In 2005, Showtime began airing an anthology horror series called Masters of Horror. Each hour long episode is a horror film from a different director. The series got a lot of heavy hitters involved, but also had some curve balls with lesser known and emerging directors taking their shot at a no holds barred horror extravaganza.
There’s a novel element to deal with in the two episodes of Masters of Horror Mick Garris directed. He is the executive producer on the series. It’s his show. He pitched it and he got it on the air. There is no Masters of Horror without him.
Of course he’s going to choose to give one of the 13 slots each season to his own work. While he is not the least experienced director to work on the show, he is one of the only directors who might be better known for writing rather than directing horror.
Mick Garris is a fine writer. His horror stories are good and have been adapted many times over the years. Probably his best known story provided the inspiration for Batteries Not Included. He’s also done a lot of screenplays, including Hocus Pocus, Critters 2, and several episodes of the anthology series Amazing Stories.
You probably know him better for his work on Stephen King adaptations. He is the director behind Sleepwalkers, The Stand, the TV adaptation of The Shining, Desperation, Bag of Bones, and Quicksilver Highway. His directorial style is text above everything else. If Stephen King mentioned a specific pattern of wallpaper at a truck stop, Mick Garris is going to deliver that exact pattern of wallpaper at a truck stop, even if the truck stop is only onscreen for one scene.
Chocolate is adapted from Mick Garris’ own short story of the same name. Jamie is being interrogated by police about a murder. The film jumps back in time to explore what led to the crime. He is a food scientist synthesizing artificial flavors in a laboratory. He’s also a recent divorcee who lost a lot of weight and is obsessed with what he eats and how he looks. One night, he wakes up to the taste of expensive chocolate in his mouth. He has formed a psychic connection with a woman he has never met and it quickly consumes his life. She is happy, successful in her career, and deeply in love. She is the opposite of Jamie in every way and he is instantly obsessed with her.
Mick Garris is a director obsessed with every detail being just so. When Jamie goes to bed, the time on the clock is 11:11. The specific clock is a digital clock that has no dots, colon, or dash to separate the hour from the minute. It’s a clear visual, 1 1 1 1, the brightest thing onscreen, and it has no literal bearing on anything in the story. It’s a precise style element for a recurring visual motif. Jamie is surrounded by vertical lines, a physical manifestation of his obsession with weight and appearance.
One of the things I find so off-putting about the episode is the lack of care spent on actual story elements. It’s embodied with the lead character himself. We’re to believe that this man has recently lost a lot of weight after separating from his wife. He’s obsessed with his appearance and his eating habits.
Yet the photos we see of him in the past with his son are all of an incredibly fit and happy actor. If you have the time to make sure the hour and the minute hand on an outdoor clock at a pavilion forms a perfectly straight line during a vision, you have the time to visually support one of the key elements of the plot.
Chocolate is also obsessed with size and weight loss. The main character is doing everything he can to maintain his weight loss. He’s made fun of by his peers for eating salad instead of chips. He’s also incredibly judgmental. In one scene at a grocery store, we follow his eye as he stares at all the overweight customers. He bonds with a beautiful woman over their ability to judge those people for not being thin like them.
Onscreen, Garris chooses to lean heavily into the obsessive eating habits, fear of fat, and body shaming. The precise focus on small details like the perfect framing of a clock at just the right time is symbolic of the obsession with physical perfection by the lead character.
Horror can exist about anything because normal behavior for one person can be something unnerving for someone else. Obsession stories of any kind can be a hard sell onscreen because you don’t get to live in the mind of the character. I think it’s a story type that’s better served by literary horror.
This is where that literary versus cinematic divide in Mick Garris’ work really becomes evident. As a short story, “Chocolate” includes all of these elements. It’s nowhere near as upsetting because you get to imagine however much detail you want about the world happening around this character. This is intentionally an erotic horror story. There are typically few boundaries in this literary genre, so a character like Jamie can monologue about how much he enjoys the sensations of a stranger and it’s perfectly tame and expected. It’s quite a different thing to see this projected onto the world around Jamie for a film.
Chocolate is not a lazy horror film. The level of detail in creating the parallels between Jamie and the woman is admirable. There are quick cuts in perspective to set up the reflection of their two lives. If Jamie enters a room on the right, the woman enters a room on the left. If Jamie is looking up, she is looking down. No one else matches their actions or thoughts, and no one else is shot in this precise, perfectly opposing way.
Chocolate finally starts to deliver on its own concept when the extraneous details are cut away. The last act finally fulfills the promise of all those perfect little details surrounding Jamie’s life. The earlier obsessive moments are overplayed because Mick Garris wants you to know how serious the obsessions are to Jamie; it’s as effective as it is heavy-handed.
I think the fairest assessment is that Mick Garris’ biggest mistake was choosing to adapt his own story in this hour long format. He’s too close to the material and he tries to include every single detail in a short amount of time. He wants perfection from one of his more successful short stories and misses some of the greater implications of the subject matter and humor when shown in full, literal detail onscreen.
Content warning: sexual content, nudity, gore, eating disorders, violence against women
Up next: S1E06: Homecoming, directed by Joe Dante.