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"Masters": Garris & Coscarelli

Well, it took a while, but I've finally seen a "Masters of Horror" installment that I didn't care for. And I can't say I'm all that surprised it's the one that Mick Garris directed from his own story and script. Of course I'm referring to "Chocolate," which was recently released on DVD along with Don Coscarelli's far-superior "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road." More on that in a minute.

Bless the man's heart for lining up such a roster of frightmeisters for this series, but Garris's creative output has been spotty over the years, and "Chocolate" is an outright stain. Not only is it easily the least effective "Masters" film I've seen, but it's the first one I've seen that isn't really, really good. Let's hope it's the blemish that accentuates the brilliancy of all the rest.

But enough abstraction. What exactly is the matter with "Chocolate"? Let's start with what works. The casting isn't bad, all around. Matt Frewer is a fun sidekick (though his character never really goes anywhere), and Henry Thomas does what he can with the role of a man who begins experiencing various sensory hallucinations and falling in love with the woman who figures prominently in them. But the good news ends right around there.

There's an almost-memorable scene that could have been ripped from the pages of Clive Barker's novel "The Damnation Game"; Thomas's character goes into one of his fugue states and starts to see things through the woman's eyes, and he ends up experiencing sex from her point of view. Barker used the same trick in his book to show how repulsed a character named Mamoulian is by the sex act. It's a remarkable example of how Barker is able to use a sex scene to further the plot, in much the same way that Gene Kelly was able to use musical numbers to further the stories of some of his greatest films. Alas, there is no such payoff in "Chocolate."

Perhaps worst of all, there's not a scare to be had in the dog-gone thing. Even within the hour-long "Masters" format, "Chocolate" manages to drag. Too much of what holds our interest by a thread would be much better off on the page than on the screen, and the rest is throw-away back story that never manages to find a satisfying cadence (is there any real significance, for instance, in the fact that Thomas's character comes up with new artificial flavors for a living, or is it just kind of thrown in to make us think there's a connection?).

One last word on Garris, and then I'll move on. If you've enjoyed the 26-minute "Fear on Film" roundtable discussion featuring Garris, John Landis, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg (where's his contribution to "Masters," incidentally?) that appears on Criterion's two-disc edition of "Videodrome," then you won't want to miss Garris's vintage interview with Roger Corman, which is one of the features on the "Chocolate" DVD.

Now, "Incident On and Off a Mountain Road." I have to confess to not having read the story it's based on by Joe R. Lansdale, but considering the results of that other Lansdale/Coscarelli collaboration--"Bubba Ho-Tep"--"Mountain Road" came across right off the bat as a pretty low-risk expenditure of my time.

In vivid contrast to "Chocolate," "Mountain Road" is a fairly nuanced horror film. Layered is the word Coscarelli himself favors in the "Predators and Prey" interview that serves as one of the DVD's special features. I don't think it would have been nearly as much of a knockout without the flashbacks, which are handled with a rare aplomb. The main character is a young woman who gets hunted down by a knife-weilding lunatic. A series of flashbacks shows us that she is married to a survivalist who is hell-bent on teaching her the art of survival. Many directors would have left it at that: she's married to a survivalist; therefore, she's able to come up with clever ways to get out of sticky situations.

Not Coscarelli. He digs a little deeper, and hits pay dirt. When we're first introduced to the woman's husband, he seems almost comic. He's got an oddly anarchistic sense of humor, but he wears it in a charming way--charming enough to woo the woman into marrying him, anyway. As the flashbacks progress, however, we discover that he's not the harmless nut we've been led to believe. But it's not the three-dimensional characterization of a side character for its own sake that elevates the narrative arc of "Mountain Road." What happens as a result of the attention paid to the survivalist husband is that we develop a much richer understanding of the woman's motivation in the film's later moments.

The acting is superb, too. It had to be. Coscarelli is treading a fine line here between believability and absurdity. Angus Scrimm's unnerving portrayal of Buddy, one of the killer's victims, and Ethan Embry's treatment of Bruce, the husband, do much to prop up the film's credibility, but John De Santis as the psychopath and Bree Turner as the woman in peril are also well worth the price of admission.--Pete Mesling

Posted by Pete on May 7, 2006 10:40 PM
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