Number 5: Masters of Horror / Fear Itself
Anthology series, ‘Masters of Horror’ and its spin-off ‘Fear Itself’ took legendary genre directors and allowed them to produce an episode based on any aspect of horror they chose. Episodes covering such diverse topics as serial killers, reanimated corpses, psychic powers, evil films, vampirism, apocalyptic plagues, and a ghostly ice cream man aired over their respective runs.
The concept of ‘Masters of Horror’ was a happy accident. Director Mick Garris invited some horror director friends to dinner and, such a good time was had by all, it became a regular occurrence with more of the genre’s great and good attending. When Guillermo Del Toro wished a fellow diner happy birthday from ‘The Masters of Horror’, the name was coined and Garris’ idea was formed. Three years in development, the show was picked up by Showtime in 2005. Though broadcast domestically on television, such was the quality of the writing, production and talent on display that several countries screened individual episodes as theatrical releases.
The nature of the series and the sheer quality of famous horror directors who helmed episodes meant that it attracted a similarly astonishing range of genre talent, and many of its biggest names appeared at some point. It also covered such a diverse range of topics that it is impossible to outline them effectively in any meaningful way. In no particular order, arguably the standout episodes are:
1) ‘Imprint’ – Season One, Episode 13
Directed by Japanese auteur Takashi Miike, ‘Imprint’ tells the story of Billy Drago’s Christopher who, returning to Japan to locate a prostitute he promised to save years earlier, finds himself caught up in a tale of vengeful ghosts. Based on a traditional Japanese folk tale – ‘Bokkee Kyotee” by Shimako Iwai – and helmed by one of horror’s most transgressive and controversial figures, the episode was always going to be censor-baiting; sure enough, concerned with its graphic violence and twisted imagery, Showtime pulled it from broadcast in the US. Visually stunning, unremittingly dark and unapologetically horrifying, ‘Imprint’ is a memorably thrilling tale. Described by Garris himself as the most disturbing film he’d ever seen, this instalment is highly recommended.
2) ‘Incident On and Off a Mountain Road’ – Season One, Episode 1
Helmed by ‘Phantasm’ creator Don Coscarelli, ‘Incident On and Off a Mountain Road’ was the series debut, and what an opening it turned out to be. Starring Bree Turner as appealing heroin Ellen, and with an appearance by the legendary Angus Scrimm, it tells the story of a girl who, stranded at the side of the road, follows a trail of blood into the woods and is stalked by a deformed killer known as Moonface. Told using frequent use of flashback, ‘Incident’ provides one of the bloodier instalments in the series, and an ending that is entirely unexpected. Great performances, a memorable villain, and liberal interpretation of familiar genre tropes make this one of the best episodes of the franchise, and it stands favourable comparison with much of Coscarelli’s other work to date. High praise indeed.
3) ‘The Black Cat’ – Season Two, Episode 11
‘Reanimator’ guru Stuart Gordon returns to the franchise for a second episode – after Season One’s ‘H.P.Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House’ – with a very odd instalment about the writer Edgar Allen Poe. Driven to near-madness by a combination of his wife’s health and endless pressure to produce a new horror tale, Poe begins to hallucinate that the creepy animal of the title is trying to kill him. One of the stranger episodes, unsurprisingly given the narrative, it benefits from the involvement of long-time Gordon muse Jeffrey Combs as Poe himself; eminently watchable, his perfect line of overwrought mania suits the role perfectly. Not as shocking or surprising as some other episodes, ‘The Black Cat’ stands out as one of the more interesting and unusual ones, and a perfect homage to its source.
Despite being beloved by critics and fans alike, ‘Masters of Horror’ suffered a more inconsistent second run when compared to the uniformly excellent first season. When Showtime opted to not pick up the show for a third season, Garris took it to Lionsgate who funded the development of more episodes. It was picked up by NBC in 2008 but, due to legal wranglings, the ‘Masters of Horror’ moniker was unavailable; taking its cues from the famous quote by Franklin D Roosevelt, ‘Fear Itself’ was born, and aired between 5th June 2008 and 31st July of the same year. With an continuation of the inconsistent tone that had plagued the second season, the change in network didn’t help the show and, despite 13 once again being produced, only 8 ever made it to air with the final five only recently available on home video and VOD.
The standout of ‘Fear Itself’, unfortunately for contemporary fans, was the unaired eleventh episode. Entitled ‘The Spirit Box’, and helmed by ‘Wrong Turn’ director Rob Schmidt, it was an interesting twist on the high-school horror tropes, in which the vengeful ghost of a murdered teen returns to seek help from her friends. Like many of the earlier ‘Masters of Horror’ episodes, the real bonus for horror fans is the way in which Schmidt simultaneously gives the audience everything that they expect whilst throwing in just enough twists and turns to keep it relatively fresh and exciting.
Uncommonly for shows on this list, the loss of ‘Masters of Horror’ and ‘Fear Itself’ should not be mourned. It reached the point of diminishing returns and, in all honesty, was always going to be a finite concept with an early ultimate end; the fact that both Showtime and NBC let it run for as long as it did is praiseworthy and the complete control over content that each director was given is nothing short of miraculous. Like most anthology shows, there is something for everyone; unlike most anthology shows it catered solely for the horror crowd. Packed with fan-servicing nods and references, familiar and iconic faces, and talent of outrageous quality behind the camera, both ‘Masters of Horror’ and its brother ‘Fear Itself’ are rightly near the top of this list. It will be a long time before genre fans see a comparable show of this kind again; as a horror fan you have no excuse not to have seen these shows already.
‘Masters of Horror’ Promo Clip:
‘Fear Itself’ Original Promo: