It’s difficult to create a serialized television show that can effectively and satisfyingly be classified as “horror.” Much of how horror operates as a genre relies on gradual builds, cramming as much anxiety and unease as possible into a space before sucking out the air. This is not easy to do with television. Serial shows have to create micro-conclusions within their overarching stories. These conclusions might haunt you in the wake of the credits, but the continuity of the show promises a ray of light. And even those episodes that stay with you most have their impact dulled in the lull before the next installment.
It is for this reason that shows such as “The Twilight Zone” or “The Night Gallery” have remained such unimpeachable examples of thriller, horror, and suspense television. True, in self-contained episodes, opportunities for certain types of terror achieved through character development or world building are not available in the same way. At the same time, however, the stories don’t suffer from the possibility of a resolution outside of their runtime. Once the credits roll, the story is over; the most upsetting endings cannot be redeemed or undone the next week at the same time. These anthology shows trade in the very horror-appropriate willingness to deny answers, resolutions, and comfort—not just immediately, but at all.
Showtime’s “Masters of Horror,” which ran for two seasons between 2005 and 2007 before moving to NBC for a final season retitled “Fear Itself,” continues this legacy. The premise of the program is immensely simple: each episode is between 50 minutes and an hour long and tells a self-contained story. Certainly, some episodes may end with the suggestion that things are not quite finished, but none ever fulfill that promise. In what could be considered a nod to the legendary ability of “The Twilight Zone” to attract both burgeoning talent and established names, “Masters of Horror” handed out each episode to a well-known genre filmmaker: John Carpenter, John Landis, Dario Argento, Don Coscarelli, and others. These directors could do whatever they wanted in the time allotted to them, and they let their creativity run wild.
The resulting program was remarkable. Though its very nature suggests an unevenness, the self-contained nature of the stories combined with the weekly airing ensured the viewers wouldn’t feel obligated to watch episodes if they suspected they might not be to their liking. There was no threat of missing out on important details for later chapters and no dread of 90 minutes of unappealing stylistic or narrative choices. Weak episodes did appear in both seasons, but they never damaged the show as a whole.
To understand the immense creativity of the show, one has to dive in and look at the diversity of the stories that the enlisted directors chose to tell. In the very first episode, Don Coscarelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep”) offered a slick entry into the slasher genre that used its atmosphere and characters to comment on domestic extremism and intimate partner violence. That same year, Joe Dante (“Gremlins”) created what The New Yorker called the best political film of the year in “Homecoming,” which tells the story of America’s war dead rising from their graves to vote out an irresponsibly belligerent president. Neither of these resembles “Cigarette Burns,” directed by John Carpenter (“Halloween”), wherein a widowed film enthusiast tracks down a rare print for a man who claims that the film in question incites violence and madness in all those who view it, creating an hour of television that is more unsettling than most full-length horror films. And that’s only in the first season.
The brilliance of “Masters of Horror” is how its premise so aggressively contradicts what we’re trained to expect from television. We are either told that certain characters, ideas, or narratives are safe or that nothing and no one is. Both of these, in the end, breed a certain type of predictability. By its design, “Masters of Horror” works to subvert this. It brings to its center disparate tones, topics, and emotions and offers them up in a number of different voices. It operates with an ethos of experimentation that few pieces of art are interested in attempting. It’s a celebration of the lifeblood of a genre and a biting refutation for those who are unwilling to look beyond major franchise work before pronouncing that genre dead. It’s also scary as hell.