In 2005, Showtime began airing Masters of Horror. This was a weekly anthology horror series where famous and emerging directors were invited to create original one hour horror films with seemingly no restrictions. A surprising act of censorship a the end of season 1 changed the course of the series in season 2, pushing it to far more dark, violent, and disturbing territory.
In The V Word, two teenage horror fans decide to break into a funeral home to look at a real corpse. Unfortunately, the are not alone and get locked inside the building. They soon discover what happened to everyone who worked there and are in a fight for their lives against an unstoppable force.
One of the odd things about Masters of Horror is how few of the classic horror tropes are explored throughout the series. There are plenty of serial killer episodes. So far, only three episodes deal with zombies and all the political/social commentary that comes with it. The V Word, as you may imagine, is a vampire story, one of the oldest and most enduring genres of horror. It’s also the only vampire story in the series (including Fear Itself, the spin-off/third season that aired on NBC).
Ernest Dickerson is one of the Masters of Horror directors who might be better known for his work outside of horror. He’s worked as a director, cinematographer, and screenwriter for film, television, and music videos. His credits include directing Juice, working as the cinematographer on Do the Right Thing, and directing episodes of The Wire, Dexter, and Treme. He’s done plenty of work in horror, including directing Bones (2001), Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight, and episodes of TV series like Night Visions, The Walking Dead, and Under the Dome. Ernest Dickerson is also a Black director working in this horror/crime/thriller space within the Hollywood studio system and typically deals with issues of racism and racial justice in his work.
So much of Masters of Horror comes down to how well the director and screenwriter match up. Dickerson does an excellent job bringing an incredibly violent Mick Garris screenplay to life. The V Word is an original story written for the screen. Garris knows how to structure a screenplay to work in this kind of anthology format and Dickerson knows how to get the most out of the limitations of a standalone story on television. It takes one short scene that establishes the dynamic between the two teenagers to wind up at the funeral home where the action really begins. Even after the vampire shows up, Dickerson and Garris keep developing the friendship between the two boys, layering more details about their families and bond as the blood begins to flow.
The V Word is a unique vampire film for a number of reasons. The two teenagers know everything there is to know about horror. The episode starts with them hanging out, playing a shooter game on PC, and deciding the cool thing to do would be to see a real dead body. They do everything right to escape once they enter the funeral home, but whatever is happening there doesn’t play by the usual rules.
The vampires in this world do not have the expected powers. There is nothing charming about the creatures. They are driven by their thirst. They do not fly, shapeshift, charm, or enchant. They hunt on two legs, subdue with their fists, and violently go for the throat. Should you survive an attack, you are bound by the rules without the benefits of the stronger powers.
It’s only fair to warn you that The V Word is one of the goriest episodes of the series. It’s part of what’s so shocking about the story. The injuries inflicted by the vampires are not precise little puncture wounds, but brutal acts of destruction. There are gags I haven’t seen quite like this before in other horror films.
The V Word is an incredibly effective vampire story set in a more modern world. Dickerson’s style works so well because he knows how to ground an upsetting story in a believable world. There’s nothing realistic about surviving a brutal attack like this, but it feels real because the characters and the world are given so much depth and humanity.
content warning: gore, violence against children, violence against women, nudity
Up next: S2E04, “Sounds Like” from director Brad Anderson.