Judge Patrick Bromley can't wait for the new Showtime series, Masters of Jaded Ironic Disinterest, coming up this fall.
"We mess with nature simply because we can. And it will come back on us."
Before getting into a discussion of Masters of Horror: The Screwfly Solution, director Joe Dante's second entry into Showtime's Masters of Horror series, allow me to remind otherwise unaware readers that Joe Dante is my favorite director. Ever. Maybe that makes me severely predisposed to like every one of his movies (though anyone who's read my review of Explorers might know otherwise) or maybe it means that I'll hold him to such a high standard that I'll be a tougher critic than most. You'll have to make the judgment for yourself. I just thought that in the interest of full disclosure, it needed to be said.
Maybe that would explain my affection for Masters of Horror: Homecoming, Dante's first effort for the series in 2005. Given the chance to do whatever he wanted, Dante made the most of it and turned out a blatant piece of anti-war, anti-administration propaganda about dead soldiers returning from Iraq and wanting to know why they were killed. There was nothing particularly graceful about Dante's satire, but the movie was better for it. It was no-holds-barred moviemaking—Dante at his most savage—and it was liberating to see the director working without a net. If it wasn't the scariest of the season—and it wasn't—it was certainly one of the most adventurous, the most personal, and, yes, one of the best.
Now here's The Screwfly Solution, which focuses on an epidemic that breaks out across the country causing men to act very violently—even homicidal—towards women when they become aroused. Two scientists, Alan (Jason Priestley, Cherish) and Barney (Elliott Gould, M.A.S.H.), have just returned to America after working with insects in South America, killing off a species by interfering with the reproductive process. As Alan and Barney begin to see some pretty strong parallels with what's happening around them, they feverishly search for a cure while trying to keep Alan's wife Anne (Kerry Norton,Battlestar Galactica) and daughter out of danger. Is there a cure, or are they already too late?
Joe Dante has never been content to make a straightforward horror film, preferring instead to find ways to subvert the genre he clearly loves. That's why Piranha plays like a parody of Jaws or why the werewolves of The Howling were seeing a therapist to cope with their lycanthropy. Here, Dante is examining the genre's treatment of women by making it quite explicitly literal. Finally, the horror film has reached the point where women must fear for their lives simply because they are women. The men who typically make up the horror audience—the ones who pay to see women terrorized and killed—are finally the ones doing the terrorizing and killing. It's an indictment of horror itself, while at the same time concerning itself with a country spinning out of control with fear, rage, and outright paranoia. What happens when man plays god and attempts to assert his will on others? Or when others assert their will on us?
As much credit as I want to give Dante and writer Sam Hamm for the ideas behind The Screwfly Solution, I'd be lying if I said the whole thing works. For starters, I think it's quite possible that the scope of this story is simply too big to squeeze into an hour-long, low-budget made-for-cable series. It needs more room to breathe. Characters can only be seen in glimpses here and there, making the changes they go through ineffective. If we don't know who they really are, why should we care who they become? The film seems to want it two ways; it wants to zero in and show the effects of the epidemic on one family, and to give a massive overview of what happens when the entire country goes mad. One approach or the other might have worked, but trying to pull off both only sells each one short.
These are general concerns. There are specific problems here, too, that keep The Screwfly Solution from being more than an ambitious but somewhat unsatisfying effort. The character of the daughter, Amy, is handled badly. It's nothing against the performance by young Brenna O'Brien, who does a fine job. It's that the character is a mess. I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's review of the original Die Hard (if you can believe that), in which he pointed out that Paul Gleason's police chief character seemed to exist for no other reason than to be wrong at ever turn. That's the case with Amy, who is around only to create complications and do the wrong thing whenever possible. I would be remiss if I did not mention the movie's climax, which I would not dream of giving away, but which, I will admit, I absolutely did not see coming. I don't mean that in a good way.
This is, by far, Dante's darkest and most serious work. All well and good, as he's dealing with end-of-the-world type stuff here, but the movie misses the personality of his other movies. Other than a few key elements—the overall intelligence, the strength of the female characters, and the cynical mistrust of authority—there's not much to suggest Dante's presence. It's fairly humorless. There aren't many of his trademark genre and pop culture references (save for one homage to Takashi Miike's Imprint, the Masters of Horror episode Showtime refused to air). I can't fault the director for these omissions; touches like that would more than likely feel out of place in the film. Still, the omissions make me miss the Joe Dante I know and love.
Anchor Bay's release of The Screwfly Solution confirms the suspicions I had when reviewing Right to Die, the only other Season Two installment of Masters of Horror I've encountered—that the wad of extras was blown somewhat on Season One, and this next go-around hasn't received half the same attention. That's a tad overly dramatic, I think, but it's genuinely disappointing to me. The main justification I could see for releasing each of the episodes individually (and not in one giant, season-length box set) was that so much of the focus was on the filmmakers, be it in the commentaries or the featurettes or the really cool career retrospectives included in each one. Heck, the director's name even used to appear on the spine of each title. Those days are over, and what was once something special has become something pretty standard.
Because The Screwfly Solution is the first MoH episode to be shot in HD, its presentation on DVD is a bit stronger than most. It appears, like every other installment, in an anamorphic widescreen transfer of 1.78:1 and shows quite a bit of detail. It's still unable to mask how low the budget is, but delivers a fine visual treatment. As is typically the case, the 5.1 audio track is preferable to the standard 2.0 option, if only because it has better channel separation and provides a more dynamic experience. In both cases, I found the dialogue a bit hard to understand at time without cranking up the volume, and in an exposition-heavy episode like this that can be bothersome.
Dante was absent for the commentary track on Season One's Homecoming, and that issue has been rectified here. On The Screwfly Solution, he sits in with writer Sam Hamm to discuss the making of the film, the origins of the project (Dante has wanted to make the short story into a theatrical film for years, but believed it to be too dark and nihilistic to ever get the proper funding), and a number of tangential but worthwhile subjects—the current state of the horror film, his feelings about sex and violence in the genre, etc. Because Dante is so easygoing and has such a likeable demeanor, he's a joy to listen to; it doesn't hurt that he has such valuable things to say about the horror genre at large. Yes, I'm sure I'm biased, but the commentary track is my favorite part of the disc.
Elsewhere are a couple of standard featurettes. The first focuses on the making of the movie and goes into some detail about the visual style, including the decision to shoot in HD and the use of new camera mounts that allow for some truly unique photography (Dante originally wanted the whole thing to look like it was shot on cell phone cameras as events unfolded, but realized that might not be the most realistic of choices). The second featurette focuses on the makeup and other special effects. It's brief and disposable and seems to exist to celebrate the gore in each episode, which, despite being Dante's most violent work, isn't at all appropriate for something like The Screwfly Solution.
Am I bothered that Joe Dante has released a film theatrically in four years? Yes and no. Yes, because he's a true original and I can never have enough of his work. No, because Masters of Horror continues to provide him with an outlet to create some of his most personal, challenging work. Even when it isn't entirely successful—and neither of his MoH films have been—it's fascinating to watch him enter new territory. I'd like to see Joe Dante take what he's learned from these two films and apply it to his next commercial project. That day can't come soon enough.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Featurette: "The Cinematic Solution"
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