Masters of Horror S1E09 “The Fair-Haired Child”

In 2005, Showtime debuted an anthology horror series called Masters of Horror. Each hour long episode was directed by a different horror director. Some of them are practically household names; others are relatively unknown. Each director received the same budget to create an original horror film with no restrictions.

Not every episode of Masters of Horror is well-remembered. The Fair-Hared Child is so often forgotten that most references to the episode don’t even provide the correct name. Shoot, the production designers missed the hyphen on set a few times. It’s not a Mandela Effect; the episode features the title card with the correct name. It’s just a symptom of one of the strangest episodes of the series.

Tara is kidnapped on her way home from school. She wakes up states away from her home and is promptly locked in the basement of a remote mansion with another teenager. They’ve been selected for something. They just don’t know what.

Masters of Horror, as a series, is a representation of trends in the horror industry at that time. Abduction and torture stories were on the rise. The first entry in Saw came out the year before the show premiered, changing the horror landscape. J-Horror was also on the rise, with films like Ringu making waves and being remade for a Western audience. Clashing forces of indestructible spirits and stories driven by bloody gags defined the era.

William Malone is one of the directors I knew the least about before working on this review. He is a sci-fi/horror director who typically focuses on the dark side of a specific kind of sci-fi image. Scared to Death, Creature, and FearDotCom all feature a constantly evolving exploration of a single scientific or technological concept. His films are very stylized with big performances and lots of noise. He consistently worked in television through 2000, directing episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares, Tales from the Crypt, Dark Justice, and Sleepwalkers. He’s an anomaly in Masters of Horror, a working director in the genre but relatively unknown because he mostly worked in television.

William Malone’s stylized approach does wonders for what starts out as a tired story of a teenage girl in peril. There is no grounded reality in this world. A bullied child with no voice in her life is forced to befriend a non-speaking child for survival. The basement is littered with abandon backpacks and notes from children lost to time. The rooms are destroyed over and over again by a windstorm, but the building is locked up tight. Countless instruments line the walls, but no sound the victims create can reach their captors.

The Fair-Haired Child has a far more interesting b-plot than the by the numbers abduction and endangerment story. William Samples and Lori Petty play Anton and Judy, classical musicians turned warlocks turned criminals. Their world is fascinating in its layers of theatricality and artifice. Their nightmares are styled after the inky cinematography of Ingmar Bergman films. Their days are haunted by the trauma their actions have forced them to commit again and again in a fight to return to normalcy. Anton quotes existential philosophy while Judith decorates with malicious intentions. It’s a style of absurd horror rarely given this wide a platform. No other episode of Masters of Horror come close to touching on this experimental, cult style of horror.

William Malone’s experience in anthology television shines through with great confidence and consistent suspense. While the plot of The Fair-Haired Child is not the most original story ever told, the technical execution is great. The pacing and editing are perfect for an hour long horror story. Your senses are constantly overwhelmed by dense set decoration and ambient scoring that make it feel like a lot more is happening in the story.

When the true nature  of The Fair-Haired Child comes into focus, it’s something far more experimental than American horror typically embraces. Imagine I Know What You Did Last Summer or The Faculty shifting into Santa Sangre or The Exterminating Angel after the first act. The Fair-Haired Child is a horror film that disguises its own identity to surprise you again and again with the actual story hiding below the surface.

***

Content warning: death by suicide, violence against children, violence against women, abduction, nudity, gore


Up Next: S1E10: “Sick Girl,” directed by Lucky McKee.