’s Masters of Horror series is back for its second season, with many of the previous Masters returning for another go round and a couple of newcomers trying their hand at the format.

Last week I received a DVD with the first three episodes and I have to say that there’s a real mixed bag here. The good news is that the episode premiering this Friday, John Landis’ macabrely funny Family, is one of the best episodes the series has done so far, coming in just behind Joe Dante’s masterful Homecoming. The first episode, The Damned Thing, which has aired already and will be repeated tonight, is among the worst of the series, clocking just behind last year’s Dance of the Dead (what do these two episodes have in common? They’re both terribly directed by Tobe Hooper). The third episode on the DVD is Ernest Dickerson’s The V Word, an episode that come very close to being quite good.

The Damned Thing is supposedly an adaptation of an Ambrose Pierce short story, but I can’t imagine Pierce wrote many tales that involved people having their intestines ripped out. That scene, along with a very creepy one where a guy kills himself by hammering his own skull, is the highlight of this incoherent episode about a stygian evil (apparently composed of pixels) that has cursed a Texas town. Ted Raimi makes a… ‘unique’ appearance as a priest who gives you bullets instead of Hail Marys in the confessional. One thing I’ll say for this episode is that it looks pretty sharp when Hooper isn’t doing all sorts of frame dropping and speed cranking nonsense – I sense that the budgets this season have been upped.

Landis’ Deer Woman was an OK entry in last year’s Masters of Horror, mostly hurt by the continued presence of Brian Benben and not enough naked Deer Woman. His latest episode, Family, has no nudity but soars thanks to the continued presence of George Wendt as a strange bachelor in a suburban neighborhood who has a family of skeletons hidden in his home. It’s sort of like Desperate Norman Bates; Wendt stalks and kills people who he thinks would make fine additions to his family. The opening scene is a killer as Landis’ camera swoops and tracks through Wendt’s suburban wonderland home, finally catching up to him in the basement where he’s using acid to melt the flesh off an old man. There’s another terrific shot at the end of the episode where a mini-camera is shoved up someone’s nose to capture the back of their throat as they scream in agony.

The problem with Family is that it’s too long. The episode has a devilishly fun Tales From the Crypt feel to it, but at an hour it feels too bloated. The original comics would have told this story in six to eight pages; the HBO series in 28 minutes.

The same bloating effectively ruins The V Word, an episode that just comes to a grinding halt in the second half. Series newcomer Ernest Dickerson (whenever I see his name I hear it being said in Chuck D’s voice thanks to the commentary on the Criterion Do The Right Thing) builds the first half of the episode – where two friends explore a seemingly empty funeral parlor – into a nice and creepy set piece, evoking true tension and fear. But once the story kicks in – Michael Ironside is a vampire who turns them – the whole thing becomes very by the numbers. This wouldn’t be so bad if the last half had been condensed into seven or eight minutes, but stretched out over a half hour the familiar aspects of the story, written by series creator Mick Garris, become very obvious, and quite boring. Like The Damned Thing, The V Word has some decent gore going for it, but like Family it has length working against it.