Masters of Horror: Family

Masters of Horror: Family (2006)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: George Wendt, Meredith Monroe, Matt Keeslar
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Still Gallery, Storyboards, Bio, Screenplay (DVD-ROM)

John Landis took the helm a second time for Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series last year, after directing "Deer Woman" for the first season. With "Family, " he certainly goes for the dark comedy that he is primarily known for. Landis was always an odd choice for this series, as he is not generally considered a horror director. His reputation in the genre is based primarily on his classic "An American Werewolf in London" from 1981, and to a lesser extent on his groundbreaking video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller." With this new film, I think he proves that horror is not his strong suit, and the success he had with "American Werewolf" might have been a one-time shot.

George Wendt stars as Harold, a charming man who lives in a beautiful home in the suburbs. What nobody knows about him is that he secretly kills people and preserves their skeletons in his home as his imaginary family. With various corpses propped up in his living room, Harold carries on pleasant conversations with his macabre family, which includes a wife, daughter, and two grandparents. When an attractive young couple moves in across the street, he sets his eyes on the wife, Celia (Meredith Monroe). Growing tired of his current "wife," Harold gets the idea to replace her with fresh blood (or bones). When Celia's husband, David (Matt Keeslar), disappears, she becomes the prime object of Harold's murderous desires.

Based on a script by Brent Hanley (of "Frailty" fame), "Family" makes no bones about getting to the gore. In the opening scene, we are treated to a lengthy shot of Harold dissolving an elderly man's body in acid. Unfortunately, Landis utilizes none of the suspense or tension that made "An American Werewolf in London" such a hit. We know what Harold does from the very beginning, and he is played up largely for laughs. The problem is that it is not all that funny either. There are no belly laughs to be had here. Instead, Landis relies more on precise, observational humor. For the most part, it works, but it makes for a rather disappointing episode of "Masters of Horror."

George Wendt, thankfully, carries this film very well. He manages to find the proper balance between sympathy and disgust generated by his character, and he is constantly believable. As the young couple, Meredith Monroe and Matt Keeslar are pleasant, but a little bland. They lack any real personality, and the not-so-surprising twist at the end of this episode suffers for this.

Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, Anchor Bay Entertainment's transfer is at their usual high quality. The image is free of artifacts and dirt and looks extremely clear. Flesh tones are natural, and black levels are deep and rich. Colors are reproduced vividly, especially in the pastel-bathed outdoor scenes. Contrast is also excellent, beautifully bringing out the evocative lighting. This is another top-notch offering from Anchor Bay.

The audio is presented in optional Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround tracks. Dialogue and music are clean and clear on both soundtracks. The 5.1 mix sends the music to the rear channels, making for a very strong surround experience. The gospel songs that accompany all of the gruesome scenes are given extra punch on this track. No background hiss or distortion is evident.

Starting off the bonus features is an audio commentary by screenwriter Brent Hanley. He keeps it moving along, providing lots of information about his ideas and some of the changes from script to screen. His comments are irreverent, but for some reason I did not find him as engaging as I would have liked. His voice is monotonous and tends to drone, but he does offer plenty to listen to.

A 16-minute featurette, "Skin and Bones: The Making of Family," gives us a look behind the scenes with interviews with John Landis and the cast. This is followed by "Terror Tracks: Mastering the Family Score," a seven-minute look at Peter Bernstein's (son of Elmer Bernstein) score. Both of these are pretty standard stuff, short and entertaining.

A still gallery, a selection of storyboards by William David Hogan, and a John Landis text bio round out this disc. As a DVD-ROM feature, you can view the screenplay for the film.

While John Landis will always be held in high regard by horror buffs for his one masterpiece, he has never been able to duplicate its success, and "Family" is further proof of this. Though there is plenty of gore, that does not equal frights, and there are few real surprises to be found here. Every series has a few lightweight episodes, and this is one of them. Anchor Bay's release delivers, and George Wendt intrigues, but overall this is not one to rush out for.

[Note by the editor, Guido Henkel] While I respect Felix's opinion, of course, I do not entirely agree with it and thought I'd offer up a brief second opinion here. I thoroughly enjoyed "Family" because to me it succeeds marvellously at what it tried to achieve. It is a macabre dark horror comedy that carries Landis' signature all over. You can always sense that wicked comedic wink in the eye as he develops his characters and plays with the viewer. "Masters Of Horror" episodes – to me – have always been about the directors having a ball with the material and "Family" exemplifies this like perhaps no other episode since Carpenter's "Cigarette Burns." Landis does things here that he would never do in a full length movie – and he admits to it in the supplements even – just for the fun of it. His characters invariably make you smile, each one of them, and, of course, casting George Wendt in the part of a deranged serial killer alone is worth a chuckle.
"Family" is a tale with a morbid sense of humor that never tried to be a horror sh(l)ocker – excuse the pun – and unlike Felix, I was completely taken by surprise by the film's plot twist. All in all, to me personally, "Family" is clearly the best season two episode of the series so far and is easily on par with the best of the season one episodes.