Saturday, September 29, 2012
30 Days of Nightmares #3: MASTERS OF HORROR double feature
The Stories: John Landis's FAMILY revolves around a well-mannered serial killer with some unconventional ideas about divorce; Brad Anderson's SOUNDS LIKE focuses on a stressed out businessman with supernatural hearing.
Expectations: I love horror anthologies. One of my earliest memories is watching Twilight Zone re-runs every afternoon on the local UHF station. (It came on right after Star Trek and before The Addams Family.) As I got older, I moved on to Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt. All of these shows had their own distinct tone, which bound together very different narratives. It was sort of like buying a short story collection from the same author -- the shows, of course, had many different writers, but they were united by a common sensibility.
By definition, that shouldn't really be the case with Mick Garris's 2005-2007 series Masters of Horror, because Garris essentially hired the storytellers and gave them complete creative control to make their own mini-movies. While the tone of the episodes varies wildly, this series deserve high praise for prompting some of the best hours of horror television in recent memory. For me, the high water mark is Stuart Gordon's THE BLACK CAT, featuring Jeffrey Combs in a role he was born to play (Edgar Allan Poe). I also believe that MOH showcases Tobe Hooper at his best, in DANCE OF THE DEAD and THE DAMNED THING.
I could go on, but the fact is that different episodes appeal to different sensibilities. Perhaps that's why I didn't watch the series as religiously during its second season... as a series, MOH lacked that consistent and familiar tone that keeps a fan coming back to their favorite show. I preferred to watch the episodes later, on DVD, as if they were standalone movies, and so I overlook a few episodes along the way. Last night, I decided it was time to rectify that mistake with a double feature of John Landis's second-season episode FAMILY and Brad Anderson's SOUNDS LIKE. I was particularly excited about SOUNDS LIKE, because I know how good Anderson is at getting inside the heads of his characters. I'm a huge fan of SESSION 9 (2001) and THE MACHINIST (2004).
Reaction: As a horror director, John Landis's reputation is based mainly on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, perhaps the best horror/comedy hybrid ever made. (It's an extremely tough balance... the only other films that come close to perfection, in my opinion, are RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and SHAUN OF THE DEAD.) Landis's first season episode, THE DEER WOMAN, was certainly entertaining, but it leaned a little too far toward comedy for my taste. It's hard to feel scared when you're thinking, "That's just silly."
FAMILY recalculated the comedy/horror balance, but not in the way I expected. A scene in which mild-mannered George Wendt talks to the skeleton of his imaginary daughter is comically absurd... but Landis also shows us the world inside this character's mind. The scene is much creepier when we see Wendt (a giant of a man) lying in a very small bed next to an innocent-looking little girl. Each version of the scene gives us context for the other, making the skeleton scene haunting rather than silly, and making the little girl scene perverse rather than innocent. If Landis wasn't a master of horror, he would have played this scene out in one way or the other. Because he's a veteran filmmaker who understands how to manipulate an audience, he does both and that left me feeling genuinely unsettled. (This is precisely why it's usually a "safer" bet to watch an MOH episode than to rent an unknown indie horror film... These guys know their craft!)
SOUNDS LIKE has a more original premise, but there was something about it that didn't quite work for me. The main character (a middle-aged, mild-mannered man who's just waiting to come unglued) presumably has had a supernatural hearing ability all his life. When his child dies suddenly, that ability is amplified and refocused on things that rattle his nerves. My problem is that this affliction seems to come and go at random, based on the storyteller's whims. I couldn't help thinking that something much more affecting could have been done with the sound design in this episode. For example, think of how effective the drones are in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2006), to stimulate an underlying feeling of dread. During certain lengthy sequences, that sound builds a tremendous amount of tension over time. Now imagine a higher pitched sound being used in the same way, as the events of a story drive the main character mad, one microdecibel at a time. Some people live with an affliction like that. It's called tinnitus, and to me it's scarier than anything in this episode.(Afterthought: In the midst of Carmageddon II, the L.A. Times reports on another potentially maddening scenario.)
Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Hearing the soft, squishy sound of rapid eye movement...
Labels: 30 Days of Nightmares