Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
To say that Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series turned out to be a mixed bag would be a serious understatement. Just like any other horror-centric anthology series (Tales from the Crypt, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside, etc.), you just never know what you're going to get from week to week -- and "MOH" has delivered at least two turkeys for every successful episode. Returning for a second go-round -- he directed the first season's "Deer Woman" -- is "American Werewolf in London" director John Landis, a filmmaker who likes to combine genres whenever possible. And in the case of his second-season episode, "Family," the combination turns out to be a pretty clever mixture of slow-burn horror and tongue-in-cheek satire.
The script comes from Brent Hanley, and it's the guy's first work since the brilliant horror film "Frailty." George Wendt plays an "average joe" suburbanite who's just a little bit different from your run-of-the-mill next-door neighbor. "Harold," you see, has a perfectly normal family ... well, his family is actually a collection of keletons. Yeah, "average joe" Harold is actually a certifiably insane serial killer who kidnaps people, melts their skin off with acid, and then adds the bone-piles to his "family." Presented by Landis, it's broadly and effectively creepy -- but it's also just this side of snarky and silly, too.
Harold's safe little world is thrown into disarray with the arrival of some new neighbors: Celia and David are perfectly nice young couple ... only they have a few nasty tragedies hidden within their own closet. Harold quickly grows a schoolboy-style crush for the beautiful new neighbor, but his "family" is having none of it. To say much more would ruin the element of surprise, but suffice to say that while "Family" might be one of the slower-moving "MOH" episodes, it's also one of the most surprisingly entertaining.
Much of the credit goes to Landis for striking a strong balance between the macabre and the mirthful. The fact that Harold has a "family" of bleached skeletons scattered all over the house is both strangely amusing ... and colorfully compelling. We know the guy's a stone-cold serial killer -- but he's also really quite nice, too. (That Harold is played by George Wendt helps a whole lot. The rotund character actor does some great work here.) Much of "Family" works because we're just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Those sweet new neighbors are just bound to snoop into the wrong closet and end up on the receiving end of a nasty acid bath ... or are they? Landis wavers back and forth between straight-faced horror and smirk-faced humor, but "Family" never ventures too far in one direction. And yes, there are surprises along the way.
As is usually the case, Anchor Bay delivers this "MOH" episode with a healthy dose of special features. (Heck, when you're selling your DVDs one episode AT A TIME you better dole out the supplemental goodies!) Writer Brent Hanley provides a laid-back, informative and really quite excellent commentary track, plus there's a 15-minute "making of" featurette that covers everything from the story's inspiration to the creepy special effects and an 8-minute piece that covers the processes of composer Peter Bernstein. Rounding out the disc are some photo galleries, storyboards, and a few trailers.
Between "Family" and "Deer Woman," John Landis has proven himself a valuable member of the "Masters of Horror" team. His episodes might not be the darkest, harshest, or nastiest episodes of Showtime's fine series, but they both pack a welcome sense of absurdity, humor and strangely effective ... weirdness.