Directed by Peter Medak
Last season Joe Dante’s “Homecoming” successfully launched Masters of Horror out of the genre circuit and into the mainstream media spotlight with its scathing assault on politics and the Bush administration. Sure, it had all the subtlety of a Jay Leno monologue, but in the end you had to at least admire the sheer ballsiness of the exercise and the controversial firestorm that followed in its wake. Now we have Peter Medak’s “The Washingtonians”, another politically-charged episode and an obvious attempt by Garris & Co to drum up the same levels of controversy.
When his grandmother dies, family man Mike travels to her estate for the funeral and quickly finds himself surrounded by oddball well-wishers (played to perfection by the creepiest old folks imaginable). Stuck in the middle is annoying daughter Amy, a neurotic kid who’s afraid of the world and everything in it. While freaking out over a George Washington painting in grandma’s basement, the little bitch knocks it over and, in a twist reminiscent of “The Simpsons”, uncovers a secret parchment detailing the confessions of our founding father. Seems ol’ Washington didn’t stop at chopping cherry trees and had a particular fondness for cannibalism and hobbies similar to that of Ed Gein. This discovery ushers the arrival of the dreaded Washingtonians, a psychotic group of historians in 18th Century costumes hell-bent on continuing the “real principles” on which this country was founded.
We all love Mick Garris and what he’s done for our beloved genre, but there’s one rule that constantly goes over his head: What works in a book doesn’t always work in a movie (Quicksilver Highway, anyone?). Authors like Stephen King may enjoy seeing their work adapted verbatim, but the sad reality is that it doesn’t do them many favors. “The Washingtonians” is based on a short story by satirical horror author Bentley Little and, while it has clever ideas at its core, is another whopping example of something that only works on the printed page.
Comedy is tough. Mixing horror and humor is even tougher. Director Peter Medak’s one claim to fame is the classic brood fest The Changeling, and the closest thing he’s done to outright comedy is the colossal bomb Species II. It goes without saying that he probably wasn’t the best candidate for this material, and his solution is to go over the top in all the wrong ways. Watching gaggles of over-acting cannibals decked out in pasty white make-up and stage garb only makes for a few laughs, and while much of the episode is designed to be funny, it’s more unintentional than not. Moments of suspense are hysterically ludicrous while all the deliberate jokes (which include the world’s worst Bush punchline) are utterly, painfully bad.
On a certain level you have to give props to the Masters team for taking risks and embracing the offbeat. In a time when horror has resigned itself to torture porn and bad remakes, it’s great to see genre filmmakers make an honest attempt at thought and satire, but this is one example that blows up in their collective faces. “The Washingtonians” is ultimate proof that you need tact and not just a topical subject in order to succeed. Better luck next time.