For their second MOH episode (after Season 1's Homecoming), writer Sam Hamm (Batman) and director Joe Dante (The Howling. Piranha) focus on social ills with this adaptation of James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon's downbeat short-short story about an airborne plague that causes sexually aroused men to go homicidal and murder women.
The DVD's commentary track provides some decent background on Dante's interest in the story during the seventies, and his efforts to transform the work – basically told through correspondences between a mother, Anne, and her husband's best friend and colleague, Barney (Elliott Gould) – into a workable screenplay, in spite of the fact nothing really ends well for the human race. The Sheldon twist ending, for example, consists of one sentence, a problem Hamm had to tackle in addition to reducing the story's global scope to North America .
For the most part, the filmmakers' efforts to knock down the story into a character piece works, and Dante manages to infer the plague's broader implications through small scenes which trace the downward spiral of already irrational behaviour – initially pegged as killings by men from a nutbar sect known as the Sons of Adam – to something far more insidious.
The murders are brutal and revolting because it's men taking pride in the destruction of women – first psychological, emotional, and then physical – with increasing impunity because male moral and legal officials all succumb to the behaviour pattern that rapidly dooms the human species to extinction.
It's a lot to cover in a low-budget production when the lead characters – three epidemiologists specializing in genetic redesigns of malevolent pests – are doing a lot of state-hopping; and when the focus shifts towards the mother and daughter's northbound trek to Canada, where they hope the menacing vector of the plague will fizzle out. Screwfly also contains a fair share of characters, and Sheldon's story isn't wholly horror; there are obvious sci-fi elements (aliens + plague) that make Screwfly more of an edgy Twilight Zone tale than MOH.
Joe Dante's return to horror – as well as working under a tight budget and assembly line scheduling – recalls his early years with Roger Corman, but there's also a black comedic undercurrent that makes the final episode uneven.
The problem is aggravated by the docu-drama shakycam cinematography that, while a new experience for Dante, is ultimately a schizophrenic stylistic choice because the rough HD style is offset by beautifully lit and colour-schemed sets; the offices, homes, and country stores are too neat and pretty, particularly when the world is going to hell. One can also argue the HD photography also harshens the weaker performances by the substantive cast.
Hummie Mann's score is decent and largely discrete, except for a repetitive, gushy theme for the lead couple - bug hunter Alan (Jason Priestley) and social worker Anne (Battlestar Galactica's Kerry Norton).
Anchor Bay's DVD contains a making-of featurette, as well as a short piece on the decent effects and excellent creature design for the final reel. Dante and Hamm are very entertaining on the commentary track, and while there could've been more info on the short story (as well as author Sheldon), it's a good production overview that doesn't duplicate material in the making-of featurette.
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