One of the criticisms leveled at the first season of Showtime's hit series MASTERS OF HORROR is the frequent infusion of humor in many of the episodes - which some have claimed an annoying distraction from what was touted as a triumphant celebration of "true horror" in the television format. Since I spent nearly a decade seriously pissed off at Hollywood's tendency to disarm horror with condescending, sophomoric "wink-wink" comedy (a trend which thankfully seems to have waned in recent years), I instinctively bristle at the "ain't monsters funny?" approach.
But as you may recall, John Landis - primarily known as a director of bombastic comedies like ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS - once made a little movie about a young American who visits London and becomes a werewolf. People like myself, who saw this film when it premiered in 1981, didn't exactly come out of the theater saying, "Gee, that sure was a funny werewolf movie." No, they more likely said, "Gosh, I defecated in my trousers no less than three times," or "Now I will have to purchase a Winnie the Pooh night-light, under the placid glow of which I will be huddling for the next seventeen years."
Sure, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was packed with humor throughout its running time. True, many of those laughs were blended with horror elements. But the monster scenes, when they came, were delivered straight, no chaser - and even 25 years later they rank among the most terrifying scenes in movie history.
Now, I'll admit that that the moments of genuine horror in "Deer Woman" are few; where AMERICAN WEREWOLF was a scary horror film leavened with great comedy, "Deer Woman" is a black comedy spiced with a few decent scares. Well, one sort-of scare. Maybe. Okay, so it's not scary at all. But funny it is. In fact, it's more in the playful spirit of Landis's gorilla-on-the-loose film debut SCHLOCK than anything else. Although the director's comedy output has been spotty over the past two decades, it's mostly due to the challenge of stretching a funny premise to feature-length. In the one-hour format, that burden is less cumbersome, and in this episode, it seldom wears out its welcome. Further infusing the story with manic energy is the participation of Landis's son Max - who wrote the original screenplay - and a very game (no pun intended) cast of characters.
Brian Benben ("Dream On") turns in a droll, sardonic performance as luckless, cynical detective Faraday - who, due to a lethal on-duty accident, has been busted from homicide down to animal-attack cases (his latest involves a bitter dog/monkey rivalry). As with most cop tales of this kind, he gains a shot at self-redemption... and since this is a horror story, his opportunity comes in the form of a grisly truck-stop murder case wherein the victim has been rendered into hamburger by a creature with giant hooves.
Scorned and ridiculed by the assholish cops from homicide, Faraday gains the empathy and support of good-natured beat cop Reed (Anthony Griffith), who comes to realize that Faraday's sleuthing instincts have not dulled in the slightest. Point of fact, given the combined experience from his past and present occupations, this is the crowning case of his career - since the perp in question is neither human nor animal, but a supernatural melding of both.
The living incarnation of a Native American legend, the title monster (played by sultry Brazilian model Cinthia Moura) is an irresistibly sexy woman from the waist up, whose long skirts conceal a pair of furry, hoofed legs. She uses her sensual charms to seduce men - usually in bars, where the patrons are too sloshed and horny to notice that their hot new friend is in desperate need of a waxing. Once her victims are in the throes of boozy passion, she stomps them into steak tartare... apparently just because she can. ("Why does everything have to have a motive with you people?" quips an Indian casino manager who explains the legend to our befuddled cop duo.) A few lucky leads later - as well as some seriously unlucky ones - Faraday comes face-to-face with his paranormal nemesis, and the hooves hit the asphalt for a bloody showdown.
Though fairly predictable as monster stories go, the simplistic plot is a great jumping-off point for some wickedly dark humor - the best of which involves runaway body parts - as well as some spirited over-the-top silliness, including a mental re-enactment of the first murder that gets increasingly more ludicrous. Of course, anyone possessing more than a passing familiarity with Landis's work will be pleased to catch the plentiful callbacks and throwaway references to his other films (although if there's a "See You Next Wednesday" gag in there, I didn't catch it). It's goofy stuff, but sincerely goofy, and bodes well for the career of Landis the younger (who was 19 at the time, and got the idea from a book on cryptozoology). A little polish would have helped, but the wry comic sensibility merits an A for effort.
Anchor Bay's presentation earns high marks as well, as with all of their MASTERS Season 1 packages so far. The nearly faultless 1:77.1 presentation is clear and sharp, with dense black levels and superb reproduction of the film's rich color palette. The Dolby 5.0 track gets quite a workout, with lots of startling directional effects which help to punch up the occasional genuine scares. The bombastic score seems a bit too high in the mix, but maybe that's just because it's kind of annoying.
Once again, the extras are a big box o' fun: The interview with Landis is funny and informative, moving briskly through his entire film career. The "Working with a Master" segment - always the high point of these releases - delves into Landis's oeuvre from many other perspectives, thanks to interviews with his collaborators from days past (including Dan Aykroyd, Rick Baker, Jenny Agutter and a hilarious Don Rickles), as well as some manic comments from his son Max - who exhibits the same whacked-out energy, proving that the apple (or the nut, in this case) doesn't fall too far from the tree.
Separate on-set interviews with Benben and Griffith demonstrate their comic affinity with their characters, and the previously mute Deer Woman gets a chance to speak (with a lovely accent) in Moura's interview. Rounding out the featurettes is a making-of montage; other supplements include a still gallery and Landis bio, downloadable screenplay for DVD-ROM users and the usual gallery of Anchor Bay trailers. Another sweet treat is a quaintly dated piece from the late, great Z Channel - a clip from their "Fantasy Film Festival" in which a lanky young Mick Garris (creator of the MASTERS OF HORROR series) interviews Landis just prior to production on WEREWOLF. It's a fun, nostalgic reminder of fandom's lo-fi days, and a great time-capsule find.
Benben and Griffith also re-team for a bizarre episode-length commentary track, proving once again that the deadpan humor of their characters is hardly a stretch; in fact, most of their comments are so droll that the whole thing starts to border on the surreal, and I found myself wondering which of their outlandish anecdotes were actually true.
While I'm glad that the majority of Season One episodes played their horror straight, "Deer Woman" was a fun diversion from the form. It's not quite the highlight of the series, but pretty damn entertaining in its own right. Landis fans with copies of WEREWOLF at home should be proud to add this title to their libraries - which I assume are sub-categorized by genre and alphabetized with a cross-reference indexing spreadsheet... as opposed to my own DVD collection, which works double-duty as dinner plates, coasters, ashtrays and cat-poop scrapers.