As I originally wrote in my review of 'Masters of Horror: Season One – Vol. 1,' the Showtime horror anthology series is hitting Blu-ray in an usual configuration. Rather than issuing all season one episodes as a single-issue box set, Starz/Anchor Bay has instead split the season’s episodes into four stand-alone volumes. Although the first and second volumes are being released (separately) on the same date, the third and fourth will see their own individual release dates over the coming months.
For this second volume of 'Masters of Horror,' Starz has once again paired three Season One episodes out of sequence from their original air dates. But while the episode selection in Volume One seemed totally arbitrary, at least in this case there’s some semblance of a common theme shared by three episodes selected, in that they’re all female terrors. Unfortunately, these three episodes from genre icons Dario Argento, Lucky McKee, and John Landis also happen to be among the most disappointing of the season, especially considering the pedigree of talent involved.
"Jenifer" was the first American production to be directed by Dario Argento since the anthology "Two Evil Eyes" and was written by actor Steven Weber (himself no stranger to horror, having starred in TV's 'The Shining' and the recent 'Nightmares & Dreamscapes') based on a long-forgotten 1974 short story by Bruce Jones. A sort of fright version of "Lolita," the story’s titular character Jenifer uses her stunning looks and rampant sex appeal to destroy the bodies and souls of all the men who cross her path. Pity poor police officer Frank Spivey (Weber), who saves Jenifer's life when he finds her at the mercy of a deranged, ax-wielding suitor -- only to find out in the "horrific twist ending" that that no good deed goes unpunished.
Though suitably surreal, 'Jenifer' never reaches the visual heights we expect from Argento. His 'Suspiria' is considered one of the most stylish and audacious horror films ever made, so it’s a real disappointment that he doesn't go farther here. Perhaps the limited budget and tight ten-day shooting schedule allotted to each ‘Masters of Horror’ episode are to blame?
Also as pedestrian is Weber's script. What was essentially a one-joke short story seems to be stretched far beyond its breaking point at 60 minutes. We (the audience) know everything that Frank does not, so there is no suspense -- just inevitability. Plus, because we don't really care about Frank, there is no sense of tragedy or sadness in his fate.
"Sick Girl," directed by Lucky McKee, also takes a female as its protagonist (though of an entirely different sort). Ida Teeter (Angela Bettis, today's reigning indie scream queen, who also appeared in McKee's 'May') stars as a female insect scientist who starts a sexual fling with co-worker Misty Falls (Erin Brown). As the women's attraction intensifies, Ida suddenly finds herself a second, rather unlikely suitor -- a predatory insect that will stop at nothing to come between her and Misty.
There's a potentially interesting little short at the heart of "Sick Girl," but unfortunately this episode feels about three times as long as its 60 minutes. McKee wastes a lot of time setting up the slow-building flirtation between Ida and Erin, and then seems to re-start the story all over again when the bug comes onto the scene. Less scary than it is simply icky, the little bugger is suitably gooey, but was the case with 'May,' McKee can be so obtuse in his allegory that one often wonders what the point is. Ultimately, "Sick Girl" is probably more comedy than it is horror (as McKee himself suggests in his commentary), but for the most part, I’m sorry to say that I just didn't get the joke.
John Landis’s "Deer Woman" concludes this trilogy of estrogen-charged fear, but for my money it is the absolute worst episode of 'Masters of Horror’ to date. The story is like a bizarre tonal retread of Landis' 'An American Werewolf in London,'only with... antlers? After a set of peculiar murders, skeptical detective Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben) discovers that an ancient Native American mythological creature, in the form of a beautiful woman (Cinthia Moura), is the real killer. Finally coming face-to-face with this urban legend, Faraday will have to confront his own doubts and do battle with the most ridiculous of monsters.
Can I just say that this episode is awful? When Landis' frat-boy brand of comedy meshes (as it did in 'Werewolf,' 'Animal House,' and 'Blues Brothers'), you can get a classic, but when it misfires, it really misfires. 'Deer Woman' is neither funny nor scary, just cringe-inducing. The tone and narrative are all over the place. The episode starts as a poor serial killer story, then turns into a mystery before degenerating into a terrible monster mash flick. The conclusion is the most hair-brained of all of 'Masters of Horror' episodes (which is saying something), and the creature is badly conceived and executed. Benben is the only bright spot, possessing the sly geek-wit of an older Steve Carrell. Too bad he's stuck in such a lousy episode.
My reaction to the picture quality of 'Volume 2' of 'Masters of Horror' is on par withmy thoughts on of 'Volume 1.' Although we don’t get full 1080p video, the 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfers (framed at 1.78:1), are actually quite strong, and offer a noticeable upgrade over the broadcast airings I caught. Having said that, these presentations still have a few problems and are again wildly disparate in tone, look, and approach.
As was the case with 'Volume 1,' the source material is in excellent shape. Blacks are strong throughout, and with the exception of the more stylized 'Jenifer,' contrast is more or less natural. Problems are specific to each episode. 'Sick Girl' is the darkest, and shadow delineation suffers the most, with a flat, two-dimensional look. 'Deer Woman' is quite bright and boasts the best depth. Colors are always stable, and I was impressed by the lack of excessive chroma noise (which is often a problem with broadcast HD).
More apparent on 'Volume 2' than 'Volume 1,' however, is edge enhancement and general noise. Halos are sometimes visible on high-contrast areas, and particularly with "Sick Girl," I found the image on the fuzzy side. Still, especially considering the eclectic nature of the material, overall I was fairly satisfied with the video on this release.
Like its predecessor, 'Volume 2' of 'Masters of Horror' also offers PCM 5.1 surround audio (48kHz/16-bit). Alas, once again, these episodes suffer from bland sound design that I can only guess was limited by budget and a lack of production time. All three mixes are almost entirely front-heavy and do little to elevate themselves above the dreaded tag of "made for cable."
Though I disliked the episode the most, "Deer Woman" actually sounds the best of the bunch, boasting some spiffy discrete effects, which add to the comedic nature of the piece. "Sick Girl" is the dullest (it might as well be stereo), while "Jenifer" teeters on the brink of being interesting. Alas, not unlike Dario Argento's visual style in this episode, I found this mix just a bit too restrained when it should be wild.
Tech specs are consistent with 'Volume 1,' with all of the episodes well-recorded, and the mixes clean and free of any defects. Dynamic range is not particularly expansive but is spacious enough with decent low bass. Dialogue, meanwhile, is quite well-balanced. None of the soundtracks on 'Volume 2' blew me away, but at the same time I’ve certainly heard worse.
As with the first of 'Masters of Horror' Blu-ray release, this second volume includes all of the same audio commentaries as found on the individual standard-def DVD releases of the series. Unfortunately, once again all of the additional video and text-based materials (featurettes, still material, biographies, and more) have been dropped. It's a real head-scratcher that smacks of an exploitation of the series' devoted fan base. Hopefully Starz will reconsider their approach on future volumes.
"Jenifer" kicks off with a solo track by writer-actor Steven Weber (with occasional prodding from moderator Perry Martin). The positives are that Weber never lets a dull moment go by, making the track’s 60 minutes feel quite breezy. He's chatty and appreciative of working with the legendary Dario Argento and hardly dwells on his performance. Although I wish I’d enjoyed the episode itself a bit more, this is certainly the best commentary on this disc.
"Sick Girl" offers up the busiest of the tracks. Director Lucky McKee, stars Angela Bettis and Jesse Hlubik, and composer Jaye Barnes Luckett all appear, though McKee dominates. This one’s a fun and very comprehensive track, with a nice balance between story and character points as well as some slim but interesting comments from Luckett on how the score helped shape McKee's aesthetic style during the editing. I wish the actresses had been a bit more animated in the discussion, but this is still a worthwhile commentary.
"Deer Woman" features an audio commentary with stars Brian Benben and Anthony Griffin; director John Landis doesn't believe in recording commentaries, so he sat this one out. Although this isn't a terribly informative track, Benben is such an entertaining guy that that it’s still a fun listen. He and Griffin offer up a few thoughts on the story, some improvised character moments, and a couple of the stranger on-set happenings. You won't learn much here, but you’ll probably get a few chuckles.
Compiling three of the weakest episodes from the show’s first season, 'Masters of Horror: Volume 2' is probably the least essential in Starz's four-volume ‘MOH’ line-up. As a Blu-ray release, this one is a mixed bag. Although the 1080i video transfer is surprisingly solid, a disappointing batch of audio mixes and a trimmed-down supplements package knock this disc down a few pegs.