12 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: New Release Pt. 1

Masters Of Horror (various volumes)
(2006) (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment, 1 disc)
As Masters Of Horror plummets deeper into mediocrity with each new installment (can Garris or someone please please please declare a moratorium on plots concerning unbalanced white males obsessed with lost-and-or-dead-or-dying loves?), a handful of feature-packed Anchor Bay releases featuring some of the stronger segments from the inaugural season remind us of why many of us horror fans got excited over this project in the first place (but alas, not why some like myself continue to tune in each weekend…).

Reactions from the fan base were predictably "mixed" (of the "my Master Of Horror" is better than "your Master Of Horror" vein), but almost everyone is in agreement that MOH 1.0’s bonafide masterwork was Joe Dante’s "Homecoming", the veteran fantasist’s most brazenly political work and a rare North American-produced drama/none Michael Moore production that dared to take on the Bush Administration’s “War On Terror” catastrophe head-on. Not that the episode is just a sixty-minute liberal polemic—it’s a deliriously funny, angry, and, yes, blood-splattered zombie parable in which the bodies of the Iraq war-dead rise to (literally) cast their vote to end the madness and bring the boys back home, much to the chagrin of the powers-that-be, embodied in the form of a loudmouthed, gun-toting, Washington skank whom the producers assure us isn’t meant to be Ann Coulter (remember, Gremlins 2’s “Daniel Clamp” wasn’t based on Donald Trump, either)..

John Carpenter has long been one of my all-time favorite directors, and while I’m myopic enough in my devotion to have leapt to the defense of Ghosts Of Mars and Village Of The Damned (look, I just like the way the guy makes movies, so sue me…), I’ve long harbored the fear that the chance of us getting another Halloween or The Thing from his camp was about as likely as a Criterion edition of Day The Clown Cried. But his installment, “Cigarette Burns”, proved to be very good stuff indeed, falling just short of “return to form”, if only because he didn’t get to shoot it in 2.35:1 Panavision. The tale of a film researcher hired to track down a lost pseudo-snuff feature said to be able to bring about the “absolute end of the world” (“La Fin Absolut Du Mond”) while trying to cope with the death of his girlfriend allowed Carpenter to revisit the Lovecraftian surrealism he first attempted in In The Mouth Of Madness and craft some truly haunting imagery , chief among them an enslaved angel and snippets of the apocalyptic film itself, with some perfectly envisioned odes to Jodorowsky and Bunuel. It was fueled by an impressive score by Carpenter’s son Cody as well, who obviously spent his childhood hanging out in his dad’s studio with Alan Howarth, listening to old Mike Oldfield LPs.

Season one’s most notorious entry came last, or at least, was supposed to: Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” was refused broadcast by Showtime Networks after it had already been produced, prompting the message boards to fill up with accusations that the whole controversy was staged by Garris and co. (Anchor Bay, in fact, financed the series, and not Showtime) to generate publicity. I doubted that very much, but the more obvious question was: didn’t anyone on staff ever see a typical Miike film and know what they were getting into (it’s like ABC hiring David Lynch to produce the Mulholland Drive pilot and hand it back, dismissing it as “too weird”)? The story of an American journalist who returns to Japan in the 19th century to—yep, track down his lamented, lost love--is harrowing for two reasons: the excruciating, drawn-out torture of the pursued geisha at the hands of her sadistic house Madam, and star Billy Drago’s own kabuki-esque performance, in which he bellows and howls and eyebrow rolls for the folks in the back row, except this ain’t no stage play. Despite that, it bewitches and repels with an atmosphere of dread, nuanced period design, and some truly unsettling imagery even for Miike (along with Fruit Chan’s 3 Extremes and spin-off feature Dumplings made 2006 Asian horror cinema’s “Year Of The Fetus”).

In addition to these essential episodes, I also recommend Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road”, in which he splendidly adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s twisty short story into a taut, girl-power battle cry (thankfully, the lead character isn’t trying to get over her dead boyfriend…anything but!) that delighted in turning the typical slasher-in-the-woods scenario on its severed ear, and Stuart Gordon’s “Dreams In The Witch-House” which I felt was a pretty successful attempt to transplant H.P. Lovecraft’s abstruse prose and misanthropic internal musings into a coherent spook show, if only it wasn’t hampered by a weak male lead. Dario Argento's "Jenifer" and Larry Cohen's "Pick Me Up" are also worth a look.

Sold individually and in double-packs (the latter option saves a few bucks but the chances of finding a pair-up of two episodes you’d want to own are iffy), the discs might at first seem overpriced at $15-$20 (Canadian) for programs running barely an hour in length, but the supplements are so exceptional--considering the shows are only a few months old there probably wasn’t a lot time to prepare--that fans will find it money well spent. Commentary from the directors and writers can be found on almost all of them (Dante, sadly, does not appear on his entry), as well as the usual behind-the-scenes EPK stuff, closer looks at the makeup and FX, and best of all, career overviews for the superstar directors that are very comprehensive and well-researched.