Monday, October 06, 2014

Masters of Horror- THE WASHINGTONIANS (2007)

I was a fan of the Showtime series Masters of Horror back when it was originally airing and for the couple of years after their debut I would occasionally rewatch an episode now and then. Since it was an anthology show this was easy and it became simple to revisit the standout tales and skip the ones that disappointed me at the time.  But I'm an odd fellow - ask anyone- and so I've decided its time to look at a few of these stories again to see if my attitude has changed.

First up- from the second and final season THE WASHINGTONIANS (2007) directed by Peter (THE CHANGELING) Medak and based on a short story by Bently Little. This one has an excellent premise and a great structure but it's let down by the script's seeming inability to trust the story being told. The story is of a young couple Mike and Pam and their ten year old daughter Amy having to attend the husband's grandmother's funeral and sift through her home and belongings. Among these things is a portrait of George Washington behind which they find a very old handwritten letter from the first American president himself. In it he speaks about the joys of eating the flesh of children and wrapped in the letter is a fork carved from human bone. They seek out information about this history changing letter and are immediately confronted by friends of Mike's grandmother who are adamant that this paper not be made public. This group call themselves Washingtonians and are aware of this hidden legacy and celebrate it while keeping it secret from the rest of the world. When Mike makes it clear he doesn't want to part with the letter the Washingtonians attack the family, capture them and set their eyes on young Amy as a fitting meal for their next gathering.

I love the story of this hour long horror film and wish I could like the episode but the show makes too many missteps. First, the script has the characters that turn out to be villains far too obvious in their oddity far too soon. There is never any doubt about anyone's place in the narrative from their first line of dialog. This is overly cartoonish and destroys what could have been a lot of tension and mystery as things play out. The cartoonishness is also visual in nature on several occasions such as when the eating of restaurant patrons is depicted in piggishly sloppy fashion with food smeared all over their faces. This destroys the creepy atmosphere that the show was developing and undermines the menace.

Another mistake is the use of overly silly on-the-nose dialog from the older characters that is later repeated to threatening effect. I can't tell if this kind of thing was done intentionally to create comic touches but regardless, it cripples the horror elements every time. I'm sorry, but watching a group of powered wig wearing grown men dressed in colonial costume grimacing through fake wooden teeth as they attempt to kill people is strange enough that making them walk around with dinner smeared all over their faces doesn't add shocks - it adds WTF thoughts to the viewer and takes you out of the story. Such a shame.

This should have been a smart, scary story with light touches of humor but the jokes are smeared across the screen with no subtlety or skill. The concept is so good- a secret society of true believers so intent in their patriotic fervor to preserve the memory of the Founding Fathers that they are blind to the horror of their country's past - it deserves a good film version. By making the foundation of the USA built on the most heinous of crimes lends the storytellers the ability to say so much and they seem to have next to nothing to say. Horror can hold up a harsh black mirror to the world that forces us to examine our preconceptions but here the Masters of Horror series just holds up a portrait of George Washington with tiny devil horns sloppily painted on his head. It's a massive missed opportunity. 

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