The Top 5 Episodes of "Masters of Horror" (Including the one Showtime wouldn't let you see!)

Either this is a promo poster or Yorick's last known photo. I'm not sure...
Either this is a promo poster or Yorick's last known photo. I'm not sure...

A Little Background...

Mick Garris' Masters of Horror  (2005-07) was like the ultimate wet dream for horror fanatics. Not only were some of the greatest directors in the genre's history (John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, etc.) collaborating on a single project, but they were doing so on Showtime, unrated and able to get away with practically everything. (As can be seen on the list below, however, that ending up being not quite true.) However, the final product was...mixed, to say the least. Too many episodes fell under the category of "interesting idea, mediocre execution." A prime example of that might by the second season entry The Washingtonians (directed by The Changeling's Peter Medak), which took Bentley Little's brilliantly satirical short story (featuring the truly sick yet ingenious notion of having George Washington as a secret cannibal) and turned it into an over the top and hamfisted misfire.

Nevertheless, with so many skilled maestroes of fear behind the camera, there were at least a few true gems for us horror fans to enjoy. And two especially were masterpieces that wound up causing their fair share of controversy, which is a good sign of a well-done tale of terror. Below then, are the five episodes that really did live up to the title of "Master of Horror..."

#5. The Black Cat (director: Stuart Gordon)

 Masters of Horrors's second season was a notable dropoff in quality from the first, almost as if interest was already starting to wane on behalf of the creators (and indeed, following the season, the show would decamp to NBC for one final season under the new title Fear Itself ). Still, there were good moments, namely this ficitional look at the life of Edgar Allan Poe from Stuart Gordon (taking a break from adapting H.P. Lovecraft). Set in 1841 Philadelphia, the legendary horror author and poet (Jeffrey Combs, star of many Gordon films, namely as Herbert West in the classic Reanimator ) struggling with indifference to his poetry, financial woes, his drinking, writer's block (his editor wants another tale of terror, but he's coming up blank) and the ill health of his beloved wife Virginia (Elyse Levesque). The strain gradually becomes too much and Poe's mind begins to crack, as he begins to believe his wife's black cat is bent on driving him mad. Will it, or will the cat instead inspire him to write one of his greatest stories ever? Looking back, the story doesn't make much sense (nor should it, as it's supposed to reflect Poe's failing mind), but it's defintely unnerving, with some disturbing imagery, great period detail and a few well-placed moments of gore to make audiences jump (namely when poor Virginia pukes blood over the family piano). Best of all is Combs, made up to look like a deadringer for Poe and perfectly capturing the great writer and all his torments (like his lust for the bottle). Gordon's first Masters episode (an adaptation of Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House ) was fine, but this one is a gem.

Fun added note for fans of Nickelodeon's beloved horror anthology series Are You Afraid of the Dark? : that's Dr. Vink himself, Aron Tager, as Poe's pompous editor, who he cheerfully fantasizes about strangling when he's badgered for ideas.

#4 Fair-Haired Child (director: William Malone)

William Malone, director of the decent remake of House on Haunted Hill and the atrocious FeatDotCom, is not a name people usually think of as a "Master of Horror" and indeed, he wasn't an original choice (he stepped in when the legendary Roger Corman proved unavailable). But Malone surprises with perhaps his best directorial effort ever, a dark fairy-tale with the right mix of chills and sweetness. Pretty but neglected 16-year old Tara (Lindsey Pulsipher, currently playing Jason Stackhouse's werepanther gal pal on True Blood) is abducted (a truly shocking scene), taken to an isolated manor and imprisoned in the celler by a crazy couple (including a desiccated-looking Lori Petty). In the celler, she encounters a mute boy named Johnny (Jesse Haddock) and the two quickly bond. But soon Tara learns the horrifying truth; Johnny drowned twelve years ago and the crazy couple are his parents, who made a pact with the Devil to bring him back to life. Every year, he turns into a monstrous demon and kills a teen as a sacrifice; once he hits twelve victims, he'll be restored to life...and Tara is lucky number twelve. But Johnny's parents didn't count on Johnny falling in love with his final victim to be, nor what lengths he'll go to to save her. Drenched in atmosphere and builds up the tension like a tightrope until Johnny finally reveals his demonic face, which is quite disturbing. And yet, it has its sweet side, namely Pulsipher's performance as a lonely outcast with a determination to survive. And thankfully, it even has a happy ending...well, for some characters, anyway.

#3. Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (director: Don Coscarelli)

 The series got off to a smashing start with this premiere episode, directed by Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli and adapted from a short story by Joe R. Lansdale (who Coscarelli had previously adapted to smashing success with Bubba Ho-Tep ). While driving on a remote mountain roud at night, Ellen (Bree Turner) accidentally runs into an apparently abandoned car on the side of the road. Investigating, she soon finds herself in a nightmare struggle for survival against the person responsible; a hulking albino backwoods serial killer dubbed "Moonface" (the imposing John DeSantis) who likes cutting people's eyes out and sticking them on crosses in the front lawn of his cabin. What Moonface doesn't know, however, is that Ellen is fleeing a bad marriage to a violent survivalist (Ethan Embry), who taught her everything she needs to know to fight and survive, which leads to a nasty battle for survival between the beleagured serial killer and his resourceful would-be victim. The chase starts minutes in and doesn't let up and the story plays with our expectations before hitting us with a few well-done surprises (especially a jaw-dropping final twist that shows us just how little we knew about our heroine). Doesn't skimp on the gore (Moonface's lair is a bonanza of rotted corpses, including a baby in a crib, which gets used as a weapon at one point!), but Coscarelli is more intersted in suspense and thrills and he succeeds. Excellent cast, with Embry playing expertly against his nice guy persona as a twisted brute (yet showing us how Ellen would fall for him in the first place) and a fabulous supporting performance from Angus Scrimm (the Tall Man from Coscarelli's Phantasm series) as a loony old man who Moonface keeps as a sort of pet (he likes candy and singing "Dixieland"). A pity that the series couldn't live up to this terrific debut.

#2. Homecoming (director: Joe Dante)

 A no-holds barred and absolutely blistering assault on the Bush administration and the Iraq war, this zombie epic (surprisingly not by George Romero, though it has all his trademarks) is over the top, one-sided and totally unfair - and also brilliant. What would one expect from the always satirical Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling, Matinee, etc.), who lays on the black comedy like no one's business. As an unpopular war in the Middle East rages on, a Presidential spokesman (The Closer's John Tenney) makes a wish to the mom of a KIA soldier (shades of Cindy Shaheen) that her son could come back. What do you know, the dead hear his call and soon the nation is full of sightings of fatigue-clad undead. But rather than feed on human flesh, these rather sophisticated zombies (they can talk) have another goal in mind - namely, voting the administration that send them off to die for lies out of office. Nobody said this was subtle. There's a Karl Rove-like political mastermind (Dante favorite Robert Picardo, expertly slimy) out to try to spin the zombies to the President's benefit and an Ann Coulter-in-all-but-name blonde attack pundit (Thea Gill) who sports a license plate that says BSH BABE and gets off on S&M sex games. Yeah, Republicans will not like this. But for the rest of us, this is a wild blast and many scenes, including one of dead soldiers rising from the flag-draped coffins the Pentagon shields from the media, carry an impact. Look for Dante's trademark in-jokes, including toombstones at Arlington that say "Romero" and "Argento." A twisted masterpiece and a true credit to Dante for making a no-holds barred statement on a controversial political topic. With zombies, of course.

#1. Imprint (director: Takashi Miike)

This is it, the Masters of Horror episode that proved so twisted, so sadistic, so disturbing that even Showtime wouldn't broadcast it (even Mick Garris described it as the most disturbing film he'd ever seen). But what did they expect from Japanese master of horror Takashi Miike, who in films like Audition and Ichii the Killer , has created some of the most nightmarish and gut-wrenching images ever shown on the silver screen. And does Miike deliver on his reputation with this tale, which doesn't just go over the line, it runs over it repeatedly, turns around, pees on the line, then defecates on it before skipping merrily on its way. In late 19th century Japan, an American journalist (the always weird-looking Billy Drago, best known as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables ) goes looking for the sweet prostitute he once loved and promised to bring home with him. Arriving at a supposedly haunted and demon-infested island where the only human inhabitants are whores and their masters, he spends the night with a deformed prostitute (Youki Kudoh) who claims to have information about the fate of his lost love. What follows is a tale of utter depravity, where ever twisted and immoral thing man can do to man is indulged in and horrors lurk around every turn. Incest, rape, peophile priests, murder, torture, sodomy, deformed infants, Siamese twins, spousal abuse, child prostitution, spousal and child abuse...if there's a taboo, this episode covers it and breaks it. (The lengthy torture sequence, in particular, is almost lovingly depicted and truly brutal to watch.) What probably got the episode pulled from the broadcast schedule, however, was the amount of graphically depicted aborted fetuses, which get thrown around like rice at a wedding. (You may think I'm kidding, but I assure you, I. AM. NOT. JOKING. You have been warned.) There are numerous flaws to the film, most notably Drago's ridiculously over-the-top performance (stop yelling, dude!) and the stilted English line readings by the Japanese actors, most of whom only knew English phonetically (the latter actually adds to the episode's otherworldly atmosphere, which makes it feel more like a nightmare brought to life). Yet the impact of the horrifying images unfolding before your eyes will last with you a long, long time. Miike set out to horrify and he defintely succeeded. This is a film that is only for the strong of stomach and the brave of heart.

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