Masters of Horror is an anthology horror series from 2005. Famous and emerging horror directors were given a set budget to create an original hour long horror film. There were no other restrictions. The show ran for two seasons on Showtime before jumping to NBC as Fear Itself for a third and final season.
Deer Woman is the first Masters of Horror episode not adapted from an existing story or comic. Writer/director John Landis and writer Max Landis present an original story about a monster wreaking havoc on a small town. Competing detectives are trying to solve the murder and antagonize each other every chance they get. Witnesses report seeing deer at the site of a vicious murder, but deer aren’t exactly known for trampling people into a puddle of goo. It’s a crude horror/comedy with broad performances and plenty of gore.
John Landis is an odd choice to include a horror anthology series. He only made four horror films before Masters of Horror and one was a documentary compiling his favorite horror film clips. He’s first and foremost a comedy director, going for big broad characters and ridiculous situations. When he does narrative horror, it’s creature features. They’re good comedy/horror films, too. You cannot deny the impact An American Werewolf in London left on the genre. If (at the time) new directors like Lucky McKee and Rob Schmidt warranted entries in the series, Landis earned his shot with one of the greatest werewolf films of all time.
Deer Woman has the pacing of an episode of The West Wing with the gore of an 80s straight to video slasher film. It’s unlike any other episode of Masters of Horror. I’ll be quite honest: the humor doesn’t land for me, but I’ve never been a fan of this style of comedy. It is tightly paced, well written, and flows well onscreen. The actors are committed and Landis keeps them all in check.
The b-plot involves a woman having a night out on the town. She does not speak. She wanders from place to place, meeting various men and agreeing to go off with them with a smile. Anyone who sees her describes her as beautiful but can offer no specifics about her appearance. She is memorable and forgettable at the same time.
The best sequence in the film is pure John Landis. The detective trying to figure out the cause of death in the maybe animal attack, maybe brutal murder, starts imagining different scenarios. Each idea is more ridiculous than the next, and the first idea features a man being beaten with a taxidermized deer leg. It’s over the top horror/comedy.
I do question a style element of the film. Deer Woman uses some First Nations (the film is shot in Canada and presumably set there, as well) imagery throughout the film. Illustrations of Indigenous People are occasionally overlaid on the screen during transitions. The woman is supposed to be an Indigenous Person. She’s dressed in animal hides and wears an ornate turquoise necklace. The third act takes us to a First Nations casino playing on stereotypical imagery, like cocktail waitresses wearing feather headbands and an animatronic deer cracking jokes and advertising performances in the Powwow Room. The closing credit music is labeled as “Native American music” in the closed captions but has no formal identifying credit in the episode. The only Indigenous performers are either criminals or casino workers. The whole thing is appropriation made even worse by the casting of a Brazilian actress as the woman.
I find myself enjoying Deer Woman in spite of myself. This is a ridiculous concept for a horror film on every level. So much of what will happen is obvious from the start, but it’s done with a lot of style and held together well by Landis. The biggest drawback is hinging the style of the story on First Nations stereotypes. What felt like a stumbling block in 2005 is a dead end in 2020.
content warning: gore, adult language, nudity, violence against women, violence against animals (discussed but not shown), outdated cultural depictions
Next Up: S1E08: Cigarette Burns, directed by John Carpenter.