Monday, September 18, 2017

Joe Dante, part XIV: How about that? Turns out voter fraud was real!

HOMECOMING (Masters of Horror, season 1, episode 6)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Sam Hamm (based on the short story "Death and Suffrage" by Dale Bailey)
With Jon Tenney (David Murch), Thea Gill (Jane Cleaver), and Robert Picardo (Kurt Rand)

THE SCREWFLY SOLUTION (Masters of Horror, season 2, episode 7)
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Sam Hamm (based on the short story by Alice Sheldon)
Written Kerry Norton (Anne Alstein), Jason Priestley (Alan Alstein), Elliot Gould (Barney), and Brenna O'Brien (Amy Alstein)

Spoiler alert for both: moderate

Was Masters of Horror ever a good show, and not just a place where old genre directors went to die?

Not that it matters: we've already made our bed, and now we're lying in it, lightly soiled as it may be.  I set a bad precedent when I did John Carpenter's Masters episodes; in so doing, I obliged myself to return to the program once again, now that I'm (finally) getting around to putting the finishing touches on this here Joe Dante retrospective.  (Though I could have avoided it, if I really wanted to: I've already skipped all three of Dante's actual TV moviesRunaway Daughters, Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy and The Second Civil War—and I did that as much due to my disinterest, and, in the case of Civil War, my distaste, as I did to their borderline-unavailability.)

But I had hope.  I've said it before—and I still think it's theoretically true—that the Showtime horror anthology rested upon an eminently solid conceptual foundation.  It sounds like an outright amazing idea, anyway: a showcase for a whole host of demonstrably-talented horror filmmakers to do whatever they wanted for an hour at a time, with neither commercial interruption nor meaningful content restrictions to compromise them.  Unfortunately, if anything, Dante's stint on Masters worked out even less well for him than it did for JC.  And it certainly didn't work out well for JC!

Now, we can quibble, I guess, as to whether Dante ever was any "master of horror."  His most obvious talents, you know, were always in comedy and adventure—whereas any strict accounting of Dante's catalog of horror proper, as of 2005, would be limited to no more than two (and a quarter) whole feature films, with his most recent foray into bona fide fright being the third segment of Spielberg and Landis' Twilight Zone adaptation, which at the time of the airing of Dante's first Masters of Horror episode could legally buy booze.  Well, one's apt to forgive a degree of puffery in their show titles.  (Masters likewise boasts of two episodes from the series' creator, Mick Garris, and you'd be exactly right to say, "Mick who?"  The answer is, "a champion networker, a director of various unloved horror movie sequels, and, if you must, the screenwriter of Hocus Pocus.")  But, more importantly, Dante certainly seemed to have been keeping his thrillmaking skills razor-sharp.  He'd had a career that might have drifted decisively toward lighter fare (or, more accurately, goofier fare).  Yet it was also a career that must be described as horror-adjacent, at least, from Gremlins to The 'Burbs to Small Soldiers.  Dante's niche was comedy, yes, but almost every last one of his "comedies" gives the distinct impression that they're just one twitch away from going dark as hell—and, often enough, twitch our director did.

So, sure, Dante, Masters of Horror—why not?  As with Carpenter before him, he'd hit a massive financial skid going into the 21st century.  In the aftermath of the career-crucifying flop of Looney Tunes: Back In Action, one imagines very little was presently standing in the way of Dante slumming it at Showtime.  Thus in 2005 did he arrive upon Masters with his first offering, "Homecoming," and given everything I just said I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise that "Homecoming's" not anything close to "proper" horror itself, but another comic satire from a man whose main vein seemed to throb with the stuff.

Then again, calling it "satire" is already begging the question.  The story of "Homecoming," you see, revolves around a zombie outbreak, but not just any zombie outbreak.  In this instance, the walking dead are the soldiers slain in an unnamed foreign war, their spirits evidently willed right back into their broken bodies by the self-serving emotionalism of an unnamed Republican president's chief speechwriter, David Murch, who, upon finding himself backed into a corner during a televised talking-head confrontation with the mother of a dead serviceman, wishes that the KIA could come back to tell her that while they might've died, they died for a cause they fervently believed in.  Turns out our man Murch has no special insight into the souls of the men and women he's resurrected, and "Homecoming's" zombies don't want to do anything so crude as eat some brains or besiege a shopping mall. No, what these zombies want to do is vote, and, whatever their party affilitation might've been in life, they certainly don't have much interest in reelecting the president who sent them to die in a desert based on a lie.

So you see my point: it's less "satire" than it is "naked left-liberal propaganda."  Which is fine, so far as it goes—I'm certainly this episode's target audience, and fourteen years later, I'm fully agreed that the war in Iraq was a massive, bloody mistake.  But I'm far less touched by the condescending reverence for America's soldiery that naturally characterizes virtually all left-liberal attempts at criticizing America's wars, including this one, because God knows, we can't stand the sting of the oft-repeated canard that we don't support our troops.  (Many of us support our troops by actually paying our taxes; how does Donald Trump stack up?)  Inevitably, "Homecoming's" one more media representation that assumes soldiers are morons with no agency; but the fact is that the U.S. military has skewed highly right ever since it became a volunteer force, and anybody who signed up after September 2001, or even after November 2000, knew or should have known that they were signing up for a neoconservative crusade.  I mean, I did, and I was a dumbassed 18 year-old myself, who considered enlisting precisely because, at the time, I subscribed to the same general ideology.

The narrative is inevitably a little bit rotten with the stench of sour grapes, then, given that the soldiers' complaint turns out to be, more-or-less, "I regret my choices, now that I am dead."  (Screenwriter Sam Hamm, adapting a Dale Bailey short story to the point of unrecognizability, is at least clever enough to recognize this: Dante's indispensable repertory player, Robert Picardo, gets to wonder aloud how all these corpses became such hippies, theorizing that the soldiers who didn't have misgivings about their sacrifice didn't see any need to come back—which is just silly, since right-wingers would no doubt still have a better GoTV organization than Democrats, even in death.)  But we can spot the propaganda film its thesis, if we want—especially when, arriving in 2005, it really was slightly ahead of the curve.  So what we're left with at this point is a Twilight Zone episode of special brazenness, even for a Twilight Zone episode.  (Though you can tell that Hamm and Dante clearly cherished a belief that by leaving their evil lying president unnamed, they were actually exercising restraint.)  But, in all honesty?  "Homecoming's" Zoneiness is actually pretty great: Dante pitches its one-note gag absolutely well enough to get by, and if it were a Zone episode, you'd call it a good one, executing its Zone-style twist ending with grace and solemnity right around the 25 minute mark—that is, when its first early-voting soldier casts his ballot and keels over dead, mission accomplished.

Of course, "Homecoming" is a Masters of Horror episode.  And being one whole hour long, it is obliged to continue.  Thus, you'll notice it has a rather desperate need to fill out its runtime with something.  The meat of its ongoing story is nutritious enough.  It involves Murch and his boss (that's our indefatigable Picardo, of course, effortlessly proving this episode's MVP), who find themselves compelled to grapple with the upended politics inherent to an outbreak of zombie pacifists, and their interactions are handled well, with some good old-fashioned Dantean dark humor.  (Picardo blasting a zombie with a gun to prove that it's a zombie is funny; offering his coworker a chance to take a shot, basically for the hell of it, is really funny.)  Yet "Homecoming" is not willing, or not able, to go for the gusto: it's a tangible disappointment that the only soldiers who seem to come back are the ones who died of allergic reactions to a half-pound of pancake corpse makeup, while no soldier ever returns as, say, a newly-politicized puddle of goo who only found out about Hope and Change after he walked face-first into an IED.  Nonetheless, one can still appreciate the way the B**h Administration pivots farcically upon the issue of the walking dead, from "God-given miracle (vote GOP!)" to "Satan-spawned sign of the eschaton (vote GOP!)."

What's significantly harder to appreciate is the way Anne Coulter (technically, an Anne Coulter analogue named "Jane Cleaver") takes on a major role, apparently purely because she's a person that nobody we know likes, so let's make her 1)an amoral media bitch and 2)much hotter than the real Anne Coulter, so we can throw Murch into a satirical (and screentime-consuming) BDSM-tinged, feminizing affair with her.  (If the alt-right's fascination with cuckoldry had been mainstream in 2005, you can bet your bottom dollar that Murch would've been watching Cleaver get inseminated by black men from inside a closet instead.)  Harder to appreciate still is "Homecoming's" (not politically, but narratively) offensive final-act twist, which buries the whole last fifteen minutes beneath an avalanche of "character-driven" nonsense and stupidity, before flowering into an apocalypse that disregards decomposition in favor of a zombie legion marching against one terrifically bad-looking process shot of an American flag.

This is where we note that "Homecoming" is bad-looking all around, in fact, lacking in the vigor you'd expect from a Dante joint.  The deeply-restrained effects work is, fairly enough, only the result of Showtime's bargain-basement budget.  But the sheer TV-ness of it?  That can only speak to Dante's disengagement, "Homecoming" being what a demoralized big-ticket auteur looks like after his audience has thrown him down the stairs.

If an indifference to looking interesting is the worst thing about "Homecoming," it's even more the worst thing about "The Screwfly Solution," which is actively terrible in a great many ways, though the single biggest is certainly its shaky formlessness.  (Both were shot by Attila Szalay, a cinematographer of no great reputation even in the fallen world of 00s television—and, wouldn't you know, also the man who lensed Carpenter's awful-looking episodes, "Cigarette Burns" and "Pro-Life.")

Dante's offering to Masters for its second season was a second Hamm-adapted short story.  However, in this instance, Hamm reached back further for his inspiration, and he found it in old-school SF writer Alice "James Tiptree" Sheldon, whose works had a marked tendency to end with the destruction of one half of the human race or another, if not both halves at once.  "Screwfly's" no exception.  In fact, it makes the rule.  Something has targeted humanity for extinction in "Screwfly", which is typical; but to get there it's chosen a genuinely novel method.  "Screwfly" tells the story of a psychotropic plague that affects only men, perverting their natural sexual aggression ever-so-slightly into outright murder—which is to say, into femicide.  (Gay men exist in the short story; not so much in the teleplay.)

Like "Homecoming," it's a strong and provactive idea, but that's all it is, and Hamm isn't up to the task of fleshing out a narrative around it.  In fairness, Sheldon's original is not exactly "good" itself.  Like a lot of short-form litSF, it banks on the headiness of its concepts rather than on its characters (let alone on its prose); this is another way of saying that it works as a collection of metaphors a whole lot better than it works as itself, and this is even more true of Dante's and Hamm's adaptation.  Indeed, loath as I am to make the argument, maybe "Screwfly," the teleplay, really is what happens when you get a man to rewrite a woman's story.

True, the evo-psych aspects of Sheldon's tale are too deeply-stained to ever remove; but when Hamm recreates Sheldon's critique of patriarchal religion, he does so without really seeming to understand it, leaving out the most salient elements of the "theology" behind the woman-killers' turn toward Christianity etc. in the wake of their biologically-mediated murders.  (In the story, it's much clearer that woman-hated comes first, and holy sanction second.)  And whereas Sheldon's story alludes to a delirious, allegorical bitterness over the fact that women have access to the same organizational methods and field-leveling weapons (like firearms) that men do, but simply won't use them, Hamm's replication of womankind's inability to develop the slightest amount of active, regimented resistance to a world full of disorganized zombie-men just comes off as blithe, with a whole subplot about a handgun, as if our heroine was the only woman on Earth who realized that one surefire way to stop a man is with a bullet.  (I would prefer to not even get into the part of the plot involving her daughter.)

It leaves Sheldon's apocalypse playing out even more stupidly than it does in the short story, where—I've gotta say—it already was at least slightly stupid: in both versions of "Screwfly," world governments just muddle along, as if they were dealing with a flu outbreak of middling severity, whilst women, being people made of finely-extruded glass rather than muscle and bone and eyes and brains, mostly just kind of wait to be easily and quickly murdered.

There's a story within this scenario.  Unfortunately, it's a wretched one, involving an ecological scientist/expository figure, who helps make the connection between the "solution" of the title (that is, the human intervention in the reproductive cycle of the dangerous screwflies, which wiped out their species) and the ongoing plight of our own, disintegrating race.  You get no points, of course, for guessing this attack's ultimate origin, especially not when Dante shows a "shooting star" change course while the scientist, his wife, and daughter watch on; but you do get points, from me, for being deeply annoyed that they don't find this miracle to be of any importance.

"Screwfly," for what it's worth, isn't very recognizably "Dantean."  Frankly, that's just as well, considering how poorly his usual brand of silliness would've played.  (Even so, perhaps the most joy "Screwfly" has on tap is the Z-grade bad-movie nuttiness that Dante throws in occasionally, and possibly accidentally, such as a flight attendant screaming "Buckle up, bitch!" at the neighbor of a corpse he just killed.)  But, anyway, while "Screwfly" doesn't exactly invite you to laugh at its excesses, it surely remains a tonal monstrosity, being the only Dante flick since the similarly ill-advised sexploitation of Hollywood Boulevard to feature significant nudity.  It doesn't even amount to a (tasteless) juxtaposition.  It's certainly not the best look for an episode about rafts of dead women on the Ganges; one can only scowl, most judgmentally, at Dante and Hamm's idea to set the film's only flashback in a strip club (a dully-shot one, at that), while the best thing one can say about their decision is that the stab-wound prosthetic on the victim is a pretty fantastic piece of practical effects work.

Meanwhile, the already-muddled, semi-epistolary structure of Sheldon's "Screwfly" gets entirely churned up inside a teleplay that has no idea at all who its protagonist is supposed to be; the sensation is less of disaster-movie scope than one of filmmakers who simply have no idea who to focus on, when, or why, let alone how to get their badly-needed exposition across in anything like an organic manner.  (It's a little bit like a mediocre 50s sci-fi flick—which I guess makes it marginally Dantean—only it's sleazy, and it's one where the science hero keeps getting killed and replaced by somebody else.)  In the end, it's just a mess (and a real waste of Elliot Gould, too, adrift on a sea of uniformly terrible co-stars).  And while I think I like the basic ideas Sheldon played with, and which Hamm reiterates here—the ultimate reveal being tolerably neat in both versions of the story—everything else they fill it up with is either objectionable, or just plain bad.

So much for Joe Dante, Master of Horror, then!  But fear not.  This old genre director didn't quite die.  Like Carpenter, his story didn't end on cable.  For Dante would return, in time—much stronger, and, maybe fittingly, with the straightest horror film he'd ever made.

Score, "Homecoming": 4/10
Score, "The Screwfly Solution": 2/10

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