Review: Masters of Horror: Family

Posted by Peter Hall - November 9th 2006 @ 6:22 pm

Directed by John Landis
Written by Brent Hanley


John Landis’ sophomore "Masters" entry is, thus far, the best of the series.  I’d even go so far as to say that Family is the best thing the director has been involved with in excess of two decades.

The elegant opening shot planted a wicked smile on my face that rarely faded throughout the hour.  A portly, homely Wendt dissolving the body of an elderly gentleman in his basement while listening to vintage gospel just prior to returning upstairs for a conversational family meal.  Only the oral exchanges on hand exist entirely in the head of Wendt, for none of the family members are actually capable of speaking, thanks in no small part to the fact that they are all skeletons.

Naturally, new neighbors, David and Celia, arrive just across the street.  The new couple drunkenly knock over Harold’s mailbox, leading to the eventual meeting point from which Harold develops an immediate infatuation with Celia (Meredith Monroe) and the excellent dirty talk he imagines her sliding into the conversation.  The couple depart and Harold begins to fantasize about making her the newest member of his mis-matched, skeletal family.

George Wendt, of "Cheers" fame, is inspirationally cast as Harold, the crucial ingredient to the familiar "neighbor isn’t who you think he is" formula.  Family would read exactly like a Goosebumps plot or an episode of "Eerie Indiana" were it not for Wendt’s side splitting performance or Brent "I wrote the highly underrated script for Frailty" Hanley’s remarkable script.  Applauding the comedic aspects of a horror script may, initially, cast a less-than-serious light on the genuinely somber plot, but worry not for the humor here is used to build tremendous moments of tension.

Watching Harold play out elaborate, but shockingly normal, family dynamics with the remains of long dead members of other families expertly shapes into a truly unique piece of psychosis.  Not only does he talk to the dead, but he imagines them carrying out daily life.  On top of that, he doesn’t just use them for affirmation, but he often times is on the receiving end of a firm, but funny scolding.

The cast is exceptional.  The aforementioned eeriness of Wendt is wonderful, of course, but Meredith Monroe is also delightful as the object of Harold’s bizarre desire.  Supporting it all is a nearly ever-present score by Peter Bernstein that gives the episode a charming aura of off kilter suburbia.

The script effortlessly becomes akin to watching a camoflauged spider encircle its prey.  The only areas that I think could benefit from improvement or a few staggered lines of dialogue at the end.  Burdened by too much exposition, it feels out of place with the rest of the script’s personality and exists, knowingly, in service only to the audience and not the story.  Save for that and my minor disbelief that a body can dissolve as rapidly as the ones in Harold’s steel tubs do, I’d deem John Landis’ Family not only one of the best successes of the "Masters of Horror" series, but of the director’s entire career.

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