Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series is my favorite franchise of all time. Over the course of five films and four decades, it’s retained its moody, surreal personality without ever getting stale, even as Coscarelli had to contend with ever-shrinking budgets. This is due in large part to the fact that he’s steered the ship for longer than virtually any filmmaker has with a single property. His constant presence (directing four films and producing the final entry) ensured that the series would be more than just the sum of its parts. He’s also managed to shine outside of the confines of Morningside with a certified cult classic in Bubba Ho-Tep and a fun adaption of the trippy (and a wee bit incoherent) novel John Dies at the End.
In my search for a good Coscarelli deep cut candidate, I remembered that he directed the debut episode of Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror, a series in which Garris rounded up a bunch of classic horror directors to tell spooky tales as part of a Showtime anthology series. Having never gotten around to it, but hearing a lot of good things from the horror community (including Daily Dead’s own Patrick Bromley, who last year wrote retrospectives on the bulk of the first season), I was happy for the chance to dip my toes into the MOH waters with one of my favorite masters leading the way.
For Coscarelli’s episode, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” he returns to the work of Joe Lansdale for inspiration, having previously used a Lansdale novella for Bubba Ho-Tep. “Incident” opens with Ellen (Bree Turner) driving along a remote road in the mountains of Oregon when she crashes trying to avoid a stopped car. When she gets out to investigate, her search puts her face to face with a hulking, demonic creature we find out is affectionately (?) called Moonface (John De Santis). As it turns out, Ellen’s not the typical easy pickins that old Moonface is used to, as we learn through a series of flashbacks that she was once married to a radical survivalist named Bruce (Ethan Embry), who taught her a thing or two about fighting for herself in remote locations.
Of course, as is the case with a lot of survivalists, we also find out that Bruce’s paranoia got the best of him, and what makes the story compelling is the conflict between watching Bruce deteriorate in the flashbacks and seeing how the skills he taught Ellen help her stay alive in the present. This raises the question, at what point does learning to protect yourself from the dangers of the world shift into a mindset that in itself becomes dangerous (this arc actually reminds me a lot of John Goodman’s doomsday prepper in 10 Cloverfield Lane)?
Coscarelli navigates these fairly weighty themes deftly for most of the episode while maintaining a made-for-television trashiness that I expect, nay demand, from my premium cable horror anthologies. I say that with reverence, as I love me some trashy TV. Plus, we’re fortunate enough to balance the trash with some solid genre actors. Turner plays strong and vulnerable in equal measure, similar to her future turn in the equally trashy but fun series Grimm. It’s also fun to watch her leverage those survival skills with some creative booby traps. Embry, as ever, is also a standout, believably transitioning in a relatively small amount of screen time from a charming outsider to a nutcase.
But of course it’s one of Coscarelli’s most well-known (if normally silent) collaborators that provides the highlight performance of the episode. As a mentally deteriorating captive in Moonface’s remote cabin, Angus Scrimm gets more lines in ten minutes on this show than he did in all five films playing The Tall Man. And as much as I love to watch Scrimm cock that eyebrow, I really got a kick out of seeing him get to ham it up a bit. The guy had so much personality in real life, it was great to see him put it to good use here.
All in all, “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road” gave me pretty much everything I was hoping for from a Coscarelli foray into television... with the exception of the story’s final twist that takes an unexpected turn into sexual assault that wasn’t at all necessary, which just made it seem jarring and not terribly well-handled. With that in mind, if you’re anything like me, you may enjoy this episode more if you shut it off with about five minutes left. But that still leaves you with 45 minutes of horror from one of the masters. Which, as the title of the show would lead you to believe, is pretty much the point.