Bentley Little's short story, “The Washingtonians,” is very, very weird, and it mandates a serious suspension of disbelief and warped sense of humour to go along with the idea that a cabal of cannibals are both dedicated to eating children, and keeping the secret identity of their leader – George Washington – a secret to all but themselves.
One also has to accept the followers run around in period attire, wear grand poofy wigs, have faces dusted with white powder, suffer from bad teeth, ride horses and carriages at night, and are never seen when they apparently search for victims to devour or, in the case of the Franks family, taunt and threaten them with slow, painful deaths.
On paper, as a bloody satire of conformity, secretive political figures, and innocents affected by a dark family secret, it may have worked, but for any kind of film adaptation, it requires finesse and directorial skill – neither of which exist in one of the weakest episodes of The Masters of Horror.
Director Peter Medak once directed some vicious satires (The Ruling Class), sterling crime thrillers (the mournful Let Him Have It, and the brilliantly morose The Krays), and classic supernatural thrillers (The Changeling), but when he's given a rubbish screenplay, it's obvious the skill he applied to his best work is nonexistent – and you get mud, like Species II.
Medak has a flair for the absurd, the surreal, and the grotesque – one need only watch Ruling Class to see how well he can handle a bizarre story and give it a wild, visual edge, particularly the finale that brilliantly cross-cuts between living and desiccated parliamentarians in singsong – and it's obvious he believed Little's tale could offer some fun in crafting a surreal, black political parable of deceit while poking jabs at the current presidential administration, but the script, co-written by star Johnathon Schaech and writer Richard Chizmar – is truly terrible.
The first third is actually quite fun, because it plays with iconic imagery – the opening teaser draws from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – and Medak milks the creepiness of his older cast who seem august and respectful from a distance, but morph into big-eyed monsters, drooling after the Franks' virginal ten-year old girl.
Once the horses and carriages become more pronounced and the cabal tracks down the Franks to their suburban home (including the ghost of George Washington?), it all crumbles into nonsense. There's never any real sense of threat, and there's far too many idiocies that we're asked to swallow.
Wouldn't neighbours hear and see the Washingtonians pounding their way into the Franks' home? What kind of explanation did the father (Schaech) give to the police to get protection parked outside of his house for several days? The Franks are held captive and threatened with flintlock pistols? The father just happens to luck in and have an archivist friend (Saul Rubinek) who knows about all the Washingtonians and their ongoing legacy? And how did severed fingers get into the cereal box?
Even Medak and some of the actors joke about some of the script's bad dialogue, which of course begs the question: if it stinks, shouldn't it have been fixed before the cameras rolled?
The performances are variable, the cinematography is bland, the ever-screeching daughter is annoying, and the finale, just as the series producers believed, is dumb. Medak and Schaech are delusional in believing the episode and finale are ripe, political commentary on contemporary issues. There's far too much illogic that should've been fixed prior to filming, since Medak was the episode's director.
There's a perverse amusement in watching Rubinek give a good performance as he's delivering dreadful dialogue; the nuances, dramatic accents, and wry sense of humour are true to the scene and his character, but he can't offset the flaws and transcend the limitations of his scenes.
On the plus side, Richard Band's score is very tight and hits all the right dramatic points, and the production design is first-rate, particularly the locations, and the superb set designed for the film's grotesque, bloody finale.
The transfer is fairly clean, although the images are a bit soft in spots. Extras include a brief making-of featurette, and a blooper reel.
This title is available separately, and in a life-sized skull that houses the complete Second Season of Masters of Horror which includes "The Black Cat," "The Damned Thing," "Dream Cruise," "Family," 'Pelts," "Pro-Life," "Right to Die," "The Screwfly Solution," "Sounds Like," "Valerie on the Stairs," "The V Word," "The Washingtonians," and "We All Scream for Ice Cream."
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan