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By 2005, the horror directors and creators who had defined the ‘70s and ‘80s had become noticeably less prolific. Halloween director John Carpenter had gone into pseudo-retirement following Hollywood burnout. None of Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper’s efforts in the aughts received a wide theatrical release. Suspiria director Dario Argento’s had suffered from poor critical reception, and Gremlins director Joe Dante described his time working on the 2003 box office bomb Looney Tunes: Back In Action as “the longest year and a half of my life.”
Enter Mick Garris. Garris, a director and longtime champion of the horror genre, began organizing group dinners in 2002. These gave horror writers, directors, and producers a chance to get together, reminisce, shoot the shit, and celebrate the impact they’d had on cinema. Guillermo del Toro would deem them the “Masters of Horror,” an informal moniker that in a few years would become the title of a 2005 Showtime anthology series that Garris produced. With a decent budget and less censorship, Masters of Horror promised these creators a chance to tell stories with a freer range than they’d been granted in recent years.
Was it a return to form for these lauded staples of horror? Or was it a mess that often resulted in half-cocked ideas and disappointing narratives? Eh, a little of both, honestly. To go into Masters of Horror expecting consecutive holes-in-one from some of the most famous names that the genre has ever seen is misguided. Instead, what’s on display seems to be—much like the dinners that the series was named after—a chance for these creatives to play around in a horror setting after many critics had deemed them “past their prime.”
There is some very effective stuff to be found, though, throughout: The first knockout of the series is offered by Dario Argento with “Jenifer,” a disturbing story of a police officer who rescues a disfigured young woman and eventually takes her home with him. Seduced by “Jenifer” in siren fashion, he soon abandons his entire family as his lust grows alongside Jenifer’s murderous tendencies. It’s a violent plot that allows Argento to return to his common motif of dreamy, psychosexual nightmares.
Another Season 1 highlight is “Cigarette Burns,” the first of two episodes that John Carpenter directed for the show. In a hallucinatory journey which sees The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus searching for a lost snuff film that drove its theatrical audience to riotous madness, Carpenter returns to the ideas of creation and psychosis, themes that he’d previously explored in the underrated In The Mouth Of Madness. Other notable entries in the first season include Don Coscarelli’s solid “Incidents On and Off a Mountain Road,” Tobe Hooper’s nihilistic and anti-capitalist “Dance of the Dead,” Lucky McKee’s delightful “Sick Girl,” and Larry Cohen’s stripped down, brutal “Pick Me Up.”
But it’s at the end of the first season that Masters of Horror delivers the bloody feather in its cap. Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, known globally for transgressive masterpieces like Audition and Ichi the Killer, turned in his own episode with “Imprint.”
The episode would never air on American television.
“Imprint,” which details an American journalist’s return to a Japanese island to find a former girlfriend, is haunting tale of torture, suicide, rape, incest, murder and body horror. Despite Masters of Horror’s more liberating allowances for content and attempts to edit the episode, Showtime canceled its airing. “I think it’s amazing, but it’s even hard for me to watch,” Garris would tell the New York Times. “It’s definitely the most disturbing film I’ve ever seen.” “Imprint’s” audience would have to be found on home video later that year.
Despite its talent line-up, Masters of Horror would only last two seasons of 26 episodes before its cancellation. The second and final season isn’t as strong as the first, but it does include the darkly comic “Family” by John Landis and Joe Dante adapting Alice Sheldon’s short story “The Screwfly Solution” in a way that makes you wish he’d been able to expand it to a fuller feature. However, the second season embodies the uneven nature of the whole show: Hooper’s “The Damned Thing” is a slog, Carpenter’s “Pro-Life” has a neat concept with lackluster execution, and Argento’s “Pelts” provides underwhelming political commentary.
Afterwards, the series would see a spiritual revival in the form of Fear Itself on NBC, bearing the same anthology concept, but with a softer coat (you could get away with way less on NBC than you could on Showtime.) Unable to shock viewers, the lack of overall suspense was laid bare, and none of the creators involved found their finest outings here. Fear Itself wouldn’t even finish up a single season, being replaced midway through its time slot by the Summer Olympics, and then seemingly forgotten about afterward; five of its thirteen episodes were left unaired.
Masters of Horror took home two Saturn Awards and also an Emmy Award for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. Like the show itself, it’s a familiar mash-up of horror concepts (Blood droplets! A wolf’s face! Decay! A gargoyle! A creepy baby doll!) but it is an absolute banger of a theme song.
Masters of Horror didn’t provide any kind of magic revitalization of the careers of the directors involved. Their classics would always be there, and critical reappraisals of their more maligned outings would come and go. Instead, it was a canvas for experimentation in a way that many of them had been denied for over a decade. Hollywood has a way of choking any passion you have out of you, turning someone into a success and then reframing them as their product. This goes especially for directors like Carpenter, who were expected to churn out low-budget horror hits with each progressively exhausting turn at the bat. Meanwhile, the industry often saw him as replaceable, another cog in the slasher machine.
For a while, though, they were attached to a series that, even in its clumsiest moments, attached ultimate reverence to their names and prior work. That’s perhaps the greatest contribution of Masters of Horror. It was an attempt to pay tribute to them, the people that caused an entire genre to evolve, a genre that deserves far more respect than it’s ever been granted.
To quote Carpenter’s “Cigarette Burns”: “Something happens when you point the camera at something terrible. The resulting film takes on power.”
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.
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