Saturday, November 05, 2005

MASTERS OF HORROR's 1st Masterpiece


Stuart Gordon's "Dreams in the Witch-House," adapted by Dennis Paoli and Gordon from one of H.P. Lovecraft's finest stories and starring Ezra Godden (pictured above), certainly lived up to the promise of last week's promo, scoring the new Showtime series its first masterpiece of televised horror.

"Masterpiece" might seem a strong word to use in this context, but I'm thinking about the TV terrors that have survived over the decades to become bonafide classics -- THE TWILIGHT ZONE's "Nick of Time," "Eye of the Beholder" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," THRILLER's "Pigeons from Hell" and "The Grim Reaper," and THE OUTER LIMITS' "The Forms of Things Unknown." Being a limited premium cable broadcast rather than a cultural phenomenon from the three-network heyday, "Dreams" can't touch as many lives with the same immediacy those earlier shows had, but there's no doubt that it's every bit as good, and at least as scary. Years and years from now, it will be one of the episodes for which MASTERS OF HORROR is remembered.

I'm not going to synopsize the story but I may refer to some things in general that you might not want to know about if you haven't yet seen the show, so be forewarned... but whatever I say, I don't think it can ruin it for you.

Despite its contemporizing of the story, as is consistent with Gordon & Paoli's previous Lovecraft adaptations (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND), the imagery of the episode is remarkably consistent with the story's arcane and often involuted descriptions; and where the teleplay introduces its own conceits to lend the story more dramatic enhancement, it pulls no punches. Not only does the episode commit the unthinkable by allowing every fear it anticipates to actually come to pass, it pulls into port on a downbeat note that transcends isolated tragedy so as to seem almost like a death-knell for the human race. To achieve all this with tongue at least partly in cheek is pretty remarkable, and there is little in the scenario (blurred subjective reality, abstract geometric horror, frontal nudity, the threat of violence against children and its fulfillment, the violent death of a nice guy protagonist, etc) that would pass the gauntlet of test screenings necessary to reach a commercial theatrical release. Which is to say that the producers of MASTERS OF HORROR may not be merely being glib when they say they want the directors they hire to explore what frightens them.

I was especially pleased by the geometric horror aspect, which I expected to be something the segment would find some way to overlook; it's a difficult-to-pin-down aspect of Lovecraft that only Lucio Fulci has successfully tapped into before, in THE BEYOND. (Geometry, to me, is in some ways the ultimate horror because it suggests a malevolent intelligence well in advance of anything human beings could combat -- like uncovering a malignance in the very fiber of reality.) I thought Gordon and his cameraman Jon Joffin also succeeded spectacularly in delivering some of the most deliciously Lovecraftian imagery I've seen onscreen, richer and more twisted than the eldritchiana that's figured in Gordon's earlier romps in and around Miskatonic University. And then there's Brown Jenkin, the (unnamed here, except in the end scroll) half-rodent familar of the rooming house witch. When I read Lovecraft's story some years ago, it was this weird character I most cherished about it, and if this screen version isn't quite as tantalizing as the impossible oddity I remember Lovecraft describing, it's nevertheless an audacious attempt and somewhat successful at capturing its complex cocktail of charm and unspeakable repugnance.

Many years ago, circa 1968, Tigon and American International co-produced an adaptation of this story, variously known as THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and THE CRIMSON CULT, starring Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough. Despite that formidable cast, they made a real mess of it -- the "witch-house" was a sprawling, upscale English manor house with perfectly papered walls, Steele was painted green, and Gough was the closest thing to Brown Jenkin, a mute butler silently beseeching innocent visitors to go. Stuart Gordon has come much closer to the bullseye, which could perhaps only be perfectly scored by Lovecraft himself. If you've never read "Dreams in the Witch-House," the original story is the perfect aperitif -- or chaser -- to its new adaptation. Those with sufficient courage can invite the complete text into their senses here.

"Dreams in the Witch-House" airs again on Showtime East and Showtime HD tonight at 11:00 p.m. and tomorrow, Sunday night, at 10:00 p.m. eastern time, with other playdates scheduled throughout the week. For more information (including a photo gallery and a trailer), visit the series website here.

With its second episode, MASTERS OF HORROR has gone from being cause for cautious optimism to the show no horror fan can afford to miss. They've raised the stakes that high, and now we know the incredible is well within their grasp.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Cormania


What do THE TERROR (1963) and EASY RIDER (1969) have in common besides Jack Nicholson?

Strangely enough, both films introduce their protagonists riding into frame (Jack Nicholson on a horse, Peter Fonda on a motorcycle) and throwing away a device that has previously anchored them to their perceptions of time or space. In EASY RIDER, it's a wristwatch; in THE TERROR, it's a compass.

I noticed this shared detail whilst refreshing my memory of THE TERROR a couple of nights ago and became fascinated by it. I don't know who was responsible for suggesting this moment for EASY RIDER -- it could have been Fonda, Dennis Hopper, or possibly Nicholson himself, who was certainly around at the time -- but, all Corman alumni, were they flashing back to THE TERROR when it occurred to them? Can the germ of the independent American film movement be traced back that much farther, to the most admittedly desperate film Roger Corman ever made?

As legend has it, Corman commissioned the script for THE TERROR because THE RAVEN wrapped early and its beautiful Daniel Haller sets were going to waste. Completing THE RAVEN ahead of schedule also meant that Corman was still entitled to the acting services of Boris Karloff for a set period of time, and the venerable actor certainly wasn't getting any younger. As it happens, Karloff's scenes for THE TERROR were wrapped so quickly that, four years later, Corman was able to offer Peter Bogdanovich two still-uncollected days of the actor's time as an incentive to make his directorial debut, TARGETS (1968)!

As another legend has it, Corman allowed a number of associates to take turns directing parts of THE TERROR, including Francis Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman and Dennis Jakob, and their ringleader gleefully admits that the resulting patchwork doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Watching it again, and paying closer-than-usual attention to its plot, I found that it does make sense... sort of... until [SPOILER ALERT!] it asks you to believe that Boris Karloff (born 1887) is the son of local witch Dorothy Neumann (born 1914)! That's asking even more than EARTHQUAKE asked audiences to believe when its producers cast Ava Gardner as the daughter of Lorne Greene. "I'm not the man I was twenty years ago," indeed!

Nevertheless, I love this movie as I love the people closest to me -- despite its faults. Nicholson is often jeered for being miscast as a soldier in Napoleon's army, but he's better here than in THE RAVEN and it's a pleasure to see him act opposite the lovely Sandra Knight (of FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER fame), who was his real-life wife at the time. It's also strange to contemplate that, before this picture was made, these two actors, seen here cavorting in 18th century costume, had embarked on psychiatrically-supervised LSD therapy as a form of marriage counseling. (LSD only became illegal in this country sometime in 1965.)


Which brings us to THE TRIP, which Nicholson scripted for Corman in 1966, and which I watched again for the umpteenth time last night on Encore. I didn't mean to watch it again, but as soon as Peter Fonda's line "There's only one man that can walk on water" was followed by his kaleidoscopic screen credit, I was hooked for the full ride. And because I had watched THE TERROR the night before, I could recognize all sorts of Leo Carillo Beach location scenery shared by THE TERROR and THE TRIP. At one point in THE TERROR, Jack Nicholson tries following the apparition of Sandra Knight into the ocean, where she has seemingly walked through a portal of stone that powerful waves begin crashing through. There is a scene in THE TRIP where Peter Fonda, playing Paul Groves (a character rooted in screenwriter Nicholson's own experiences), is seen wading into the ocean at this exact same spot, assailed by wave after wave pounding through that stone portal. And he too has been led there by a female apparition, played by the wondrous Salli Sachse. I don't know what it all means, if Nicholson was reminiscing about his TERROR experience or if Corman was simply echoing a moment from his own filmography, but glimpsing this sort of creative resonance, I figure, is worth three hours of my time.


Right now Donna and I are shaping the material we have on hand into the next issue of Video Watchdog. It's going to be issue #123, but it's not going as easily as one-two-three. Every time we do a new issue, it seems, I experience regrets about something or other that I wanted to do in that issue, but which there simply wasn't time to do. For over a year now, I have been looking forward to devoting an issue to Roger Corman's 50th anniversary as a producer-director. His first feature as a director, FIVE GUNS WEST, was released on April 18, 1955. And now we find ourselves already working on our last issue of the year, and there's been no time in these past months to research, compile and publish the sort of tribute I envisioned. I suppose, technically, this anniversary will remain in effect till April 17, 2006. It's an anniversary I feel demands commemoration, and I'm determined to do it.


I'm frankly surprised that every other magazine devoted to the fantastic cinema hasn't also planned a similar issue, because for us genre fans, Corman's career has truly been the phenomenon of our time. As a director, he's delivered a thoughtful and remarkably consistent body of work that has not only explored but expanded several different film genres; as a producer, he has lived to see his personal tastes change the entire landscape of mainstream entertainment; as an interviewee, he was perhaps the most articulate spokesperson the fantastic had, prior to David Cronenberg; and as a discoverer of new talent, he is simply without parallel. He's also become a hugely enjoyable screen presence, particularly in the films of his devotées Joe Dante (RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS, LOONEY TUNES BACK IN ACTION), Jonathan Demme (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), and Francis Ford Coppola (THE GODFATHER II).

Of how many people can it be said that the last 50 years of cinema is unimaginable without them?

Now that I think of it, next April is actually ideal for the special issue I had in mind. Because the anniversary-inclusive date of April 5, 1926 will also mark the 80th birthday of Roger William Corman -- my hero.

PS: It's easy to find THE TERROR on DVD, but beware -- the discs on the market look terrible. The grabs pictured above were taken from the best source I've found, a Showtime Beyond broadcast from a year or two ago, which carried the Orion Pictures logo. It's one of those pesky public domain titles whose original negative resides deep in the vaults at MGM. It's possible they might never consider it worth their while to release it, but they surprised us recently by putting out the similarly AIP/PD title LAST MAN ON EARTH last year, so maybe an MGM "Midnite Movies" release of THE TERROR isn't all that pie-in-the-sky.

PPS 5:48 p.m.: WatchBlog reader John Bernhard has e-mailed me with word that the Encore Mystery channel is showing THE TERROR tonight at 2:40 a.m. eastern time! This is bound to be at least the same as the Showtime Beyond broadcast I mentioned above, and possibly of even newer origin, so get those recorders revved up. I didn't realize my TERROR musings were so timely!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Credit Where Credit is You

Someone wrote to me recently to ask why my name, of all names, appeared near the top of a long list of acknowledgements at the end of a new comedy called WAITING. I'm know I'm not the only Tim Lucas in the world -- Google me and you'll find doctors, musicians, priests, real estate agents and even a stand-up comic working under the professional name I've been using since 1971 -- but evidently there is also some parenthetical text onscreen that suggests I am the acknowledged Tim.

The writer-director of WAITING is one Rob McKittrick, whose name rings familiar or familiarly to me. Perhaps we corresponded by e-mail in the past, but I'm unaware of anything I might have done to earn such a prominent place in his acknowledgement scroll. I did work as a busboy in an Italian restaurant once, but only for a week. Anyway, I doubt the film was based on my own experience, as I never speak of those five days I spent in the uppermost circle of Hell to anyone.

I rarely see any movie till it comes to home video anymore, so I'm looking forward to seeing WAITING on DVD. I've spent a fair amount of time and energy trying to get my name up on the screen, but I believe this is only my second motion picture screen credit. My name also scrolls by at the end of Martin Scorsese's MY VOYAGE TO ITALY because I provided some photos, but this is the first time I've received a screen credit just for being me. So I send my thanks to Rob McKittrick for remembering whatever I did to warrant this little taste of immortality.

Speaking of immortality, today is or was the birthday of a remarkable number of those whom I consider immortal: Czech fantasy director/animator Karel Zeman (BARON MUNCHAUSEN), American actors Charles Bronson (who gives my favorite performance in my favorite movie, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) and Robert Quarry (COUNT YORGA - VAMPIRE), Italian writer-director Pupi Avati (THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS), French writer-director Jean Rollin (REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE), British composer John Barry (surely you don't need to be reminded of his achievements!), Italian actress and cinema icon Monica Vitti (L'AVVENTURA and L'ECLISSE), Japanese anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka (ASTRO BOY, METROPOLIS), Taiwanese screen goddess Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia (THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR), British actor and Sherlock Holmes extraordinaire Jeremy Brett, German actress Eva Renzi (THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE), American makeup artist-actor Tom Savini (DAWN OF THE DEAD) -- and perhaps the biggest of them all, Godzilla (KING KONG VS. GODZILLA), who was born on Tokyo cinema screens this day in 1954.

Happy birthday to them all, wherever they are, and long may their screen credits reign.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Yes, Another CASTLE Blog. (You Know You Want One)

After screening my Sinister Cinema tape of THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (there is a "THE" on the title card) -- a cropped, standard ratio presentation of the American International Television 16mm print -- I am now fully persuaded that it was never a scope picture. Watching it on my widescreen set with gray bars on either side of the picture, it's easy to see that the main titles were not cropped of any information that would have extended beyond the 1.85:1 frame. Likewise, I didn't notice a single instance of pan&scaning, nor were any of the compositions seriously disrupted by the dead-center framing, just an occasional third person who doesn't quite fit onscreen in a three-shot.

I also looked at an older Beta source I have for this movie, taken from a local public access telecast circa 1983-84. This was brighter and slightly more detailed than the Sinister version, which had deeper blacks and a somewhat softer look. This soft look is a common factor among all three versions, and it's making me wonder if CASTLE wasn't shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release. The 35mm blow-up/16mm reduction might help to explain why the movie has always looked so soft and smudgy. Of course, cheap lab work could account for this, too.

I've often wondered why AIP licensed this movie directly to television. It was a Christopher Lee vehicle primed for release in the same year when CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA were cleaning up across the country as a reissue double-bill. Lee's face was gracing the covers of different monster magazines. You'd think that AIP would want a Lee picture on the bench and ready to play. I suppose the fact that the movie was shot in black-and-white had a lot to do with its bypass of a theatrical release. Speaking of which, a fellow gentleman and scholar wrote to ask me if I knew anything about the movie being in color, which is how he remembers it -- and, as he points out, Pohle & Hart's book The Films of Christopher Lee labors under the same impression. But no, THE CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD was a black-and-white film, even in foreign release.

It's good to feel satisfied that CASTLE isn't as overly cropped as I've long suspected, but that doesn't negate the need for a properly framed release. I'm still interested in seeing some more accurately ratioed foreign language copies, if anyone within range of this blog has one to offer in trade.

One last remark: In watching CASTLE again last night, I noticed that this was one of the many Italian films of this period whose English language version was prepared by the recently deceased Mel Welles. In fact, Mel dubs the role of Dart, played by Luciano Pigozzi. The dubbing for this picture is exceptional, I think, with many of Christopher Lee's scenes playing as though they were shot with live sound. He was later quoted in a Castle of Frankenstein interview as saying that, after hearing the wrong voice issue from his lips in the English version of Bava's THE WHIP AND THE BODY, he'd had it written into his contract that he must dub all his own performances. CASTLE was made less than a year later, so he obviously took immediate steps to rectify the problem. He meets the challenge of reactivating his performance as Count Drago superbly.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD Footnote

My curiosity about the original scope format of this movie motivated me to check a few references, starting with Poppi & Piccorari's Dizionaro del Cinema Italiano vol 3 (1960-69). Interesting: the listing for IL CASTELLI DEI MORTI VIVI doesn't make any note of Aldo Tonti filming it in scope. I decide to skip over the usual next steps and go straight to my fotobusta collection. I have an example or two from this movie and, to my surprise, they make no mention whatever of a scope format! Finally, to confirm my growing suspicions, I checked Tom Johnson & Mark A. Miller's The Christopher Lee Filmography (McFarland and Company) and, once again, no mention of a scope format.

Folks, I am beginning to think this isn't a scope movie. The evidence against certainly beats the evidence for -- which appears to be none.

Thinking back, I believe all the assumptions that this was a scope movie (certainly including my own) were rooted in the terrible cropping of the original AIP-TV 16mm prints, which looked like your usual straight-down-the-middle, scope-cropping, with all the names in the opening credits being shorn in half. Well, now I'm thinking that the movie may well have been 1.85:1, which is technically widescreen though not anamorphic, and subject to pan&scan when adapted to television.

Which means I've got to pull out my ancient standard ratio copy and look at this thing again.

Halloween 2005

We usually just pass candy out the door on Halloween night, usually with some spooky movie or music playing, but this year the weather was so nice, so we decided to set up some chairs on the porch and pass out candy outdoors.

Beginning with a visit from Darth Vader, a hooded executioner and Herman Munster, the evening continued with visits from the usual Freddy Kruegers, purple-haired princesses, pointy-hatted witches and flour-faced undead. Our next-door neighbors ran out of candy early and came over to visit us with their four month-old baby, who was dressed as a red chili pepper. Not too many of the houses on our street were participating, and we noticed some parents helping their little ghouls and goblins reach illuminated houses by literally driving them door to door. A fire truck drove down our street, piloted by someone wearing a long white wig and a Viking helmet. Other than that, there wasn't much in the way of passing cars, and we saw a few cats wandering around the street, silhouetted by the backlight of street lamps. I took a little bowl of dry food out to the sidewalk to nourish an apple-headed Siamese that came close to our house, but it snubbed the friendly offering and went off in search of juicier findings. One straggling Halloweener came to our porch sans makeup of any sort and said, "Would you like to know what I am?" Yes, we would. "An escaped mental patient from a state hospital." Naturally, we filled the young man's bare hands with candy, for no other reason than to reward his candor. The usual number of adult trick-or-treaters turned up, some of them carrying a second bag ("This is for my baby"), but we figure that they're out there working for it, so why not? At least they're not carrying protest signs declaring that Halloween is Satanic.

We had a fun time -- that is, until we realized that we had locked ourselves out of the house without our keys! To make a long story short, we had to stop passing out candy for a short time while we tried to gain entrance to our impassible fortress. While my neighbor and I were fetching another neighbor's ladder to help us reach our only open window -- my office on the second floor -- Donna tried to reach a rear window unattended and fell off a patio table onto our back porch, straining a muscle in her leg. (She's limping about today in some pain, silly thing, but is mostly determined to stay in one place where she can keep it iced and elevated.) I climbed the ladder myself, but I was neither comfortable with the height or successful at forcing the screen up, so our neighbor heroically volunteered and managed this with comparative ease. After he came down and unlocked our front door, we all sat around on the porch having drinks and conversation till some time after Halloween was officially over, while their baby contentedly dozed. It was a worrisome Halloween for awhile, but one I'm sure we'll be reminiscing about for years to come.

Oh, yes: CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD was finally broadcast early this morning on TCM at 3:30 a.m. National Film Museum Incorporated logo, rephotographed main titles, the Markovic boys prominently credited, the director's name misspelled (there is only one "f" in "Warren Kieffer"). Any name that was cut in half by the pan&scanned AIP-TV prints was not included/recreated, so there was no credit for assistant director Michael Reeves. The movie was letterboxed, or should I say matted to appear letterboxed. I haven't compared it to the standard ratio cropping but it didn't strike me as looking conspicuously worse than usual -- I've seen some very poor copies of this over the years, dupey dubs, overscanned broadcasts with heavy commercial interruptions, miserable public access transmissions, you name it. Some of the long shots might have actually convinced me that the film was properly letterboxed, but the framing of the closeups and especially the medium shots (which always cropped half of one actor when three actors stood side-by-side) provided all the evidence one could need that Aldo Tonti's compositions were being... what's the term? monkeyed-with.

I think this is a very good movie -- it's certainly better than THE SHE BEAST, Reeves' official first movie as director -- and a proper presentation of this title is probably my Number 1 priority as a fan of the golden age of Italian fantasy. Are there any European WatchBlog readers out there who possess a properly letterboxed copy of this movie in French? Italian? Lithuanian? Any help/leads would be much appreciated.

CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD was preceded on TCM by Antonio Margheriti's HORROR CASTLE. I was watching something else, Jess Franco's LAS FLORES DE LA PASION (2003), which I paused long enough to check out the broadcast quality of this fine gothic giallo. It was letterboxed and looked... okay, but I noticed something queer about the color, which seemed to limn Rossana Podestà's nightgown with magenta on the left and lime green on the right, an anomaly I'd never seen before. Did anyone out there see this from the beginning? Did it carry the original HORROR CASTLE titles, or were they recreated à la the National Film Museum?

PS 5:12 p.m.: Joe Dante has written to inform me that HORROR CASTLE's main titles were not just recreated "à la the National Film Museum" but were in fact the work of the National Film Museum. At least it was a meticulous recreation -- in the sense that it didn't bother to correct the Italian misspelling of 'Cristopher' Lee's original screen credit. I believe this film is still copyright protected as THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG (it's available on DVD from Media Blasters), so it would seem that copyright issues were skirted here by resurrecting its orphaned US theatrical release title. It would be interesting to know also if any changes were made to the film's soundtrack in the interests of "authorship."

Monday, October 31, 2005

"Dr. Frankenstein's Lament"

Where is my little Fritz now?
A surgeon needs another hand to wipe his brow
He was here not long ago
To fetch the whip I keep on show
Oh, where is my little Fritz now?

He's my best friend in darkest night and pouring rains
He cuts down bodies and retrieves abnormal brains
I miss the slumpy way he walks
I miss the way he tugs his socks
Oh, where is my little Fritz now?

He comes in handy when it's time to sweep the porch
His match is always ready for my torch
Yes, he has his faults, it's true
But deprived, I feel so blue!
Oh, where is my little Fritz now?

Fritzie!
To be without you feels so odd!
Without you - I'm just a sentimental clod
Who knows just - what it feels like to be God!
I'm talking to myself! It's just the pits
I guess there is no life...
Mit-out mein kleine Fritz.

I think I heard a sudden sound from down below!
Could that have been my Fritzie screaming "No!"?
I may just sit right down and cry
The Monster's hung him up to dry...

Oh, where is my little Fritz now?
_____________

The above is one of about fifteen poems or songs I wrote for Monster Rally, an unpublished collection of "classic monster" verse that Charlie Largent and I were developing together a couple of years ago. The verse was mine, and the illustrations were to be Charlie's. He did some marvelous preliminary sketches but, as I recall, we both got side-tracked by paying work... and we had also been a little disillusioned by the way nothing much happened with our previous attempt at a children's book, Where Did My E-Mail Go?. My former agent wasn't interested in handling children's books, I suppose my publisher wasn't interested in confusing readers who thought of me as a writer of dark adult fiction, and the manuscript and full color art samples we sent out had a curious tendency to get misplaced and forgotten. Sometimes you have a perfectly fine project but it's not the right time for it, so you move on, hoping that the right time will come eventually.

Monster Rally isn't really a children's book so much as a collection of sophisticated light verse for classic horror aficionados. It's fun, it's smart; I think it's good. Perhaps we'll publish it ourselves someday. Or perhaps someone out there knows of a proper home for it. Whatever its ultimate fate, I thought I would share "Dr. Frankenstein's Lament" with all of you as a little Halloween treat. (On second thought, maybe I should have held back this particular example till Valentine's Day!) Anyway, you deserve it -- if only for good attendance. In the hour before I posted this, Video WatchBlog counted its 13,000th visitor and its 20,000th page visit! And we're just starting our fourth week.

Donna joins me, and the rest of the VW Kennel, in wishing all of you a very Happy (and Safe) Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

MASTERS OF HORROR Premieres

Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR got off to a start on Friday night, with some occasional bothersome glitches during its premiere broadcast (at least my local Dish Network feed did). I was impressed by the show's general presentation -- it's extremely well-produced, with enticing main titles that catalogue a spectrum of definitions of "horror," and the HD look and sound will offer the next best thing to sitting in a clean theater every week.

PHANTASM director Don Coscarelli's "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road," based on a Joe Lansdale story I'd never read before, struck me as a road I've been down several times before. A road accident strands a young woman (Bree Turner) in the woods where she is terrorized and captured by an unexplained subhuman armed with curiously advanced sword-and-sorcery-style cutlery, whose hobby appears to be the manufacture of formerly live scarecrows and whose violent actions are offset by a cute little "shushing" schtick. Our spunky and resourceful heroine is chained up and threatened with a drill press (used to hollow the eyes of the scarecrows-to-be) while another prisoner (Coscarelli dependable Angus Scrimm), driven insane, prattles on, ratcheting up the tension Hooper-style.

What's interesting about the episode is its inventive structure, as the story alternates between the woman's present ordeal, and the arc of a past love story with a survivalist boyfriend, who turned out to be a monster but whose schooling of her in the arts of self-defense prepared her for this ultimate test. The boyfriend is played by Ethan Embry (whom we fondly remember as T. B. Player in Tom Hanks' THAT THING YOU DO!), who gives the episode its outstanding performance and an element of horror that's earned through craft rather than cliché. Alas, it's these interesting qualities which are most sublimated, while the rest (like a showy shot of the "monster" leaping over a road barrier framed by an enormous full moon to become a kind of living Iron Maiden album cover) targets the head-banging, Rue Morgue crowd. This isn't the kind of horror that interests me anymore, and it's a kind that never interested me particularly. Horror rooted in fear of death and mutilation doesn't stick to the ribs, or the brain, the way horror based on the mystery of life and death can do, at least in my humble view. I readily concede that the numbers aren't on my side here, so occasional forays into this kind of horror are probably just good business from the producers' points of view.

Nevertheless, the title of this program leads us, rightly or wrongly, to expect demonstrations of mastery in this art form. The mastery implied should refer to what's going on here, rather than what these directors and writers have acheived in the past. The debut episode of MOH did nothing to excite my imagination, but I was certainly hooked by the previews for next week's show. The trailer for Stuart Gordon's take on H.P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House" (my favorite Lovecraft story) is indicative of an hour that will likely aim a good deal higher. The preview was rich in stylized and quirky imagery, and the glimpses of Brown Jenkin packed a double frisson of chills and laughs, which portends that the director of RE-ANIMATOR may be back to, or near, peak form.

Check Showtime's schedule for airings of "Horror Feast," a 15-minute restaurant round table featuring Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, John Landis and MASTERS OF HORROR producer/creator Mick Garris, where they compare notes on the celluloid that scares (and amuses) them. Everything from THE BLACK CAT to FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER to AUDITION and IRREVERSIBLE gets mentioned, which is kind of reassuring.

PS: Some of you have noticed there was no blog yesterday, but hey, I gave you two blogs on Friday. My original idea was to post something here daily, but I think it may be best to take the occasional unannounced day off rather than risk burning out. Even God took a day off, right? : )