It’s fitting that Masters of Horror wouldn’t exist without Mick Garris. As the series creator and producer, it was Garris who dreamed up the idea to have his friends and colleagues in the genre (many of whom were regularly gathering for famous “Masters of Horror” dinners, a tongue-in-cheek title someone in the group bestowed upon them) direct episodes of a new anthology series with total creative freedom. But going all the way back to his days as a publicist in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Garris was shining a light on horror and horror directors with his Z Channel interview show. It’s from this show that the legendary panel interview with John Landis, John Carpenter, and Mick Garris comes. Though he would go on to become a hugely successful filmmaker and author in his own right, Garris has always been the one to keep the home fires of horror burning, all the way up to his current Post Mortem podcast, a regular conversation with the biggest and most influential names in the genre. For nearly four decades, Mick Garris has made it part of his life’s work to take care of the genre we love so dearly. He’s the Mike Hanlon of horror.
For years, I’ve had the impression of Garris as one of horror’s “nice guys,” with his long California hair and his soft, gentle demeanor. The truth is that Garris is a nice guy—an incredibly nice guy, as many of horror’s best directors are. But I never quite considered his dark side until I began to read his novels, which are often moody and atmospheric and, in the case of his book Development Hell, some of the most twisted and bonkers stuff ever put to page. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff I was reading, especially because it had come from the brain of someone who has always appeared in interviews as so gentle and soft-spoken. To be fair, that’s a little bit on me; the signs were there in Sleepwalkers, a great movie that’s also completely perverse. Though he’s best known for his collaborations with Stephen King (in addition to Sleepwalkers, there were the television adaptations of The Stand and The Shining, as well as the underrated Riding the Bullet), Garris’ original work often deals with sexuality and eroticism in a way that ranges from thoughtful and mature to downright confrontational. It’s with this in mind that we arrive at his first installment for Masters of Horror: “Chocolate.”
Season 1, Episode 5: “Chocolate”
Director: Mick Garris
Original Air Date: November 25th, 2005
Based on Garris’ own short story of the same name, “Chocolate” casts Henry Thomas as Jamie, a chemist who develops artificial flavorings for food in a laboratory all day. He’s desperately lonely, having recently divorced from his wife and child. One day, he begins to taste chocolate. Despite not having any sweets, the taste is as real as if he were eating a bar of the stuff right then. Over the next several days, his other senses are randomly taken over by an outside force. He hears conversations he’s not near, he feels things he couldn’t possibly be feeling, and, most importantly, begins to see through the eyes of what turns out to be a beautiful woman named Catherine (Lucie Laurier), experiencing what she experiences, whether it’s making love to her boyfriend or, later murdering him when he becomes abusive. Convinced he has fallen in love with the woman and determined to “rescue” her, Jamie sets out to find her and explain their unique connection.
There’s a great deal about “Chocolate” that makes its roots as a short story clear, from the flashback framing device (this is a story being told by Henry Thomas’ character, just as it would be in literary form) to Garris’ interest in exploring a kind of sensuality that no doubt works well on the page, but is something he has some difficulty conveying on screen. He tries a handful of visual and editing techniques to recreate the various sensory experiences—primarily a POV camera that represents what Catherine is seeing—and Henry Thomas certainly commits to his performance no matter what is asked of him, but there’s a limit to what Garris is able to convey on film versus what he can describe in his prose. More effective than the sensuality of the piece is the Hitchcockian element: a fatalistic romance in which a man finds himself at the center of a mystery he does not understand, but with which he gradually grows obsessed. It’s this material, as well as the way that Garris leans into the noir aspects of his story—from the flashback framing to the femme fatale to even the lighting design—that give “Chocolate” a flavor that’s different than any other Masters of Horror episode so far.
None of the episode works without Henry Thomas in the lead. Garris had worked with star Henry Thomas before in Psycho IV: The Beginning (another underrated effort from the director) and is largely responsible for bringing the star into the genre. His casting in “Chocolate” is inspired because he’s a an actor who automatically engenders our goodwill and sympathy, dating all the way back to his days as a child star befriending a certain alien visitor. His casting and performance here act as a kind of precursor to the genre work he’s doing with Mike Flanagan these days in films like Ouija: Origin of Evil and Gerald’s Game, which makes “Chocolate” significant beyond the story or its themes. Like last week’s episode, the Dario Argento-directed installment “Jenifer,” this one has some dark and ugly things to say about men and their sense of entitlement, particularly during an extended scene in which Jamie attempts to ask a woman to lunch and won’t accept "no" for an answer. The difference here is that I’m not so sure the criticism is intentional; the way the story is framed and (especially) resolved reframes the story to paint another character as “crazy” or “evil,” and it’s both what we’ve come to expect and what we’ve seen too many times already. For a story that’s ostensibly about what it’s like to inhabit the skin of another person, “Chocolate” doesn’t always seem willing to see things from an opposite perspective. Well, it is, but only until it isn’t.
Of all the episodes of Masters of Horror I’ve revisited so far, “Chocolate” has the fewest signifiers of a traditional horror film. With the exception of one brutal and bloody bit of violence, the episode plays more like a noir romance with a few supernatural elements. But that’s the beautiful thing about the Masters of Horror experiment: it allowed every filmmaker to tell whatever story he wanted. This is a story that feels distinctly Mick Garris, from the emphasis on character to the sexuality to the cynicism of a doomed romance (shades of Garris’ novel Salome here). I like how different it feels from the other episodes, and how Garris pivots away from the outrageousness and extremity of his fellow filmmakers’ contributions to tell a smaller and deeply intimate story. It may not embrace elements of horror as much as some other episodes in the anthology series, but it doesn’t need to. Mick Garris has been embracing horror for his entire career.
Thanks for keeping the lights on, Mick.
“Chocolate” Score: 3/5
Up next: The great Joe Dante takes no prisoners with the scathing political commentary of “Homecoming”.
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!