Horror TV is alive and thriving. It’s talked about daily here, as well as other genre-based sites. Sure, a lot of it is trying to bring in new horror fans with great TV adaptations of well-known series like SCREAM and BATES MOTEL, while others haunt our deepest psychosexual fears like AMERICAN HORROR STORY. We know this isn’t a new strain of TV; most of us grew up watching reruns of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and later we were given TALES FROM THE CRYPT and an updated TWILIGHT ZONE series.
But there’s something that has always bothered me and been on my mind even more so during this wave of horror TV that I love… What about MASTERS OF HORROR?
Let’s take a trip to my past for a minute, shall we? In 2005, Mick Garris — the writer of one of my all time favorite movies as a kid, HOCUS POCUS — collaborated with Showtime to bring a new breed of horror anthology to television. HBO had TALES FROM THE CRYPT in the ’80s and ’90s… so why not let Showtime take a crack at it?
While Garris was entering his freshman season of MASTERS OF HORROR, I was entering my freshman year of high school. I imagine one of us had a much better time — and I can tell you it sure as fuck wasn’t me. I entered my teen years at a tumultuous time for the country, and if I’d had access to Showtime then, I think MoH would have changed my life.
The early aughts were a pretty dead time for horror television: THE X-FILES was on its way out, SUPERNATURAL was just starting to get its footing between teen fare and serious drama, and the DEAD ZONE was bringing Stephen King’s name back to the small screen… but overall it was a pretty open field.
Prior to the show itself, Garris would have regular dinners with fellow horror directors; in one such gathering, Guillermo Del Toro coined the term “Masters of Horror,” and it sort of stuck. He continued these dinners, gathering more and more names in the industry. In 2005 Garris teamed up with Showtime and these dinner guests to bring us a brand new anthology to revitalize the genre… not to mention he brought on FX maestro Greg Nicotero to do practical gore effects. What could go wrong?
Well… as it turned out, nothing. The series was met with good reviews from critics, and would run two seasons, until Showtime opted not to do a third; the “third season” would ultimately morph into FEAR ITSELF on NBC. So why is it that whenever I mention the show to someone, they have a memory of it being bad?
Season One serves as a time capsule of our society at the beginning of the millennium. The first episode, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” ushers in the feeling of disillusionment that the nation was feeling after 9/11. More importantly, it fed viewers their own fears. Our main character is a survivalist who takes his wife into the woods to teach her how to survive once the “mud people” invade. He’s not sympathetic, we don’t like him, and we aren’t supposed to. He’s the embodiment of hate that was spawned and continued to overtake us.
As the season progresses, we get several “monster of the week” type episodes that fill in the space between the more satirical ones. My two favorites of these are Dario Argento’s “Jenifer” and Takashi Miike’s “Imprint,” both of which are by far the most gruesome of the season, and both bring these foreign masters into a medium for American audiences that they had not really explored before.
So I ask again, why is MASTERS OF HORROR met with such criticism in hindsight?
I have two theories: First, perhaps because it only ran for two seasons, people just assume it was canceled because of quality. But on a second, and a more thought provoking theory — maybe the political undertones populating many of the episodes remind audiences of a time in America that they would rather forget? Sure, some of the episodes were a little ham-handed in aspects, but they were a great way for these genre filmmakers to make a statement with their work. And isn’t that what makes horror a great genre? Case in point: shows like AMERICAN HORROR STORY feature characters you would have never seen on TV ten years ago.
Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On and Off A Mountain Road” and Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” are both great episodes that take on the attitude of some parts of the country in 2005. While the former is based off of a short story by Joe R. Lansdale (which came out years before MASTERS OF HORROR), it still captured the fear that was building, and remains relevant today.
Dante’s latter episode is just as powerful in its message, but with that Dante flare we all know and love. It also reminds me a lot of Bob Clark’s DEATHDREAM, a disturbing Vietnam-era tale of soldiers wronged.
The entirety of the first season of MASTERS OF HORROR isn’t perfect… but what show is? There are plenty of episodes from THE TWILIGHT ZONE and TALES FROM THE CRYPT that don’t quite live up to “The Eye of the Beholder” or “…And All Through The House.” Your task, dear reader, is to seek out MASTERS OF HORROR and give it a second go — or maybe a first — and try to watch it with an unbiased view. I think you’ll find that you’ve been missing out on some great stories all this time.
Also… stay tuned for my thoughts on Season Two!
*All Photos: MASTERS OF HORROR; Showtime Networks, Anchor Bay Entertainment