MASTERS OF HORROR: CHOCOLATE
Image A Sound A- Extras D
starring Henry Thomas, Matt Frewer
teleplay by Mick Garris, based on his short story
directed by Mick Garris
MASTERS OF HORROR: INCIDENT ON AND OFF A MOUNTAIN ROAD
Image A+ Sound A Extras A
starring Bree Turner, Ethan Embry
teleplay by Don Coscarelli & Stephen Romano, based on the short story by Joe R. Lansdale
directed by Don Coscarelli
by Walter Chaw Add to the hypocrisies and inconsistencies plaguing Mick Garris's Showtime-broadcast "Masters of Horror" the fact that Garris has the audacity to dub himself one of the titular Masters (on the strength of which, Sleepwalkers or Riding the Bullet?). When Stephen King unofficially bestows upon you the title of best steward of his work to the screen, you need to take a full step back and assess King's track record in the medium. If Garris considers himself to be on a par with any of the other directors in this show's roster, he's got another thing coming--the pudding and the proof being his episode Chocolate, presented by Anchor Bay on an exhaustive DVD as part of their second wave of "Masters of Horror" releases. Lacklustre and non-starting, it stars a craggy Henry Thomas as Jamie, a creator of artificial food flavourings who one day discovers that he's occasionally channelling, Being John Malkovich-like, the consciousness of someone else. That someone else is French-Canadian hottie Catharine (Lucie Laurier), who, as is given away in the trailer and the box text, kills someone, inspiring putz Jamie to travel to the Great White North in search of his bloodthirsty Beatrice to declare his undying love.
Non-sensical on every level (emotional, visceral, logical), Chocolate isn't surreal or dada in any useful, disorienting way, either. Meanwhile, its Tieresies centerpiece--wherein E.T.'s best friend gets to know both genders of sexual pleasure--comes off like the worst kind of preadolescent future stroke. (It's the short story ensconced in anthologies with sexy robots fucking on the cover.) So much of the episode is perfunctory and forced-feeling that Garris's revelation that the script was actually pared-down from a feature-length treatment is received with sad, contemptuous shock. Jamie's delicate palate is an interesting trope that's never explored (here's hoping that Tom Tykwer's upcoming adaptation of Patrick Suskind's perverse Perfume doesn't make the same mistake), and a moment where Jamie's estranged tyke is (most likely) permanently scarred by the sight of his father having a vaginal orgasm is played for theoretical yuks. Garris is an awful writer (the script is his, as is the short story upon which it's based) and a worse director, hence Chocolate is a uniquely gruelling experience indicated by a complete lack of scares, tension, humour, insight...the list goes on. There're a lot of topless girls, though, so what the show lacks in value it compensates for to an extent with a thirteen-year-old's idea of sexuality. Pity that Garris has the same basic miscomprehension of the concepts of "sexy" and "scary"--and, now that you mention it, "master."
Aspersions could also be cast on the term as it applies to Don Coscarelli, responsible for the cult-beloved Phantasm franchise (whose mascot, Angus Scrimm, appears in an awesome cameo here) and the underestimated Bubba Ho-Tep, for he's still more of a sideshow to the main attraction, as it were. His affection for one of my favourites, author Joe R. Lansdale, gave me great hope, however, for Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, based on a short story from the author's Rider of the Purple Rage anthology that bears the hallmarks of Lansdale's "God of Razors", i.e. moonlight and edged weapon tropes, translated to the living room with skill but a lamentable non-linear structure that serves to undermine the tension of the primary story. It's forgivable from a narrative perspective, but every time the episode starts humming along, a flashback that invariably reveals too much about how the next part of the story will unfold effectively undermines the possibility of pace or tension, save the one truly exceptional moment when survivalist Ellen (Bree Turner) sets a series of off-the-cuff booby traps for her "moon-faced" assailant (John de Santis), only to see them victimize everyone except her intended target. The dilemma is a real one, and I'm not sure how Coscarelli could have addressed it, but that element of "horror" in the truest sense of the word is missing from the rest of the piece, even with eye violence and a basement full of desiccated corpses attended by demented Scrimm singing Dixie. The film is extremely well done, except that it's not scary, not surprising, and ultimately fails to leave a scar.
The familiar premise concerns single, attractive, female motorist Ellen getting sabotaged along a lonesome mountain (desert/country) road and subsequently stalked through the woods to a cabin-of-horrors, where she's either the meat or the avenger. Questions of class arise as it's revealed that Ellen's fleeing a marriage to a survivalist wacko (Ethan Embry) who fears the rise of the "mud people." That she married the guy anyway suggests that Ellen is probably not the nicest person in the world, while tainting the fact of her tormentor in the wilderness being a seven-foot albino is the irony of the very definition of a white man hunting a white supremacist. Ellen employs every weapon available to her to stay alive and, it's suggested, discovers something like her true calling at the end of a flensing knife, chained to a pole. Counterpoint to her character is the classic screaming, lingerie-clad victim, and over it all hangs the faint suggestion that everything is not as it appears in Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. Alas, the format undermines Coscarelli's fairy-tale beautiful settings and Lansdale's trademark ferocity with just the fact of its brevity: the episode is over before it really begins, leaving a marvellous set-up to wither on the vine. Though it's worth a look (more so than any other episode I've reviewed up to now), "Masters of Horror"--based on the first four episodes to hit DVD--has thus far been a major disappointment.
Both Chocolate and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road dock on the format in lovely 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers matched blip-for-blip by exceptional DD 5.1 audio that, at least in the case of the sometimes-frightening Incident, cleverly exploits the discrete channels. (If you don't jump during the chase through the woods, you don't have it up loud enough.) As for Chocolate, Garris and Martin contribute what is, blissfully, the only commentary track on the disc, with Garris sounding like the world's dumbest fanboy in his non-stop self-congratulation. His confession that a particularly retarded scene wherein Henry Thomas is spooked by his own reflection was Garris's concession to the "horror" of the series' title betrays an awful lot about both his limited understanding of what's scary and how deluded he is with regards to the company he's keeping. That said, the backstory of the series is presented herein for the curious. A supplemental featurette, "The Sweet Taste of Fear" (21 mins.), is expertly-crafted, but because the subject is Garris and Chocolate, you'll have a better time jamming a pencil into your ear. Garris's identification of fear as the most "repressed of emotions" is one of those jejune things people like Garris say. "Working with a Master: Mick Garris" (20 mins.) juices unwarranted praise for the director from Annabeth Gish, Matt Frewer, and a slumming Ron Perlman. Where's good buddy Stephen King? I'm counting my blessings.
"On Set: An Interview with Henry Thomas" (8 mins.) has Thomas going through the motions, somehow without moving his head; alas, we're not spared his recollections of feigning the pleasures of a vaginal orgasm. The "Interview with Lucie Laurier" (8 mins.) has this French-Canadian Beverly D'Angelo vibrant'ing her way right off the screen. Maybe big things for her down the line, thus giving Garris his one and only claim to real fame. "Behind the Scenes: The Making of Chocolate" (20 mins.) is unnarrated B-roll, which is cool, but because it's documenting Chocolate, well, you get the idea. "Fantasy Film Festival: Mick Garris Interviews Roger Corman" (12 mins.) resurrects Garris's lively and informative Z-Channel interview with Corman, marking Garris as a pretty good tweedy talking head. The stills gallery this time around is 33-images deep; a Mick Garris bio is completely disposable for the subject; and a DVD-ROM functions presents another .PDF script and screensaver. A series of trailers--the generic one for this series, Room 6, Demon Hunter, and The Tooth Fairy--round out the platter.
The same roster of trailers returns on Incident On and Off a Mountain Road. Here as well, Coscarelli, co-writer Stephen Romano, and Anchor Bay DVD producer Perry Martin team up for the first of two commentaries, offering some nice background information about Coscarelli's optioning of this Lansdale story and the one that became Bubba Ho-Tep. There's a lot of gratefulness that he's been granted the opportunity to resurrect the premise through the providence of Garris's pet project, but I do begin to wonder if that sense of home-grown and closeness-to-the-heart isn't the downfall of these telefilms: they're so personal that any sense of risk gets sapped from them (with the exception of Miike's unaired contribution, among the most gruelling cinema I've ever come across)--these are babies and we're all afraid of dropping ours. Without the possibility of audacious failure, there's only the possibility of middling success. Martin functions as moderator, pulling interesting information out of the pair that's seldom screen-specific; interesting to note that the original story is timed, minute-by-minute, making its adaptation into an hour-long feature an interesting one. It's a shame that the element that works the most uneasily in the piece (the flashback relationship sequences) is that to which Coscarelli and Romano contributed the most. The conversation eventually comes down to trainspotting location shots vs. stage, actor approaches, and the usual falderal attending such things, but it's a good yakker as yakkers go. Coscarelli returns with Lansdale for a second yak-track of particular interest to me as a fan of the Texas madman; and Lansdale doesn't disappoint with great stories about his process and his ideas on the piece (including some biographical detail that's otherwise difficult to come by). Coscarelli acts as a pleasing prompt/interviewer.
"Predators and Prey" (24 mins.) is a fairly standard making-of documentary that nevertheless takes a few turns into the unexpected that render it indispensable for the curious and the devout alike. Interviews with Coscarelli reveal the man's philosophy concerning genre flicks in addition to the sort of complete, text-based biography for which Anchor Bay's become known. Coscarelli's story of how a certain L.A. TIMES film critic was instrumental in getting one of his early films distributed is fascinating and the archival footage is amazing. The revelation that Coscarelli entered into horror because it was "always successful" is refreshingly frank--I would've liked the follow-up comment to address why he's still toiling away in the genre, beyond his story of losing creative control over the final edit of The Beastmaster. "Working with a Master: Don Coscarelli" (21 mins.) sets the bar high again with a "This is Your Life" sort of thing featuring stars from Coscarelli's films gathered to reminisce about their experiences with the man. Interviews with Marc Singer, Lansdale, and the indisputably yummy Bree Turner serve as highlights. Notably missing is Bruce Campbell during the Bubba Ho-Tep sequence.
"On Set: An Interview with John De Santis" (6 mins.) finds the bogey of the piece--in a shockingly-deep baritone--eloquently discussing his character's motivation and position within the story as something like the manifestation of the abusive husband's paranoia. What I loved the most is the shot of De Santis getting his 90-minute monster makeover beneath a poster for The Big Lebowski. "On Set: An Interview with Ethan Embry" (4 mins.) is almost more interesting for the fact that in this most proto-feminist of slashers, the interview segments turn out to be, conspicuously, with the two key tormentors of our heroine. The Q&A itself is too general to be of much interest, really, and Embry's Bruce is absent in many of the clips accompanying it. "Behind the Scenes" (7 mins.) is wordless B-roll edited together with some coherence and pretty damned cool besides. 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, and Dance of the Dead) make me excited to see these things all over again despite my confidence in their ultimate value having waned. Fifty-eight stills comprise the disc's gallery; Richard Harland Smith submits a text-based bio of Coscarelli; and a DVD-ROM interface allows access to the script for the episode in .PDF format as well as a screensaver. Originally published: July 5, 2006.