Genre and cult fans have their pantheons of cinematic deities. Some of these immortals are currently active, some are not. Some are celebrated for their incompetence. But there are others who are deified for actually making great films. And it is always heartbreaking when idols totter on their pedestals. Consider the giants of the horror film who emerged in the 1970’s, and where they are now. Wes Craven has done quite nicely for himself, thank you very much, but what has Tobe Hooper really and truly done for us since…The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? And is John Carpenter really going to end his feature film career with Ghosts of Mars? Say it isn’t so.
And now comes along Masters of Horror. The series is currently airing its second season, and much of the first is now out on DVD. The premise is fabulous: get the acknowledged giants of the field to make short films with very little constraints with regards to content. But the execution isn’t always as inspired as said premise. There certainly have been some pretty memorable episodes, but for my money, the most striking (even though it has its own flaws), is the one episode that never aired in North America: Takashi Miike’s insanely nasty “Imprint.” The current season is shaping up to be a disappointment: too many mediocre-to-pedestrian episodes, directed by people who hardly qualify as “masters” of the genre.
And even the real masters are leaving us wanting more. My greatest disappointment has been Dario Argento. I make no bones about it: he has pride of place in my particular pantheon, though he has been sorely testing my faith in recent years. So far, he has directed two episodes for the series: “Jennifer”’ and “Pelts.” Now, Argento is notorious for the violence of his films, and both of these efforts provide plenty of gore. “Jennifer” also has some pretty nicely screwed up plot developments to go along with its nasty scenes.
And yet, something is missing from both films. Is it perhaps the fact that he didn’t write the screenplays? The dialogue may be crisper than we are used to with Argento, but it is also far less distinctive, as are the plots. His trademark obsessions are largely absent. And perhaps, too, the very American settings show up how important the European settings of his other films are to their effect.
But the biggest problem, I think, comes down to style. Above everything else, Argento’s films, at their best, are bravura exercises in technique and style, glorious visual feasts that consume the viewer with fever-dream nightmares. That style is absent here. These films could have been directed by just about anyone. And that, I submit, is the problem with so many releases in this series. The directors are disturbingly interchangeable, as if they were all series creator (and director of middling Stephen King adaptations beyond counting) Mick Garris. The exceptions are there (as with Miike’s piece), but they shouldn’t be exceptions. They should be the rule.