Cross-Promotion: Dagon (2001) on the We Love to Watch Podcast

I was recently featured as a returning guest on an episode of the We Love to Watch podcast discussing two Stuart Gordon-directed adaptations of classic HP Lovecraft stories: Dagon (2001) & “Dreams in the Witch-House” (2005), as part of the show’s ongoing “Summer of Lovecraft” series.

Aaron & Peter were incredibly kind to invite me back after previous discussions of The Fly (1958) & Xanadu (1980). It’s always super fun to guest on their podcast, since I regularly listen as a fan. Their show is wonderfully in sync with the sincere & empathetic ethos we try to maintain on this site (especially when covering so-called “bad movies”), so I highly recommend digging through old episodes & clips on the We Love to Watch blog if you haven’t already. And, of course, please start by giving a listen to their episode on Dagon below.

-Brandon Ledet

Pelts (2006)

EPSON MFP image

three star

campstamp

When I wrote my review of Jenifer, I noted that it was unique among Dario Argento’s body of work in a few ways, for better or worse. Jenifer herself was imagined by Argento as an alien life form, even if that wasn’t explicit in the text itself, making her the only extraterrestrial in his canon (unless I’m in for the shock of a lifetime when I get to Dracula 3D); further, the effects work on Jenifer was grotesque and monstrous, with the only similar prosthetic work in his films that I can recall being the monstrous child in Phenomena. Argento’s second Masters of Horror episode, Pelts, is also quite unlike his previous work, although not in the way that is frequently referenced. Nearly every review of Pelts mentions the short film’s “political message,” especially given the generally apolitical nature of all of Argento’s work, but I don’t really think that there is one, at least not in the way the uninitiated interpret the word. As a composition scholar, I am obliged to perceive and interpret all forms of composition and creation as inherently political, as all creation is an act of expressing individuality and thus is a political act in and of itself; by choosing what to include and what to exclude in the created thing, be it a poem, speech, or painting, the author/composer makes a de facto “political” statement. And, yes, the fact that Argento focused this film on the fur trade does lend itself to the assumption that the director is making a capital-P “Political” statement, but I don’t think that was Argento’s goal, nor do I think that decrying fur played a larger role in the inception of this plot than wanting to show a man skinning himself of his own flesh and then working backwards to create parallelism did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Jake Feldman (the one and only Meat Loaf Aday) is a fur trader who lusts after Shanna (Ellen Ewusie), a stripper who is disgusted by Feldman’s possessiveness and the fact that, as a furrier, he constantly reeks of dead flesh. She has made it clear that she will dance for—but never sleep with—him, no matter how pathetic he is. One of his suppliers, Jeb Jameson (John Saxon, who previously worked with Argento in Tenebrae), is an old drunk who takes his son Larry (Michal Suchánek) into the woods to check the raccoon traps he set earlier. Larry expresses some concern when he realizes that his father is taking him beyond a warning fence, onto the land of Mother Mater (Brenda McDonald), but the elder Jameson scolds his son for his superstition. The two come upon stone ruins, which Larry notices are carved with the faces of raccoons, while his father instructs him to crush the windpipes of the animals they have trapped, apparently in abundance, and to take a baseball bat and crush the skulls of any raccoon that does not die instantly. Jeb calls Feldman to tell him that he has secured a large number of pelts, the most beautiful he has ever seen. Later, after the two have skinned the animals and their pelts are drying, Jeb heads to bed while Larry ecstatically examines the animal hides with a spiritual reverence. Moved by their beauty, he goes upstairs to his father’s room and crushes his skull with the baseball bat before gleefully setting up a trap and then killing himself with it.

Feldman and his lackey find the two in this position and, thinking quickly, take off with the raccoon skins. Various workers in Feldman’s shop begin to self-harm in ways that are reminiscent of their interactions with the furs in the coat-making process, until the coat is finally completed. In the meantime, Feldman visits Mother Mater, who warns him that the nearby fenced-off woods are protected by the “pine lights,” which he laughs off when he realizes she means raccoons. Feldman presents the coat to Shanna, who sleeps with him in exchange for it. He excuses himself to the restroom, where he proceeds to skin himself, cutting off his own flesh in roughly the shape of a tank top and then attempts to gift this flesh to Shanna, who flees from him. Feldman pursues her to the elevator, where her hand is trapped and then torn off (symbolic of the animal that gnawed its own foot off to escape the trap), and then they both die. The end.

I remember watching Tenebrae and being shocked by how unusually violent it was in comparison to the (comparatively) understated violence of the films that preceded it; Pelts gives that film a run for its money. Argento brought back Howard Berger, who had done the make-up and visual effects on Jenifer, and he was again interviewed on this DVD. Berger, who has worked with director Quentin Tarantino numerous times, recalled in his interview for this project that Tarantino’s directions on the set of Kill Bill largely consisted of “make it bloodier than Tenebrae.” He felt he had come full circle by contributing to this project, citing that it was the goriest thing he had ever worked on, and I can’t argue with that. There’s not a lot to engage an audience here on a philosophical level (and certainly nothing on a political level), but there’s more than enough to satisfy even the sickest fans of gore. I consider myself to have a fairly strong constitution, steeled by many a midnight horror flick, but some scenes were almost too much for even my stomach. The scene in which Feldman flays himself is horrifying in all the best ways, and the scene in which the younger Jameson serenely plunges his face into a bear trap carefully combined tension and the grotesque in perfect measure. That’s a real feather in the cap of the people who worked on the short’s practical effects, but it also highlights the poor quality of much of the CGI work. The worst offender in this arena has to be the scene in which one of Feldman’s employees sews her eyes, mouth, and nose shut; there’s no real reason why this couldn’t have been done practically using a dummy head, especially given Berger’s talents, and it looks terrible and rushed in the final product.

Although Meat Loaf is most well known as a musician and his most memorable role since The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a supporting one in Spice World as the Girls’ driver, he has a willingness to completely immerse himself in a part the way that many actors who are more “legitimate” or noteworthy do not. Feldman is an utterly vile person, and any humanization that he has is as a result of Meat Loaf’s surprisingly nuanced and careful performance. Saxon is the only other actor of note in the production, and he does the opposite, playing up the campiness of the Jameson character; it’s a bit of a relief to see him killed off so early, as that frees Saxon from sullying himself too much. The rest of the cast is largely comprised of nobodies; each of them has an IMDb page full of “Man #3,” “Bouncer,” “Tough Guy,” and “Stripper #4” credits, and there’s not much to say about any of them. Ellen Ewusie really gets the worst of this, however, as her interview (like Moran Atias’s in the supplemental materials for Mother of Tears) illuminates her as a woman saddled with attempting to discuss building the background and motivations of a character who exists solely for titillation, and I wish I could see her in a role that requires more than that.

Overall, this was an experience that I neither loved nor hated. The message is less “fur is murder” and more “selfishness is self-destructive,” which is all well and good but not very groundbreaking. The acting is a mixed bag, and there’s so much gore packed into this short run time that it is worth a watch if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s by far the better of Argento’s two Masters episodes, and while it’s not very good, it is an unusual part of the director’s canon that gives some insight into his mind that is lacking in his other works.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Jenifer (2005)

EPSON MFP image

twostar

Steven Weber is not a movie star. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Every time I see him, all I can ever think about is his character from Wings, a sitcom that ran for the better part of a decade and then was syndicated for the entirety of my formative years. I can only see Brian Hackett. Even when Weber is supposed to be Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s poorly overproduced miniseries remake of The Shining, or whatever his character’s name was in that Larry David movie that Larry David hates, he’ll always be slacker Brian Hackett to me. The inverse is also true; Argento is not a director who should be bound by the limits of the small screen, as was seen in Do You Like Hitchcock? and here. Apparently Weber has a talent for screenplay writing, which he exercised here in this first season Masters of Horror episode, adapting a horror story from a 1974 issue of Creepy: “Jenifer.” This is also Dario Argento’s return to America after Trauma, which he chose to shoot in what he described as “featureless Minnesota” for presumably thematic reasons that I still don’t understand. All discussion about his crumbling auteurship aside, it can never be said that Argento does not put all of his energy into his work. The Masters of Horror DVDs are some of the best you can ask for, featuring hours of special features for each episode, including interviews with actors who worked with the director of that episode earlier in his career as well as featurettes and other behind-the-scenes footage; here, it’s really evident that Argento, despite being in his sixties at the time, is working just as hard on this one hour film as he did on the exalted films from earlier in his career. It’s just too bad that the end product isn’t really all that worthwhile.

Frank Spivey (Weber) is a police officer who shoots and kills a derelict when the man refuses to drop the giant blade he is holding to the neck of a woman whose face is unseen. With his dying breaths, the man warns Spivey that he can’t comprehend what he has done, before Spivey sees the face of the woman he rescued and recoils in horror. Jenifer (Carrie Anne Fleming), as we will learn she is named, has an attractive body but a terrifyingly hideous face, featuring enlarged and asymmetrical black eyes and a malformed mouth full of jagged teeth; she also drools profusely and her tongue appears to be covered in food bits at all times. Spivey becomes obsessed with her despite her appearance, inviting her to stay in his home while they look for her family. Things start to go awry almost immediately, as Jenifer gorily eats the family cat, prompting Mrs. Spivey and the couple’s son to leave the home, but Jenifer and Spivey begin to have sex and Spivey seems addicted. When he cannot curb Jenifer’s cannibalistic outbursts (which culminate in the killing and eating of the little girl who lives next door), Spivey moves Jenifer to a cabin in the woods and takes a job as a shelf stocker at a grocery store operated by a single mother (Cynthia Garris). Jenifer can’t help but kill yet again, eviscerating and feeding upon the entrails of the shop owner’s teenage son (Jeffrey Ballard). Realizing that he can never stop her, Spivey takes Jenifer into the woods to kill her, but is shot by a hunter before he can complete the deed; Jenifer goes with the hunter, to begin the cycle anew.

Jenifer succeeds in one way that Argento’s previous films didn’t: Jenifer herself is positively grotesque and disgusting. As in the original comic story, there’s never an explanation given as to where she came from or why she does what she does, although Argento imagined that she was an alien life form of some kind and instructed the makeup department accordingly, making this the first and only appearance of an alien life form in his body of work to date. I mention this not only because it is noteworthy, but because much of the short itself is not. Everything interesting about Jenifer is revealed and discussed in the supplementary materials, not in the text proper, which is a problem. The plot is paper thin, and the fact that this is apparently a recursive narrative is the only thing that makes it notable at all. Of the two television projects that Argento worked on in 2005, this one manages to be stronger than Do You Like Hitchcock? in its sense of style and its lush Oregon landscape, but this is still a paper-thin plot about a man whose sex drive is stronger than his will to live or his oath to protect people, which makes him difficult to care about. Although it is apparent that Jenifer is warping his mind somehow from the moment the two meet, we spend no time with Spivey before this event, so we have no way of knowing if he was ever a decent cop and good father who is turned by his weakness to his lusts, or if he was always as pathetic as he is presented to be at the conclusion.

Masters of Horror was always better in concept than in action. In practice, it seems that most of directors invited to be part of the series were past the point where they or their points of view could be said to have any cultural relevancy. The BTS materials demonstrate that Argento was somewhat hamstrung by the sensibilities of the network, even though you’d expect Showtime to have a loose hand. A monstrous woman with a hideously deformed face but great breasts eviscerating and feasting upon a cat and a seven year old girl? Fine. But show her chowing down on a victim’s penis? Too far! According to Howard Berger, who designed and applied the prosthetics and makeup for Jenifer, Argento also asked him to design a horribly alien murder vagina, which he then crafted out of chicken parts and prosthetic teeth; Showtime nixed this idea as well. And frankly, I don’t know how to feel about that. At the time of filming, Argento was still physically directing his actors, acting out how he wanted them to move and react to things like a person truly passionate about their craft; he was also trying to push the boundaries of horror and good taste, taking no prisoners and holding back nothing in the pursuit of an artistic endeavor. But not being able to realize his perversely horrifying or horrifyingly perverse ideas isn’t really the problem with the final product. Passion isn’t imagination, or talent, or relevance. It’s vital but insufficient, and the problems with Jenifer are that it’s just too blasé, too 1990s The Outer Limits, too television. Jenifer herself will give you nightmares, but that’s the discomfort of the uncanny valley, not tension. The story is repetitive despite its short run time (“Will Jenifer kill again? Yes.”), and it has no staying power.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Spooky-Goofy World of John Landis’ Work in Horror

Director John Landis is typically known for his work in comedies. His name is synonymous with comedy milestones like Animal House, Kentucky Fried Movie, Trading Places, Blues Brothers, and Coming to America. That’s why when we were discussing October’s Movie of the Month, Landis’ vampire mafia oddity Innocent Blood, we were a little surprised in the director’s interest in horror as a genre, previously thinking of his cult classic An American Werewolf in London mostly as a one-off fluke. It turns out that Landis has a long history of working within horror, dating all the way back to his very first feature, with nearly ten credits to his name as a director that fit right into his work in Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London. Listed below are all of John Landis’ horror credits (or at least the ones that I could find) in chronological order, each ranked & reviewed.

Schlock (1973)

EPSON MFP image
twohalfstar
If there were any question about whether or not John Landis’ displays for gleeful love for oldschool horror in An American Werewolf in London & Innocent Blood were a fluke, it’s answered as soon as his very first feature. As you can tell from its succinct/accurate title, Schlock is a silly love letter to the very silly history of silly B-movies, particularly in the 50s sci-fi horror drive-in era. In the film Landis himself plays the titular Schlock, a missing link primate dubbed The Banana Killer by the press both because he leaves banana peels at the scenes of his crimes (He’s an ape! Bananas! Get it?!),which have an escalating body count of more than 200 dead, and because whoever committed these crimes “is obviously bananas.” That kind of hokey humor is typical to the film & it works best when it’s incongruously paired with depictions of violence. For instance, a local news station covering the Banana Killer murders holds a “Body Count Contest” where viewers can guess the number of mangled bodies contained in a group of garbage bags for a prize, as if guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar at a little kid’s birthday party. Not only is this moment sublimely silly, but it also jabs at the way news coverage of mass murders can shamelessly turn tragedy into entertainment.

Unfortunately, the Body Bag Contest gag is among the very few of the film’s inspired moments. If Schlock had been structured like Landis’ Kentucky Fried Movie and stuck to a pastiche of B-movie inspired sketch comedy (as in the excellent 2000 mockumentary The Independent), it’d amost certainly be a cult classic. Instead, it gets unnecessarily bogged down in the logistics of telling a complete story about a murderous missing link, playing a bit like a full length parody of the little loved, little remembered movie Trog. You can feel the sketch comedy structure screaming to break out from within, like in a last minute gag that promises/threatens a sequel titled Son of Schlock & in a trailer-like intro that proclaims, “First, Birth of a Nation. Then Gone With the Wind, 2001: A Space Oddyssey, Love Story, See You Next Wednesday [which doesn’t exist outside of Landis’ ongoing inside joke]. And now, Schlock! Schlock! Schlock!” while Landis’ literal monkeyshines are intercut with a playground strewn with dead bodies & banana peels. Another interesting moment features Schlock, aka The Banana Killer, watching The Blob in a movie theater, focusing on a scene in which characters are watching a scene in a movie theater before a Blob attack. SO we’re watching a movie in which a killer ape watches a movie in which unsuspecting teenagers watch a movie just before an evil alien blob threatens their lives. This tactic of showing appreciation for the history of horror films by actually showing those films is repeated in Innocent Blood, where several televisions are tuned into old midnight monster movies in the midst of vampiric mayhem. Too bad Schlock is a little too accurate to the format of the trashy sci-fi horror films it’s mocking/paying tribute to. It has a few standout, bonkers scenes that make it interesting as a relic, but the task of watching it in its entirety is a bit of a chore.

American Werewolf in London (1981)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

While we were watching Innocent Blood for our Movie of the Month discussion it was difficult not to consider the film’s merits in the context of what Landis had already accomplished in An American Werewolf in London. Titles like Animal House or The Blues Brothers might be considered the apex of his career as a whole, but American Werewolf is easily his most well-regarded feature film as a horrormeister. In a lot of ways, American Werewolf‘s reputation works to its detriment, drumming expectations up to an almost unmatchable standard. In reality, it’s actually an unassuming little horror comedy. Besides a couple practical effects spectacles in its werewolf transformation scenes & creature design (provided by horror make-up genius Rick Baker) and a climactic sequence of epic monster movie mayhem, there really isn’t that much to the film. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable. To the contrary, its alternating gruesome/amusing tone is pleasantly unrushed & by the time it reaches its fever pitch conclusion of beheadings, car crashes, and oldschool werewolf attacks it’s nearly impossible not to be won over by its charms, which is about the same reaction I had to Innocent Blood.

The plot of An American Werewolf in London is fairly simple, straightforward stuff in terms of the werewolf genre. Two young American lads are backpacking through Western Europe when they reach a spooky tavern in a small community that has pentagrams & religious candles hanging amongst its dart boards & pints of lager. Picture the tavern in the original Wicker Man movie & you’ll have a good idea of the vibe. Anyway, the spooky locals warn the boys to stick to the road, advice they obviously disobey, which obviously leads to them being attacked by a werewolf. One friend dies & the other transforms into a mythical man-beast, much to the surprise of the big city doctors that help him recover from the attack. There are a few surprises in the formula: dreams in which the protagonist is hunting naked in the woods, a nightmare sequence in which uniformed space monsters burn down his home & murder his family, a growing army of his victims’ ghosts that urge him to commit suicide, etc. For the most part, though, this faithfulness to oldschool werewolf horror is entirely intentional, solidified by the film’s constant references to the Lon Cheney/Bela Lugosi famous monsters classic The Wolfman (a tactic echoed in Schlock & Innocent Blood). If the intent of American Werewolf was to update The Wolfman-type monster movies for modern sardonic senses of humor & special effects capabilities, I’d say it’s mostly successful. At the very least, I think I enjoyed it slightly more than 1981’s The Howling, which seems to be a good reference point for where Landis was aiming.

Twilight Zone: The Movie Prologue & “Time Out” (1983)

EPSON MFP image

twostar

It’s tempting to skip over Twilight Zone: The Movie in this write-up, both because Landis’ segments of the production barely qualify as horror & because of the infamous on-set disaster that resulted in three real-life deaths, a tragedy that has haunted the director & the movie industry at large for decades. The two segments Landis directs in the Twilight Zone movie are a prologue in which Dan Aykroyd scares fellow weirdo comedian Albert Brooks with a scary face (provided again by make-up genius Rick Baker) and a who-cares story about a racist prick getting a taste of his own hateful medicine at the hands of Nazis, the Klan, and so on. The prologue section is mostly nonsense & the thriller-esque anti-racism fantasy segment somehow feels even thinner. The funny thing about Twilight Zone: The Movie is that the film’s two producers, Steven Spieldberg & John Landis, directed the film’s weakest vignettes by far, while contributors George Miller & Joe Dante actually delivers a couple short-form horror classics. In short, Landis was greatly upstaged here, which is funny because I felt his werewolf movie just a couple years before greatly upstaged Dante’s somewhat similar (Rick Baker collaboration) The Howling.

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983)

EPSON MFP image

fivestar

The music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is by far the best example of John Landis’ horror work. It’s tempting to say that the economy of a 15 minute short film leaves little room for Landis to drop the ball in any significant way, but his two segments in The Twilight Zone: The Movie barely ammount to more than that & they aren’t nearly as effective or as memorable as the “Thriller” video. It’s more that Landis pushed himself to include every hallmark of his horror work into the video’s short runtime that makes it so enjoyable. It was rick Baker’s incredible make-up work in An American Werewolf in London that got Landis the job in the first place (as that was the only Landis film Jackson had actually seen at the time he was hired) so the special effects genius worked with the director one last time to turn The King of Pop into a werewolf. The affection for 50’s monster movies are on display in the video’s movie theater scene (featuring Landis himself enjoying a tub of popcorn) and promotional posters for Schlock & The Masque of the Red Death. There’s no choreography in Landis’ other work, but the video’s infamous dance routine of the undead reflects the irreverent humor he’s known to bring to the table. You can even feel Landis’ geeky love for horror in a Vincent Price “rap” that includes the lines “The funk of 40,000 years & grisly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom.” There’s no other way to put this really: “Thriller” is perfect. It’s not only Landis’ most iconic work in the horror spectrum; it’s also just one of the most perfect specimens of the music video as an art form.

Side note: Jackson apparently thought the “Thriller” video was so perfect & enticing that he included this warning, “Due to my personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” That’s how powerful “Thriller” is. Jackson was worried it was going to start a wave of Satanic converts.

Innocent Blood (1992)

fourstar

Much like how Landis’ much better-regarded An American Werewolf in Paris feels like an average werewolf movie until its technical marvel monster transformations & last minute mayhem set it apart from its peers, our current Movie of the Month & the director’s only horror feature since American Werewolf, Innocent Blood plays like an unremarkable combo of the vampire & mafia genres until it devolves into delightful chaos. This change that gets kicked off sometime around when the head mob boss, Sallie “The Shark” Macelli, is turned & starts assembling cinema’s (as far as I know) very first vampire mafia. There’s some respectable noir influence in the dark alleys & detective work of the front half of Innocent Blood, but until the vampire mafia starts to take rise, it feels like a dull compromise between far too many modern vampire films & bargain bin Scorsese knockoffs. It’s the black comedy & campy vampire mob shenanigans once the plot gains momentum that make the movie shine, especially in scenes like Don Rickles’ horrific vampire transformation or a never-ending, super-kinky, thrust-heavy sex scene that equal any ridiculousness you’d find in American Werewolf. The competent production & surprising jaunts of violent cruelty (including some truly grotesque body horror in Don Rickles’ Big Scene) combined with Marcelli running around converting his dopey goons, balance Innocent Blood‘s darkly humorous (and entirely intentional) campy tendencies with the more straightforward genre fare of the first act. Robert Loggia (whose version of apoplectic rage I’m most familiar with in Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie) is brilliantly funny in his role as Marcelli, thoroughly unraveling in his newfound, undead state, to the point where he’s playing more of a vampiric humanoid raccoon than a vampiric mob boss, holding down most of the movie’s charm.

Landis backs up this silliness & genre play with copious televisions playing ancient B-movies featuring familiar monsters like stop-motion dinosaurs, escaped gorillas, Bela Lugosi, and Christopher Lee (the same kind of onscreen references he brought to Schlock, American Werewolf, and “Thriller”). At the same time, on-screen televisions also take time to play more respectable fare, like the Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train. I think these movie selections are a great representation of what Landis was intending to accomplish here: marrying a schlock aesthetic with the higher production value of a “real” film. It’s that exact push & pull that made me fall in love with Innocent Blood as a dark comedy, when I initially wasn’t expecting to get much out of it. The film also smartly goes light on its dedication to the generally accepted rules of cinematic vampirism, despite its reverence for its cinematic ancestors. The same way silver bullets aren’t required to kill werewolves in American Werewolf, vampires in Innocent Blood may be averse to garlic & sunlight, but their reflections appears in mirrors & victims are disposed of with shots to the head (much more akin to zombie rules) rather than stakes to the heart. It’s curious to me that Innocent Blood is the sole screenplay credit for writer Michael Wolk, as I believe he did a fantastic job of establishing a distinct kind of mob-themed horror comedy that I’ve never seen on film before, one with a surprisingly deft balance between honoring mafia & vampire traditions, while still knowing when & where to stray. Like with American Werewolf, when the screenplay works it really works, flaws & false starts be damned.

Masters of Horror: “Deer Woman” (2005)

EPSON MFP image

three star

Unfortunately, Innocent Blood & An American Werewolf in London proved to be the only Landis horror features to date. There were some vague horror elements to his work in the anthology pictures The Twilight Zone: The Movie & even vaguer yet, Amazon Women on the Moon, a more sci-fi-leaning B-movie spoof flick without nearly enough horror elements in Landis’ segments to be included here. Otherwise, Landis’ horror work has been restricted to the small screen, starting with the Michael Jackson music video. The three most recent examples of his horror work have been hour-long segments in anthology television shows, starting with Showtime’s short-lived Masters of Horror. Surprisingly enough, Landis’ two Masters of Horror vignettes were actually far more enjoyable than his similar work in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Perhaps it was working alongside names like Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante, Takashi Miike, and John Carpenter that inspired him to step up his game. Since Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller failed to do the same, though, its more likely that the more inherently goofy format of the televised anthology horror simply allowed Landis to bring much needed levity to his horror work, something he excels at, given that he mostly cut his teeth in the comedy genre.

Landis’ first contribution to Masters of Horror, “The Deer Woman”, is a sublimely silly story about a Native American legend involving a beautiful woman with the legs of a deer that tramples unsuspecting victims to death. The episode is riddled with subpar dialogue & even less-commendable performances from its actors, but still proves itself to be memorably goofy by its conclusion. The titular deer woman is a non-verbal knockout of a woman, who seduces her victims merely by smiling & nodding. Once she lures them into a dangerously secluded place, she snaps off their erections & tramples their corpses into goop. Although the title gives away this reveal far before it arrives, “The Deer Woman” is still written like a police procedural, which works only because it’s amusing watching the central detective, who is essentially a small-town Agent Mulder, try to piece together crimes that don’t quite make sense. In one scenario, he imagines a beautiful woman beating her victims to death with a taxidermy deer leg. In another, he imagines a deer dressed in flannel & jeans punching victims to death as if in a barroom brawl. This cartoonishness mixed with the episode’s grotesque sense of gore is a mostly winning combo, one commendable in its dedication to inanity. The episode serves as John’s son Max Landis’ very first screenwriting credit, but the father-son pair apparently bickered about the details of the story’s conclusion to the point that John insisted on including his name as a writing credit as well. With cheeky references to An American Werewolf (cited as evidence for the faux-Mulder’s monster killer theory) & Frida Kahlo’s self portrait The Wounded Deer, “The Deer Woman” is a perfectly-suited small-scale entry in Landis’ horror catalog, especially once the the titular deer woman is using her deer legs to gallop from rooftop to rooftop in a ludicrous display.

Masters of Horror: “Family” (2006)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

Landis’ second contribution to Masters of Horror was a grotesquely comedic portrait of a serial killer building a family of bleached skeletons that’re something of a Norman Rockwell by way of Norman Bates display. Norm! from Cheers is the serial in question, fairly amusing here as he bickers with his skeleton family & listens to spooky blues music in his basement/skeleton lab. The back & forth switching between the serial killer’s fantasy & reality are darkly amusing, such as in a scene that alternates from him bathing his “mother”/melting the skin off her bones with acid. As he tries to add a young couple to his collection & expand his family with a younger, sexier set of bones, he makes himself vulnerable to discovery and, worse yet, punishment for his evil deeds. As enjoyably goofy as “The Deer Woman” can be, it’s fairly safe to say that “Family” is the best example of Landis’ televised horror anthology work. It would easily fit right in with the best episodes of Tales from the Crypt, especially once it reaches its disgusting last second reveal. If you’re going to watch just one of his post-Innocent Blood television episodes, this would be your best option.

Fear Itself: “In Sickness & in Health” (2008)

EPSON MFP image

onestar

There really isn’t much at all to say about John Landis’ most recent entry in the horror genre. When Masters of Horror was denied a third season by the Showtime network, the show was transformed into a one-season failure titled Fear Itself on NBC. The transition to network television was not kind to the horror anthology program, since it severely limited what it could get away with in terms of gore & vulgarity (although those restrictions have surely been more laid back in the seven years since). Besides John Landis, the only notable director from the Masters of Horror era to return to Fear Itself was Re-Animator‘s Stuart Gordon. Besides those two names, nothing of note came from Fear Itself’s pitifully short run. As for Landis’ entry in particular, he tells the story of a wedding day ruined by a mysterious, hand-delivered note that reads, “The person you are marrying is a serial killer.” Absolutely nothing of interest happens between that note’s arrival & the final reveal that *gasp* the note was delivered to the wrong person & the protagonist bride we’ve been following the whole time was actually the killer. Okay. The episode is mostly a bore, made fascinating only by the inclusion of the actor who played The X-Files‘ “Smoking Man” dressed in priestly garb. It’s an interesting image, but nothing to get too excited about, since “In Sickness & In Health” is nearly an hour in length.

I sincerely hope that this most recent example of John Landis’ horror work will not be his last, as the director has proven in the past that he has much better work in him. I’d love to see him return to the genre on the big screen on last time, perhaps for a Frankenstein or zombie picture, since he’s already covered the werewolf & vampire genres in the past. As long as brings a sense of goofball comedy to the production, it could be worthwhile.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, 1992’s Innocent Blood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at the vampire-crowded box office that buried it.

-Brandon Ledet