Masters of Horror: S2E02 “Family”

Masters of Horror is a 2005 anthology horror series that ran for two seasons on Showtime. Famous and emerging horror directors were invited to create hour long horror films with seemingly no restrictions. Season two saw quite a few directors return with very different films from their first time working on the show.

Celia and David move into an idyllic suburban neighborhood. Harold (George Wendt) is nice enough to the new neighbors. He just happens to be a serial killer whose entire family is comprised of the skeletons of his victims. He genuinely believes they are alive, changing their clothes, moving them throughout the house, and having conversations with them. The neighbors aren’t quite sure of what to make of him, but they’re willing to be friends.

Family is a brutally dark comedy. It’s more of what you would expect from a John Landis film. Everyone gets laughed at. No joke is too much of a reach and, thankfully, there’s no punching down this time around.

Everything about Family is an improvement over Deer Woman. For one thing, it’s not filled with racist content. For another, it has a much more consistent tone and style. The story makes sense and all the scenes feel like they belong in the same universe. Landis hides connections to his other works in the set dressing and the occasional throwaway line, but it’s not a distraction from the narrative this time.

The main problem with Family is that the episode spins its wheels until the final few moments. There are no heightened stakes or changes to the status quo. Harold keeps on killing people to replace his family members, and the neighbors fight each other while they adjust to the neighborhood. The final twist is strong, but it’s wasted in the structure of the episode. The episode ends on the reveal when that reveal is a much more compelling story than everything that came before it.

There’s a simple structural fix that could have made a big difference to the story. Revealing that Harold is a serial killer in the first scene is a mistake. He goes from unreliable narrator to unlikable and untrustworthy in less than 60 seconds. Having him just be a paranoid neighbor lurking in the shadows for a while would allow him to be a more likable protagonist when the new neighbors start acting weird. If Harold was revealed to be a serial killer in the second act, followed by the big twist leading into the third act instead of ending the episode would be a much more dynamic structure. Instead, we get 50 minutes of weird conversations and montages set to Golden Oldies or Contemporary Christian music that do nothing to advance the story.

Family features a bizarre sexual undercurrent played for laughs. Celia begins to proposition Harold over coffee with explicit comments about her true desires. She denies it every time Harold asks her to repeat herself, but then pushes it further. David just sits there and pretends like nothing is happening. It’s a recurring gag set up just because Masters of Horror allows anything to happen (in theory) and it’s just not funny enough with the way the story is actually laid out. It’s another detail that would work better if we didn’t know from the start that Harold is just an awful person with a tenuous grip on reality.

Family is not a bad horror film. It’s just kind of boring. There have been so many better horror comedies from the perspective of the bad guys even before this episode came out that there are no surprises. It’s not enough to laugh with and at a serial killer as the substance of your story. There has to be a draw beyond laughing at murder and mayhem.

***

content warning: gore, foul language, violence against women, violence against children (implied: you see the skeleton but not the murder), sexual language


Up next: S2E03, “The V Word” from director Ernest Dickerson