The man who gave us cinema’s greatest werewolf now brings us a pretty lady with deer legs.
I love John Landis. I know not everyone shares this opinion. He has been controversial ever since his involvement in the Twilight Zone: The Movie accident that claimed the lives of his leading man, Vic Morrow, and co-stars Myca Dinh Le and Shin-Yi Chen, both of whom were children. It’s an impossible discussion to have in any kind of satisfying way here; there was an entire book written about it (Outrageous Conduct by Stephen Farber and Marc Green) and a lengthy court case at the end of which Landis was absolved of legal responsibility. Clearly it was still a tragedy, and clearly Landis shares in the blame for an accident that could have been avoided. I only bring it up here to provide some context for Landis’ career and to let you, the reader, know that I am aware of what happened and I still love him as a filmmaker. Whenever I talk about loving John Landis, someone is quick to point fingers. I get it. I do not endorse what happened, but what happened was an accident.
For me, Landis has always been the point of convergence of decades of moviemaking: his work carries with it the screwball charm of 1930s and ’40s comedies, the political ideology of the late ’60s New Hollywood movement, the wild energy and anarchic spirit of ’70s drive-in and exploitation pictures, and the high-concept ’80s. I suspect it’s because Landis is such an obsessive lover and historian of film; he’s worked in the business his entire life and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form dating back pretty much from its beginnings all the way to the present. He keeps up with current films and filmmakers, but he also used to eat lunch with Alfred Hitchcock and can tell you every single person who worked on every Preston Sturges movie. His knowledge of and love for film is infectious, and it finds its way into all of his work.
He’s also the first director to show up in the Masters of Horror lineup (so far) to have directed the least number of horror films, having been deemed a “Master” on the strength of An American Werewolf in London (and, to a lesser extent, Innocent Blood). Landis spent most of his career making comedies, several of which are among the most successful and beloved of all time. But so great and so influential is American Werewolf that Landis absolutely cannot be denied a seat at the table. Besides, he’s a guy who has existed in the horror space for his entire career: he directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, he wrote an amazing book on movie monsters, he remained friendly with a number of horror filmmakers and put them in his movies: fellow Masters of Horror Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento show up in Coming to America and Innocent Blood, respectively. (And, to return the favor, Hooper gave Landis a bit part in his 1990 effort Spontaneous Combustion.) Even if his inclusion in the series doesn’t quite add up on paper, it still makes total sense.
Season 1, Episode 7: “Deer Woman”
Director: John Landis
Original Air Date: December 9th, 2005
Seattle, Washington: A recent string of brutal murders has left police baffled and victims pulverized into soup. Enter Detective Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben, he of the Landis-produced HBO series Dream On), a cop who's been relegated to "Animal Attacks" and is wrestling some major demons. He teams up with Officer Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith, Tales from the Hood), a cop with "nothing better to do," to solve the killings, which continue to get stranger and stranger—hoof prints and deer DNA begin to appear at the crime scenes. The evidence all suggests the presence of the mythical Deer Woman (played by model Cinthia Moura in a non-speaking role), a Native American legend that's half deer and half woman with a penchant for seducing and murdering unsuspecting men. Uh-huh.
John Landis knows how funny horror can be. That's not to say he makes fun of horror, or that he takes what should be horror and makes it into comedy. There's still plenty of horror to be found in his few genre films. It's just that the horror is offset—for lack of a better word—by how funny it all is. The humor is there to break the tension, but there's more than just that going on. Landis grounds his horror works in the very real world, and his characters confront the fantastic situations they find themselves in by making wisecracks. Sometimes it's the only way to make sense of something of which no sense can be made.
This is the attitude that the director brings to “Deer Woman” (and if you think that title is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose literal, just remember the matter-of-factness of An American Werewolf in London). Of course, the premise, about a mythical creature that's half hot Brazilian model and half Bambi, is ridiculous; no one is quicker to point that out than Landis himself. But is it any more ridiculous than a guy changing into a wolf because it's his time of the month? Or a dude in a cape that changes into a bat? Where did the cape go? And when he changes back into a human, guess what? The cape is back! No, let's call it like we see it. There can sometimes be something funny about these monsters.
There's something funny about “Deer Woman”, too, courtesy of the script by Landis and his son, Max, and an offbeat leading man turn by Brian Benben, who manages to go the entire length of the film without once ever flashing back to an old TV show. Benben isn't exactly what springs to mind when casting the tortured cop/leading man type, but that's what makes him work: he's smallish and sarcastic, a cynical outsider in a county of Podunks and a-holes. He's the classic Landis hero, confronted with the monstrous supernatural, but processing it in his own smart-ass way; imagine if it had been Griffin Dunne, not David Naughton, that had survived the werewolf attack. That's our man Faraday. Benben's performance also allows for “Deer Woman” to address any of our concerns about the material as they arise, because no matter how silly we find it, Faraday finds it even sillier. The film's best sequence, in which Faraday comes up with three possible solutions to the inexplicable murders played out as fantasy scenes, arises from this very notion. It's great stuff.
The rest of “Deer Woman” is spottier. Every episode of Masters of Horror is working within a fairly low budget, but “Deer Woman” is where it’s felt the most. The photography feels TV-flat and feels more like video than past entries, and there are some CGI transitions that look like they were created 10 years earlier. The “mystery” aspect repeats itself, too, with Benben’s character suspecting early on that it’s a deer and then spending the rest of the running time more or less confirming that suspicion. The developing friendship between Benben and Griffith, the only other person who believes in Faraday’s theory, manages to carry us through the repetitive parts and is the episode’s most appealing quality after its sense of humor. The way their relationship resolves is one of the best moments in “Deer Woman” and reminiscent of a famous moment from Goodfellas.
Tonally, “Deer Woman” has a lot in common with Innocent Blood, mostly for the ways it combines the cop movie with the supernatural elements (and features a woman who seduces men in order to prey upon them). The major difference is that here, Landis has neither the time nor the scope to build his world out the way he does with the vampires-in-the-mafia stuff in Innocent Blood, so the result is a movie that dips its toe/hoof into a few genres, but can never really commit to being enough of any of them.
It’s also tough to come off of Joe Dante’s incendiary “Homecoming”, in which he used his directorial carte blanche to make scathing commentary on 2005 America and the Iraq war, to “Deer Woman,” which is positively slight and, were it not for Benbend’s performance and the introduction of some new folklore, would be easily forgettable. To know that Landis had the opportunity to make anything he wanted and chose to make, well, this is a little confounding. Of course I support his creative freedom—it’s one of the most appealing and exciting aspects of the entire Masters of Horror project—but this is such an odd choice for Landis to flex that freedom. It should be noted, though, that this is the first of the seven episodes aired thus far to come from an original script. The previous six installments all had their basis in previously published material—mostly short stories from the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Christian Matheson. Points for originality, even if that originality leads to a Native American woman with deer legs.
As much as I love John Landis and as much as I find aspects of “Deer Woman” very entertaining, it’s probably the weakest entry in the series thus far. Luckily I’ve seen his season 2 offering, “Family”, and can say (spoilers) that it’s considerably stronger. Even if I don’t love his episode, I’m happy that Landis is involved with the series. While his status as a “master” of horror may be debatable to some, there are few filmmakers who love monsters more than John Landis.
“Deer Woman” Score: 2.5/5
And now, the official Masters of Horror Top 5 (so far):
Next: John Carpenter joins the party and Udo Kier loses hits guts. Come back for “Cigarette Burns!”
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!