Review: Masters of Horror -- 'The Damned Thing'

Seanpatrickflaherty_masters It must be a bit sad for Showtime's Masters of Horror franchise. After much bluster, boasting and talk of revitalizing a stagnated genre, the anthology series debuted last fall with a series of mostly mediocre gore-fests. Then, in the time between the first and second seasons, TNT released the Nightmares and Dreamscapes anthology that featured better production values, better stories, better actors and better scares, without the dubious assertions of mastery.

The second season of Masters of Horror kicks off on Friday (Oct. 27) night with "The Damned Thing," from one of the series' more easily certified masters, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist helmer Tobe Hooper. Based loosely -- so loosely you wonder why they bothered crediting it at all -- on Ambrose Bierce's seminal short story, "The Damned Thing" is a disappointing start to the season, a showcase for subpar performers running screaming from unseen evil, with the boredom only punctuated by satisfyingly gratuitous gore.

"The Damned Thing" is the story of Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flanery, never varying his expression for a second). Now the emotionally remote sheriff of Cloverdale, Texas (looking like the dustiest stretch of road outside of Vancouver), Kevin was forever marked by the windy night in 1981 when his dad started acting strange, pulled out his shotgun and blew his mom away (splattering the camera with blood in the process) before spontaneously combusting himself. Years later, Kevin has an estranged wife (Marisa Coughlan) and son (Alex Ferris) who are uncomfortable with his paranoia. His house is surrounded by surveillance cameras and he's constantly watching in case what got his father (and his grandfather, apparently) comes for him. As they say, you aren't paranoid if they really are out to get you. But what's out to get him? Oh, "the damned thing," which is making all of the residents of Cloverdale a little psychopathic.

Given that no episode last season garnered more media attention that Joe Dante's ham-handedly allegorical zombie tale "Homecoming," it's no wonder that Hooper pushes hard to make "The Damned Thing" into a story about our cultural dependence on oil. I got the assertion that oil money was blood money and that the thirst for oil created waves of unquenchable violence, but giving the episode subtext isn't the same as giving it substance.

The idea of an evil that haunts one specific family is a good one, particularly when given any allegorical value whatsoever. So the damned thing can be oil or alcohol or any dark cloud that hovers over every generation. But Hooper had to find a better way of producing scares than just running around and shaking the camera as a proxy for a menace with actual form. The whole thing is just an excuse for makeup wiz Greg Nicotero to play around with a guy pounding his face in with a hammer, or a woman torn in half (entrails dangling) in a car wreck.

Flannery wanders around world-weary and the other actors spend most of the episode screaming at off-camera imagined fear. The only really memorable performance comes from Ted Raimi as a quirky and eventually homicidal priest.

The Hooper installment is only part of the season's slow beginning, with underwhelming subsequent episodes from Ernest Dickerson and John Landis. I have high hopes for episodes from Dante, Dario Argento and Stuart Gordon, but this season looks to be every bit as hit-and-miss as the first one.

What'd you think of the season's first episode? Which films are you looking forward to?