Every Masters Of Horror episode, ranked

Five images from the Showtime original series Masters Of Horror
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Screenshot: Masters Of Horror

Horror anthologies, including ones with a supernatural bent, are nearly as old as TV itself. In their latest form, these series have focused on season-long arcs, with American Horror Story moving from a Murder House to an Asylum to a Hotel (and so on), and Mike Flanagan spinning ghostly, poignant yarns on Netflix. But most of these horror anthologies have been more episodic in their storytelling, from the genre-spanning Twilight Zone (now on its third revival) to Tales From The Crypt to Showtime’s Masters Of Horror.

Mick Garris developed Masters Of Horror for the premium cable network in 2005, after being struck by the idea of a collective of horror movie directors while having dinner with the likes of John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Don Coscarelli, Joe Dante, and John Landis—all of whom directed at least one episode of the show. (An apocryphal anecdote actually credits fellow dinner guest Guillermo del Toro with dubbing the group “masters of horror.”) With such a roster at work on its debut season, Masters Of Horror received a warm critical welcome when it premiered on October 28, 2005. The series returned for a second, less accomplished, season in 2006 before Showtime pulled the plug. Masters Of Horror then morphed into Fear Itself, which lasted a single season on NBC.

The title of “master” is up for debate for some of these directors, along with reliability of the scares in a given episode. But Masters Of Horrors certainly offers some undisputed classics, several gory romps, and more than a few entries that show little signs of life. The A.V. Club has ranked all 26 episodes of this horror anthology to separate the Frankenstein knock-offs from the enduring allegories, and crown one auteur the master of grisly storytelling.


Season one of Masters Of Horror is now streaming on Tubi (with ads). Season two is available for rental or purchase on Amazon.

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26. “Dance Of The Dead” (season one, episode three)

26. “Dance Of The Dead” (season one, episode three)

“Dance Of The Dead” isn’t just the worst episode of Masters Of Horror. It’s almost willfully, stupefyingly bad—closer to outsider art than something you’d expect from a longtime, well-respected horror director like Tobe Hooper. Incoherently staged and shoddily plotted, it plays out like a stoned teenage goth from 1998’s idea of what constitutes “edgy.” Wretchedly adapted from a Richard Matheson story and set after a nationwide chemical weapons attack—in the dystopian future of, um, 2018—the story watches the daughter of a diner owner (90210’s Jessica Lowndes) and soulful hoodlum Jak (Jonathan Tucker) lethargically flirt until he brings her to a club run by a gleeful emcee (Robert Englund, hamming it up) where those who have overdosed on a new drug are electric-prodded into performing spastic dances. What happens next is almost too dumb for words; suffice it to say, Hooper’s direction and the Uwe Boll-like editing renders much of it an incomprehensible hash, less an hour-long episode of horror than a 60-minute art school dropout’s sort-of-narrative music video for some stunningly bland industrial music from—of all people—Billy Corgan. Rarely are the words “How did this get made?” more apropos. [Alex McLevy]

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25. “Chocolate” (season one, episode five)

25. “Chocolate” (season one, episode five)

Mick Garris pulled triple duty for “Chocolate”—the Masters Of Horror series creator directed the season-one episode from the script he wrote based on his own short story. The resulting tale is more trick than treat, despite an appearance from Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer. “Chocolate” follows Jamie (Henry Thomas), a food scientist who develops artificial flavorings. One day, he finds himself in the mind of a strange woman, seeing and hearing what she hears, all while the taste of chocolate fills his mouth. There’s a shakiness to this early installment that speaks to the anthology series finding its footing; Thomas gives an unconvincing lead performance, and it’s unclear what exactly Garris is trying to say about a sudden, intense connection between two lonely people. Once the hackneyed twist of mental illness hits, you’ll be glad there’s just one bite of “Chocolate” in this anthology. [Danette Chavez]

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24. “Right To Die” (season two, episode nine)

24. “Right To Die” (season two, episode nine)

Rob Schmidt takes a Wrong Turn with “Right To Die,” a glib and forgettable hour that does little to bolster the reputation of the mostly middling second season. Written by future The Walking Dead: Webisodes scribe John Esposito, “Right To Die” ostensibly centers on the morality of assisted death. But as the story works its way back from the introduction of Cliff Addison’s (Martin Donovan) dilemma over whether or not to take his horribly injured wife off of life support, it loses that thread. There’s a grim irony in seeing Cliff’s façade of the dutiful husband crumble as we learn more about his marriage to Abby (Julia Benson), revelations that stir her spirit to protect her comatose body from assailants like her husband’s greedy lawyer (Corbin Bernsen). But Schmidt cuts away before that ugliness can fully be explored, instead focusing on Cliff’s misdeeds, including infidelity and attempted murder. There’s no point to the mayhem, and very little flair, which leaves “Right To Die” DOA. [Danette Chavez]

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23. “We All Scream For Ice Cream” (season two, episode 10)

23. “We All Scream For Ice Cream” (season two, episode 10)

There’s one gloriously goopy effects sequence. Otherwise, Fright Night director Tom Holland’s clumsy slasher-revenge yarn is among the most safely skipped Masters Of Horror installments. It revolves around a group of middle-aged men stalked by the phantom of a mentally disabled ice-cream-truck driver (William Forsythe) they mocked and accidentally killed as kids. The specter’s method of supernatural comeuppance? Voodoo-doll frozen treats that, when eaten by children, dissolve their culpable parents into sticky puddles. The conceit, borrowed from a story by John Farris, vaguely recalls one of Stephen King’s tales of childhood friends confronting the horrors and sins of their past. But Holland invests it with no personality; the televisual visuals don’t even rise to the level of a forgettable Elm Street clone. Only those with serious coulrophobia will actually scream for (or during) “We All Scream For Ice Cream.” [A.A. Dowd]

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22. “Valerie On The Stairs” (season two, episode eight)

22. “Valerie On The Stairs” (season two, episode eight)

Not even the presence of horror stalwart Tony Todd can liven up “Valerie On The Stairs,” a dull treatise on the power of the written word. Mick Garris wrote the teleplay based on a 45-page treatment by none other than Clive Barker, which makes you wonder how far afield Garris went with this hazily shot, anticlimactic rendering. “Valerie” follows the residents of Highberger House, a kind of shelter for unfulfilled writers. Our entry-point character, Rob (Tyron Leitso), is as bland as they come, which, we soon learn, is not by accident. Strange occurrences abound—the silliest being the eponymous Valerie’s (Clare Grant) upright humping of a demon (Todd)—and Rob learns that his fellow boarders aren’t as creatively tapped as he is. In addition to a lackluster lead, “Valerie” suffers from reductive storytelling that frames men as creators and women as ciphers or, worse, plot devices; even the lone female writer in residence is primarily concerned with love. [Danette Chavez]

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21. “The Damned Thing” (season two, episode one)

21. “The Damned Thing” (season two, episode one)

Tobe Hooper fared ever so slightly better with his second contribution to this Showtime anthology series. “The Damned Thing” isn’t nearly as muddled as his season-one dud/closer, “Dance Of The Dead,” but unimaginative creature design and a grating voice-over undermine the more resonant elements of Richard Christian Matheson’s script (which was based on an Ambrose Bierce short story). Like The Haunting Of Hill House, “The Damned Thing” has the makings of a story of intergenerational trauma. As a child, Sheriff Kevin Reddle (Sean Patrick Flannery) watched his father murder his mother. He only escaped because some monstrous entity killed his father, the same “damned thing” that sent the man on a rampage. Kevin finds out much too late what exactly was after his father and now pursues him and his son. There’s a potent allegory for abuse, but “The Damned Thing” never rises above a generic story about the dangers of digging up the past. [Danette Chavez]

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20. “Haeckel’s Tale” (season one, episode 12)

20. “Haeckel’s Tale” (season one, episode 12)

Like Mary Shelley’s famous Creature, “Haeckel’s Tale” is pieced together from a variety of sources. Clive Barker provided the bones of the story, which contains another would-be horrific yarn. George Romero was slated to direct (he did get a “produced in association” credit), then Roger Corman, but it was John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer) who ultimately brought Barker’s Frankenstein riff to the small screen. Despite that pedigree, “Haeckel’s Tale” is merely adequate; McNaughton’s direction is competent, and the production is a step up from other episodes. Romero’s influence is felt in a gory, late-night zombie feast, but “Haeckel’s Tale” quickly departs from Shelley’s classic story of obsession and the pursuit of knowledge, descending into silly plot twists, including positing that the things going bump in the night are the horny undead. [Danette Chavez]

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19. “Dream Cruise” (season two, episode 13)

19. “Dream Cruise” (season two, episode 13)

Another example of squandered potential, “Dream Cruise” fails to make the most of the combined talents of J-horror director Norio Tsuruta and Koji Suzuki, the author of the Ring trilogy. As in the far superior “Imprint,” “Dream Cruise” follows an American traveler in Japan who learns of the untimely death of a woman. Despite Tsuruta’s best efforts, “Dream Cruise” never approaches the unsettling nature of Takashi Miike’s contribution to the show. Early on, “Dream Cruise” generates tension from the looming discovery of an affair. But the episode is closer in tone and moral to the 1991 made-for-television adaptation of Stephen King’s “Sometimes They Come Back,” right down to divine intervention by a sibling’s ghost. Tsuruta can’t reconcile that schmaltz with the vengeful monsters from the supernatural short story—including the demonic Naomi (Miho Ninagawa), a wronged wife intent on punishing her killers—that serves as the source material. [Danette Chavez]

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18. “Pelts” (season two, episode six)

18. “Pelts” (season two, episode six)

The weaker of Dario Argento’s entries into the Masters Of Horror canon, “Pelts” is still gory, off-kilter, and occasionally even fun. Horrible people meet horrible ends in this macabre conservationist fable starring Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday, the late John Saxon, and Ellen Ewusie. “Pelts” wastes no time introducing the gruesome sights mined from F. Paul Wilson’s short story of the same name; there’s viscera on an elevator, in a dancer’s apartment, and of course, in the furrier businesses run by Jake (Aday) and Jeb (Saxon). Argento probes the connections between lust and greed, though he’s not quite as successful riding the line between repulsion and desire here as he is in “Jenifer” (let alone any of his feature-length productions). Maybe it’s the possessed raccoon carcasses that throw off the balance, or the well-trod territory of disturbing an ancient burial ground at your own peril. But “Pelts” moves along briskly, and concludes in properly hideous fashion. [Danette Chavez]

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17. “H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams In The Witch-House” (season one, episode two)

17. “H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreams In The Witch-House” (season one, episode two)

Ironically enough, Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft episode of Masters Of Horror is also the lesser of his two entries into the series. This one reunites Gordon with Dagon screenwriter Dennis Paoli and star Ezra Godden, adapting the Lovecraft story of the same name about an attic room in a haunted boarding house that gives its residents strange, interdimensional dreams. Unfortunately, the freakier, more psychedelic aspects of Lovecraft’s vision are lost here, replaced by store-bought occult imagery and a human-faced rat that’s too cute to be horrifying. But this is very much a Stuart Gordon production, and fans of Re-Animator and From Beyond will find that “Dreams In The Witch-House” shares much of the sexy, pulpy neon DNA that makes those films so appealing. The performances in this episode aren’t quite on the same level, and the bright purples and pinks are more sparingly applied, but the spirit is the same—and that should be enough to take fans over the finish line. [Katie Rife]

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16. “The Washingtonians” (season two, episode 12)

16. “The Washingtonians” (season two, episode 12)

What if it turned out that America’s first president was a ravenous cannibal with a taste for the flesh of children? That’s the goofy but at least novel premise of Masters Of Horrors’ penultimate hour, directed by veteran filmmaker Peter Medak (The Changeling) and adapted from a short story by Bentley Little. Discovering a letter that seems to reveal George Washington’s sinister appetites, a man must protect his family from a small-town cult of true believers, themselves determined to protect the founding father’s darkest secret and uphold his eating habits. It’s debatable whether scenes of Revolutionary War cosplayers bellowing threats, their faces caked with makeup and blood, qualify as intentionally or accidentally hilarious. Regardless, the Grand Guignol climax is campy, gross fun, and there’s a hint of a genuinely thoughtful idea here about the lengths people will go to in order to preserve a rosy image of American history. Pity about the cinematography, which is nearly as unsightly as the spread at a five-course cannibal feast, as well as the groaner of a final punchline. [A.A. Dowd]

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15. “Pro-Life” (season two, episode five)

15. “Pro-Life” (season two, episode five)

If you’re going to tackle a topic as sensitive and hot button as abortion, it’s probably best to actually have a perspective on it. No such luck with “Pro-Life,” in which John Carpenter returns to the basic setup of his Assault On Precinct 13, only this time with the staff of a medical clinic battening down the hatches and a family of armed anti-choice zealots at the gates. The closest the film has to a coherent ideology is the irony of a religious nut (Ron Perlman) fighting to prevent the termination of what we learn is, most likely, the hellspawn of a demon that’s impregnated his teenage daughter. Fundamentally muddled and empty in its provocation, the episode has some redemptive pleasures of an apolitical and intrinsically Carpenter variety, from cleanly staged gunfights to nifty, practical, The Thing-style monster effects. And even when vomiting right-wing talking points, Perlman is fun to watch. [A.A. Dowd]

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14. “Family” (season two, episode two)

14. “Family” (season two, episode two)

There’s nothing but pitch-black comedy at work in John Landis’ second-season installment of this series, casting Cheers’ George Wendt very much against type as Harold, a tidy suburban man who just so happens to be a brutal serial killer living in sitcom-like bliss with the murdered corpses of his victims, now playing the parts of family members. (Yes, he hallucinates sprightly conversations and activities with them.) When a new couple moves in across the way (Matt Keeslar and Dawson’s Creek’s Meredith Monroe) and accidentally drives over his mailbox, he sets his sights on making them the newest additions to his brood. The conceit plays out like a contemporary Twilight Zone installment trafficking in creepy-cute humor and explicit language (his murdered playthings aren’t the only sources of Harold’s hallucinations), and a late twist helps to ensure that it doesn’t sputter into dullness. With its simple premise and even simpler pleasures, it’s a weightless but engaging episode. [Alex McLevy]

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13. “Deer Woman” (season one, episode seven)

13. “Deer Woman” (season one, episode seven)

John Landis also brings his snarky comic sensibility to this messy but fleet diversion of a Masters Of Horror episode. “Deer Woman” follows a burned-out detective, Dwight Faraday (Brian Benben) and his partner, Jacob Reed (Anthony Griffith), sent to investigate a series of grisly murders believed to be the result of animal attacks—specifically, a deer. But despite Reed’s skepticism, the continuing reports that every victim was last seen with the same Native American woman lead Faraday to suspect something supernatural, and he begins a hunt to find her before the next victim appears. Overall, the episode is briskly paced and relatively intelligent for what it is (with some Landis oeuvre in-jokes sprinkled throughout, such as the casino Farady investigates hosting The Blues Brothers’ Murph & The Magic Tones as a visiting band), but the clunky use of now-outdated stereotypes—and not terribly well-researched mythos, to boot—make the plot’s central device feel more like window dressing than compelling incorporation of Indigenous mythology. [Alex McLevy]

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12. “Sounds Like” (season two, episode four)

12. “Sounds Like” (season two, episode four)

Brad Anderson generally specializes in a psychological strain of thriller, as evidenced by the two films that presumably landed him the Masters Of Horror gig, Session 9 and The Machinist. So it’s no surprise that his episode amounts to a character study of a man locked in his own head—a tech-support supervisor, played by future The Wire union boss Chris Bauer, whose grief over the death of his young son manifests as agonizingly enhanced hearing. Never scary, exactly, “Sounds Like” barely qualifies as horror; like “Family,” it’s closer in spirit to a modern Twilight Zone episode, with a grotesque money shot at the climax possibly shoehorned in as a sop to the genre audience. Nor is it the most nuanced depiction of the mourning process, for that matter. Anderson, though, directs the hell out of it, using close-up insert shots and appropriately crisp foley effects to immerse us in this sullen man’s private hell of sensory overload. It, uh, sounds like one of the series’ best hours, if nothing else. [A.A. Dowd]

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11. “The V Word” (season two, episode three)

11. “The V Word” (season two, episode three)

Although his CV isn’t as heavy on classics (or movies in general) as some of the other “masters” Mick Garris brought aboard, prolific television and Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight director Ernest Dickerson is responsible for one of the most elegantly atmospheric episodes of the series. Garris himself wrote the screenplay, and it’s nothing special—a straightforward, derivative campfire tale about two teenage boys (Arjay Smith and Branden Nadon, both looking way too old to be high school kids) who break into a mortuary in the middle of the night and run afoul of a bloodsucker. But Dickerson continuously elevates the material with his craft, using high-contrast lighting to bathe his backdrops in ominous pools of shadow and slowing the pace to a suspenseful, wordless creep during key sequences (like the boys’ nocturnal, ill-fated B&E). Also, the vampire is played by Scanners villain Michael Ironside; his looming presence alone makes up a little for the run-of-the-mill plotting. [A.A. Dowd]

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10. “Homecoming” (season one, episode six)

10. “Homecoming” (season one, episode six)

The premise of “Homecoming,” madcap genre director Joe Dante’s first contribution to this series, almost sounds like a sketch-comedy routine: What if our fallen soldiers came back from the dead—but just so they could vote against the idiots who sent them off to die for no good reason in the first place? After George W. Bush speechwriter David March (Jon Tenney) offers a talk-show-appearance homily trying to justify the administration’s bullshit pretext for the Iraq War (“If I had one wish, I would wish for your son to come back, because I know he would tell us how important this struggle is”), the dead American GIs do return, intent on electing anyone who will end the war. There’s some fun to be had in the ways that Dante tries to toy with his blunt anti-Bush screed’s potential ramifications, but much of the episode plays like a MadTV sketch stretched out to fill an hour’s runtime, with all the intermittent humor and attendant molasses-like pacing that implies. [Alex McLevy]

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9. “The Black Cat” (season two, episode 11)

9. “The Black Cat” (season two, episode 11)

As a duo, Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs will forever be associated with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. But their literary interests don’t stop there, as proven in this loopy Edgar Allen Poe riff. The adaptation here is as irreverent as it was in Re-Animator, combining elements of Poe’s life with plot points from his writing to spin a comic book tale of heavy boozing, bloody expectoration, and cruelty to animals. Gordon’s schlocky style comes in handy on that last point; this is a rough one if you’re a cat lover, but the demonic feline that drives Combs’ Poe to the brink of madness is so obviously a stuffed animal that the violence is basically conceptual. (The same can’t be said for the grotesque gore effect that prompts the Tell-Tale Heart portion of the story, but that’s a good thing. Trust us.) Combs plays Poe as a bloated, wild-eyed drunk with hidden reserves of charm and a heavy Southern accent; combined with a prosthetic nose and glued-on mustache, the performance has the same endearing cheesiness as Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain. And Combs and Gordon did do something similar—two years later, they continued the Poe act with Nevermore, a one-man show also starring Combs as Baltimore’s original Goth. [Katie Rife]

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8. “Jenifer” (season one, episode four)

8. “Jenifer” (season one, episode four)

Dario Argento’s oeuvre is riddled with male characters who are sexually ambivalent, both drawn to and repelled by more proactive female counterparts, their anger at their own passivity becoming a poison. Which made him the ideal choice to helm this small-screen adaptation of “Jenifer,” a 1974 comic book story by writer Bruce Jones and illustrator Berni Wrightson that’s rife with psychosexual conflict. Steven Weber stars as Frank Spivey, a cop who gets to play hero to the mutant woman who lends the story her name. But Jenifer is no mere damsel in distress; she’s a harbinger of doom with the eating habits of ALF. Frank tries to convince everyone that he doesn’t want Jenifer, but the way he throws away everything else in his life says otherwise. Frank is lost the moment he meets her, his flailing coming to symbolize that of any person giving into their desire. Argento captures the viciousness of infatuation and the selfishness of good deeds in this tense, trenchant installment. [Danette Chavez]

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7. “The Screwfly Solution” (season two, episode seven)

7. “The Screwfly Solution” (season two, episode seven)

An unfortunate vein of misogyny, casual and otherwise, runs through Masters Of Horror, attributable both to a hostility that’s long polluted the genre and to the total absence of female filmmakers recruited to helm episodes. “The Screwfly Solution” operates as something of an internal rejoinder; literal gender warfare is the subject of this sci-fi drama about an airborne virus that perverts the male sex drive into a murderous rage toward women. Less heavy-handed in its politics than Joe Dante’s season-one contribution—and more grimly serious than just about anything else the Gremlins director has made—the episode at times struggles to tell its world-spanning pandemic narrative with just an hour of running time and a noticeably sparse budget. (This is among the cheapest-looking episodes.) Nonetheless, it remains a chillingly evergreen allegory, adapted from a ’70s short story but depressingly relevant today, during our ongoing era of MRA grievance and emboldened abusers. [A.A. Dowd]

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6. “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road” (season one, episode one)

6. “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road” (season one, episode one)

There’s nothing flashy about this installment of the series—it’s just an old-fashioned horror-survival tale delivered with crisp, efficient storytelling. “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road” begins when Ellen (Grimm’s Bree Turner) loses control of her car on a desolate stretch of highway, colliding with an abandoned car; but when she sees a trail of blood leading from the auto into the surrounding woods, she follows it. That’s when Ellen stumbles upon the deformed serial killer who lives nearby, dragging his new prey home—until Ellen catches his attention, whereupon he sets his sights on her. The rest of the episode proceeds as you might expect, save for one thing: flashbacks to Ellen’s life with her survivalist husband, Bruce (Ethan Embry), who prepared her in a variety of ways for any worst-case scenario. Based on a short story by genre maestro Joe R. Lansdale, “Incident” was helmed by director Don Coscarelli in between his far less serious big-screen features, Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies At The End. But while he may give up some of his slyer sensibilities, the Phantasm director’s knack for ratcheting up tension remains intact. [Alex McLevy]

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5. “Fair-Haired Child” (season one, episode nine)

5. “Fair-Haired Child” (season one, episode nine)

An unwavering vision and a solid cast make “Fair-Haired Child” one of the strongest outings in this series. Horror scribe Matt Greenberg (Halloween H20: 20 Years Later; 1408) and House On Haunted Hill remake director William Malone teamed up for this exploration of loss, Faustian bargains, and good old-fashioned teenage rebellion. Lindsay Pulsipher stars as Tara, a lonely high schooler who ends up at the mercy of a monster after she’s kidnapped by the grieving parents of the titular fair-haired child. It seems Judith (a deranged Lori Petty) and Anton (William Samples) struck a deal with a demon to bring back their son, Johnny (Walter Phelan), that involves a dozen human sacrifices—the younger, the better. The family reunion is cut short by none other than Johnny, who outmaneuvered his mom and dad after discovering a talent for negotiating. There’s atmosphere to spare and a properly unsettling creature design, but it’s Tara’s and Johnny’s rejection of their indifferent and immoral parents that gives “Fair-Haired Child” its power. [Danette Chavez]

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4. “Sick Girl” (season one, episode 10)

4. “Sick Girl” (season one, episode 10)

Writer-director Lucky McKee (The Woman, All Cheerleaders Die) reteams with his May star Angela Bettis for this cracked tale of queer romance and serious entomophobia. “Sick Girl” follows Bettis’ shy and uptight entomologist, Ida Teeter, as she tentatively begins a relationship with awkward and unusual Misty Falls (Erin Brown). Unfortunately for Ida, after she opens a package anonymously sent to her containing a strange new mantis-like insect—whom she lovingly dubs “Mick” and adds to her home collection of insectoid pets—the bug infects Misty, altering her personality and slowly transforming her in other, far more noticeable ways. What makes it work is Bettis’ arch, campy performance; she leans into the heightened absurdity of what’s basically an old-school creature feature slathered in contemporary sensibilities. The episode’s winking comic tone keeps the material light (Ida is reading a book called Sex, Bugs, And Rock And Roll), even as McKee adds some pretty gross body horror to the proceedings as it progresses. Plus, you get to see a virulent homophobe knocked down a flight of stairs. What’s not to like? [Alex McLevy]

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3. “Pick Me Up” (season one, episode 11)

3. “Pick Me Up” (season one, episode 11)

In the grand tradition of Godzilla versus King Kong and Frankenstein meeting the Wolf Man comes this demented black comedy that pits a serial killer who murders hitchhikers against a serial-killer hitchhiker, with The Craft’s Fairuza Balk as the unlucky traveler caught between them. “Pick Me Up” sets its mean, mordant tone immediately, with a bus driver swerving to intentionally run over a rattlesnake; from there, ’70s genre maverick Larry Cohen (It’s Alive, God Told Me To) fulfills every parent’s warning about not accepting or offering rides—a paranoid stranger-danger nightmare come true. For all the queasy laughs (many of them courtesy of Cohen’s favorite leading man, Michael Moriarty, as a particularly amused psychopath), the episode wrings plenty of first-rate suspense from the title-fight premise, right up to its unresolved sick joke of an ending. Suggested alternate title: Road Kill. [A.A. Dowd]

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2. “Cigarette Burns” (season one, episode eight)

2. “Cigarette Burns” (season one, episode eight)

The latitude afforded by the show’s premium cable placement spurred several Masters Of Horrors directors, including the auteur who took the number-one spot on this list, to push the boundaries of small-screen storytelling. In his first contribution to the series, John Carpenter opted to unleash the destructive power of art once more, following 1994’s In The Mouth Of Madness. “Cigarette Burns” gradually transitions from neo-noir to apocalyptic horror, as Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus), the owner of a revival theater and a rare-films dealer, attempts to track down a copy of La Fin Absolue Du Monde. The film is said to inspire unspeakable violence, even leading to a rash of murders at an early screening. Together with writers Drew McWeeny (who went on to work on MOH’s broadcast iteration, Fear Itself) and Rebecca Swan, Carpenter crafts an unnerving tale of coming face to face with human depravity. It’s just a shame that, as in Antrum, the unholy work of art at the center of the story fails to live up to the hype. [Danette Chavez]

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1. “Imprint” (season one, episode 13)

1. “Imprint” (season one, episode 13)

The best episode of Masters Of Horror is the one that never aired. Although the hook of this premium cable series, for audiences and filmmakers alike, was a lack of content restrictions, only Takashi Miike treated that liberty like a challenge. The Japanese provocateur’s installment, based on a novel by Shimako Iwai, follows an American businessman (veteran film and TV heavy Billy Drago, in a performance almost as over-the-top as the violence) who’s regaled with multiple accounts of the grim fate that befell a young concubine he intended to marry—a twisted Rashomon riff in which every version of the truth is more horrifying than the last. It’s no great mystery why “Imprint” was rejected by Showtime: Miike goes down a checklist of taboos, working in murder, rape, incest, backwoods abortion, and—in the grueling centerpiece sequence—prolonged depiction of torture. But there’s method to his artfully composed, dreamlike madness. Building on the feminist sympathies of his seminal Audition, Miike made a horror movie about the way the world abandons, abuses, and destroys women. And for all its disturbing real-world atrocities, it ends on a twist of pure genre lunacy that the more “fun” episodes would kill to possess. [A.A. Dowd]

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