#4: Masters of Horror

By Brock Wilbur · January 31, 2012

There's that project you discuss with friends, probably over beers, that never comes to fruition. An idea you all love, believe in, and promise to dedicate time towards. Then, when the buzz wears off, or responsibility returns, it falls by the wayside — to be rekindled at the next gathering, and embarrassingly discarded repeatedly. Knowing this experience well, I curse my social circles from some pit of bitter jealousy deep within, for depriving me a Mick Garris.

Garris, a director with limited recognizable credits to his name, threw a dinner party in 2005 for his closest friends… who just so happened to be the biggest names in the world of horror: John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro, Tobe Hooper, John Landis, and five others. Garris decided to create an anthology series with these guests, and it didn't take long for Showtime to pick up his pitch.

For thirteen episodes per season, Masters of Horror allowed each director to produce an hour-long film with a reasonable budget and no studio notes or involvement — a glorious opportunity for the names who invented the genre to explore concepts not appropriate for a full feature, and free of the budgetary gamble. With the kind of distribution offered by premium cable, I guarantee Stuart Gordon's episodes "Black Cat" and "H. P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch-House" were seen by more Americans than his career theatrical numbers combined.

It was a fanboy wet-dream, mixed with one of the greatest business models of all time. (They sold each of these episodes as standalone films at full price. Anchor Bay, in the mid-2000s, I gave you entirely too much money.) The final product was what you'd expect: a less-consistent Tales from the Crypt, with flashes of brilliance amidst low budget gore and nudity. Masters of Horror proved why certain directors hadn't worked in years, whilst those with more recent success didn't give it their best.

Of the original run, two films dealing with the apocalypse have always stuck with me. One exemplified such idiocy, I was sure it would kill the series. The other was a perfect example of a compelling concept given its opportunity, fulfilling the promise of the show's thesis.

What a fantastic surprise to find both films share a director and a writer.

Director Joe Dante (most famous for Gremlins, The 'Burbs, The Howling, Small Soldiers) teamed up with screenwriter Sam Hamm, who not only wrote Tim Burton's Batman, but also invented the character of Henri Ducard in the Batman comics. Together, they cranked out "Homecoming" in 2005, the bar none worst zombie film of all time. The jacket even quotes the Village Voice review: "Jaw-dropping." Yes. It is exactly that.

David Murch (Jon Tenney) is a right-wing political pundit in the employ of the Bush White House. He combats the grieving mother of an Iraq War casualty by claiming he wished her son could return to America, and tell us how proud he was to die for his country. Later in the evening, following a round of BDSM with his pundit-counterpart Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill), President Bush steals Murch's sound-bite and uses it at a campaign rally. There must be something magical about Dubya, because his speech brings about the end of the world.

Lifting from W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," this inconspicuous wish leads all deceased military personnel from the Iraq conflict to return to life as unstoppable zombie monsters… who don't attack anyone. Even in self defense, while being shot at time and time again. They keep juking like they'll go for the brains, and then they go on about their day. With re-animated corpses of our servicemen and women suddenly roaming the streets, the nation is thrown into such a sense of emergency that… wait, they aren't doing anything? Still? As Jane proudly declares, "They have no higher brain function. They're no smarter than a liberal." Guffaw here.

But fate smiles on humanity, as we learn how to kill these unholy spawn of Satan. A former soldier stumbles into an early voting event, where the organizer recognizes him as her dead neighbor. Knowing he's registered, she gives him a ballot and asks if he understands how the chads work. He does his democratic duty by marking his choices, and then collapses to the ground, dead for realsies.

In this movie, the only way to kill non-violent walking corpses in our midst is to let them vote against George W. Bush.

Like so much of the anti-Bush media propaganda that excellent bands wasted the mid-2000's on, I'd say "Homecoming" has not aged well. But that would be to assume there was anything worth aging well. Both the two pundit characters, and their Karl Rovian department overlord, as so painfully mustache-twirling, you wish they'd take a page from the invading hoardes and just chew the scenery. The Rove-ster discusses whether the undead votes should count: "Why not? Dead people have been voting in Chicago since the beginning of time." Dante's trademark humor flat-lines, tanks, fails, and several other synonyms, which shift the punchline from the plot to viewer: the best joke here is that you watched it. Or perchance a secret in-joke amongst Hamm and Dante: "It's 2005 and burgeoning zombie genre has never been more en vogue. Could we ruin the craze with one fell swoop? Won't know until we try!"

Notice how there's no mention made of how you kill the bastards? Because audiences would react like I'm reacting. The entire feature is the product of a dare gone wrong, yes? No one sets out to make this. (Horrifyingly, Sam Hamm's DVD commentary portrays him as a clever, self-aware guy, who unfortunately believes in the message of this project.) There's a palpable sense of disconnect, listening to a man strive for legitimacy, while on screen the Republican party has found a way to ignore the zombie minority ballots (that they now count?) and the veterans of every American War return to life, in the inevitable zombie massacre that claims D.C. To save you from a moment that happens concurrently with all the good trailer shots, the lead of the zombie revolution turns out to be Mulch's brother, who murders him so he can come back to life as their PR guy.

While "Homecoming" is the kind of film making that should earn you a lifetime ban from the craft, Dante and Hamm re-teamed for season two, making my favorite episode of 2006: "The Screwfly Solution." Loosely based on Alice Sheldon's book of the same name from 1977, it opens on a Texas man who has murdered his wife and daughter, but finds it odd the police don't approve.

Meanwhile, housewife Anne (Kerry Norton) is thrilled by the return of her scientist husband Alan (Jason Priestley) and his partner Barney (Elliot Gould) from the rainforest. Their solution to an insect problem borrows from a real-world 1982 extermination of the screw fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax): a biological agent that turned male arousal into violence against the female of the species. What the rates of femicide across America begin to skyrocket, it becomes difficult for the scientists to not draw connections. Conspiracy theories about an adaptation of the bio-agent adapted by terrorists gain little traction with the military's top brass, who are succumbing to the effects.

The use of time and the slow introduction of scientific details makes for a gratifying slow-burn of the plot; unraveling the epidemic in stages. Alan decides to take a flight home from D.C., despite knowing he's a danger to his own family. At the airport, everyday conversations between men and women slip into vaguely sexist territory without sliding into madness. Aboard the flight, Alan struggles to keep himself under control, as a group of men mercilessly beat to death a female passenger who couldn't stop screaming, but there are no further issues.

Alan calls his wife, warning her to hide and that sexual arousal may be the green light which activates the disease. Moments later, their teenage daughter Amy shakes her posterior in the direction of a cat-calling construction worker, who is overtaken instantly by the blood lust. Anne and Amy are inadvertently saved by a male driver, who plows over three women and speeds away, taking the attention off of them just long enough for an escape.

In the months to come, Anne keeps her daughter hidden at a remote cabin in Canada, until Alan tracks them down. Convinced he's found an antidote, they let him in, and Amy pays for it with her life. Anne is hospitalized and saved by Barney, who disguises her as a man. The Magic Homosexual character, an off-shoot of The Magic Negro, is a patently demeaning and destructive trope, but Gay Barney's sexual orientation becomes a secret powers in this world, and it makes perfect sense. As a man completely un-attracted to Anne, he's the only one who can look her in the eyes without trying to chop her to pieces.

They hide in the woods through the winter, and a disguised Annie heads into town for supplies on a regular basis. She watches as the world evolves into something new without any women. Men still hunt and fish, but also begin trading pouches made from female breasts or collecting their teeth. In a deteriorating civilization, Anne is caught wishing on a falling star, because her predicament is slightly more damning than redistricting. This shooting star turns out to be alien invaders, who released the disease on our planet, and begin obliterating red-neck woman-hunters with their laser beams. Okay, I didn't remember the ending as being quite that deus ex whatthefuckina, but the first 45-minutes are still worth it.

As a literal interpretation of gender warfare, and a vision of a sexuality-fueled apocalypse, "The Screwfly Solution" takes chances and uses the safety of the sandbox Masters of Horror was created to explore. The biggest shame appears to be cutting short this writer/director partnership in the midst of an exponentially improving period. If they could get from voter zombies to worldwide male dominance in one move, imagine where the show would be now?

Vampire Super PAC. You're absolutely right.