Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on February 24, 2006, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


Anchor Bay’s first two DVD releases in the Masters of Horror series—John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns and Stuart Gordon’s Dreams in the Witch-House—are expectedly packed with supplements specific to these episodes, but among the best extras are those devoted to the overall careers of their directors. Each disc contains a Working With the Master segment that ropes in a number of past collaborators, and goes beyond the usual gushing tribute to showcase affectionate anecdotes and heartfelt appreciation.

In Carpenter’s, Keiths David and Gordon reminisce entertainingly about The Thing and Christine, respectively, while on Gordon’s, his actress wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon mischievously notes how squeamish the Re-Animator director is in real life. She recalls that he couldn’t even stand to look at her when she was being made up for her death scene in Dolls! Speaking of onscreen grue, Carpenter is praised by his Halloween actress P.J. Soles for believing “he could make a scary film without the gore”—which rings a tad ironic given the level of disturbing splatter in Burns.

Befitting the series’ ambition to achieve feature-level horror on the small screen, both Burns and Dreams have been granted transfers to match. Letterboxed at about 1.78:1, the pictures sport solid, naturalistic colors and accentuate the shadowy cinematography by Attila Szalay in the former and Jon Joffin in the latter. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks are equally pro, and as noted above, each minimovie is given a major film’s worth of special features, along with trailers for a bunch of the other Masters.

Foremost among the bonuses are audio commentaries; Burns gets two, by Carpenter and screenwriters Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. Anyone who’s delved into enough of the director’s discs knows that he does best on such tracks when he’s got someone to bounce off of; his solo talk here is rather dry, too often simply describing what’s on screen. A few fun moments shine through (the best comes early, as he recalls star Udo Kier’s difficulty pronouncing the word “abominable”), though as it goes on, the prevailing tone becomes his now-trademark wry cynicism/sarcasm. “Just a director for hire,” he sighs at one point, and explains that one transition didn’t come off well because “I was tired and they had some good porn on the motel TV.”

Happily, McWeeny and Swan more than take up the slack, balancing the thrill of their first produced script and an incisive exploration of its creative process. Carpenter says on his commentary that he made “a few simple suggestions” about changes to the screenplay, but the duo belie that statement by going into detail about the many ways the director helped streamline and focus their story, which they acknowledge as being talky (“This is the first hour of King Kong right here,” McWeeny quips). There’s lots about the joy of Udo and their experiences on set, plus explanations of the assorted arcane cinematic references they slipped in—among them my personal favorite, the namechecking of my friend and Aussie filmmaker Dalibor Backovic.

Dreams gets a single commentary by Gordon and star Ezra Godden, very well-moderated by Perry Martin, who clearly has a keen knowledge of Gordon’s oeuvre and appreciation for this entry. The director discusses staying faithful—or not—to H.P. Lovecraft’s original story and the author’s themes, reveals that Jeffrey Combs dropped out of the project at the last minute (though he doesn’t say why) and engages in amusing banter with the dryly witty Godden, who shares about maintaining the seriousness and intensity of his role. A number of Gordon’s stories (from the witch-casting process to terrified babies on set) are repeated in the Dreams, Darkness and Damnation interview featurette, which nonetheless merits a watch for its recounting of Gordon’s career, from the Organic Theater to Re-Animator and (from) beyond. Carpenter has a similar, equally worthwhile segment, titled Celluloid Apocalypse; despite the title, that wryness comes through again when he addresses the story’s central theme: “Film is a deadly weapon—it’s such bullshit.”

He additionally reveals that he no longer uses storyboards (“By this point it’s just instinct”), which explains why there are none on the Burns DVD; the Dreams disc does include a collection of these drawings, and both contain generous photo galleries, offering peeks at the makeup FX, set construction, Burns’ film-within-the-film and more. An interview with Burns star Norman Reedus isn’t terribly revealing, but Dreams heroine Chelah Horsdal has more to say in her own onscreen chat, where she dishes about working on her role with Gordon and Godden and (once again) those traumatized infants. Her even smaller co-star, the human-faced rat Brown Jenkin, receives his own featurette, in which KNB’s Howard Berger details the rodent’s different mockup versions and provides a demonstration of one of the puppets.

Finally, both discs offer Behind the Scenes features that amount to collages of on-set video footage. Both are fun, but Burns’ probably has the edge for its glimpses at the creation of all the onscreen mayhem, from Carpenter personally pouring blood over an actress’ head to the filming of Kier’s ghastly fate. “This is gross,” the actor says as the setpiece is readied, and when a guy with his horror experience says that, you know the scene is working.

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