Masters Of Horror: Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (Television)
Starring Bree Turner, Ethan Embry, John de Santis, Angus Scrimm
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Airdate: October 28, 2005
Horror's got a problem. A big one depending on your allegiance to, and affinity for, the genre in its celluloid incarnation. The word "scary" seems to have been all but robbed from the vocabulary of those stepping out into the light of day after having seen some of the big screen's most recent offerings leaving quite a few fans to turn to the boob tube for their fright fix (with the DVD market being our most reliable pusher). Enter Mick Garris (The Stand) and his terror troupe of "masters" - including John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, John Landis, Dario Argento, et al - to reinvigorate the art of scaring audiences and bring small-scale horror storytelling back to television (namely on Showtime) in this thirteen-episode, weekly series that fully explores the one-hour, uninterrupted format; and based on this episode in particular, it doesn't feel restricted by its allotted creative medium in the least bit and revels in its squirm-inducing intensity. In fact, this series debut is every bit as deviceful and satisfying as its worthwhile theatrical competition.
The kick from watching Don Coscarelli's Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (adapted by Coscarelli and Stephen Romano from a Joe R. Landsdale story of the same name) doesn't come from its familiar premise; it's through the narrative skill with which it unfolds. Seemingly fragile, and very beautiful, Ellen (dancer-turned-actress Turner) is heading along a moonlit road when she gets into what's more than a little fender bender with an abandoned car straddling the yellow line. She quickly learns that its driver is not far off and has, in fact, fallen prey to a lean, mean, pasty-white killing machine who goes by the name of Moonface. Strangely enough, when we're first introduced to him, he bears a remarkable similarity to The Creeper (Jeepers Creepers) in his long duster and wide-brimmed hat. But this guise is shed in a matter of moments as Moonface chases Ellen through some thick 'n dangerous forest terrain, on a lightning-filled evening, back to his lair where more nightmares are await.
We know very little about Ellen other than she's a resourceful plain Jane who can concoct a few effective, albeit unfortunately positioned, MacGyver-ish boobytraps to slow her pursuer. However, in a number of flashbacks interspersed throughout her plight we learn she picked up most of her mad skills from her survivalist husband Bruce (Disturbing Behavior's Embry). Coscarelli utilizes these to parallel Ellen's Moonface romp with her relationship with Bruce which begins as an intense, playful and heated encounter - as seen on their first date - that transposes into an entirely different and disturbing relationship all its own. On the plus side, there's a definite concentration of strength within Ellen that she discovers while with Bruce. And later, two more men in Ellen's life force her to tap into this wellspring. The first obviously being Moonface, the other a crazed, candy-loving, singing old man named Buddy (Scrimm, of Phantasm fame) who meets Ellen while being imprisoned in the bowels of their captor's cabin. Apart, these two heighten her resolve for self-preservation and, in turn, they discover that she's not the delicate kind of victim Moonface is accustomed to.
Clearly Coscarelli has got his shit together here and I think he's proving that his talents are maturing. This post-Bubba Ho-Tep mini-film is a confident effort filled with a number of impressive stylistic flourishes felt in the script, Jon Joffin's cinematography (seeing Ellen's eye widening in terror through a hole in the handle of knife was a nice subtle touch that stays true to one of this episode's thematic threads) and the production design of Moonface's abode which is filled with brittle corpses, garish funhouse-inspired lighting and a drill press that does not go unused - trust me on this. The oppressive atmosphere sometimes give way to lush (Vancouver) daylight settings giving the film the scope it needs to set itself apart from other anthology predecessors like Tales from the Crypt.
The script allows little breathing room save for those moments where we're introduced to Bruce and Ellen's early time together. Eventually those scenes are pulled out from under our feet as well leaving us to be entirely swept in to the pacing's breakneck current, which momentarily falters upon the introduction of Buddy, but it's hard to shake Scrimm's light performance. This is a step away from the norm for him and it's an easily acceptable role upon repeat viewing.
Turner gives a convincing portrayal of that helpless damsel in distress we've all seen before. Except she's not so helpless. Her duty here isn't to scream incessantly, instead it's to simply stay alive by any means necessary - and sometimes her schemes to do so don't go quite as planned, resulting in a few jaw-dropping seconds. The metamorphosis of Ethan Embry, on the other hand, is almost as drastic as remembering a scrawny Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles then seeing him in Edward Scissorhands for the first time. The boy has beefed up some and in the process he has gone from the baby-faced love struck geek from Can't Hardly Wait to a glaring, intimidating freakshow that warrants our fear. Obviously, however, he pales in comparison to John de Santis' Moonface - a KNB EFX creation who, I wish, was given more room for character flare to put him on the map next to some of those other genre boogeymen the kids go nuts over.
Incident is a generous and excellent start to an ambitious series. There's a definite familiarity and sense of wide accessibility (in terms of the viewers) to the material, but as Bruce tells Ellen early on in their relationship...expect the unexpected. I hope that rings true for the rest of this season. In the most positive way possible, of course, because we're off to a bloody good start here.
3 ½ out of 5
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