Written by: Brett Hanley
Directed by: John Landis
Starring: George Wendt, Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Perhaps in an attempt to hastily atone for letting Tobe Hooper kick off season two, the producers of Masters of Horror nabbed the director of one of the first seasonís best efforts, John Landis, for this second episode. This time he is working from a script by Brent Hanley, who may not be immediately recognizable as a horror maestro; however, heís the screenwriter responsible for Frailty, one of the previous decadeís best horror films. Somehow both that film and this episode remain his only two writing credits, which is a real shame because Family is further proof of his ability to deliver intriguing and taut horror stories centered around perverse family values.
Landis proves to be a good match for this material right from the start; we open on suburbia and take a tour through one of its houses, to the tune of ďJesus Gave Me Water,Ē an old gospel number that canít prepare us for the horrors waiting down in the basement. There, Harold Thompson (George Wendt) douses a corpse in acid and refers to it as his father. As it turns out, heís a real family man, at least in his own mind, as he lives an idyllic existence with a wife and small child, both of which are just projections of his own demented psychosis. In reality, heís just a loner, a creepy guy who preys on innocent victims that he adds to his brood after giving them an acid bath. When a new couple moves in next door, he begins to eye Celia (Meredith Monroe) as his new bride-to-be.
Family is quite a fantastic yarn thatís directed with an exquisite ease by Landis. We often associate humor with Landis, and Family is certainly off-kilter. Itís not exactly a yuk-fest, but there are some funny asides that cut through the sinister nature of Haroldís intentions. In addition to imagining his non-existent family, he often imagines his victims imploring him to take them; in particular, he often believes Celia to be making sexual advances towards him (and Monroe is uber-sultry during these imaginary asides). All of this has the effect of making the proceedings more weird than genuinely disturbing, as Family doesnít really prey on the disconnect between Haroldís affability and his perversity like a lot of suburb-horrors do.
Instead, heís so affable that heís downright compelling, an almost tragic figure because itís almost like watching Norm from Cheers losing his mind. Itís arguable that the best psychos are the guys you wish werenít psycho, and Harold is certainly one of these cases. So often, these types of guys are caught and their neighbors are taken aback because theyíre so unassuming, and this would certainly be the case with Harold, who is only creepy because we know he literally has skeletons in his closet. Okay, actually, theyíre in full-view in his living room when no oneís around, but thatís just semantics. Wendt is the driving force of Family, as his is the central performance that makes you uncomfortable in a genuine way. His acts are certainly squirm-inducing, but thereís something more disturbing about his advances towards Celia because you wish he wouldnít do it not only for her sake, but for his own as well.
Heís almost a sympathetic figure despite himself, which is why the surprised buried at the end of Family is rather brilliant; Landis lets the tone to get away a little bit--suddenly, the performances are a little broad and over-the-top, but the twist turns things on its head and reminds us just what kind of monster weíve been dealing with. Things say rather offbeat even here, as Landis fully indulges the pulpy nature of it all; heís not into exploring the nature of revenge or even the deeply layered psychosis heís presented, which is probably why Family ends on a punch-line, just as youíd expect a John Landis movie to end, I suppose.
Plenty of grisliness is tossed in to offset the humor, though some of it comes in distracting CGI form; otherwise, the film is well done like most episodes. The set design is particularly impressive, as Landisís opening gambit presents a modest middle-class abode thatís oddly adorned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which is perhaps a potshot at the moral majority who keep their own dirty secrets in their basements. Otherwise, Family stays mostly apolitical, and the final twist especially precludes you from reading too terribly deeply. Itís no Frailty in this respect, but itís certainly worth a watch and evidence that Hollywood could do worse than to tap Hanley for another horror script sometime. Check it out on Netflix or grab the DVD, which actually has a commentary with the writer in addition to the usual behind-the-scenes stuff and another good presentation from Anchor Bay. Put it on your shelf next to Deer Woman, as Landis went two for two during his Masters of Horror stint and set the bar pretty high for season two here. Buy it!
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