Welcome back to the high-def drive-in, 'Master of Horror' fans. Nearly a month after the Blu-ray release of the first two volumes in a planned four-volume set, Starz/Anchor Bay is back with another collection of episodes from the first season of the Showtime horror anthology.
Like its two predecessors, 'Volume III' presents three episodes out of sequence with their original airings. In fact, the first episode presented here -- "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" -- was actually the kick-off to the entire series. Directed by Don Coscarelli ('Phantasm,' 'Bubba Ho-Tep') from a short story by Jon Lansdale, 'Incident' received some of the best reviews of any of the first season episodes, and it's easy to see why. Although I'm not quite as sold on it as others, at least it generates some real tension, and fully exploits the more lenient standards and practices of premium cable.
The story itself is standard-issue slasher flick material. Ellen (Bree Turner) is the Final Girl, left stranded after a car accident on a mountain road. Before long, she's on the run from a monstrous creature known as "Moonface" (John De Santis, chillingly effective without ever opening his mouth) who apparently has a fondness for capturing and torturing nubile young women. Now it's kill or be killed for Ellen, as she engages in race for survival until the sun comes up and ole Mr. Moon Man loses his home court advantage.
The sheer simplicity of 'Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" is likely what makes it so appealing to genre fans. It's not at all pretentious, with Coscarelli spending his time generating suspense and scares rather than angling for heavy-handed meaning. Unfortunately, those very same characteristics ultimately make it a fairly shallow and forgettable affair. I can't deny that the episode has some effective moments (the last 15 minutes are particularly tense), but with the whole slasher thing having played itself out twenty years ago, I've always felt this one has a certain "been there, done that" quality to it.
Next up is "Dance of the Dead," directed by Tobe Hooper. I haven't read the original short story by Richard Matheson, but I can only hope that it's more coherent than this. Granted, I don't think Hooper has made a good movie since 'Poltergeist' in 1982 (and if you believe the rumors, he didn't even direct that), but even by his standards, this one is a mess.
Apparently meant as some sort of post-apocalyptic allegory, 'Dead' feels as if Matheson just threw a bunch of bizarre plot elements and situations up on a wall to see what would stick. After the world has been obliterated by some sort of phenomenon known as "the blizz", young Peggy (Jessica Lowndes) works at a diner owned by her mother and likes to get into trouble with local "bloodrunner" Jak (Jonathan Tucker), who deals illegal drugs on the side to a sleazy nightclub owner (Robert Englund). After Peggy ingests some particularly potent substances, she suffers severe hallucinations, and eventually spirals into the madness of the club's entertainment, the "dance of the dead."
Unfortunately, none of this makes much sense on either a narrative or thematic level. (If it's meant to be yet another cautionary tale against drugs, we've seen it a million times before, and done far better.) Making matters worse, Hooper piles on increasingly-bizarre imagery and annoying MTV editing tricks that play against his strengths. As he proved with his seminal classic 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' he's much better at realistic horror, and finding terror in the everyday. Perhaps a more fantastically-oriented stylist (such as a Clive Barker) might have been able to pull off "Dance of the Dead," but despite so desperately wanting to shock and disturb, Hooper's take is surprisingly pedestrian.
By the time we get to the third and final episode on this disc, you almost have to wonder if a more suitable title for this volume might have been 'Hackmeisters of Horror.' Seriously, did the producers of this series really expect us to accept Larry Cohen -- the man responsible for some of the worst "horror comedies" of the '80s (including 'The Stuff,' 'Q,' 'Return to Salem's Lot') -- as a legitimate master of the genre? Judging by his entry, a satiric little number called "Pick Me Up," I'd have to say the answer is an unfortunate no.
The story is by David Schow (who also wrote the teleplay), and to be fair it's a potentially nifty little take on the usual "hitchhiker gets picked up by backwoods psycho" scenario. Here's the scenario: Jim Wheeler (Michael Moriarty) is a trucker who kills hitchhikers, Walker (Warren Kole) is a hitchhiker who kills drivers, and caught in the middle is the feisty Stacia (Fairuza Balk), who kills neither hitchhikers nor drivers, but may have to do both if she's to survive.
Unfortunately, despite its promising setup, "Pick Me Up" quickly falls apart, introducing far too many secondary characters and subplots. Cohen can't quite seem to get a grip on the tonal twists and turns, and as a result the entire episode is neither funny nor scary. Although Balk attempts to invest Stacia with at least some intelligence and resourcefulness, this is Moriarity's show all the way. The always-quirky cult fave (and Cohen regular, having appeared in most of his '80s flicks) really hams it up, with his ever-escalating level of lunacy hitting just the right note of black comedy that Cohen and Schow never quite achieve.
In the end, this third volume of 'Masters of Horror' is neither the best nor worst batch of episodes from Season One. Unfortunately, it may be the blandest, with none of the episodes taking nearly as many risks as one would hope for a series where the filmmakers are given free reign to work their magic. There's enough here that die-hard horror fans will probably still want to give 'Volume III' a spin, but if you've not yet seen 'Masters of Horror,' I wouldn't recommend letting this be your introduction.
As was the case with the two previous Blu-ray releases of 'Masters of Horror,' the episodes that comprise 'Volume III' are quite distinct in terms of visual style. That's a good thing, of course, as it helps keep the series fresh and gives each episode its own unique identity. Happily, the 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 encodes provided here are more than up to the challenge.
The entire disc benefits from a nice, clean source. Though all three episodes are intentionally dark, I was really impressed by the consistency of blacks and shadow delineation. There is a good amount of detail even in the dimmest areas of the picture, with "An Incident On and Off a Mountain" seeing particular benefits from the jump to Blu-ray. I remember watching the episode on Showtime and having trouble making out details in the murk. Not so here, with even the darkest regions of the villains' lair giving up their maniacal secrets. Contrast is also nicely done, with only "Dance of the Dead" looking a little too tweaked and "hot" for my taste.
Color-wise, 'Volume III' doesn't contain the most vibrant episodes of the season, but still hues hold firm with no bleeding or smearing, nor any oversaturation. Fleshtones are also surprisingly natural, although again I thought "Dance of the Dead" was the weakest of the bunch, with skintones looking pale and slightly waxy. Unfortunately all three episodes suffer from the same two problems I detected on both previous Blu-ray volumes of 'Masters of Horror,' namely some video noise in low-lit scenes, as well as edge enhancement. The image can suffer from aliasing, and while it's far from the worst I've seen, contrast halos can be intrusive.
As I discussed in my reviews of the two previous volumes in this series, I wasn't all that thrilled with sound design on the episodes included in those discs. Simply put, I found them shockingly drab for what should be a thrill-a-minute scarefest. Although I can't say that 'Volume III' is a massive turnaround, overall I found myself more satisfied this time out, as these episodes happen to be a bit more sonically imaginative and aggressive.
In particular, "An Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" really gets cooking in its final 15 minutes or so. There are some creative uses of discrete effects that really heighten the atmosphere, and the episode clearly benefits by being more action-oriented in nature. "Dance of the Dead" and, to a lesser extent, "Pick Me Up" are perfectly fine, with a decent amount of atmosphere, although I still longed for a heftier presence to the rear soundfield. At least the music is nicely bled on all three episodes, which helps up the creep factor.
Tech specs are on par with the previous releases. Bass extension is deeper than you might expect for a made-for-cable show, and all three soundtracks are nicely recorded. Dynamics are realistic and clean, though high-end remains a tad bright for my taste. I also had a few annoying dialogue issues that left me reaching for my remote to bump up the volume level a few times during both "Mountain Road" and "Dance of the Dead."
With two Blu-ray volumes of 'Masters of Horror' already under their belt, it seems Starz isn't messing with the formula. Once again, they've ditched all the video- and still-based extras from the stand-alone DVD releases of these episodes, retaining only the audio commentaries. That's a particular shame, because while these tracks are quite informative, completists just won't be able to trade up without feeling that they're missing out.
The fun kicks off with "An Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," which gets two tracks. Don Coscarelli is joined by co-screenwriter Stephan Romano on the first track, which was more technical than I expected. There's little real discussion of the story or "characters" -- instead, the focus here is on the effects, lighting and a few revisions made to the script. Thankfully, Coscarelli returns on track two with author Joe Lansdale, who penned the original short story. Lansdale is diplomatic about the alterations Coscarelli made to his narrative, but things really get fascinating when he talks about some of his original ideas that inspired the story. I personally love hearing about how horror writers are inspired to put such fantastical and frightening ideas on the page, so this was probably my favorite commentary on the disc.
"Dance of the Dead" also receives two commentaries. Director Tobe Hooper goes solo on the first track (moderated by DVD producer Perry Martin), while writer Richard Christian Matheson gets track two all to himself. This is a case where I think a single edited track could have been more effective. Of the two commentaries, I personally preferred the writer track. While Hooper's production stories and technical chit-chat are largely banal, Matheson is more interesting as he fills us in on more of the world he constructed in his original story, as well as his intended themes (some which seem to have been lost due to each episode's tight 55-minute runtime).
Finally, we have one final track for "Pick Me Up." I wasn't a huge fan of the episode itself, but Larry Cohen is always a great presence on his commentary tracks. The director doesn't disappoint here, delivering a fun and lively commentary and demonstrating a great sense of humor about his work that's refreshing and unpretentious. I can only imagine that he must have had about fifty cups of coffee before recording this track, as he talks so rapid-fire (and with wonderful New Yawk accent) that I honestly had trouble keeping up. The track only drags when Cohen occasionally lapses into merely describing what is onscreen, but otherwise this one is a real hoot.
This latest volume of 'Masters of Horror' compiles another trio of episodes from the series' first season, and it's something of a mixed bag. This is certainly not the best that the show has to offer in terms of originality and scares, but it's also not the worst. As a Blu-ray release, this one's more or less on par with the two that preceded it -- the video and audio are solid enough, and Starz again offers up a wealth of audio commentaries as the only bonus features. Unless you're a die-hard fan of the series, I'd say 'Masters of Horror: Season One - Vol. Three' is best relegated to a spin at the rental counter.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.