Masters of Horror was an anthology horror series that ran for two seasons on Showtime. The premise was simple enough, horror “masters” (directors) would film a short, generally an hour in length. There are some threads that connect the series to each other; for instance, a lot of the episodes have the “The Twilight Zone” ending of there being a twist or something open, and a few shared commonalities such as the violence in each of them and a lot of melodrama. However, beyond that, they are stand-alone. Some directors only did one, some did one per season. Beyond masters in the directors, a few of the episodes are also based on stories written by horror greats like Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as a decent list of actors we know and love from horror, Robert Englund and Fairuza Balk. The end result is a who’s who of horror for horror fans. Like all anthologies, though, the results were varied. As a whole, I am a fan, even the episodes I would rank lower than the rest bring something to the table, and it’s a little treat because they are very of the times. And given my age, the early 00s of horror has a special place for me.
One of the big things that speaks to these shorts being from the times is that they both did push the boundaries but not enough for me personally. The early 00s were filled with movies trying to do weird and interesting things with the genre as far as bringing twists, trying to be quirky, touching plot points we hadn’t seen before, etc. The problem is I feel that these movies are lacking in actually trying to subvert any of the norms. It was a time when putting a twist at the end was enough, rather than what we saw with, say, Craven and Scream in actually trying to challenge and change the tropes. The results, both in the larger context and in Masters of Horror, are some cool and often quirky fun horror movies, but rarely do I feel they reach a sort of compelling “wow that completely challenged the genre as a whole.” It’s not that I think every movie has to do that, just that for a time of experimentation, it felt a bit shallow at times.
All that being said, I still like that time in horror overall, and as I said liked the series. Even if not groundbreaking, we got a lot of cool stories from the anthology, and I thought we would start with one that I enjoyed, Pick Me Up by Larry Cohen (The Stuff, It’s Alive).
Pick Me Up starts with a bus breaking down on the side of the roads in a highly wooded mountain area. Fairuza Balk (Nancy from The Craft), our tough girl, decides to leave the group and walk to the next town. Shortly after, a truck driver shows up, offering to take some people; half the group goes with him, the other half stays with the bus. Then after that, a hitchhiker joins the group. Now fairly early on, we can tell that something is off about both of these two, something confirmed early in the episode when they each start to pick off the people they are with. The Truck Driver makes his way back to the bus group when one of his future victims expresses concern and realizes that someone else has entered his hunting ground, something he is not thrilled about.
Balk’s character, Stacia, finally makes it to a rundown hotel. There she can hear the hitchhiker murdering a woman, although she thinks it’s just rough sex. The truck driver also ends up there, following a trail from the hitchhiker. The truck driver can tell that the hitchhiker has taken a liking to Stacia and tries to use her to get the hitchhiker out so they can confront each other.
-It is a bit weird that Stacia ends up in the middle of this. The hitchhiker only seems to kill those that give him a ride; he notably asks the bus driver if he would have picked him up and decides to kill him because the driver answers yes. It’s a bit odd but easy enough to ignore because it’s a minor blip in the plot, and it’s not worth obsessing over. The truck driver does seem to only be interested in her because of the hiker’s reaction-
I really enjoyed this episode overall. I had a few issues, mainly that all the other characters are simply not likable enough for the stakes to be all that high, and Stacia ending up in the truck driver’s truck at one point is a pure act of stupidity on her part when she’s shown nothing but smarts, but still these are minor in the grand scheme of things. The notion of these two serial killers using this two-lane highway as a hunting ground is both terrifying (I mean, it’s pretty real) and fascinating.
I also like the way the pacing and tension play out. The episode starts out really fast, showing us both of these men in their element, then hits the brakes pretty hard. It is effective because we get a taste, and then we get a much slower tension building back up to the climax. A large chunk of the hotel scenes are tense and really bring something I feel often is missing in these horror shorts due to the nature of how quickly they are trying to get through it.
The episode is really about our killers, though, and they are both well done if a little unbelievable at times. Michael Moriarty gives a hell of a performance as our truck driver, but he is just a bit too obvious, especially when the episode literally says that people like the killers aren’t supposed to be so. The trust that so many strangers put in him is part of the whole serial killer thing, but he’s simply not worthy of it? I understand that slowly revealing he is actually a psychopath is just not an option, but I sort of had to shake my head at how easily people get into his trap. Still, that aside, it was an outstanding performance, and he is truly terrifying. Likewise, the hitchhiker is well played by Warren Kole. He brings a slightly more subtle take when first meeting people, only to be shown as completely deranged and delighting in cruelty. If you are going to have a story about two serial killers crossing paths, they need to be well-done characters, and this episode succeeds. I think Michael Moriarty’s performance edges out Kole’s just a bit, but both do a compelling job.
In fact, that’s what it comes down to with this episode. The plot needs a bit of fleshing out, the pacing is not perfect (although much better than other episodes in terms of bringing actual tension), and again the characters outside of our main three are a bit yikes. But all of that can be just suffering under the time limits and is easy to push off because our killers are so well done, and interactions with their victims and each other keep it moving and interesting.
The episode does end with the above-mentioned “Twilight Zone” style ending (which I won’t spoil) that left me feeling a bit mixed. For all that I enjoy this episode, and I really do, we are back to my issue with horror from this time. There is nothing all that subversive happening. Stacia ends up being exactly what horror wants her to be, a victim to these men, and there are no real boundaries pushed. I think there might have been other compelling “twists” that might have been worth exploring with this backdrop.
However, for my bottom line, I would recommend this episode for horror fans. If you haven’t seen the anthology, I recommend it overall, and this, for me, is one of the standouts. The interplay between the two killers manages to outshine all of my other issues with it. People seem to be pretty mixed; I have found this episode both high up and really low in people’s overall rankings. For me, it’s for sure on the higher end of the anthology and one I do repeat viewings of.