Thursday, 8 April 2021

2021 TSPDT Poll

My ballot for the 2021 TSPDT Poll. 25 Favourite Films listed in chronological order. To make the selection a bit easier I only allowed myself one film per director.

The Unchanging Sea (Griffith)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)

The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom)

The Only Son (Ozu)

Day of Wrath (Dreyer)

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Eisenstein)

Spring in a Small Town (Fei)

Wichita (Tourneur)

Seven Men from Now (Boetticher)

Carnival of Souls (Harvey)

Winter Light (Bergman)

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini)

The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice)

The Tenant (Polanski)

Legend of the Mountain (Hu)

Nosferatu the Vampyre (Herzog)

Inferno (Argento)

Possession (Zulawski)

The Green Ray (Rohmer)

A City of Sadness (Hou)

Spontaneous Combustion (Hooper)

Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (Akerman)

Kissed (Stopkewich)

Pulse (Kurosawa K.)

Knight of Cups (Malick) 

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Films of 2020


This is being posted later than expected but it's been a difficult year and at a certain point deadlines became almost meaningless. In 2020 we had to find different ways of doing things and plans changed or were cancelled outright. I'm still doing an annual roundup but with a slightly different approach to that of previous years. I had thought about doing my usual top ten films of the year but have decided to delay that list for now. Unfortunately I haven't been able to see as much as I would have liked to of recent fare but I wanted to get something written up before 2021 arrived. Truthfully, there were five major titles that stood out for me from the previous 12 months. Much of the rest of what I saw comes under additional highlights, low points, curiousities and observations. Enjoy!

Favourite Films of 2020

  1. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)
  2. Alone (John Hyams)
  3. Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog & Clive Oppenheimer)
  4. Siberia (Abel Ferrara)
  5. Last and First Men (Johann Johannsson)

Runners up:

  • On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola)
  • Beastie Boys Story (Spike Jonze)
  • Time to Hunt (Yoon Sung-hyun)
  • Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)
  • Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson)
Notable short films and essay films:

  • France Against the Robots (Jean-Marie Straub)
  • Visit (Jia Zhangke)
  • The Hardest Working Cat in Showbiz (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
  • October Rumbles (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  • Showtime (Maciej Kuciara)

Standout performances:

  • Kim Min-hee in The Woman Who Ran
  • Betty Gilpin in The Hunt
  • Willem Dafoe in Siberia
  • Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote & Robyn Nevin in Relic
  • Alison Brie in Horse Girl

Notable films from 2019 that I saw for the first time this year:

Colour Out of Space, Family Romance, LLC, First Love, Little Joe, Parasite, A Rainy Day in New York (at last!), Richard Jewell, To the Ends of the Earth and The Truth. Still waiting for a UK release of Kelly Reichardt's acclaimed 2019 film First Cow.

Films from 2020 that I'm eager to watch:

Wife of a Spy, Rifkin's Festival, The Salt of Tears, Undine, A Place Among the DeadTree Poems, Love After Love, Sportin' Life, City Hall, DaysKajillionaireSwimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Roald Dahl's The WitchesHopper/Welles, Monster Hunter, One Second, Last Letter, Another Round, The Roads Not Taken, Let Them All Talk, Let Him GoShock Wave 2, The Human Voice, Deliver Us from EvilNomadland, Soul, Nasir and many, many others. 

Films that I'm looking forward to (or just curious about) in 2021*:

Benedetta, Rifkin's Festival, Blossoms Shanghai, Prisoners of the Ghostland, The Beatles: Get Back, The Marksman, Shin Ultraman, Babylon, West Side Story, Army of the Dead, Deep Water, ChocobarOld, The Velvet Underground

*Obviously, there is still a lot of uncertainty about when upcoming titles will be released but I imagine at least some of these will see the light of day next year.


Nick Apollo Forte, Harold Budd, Jeremy Bulloch, Michael Chapman, Sean Connery, Linda Cristal, Denise Cronenberg, Allen Daviau, Olivia de Havilland, Brian Dennehy, Kirk Douglas, F.X. Feeney, Howard Finkel, Stuart Gordon, Buck Henry, Irm Hermann, Ian Holm, Hugh Keays-Byrne, John Lafia, Joseph Michael Laurinaitis (aka Road Warrior Animal), Tom "Tiny" Lister Jr., Michael Lonsdale, Linda Manz, Lorenza Mazzetti, Michael Medwin, Jiri Menzel, Ennio Morricone, Daria Nicolodi, Nobuhiko Obayashi, Ivan Passer, Pat Patterson, Krzysztof Penderecki, Michel Piccoli, David Prowse, Diana Rigg, David Roback, John Saxon, Florian Schneider, Joel Schumacher, Jo Shishido, Volker Spengler, Jerry Stiller, Yuko Takeuchi, Max von Sydow, Fred Willard

Further Thoughts:

I mentioned the need for a "game changer" in my writeup of 2019.  We certainly got that in 2020 but in a form that nobody could have wanted or expected. Where films were concerned, production came to a halt, cinemas were closed (and reopened in some cases with a much more limited capacity), festivals got cancelled or moved online and high profile new releases were postponed on such a scale that 2021 looks destined to be the year of "leftovers" competing for space. 

Since March, I've been trying not to dwell on negatives or think ahead too much as the immediate and lasting effects of the pandemic are certainly terrifying to contemplate. Like so much else, the film industry has been hit hard by the Covid situation. I can only hope that cinemas will stay open and that there are some positive consequences. The mainstream film industry has been pretty stuck in its ways since at least 2008. Things weren't exactly rosy before the pandemic hit and the industry has been in denial for some time, slightly tweaking a dated business model while technology and trends are offering something potentially revolutionary. I hope the measures taken to get through the current crisis are creative and constructive and will allow for more diverse, daring and adventurous films to get made in the future.

I did manage to do 3 cinema trips early in the year and all of them were excellent titles (Long Day's Journey into NightRichard Jewell Parasite). As much as I miss the big screen experience and want to support cinemas, it's impossible to predict when I will feel safe going to public screenings again. The Leeds Film Festival in November had a scaled down lineup and was moved online, which meant I didn't attend for the first time since 2011. Fortunately, there were some viable alternatives from the comfort of home. Sites like Netflix, Mubi, Shudder, Amazon Prime, GooglePlay, Apple TV, YouTube Movies and the BFI Player all hosted some fine new offerings and I certainly had plenty of time to watch films during lockdown (some of which are noted near the end of this post). 

In recent years Netflix has backed interesting new works by well established directors - Werner Herzog's Into the Inferno, Christopher Guest's Mascots, Bong Joon-ho's Okja, the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Sion Sono's The Forest of Love and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. This year the site had new offerings from Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods), Charlie Kaufman (I'm Thinking of Ending Things) and David Fincher (Mank), all of which came up short in my estimation. Coming from one of the most promising voices in modern Horror films (Mike Flanagan) the miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor was a major letdown. Judging by the unanimous praise it's received, it sounds like I should have watched The Queen's Gambit instead. The site did manage to unveil some rewarding offerings that are worth mentioning - Horse GirlDick Johnson is Dead and Time to Hunt - but nothing of the same calibre as those I highlighted from previous years. 

My top 5 features two of the finest actor/director collaborations in modern cinema. Kim Min-hee & Hong Sang-soo take top honours for The Woman Who Ran, while Willem Dafoe & Abel Ferrara reunite in Siberia. Never one to shy away from challenging roles, Dafoe is a perfect fit for Ferrara's introspective and experimental streak that has given us some of the filmmaker's finest work to date. The pair have also recently worked together on Tommaso and Sportin' Life, which I still need to see. Given the ongoing difficulty of viewing Ferrara's recent work I was just grateful for the opportunity to watch Siberia in October via the online London Film Festival. 

A Hidden Life was incontestably the best film I saw last year and so it is again that I found a clear frontrunner with The Woman Who Ran. It's a work of great delicacy, tenderness and poignancy but not without some deliciously sharp, humourous and candid moments along the way. There are so many things that I can praise about Hong Sang-soo's work - its singularity, his wonderful insights into human foibles and eccentricities, the almost literary quality of his writing, the ingenious structuring of his work and the way he can fill seemingly simple scenarios with hidden signs, meanings and depths. His substantial filmography is one of the wonders of modern cinema.

Alone continues a great tradition in US cinema of nightmare road trips that also includes DetourThe Hitch-HikerDuelThe Hitcher and Breakdown. A formal masterclass that builds a palpable sense of isolation and dread from its earliest scenes with minimal dialogue and exposition and sustains unease right through to its brilliantly staged finale. It would be an understatement to say that I was impressed by its efficiency and visual storytelling. Like last year's Crawl it was refreshing to see this level of professionalism and craftsmanship in a contemporary genre film.

I had considered Olaf Stapledon's sprawling and vastly detailed novel Last and First Men unfilmable so the film that we got was one of 2020's most pleasant surprises. It focusses primarily on the book's later chapters and through relatively simple devices such as narration, grainy cinematography and ambient music is able to convey the immensity and richness of Stapledon's text.

Werner Herzog is one of cinema's great explorers, not just in terms of the locations where he films but in his choice of subjects. He proved to be a great source of solace during this year with his excellent 2019 feature Family Romance, LLC being released on mubi player - his best narrative feature in over 30 years. I used some of the additional free time as an opportunity to view parts of his filmography (particularly the documentaries) that I hadn't yet seen and Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds is a fine addition to an extraordinary body of work. It also means we now have an impressive trilogy of films that he has made with the scientist Clive Oppenheimer, who also featured in Encounters at the End of the World and Into the Inferno

As mentioned already, I was not able to see as much as I would have liked. After the 5 major new releases listed above I was grateful for any worthwhile bright spots I could get from films this year. Here were some other highlights worth mentioning:

- Films about both relationships and solitude seemed to resonate more than usual. Many seemed to dislike Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks but it had a certain frivolous charm and the interplay between Bill Murray and Rashida Jones was fun to watch. 

Beastie Boys Story had a similar effect to 2019's Rolling Thunder Revue. Any documentary record of this music is going to be intoxicating for me. In addition, it was nice to have a filmed record of the live event hosted by the two surviving members. It worked on a purely nostalgic level for me but also shed an interesting light on the band and its history and serves as a nice tribute to the late, great Adam Yauch. 

- As a fan of the actress Andrea Riseborough, it was great to see she featured prominently this year in LuxorPossessor The Grudge reboot. 

- The first half of The Hunt was exciting and energetic entertainment. Sadly it loses its way in the second half when the satirical urge muddles the narrative and spoils the momentum but it's an enjoyable ride all the same. The initial controversy over the film seemed a bit far-fetched to me given that, some currently topical references aside, it's essentially another variation of The Most Dangerous Game (see also: The Running Man, Hard Target, Surviving the Game & Battle Royale).

- Amanda Seyfried's endearing turn as Marion Davies in the otherwise lamentable Mank

David Byrne's American Utopia wasn't the epochal concert film that I'd hoped for and had been led to expect. Fans of Byrne's solo work would do better to go to other live documents such as Between the Teeth and Live at Union Chapel. It was marred by a regrettable desire to set the world to rights (for which Byrne and director Spike Lee must share the blame) but the staging and choreography were quite impressive and it provided at least one indelible high point with the performance of 'Glass, Concrete & Stone'. 

There was also some exciting film-related news and events: 

- Woody Allen's terrific autobiography 'Apropos of Nothing' came out in March and in June we had the belated UK release of A Rainy Day in New York. I wrote about both the book and film here. Allen also had a new feature (Rifkin's Festival) that premiered in San Sebastian in September and I'm hoping that this will find its way to our screens somewhat quicker than its predecessor did. 

- Yasujiro Ozu's Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice got a fine Blu-Ray edition from the BFI. I hope that a similar treatment is in store for Ozu's penultimate film The End of Summer.

- Two exciting new Blu-Rays of films by King Hu: Raining in the Mountain (Eureka/Masters of Cinema) and Come Drink with Me (88 Films), both of which were previously unavailable in the UK. 

- Other notable Blu-Rays/DVDs: The Woman in Black (Network), Gemini (Third Window), Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), Dawn of the Dead (Second Sight), Three Edgar Allan Poe Adaptations Starring Bela Lugosi: Murders in the Rue Morgue/The Black Cat/The Raven (Eureka), Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura (Arrow Academy), The Tenant (Shout Factory), Waxworks (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), The Man Who Laughs (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), Maborosi (BFI), Let's Scare Jessica to Death (Scream Factory), Creepshow 2 (Arrow), Road Games (Powerhouse/Indicator), Innocent Blood (Warner Brothers/HMV), Takeshi Kitano Collection (BFI), Phase IV (101 Films), The Bride with White Hair (Eureka), Ishiro Honda Double Feature: The H-Man & Battle in Outer Space (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), Mothra (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), Gamera: The Complete Collection (Arrow), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Second Sight), John Ford at Columbia: 1935-1958 (Powerhouse/Indicator), Rio Grande (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), Story of a Love Affair (CultFilms), Five Graves to Cairo (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), A  Rainy Day in New York (Signature)

- Two books by John Boorman were published. 'Conclusions' is a memoir that follows on from his autobiography 'Adventures of a Suburban Boy' with reflections on life, death and the craft of filmmaking. 'John Boorman's Nature Diary: One Eye, One Finger' followed in December.

- Also in print were novels by Brian De Palma ('Are Snakes Necessary?', co-written with Susan Lehman) and George A. Romero ('The Living Dead', an unfinished work that was completed by Daniel Kraus). Both are on my 'too-read' list.

- 'The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood' by Sam Wasson, a much acclaimed book about the making of Polanski's classic neo-noir and its aftermath. 

- 'Unquiet' by Linn Ullmann is published in English.

- A filmed interview recorded during lockdown with Jean-Luc Godard appeared on vimeo: 

- Early in the year, Studio Ghibli announced that they have two new films in production. Definitely something to look forward to.

- News arrived in October of a new LP from John Carpenter - 'Lost Themes III: Alive After Death' which will be released in early 2021.

- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari marked it's centennial this year. The Deutsche Kinemathek has held an exhibition on the film which sounds incredible. Rare production stills and set photos were auctioned at Sotheby's and the BFI wrote a piece on the film's enduring power and influence. 

- My October Horror Marathon for the Halloween season, which I wrote about here.

Around 50 years ago, Wim Wenders, wrote about bootleg LPs by the likes of The Rolling Stones that were more exciting than many official releases. He pondered the possibility of bootleg films and it seems that such a concept is now very much in evidence:

- The documentary Hopper/Welles premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, consisting of footage of a filmed conversation between Dennis Hopper and Orson Welles in 1970. Should be an interesting watch.

- At the start of the year a mysterious rough cut of Tobe Hooper's 1990 masterpiece Spontaneous Combustion was shared online, not long after an early version of the same director's 1986 film Invaders from Mars had been made available. Meanwhile, producer Fred Miller put Hooper's 1971 documentary Peter, Paul and Mary: The Song is Love on YouTube in March. Like with Welles, new light continues to be shed on Hooper's career. There is another exciting prospect next year with a collection of essays on Hooper's films titled 'American Twilight: the Cinema of Tobe Hooper' edited by Kristopher Woofter and Will Dodson due to be published in June 2021.

Film Discoveries of 2020:
Best first time viewings (pre-2019 titles). I also posted this list on Letterboxd. Standout titles are marked with an asterisk(*).
  Alucarda (1977, Juan Lopez Moctezuma)
*Anatomy of Hell (2004, Catherine Breillat)
 August in the Water (1995, Gakuryu Ishii)
 The Badlanders (1958, Delmer Daves)
 The Ballad of Narayama (1983, Shohei Imamura)
*Bells from the Deep (1993, Werner Herzog)
 Blissfully Yours (2002, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
 Bones (2001, Ernest R. Dickerson)
*The Breaking Point (1950, Michael Curtiz)
 A Brutal Game (1983, Jean-Claude Brisseau)
*Celia (1989, Ann Turner)
*A City of Sadness (1989, Hou Hsiao-hsien)
*Confucius (1940, Fei Mu)
 Corridors of Blood (1958, Robert Day)
 Dante's Inferno (1911, Gisuseppe de Liguoro, Francesco Bertolini & Adolfo Padovan)
 De Natura (2018, Lucile Hadzihalilovic)
 Door 3 (1996, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
*Eight Hours Don't Make a Day (1972-73, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
*The Fountainhead (1949, King Vidor)
*Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971, Robert Bresson)
 Ghost (1984, Takashi Ito)
*Hanagatami (2017, Nobuhiko Obayashi)
 Killing (2018, Shinya Tsukamoto)
 Lovely Rita (2001, Jessica Hausner)
 Maborosi (1995, Hirokazu Koreeda)
 Malina (1991, Werner Schroeter)
*The Man with the Suitcase (1983, Chantal Akerman)
 Matango (1963, Ishiro Honda)
 Murrain (1975, John Cooper)
 Nails (1992, John Flynn)
*Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985, Gisaburo Sugii)
 Nora Helmer (1974, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
*Our Daily Bread (1934, King Vidor)
 Play Dirty (1969, Andre De Toth)
 Rebels of the Neon God (1992, Tsai Ming-liang)
 The Rocking Horsemen (1992, Nobuhiko Obayashi)
 Sergeant York (1941, Howard Hawks)
 The Snow Goose (1971, Patrick Garland)
 Sombre (1998, Philippe Grandrieux)
 Spirits of the Dead (1968, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle & Federico Fellini)
 Splatter: Naked Blood (1996, Hisayasu Sato) 
 Starstruck (1982, Gillian Armstrong)
 The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971, Sergio Martino)
 Szamanka (1996, Andrzej Zulawski)
 Le Tempestaire (1947, Jean Epstein)
*The Valiant Ones (1975, King Hu)
 Vital (2004, Shinya Tsukamoto)
 War and Peace (1956, King Vidor)
 White Bird in a Blizzard (2014, Gregg Araki)
 The White Reindeer (1952, Erik Blomberg)

Best repeat viewings:
Late Autumn (1960, Yasujiro Ozu) was a total revelation on a rewatch. It seems to be a bit neglected among Ozu's work, being seen as a retread of his earlier masterpiece Late Spring and something of a precursor to his beautiful swansong An Autumn Afternoon. I clearly overlooked it myself on the first watch but now consider it to be one of Ozu's very best. 

Other notable revisits:
Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)
Blue Jasmine (2013, Woody Allen)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene)
The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001, Woody Allen)
Dreams in the Witch House (2005, Stuart Gordon)
Freddy vs. Jason (2003, Ronny Yu)
The Hanging Tree (1959, Delmer Daves)
The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)
Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg)
Man of the West (1958, Anthony Mann)
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997, Hideaki Anno & Kazuya Tsurumanki)
The Nice Guys (2016, Shane Black)
Survival of the Dead (2009, George A. Romero)
Tess (1979, Roman Polanski)
Whatever Works (2009, Woody Allen)
White Zombie (1932, Victor Halperin)

I've had to find distractions and coping mechanisms this year. Thinking ahead is rather frightening right now so I certainly won't make any predicitions going forward. It feels quite trivial to talk about cinema in a year such as this but films were a useful resource throughout and heped me endure a godforsaken year. 2020 will be a year that many want to forget but at least it did provide some films that are well worth remembering.

Recommended 'films of 2020' links:

Sight & Sound

Pinnland Empire

Toronto Film Review

John Waters/Artforum

Long Voyage Home

Cahiers du Cinema

Reverse Shot

Combsutible Celluloid

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Masters of Horror

An appetite for Horror has stuck with me in November. I decided to follow my October Horror Marathon with a run of the remaining 'Masters of Horror' episodes that I hadn't yet seen. By chance this coincided with the show's 15th anniversary, which was recently marked by show creator Mick Garris on his Post Mortem podcast.

Until this month, I had seen 20 of the 26 episodes that were made over two seasons of the show from 2005 to 2007. I never managed to watch all of the broadcast episodes and set out to finish the series for the sake of completion. Perhaps I was too focussed on the "must see" episodes by the filmmakers I most revered or put off by some of the weaker entries. Having finally got through the whole set of episodes and with 20/20 hindsight I can see how the show went from being a major event to what some saw as a squandered opportunity. 

I still remember the excitement I felt about the show when it was announced in 2005. At this point I was probably at the peak of my Horror fandom. Horror seemed alive and dangerous again after the genre had fallen out of favour with mainstream audiences in the early 1990s. There were exceptions of course, but while they didn't hide their gruesome side some of the more notable crowd-pullers of this time had been marketed with a classier sheen and big stars, so The Silence of the Lambs was presented as a superior thriller and Bram Stoker's Dracula (tagline: "Love Never Dies") played up its gothic romance. Generally speaking it was a rather dormant stage in the genre's evolution. This was marked by diminishing box office clout and franchise fatigue, which was fairly evident in titles like Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. That all changed when 1996's Scream became a phenomenon that would lead to a significant revival of interest in scary movies and this was further cemented by two runaway hits in 1999 - The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project. Both of these enjoyed a cultural and commerical impact that confounded even the wildest expectations. At the start of the millennium, films like Ginger Snaps and May convinced me that Horror was once again entering an exciting phase. Working in a video store at the time I found a growing number of low budget, foreign and independent genre titles that grabbed my attention. I attended Frightfest screenings quite reguarly and showings of Freddy vs. Jason and Seed of Chucky from the same period were some of the best cinemagoing experiences I had at that time. The DVD market was unearthing obscure treasures as well as giving us better quality versions of certain classics and in the UK censorship on gory titles had eased up considerably since the 1990s. 

The early years of the new century now looks like a thriving period in the genre's history. Asian imports were becoming more widely available to western audiences and the J-Horror boom churned out multiple gems. The "Splat Pack", which included the likes of Rob Zombie, James Wan, Greg McLean, Alexandre Aja and Eli Roth, was emerging and bought us a new generation of Horror auteurs. There was also "New French Extremity" films like Trouble Every Day, In My Skin and High Tension. A new wave of zombie films would follow on from the success of 28 Days Later... and Shaun of the Dead. Remakes of classics were in full swing with new versions of House of Wax, Willard, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead turning out better than expected. 2005 marked the return of George A. Romero after a long absence with Land of the Dead. We also got Tobe Hooper's last great flurry of activity with Toolbox MurdersMortuary and his two episodes of 'Masters of Horror' all coming out over the space of a couple of years. Perhaps it was the timing of all this or a kind of nostalgia at work but I've not really felt that same buzz in the years since where Horror is concerned. 

Having learned about several leading Horror directors taking part in a new series that was designed to give them a free reign over their respective episodes I was ecstatic to say the least. In addition to the filmmakers involved it would feature adaptations of stories by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, James Tiptree Jr., Koji Suzuki, and F. Paul Wilson. As a Horror fan it felt like a dream come true. I even made a special trip to Brighton to see a UK premiere screening of Dario Argento's first episode, Jenifer, at the Duke of York's Picturehouse in 2005. I still have the standalone DVD releases by Anchor Bay of Cigarette Burns and Dreams in the Witch House. Plans changed in the UK and each series was broken up in to 2 separate box sets with 6 or 7 episodes each instead of individual releases for each title.

There was a sort of precedent for this kind of project. In the past films such as Spirits of the Dead and Two Evil Eyes were Horror anthologies inspired by Poe stories that emphasised the directors of the different segments. Twilight Zone: The Movie had paid tribute to the legendary TV show with four segments made by hotshot directors of the time (including two future "Masters" - John Landis and Joe Dante). The most impressive example I know of filmmakers being showcased on televsion was a series made in France in the 1990s. 'Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge' was a set of 60 minute films about adolescence that gave us outstanding works by the likes of Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas and Andre Techine. 

Among the participants, Don Coscarelli and Stuart Gordon made the most of the opportunity presented by the series, seeing it as a perfect chance to film previously unrealised projects. Dreams in the Witch House would end up being the last of five Lovecraft adaptations by Stuart Gordon. Coscarelli talks about the experience of making Incident On and Off a Mountain Road in his autobiography 'True Indie' and how the series was the ideal form for a relatively simple tale by Joe R. Lansdale that wasn't exactly feature length material. I wish that more episodes had been developed along the same lines. Too many episodes felt like random assignments rather than material the directors were engaged with but a personal stamp was sometimes in evidence elsewhere. Cigarette Burns can be seen as a companion piece to John Carpenter's prior effort In the Mouth of Madness (many noted the similarities between the two) while Pro-Life revisits his beloved siege scenario of earlier films like Assault on Precinct 13Prince of Darkness and Ghosts of Mars. Although by no means the first person to bring humour to macabre fare, Deer Woman and Family continued the unique mixture of comedy and Horror that John Landis had developed in An American Werewolf in LondonSomething Scary and Innocent Blood. Both were very much of a piece with his earlier work and are among his better latter day efforts. Several long term star-director collaborators were reunited for the show - Angela Bettis and Lucky McKee (Sick Girl), Robert Englund and Tobe Hooper (Dance of the Dead), Michael Moriarty and Larry Cohen (Pick Me Up), Robert Picardo and Joe Dante (Homecoming), Jeffrey Combs and Stuart Gordon (The Black Cat). It was also something of a family affair - Max Landis scripted his father's first episode, while Cody Carpenter scored both of his father's episodes. The show was designed as an auteurist project giving filmmakers creative control in television, a medium where writers, producers and showrunners are the more dominant figures. In many ways, the true auteur of the series was show creator Mick Garris, who penned 4 episodes (two of which he directed) and who already had a well established history in television with his miniseries adaptations of Stephen King's The Stand and The Shining.

Unfortunately, certain names that would have been a perfect fit for the show's premise didn't get involved. At different stages early on both George Romero and Roger Corman were set to direct Haeckel's Tale before John McNaughton finally took the helm. While not shy of his genre association, David Cronenberg ushered in another phase of his career in 2005 with A History of Violence, one that was very much a step away from the Horror fare that made his name. In a 2005 interview John Landis stated that Sam Raimi and Hideo Nakata were both set to do an episode, although neither were ultimately involved with the series and may have had to drop out due to other projects and commitments. It's tempting to think of other names who might have been called on had the series fared better. I would loved to have seen episodes by the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Eric Red, William Lustig, Mary Lambert, Wes Craven, Ronny Yu and Bernard Rose, all of whom have the credits to justify the "Master" label. 

The names attached to the series were its drawing card but also in some ways a hindrance. 

The show was sold to audiences on the directors involved. By proudly boasting of exciting new works from the makers of such beloved titles as HalloweenSuspiriaPhantasmPoltergeist and Re-Animator it may have created unrealistic expectations. These were after all fairly low budget one hour TV movies shot in roughy 10 days. The episodes have a nice variety in tone and story but many look and feel too similar stylistically, in part due to the same crews and locations being employed on several episodes. 

The biggest letdowns for me were the two Argento episodes (Jenifer and Pelts) and Carpenter's Pro-Life, which is perhaps the worst film of his career. The satire of Peter Medak's The Washingtonians and Joe Dante's Homecoming felt clumsy and far too heavy-handed, very much dating the show to the George W. Bush/Iraq invasion era in which they were made. Several directors had been involved with struggles with censorship in the past, which may have indirectly caused them to overindulge here. The gore felt overdone in several instances, as though they felt a need to compete with the emerging torture porn craze of Saw, Hostel et al. and push the envelope given the lack of restrictions. A few trims were made to Jenifer before it was screened but Takashi Miike's episode Imprint evidently crossed a line as Showtime refused to broadcast the episode in the US. Some of the younger talent fared well, with Lucky McKee and Brad Anderson more than holding their own against the veterans with Sick Girl and Sounds Like respectively. Ernest Dickerson managed to bring some of his trademark visual flair to The V Word and William Malone's Fair-Haired Child is arguably his best work to date. 

There seemed to be a general agreement among the online community of fans about the overall drop in quality in the second season. Fewer prestigous names were attached this time, although some returned for a second outing. The poor reception of the later episodes may have led to the show being cancelled and later revived as 'Fear Itself' on NBC in 2008, which no longer had Mick Garris involved. I've only seen one episode of 'Fear Itself' (Stuart Gordon's final directorial outing Eater) so that series may be a viewing project for another time perhaps. 

Several of the talents showcased were near the end of their careers or at least edging towards long inactive spells. Pick Me Up would be Larry Cohen's swansong in the director's chair. Stuart Gordon's two episodes were among his final works, sadly no longer making films after 2008. Tobe Hooper would make just one more feature before his death in 2017. Joe Dante has mainly worked in television or anthology shorts ever since. Besides 2010's The Ward John Carpenter has showed no signs of returning to directing features and Dario Argento's workrate has slowed down considerably over the past decade or so. If the show wasn't exactly a defining moment for many of them it was a nice way to recognise their earlier achievements, which had enriched the genre immeasurably.

The show had its share of disappointments but seen from a distance advanced hype and heightened expectations may have caused the series as a whole to be judged too harshly. Even the worst episodes are watchable and viewers accustomed to the Horror anthology format will feel very much at home with its highs and lows. I have a special fondness for Cigarette Burns, which begat the Willowy Being moniker for this blog. Along with Ghosts of Mars it's probably the Carpenter film that I revisit most frequently. 

It was ahead of the curb in some ways with many established filmmakers (including Steven Soderbergh, Jane Campion and Park Chan-wook) choosing to work in television in the years since, and finding greater freedom there than in feature filmmaking. The show came along at the perfect time for me and I enjoyed it more as an event and for its individual highlights than I did for its overall quality. By my count, the show gave us at least 5 titles that were among the decade's finest Horror films and for that alone it was a worthwhile undertaking: