Joe Dante tops last year's searing Homecoming with an even more disturbing Masters of Horror episode. He's again chosen subject matter that would be completely un-commercial in any other format: the chilling The Screwfly Solution bucks most trends in modern horror (the Mick Garris omnibus series included) to dramatize uncomfortable issues; it's difficult to categorize. Both Dante episodes have the gall to be about something as well as deliver Showtime's required T&A plus gore galore. If market-driven entertainment can be edgy in the sex and violence departments, why can't it express opinionated, challenging ideas?
Jason Priestley, Kerry Norton and Elliott Gould head a fine cast reacting to a terrifying tale adapted by Sam Hamm from James Tiptree Jr.'s short story. Departing from his familiar comedic approach, director Dante packs a feature's worth of narrative into the one-hour cable format, sacrificing nothing along the way. Twenty years ago the idea that a serial killer's knife might be a substitute for his sex drive seemed an abstract theory, an intellectual game applied to horror films as a cheap dodge to rationalize screen violence against women. This one TV show distills that concept as a definite reality. The Screwfly Solution is an intelligent shocker that generates genuine chills.
The Screwfly Solution takes a refreshingly radical look at violence toward women in the modern world. Some of its ideas are better articulated than others but they're all disturbing. It's definitely a rough ride on the edge of exploitation, as women are harassed, intimidated, sexually threatened, beaten and murdered. Although only one terrible knife killing is shown in graphic detail -- far outdoing the average 'aestheticized' Eurohorror giallo for impact and realism -- the show impresses overall as an unending stream of outrages inflicted on innocent females. Unlike 1001 exploitative 'Kill Jane' epics, this story points directly at male sexual aggression as a basic flaw of the species. From repressive Muslim regimes to everyday sexual intimidation, James Tiptree Jr.'s story says that sex is the trigger for violence. Although The Screwfly Solution's science-fiction premise ventures the idea that the world's men are murdering the women because of a chemical imbalance, males should realize that despite all they've been taught to believe, they're biologically programmed to dominate women and harbor innumerable resentments toward them. ("Not me," says this reviewer, with a straight face.)
The Screwfly Solution shows that a carefully chosen tweak to human behavior patterns could trip a catastrophe and overwhelm our feeble social institutions. 1 It's the small strokes that unnerve here, because they're already present in everyday life. Even in polite circumstances it's common to see a flustered woman dismissed as an hysterical ninny. It doesn't take much more than a mistake for a woman -- on the basis of her sex -- to become the target of verbal road rage or hateful outbursts on the street. Many men categorize women into a hierarchy of reviled types, from 'stupid cow' to 'uppity b____' and far worse. Most telling is the peculiar loathing some men have, for attractive 'unavailable' women that make them feel insecure in their own sexuality. It can be argued that entire subgenres of horror films have been based upon sexually motivated resentment.
In The Screwfly Solution the evidence is thrown in our faces. Some 'diseased' men react with hard-knuckle locker room aggression, while outwardly meek souls slaughter women as if cleaning up an unwanted mess, like a plumbing back-up. A light touch of whatever's ailing the male population manifests itself in behavior only slightly exaggerated from the norm: a security man coldly patronizes a female scientist and construction workers' taunts get downright nasty. The biological attack is brilliant in that human society has no defense, from any direction. The government doesn't respond effectively because they're mostly men and presumably equally affected. The scientists hoping to understand the disease are poor judges of their own susceptibility to the chemical changes turning them into sexually deviant murderers. Ironically, the story implies that the only males immune to the plague and still capable of loving and protecting women, are gay! Now there's an interesting angle.
The researchers know that somebody somewhere is manipulating us, just like the insect pests we so cleverly trick into interrupting their own reproductive cycles. The Screwfly Solution boldly adds the issue of religion to its ideological battleground. Some of the murderers interpret their Will to Kill as heaven-ordained, and an insane movement called the Sons of Adam takes root to spread the notion that the Bible sees women as the root of all Evil. Government reps wonder if the plague hasn't been started by religious zealots, or perhaps is an Arab conspiracy: theologically based executions of women are skyrocketing in Muslim countries. One disturbing scene shows a mad priest murdering female patients in a hospital ward. The script clearly targets certain Moral Majority values. People that want their interpretation of the Bible to supercede the law, science, human values and common sense behave a lot like the placard carriers and pamphlet distributors demanding the right to 'punish Eve.' The Screwfly Solution is loaded with chaotic discord, so much so that it reminds us uncomfortably of our own society.
Most of these ideas are cleanly expressed in the fast-moving narrative, with enough time left over for Showtime's exploitative sex scenes. The actors are clearly inspired by the quality material, with Jason Priestly getting top honors for showing a caring man's transformation into a lethal monster that lusts after and destroys its own young. Kerry Norton is completely convincing under some very heavy character demands. This is perhaps the first time that I've seen the "I love you but I gotta shoot you" gambit really work, in any movie. Linda Darlow gets special attention as an ecologically-minded sage doing her best to fight the plague, and young Brenna O'Brien's 'perky teen' is defeated, like much of the rest of the world, by her own belief in goodness. When she playfully shakes her behind at the rowdy construction workers, O'Brien reminds us of one of her father's bugs, performing an instinctual mating dance without realizing its full effect.
Feminists (or man-hating America haters, for you already affected by the Screwfly plague) will be knocked over by this show's conceptual daring, even if they must wince at its more exploitative scenes. Guilty males (the wrong ones, naturally) will feel ashamed of their own chromosomes. This is definitely not a feel-good picture and we can see why it would be a complete bust if distributed in a theatrical environment ... if people still go on traditional movie dates, there'd be a lot of very un-romantic females exiting this one.
Anchor Bay is now owned by Starz Home Entertainment, a subsidiary of Starz Media. That means that the new Masters of Horror DVDs have half a dozen more logos to sit through, and a dozen more exec producer credits at the end. You couldn't have done it without them, Joe! Chaptering manually over several trailers and promos takes at least a minute, so it's a relief when The Screwfly Solution turns out to be worth the wait. As with all the entries in the series, the enhanced picture and DD sound are of a very high quality. 2
The disc extras run to form, with a BTS making-of docu, a stills gallery and a sidebar featurette on the production of the film's digital effects. The film ends with an eerily satisfying Sci-Fi coda that Savant won't spoil. The entire screenplay is also present as a DVD-Rom extra. But we recommend after viewing that you go right to the commentary with Joe Dante and Sam Hamm. Beyond the expected compliments for their actors and crew, they offer plenty of information and insights. The original short story took place in South America and had to be adapted for filming in Vancouver even though major scenes take place in Texas and Florida. They also discuss director Dante's departure from his usual style (it was shot on HD) and tone -- most of his films have been leavened with a strong dose of humor. The Screwfly Solution has no outright jokes and no participation by Dante's usual stock company, although he still opts to use many sly references from classic Sci-Fi pictures ... you'll know them when you see them. The serious subject matter supports the script's extreme cruelty, pitching the show away from the trap of 'stylish' sadism.
Even non-horror fans might want to try out The Screwfly Solution, if only with a rental ... it's quite an original experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Screwfly Solution rates:
1. The idea's most basic expression may comes in an old Twilight Zone episode, where selectively manipulated power blackouts turn ordinary cities into savage war zones.
2. Can no other company adopt the viewer friendly wisdom of Warner Home Video? Two or three clicks and you're watching a show. What a concept!
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