Dreams in the Witch-House
Director: Stuart Gordon
Screenplay: Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli
Based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft
Cast: Ezra Godden as Walter Gilman; Jay Brazeau as Mr. Dombrowski; Campbell Lane as Masurewicz; Chelah Horsdal as Frances Elwood
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #6
After the immense disappointment of Cigarette Burns, Stuart Gordon's entry was a safe way for me to get my confidence back with the series. Based on H.P. Lovecraft, it was a welcome change of pace purely for telling a story which was interesting and, in spite of likely being the middle of all of them in rank, succeeding with said story. Its particularly successful as well as my knowledge of Stuart Gordon's career is an odd, patchy affair considering how fascinating his filmography is on paper. (Also I'll admit I haven't been a huge fan of Re-Animator (1985); I might change my mind on a revisit, but for a while I openly admit to having preferred Brian Yuzna's sequel Bride of Re-Animator (1989) instead.) Gordon's career in general upon reflection deserves a deeper investigation, as few could attest to having gone between experimental stage plays to Charles Band productions, adapting Lovecraft to adapting David Mamet. Gordon's entry for Masters of Horrors also emphasises how there's a sub current of the series deserving to be called "Masters of (Literary) Horror" as well as most of the material is adaptations from various sources, from HP Lovecraft to EC Comics, Clive Barker to even Mick Garris adapting one of his own stories for his entry. It's a nice reminder of the dept horror cinema has to the printed page as much as a visual-audio medium, these short horror stories finding the right idea on paper of adapting small scale, personal horror stories.
The actual episode of Dreams in the Witch-House is pretty conventional, in which a protagonist (Ezra Godden) stays at a dilapidated rental apartment only to suffer from dreams of a witch and her familiar, a human faced rat, that may be more real than he thought, having evil machinations for the baby of the female resident (Chelah Horsdal) next door to his room he's becoming smitten for. But that's not something to complain about in this case as Gordon makes sure to make a solid adaptation of the material which provides the idiosyncratic twist itself, rationalising witchcraft through arcane and hidden science. This provides one of Lovecraft's most curious and inspired ideas, influenced from learning of the concept in his private life from study, of non geometrical space in theory allowing reality to bend and transport people in environment. As a result, the witch tropes within the film have a strange, distinct edge that stands out especially as most of the story stays within the home, peppered with the creepy details from Lovecraftian lore including a cameo by the Necronomicon. Adding to this is also the bleak ending, possibly stretch to absurd gory lengths with multiple conclusions, but befits an episode that was a suitable pick-me-up after the disappointment with the previous one.
Incident In and Off a Mountain Road (2005)
Director: Don Coscarelli
Screenplay: Don Coscarelli, Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen Romano
Based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale
Cast: Bree Turner as Ellen; Angus Scrimm as Buddy; John DeSantis as Moonface; Ethan Embry as Bruce
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #7
In vast contrast to Stuart Gordon and John Carpenter in these viewings, the director of the actual first episode of Masters of Horror, (in terms of what was broadcast on television first), Don Coscarelli is someone I have no ideas upon. I have vague memories of watching the (then four) films of the Phantasm series when I was just getting into cult cinema but that's a century to myself now and the only clear image I have is a literal object, that I created one of the spiked floating spears from out of moulding putty and pieces from Warhammer 4000 sets that still sits on my window years after now. For a long time it's only been Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) that gave me an image of Coscarelli as a director, but that was still a long while ago as well. Aside from this, Coscarelli is an entire mystery for me, the time appropriate to correct that now Phantasm is a five film franchise currently and had all the bells and whistles thrown at it within 2017.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is a twist on a stereotypical horror trope seen many times before especially in modern straight-to-video chillers - a woman driving on an isolated midnight road finds herself the target of a deformed serial killer - the catch that, due to her previously having dated a survivalist, the relationship of a mirroring narrative, her ability to protect herself is something the killer nicknamed "Moonface" has never had to deal with. The result plays out as two separate stories connected by the protagonist Ellen (Bree Turner) having to deal with two male figures, one which is immediately dangerous as the stereotypical inbred rural sociopath, the other more insidious played by actor Ethan Embry, starting off as a charming man who just happens to have provocative opinions on the world burning around him but slowly is revealed to be more problematic, a paradox in how Ellen is both indebted to him for learning how to try to survive Moonface but with his back-story with her also leading to a breaking point for her as a human being. It's a less high concept premise from screenwriter/original author of the tale Joe R. Lansdale than his story for Bubba Ho-Tep - elderly Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK fighting a mummy in a retirement home - but his taste for twisting conventions onto their head is the episode's best aspect, as is the fact the late Angus Scrimm completely goes against his cinematic image as the scene stealing figure Buddy, bouncing off his wheelchair like a hyper acting child wanting to engage in sing-along's with captive prisoners. He's a character you could easily find in one of the better Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, the first of many side characters in the first season of Masters of Horror who steal their stories outright whenever they're onscreen.
The one issue that decides whether a viewing will love Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is your reaction to the final plot twist, built up through the film but taken to a greater extreme than even the violence beforehand. The look and tone of the film viscerally fits the growing post-9/11, torture porn era of glossy scuzziness, a giant drill the killer's main weapon of choice and dead bodies more set decoration than objects of fear. The issue is more that, from a premise no matter how gristly it is thatfirmly stays within the entertaining for 90 percent of its length, the end twist does take on a greater severity including sexual violence which might come as an abrupt change of tone particularly with such content. Its less the use of such a scene, whilst itself a potential concern, but more the suddenness of it and intention, especially as this twist is like so many you usually find in horror story telling to create a jolt in a viewer for the end, but in this case uses something that levels the fantasy of the horror to rubble for something real and uncomfortable. It's a drastic twist, especially as its used at the end as a wraparound of the whole narrative, so your view on Incident On and Off a Mountain Road will change depending on one's reaction. For me personally, I'm on the fence as even without the provoking nature of how the twist's done, the sudden shift with how we should view the heroine is one I've still chewing on even if the potential trigger warning wasn't there. It's a rewarding episode, probably with the exception of Angus Scrimm however one which won't be at the top of the list when I think of the best of just this season of Masters of Horror.