Thursday, March 19, 2009

Movies: Curious George.

It's a curious fact of the pan-medium state of contemporary horror that anthologies are a significant and vibrant segment of the genre in comics and literature, but they've struggled to find legs on television. This despite the fact that, historically, the anthology format has been crucial to the development of the genre in all three mediums. Horror lit has always done much of its best work in the short story format and the anthology has long represented the vanguard of the genre in that medium. Anthologies are arguably still the dominant format for comic horror, as they have been since the 1930s. And dozens of television anthology series, from Twilight Zone to Tales from the Crypt, stand out as genre landmarks. But, today, only comic and literary anthologies seem to still have any life in them.

(Anthology films, by contrast, seem to have always been a fairly marginal phenom within the medium. In the studio system days, they usually functioned as cash cows that could be turned around fast using existing talent stables. In the modern era, they tend to be thinly disguised vanity projects or a work around for cash-strapped filmmakers.)

This break with historical continuity makes the tepid reception and un-mourned demise of series like Showtime's cable-grade Masters of Horror, and its even more short-lived network analog Fear Itself, an interesting puzzle for genre watchers. Perhaps genre television has simply taken a temporary shift towards the soap operatic. It could be that done-in-one stories feel too slight and disposable to fans hungry for Lost-style multi-seasonal epics. There's always, of course, the argument that these series simply sucked and their death is proof that there is some crap not even horror fans will eat. There was, for example, an unfortunate turn towards the preachy after the heavy-handed Bush-bashing zombie episode Homecoming. This was followed by the abortion themed Pro-Life, the assisted-suicide-centric The Right to Die, the anti-fur tinged Pelts, and the gender war informed Screwfly Solution. The never produced third season would have presumably included horror films based around recycling, Congressional earmarks, and the federal government's purchasing of toxic assets. Still, the faults of individual episodes aside, the series boasted quite a bit of talent. The directors list was a virtual who's who of old school American horror, spiced with a few Italian and Japanese imports to keep everything well-rounded. As for source material, the episodes adapted classic comic pieces from well-regarded series as well as short stories from contemporary masters. It's hard to believe that, with that much good stuff on tap, MoH had nothing tasty to serve up to horror fans.

Personally, I can't help but wonder if one of the series's greatest strengths – the near complete freedom producer Mick Garris reportedly allowed the various directors – contributed to the problem. On one hand, it meant that each show was distinct and fresh. On the other hand, it produced wide variations in tone and approach. If this lack of series-wide coherence was a spur to greater creativity, it also meant that viewers never really knew what they were getting from episode-to-episode, leaving the larger series with no clear identity.

An example of just how far off the reservation an episode could stray, The Washintonians, a second season entry by The Ruling Class and The Changeling director Peter Medak (perhaps the only director on the MoH roster with a flick currently available in the Criterion Collection), stands out as one of the weirdest episodes of the lot. Basically an elaborate goof, The Washingtonians is a silly, gory mash-up of National Treasure and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It's not without its charms, but it is difficult to imagine an audience that would, at any given time, by as happy to see this episode as they would have been to see Miike grim and relentless Imprint.

The story opens with the a family who, while organizing their mother's estate, discovers a letter that appears to be from the first President of the United States, threatening to devour his enemies' children. This discovery blows the lid off a murderous conspiracy to hide the fact that George Washington – of powdered wig and Father of Our Country fame – was actually a murderous cannibal with a particular liking for virgin girl-child flesh (that, we're told, is the real subtext of the "chopping down a cherry tree" story American children know so well). Apparently, Washington first tasted human flesh in the harsh winter of '77 in Valley Forge. At the lowest point of the revolution, the army was forced to eat the dead to survive. Washington, however, found he rather enjoyed people meat and he took to it with a passion.

Wait, it gets better.

The clan charged with protecting Washington's rep is a cult of powdered wig-sporting cannibals known as the Washingtonians. They jealously guard all evidence of George's culinary predilections and happily feast on those who threaten his legend. They also maintain a lovely collection of forks made from the femur bones of every member of the Continental Congress (though the collection shown seems far short of the 343 forks that should be there). Finally, like their hero, all the Washingtonians have replaced their teeth with a truly rank set of ivory, bone, and wood choppers – the better to eat you with, my dear.

These cultists terrorize the family for the letter, eventually kidnapping them for the inevitable TCM-style grand feast – here done in period costume, giving the gruesome proceedings a discordant touch of class.

If all this flies well beyond you threshold of disbelief, rest assured that it did the same for the filmmaker. The episode starts with anti-Bush jab that makes a weak bid to political relevance, but it can deliver on it with a straight face and one almost wonders if the whole thing wasn't a satire aimed at the half-assed political aims of other MoH directors. Rather than a political horror flick, Medak fashioned something like a conspiracy slapstick. If there's a political undertone to the episode, it's in the way the film joyously lampoons the modern era of paranoid dietrology.

The episode is far from perfect, of course. In an effort to maintain a silly and over the top tone, the show sometimes s more strained than genuinely funny. The acting, while perfectly functional, is broad and unremarkable. There's a child actor involved, and that's so rarely a good thing. One notable exception to this is the work of the excellent Saul Rubinek. His intense Professor Harkinson, a crusading historian who wants to use the family's discovery to destroy the Washingtonians, appears way to late in the flick for my taste. Finally, while there are some gross-out moments and hints of suspense, the episode isn't particularly scary. It is hard to process the threat level represented by a gang of dudes who look like the Upper Crust.

That said, there's still something kinda appealing about The Washingtonians. Perhaps it's just that it is such a stupid idea done so happily. I enjoyed it.

And now, via wiec? (the coolest NYC bank robber since Willie Sutton), George Washington as you've never seen him before: in super low-quality animation!

4 comments:

Tenebrous Kate said...

After not-so-great feelings towards the MoH episodes I saw via Netflix ("Jenifer" is the worst Argento project I saw until "the Third Mother" came along), I'd kind of sworn off of them, but this sounds kind of--no--TOTALLY excellent. I'll have to break my MoH fast and check out this bad boy! Your description of the humorous elements makes me think "The Washingtonians" is probably something I'd find very fun indeed.

Also, Brad Neely's "Washington" is in my top ten list of Greatest Things Ever On The Internet. Pure genius, sez me!

CRwM said...

TK,

Thanks for swinging by. It isn't going to be as unhinged as a lot of the psychotronic fare you've featured on your blog. Medak is too traditional a director craftsman to let himself go completely balls-out crazy – perhaps to his detriment here. Still, the very idea is so dumb that I actually may work better in the hands of somebody who shoots it like it isn't silly at all. I hope you dig it.

And I'm glad you dug the Washington rap - but who doesn't? It's his snuff and his gallant stroll. Can't help but be seduced.

dragonmanes said...

I thought the premise for this one was one of the more original if not off the wall episodes. It isnt without its flaws, but as a strange, surreal satire it functions pretty well (or, in comparison to the other season 2 entries, AMAZINGLY well).

CRwM said...

Dragonmanes,

Your comment about "isn't without its flaws" almost lead me to post something about "all of them had flaws, but what you gonna do?" response - but it occurred to me, as I composed my response, that one of the issues that dogged the series is that they never managed to crank out the big tent crowd pleaser that what unquestionably a hit. I have some I like better than others, sure, but there's really no classics in the bunch - not the way, say, "Terror at 20,000 Feet" is simply classic. How long can a series that even its defenders think is "aw, it's alright, I guess" last?

Anyway, thanks for stopping by and posting.