In 2005, Showtime released an anthology horror series called Masters of Horror. Each episode was a short film by a respected horror director. The directors were all given an identical budget and free reign to do whatever they wanted with their hour long episode. Allegedly, Showtime agreed to not censor the episodes for content. The series went on to win an Emmy Award (for title music, but an Emmy nonetheless) and ran for three seasons. The third season aired on NBC as Fear Itself, though the transition did not go well; only eight episodes aired before the series got bumped to the backend of the NBC website and dumped to DVD to end the contract.
The series debuted with Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and the show was not playing around. Writer/director Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of a Joe R. Lansdale story is one of the highlights of the entire series.
This is the story of Ellen told in two timelines. In the present, she loses control of her car on a remote mountain road and winds up in a fight for her life against a Moonface, mysterious man prowling the mountain with a hunting knife. In the past, she falls in love with Bruce, a survivalist who wants to train Ellen to be able to protect herself no matter what. The two stories reflect on each other, showing the impact of a grueling training regimen even in the face of unimaginable terror.
The first thing to know is who Don Coscarelli is. He’s one of the lesser known directors featured in the Masters of Horror series, though by all he justice should be heralded among the greats. This is the mind behind the Phantasm series starring Angus Scrimm as a cemetery worker with a deadly array of specialized weapons. Coscarelli is a genius of independent filmmaking, surrounding himself with the best artists he can to make visually stunning films on a shoestring budget. His best known film at this point must be Bubba Ho-Tep, though each of his films received similar fanfare upon release.
Coscarelli has a gift for picking just the right actors to fill out his cast. Ellen is played by Bree Turner, who went on to star as Rosalee Calvert in Grimm. Bruce is played by Ethan Embry, who I best know for his fantastic starring turn in The Devil’s Candy. Angus Scrimm (the star of the Phantasm series) plays Buddy, a prisoner trapped in the killer’s basement, forced to witness the final act for the dozens of women attacked before Ellen. John Desantis plays Moonface, and he is one of those gifted but very tall actors who gets consistent work as a monster or other intimidating figure in films and tv. Rounding out the cast is Heather Feeney, playing another woman being attacked at the same time; she doesn’t have as much to do, though she serves her purpose as a foil to Ellen very well. The cast does great work in physically demanding roles set during high emotional stakes.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road has phenomenal makeup. The prosthetic work to transform Moonface into something between human and monster is believable. The injuries the cast inflict on each other feel real and dangerous, grounding some of the more unbelievable elements pulled straight from the short story. When those elements finally come to life with the literal precision of an industrial drill press, it’s terrifying.
The story of the film is upsetting in unexpected ways. The twist ending still holds up 15 years later. It’s been so long since I last watched Incident On and Off a Mountain Road that I actually forgot how the film wrapped up Ellen’s story. It’s good horror writing. I seem to remember that the big difference between the original Lansdale story and Coscarelli’s adaptation is more jumps between the two narratives, though the arc and events mostly remain the same. The ending hits harder onscreen than on the page because Coscarelli is a master at framing a scare from just the right angle.
Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is a great horror film. It swings between a few different genres and does them all well: slasher, revenge, home invasion, and character study. The film is driven by tense action sequences pushing the characters into unexpected moments of distress. The overarching narrative structure is actually quite subtle in its use of imagery and foreshadowing. It’s just a really well told story. Many horror films try to strike this balance, but few succeed as well as Incident On and Off a Mountain Road.
Content warning: this episode contains gore, violence against women, and sexual assault.
Next up: S1E02: H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House, directed by Stuart Gordon.