LIST: Best of the Masters of Horror

Showtime's original anthology program, Masters of Horror, aired between 2005 and 2007 and featured a total of 26 hour-long films directed by different notables of the genre including Halloween helmer John Carpenter (Cigarette Burns, Pro-Life), It's Alive's baby-daddy Larry Cohen (Pick Me Up) and Ichi the Killer's Takashi Miike (Imprint, which was notoriously pulled by the network due to an intensely brutal sequence).

While not necessarily an exposé of technical superiority, the series provided venue for shock and schlock maestros to provoke us with ideas that may have otherwise never seen the light of a flickering screen. It was, above anything else, a playground for some of the most twisted minds in movies today to do their worst (double meaning unfortunately intended in regard to some of the episodes, which shall - for now, anyway - remain unnamed).

Collected here are what I consider to be the most interesting and accomplished of the series in order from leastest to mostest (that's right). Honorable mentions go out to Stuart Gordon's atmospheric Dreams in the Witch House, John Landis' cheeky The Deer Woman, Don Coscarelli's sleek Incident On & Off a Mountain Road (which felt more like Tobe Hooper than either of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre director's installments)... and William Malone's almost Svankmajer-esque Fair-Haired Child. To be fair(-haired), though, that last one is really just so I can name-drop Malone, for it simply wouldn't be me if I let such an opportunity slip by.

5. Chocolate (Mick Garris)

An entry from the show's creator himself, Jack of all cinematic terror trades Mick Garris, Chocolate just barely ekes out the honorable mentions based on concept alone. A good mind for this genre finds horror in regular life, relying less on base scare tactics and more on exploitation and perversion of the everyday. Here, Garris auteurs a fresh study of such a subject.

Men, can you imagine what it's like to have she-parts? Specifically, can you fathom losing your virginity... as a woman? It might be easier for females to interpret the flip side of that coital coin - wrap one hand around a finger of the other, slide up and down and you've got a fairly good idea, no 'penetration' needed - but having the deep secret between your thighs impaled by a foreign object, stretching and tearing? This is the exploration of Chocolate, attacked with an arrestingly unique sense of what can make a horror film horrific. Our protagonist Jamie's (Henry Thomas) senses are gradually melded with those of an mystery woman with a wild sex life. He sees through her eyes, hears through her ears and, most importantly, feels through her skin.

Aesthetically, Chocolate is the weakest of this list, but it enjoys compelling ideas, psychologically expounding upon them through its final moments. If anything, it is memorable, giving it a leg up on some of its peers.

4. Jenifer (Dario Argento)

When Detective Spivey (Steven Weber, who also wrote the teleplay) rescues a helpless girl from murder at the hands of a cleaver-wielding madman, he goes an extra mile or two, taking the would-be victim under his wing. What he doesn't yet realize is his new adoptee's hunger for flesh... or her unusually irresistible sexual qualities that threaten to turn his life inside-out.

What follows is likely Dario Argento's best effort since he stopped putting the verve in his films that made the likes of Deep Red and Suspiria so great (although I must confess to liking Do You Like Hitchcock, and even to finding enjoyable aspects in The Card Player). It might be mentioned that Argento also did the Meatloaf-starring Pelts for Masters of Horror, but that one is more a Herschell Gordon-Lewis-like exercise in substance-free gore.

Where Pelts flounders 'neath craze-inducing coonskin, Jenifer puts a chill in our hearts with cold, dark eyes. Argento sufficiently manufactures conflicted sympathy for the title character underlaid by a streak of sick humor. It may be predictable within a few beats of the finale, but doesn't suffer from being so.

3. Right to Die (Rob Schmidt)

Sex, sex and more sex! Sometimes getting intimate with evil is the most spine-tingling route, as was proven with Jenifer, but this surprise from the director of Wrong Turn takes it a step further - to the altar - while perfectly rhyming horror with humor and, yeah, shedding layers of clothing... and skin.

Following a fiery car wreck, Cliff's (Martin Donovan) newly-crisped wife Abbey (Julia Benson) goes comatose with little hope of recovery. Cliff is not only haunted by moral debate coursing through the media (timed to coincide with the real-life climax of Terry Schiavo's case), but also by Abbey's spirit... when she occasionally, temporarily flatlines. Is he to choose life for his partner, with whom there seems no happy future, or will he sign the DNR, condemning himself to ghostly torture until death does he part? Of course, that's not to mention his money-grubbing lawyer or his sex-pot assistant and how they factor in to the 'touchy' proceedings.

The lively Right to Die is a solid and highly amusing combination of sexuality, desperation and carnal corrosion. You will laugh as you cringe, and perhaps even discover a new conversation piece for... well, not the dining room, not the bedroom... but maybe the emergency room.

2. We All Scream for Ice Cream (Tom Holland)

According to a brief Google search, Stephen King lists John Farris among his influences, and it's no surprise, having seen Fright Night director Tom Holland bring Farris' 1990 short story to colorful life. We All Scream for Ice Cream will feel familiar to any King fan as it reunites an estranged group of motley acquaintances sharing a dark childhood memory. Our group here is responsible for the death of local popsicle peddler Buster the Clown (a stammering and uncharacteristically timid William Forsythe). Now Buster's back, trolling town in his sinister ice cream truck, searching for vengeance through his killers' offspring.

The slasher schema isn't typical to Masters of Horror, but Buster's cleverly creative, voodoo-like modus operandi makes one wish that wasn't the case. Ice Cream also subtly toys with convention, yielding belly laughs to accompany the squirms. The only complaint I might muster would be with regard to the final showdown's abandonment of practical effects. Leaning on weightless computer graphics, though not detrimental in this case, is an unfortunate way to finish after establishing such a crunchy, gooey and practical standard.

For some of the most out-and-out fun to be had with horror, pack your quarters and make room to store a fresh batch of quotes - It's ch-ch-ch-cherry time!

1. The Black Cat (Stuart Gordon)

Capping us off is an entry transcending Masters of Horror. It's hard to go wrong with a such a classic, particularly when that classic is from a one Edgar Allan Poe. In this take on the material, based on Jeffrey Combs' one-man show, it is theorized what drove the legendary author (Combs, reprising) to pen his tale. The events do mirror those of that tale, but with Poe himself in the drunk, distracted driver's seat.

With ease does Stuart Gordon propel us into a tormented mind. We feel each ounce of frustration and, subsequently, each such ounce lifted when our protagonist lashes out. Combs is to credit as well. Where I thought I already loved him from roles as Herbert West in Gordon's respectable Re-Animator and Doctor Vannacutt in William Malone's excellent House on Haunted Hill remake, he is absolutely hypnotizing as a downtrodden Poe with a pitch-black wit.

The Black Cat may also be the nicest installment of the Masters series to look at, particularly when it comes to blood. The hemorrhaging kroovy is on the gorgeously fetishistic level of Blood for Dracula.  Furthermore, to dive into hyperbole, a certain climactic makeup effect is one of the best I've seen and harrows more effectively than most others.

I might recommend The Black Cat even to those only slightly interested in horror. Sure, it's trapped by certain financial limitation as are all members of this list, but it thrives with what it manages and easily tops the heap - a must for fans of Poe, or fans of the fantastic in general.