Starring Brian Benben, Anthony Griffith, Sonja Bennett, Cinthia Moura
Directed by John Landis
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
I don’t know a single horror fan who wasn’t excited when Showtime first announced its Masters of Horror series. The thought of seeing new product from the likes of Carpenter, Gordon, Hooper, Argento, Coscarelli, and more was a dream come true. Even though, disappointingly, the final product ended up with just about as many misses as it did hits, Mick Garris and his Masters still deserve our thanks and support for providing such an eclectic group of mini-movies for our consideration. Falling somewhere in the middle of the batch for this reviewer is John Landis’ “Deer Woman,” the story of disgraced police officer Dwight Faraday, who finds redemption during the course of his investigation into a series of extremely peculiar murders.
I confess that when “Deer Woman” first aired, I was unable to watch it beyond the first 15 minutes or so. For whatever reason, it just didn’t click with me. It seemed silly and tried too hard, which was a big letdown considering I’m a fan of Landis’ previous horror offerings An American Werewolf in Londonand Innocent Blood. So when the opportunity arose to give “Deer Woman” another chance and write this review, I grabbed it — and am happy to report an almost total change of heart. The more I watched of the film and the special features on the disc, the better it got.
Set in the Seattle area (but filmed, as all MoH episodes are, in Vancouver), “Deer Woman” looks great. The scenery and cinematography are a perfect match, and best of all Landis is back at the top of his game. He manages to elicit from his actors refreshingly realistic characters who are dealing with such a ludicrous situation that the whole thing could very easily have degenerated into slapstick. Brian Benben shines as Faraday, a once gifted detective who’s been demoted to the “weird calls guy” until one of those calls sends him looking for a dark-haired, yellow-eyed woman who just may be the embodiment of an ancient Native America legend in which men are seduced and then brutally killed by a half-woman/half-deer creature. The case is quickly reassigned to a team from Homicide, but nonetheless, Faraday teams up with beat cop Jacob Reed (Griffith) to undertake his own investigation. He also bounces various theories (and some smoldering sexual tension) off cute coroner Dana (Bennett). I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing a series about the further adventures of Dwight and Dana someday; their interactions were so natural, it was like hanging out with friends. Although occasionally Benben’s portrayal of Faraday did bring Dream On‘s Martin Tupper to mind, particularly in one instance when he’s imagining the various scenarios of how the first victim was killed, mostly he reminded me — and I mean this as a compliment — of Get Smart‘s Maxwell Smart. One of Max’s — and in turn, Dwight’s — strongest character traits was his ability to stay focused on the case at hand no matter how much insanity ensued around him.
After the third body turns up in only two days, Faraday’s chief puts him back on the case. At this point “Deer Woman” switches gears, and we’re off to River Rock, a stereotypical Indian casino where we learn both Faraday’s and Deer Woman’s back stories. From here on out, things happen quickly. The pacing in “Deer Woman” is right on the mark, a testament, again, to Landis’ sharpness and also to the quality and tightness of the script penned by his son, Max, who was still a teen-ager at the time. Interestingly enough, in the “Working with a Master” featurette, we learn that John and Max disagreed about the ending with, as you’d expect, the elder Landis having final say. To his credit, Max acknowledges, albeit rather begrudgingly, that his father was right; and I have to say I agree. Further proof, one might say, that Garris was indeed correct to label Landis a “master” of horror.
Thankfully, “Deer Woman” is not what one would call a comedic horror film. Sure, it has some funny moments, but its tone is always serious and real. In all the various interviews found on the DVD, both Landis and the cast members stress time and time again that their mission was not to make people laugh but rather to portray a preposterous, yet scary, scenario as realistically as possible. It’s a tough balancing act, but throughout his career that unique ability has served Landis well and endeared him to his fans the world over. And his co-workers as well. “Working with a Master” is a 22-minute lovefest that opens with Don Rickles of all people speaking almost wistfully about working with Landis and includes tributes from legends like Forrest Ackerman, Rick Baker, and Dan Aykroyd. The level of respect and amount of affection these individuals show for John are quite impressive but not at all surprising considering what a gracious and self-effacing man he demonstrates himself to be in “Animal Hooves,” another featurette containing an almost half-hour interview with Landis. “Hooves” is an extensive retrospective of Landis’ career, which technically began at age 8 after he returned home from a viewing of the Harryhausen classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It’s easy to forget how many classics of his own Landis has directed, and it was nice to see him include in “Deer Woman” homages to the films that mean the most to him and that he was influenced by.
The biggest missed opportunity of the package is Landis’ absence on the commentary. Benben and Griffith make a valiant effort and have a good rapport, but their bantering tends to run a bit on the dry side after reaching the halfway point. Their running joke about Benben’s height (or rather, the lack thereof) and positive remarks about filming in Canada are definitely the highlights of the piece. The interviews with Benben, Griffith, and the Deer Woman herself, Cinthia Moura, average about five minutes and are pretty much what you’d expect. They lean a bit too heavily on clips from the show, but all three enable the viewer to get to know the actors a little better and, especially in the case of the two men, confirm that they quite dedicated, likable fellows. Ms. Moura, a gorgeous Brazilian model who landed the part at the very last moment, proves herself to be a woman after every horror fan’s heart. She admits to relishing her role primarily because of the character’s absolute ruthlessness. You see, the Deer Woman has no motive for what she does. She doesn’t care if a man is good or bad; she just wants to fuck him and then pound him over and over again with her incredibly strong legs until he’s nothing more than a pile of bleeding tissue. Mmm Mmm Good! Since her character doesn’t utter a word in the film, it’s almost a shame to break the spell by having Cinthia give an interview, but she’s so completely captivating and appealing in real life that it’s easily forgivable. It’s obvious that modeling background of hers gave her ample opportunity to perfect the role of seductress. It even worked on me, another woman!
The obligatory “Behind the Scenes” is one of those no narration, follow people around with a camera type features for which I hold absolutely no liking. However, there is one very funny encounter with John Carpenter on the set that almost makes this one worth watching. The rest of the extras are the same as those found on every MoH disc: trailers for other episodes, a still gallery, a text bio on the director, and some DVD-ROM features. Lastly, there’s an extremely nostalgic interview of Landis from Garris’ old cable access show Fantasy Film Festival circa 1980 in which he looks a lot more like John Lennon than John Landis and makes one of the first official announcements about his “upcoming” film An American Werewolf in London.
When all is said and done, “Deer Woman” accomplishes what it set out to do. Its concept may, as Max readily admits, verge on silliness, but its success lies in Landis’ ability to infuse it with enough realism to engage the audience and ensure they care enough about the Faraday character to take this journey with him. Is it the type of show people will want to watch multiple times? Not likely, but it will always have a home on my DVD shelf nestled in its rightful place between “Homecoming” and “Cigarette Burns” as part of the Masters of Horror collection. Like his role model Sinbad before him, Landis fulfills his quest most admirably and affirms Garris’ inclusion of him in this project.
Audio commentary with Brian Benben and Anthony Griffith
Animal Hooves: An Interview with John Landis featurette
Working With a Master: John Landis featurette
On Set: An Interview with Brian Benben featurette
On Set: An Interview with Anthony Griffith featurette
On Set: An Interview with Cinthia Moura featurette
Behind the Scenes: The Making of Dear Woman featurette
Fantasy Film Festival: Mick Garris interviews John Landis
John Landis text bio
Collectible Masters of Horror trading card
DVD-ROM features: screenplay, screen saver
4 out of 5
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