In Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” a seemingly defenseless woman gets to practice her survival skills against a serial killer. In Mick Garris’ “Chocolate,” a man experiences life through the eyes of a mysterious lady. And in Joe Dante’s “Homecoming,” deceased U.S. soldiers in Iraq rise from the grave to vote out the politicians who sent them there.
All are pieces of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series, premiering 10 p.m. ET Friday — 13 original stories helmed by noted creep show directors, including John Landis (“An American Werewolf in London”), John Carpenter (“Halloween”), Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”), and Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy”).
“I had always thought it would be great to get the guys who know the most about making horror effectively to do an anthology series,” says show creator Garris, director of such screamers as Stephen King’s “The Stand” and King’s upcoming “Desperation” miniseries.
The concept grew out of a series of dinners that the directors attended, organized by Garris.
“We all had known each other for years,” recalls Landis. “I knew John Carpenter when he was a film student at USC and Joe Dante when he was cutting movie trailers for Roger Corman (another veteran of low-budget horror).”
‘We were all horror geeks’The first dinner was held at an Italian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley.
“It was great,” Hooper remembers. “We would just talk about the business or movies — it was like an unofficial guild, with no egos.”
Adds Coscarelli (“Phantasm”): “We found out that, at heart, we were all horror geeks. To stay in this genre, you have to be a horror fan yourself.”
The ensemble’s name — and later the series title — grew out of a self-effacing joke.
“There was a lady at the next table celebrating her birthday,” recalls Garris, “and Guillermo stood up and told her, ‘The Masters of Horror wish you a happy birthday!’ We all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her, and thereafter, Landis would do joke headlines — ‘The Masters of Horror Have Dessert!’ or ‘The Masters of Horror Go Bowling!”’
Garris’ goal with the Showtime series was to provide a venue for directors to make, essentially, one-hour horror movies for television — with no studio interference. “We wanted these filmmakers to do their movies, their way,” he says.
“The idea was to pull these people together, who founded this genre, and let them do the shows they’ve always wanted to do, with no restrictions, no second-guessing,” confirms executive producer John Hyde.
“There were no ‘helpful’ notes from executives or, worse, somebody’s wife saying that ‘the character really should have had a dog,”’ Dante adds.
“It actually took a little getting used to,” recalls Hooper, “not having to write 20 pages to explain why one shot comes before another.”
TV with a feature film lookThe one-hour format and 10-day shooting schedule also took some getting used to, but the directors adjusted.
“Most of us come from the world of low-budget features,” Carpenter explains. “You learn to work quickly. But these were great — they’re very much like well-developed short stories.”
And despite the time crunch, the shows have a feature-film look.
“Mick’s mantra was always to make movies, not make television,” recalls Coscarelli.
Hooper, for example, presents a “rattling of images, like the way our dreams are, where we can’t quite remember them” — imagery not found on typical TV series.
The directors could either bring in their own stories for their episodes, or work from scripts developed by Garris and his team. Hooper’s “Dance of the Dead,” about life after World War III, came from a short story by acclaimed fantasy writer Richard Matheson, with the screenplay written by Matheson’s son, Richard Christian Matheson.
Landis’ “Deer Woman” was co-written with his own son, 20-year-old Max Landis. “I didn’t want to do a typical horror movie with serial killers or zombies,” says the director.
Instead, he turned to a book on cryptozoology, the study of mythological beings. “(‘Deer Woman’) comes from an Indian myth, where you have this drop-dead gorgeous woman that comes out of the forest and seduces warriors,” Landis explains. “From the thighs up, she’s this magnificent, beautiful woman, and from the thighs down, she’s a deer. And she seduces men and then kills them, quite brutally.”
“There are so many flavors of horror film here that we have a real diversity on display,” says Garris.
Landis agrees: “The pedigree’s pretty high. For people who are really scary movie fans, this is nirvana. If you’re in the mood to get scared, just watch this every week. It’ll creep you out.”