As I've discussed in my earlier reviews of the three previously-released volumes in the 'Masters of Horror' Blu-ray collection, Starz/Anchor Bay has chosen to release the first season of the Showtime horror anthology as four separately packaged volumes, each featuring three-to-four episodes a piece. This final volume in the collection boasts a couple of true gems, but I'm happy to report that (for once) even the weakest episodes in this batch have something worth recommending to horror fans.
Kicking things off is "Imprint," Takashi Miike's adaptation of the Shimako Iwai novel. As the story goes, Christopher (Billy Drago) returns to Japan to fetch the prostitute he once fell in love with, Komomo (Michie Ito), only to find out that she has committed suicide. Devastated, he spends the night with another prostitute, the disfigured (Youki Kudoh), who reveals more of the events that led to Komono's tragic death. As the night wears on (and the saki kicks in), her tales become more and more bizarre, and Christopher begins to suspect that all may not be quite as it seems. To reveal what happens next would spoil the story, but suffice to say it's pretty darn crazy
By far the most controversial episode of 'Masters of Horror' ever, "Imprint" incited controversy before it even aired; in fact, Showtime ultimately decided to shelve the episode due to its "disturbing" content (odd for a show called 'Masters of Horror'!), and it was only on DVD that the episode would finally be seen. If you are at all familiar with Miike's past work (such as the infamous 'Audition'), you probably know what you're in for -- to be sure, the director's patented sadism is on display. Unfortunately, though the story's ultimate twists are indeed shockers, the reputation that precedes "Imprint" left me feeling a bit disappointed. The acting here is pretty terrible, the production values often shoddy, and there are a couple of moments that require such a suspension of disbelief that they almost flatline the entire episode. I still think this one is worth seeing for some truly unforgettable moments, but "Imprint" is not the undiscovered classic I hoped for.
"Homecoming" is another story entirely. The most acclaimed episode of 'Masters of Horror' to date, this is the kind of perfect marriage of story, director and sensibility that the show should be all about. Based on an original teleplay by Sam Hamm, "Homecoming" has a great concept. America is waging a war overseas, and while pundits on both ends of the political spectrum spend their days pontificating, the causalities pile up. That is, until the dead soldiers suddenly return en masse as typical, drooling zombies. But in an ingenious twist, instead of munching on civilian flesh, these undead only want the right to vote. Flooding the nation's ballot boxes, they set off a cultural war over the question of whether those who've paid the ultimate price for our country should be allowed to enjoy all of its rights and freedoms.
"Homecoming" works on many levels -- as horror, as a thriller, as a political allegory, and as absurdist satire. Director Joe Dante has stumbled in recent years on the big screen (largely due to poor material), but he regains his footing here, bringing great visual passion to Hamm's articulate and sly script. "Homecoming" is also remarkable because, unlike so many so-called "liberal" treatises, it doesn't make apologies for its viewpoints by treading the middle of the road. It asks the tough questions, draws its conclusions, and is never anything less than thought-provoking. If there is only one episode of 'Masters of Horror' you ever see, make it this one.
Directed by John McNaughton and based on a short story by Clive Barker, "Haeckel's Tale" is part detective story, part magic show, and part zombie movie (it's no surprise that George Romero was originally attached to direct). Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil) is a scientist who has failed in his experiments to raise the dead, so he seeks out famed necromancer Montesquino (John Polito) for help. On his way home from their first meeting, Haeckel seeks rest in an old cemetery (uh-huh), run by an ailing farmer named Wolfram (Tom McBeath) and his beautiful young wife Elise (Leela Savasta). It doesn't take long for Haeckel to become infatuated with Elise, despite her strange behavior. But a return visit by Montesquino will soon reveal many dark secrets in the Wolram household, and the true nature of the couple's relationship.
Mick Garris adapted the Barker story and though he retains the basics, the episode is often awkwardly constructed. A pair of tacked-on bookends are mawkish and add little, while the dialogue often feels oddly dated and forced. McNaughton fares far better with the performances, eliciting believable work out of Cecil and particularly Polito, who handles some fairly ridiculous lines with great aplomb. McNaughton also ladles on the atmosphere, making "Haeckel's Tale" quite moody, even if it's ultimately not all that successful.
Mick Garris returns to both write and direct the final episode in this set, "Chocolate." Henry Thomas stars as Jamie, a scientist gifted with heightened senses of smell and taste (as his best friend jokes, "you could be in a packed stadium and smell who farted"). So when Jamie begins to have incredibly visceral (and spicy) visions of a beautiful woman (Lucie Laurier), he soon becomes overcome to the point of obsession, and his personal and professional lives unravel. Things take a turn for the worse when he has a final, violent precognition of the woman's death, and he realizes he must track her down to save her life, and himself from madness.
Writer/director Garris is also the creator of 'Masters of Horror,' so he clearly was free to do just about whatever he wanted with "Chocolate." The result is, by design, the least terrifying entry in the entire run of the series thus far. This is more of a darkly-twisted romance with hints of sci-fi and not unlike something out of 'Outer Limits' or 'The Twilight Zone," but it is refreshing to see a 'Masters of Horror' episode largely free of gore and all the other derivative visual trappings of the series. I've not been a fan of all of Garris' past work (which includes 'Psycho IV,' 'The Stand' and 'Riding the Bullet'), but he's more confident here as a director than ever before, taking his time with the setup, and wringing strong performances out of Thomas and Laurier. There are some pacing problems (the climax feels particularly abrupt), but "Chocolate" is the rare 'Masters of Horror' episode that's actually cerebral rather than graphic, and scares by virtue of its ideas.
All things considered, 'Volume Four' certainly boasts the strongest batch of episodes on any of the first season 'Masters of Horror' Blu-ray sets. Not only does this one include the now-classic "Homecoming," but each of the other episodes (while flawed at times) are never less than engaging.
Starz again serves up a batch of 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfers for this latest volume in their 'Masters of Horror' Blu-ray collection, and again this disc features an inconsistent mix of visual styles. However, these happen to be some of the better shot episodes of the first season, so that does give 'Volume Four' a slight leg up.
My favorite episodes in terms of visuals are "Homecoming," and the surreal, dreamy "Chocolate." These also boast the brightest images, with nicely saturated colors and nicely modulated contrast. While blacks are solid throughout the all four episodes, grain is more apparent on "Haeckel's Tale" and "Imprint," while shadow delineation also suffers due to some loss of fine detail. Otherwise, all are pretty sharp and dimensional transfers. Edge enhancement again rears its ugly head on occasion (in every episode), but it's not severe. And considering the 1080i source, jaggies and motion artifacts did not distract (note that results will vary depending on your display device).
All four episodes on 'Volume Four' are presented in uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit). Nothing here breaks the mold of the previously-released Blu-ray volumes, with each episode suffering from anemic sound design with little in the way of surround activity.
Sonically, the most impressive episodes are "Homecoming" and "Imprint," which at least have some lively scenes with a few discrete effects ("Homecoming" in particular gets a lot of mileage out of bleeding its lively percussive score to the rears). It's too bad that more hasn't been done with atmosphere, as the more cerebral "Chocolate" could have really benefited from some inventive dispersion of subtle ambient sound. With these mixes so front-heavy, at least the recording has a clean feel, with nicely expansive high-end and decent low bass (for a cable television series). There are no source issues, and dialogue is generally well-balanced on each track.
Sadly, Starz doesn't deviate from the pattern they established with the first three volumes of 'Masters of Horror' on Blu-ray, again dropping all of the video-based extras from the previous standard DVD releases. That leaves only a single audio commentary for each episode, and nothing more.
Starz has saved the best for last with this fourth (and final) volume in its 'Masters of Horror: Season One' Blu-ray collection, which contains two of the most thought-provoking episodes of the series' entire run -- Takashi Miike's "Imprint" and in particular, Joe Dante's "Homecoming." As was the case with the first three volumes, Starz has again produced a quality TV-on-high-def release that boasts above average video and audio, and a generally strong batch of commentaries. The only real shame here is that Starz continues to drop all of the video-based extras from the 'Masters of Horror' standard DVD releases. Still, this one's certainly worth a look for fans of the genre.
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.