In 2005, Showtime began airing Masters of Horror, a weekly anthology series. Horror directors were given an equal budget to create original one hour horror films with seemingly no other restrictions. The second season, which aired 2006-2007, pushed the series in strange and unexpected new directions.
The Damned Thing is the return of director Tobe Hooper to Masters of Horror. In season one, he directed Dance of the Dead, an adaptation of an apocalyptic Richard Matheson story written by Matheson’s own son Richard Christian Matheson. Hooper and Matheson reunite for an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s short story “The Damned Thing.”
Something strange is happening in the neighborhood. No one is acting like they usually do and everyone is quick to anger. A strange black liquid appears before people claim “the damned thing” has found them and become violent towards anyone near them. 24 years after the first attack, Kevin is a sheriff examining the mysterious deaths happening in his town. The few victims who live long enough to say anything claim the world itself is coming alive around them, causing their fatal actions or accidents.
Bierce’s original story is an experimental piece of sci-fi playing on a particular blend of Victorian Era speculation. While Mary Shelley imagined a world where we could reanimate the dead and Sheridan Le Fanu began chronicling vampiric folklore, authors like Ambrose Bierce and Fitz James O’Brien were imagining the possibility of a world we cannot see coexisting with our own. These invisible creatures could attack at any time, causing the unsolved crimes and murders that horrify the world from time to time. Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” in particular, is a brutal piece of dark comedy, a story told in four acts with varying writing styles and perspectives. No one wants to believe the only witness to a brutal murder because that witness claims you literally cannot see the beast that murdered an entire hunting party. This undercurrent of speculation is referenced by Lovecraft in the formation of his own far more influential blend of sci-fi/horror that defines so much of the horror narrative in America.
Hooper’s The Damned Thing only bares a passing resemblance to the original short story. Where Dance of the Dead was faithful to the point of feeling illogical onscreen, this entry in Masters of Horror is a much freer, more streamlined event. Hooper and Matheson work off the concept of someone surviving an attack by an invisible creature to create a new story in the same universe. The tone is quite accurate to Bierce’s writing, a bizarre dark comedy that feels like it comes from another world, but the story is all new.
I’ve speculated before how there are two styles of Masters of Horror episodes. Some directors chose to give us their signature style in a brand new story; other directors felt free to do whatever they wanted when it wasn’t their money or reputation on the line. Hooper’s did both. Dance of the Dead played with similar Hooper themes in a very different, chaotic story. The Damned Thing is very much a bloody, violent Hooper story about threats to the institution of the American family even if the family being threatened is viewed as the outsider in society.
You couldn’t confuse The Damned Thing for anything other than a Tobe Hooper film. His signature editing beats are all there, even as he experiments with some of the newer MTV-inspired panning quick shots that defined films like Saw and Hostel at the time. You see the before and after of the violence in this episode, but never the actual act of violence being committed. You’ll see the hammer swing before blood starts spurting, but never see the hammer make contact with the victim. All of this is shot in a sickly yellow haze, somewhere between a nostalgic Western and a fever dream.
Much like season one’s Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, The Damned Thing acts as a calling card for the direction of Masters of Horror season two. Hooper’s entry is among the best this time. It does portend a far more violent season with experimentation in genre and form. The difference in tone and substance is as severe as comparing season one and two of Twin Peaks. When you invite horror directors to create in a shared but open universe, they will try to one up each other if given the chance. Everyone is swinging for their own Imprint on season two, something so disturbing that Showtime itself would refuse to air it.
content warning: violence against women, gore, gun violence, self-harm, death by suicide, foul language
Up Next: S02E02 “Family” from director John Landis.