Based on the short story by John R Lansdale, ‘Incident on and off a road’ is told in two timelines. It tells the tale of Ellen (Bree Turner), a young woman fleeing her festering marriage who gets involved in an accident and is accosted by a looming mutant, ‘Moonface’ (John De Santis), who kills his victims by drilling holes in their eyes and transforming them into scarecrows.
We simultaneously get flashbacks to Ellen’s turbulent marriage to screw-loose survivalist Bruce (Ethan Embry), who wants to train Ellen to be able to protect herself, no matter the circumstances.
The movie opens with the line, “I believe anything can happen, to anybody, at any time”, and it encapsulates the entire story to perfection. The story is quick to leap into the action as, within the first few minutes, Ellen (Bree Turner) crashes into a seemingly abandoned car on a rural stretch of a deserted road in the wake of the night. On waking up, she finds out that she’s not hurt. Startled, she gets out of her car to check on the other vehicle, only to find that the worst is yet to come. She discovers they have been taken by a horrifying giant of a man, a disfigured slasher named Moonface who cues his ill will straight away by prowling her off the road and into the woods, with a hunting knife as she flees.
Far from helpless, she Quickly sets a series of traps as she flees, taking the fight to the killer almost straight away and managing to flee through the wilderness.
We gain a better understanding of Ellen and how she was introduced to these survivalist proficiencies via flashbacks to her time on the first date, with her then-boyfriend, and then-husband, Bruce (Ethan Embry). These flashbacks begin with an initially sweet and innocent meeting of the pair, with Ellen obviously being taken with Bruce’s easy allure and winning smile. Hints are strewn around that he may not be as pleasant as he first appears, but back in the present, Ellen has bigger problems when a trap backfires and she is caught, after a sparring struggle, leading only to her captivation.
The most striking thing about this series, in general, is the brutal, deft violence. Most people have memories of watching relatively tame, comic book-inspired TV horror in the 80s and 90s which perhaps helps in setting the expectation that Masters of Horror would be, if not family-friendly, beyond question nothing too explicit.
This is TV after all. ‘Incident On and Off a Mountain Road’ dissipates that notion pretty damn quickly from the establishing shot of Moonface, to as the movie progresses and we get a lingering close up of a victim’s thigh impaled by a large, painfully sharp looking wooden stake. From there, Ellen and Moonface’s other captives are taken back to the killer’s lair, which is fastidiously decorated with decomposing corpses displayed proudly across the front yard, set up as scarecrows, moonlight beaming through the holes where their eyes used to be.
Returning to the flashbacks, where the real horror of the story might be said to be found, we see a slightly more militant, unhinged side to Bruce, as it’s quickly made clear he and Ellen have moved off-grid and Bruce is on the face of it, possessed with training her to do tonnes of other training in preparation for… animpending global apocalypse that is Bruce is worried about. “You’ve always got to expect the unexpected… and do the unexpected.”
When an emotionally weathered Bree is forced to learn to fend for herself, her survivalist ex-husband’s words take on cosmic significance in this grim fight for survival. The training proves to serve Ellen well in the present, but you can’t help but think that their relationship isn’t going to end well as he’s so obsessed with her training, bordering on paranoia, that he drives his own wife away.
Meanwhile, things have taken a sharp turn as the killer has Ellen chained up in what can only be described as an industrial era torture dungeon, in desperate need of a good wipe down. Moonface is a behemoth of a man who clearly enjoys killing people. He lives on a remote mountain top where he indulges in serial murder.
Moonfacestraps his victims to a table and drills holes in their eyes with an drill and puts them on display by transforming them into scarecrows for the world to see.Moonfacecarries out all his murders in an isolated dungeon under his cabin in the woods. He typically carves his victims’ eyes out with an electrical drill.He attacks passers-by on the lonely nearby road (mostly women) to take them to his cabin where he drills out their eyes and uses their corpses to decorate around the place. He uses a drill press to remove the eyes of his victims, while them being still alive.
The eye drilling scene is definitely one that is sure to stay with you from your initial viewing. It stops short of the actual penetration of the eyeball being shown but barely, as the blood-soaked drill is shown afterward and it is very graphic and goes to show that Incident On and Off a Mountain Road is a great horror film. It oscillates between a few genres and does them all exceedingly well: slasher, revenge, horror, home invasion, and character study.
We go on to meet Buddy (Angus Scrimm), an amusingly demented victim of Moonface who has inexplicably survived him, only to lose his mind. Buddy has clearly lost his mind after being Moonface’s captive for so long, joyfully asking his new victims if they want to sing with him or brought any candy with them before Moonface comes back. He initially helps the heroine escape, but immediately yells at him to come down and recapture her afterward. His interactions with Ellen are equal parts unnerving and hilarious and it really contributes to adding to the overall sense of dread and jitters, just in time for the episode’s big set-piece.
If things have gotten dark for Ellen in the present, then it comes as a bit of a shock when things take an equally grim turn in the flashbacks. Throughout we see flashbacks of her courtship period, marriage, and increasingly unsettling relationship with her husband, complimenting each other in theme, consistently providing narrative tension for the other, these flashbacks and present-time conflicts elicit suspense as well as character depth. Bruce’s actions that signal the final disintegration of their relationship are harrowing to watch and explain how Ellen got to where she is in the present day.
At first, the flashbacks seem full of waves and the so-called romance between the two, is disingenuous. The conversation between the two is painful to watch, and Bruce is caustic. Instead of running for the hills after the first date as they should have, the become inseparable on the contrary. The point of the flashbacks? Turns out Bruce is a redneck survivalist, who teaches Ellen how to defend herself.
Moonfacecomes back, and Ellen uses a splinter of wood to attack him and Buddy. She then runs upstairs where Moonface follows her but this time around, she somehow manages to get the better of Moonface and throw him out of the window. Looking out, she sees him dangling by a blanket a couple of meters below, hanging above the waterfall. She continues to watch as the fabric rips, turning away as he finally falls. She goes on to find a gun, belt and boots, she leaves.
Upon returning to her car, she opens the trunk to reveal the body of her dead husband. In another flashback it is disclosed that her husband had raped her during a savage fight, shortly after which she strangled him with his own belt. She then takes his body to Moonface’s workshop, removes his eyes and strings him up in the front yard in the same manner as Moonface’s other victims. Before leaving she also shoots Buddy.
To say the least, it’s not a textbook horror story and is sure to keep you at the edge of your seat until the end which makes it a bit difficult to give a clear sub-genre description to this story. But I relished how it flipped the final girl trope on its head and some of Ellen’s actions in the final minutes are an uncomfortable amalgamation of understandable, justified, questionable, and downright evil.
The entire story holds up astonishingly well to this date for what is over a decade-old movie made originally for television that manages to take its audience in veritably staggering directions.
This first chapter of Masters of Horror is a diverting event. It features all the “MOH” trademarks-beautiful actress, gore, suspense and spectacular cinematography, this episode is an outstanding way to while away an hour.
Don Coscarelli’s adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s short story is unadorned but hits all the right notes – it’s an effective horror tale. Bree Turner is agreeable as the helpless woman who has to fight for survival against an eccentric predator, Moonface. Angus Scrimm is another feather in the cap as his captive, Buddy.
Just like some of the other tales in “MOH”, this story certifiably pushes the envelope of what one would expect to see on TV. It’s powerful stuff and delivered with flair and style.Best of all, the story articulates a formidable and provocative message about the spiritual price one has to pay to be a survivor. A notable entry in the series.