I have now watched four of the Masters of Horror episodes: this one, "Dreams in a Witch House", "Dance of the Dead", and "Cigarette Burns". These episodes, about an hour in length each, are directed by various "masters of horror" given a nearly free reign with script and enough budget to get things done. They are Showtime (read, not edited for TV) affairs, and so combine the best of both worlds between sheer variety and fun of television serial horror (such as Tales from the Crypt) and the fewer-holds-barred flavor of theatrical horror. Everyone who watches the series has a favorite (and most people's favorite is "Cigarette Burns", John Carpenter's movie about tracking down a movie). Everyone has a least favorite (garnering a much wider range of opinions). All in all, it is one of the most consistent horror series to be seen on TV for some time.
The latter three shows I named above were first season episodes (listed in the order I watched them). Tobe Hooper's "The Damned Thing" is the second season opener. Within even a few minutes into the episode, the difference in production values shines through. TDT seems to be shot in higher quality. Its pacing seems more natural. Its acting seems notched up a bit. The first season's episodes were high quality "made for direct-to-dvd/tv", but they still felt "direct to...". If not for the length, TDT would have been much easier at home in movie theaters than the previous outings. Fan reaction to it, though, seems to be overall negative. Horror, for better or worse, is one genre where complete schlock can still win over hearts, while quality occasionally wins detractors who feel the door is opened to more nitpicky evaluations than throw away horror would allow.
The problem with this episode, where the dissent comes from I would wager, is split between the gore (often overly quick, always excessive, and never precisely realistic) and the fact that the story just does not have time to breathe. It diverges from the Ambrose Bierce short story from which it comes in pretty much every major way beyond "someone dies due to something you can't see and is just called 'the damned thing'". The story was of that brief campfire tale variety with distinct cynicism and humor thrown as expected from its author. The episode expands out to look at a father's role in protecting a family, a sheriff's role in protecting his town, the dangers of progress and the way that old secrets come back to haunt you. And a thing you can't see that seems to be killing folk. They put a lot on their plate, and the serving size seems forced. The old history needed a good fifteen more minutes to be studied. The family dynamic needed about ten minutes more. There are three characters, at least, that could have stood two to three minutes of development before being killed (two introduced at or after their death, a number which is expanded towards the end when everything goes crazy). And Ted Raimi needed about five more minutes (more than that would have the effect of making you hate a character). Altogether, had this been a full hour and a half, I think it would have went a lot smoother.
Sean Patrick Flannery as a damaged man so damaged emotionally than he sort of slouches through life, being a generally good guy, works wonderfully as a central piece. Ted Raimi's priest would have been excellent, with just a smidgen more time to grow. The other actors played the roles enough that you felt the characters (especially the tragic parents at the beginning).
The lighting tends to have a brown-orange tone, which works for making you feel overly warm and uncomfortable. The sound effects amplify the feeling of negative emotions building. The pacing between fast cuts and sudden breakdowns and slower more thoughtful moments works as well. As said before, the production here was topnotch.
I do not know when, or even if, the second season of MOH is due out on DVD, but you can catch this (at the time of writing, being early March 2007) on Showtime still. I recommend it. The short story need not be read (having so little to do with anything). Just keep in mind, that if this had a few extra minutes, it probably would have been even better.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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