Masters of Horror: Family (DVD)
Directed by John Landis
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
Season Two of Masters of Horror was, to put it nicely, a mixed bag. It ranged from the sublime (Jeffrey Combs' masterful turn as Poe in "The Black Cat") to the ridiculous ("Pro-Life," one of my picks for Worst of 2006). "Family," the second episode to air this season, is thankfully closer to the former. In fact, out of the 13 episodes that aired, it was my second favorite. Between this season's "Family" and 2005's "Deer Woman," Landis is 2 for 2 with me, not too shabby considering his competition and the series' track record.
Written by Brent (Frailty) Hanley, "Family" is a taut little tale about a truly crazed individual named Harold Thompson (Wendt) who lives in suburbia with his wife, Jane, and daughter, Sarah. As the story opens, Grandpa has just moved in. But the Thompsons aren't your typical family; instead they are the product of Harold's psychosis -- and his severe loneliness. You see, Jane, Sarah, and Gramps are the skeletons of people Harold has killed over the years; and before long Grandma will be coming home, too. Just when Harold is starting to feel comfortable with his ready-made family, his outwardly perfect world is shaken up by the arrival of new neighbors Celia (Monroe) and David (Keeslar), an investigative reporter and emergency room doctor, respectively. Harold finds himself drawn to Celia and vividly imagines her coming on to him, which results in increased bickering between him and Jane. One of the most fascinating aspects of "Family" is the relationship between Harold and the skeleton that represents his wife. They have elaborate discussions in which she browbeats him and gives him nothing but shit. During these disputes Landis cuts back and forth between a real actress and the prop skeleton -- all to amazing effect. The idea that someone would go to such lengths to create an idyllic family for himself and then play it out as dysfunctionally as possible in his own head is a stroke of genius on the part of screenwriter Hanley.
Meanwhile, Celia and David aren't quite what they appear to be either. There's a definite undercurrent of stress between the two of them, and when David disappears toward the end of the story, the audience is kept guessing as to what exactly is going on and who is setting up whom. In his commentary Hanley discusses at some length the difference between the twist ending of "Family" and the flip that he sets up so brilliantly in Frailty. To avoid spoiling the experience for yourself, if you haven't seen this film yet, make sure you watch it all the way through once prior to listening to the commentary. A lot of times stories with twist type endings have zero replay value, but in the case of "Family" a second viewing is definitely in order. Once you know how things are going to turn out, it's a real treat to go back and watch it all unfold with not a single misstep. Things alluded to by Celia and David become crystal clear, and by the end your sympathies are sure to have switched from one character to another at least a couple of times. This follow-up to Frailty, one of my all-time favorite films, may not be as fulfilling overall as its predecessor, but it shows that Hanley isn't just a one-trick pony. His next foray into our genre can't come soon enough for this reviewer.
And it's not just on paper where Hanley shines. His commentary for "Family" is totally engaging as he covers a wide range of topics from his recent conversion from renter to homeowner to his initial reaction upon hearing that George Wendt would be playing Harold (he is a huge Cheers fan but wrote the part with William H. Macy in mind) to how heavily "Family" was influenced by Hitchcock's Psycho. He definitely seems to be the kind of guy with whom you'd like to share a few beers and sit out on your patio discussing movies and life in general. Due to other commitments he wasn't able to participate in the production of "Family" at all, but as you'd expect with a guy like Landis at the helm, Hanley didn't find much to complain about in the finished product. Every major point he had to make about fear and desire and the different forms of insanity is fleshed out to a t by Landis. They never engaged in the typical back-and-forth with notes that writers and directors so often fall victim to; instead they simply talked things through with Landis urging him to make it scarier.
Much of "Family" is depicted more as a play than a movie since other than in a couple of scenes, all of the action revolves around Harold's house. This enables Landis to ratchet up the tension and suspense, along with the nice juicy tidbits of KNB-provided gore that are interspersed throughout, and add a feeling of claustrophobia to the proceedings. Wendt more than makes us forget about Norm in his superbly twisted portrayal of Harold, and both Monroe and Keeslar do a fine job of making us care about Celia and David. She pulls out all the stops when acting out Harold's lewd fantasy scenarios, and he excels at playing David as an always smiling goofball type -- right up until those crucial final moments of the film when we finally see the man behind the merry mask. Peter Bernstein's computerized score, which gets its own featurette (Terror Tracks: Mastering the Family Score), is purposely complicated and complex to convey Harold's madness; and the funky gospel songs that play when Harold is going about his business and "breaking in" new family members are a perfect counterpoint. Terror Tracks, which runs about seven minutes, touches upon Landis and Bernstein's long-standing relationship -- they've been friends since age 15 -- and details the process of their collaboration. Not your typical extra, but definitely one that adds to the viewer's overall enjoyment of the film.
The last special feature of note is Skin and Bones: The Making of Family, a 16-minute compilation of interviews with Wendt, Monroe, Keeslar, Hanley, and Landis. In addition, Lee Wilson, the Visual Effects Supervisor, shows a breakdown of the computer generated effects used in two key scenes. I enjoy this type of making-of infinitely more than the bland behind-the-scenes featurettes included on most of the Season One DVDs and am glad to see those have been discontinued. As it happens, a good chunk of the extras that were de rigueur for previous MOH discs have been dropped (i.e., the "On Set" and "Working With a Master" featurettes) in favor of a lower price point. I'm a bit mixed in that regard. Certainly some of the films didn't warrant such an extensive package, but it was something to fall back on when the episodes themselves were only fair to mediocre. But even with its slimmed down offerings this time around, Anchor Bay does all right by fans of the show by getting these discs out quickly and keeping them affordable for collectors and completists who simply must own the whole set.
The release is rounded out by a photo gallery, Landis' bio, some storyboards, a few trailers, and a DVD-ROM version of the screenplay. If warped, mind-fuck type storylines are your bag, then you won't be bothered by the slightly skimpy extras as the "Family" film itself will be more than enough to satisfy you. And while we're on the subject of satisfaction, if the rumored Season Three of Masters of Horror does occur (check out our interview with Mick Garris here for more details), I'm sure I'm not the only horror fan who hopes the next crop of writers and directors take Landis' words to heart and "make it scarier." Considering what Hanley and Landis accomplished with "Family," they have a lot to live up to.
4 out of 5
3 out of 5
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