt Greenberg for "Fair-Haired Child," and seeing as I found the episode such a mess, I mostly stifled giggles while listening to this one. Greenberg fills in all the blanks on the gestation and development of the story, while Malone is a bit more dry, discussing the casting and the visual aspects. This is a pretty basic track, but it gets the job done.
'Masters of Horror: Volume 1' compiles three episodes of the show's first season, and like the series itself it's a hit-or-miss affair. As a Blu-ray release, this one’s solid but not exemplary. The video quality is quite nice, the audio is certainly acceptable, and although Starz hasn’t ported over any of the video-based extras from the earlier DVDs, at least we do get some nice audio commentaries. All things considered, die-hard fans of the 'Masters of Horror' series will want to pick this one up, but all others can just confine it to a rental.