Masters of Horror: Damned Thing, The (TV)

Masters of Horror: The Damned Thing reviewStarring Sean Patrick Flanery, Marisa Coughlan, Ted Raimi

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Air date: October 27th, 2006

“I am not mad; there are colours that we cannot see. And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a colour!”

–Ambrose Bierce

I’d make a pretty good wager that the term “literary” has never really been applied to director Tobe Hooper. At his best, the director of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre has produced some of the finest visceral fare that the genre has to offer. Hooper’s films work best when they’re hitting on basic, primal fears – this is, after all, a man whose most truly signature scene is the first appearance of Leatherface, hammer in hand for the kill, from behind a cold steel door.

So when I first heard that Hooper’s second Masters of Horror outing would be an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” I couldn’t deny my hesitancy. Bierce was a late 19th Century poet, satirist, journalist, and short story writer and a towering literary figure of his time. His short stories, which often drew on his background as a Civil War soldier, are considered some of the finest ever written and are arguably as important to the genre as those of Edgar Allan Poe. No doubt, Bierce’s reputation was bolstered by his disappearance in 1913. Ostensibly heading into Mexico to join up with Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army as an observer, Bierce wrote a few letters to friends before vanishing without a trace, and his became the most famous disappearance of his time.

“The Damned Thing” is a very short story that is not only pure Bierce but also anticipates the more florid prose of H. P. Lovecraft some thirty years later. It’s structured as a series of journal entries written by Old West farmers and concerns an invisible monster on the loose that can only be gauged by its effect on plants, animals … and the people it destroys.

Hooper’s adaptation follows the story of Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flanery), the beleaguered sheriff of Cloverdale, Texas. To this day Reddle is haunted by horrific memories. He recalls a time during the late Fifties when the citizens of Cloverdale were overcome by rage and violence. Shortly afterward he watched his own father, a Texas oilman, brutally murder his mother with a shotgun and was then forced to evade the frenzied man as he tracked him through the countryside. It wasn’t long before the old man found Kevin’s hiding place. Preparing to take his son’s head off, Kevin’s dad suddenly stopped cold and whispered, “The damned thing…it found me.” Seconds later, he was gutted and torn to shreds by a monstrous invisible force, leaving behind a confused, traumatized Kevin.

Years later Kevin has never been able to let go of what he saw that terrible night, and his obsession with “the damned thing” has virtually destroyed his marriage; his estranged wife (Marisa Coughlan) and son live in a rundown trailer park. Kevin still resides in the very family home in which he witnessed his mom’s murder, but he’s installed security cameras and spotlights in every nook and cranny.

Soon enough the townspeople that Kevin has sworn to protect and serve are being gripped by a rage similar to the one that nearly tore Cloverdale apart years ago, and Kevin is having grotesque visions and ghostly night visitations by an unseen force. As he fights to save both the town and his loved ones, he delves into his family’s past only to discover that dear old dad unearthed … something while drilling for oil so many years ago, set it free to wreak havoc on the countryside, and simultaneously attached it to the Reddle family. The sins of the father are passed down to the son. And as “the damned thing” grows closer, Kevin finds himself succumbing to the same fury that once butchered his mother – only this time, it’s focused on his wife and child.

I’m not jumping to hyperbole when I boldly state that “The Damned Thing” is the finest work that Hooper has done in the genre since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Working from a smart script by Richard Christian Matheson, Hooper has fashioned the second season Masters of Horror opener into a fast, ferocious, and fantastic thrill ride that never loses sight of Bierce’s story and the theme of an unknowable force following down generations of a family like a curse. “The Damned Thing” moves like a crazed, bloody rocket.

Matheson’s script is superb, mixing visceral gore (we’re treated to disembowelings, close-up gunshots, and facial damage done with clawhammers) with a poetic, literary tone that elevates the story above typical B-movie fare. While Reddle is a fully developed, three-dimensional character whose thoughts and actions are conveyed perfectly, it’s notable that all the supporting characters are given their own doses of color. His deputy (Canadian genre stalwart Brendan Fletcher) is an aspiring cartoonist who might have a future if he could just come up with something original – the idea he’s proudest of is a knockoff named “Mickey the Rat,” who’s a lot like Mickey Mouse … but he sings. And there’s able support provided by the great Ted Raimi as the town priest, who presses Kevin to share his sorrows with the Lord before succumbing to the infectious rage himself. Coughlan is spunky and believable as his wife, and she has a harrowing scene when she’s left alone with her son and suddenly overcome with fury.

But the show really belongs to Flanery. He’s a revelation here, brooding, paranoid, and haunted. It’s a completely honest portrayal, and it shows just how far he’s come since he played a bland Young Indiana Jones in the early Nineties. Of course, it also helps that the script gives him so much to grab onto with lines like “Everybody I’ve ever met has a wound one way or the other. Thing is, you gotta sew it up good and tight; otherwise, it’ll just keep opening, and one day you’ll bleed to death.” Wow.

And I can’t go without mentioning how much fun it is to see Hooper return to a setting in the state he made notorious. Like every episode, this was shot in Vancouver, but Hooper and cinematographer Jon Joffin have worked so extensively to create a sun-soaked milieu so reminiscent of the real thing that this reviewer (who originally hails from West Texas) couldn’t tell the difference. Much more so than last season’s “Dance of the Dead,” this episode really establishes a distinct visual feel (and just in case you’re wondering, that crazed editing he employed last time around is no longer in evidence here). That sense of sameness that plagued the initial season is long gone.

So what does this all add up to? Not only the single best Masters of Horror episode to date but a stellar horror movie in its own right that culminates in a genuinely unexpected and disturbing ending. Hooper chooses to close his latest installment at a daring high point where few directors would dare to tread. Hooper stepped up and made a bold decision, and in doing so, the high water mark has been set for the rest of the series. Here’s hoping future offerings deliver on such a grand scale as this.

5 out of 5

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