Genre television is in a better place than it has been since the 1980s. Ongoing series like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Stranger Things are among the most popular and successful shows currently in production. Netflix brought back the Black Mirror anthology, while SYFY’s Channel Zero continues to build its well-deserved cult fanbase with every new season. Small screen horror is big business these days.
But just a decade or so ago, that wasn’t the case. So when Showtime announced its Masters of Horror anthology series, it was a pretty big risk. Still one of the most ambitious television horror projects ever attempted, Masters of Horror was the brainchild of director and producer Mick Garris, who dreamed of a series in which he and his fellow genre filmmakers would have free reign to tell whatever stories they wanted to tell, however they wanted to tell them. The rules were pretty simple: each filmmaker would make a one-hour movie with total creative control so long as they shot up in Canada, keeping a low budget and tight production schedule. They were almost successful, too. Almost. But we’ll get to Miike.
The resulting series consists of 26 episodes of fascinating, uneven television. Some of the genre’s biggest names—those who can without question be called “Masters of Horror”—did some of their best work in decades. Others felt constrained by the format, while still others never quite found the right material. Some of the best episodes were directed by younger filmmakers with maybe only one or two movies under their belts—hardly “masters,” but seemingly on their way based on their contributions. The plug was pulled after two seasons on Showtime, though the show would mutate somewhat and live on for one season on NBC as Fear Itself.
What we’re left with is 26 hours of (mostly) un-compromised horror ranging from terrific to frustrating, all of which I plan to revisit and reassess in the coming months. I don’t know if my original favorites will hold up, or if I’ll find things to like in episodes I once dismissed. What I do know is that we’re unlikely to ever see a show like this again, which makes me more than a little excited to go back and rewatch it from beginning to end.
I hope you’ll come along with me.
Season One, Episode 1: "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road"
Director: Don Coscarelli
Original air date: October 28th, 2005
If you’re Masters of Horror and you want to put your best foot forward, you could do a whole lot worse than leading with a Don Coscarelli adaptation of a Joe R. Lansdale story. "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" finds Grimm’s Bree Turner as Ellen, a woman who gets in a car wreck on a remote wilderness highway, where she is stalked and attacked by a monstrous serial killer known as Moonface (John DeSantis). At the same time, she’s flashing back to meeting and marrying her husband, Bruce (Ethan Embry), who gradually grows more and more paranoid as he becomes a survivalist over the course of their relationship, teaching his wife how to fight back at the same time that he turns increasingly dangerous.
My memory of "Incident" was that it’s one of the strongest entries in the entirety of Masters of Horror, and this rewatch confirmed that it’s a particularly good hour of television. The parallel structure that Coscarelli uses (which I assume has been ported over by the Lansdale story, still unread by me) adds weight to both sides of the story: the dissolution of Ellen’s marriage and the subsequent strength it reveals informs her plight with Moonface, a slasher both menacing and iconic enough to have sustained his own feature film, if not a franchise. There’s a way to look at the episode's structure and take away that Ellen is only able to fight back against Moonface because of the skills that her husband taught her, but that’s only acknowledging the surface. What Coscarelli is really talking about is how facing one horror prepares us for other horrors, and how monsters are everywhere—they just sometimes wear a more familiar face.
Credit to Coscarelli, too, for casting Ethan Embry in such a pivotal role at a time when we weren’t seeing Embry all that much. If you grew up in the ’90s, Embry was an omnipresent fixture in movies, particularly lightweight comedies. These days, he has successfully reinvented himself as a genre star, giving brilliant performances in everything from Cheap Thrills to The Devil’s Candy to Late Phases to this year’s Fashionista. His work in "Incident" predicts the more intense dramatic stuff he’s doing these days by tapping into a dark side previously unseen in teen comedies that required little more of him than to be sweet and goofy. This Masters of Horror installment changed the way I looked at Ethan Embry in 2005; in 2018, his excellent performance feels much more a piece of his current career.
For as much cool shit as there is in "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road"—and I haven’t even mentioned Moonface’s predilection for drilling out the eyes of his victims or the appearance of the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, as one of Moonface’s prisoners—I can already spot a few of the limitations that would become standard practice for Masters of Horror. The rushed production schedule and low budget are evident not because of the small story, but because of the way that Coscarelli and cinematographer Jon Joffin attempt to disguise it by shooting everything a little too tightly and shaking the camera a little too often. At the same time, there’s a shot of Moonface attacking with the moon behind him that, obvious use of green screen aside, is one of the more striking and memorable images in the entirety of Masters of Horror.
Because I’m hardwired to look at these episodes within the larger context of each filmmaker’s career—the branding of the show more or less demands it—one of the things I remember most about Masters of Horror is that the majority of the shows don’t really represent their respective directors. The Carpenter episodes don’t feel like Carpenter, the Argento episodes don’t really feel like Argento. That’s true of "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road", too. It’s an excellent hour of television and a cool variation on the traditional “backwoods slasher” archetype, but it’s far less playful and eccentric than Coscarelli’s stuff usually is. If anything, it has more in common with his film Survival Quest than with most of his horror output. As a one-off, it’s kind of fun—Coscarelli working on a different canvas, experimenting with a tone that’s new for him. But when it becomes the norm for Masters of Horror, it winds up giving the show a bit of an identity crisis: why bring all of these masters together if their work isn’t recognizable as their own?
It’s a question I look forward to working through during this rewatch. For now, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" is a standout of the show in my memory and holds up as an excellent piece of horror television. Where it will rank among the rest of the series remains to be seen.
"Incident On and Off a Mountain Road" Score: 4/5
Up next: Stuart Gordon! Lovecraft! Rats with human faces! It’s "Dreams in the Witch House"!
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!