Masters of Horror: Family (2006)
On the surface, Harold Thompson is just a peaceful, mild-mannered neighbour to the residents of the quiet town where he lives. However, Harold is a murderous psychopath, hunting down and killing people off the street to use their skeletons as part of his ideal ‘family.’ When a young couple move into the house across the street, Harold sets his sights on Celia to be his new bride.
Having helmed one of the first series’ strongest instalments with Deer Woman, An American Werewolf in London director John Landis was asked back for the second Masters of Horror series and to apply his particular brand of horror and comedy to another well-spun sixty-minute tale.
Family is classic John Landis, with a heavy dose of black humour and some quirky surrealism pervading the entire episode. Even after the first five minutes, you know exactly where Landis is talking this – the shots of Harold working in his basement, at first implying that he’s just indulging in some middle-class hobby but then gradually revealing he’s melting bodies with acid, create the uncertain feeling that anything could be happening behind closed doors on your street and you’d never know about it. Not only that but Family really plays on the idea that everyone you pass in the street carries skeletons of some kind (some figurative, some literal in this case) and not everyone is as they appear on the surface. The simple, easy-going narrative lets the audience drop their guard down. This isn’t some far-fetched stylised Hollywood suburban street but a nice, cosy little snapshot of urban life that most of its audience would be able to associate with.
Once he’s delivered this grotesquely humorous opening, the trademark Landis style doesn’t let up throughout. He intercuts the scenes of Harold drowning his victims in acid baths and re-assembling their skeletons with him imagining them talking and interacting with him as if they were really alive. He has arguments with his ‘wife’, welcomes ‘grandpa’ into the family and tenderly bathes his elderly ‘mother’, all of whom were random strangers he has murdered but all very reminiscent of a certain Norman Bates from Psycho. Harold’s hallucinations where he sees his potential victims give him reasons why he should murder them are hilariously bad taste; equally the scenes in which he believes Celia is propositioning him for sex are just as delightful (and with Meredith Monroe doing the propositioning, it would be difficult to refuse such an enticing offer).
Like many in the series, Family features a twist ending, very reminiscent of the old EC Comics, in which the rug is pulled out from underneath you right at the end. It’s not that obvious from the outset and the script smartly keeps things ticking over very quickly throughout – there’s little filler in this episode and even some of the more low-key scenes of characters just around talking are peppered with subtexts and double meanings. Landis doesn’t race through the build-up, allowing the situation to slowly boil away, relying on dramatic irony to keep the suspense maintained during the dinner party sequence in which Harold makes his move on Celia. The hour-long format means that the story doesn’t outstay its welcome and the pay-off comes at just the right time as the narrative was bubbling over.
As someone from outside America, I was never into the sitcom culture of the 80s and 90s which spawned such household favourites as Cheers, Frasier and Seinfeld, whose characters have become parts of US pop culture in much the same way as Del Boy and Rodney from Only Fools and Horses have in the UK and therefore don’t have the same knowledge or affinity to the actors who played famous roles in them. I don’t know much about George Wendt, six-times nominated for his comedy role as barfly Norm from Cheers, but I can assume he’s playing massively against type here based upon what little I’ve managed to piece together. He’s great as the bumbling, harmless old man next door but can quickly switch into the psychopath when he needs to. Wendt makes his character very likeable and gets the audience to root for him, always an impossible ask when you are meant to be portraying a serial killer. Opposite him are Matt Keelsar and Meredith Monroe, all nice and happy as the friendly young couple. Monroe is required to change her character during some of Harold’s ‘fantasy’ sequences when he thinks she’s talking dirty to him and she pulls them off in a fantastically seductive manner (it doesn’t hurt that she’s great on the eyes too).
There’s not an awful lot wrong with Family, one of the strongest and most complete episodes in the series with a nice cast, sharp script and plenty of bad taste, all spiced up with a slightly Hitchcockian flavour.
Director(s): John Landis
Writer(s): Mick Garris, Brent Hanley
Actor(s): George Wendt, Meredith Monroe, Matt Keeslar, Haley Guiel, Kerry Sandomirsky, John B. Scott
Duration: 58 mins