Masters of Horror: Screwfly Solution, The (TV)

The Screwfly Solution review (click to see it bigger!)Starring Jason Priestley, Elliott Gould, Kerry Norton, Brenna O’Brien

Directed by Joe Dante

Original Air Date: December 8th, 2006

The screwworm is a nasty bastard. The screwfly, which is twice the size of a housefly with large orange eyes, will lay its eggs –up to 400 at a time- in open wounds of livestock (or humans, if one’s handy) and the hatched larvae eat their way out. Kind of like maggots. But unlike those pleasant little cleaners, which only eat dead matter, the screwworm likes LIVING tissue. Yum! Cannibal worms! If left untreated, an infestation can be fatal. In fact, by the 1930’s in America, screwflies were wreaking havoc on the livestock industry to the tune of $400 million a year. And that’s when the USDA came up with the Screwfly Solution…

You’ll get some of that information from the little educational video at the beginning of this week’s episode of Masters of Horror. And it’s 100% true. In the 1950’s the USDA did create thousands of sterile male screwflies by exposing them to gamma radiation and then releasing them into the environment to breed the population down to extinction, which it achieved by the 1960’s. It’s not only where the episode, and the short story it’s based on by Alice “Raccoona” Sheldon, got its name – it’s important, so pay attention. There will be a pop quiz later.

The opening scene treats us to nice little bit of uneasy setup, a seemingly normal suburbanite watering his lawn and chit-chatting with his neighbor, but as she glances over the hedge, she notices it’s blood he’s hosing off his concrete walk. When the cops arrive, they find blood in the oven and bloody rags all over the house, three dead women in the garage (his wife, daughter and either mother or mother-in-law), and a man who doesn’t understand why they’re upset. God told him to, he says, told him to “clean up around here.” It’s a good way to let the viewer know right away that something rotten is going on. What, exactly, remains to be seen.

Alan (Jason Priestley) and Barney (Elliott Gould) are entomologists. They work for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), traveling around the world eradicating deadly pests. They’ve just returned from a 5-month trip to a third world country doing just that and are having a celebratory dinner with Alan’s wife Anne (Kerry Norton), daughter Amy (Brenna O’Brien) and good friend Dr. Bella Sartiano, who works for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) as an epidemiologist – someone who studies the how’s and why’s of a population’s diseases.

Has your brain gone numb yet? There’s a lot of science in this episode, though I wouldn’t call it science fiction exactly. Or not exclusively. There is definitely a horror element to the subject matter. When Bella gets called away from dinner to Jacksonville, Florida, to investigate “bird flu,” it turns out she’s really going to investigate an epidemic of femicide. 1,100 Murders in a matter of days, she’s informed, accompanied by some sort of religious mania backed by a cult called the Sons of Adam. Bella’s detainment with the Army results in some of the best scenes in the episode. For those of you who like gore, the recount of the stripper’s murder has some tasty bits. A particularly interesting point, I thought, was the murderer’s reaction to Sartiano and her slightly unbuttoned shirt. She’s a middle aged woman, big boned, and while she’s not unattractive, she’s more what you’d call handsome. Still, he reacts to her as if she were Pamela Anderson, naked, eating an ice cream cone. (I’ll give you guys a minute with that image before I continue).

Anyway, it seems this pandemic is worldwide and traveling suspiciously like an airborne disease, turning men into viscious women-killers, unable to differentiate between sexual arousal and aggression. Bella herself then falls victim, resulting in my favorite scene of the whole hour, even though we don’t see the actual murder. Dante does a really fabulous job with this subtle little scene; an army officer standing at the window, watching other men in the parking lot sing “Amazing Grace” as, faintly in the background, you can hear the sounds of Bella being murdered. It was the kind of scene that gives you goose bumps and you almost don’t know why. If only the whole episode could have been that good.

Here’s the thing – the good parts of the episode were really good. But they were much too few. Jason Priestley was really very good as Alan, the too-good-to-be-true husband and father. And though it was sadly only a brief moment, when he slipped over the edge and grabbed Amy in that extremely unfatherly embrace, the look in his eyes was truly unsettling. The rest of the acting though was pretty mediocre. Elliott Gould, who’s normally a great actor, was underused and his character had very little personality. Brenna O’Brien was annoying as hell, but considering her character was supposed to be a bitchy teenager, I suppose that should be counted in the “good acting” category. And then there was Kerry Norton. Bad, bland, and boring. It’s unfortunate so much of the story rested on her frail shoulders.

And that’s the bad. The first part of the story, where we learn about the pandemic and there’s all the speculation about religious mania and who’s causing the problem (if you were surprised at the end, I’ve got a bridge I could sell you), why, and what to do about it (remember the Screwfly Solution?) was the most interesting. As soon as Anne and Amy go on the run and hide out, the ship begins to go down. For one, we’re now cut off from what’s going on in the world and stuck with the bickering of a mother and daughter, which is much less interesting.

Then there’s the fact that the destruction of the family that has been the center of the whole episode is shunted aside in about two minutes in favor of several scenes of Anne in the woods with Barney or Anne in the general store. And though I know what they were going for with those scenes, it’s only because I read the short story. And the short story is really good. But it’s short, and they definitely had to pad it to stretch it into an hour, which shows throughout. There’s one scene where Anne, who works in a shelter counseling abused women, is trying to find blankets for the busloads of women coming in and one of her abuse victims turns to her and says something along the lines of “All this time, I thought I was the strange one, and you were normal. But now it turns out I was the normal one all along.” It’s a completely out of place line, awkward and unnecessary and felt stuck in out of nowhere.

And though they were pretty faithful to the story for most of the hour, they botched the ending. Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm are the same pair who gave us last season’s “Homecoming,” which had the same problem. Apparently they just aren’t that great with endings. They seem to lose focus and decide to just “wrap it up.” The last line of Alice Sheldon’s short story packs a real punch, but that punch was substituted for a limp tap on the shoulder. Not even. That last line has absolutely nothing to do with the proceeding storyline. It’s aggravating beyond belief when an ending falls down this badly.

It’s a damn shame, too. They started off strong with some nice visuals, good acting (and may I just say Jason Priestley is looking VERY good these days), and an interesting concept based on a well written short story. And then the story starts to go off kilter and never recovers, limping to a lame duck finish. And some decent acting and a few good scenes aren’t enough to carry the rest of the dead weight to a satisfying conclusion.

It may sound like I’m being unreasonably harsh when I’ve been more forgiving in the past. But episodes that are mediocre from beginning to end are less upsetting than something like this where there are some glimpses of good stuff. They make the bad stuff seem even worse. And when you’ve got such a good story as a basis, there’s farther to fall. And that’s the case here. My suggestion? Read the short story instead. The text is available online for free.

2 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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