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Masters of Horror: Right to Die (TV)

Starring Martin Donovan, Julia Anderson, Corbin Bernsen

Directed by Rob Schmidt

Airdate: January 5th, 2007


So far, both seasons of Masters of Horror have featured at least one episode that has gone heavy on the political or social commentary. While I generally approve of horror as a vehicle for a real message, none of the attempts so far have been incredibly successful. That being the case, when I found out that these week’s episode was entitled “Right to Die”, and took, according to the synopsis on the Masters of Horror site “a supernatural stand on the right to life debate” I was less than excited.

My mood brightened a bit though, when I learned that “Right to Die” was directed by Wrong Turn helmer Rob Schmidt. I know a lot of people don’t like that movie, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. The story he’s realizing this time is based on an original screenplay by John Esposito, who is, though not a “master” of horror by any stretch of the imagination, also not a complete stranger to the genre. Esposito wrote the screenplay for the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift, the tale of a Maine textile mill overrun by rats. While it’s been awhile since I’ve seen the movie, I remember the ending being kind of ridiculous, but up to that point it was fairly enjoyable.

“Right to Die” begins with Cliff (Donovan) and his gorgeous wife Abby (Anderson) driving down the road. Abby’s upset, despite Cliff’s assurances that he loves her more than anything and he’ll never let her go, and it’s pretty clear there’s been some trouble in their marriage, recent bad behavior on Cliff’s part. Unfortunately for Cliff, he doesn’t get the chance to make it up to Abby, because during the drive they get into a terrible accident and Abby is horrifically burned. He awakes some time later in the hospital to discover that she is in a coma, in need of a full body skin graft, and being maintained on life support.

Cliff, who was driving the car when they crashed, has little more than a bump on the head, and gets to return home. What starts out as your usual ghostly visitation, complete with gently wafting curtains and items toppling over and shattering for no reason, quickly escalates to a seriously full body visitation. A very naked Abby slips into the tub with Cliff and gives him a big helping of forgiveness … only to turn from luscious buxom beauty to charred, skinless cadaver mid-coitus. Cliff is pretty shaken, more so when he realizes he’s got actual burns where the thing touched him. I was momentarily taken out of the story by how quick he seemed to accept that this was Abby’s ghost come to punish him, as opposed to a delusion, but quickly realized that a first degree burn on a guy’s penis would probably be awfully convincing.

Abby’s apparition is indeed on the prowl. Every time her corporeal body flatlines, her soul is freed to terrorize those that are on her bad side. The body count in this week’s episode is pretty light, but there’s still a nice bit of gore FX when it comes to Abbey’s charred carcass and the fate of one overly affectionate dental assistant. So, I wasn’t expecting much of anything from this episode and was beyond pleasantly surprised. The heavy handed message I was prepared for was all together absent. In fact, at the end of the day, though it was an aspect of the story, the argument over whether or not to pull the plug wasn’t at all the focus of this episode. I suspect there may have been a bit of marketing strategy in portraying it as if it was, given the hot button status of the issue in the wake of Terry Schaivo.

So, let’s talk pro’s and con’s. On the con side, number one would have to be misused characters. Corbin Bernsen does a really wonderful job as Cliff’s friend and lawyer. He’s perfectly sleazy and wonderfully acted, but he’s only part of the story briefly and only to serve as a meat puppet for Abby’s revenge. Which leads me to con number two – an anticlimactic kill. It starts off promising, with Bernsen pinned against a wall from the powerful magnet of an MRI machine as the skinless Abby crawls along the floor towards him. Very cool! But then she gets to him and just holds up her hand, setting him on fire. Boo! I was hoping for something more and this just didn’t deliver.

On the pro side, though, this episode definitely had some things working in its favor. First, I have to mention the look of it. Schmidt had a strong style, and using the surroundings and angles, managed to create a terrific sense of atmosphere and presence. On several occasions, I was struck by the power of a shot in which no one was saying or doing anything. Some of these are the shots of Abby lying bandaged in her hospital bed, motionless and fleshless. With her face stripped of all of its features, and covered in bandages, she’s barely recognizable as a human, but there were several straight on shots of her face that managed to convey strong emotion none the less. Credit there I think goes to the actress, the makeup FX (once again by the guys at KNB), and Schmidt. The main characters of Cliff and Abby are very well drawn, with several layers, and are more than either one of them seems at first.

The best thing “Right to Die” had going for it, I believe, was that it wasn’t trying to be cool and hip. It concentrated on being a solid horror story with good acting, directing and effects. It respected the genre and the fans watching it. Although I knew as soon as the episode ended that there would be fans who didn’t like it. It’s not for everyone. It’s light on the deaths, as I said, and not very gore heavy so if that’s your favorite thing about horror you’ll be disappointed. And I’d be willing to bet that quite a few people will be pissed off by the ending, which I thought was great. In fact, there were a couple of occasions throughout the episode where I thought “People are not going to like that”, like Cliff’s final visit to the hospital where his wife is and the staff’s reaction to him. I felt that it was out of place myself for a minute, but again had a thought a moment later that made me rethink my stance. And I think that’s what I liked so much about “Right to Die”. You can take it literally, or use your imagination and interpret it how you want, and either way it’s good stuff. That is, in my opinion, the mark of a strong story.

I was surprised to find myself, at the end of the episode, for the first time in this season of Masters of Horror, thinking that the story could have used MORE time that just the hour instead of less. Esposito does a nice job of adding some new touches to the typical ghost story, and Schmidt realizes his vision in vivid detail.

4 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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