In 2005, Showtime began airing Masters of Horror. This anthology series featured original, one hour horror films from established and emerging horror directors from around the world. While the show originally claimed no restrictions on content, an unexpected act of censorship at the end of the first season changed the course of the series. Season two is a far bloodier, more disturbing season designed to push boundaries.
A mysterious virus is infecting every man on the planet. One symptom is the rise of an extreme fundamentalist religion around the world. This leads to the main symptom: the uncontrollable desire to murder any woman they encounter. The race for a cure is on, but the only solution seems to be hiding women from society so men aren’t able to react to the virus.
The Screwfly Solution is one of the darkest episodes of Masters of Horror. Director Joe Dante returns to the series to finally create one of his dream projects. He originally read the short story in the 1980s and spent the better part of three decades trying to make the film. Masters of Horror gave him the opportunity to do it. Dante uses his second go at the show to create a film that otherwise would never have been produced with his reputation as a horror/comedy director.
“The Screwfly Solution” is an epistolary story by Alice Sheldon. At least we know it is now. Sheldon had two successful literary careers under aliases. Women still struggled to be published in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror spaces at all in the 1960s and 70s. Sheldon adopted the pen name James Tiptree Jr. for her literary career. She also wrote additional, more experimental stories under the penname Raccoona Sheldon at the same time. Sheldon actually leveraged her Tiptree Jr. persona to successfully advocate for the publication of Raccoona Sheldon’s stories.
The Screwfly Solution is not an easy film to watch. It becomes abundantly clear from the start that the apocalypse is upon us. Sam Hamm’s screenplay takes the original inciting incident of experimentation to safely exterminate the cane fly, a particularly deadly predator in the rain forest, and layers in real world concerns like global warming. There will be no easy resolution to this story.
This story suggests that the world could end because of violence. Not war, not conflict, but violence. Something could potentially prey on issues of inequity in society and cause us to destroy each other. Specifically, The Screwfly Solution suggests that it wouldn’t take much to push men to solve every problem with violence against anyone who disagrees with their authority.
In 2006, this episode was quite jarring to watch. Joe Dante insisted on using the newest in digital camera technology to film the entire episode. He wanted the episode to be startling in its realism to the human eye and he succeeded at that time. It’s the equivalent to how unsettling the camera work was Peter Jackson used 48 fps cameras to shoot The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The attempt to create a more realistic visual for the story pushed it into almost uncanny territory.
I genuinely believe that The Screwfly Solution is one of the only episodes of Masters of Horror that could not exist without the series. Sure, a lot of these stories would have been toned down significantly for a theatrical release, but they can somehow be justified by the careers of their directors. I could see Tobe Hooper making Dance of the Dead, or even Dario Argento lingering for another hour on the gore sequences of Pelts. But Joe Dante making a brutal, gory, and sincere horror/thriller about toxic masculinity gone catastrophically wrong? Unlikely.
content warning: gore, violence against women, sexism, domestic abuse, racism, sexual content, nudity, islamophobia
Up next: S2E08 “Valerie on the Stairs” from director Mick Garris.