Masters of Horror

Horror has fallen on hard times. Oh sure, everyone talks about a “renaissance,” fans flocking to theaters for remakes of classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead. And a couple of filmmakers — George Romero and Rob Zombie — have delivered great original films. But gone are the days of gore-drenched exercises in extremism. Now, the pictures are tween-friendly, fashioned to marketable PG-13 standards.

In an effort to recall the good days, genre master Mick Garris (The Stand, The Shining) has partnered with Showtime for a collection of premium-cable creepy crawlies. The hour-long weekly series, Masters of Horror, pairs talented directors (including Argento, Carpenter, Gordon, Hooper, and Miike) with writers of equal skill to create a new standard in weekly video scares. But if the first offering, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” is any indication, the hoped-for resurrection of in-your-face frights is still a couple of corpses away.

Directed by Don (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) Coscarelli from a story by Joe R. Lansdale, “Incident” shows what’s wrong with the modern horror film. Instead of invention, our story revolves around a beautiful girl, a lonely stretch of road, and a ridiculously unrealistic serial killer whose face is a prosthetic fright mask, silver teeth and all. No explanation is given for this freakish condition. He’s the boogieman as action figure, with a nerd-friendly nickname: “Moonface.”

Ellen (a fairly convincing scream queen performance by Bree Turner) has just escaped an abusive relationship. Her spooky, survivalist ex-husband has taught her all manner of self-defense techniques, so as she takes on the ashen goon, she turns into a curvaceous Kevin McCallister. For most of the first act, Ellen is devising anti-monster boobie traps out of random sticks and implements, while flashbacking to her spouse’s semi-psycho pep talks. Before you know it, the moon man is getting scissors in the eye and homemade arrows through the shoulder. It’s horror Home Alone-style.

Here Coscarelli abandons the straight-ahead approach of his feature film work. Instead, he accents the situation with lots of ADD-inspired handheld camera chaos and more than a little dread-dulling darkness. Much of the main chase scene through the woods takes place in shadows so thick we lose track of who’s after whom. When Ellen stumbles on the murderer’s lair, “Incident” finally discards the derivative. Moonface apparently has a thing for dead bodies, eyeballs, and scarecrows. His victims surround his rundown cabin, positioned on spikes like an ancient conqueror would display his “trophies.” We later discover that his “optical” issues lead him to drill out the peepers of the people he kills.

But “Incident” is not the gruesome gore-fest one expects from Coscarelli. It’s fright via implication and insinuation. Certainly the scenario is sadistic enough and Coscarelli regular Angus “The Tall Man” Scrimm livens things up, appearing as a fellow prisoner, but if we want watered down terror, we can rent The Eye or The Grudge.

Even the supposed plot twists seem sedate and uninspired. It is no spoiler to say that Ellen uses her survivalist skills to facing off against her nemesis. Yet the result of that clash and the “twist” that resolves it are plainly telegraphed. About the only elements of note here are the acting and the set design. Effects wizards Gregory Nicotero and Howard Berger (of famed KNB Efx Group) provide more rotting bodies and unsettling skeletons than a local morgue, creating a truly craven atmosphere, while Turner plays well off the weirdness channeled by Scrimm.

But this is still Coscarelli’s baby, and he bobbles the brat before dropping it into scalding bathwater. Perhaps he felt hindered by the half-pint format or maybe the story was too superficial from the start (a lot of questions remain unanswered). In the end, however, it’s a lack of terror that undermines “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road.” As an attempt to turn the tables on the standard scary movie “damsel in distress” dynamic, this Masters of Horror episode misses more times than it connects.

This does not mean that Masters of Horror is hopeless. The future lineup is impressive: the second episode promises a return to H.P. Lovecraft territory for Stuart Gordon (“Dreams in the Witch-House”), and others sound enticing (Clive Barker adapted by John McNaughton [Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer], and a Richard Matheson/Tobe Hooper collaboration tantalizingly titled “Dance with the Dead”). Still, with the stink of the recent The Fog remake still fresh and a seeming assembly line of reduxes on the horizon, it appears that Masters of Horror has its reclamation work cut out for it. Judging by its initial offering, it might not be up to the task.