HUFF: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (2004-2005)
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"Pilot," "Assault and Pepper," "Lipstick on Your Panties," "Control," "Flashpants," "Is She Dead?," "That Fucking Cabin," "Cold Day in Shanghai," "Christmas Is Ruined," "The Good Doctor," "The Sample Closet," "All the King's Horses," "Crazy Nuts & All Fucked Up"
MASTERS OF HORROR: H.P. LOVECRAFT'S DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE (2005)
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starring Ezra Godden, Chelah Horsdal
teleplay by Dennis Paoli & Stuart Gordon, based on the story by H.P. Lovecraft
directed by Stuart Gordon
MASTERS OF HORROR: CIGARETTE BURNS (2005)
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starring Norman Reedus, Udo Kier
teleplay by Drew McWeeny & Scott Swan
directed by John Carpenter
by Walter Chaw In an effort to step out from the shadow of HBO's remarkable run of original programming, Showtime contributes to the noise pollution with retarded, sub-par retreads like the inexplicably-lauded hour-longs "Weeds", "The L Word", and the puffed-up psychodrama "Huff". I'm a big fan of Hank Azaria, for no good reason, I guess, beyond his long-term involvement with "The Simpsons", but cast herein as the titular shrink (Craig "Huff" Huffstodt) who witnesses a gay patient (Noel Fisher) commit suicide in his office in the pilot episode, Azaria finds more than just his character neutered and ineffectual. The writing is the first problem with "Huff", leaning hard as it does on the Dr. Phil Handbook for Fake Shrinks in its therapy sessions (leave out the dead gay kid, incidentally, and until episode four's guy-who-refuses-to-shit Huff's patients all appear to be beautiful women) and making the bad mistake of thinking that castrating bitch goddess mothers (Blythe Danner, playing Estelle Getty), nymphomaniac wives (Paget Brewster), and precious/precocious kids (Anton Yelchin) will write themselves out of narrative Bermuda Triangles. Its lack of originality and stultifying obviousness isn't what I hate (it's too boring to hate), though: what I hate is the intrusion of the supernatural in the character of a Hungarian panhandler (Jack Lauger) Huff helps in ways so astonishingly altruistic as to suggest religious mania--not to mention an aesthetic that applies edits and score with the feckless aggression of the genuinely clueless. It looks cool, it sounds sage, and it leaves characters stranded in the middle of a whole lot of slick, iMovie-crunched, amateurish bullshit.
"Huff" doesn't serve facile testosterone demonstrations well and it certainly does no favours for "incisive" family dramedies that fade out to piquant piano noodling after 50 minutes of wrestling with Oedipal complexities and the real cost of human suffering. Once jive-talking, Jesus-freak earth-mama Paula (Kimberly Brooks) roosts as Huff's no-nonsense receptionist, all the elements of a WASP objets d'evotion have fallen into place--fourteen-year-old blowjob parties, enfeebled relatives (Huff's brother is some sort of poignant schizoid), and badly-researched legal hearings notwithstanding. I love the Japanese woman who appears only to speak Chinese because, hey, what's the fucking difference? East is East, am I right? (The novel punchline for her is that she serves a plate of seafood that puts white people off their appetite, meaning that as far as wit and originality go, this joke's surfing the midline.) Saving grace? I'd offer up the example of Oliver Platt as Huff's best friend and sometime-legal counsel Russell Tupper, a hedonist in the most hedonistic sense of the term fond and magnificently unashamed of drugs, black hookers, jujitsu, and manual prostate stimulation. Used most often as a kind of comic relief and foil for the upstanding Huff (whose saintliness is asserted vocally at least once per episode--no one's been called a "good man" this much since Charlie Brown), Platt is, ironically, so effortlessly excellent that he handily obliterates everyone else onscreen, thus inspiring the deep-rooted desire that the series were instead called "Tupp".
The real problem with "Huff" is a common one these days (see "Grey's Anatomy", in particular): it uses the troubles of the world as metaphorical grist for a self-obsessed, even smug, individual to mill whatever is possible for smug, self-obsessed people to glean from other people's misery. The "Seinfeld" finale is starting to look like genius in the rear-view: the only justice for verbal, non-starting, vampyric assholes is incarceration at best, summary execution ideally. As a show, "Huff" wants us to get off on people getting poleaxed by fate the same way that its creators do--and for as little as I buy the original Job story, I buy it less when the authors are, shall we say, less than divine. There are no genuine moments in "Huff", everything about it (with the exception of Platt) is an artifice erected on a slate bedrock of cliché and desperate pretense. The consequences are Lifetime consequences and the jokes (an extended conversation with Platt on the pot loaded with shit entendres, for instance) are more pathetic than sophisticated. The self-consciously hip title of the thing is your first clue: it could describe the dialogue as delivered by everyone except Platt, or it could be a snide riposte about the mind-altering activity required (as in "-ing model glue") to actually enjoy this shit without irony. Ultimately, it's just an example of branding-by-committee undertaken by the same tribe of ass-monkeys that put together the toxic formula of long-lost dads and Bob Saget cameos with constant Lazy Susan pans around pastiche characters trading un-witty barbs in neat, carefully-polished form. When feeble bro Teddy (Andy Comeau) has a head-slapping fit because Huff wants to dish about their evil dad (Robert Forster), it's all-too-clear that Teddy is the inner, Id-driven Huff--you wonder if he really exists. You wonder why you should care either way.
Showtime is nothing if not determined, however, and, having successfully courted the O demo, they turned their sights on the slobbering fanboy contingent (myself included) by enticing thirteen genre directors--with a tiny budget, a Canadian location shoot, and a promise of "no MPAA interference"--to craft one-hour flicks around whatever script they desired to shoot. Of course, Takashi Miike's instalment was dropped from the schedule after the powers-that-be decided that ratings board or no ratings board, their audience was too pussefied to possibly withstand such an onslaught of terror, thereby deeming every other episode of "Masters of Horror" safe enough for you and me. Saving grace? The Miike segment will supposedly resurface on DVD, most likely in the same deluxe form as Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch House and John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns.
Dreams in the Witch House, another of Gordon's H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, locates the typical, studious-dork Lovecraft protagonist in a grad-student, Walter (Ezra Godden), scrutinizing string theory for a juncture between universes that just so happens to exist in his flophouse rental room. A shame that the titular witch is using said juncture to flap around with her man-faced rat familiar, seducing young graduate students to do her dirty work of sacrificing children on an attic altar for shits and giggles.
Though I love Gordon's Lovecraft adaptations (Dagon is one of the great closet pleasures of the last few years), I had a lot of issues with Dreams in the Witch House, not the least of which this unshakeable feeling that I was watching a made-for-cable, one-hour episodic knock-off. In an odd echo of Lodge Kerrigan's Keane, Walter befriends Frances (Chelah Horsdal), the single-mom down the hall, offering to baby-sit for her one night while she goes to a job interview and ending up having one humdinger of a Re-Animator/Shining-inspired cunnilingus dream. (Like a lot of the piece, it's gross but not terribly scary.) What's initially delightful is that familiar Stuart Gordon Tiffany mendacity: the observation that the plate serving foie gras is made of plaster and mud. It's all presented in such a flat, matter-of-fact fashion that the intrusion of the supernatural feels a lot like an honest-to-goodness zombie shambling onto the set of "Three's Company." That's a good thing--what's not so hot is the fact that Dreams in the Witch House isn't about anything, meaning it's here and gone with nary a whisper, no matter how many toddlers are imperilled. Not helping is a resolution that confirms our hero's sanity/insanity: a troubling compulsion towards closure that's at complete odds with a film about other dimensions, purple laser shows, and confounding dreams written by the master of the unknowable and the indescribable.
Carpenter fares a little better with his guignol Cigarette Burns. Reminiscent of Theodore Roszak's Flicker (and if you haven't read it, get on it) and Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness, it's the tale of Sweetman (Norman Reedus), a purveyor of rare films enlisted by rich eccentric Ballinger (Udo Kier) to track down a print of La fin absolue du monde ("The Absolute End of the World"), a mythical motion picture so sordid that every screening has ended with Demons-like atrocities. Cinephiles take heart that Cigarette Burns captures a little of the old religion in discovering lost films and obtaining bootleg copies of whispered-about errata (for the longest time, my VHS boot of Nacho Cerda's Aftermath was manna)--when Ballinger pays the ultimate tribute to his 35mm projector, you can bet I appreciated his gesture. But, as with Gordon's piece, there's something ultimately inconsequential about it all, even if Greg Nicotero's gore is bracingly uncompromising. Blame goes to a completely inflectionless performance from Reedus that gives no hint of a glimmer that there's any difference between your junkie girlfriend killing herself, an angel on a turntable with its wings cut off, or a girl cabbie getting messily decapitated. It's not that Sweetman is an emotionless cipher, it's that Reedus is an emotionless cipher. Highlight is a visit with a deranged film critic--named, er, Walter (Gary Hetherington)--who's been writing about his one brush with the apocryphal picture from decades previous. (I also enjoyed the Chinese butler (Colin Foo) taking the Old Testament solution to thine eyes offending.) Yet Cigarette Burns is ultimately a lot of fantastic ideas presented as a flatline. That plaster and mud plate's on top of the foie gras this time--but at least there's some prime meat there in the underneath.
Creator/executive producer Bob Lowry and director/executive producer Scott Winant contribute a commentary track to the "Christmas is Ruined" episode on the third of "Huff: The Complete First Season"'s four discs, collectively encased in double thinpaks that slide into a cardboard sleeve. It's here that we're reunited with the OCD dude who blew out his colon in the fourth episode, marking his triumphant return by bitching that he has to defecate into a bag for the rest of his life. "I don't think anyone's ever going to kiss me again, Dr. Huffstodt," he opines sagely, and a whole ward of mentals wipe away a collective tear with their scat-encrusted paws. Lowry and Winant essentially pat one another on the back regarding how they hid their broad melodrama with obvious narrative baits and switches. Lowry and Winant are the happy couple on the yakker for the pilot as well, talking about how their stupid script was the subject of contrived controversy, the result of which is this facile gunk. Winant (or Lowry) cheers that cable allows them to discuss queers and show gory headshots, seemingly unfamiliar with the atrocities gracing network television on any given night. They do spend time touting their ridiculous CGI-aided dissolves as "continuity of motion," which is of course gobbledygook for being self-deluded pricks with itchy "edit" fingers. Long silences begin to dominate at the halfway point, something that's irritating but not as irritating as the commentary, so who's complaining? The first disc also boasts "Behind the Therapy" (30 mins.), wherein Azaria gushes about the creative process poured into crafting this completely familiar and derivative project as the other usual suspects just can't believe how brilliant "Huff" is. If you love the show, you bought the set, and what's the point of this wet obsequiousness?
Two things: the series is presented in crystal clear 1.78:1 anamorphic video that pops and crackles the HD source, though subsequent episodes are better-detailed than the pilot. Dark is black, and the colours are well-delineated and saturated. Beautiful. The main titles are ripped off of the main titles of HBO's defunct "Carnivàle", a series with more potential that would instantly be the best show on Showtime were they to pick it up. All will be forgiven, of course, if Showtime rescues "Arrested Development". The DD 5.1 audio is rich but the levels are wonky, meaning that the music often drowns out the dialogue--which is, of course, a mixed blessing. Last shot at the pilot commentary: Lowry says that he's going to point out some of the episode's trainwreck transitions because they might otherwise go unnoticed. I'm more likely to not notice someone pounding a nail into my shin.
Lowry/Winant return to do commentary duties on Disc Two's "Is She Dead?", i.e. the one where Huff's kid almost gets laid and Russell takes on his favourite hooker as a client before OD'ing on some Saget-smack (previously, Russell bangs--offscreen, of course, the cowards--a pair of dwarf whores). Sound twee and overly-convoluted? Bingo. Lots of trainspotting of plot points ("That's her mother calling on the phone") dominates this track, splitting time with long, long silences. Winant calls himself a "formalist" as a director; I'll leave that one alone. The second disc also sports six minutes of deleted scenes featuring more of the same saccharine stuff, including a father-son conversation for Huff and Byrd about his boy's near-miss with prince PopCherry in which the joke concerns a little girl feeling good with a condom inside her...purse. Yeah. Later, there's angst over eating lobsters. If only I had this family's problems. Most unforgivable is Mrs. Huff dressing down an off-duty cop because she has something clever to say from atop her invisible pedestal. "Character by Design" has production designer Joseph Lucky discuss what he does for three minutes while "Lens of Truth" sees Winant justifying the transitions of the show as "it was just appropriate." So that's that.
Previews for "Huff", "Dawson's Creek", "Newsradio", "TV Action Favorites", and the Fun with Dick and Jane remake round out this busiest of the disc quartet, the last of which reunites Winant/Lowry with Azaria and Platt for a yak-track on the season closer, "Crazy Nuts & All Fucked Up". Azaria sort of functions as a master of ceremonies for the thing, leading to some overlap of information along with the unspoken truism that one commentary would've sufficed. Platt contributes a bit of quick-witted repartee that passes mostly uncelebrated, to no one's surprise--but at least there's no empty space here. I want to mention that Lara Flynn Boyle looks absolutely gorgeous when she doesn't resemble an Auschwitz survivor ("Lara Flynn, she's not a fat person, let's face it," says Platt), and her five episodes of Huff are showcase stuff for her stunning-nutso portfolio. If anything, it goes to show that Platt can improve anything. The man's like butter.
Anchor Bay ushers "Masters of Horror" to the format in very nice 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers that are nonetheless a little over-sharp in the fashion of direct-to-TV ports. Still, when paired with fulsome DD 5.1 audio, the overall A/V package is more than satisfying. Starting with Gordon's segment, "Dreams, Darkness, and Damnation: An Interview with Stuart Gordon" (21 mins., written and directed by Perry Martin) shows the director to be articulate about Lovecraft's work and his own role as a modern horror movie director. The format for this otherwise rote docu is interesting as Gordon appears as a talking head superimposed over archival footage, recalling his early days in the movies before 2001: A Space Odyssey and his involvement as artistic director with the Organic Theater Company in Madison, WI (later, Chicago), at the spearhead of David Mamet's board-pounding revolution. All stuff I didn't know, making the piece--for me if for no one else--indispensable. I didn't even lose interest when things digressed into Dreams in the Witch House, though Gordon's hyperbole that he doesn't know if "the world is ready for this!" made me a few degrees cooler towards the whole enterprise. "Working with a Master: Stuart Gordon" (24 mins.) finds Gordon's wife Carolyn and pal Brian Yuzna providing interesting background on Gordon, spending vital time with the cast of Re-Animator that is absolutely indispensable. God, do I love that film--and this piece was a happy surprise, reason enough to own the disc. In "On Set: An Interview with Chelah Horsdal" (7 mins.), Horsdal determines archetype of the piece to be a struggle between two mothers. That's wrong, but I understand why she'd think that. Horsdal seems like a smart cookie, though, and I was sort of fascinated that she did her on-set interview sitting in front of a prop baby in a crib. "Behind the Scenes" (7 mins.) is B-roll edited together without comment; I actually found it watchable and refreshing. "SFX: Meet Brown Jenkin" (5 mins.) interviews Howard Berger of the ubiquitous KNB Effects as he goes through the creation of the man-faced rat puppet used in the episode.
A commentary teaming Gordon, Godden, and DVD producer Perry Martin continues the voluminous goodies, proving as jovial and informative as all the rest. The focus for a while is on the trepidation with dealing with Brown Jenkin on a small budget (from Gordon's point-of-view), brushing across the baby-peril that ultimately derailed Miike's airdate with a blitheness that suggests to me that these guys may not have been aware of Showtime's decision with regard to their compatriot. Gordon continues to demonstrate a strong Lovecraft knowledge, Godden fills in where necessary, and Martin serves as an agile, invisible facilitator. Trailers for other "Masters of Horror" episodes (Chocolate, Cigarette Burns, Dreams in the Witch House, Homecoming, Deer Woman, Jenifer, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, Dance of the Dead) and play-upon-insertion-but-skippable Room 6, Demon Hunter, and Halloween join an exhaustive stills and storyboard gallery, a nice text-based biography of Gordon, and DVD-ROM accessible .PDF files of the Lovecraft story and the screenplay (and screensavers).
John Carpenter gets a slightly less exhaustive treatment his time at the plate, but it ain't bad. In "Celluloid Apocalypse: An Interview with John Carpenter" (18 mins.), the director tells a lot of his old stories, including the trauma of leeches in The African Queen as well as, refreshingly (oddly), his crediting of film school as a really important aspect of his career. He brings up Dark Star (one of my little-seen faves), Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and so on. I know these stories, yeah, but I get tired of neither hearing them nor Carpenter, one of the most affable dudes in the business, telling them. "Working with a Master: John Carpenter" (19 mins.) includes a nice tribute to the late Deborah Hill in addition to a wonderful recollection of The Thing and the idea that it was the turning point in Carpenter's career. The comparison in my mind is to Wes Craven pre- and post-Last House on the Left--especially as Carpenter follows his magnum opus with the gentle Christ-parable Starman. Tribute to Carpenter's affability is the wealth of talent assembled to rave about the experience of working with him. Someone even mentions Christine, bless their heart. "On Set: An Interview with Norman Reedus" (7 mins.) has the wooden cipher ciphering woodenly, cigarette in hand, and apparently misunderstanding the role of the de-winged angel in Ballinger's gallery. "Behind the Scenes" (4 mins.) is another B-roll montage, wordless yet engrossing.
Carpenter flies solo on one commentary track, making fun of film critics and touching on his disappointment with the cheesiness of the Vancouver sets ("This looks nothing like SoCal." "This looks nothing like Paris" "This looks nothing like New York," and so on), and praising Reedus. He's proud of his son, who does the scoring duties on this piece, but to my ears, it sounds a lot like Carpenter's good/bad synth scores crossed with Goblin's good/good synth scores--rationale enough, I guess, for the name-dropping of Argento's Profundo Rosso (Deep Red) in the body of the film. I was very interested to hear how upset Carpenter is that he didn't feel as though he explained the concept of "cigarette burns" adequately, referring viewers to Fight Club as the last word on the subject. Switching over to the second of two commentaries, writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan talk about how great everything is and how wonderful everyone is and how brilliant Carpenter is, etc. Writers, man. "Boy this episode's got a slow burn," they exclaim, comparing their film's pacing to Peter Jackson's King Kong. Whoo boy. A DVD-ROM function has another .PDF file with another screenplay and then screensavers, while the same trailer set as Dreams in the Witch House complements the same skippable forced trailers, as well as another exhaustive text bio and stills gallery. Originally published: March 30, 2006.