Written by: Richard Chizmar & Johnathon Schaech (teleplay), Bentley Little (short story)
Directed by: Peter Medak
Starring: Johnathon Schaech, Julia Tortolano, and Venus Terzo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Perhaps in an effort to bolster his Masters of Horror status, the DVD cover for The Washingtonians proudly boasts Peter Medak to be the director of both The Changeling and Species II. I think the former would have been sufficient given that it’s one of the better ghost stories ever committed to film, but I suppose Species II might really seal the deal for someone out there. At any rate, those two offerings were among Mendek’s few horror offerings (he also did a Tales from The Crypt and some 80s Twilight Zone episodes) until Masters of Horror came knocking with one of its better concepts in The Washingtonians, a bit of pulpy revisionist history that reveals the terrible, homicidal secret behind America’s first president.
When Mike Franks (Johnathon Schaech) moves his family into his recently deceased grandmother’s house, his daughter stumbles upon an old portrait of George Washington in the basement. Hidden behind it is a letter where Washington boldly proclaims his intentions to skin and eat children before fashioning tools out of their bones. Whereas a discovery of this nature would usually lead to some monetary gain or a National Treasure movie, this one just serves to piss off a local sect of extremists who have been charged with the task of preserving Washington’s secrets throughout history.
Call this one George Washington: Child Eater, I guess; it turns out that original short story writer Bentley Little beat Seth Grahame-Smith to the presidential horror punch by nearly two decades with The Washingtonians. Kudos to whoever dug it up for Masters of Horror too, as it serves as one of the most intriguing stories in the series. Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this concept doesn’t elicit immediate guffaws, nor does it have to be some kind of silly joke. Instead, there’s something genuinely sinister about discovering George Washington actually had more fun chopping up little kids instead of cherry trees. It’s sort of like finding out that Santa Claus would rather burn your house down rather than leave presents in it. Such a revelation also taps into the dark underbelly of American history; while we're pretty sure Washington didn't literally feast on people, a bunch of rich white guys did metaphorically devour others and built the nation on the backs of subjugated people.
Unfortunately, no one overseeing this adaptation saw it that way since The Washingtonians is played as an obvious, broad farce that dissipates whatever genuine creepiness the concept has. Apparently, the short story is more of a dark comedy, but the film is wildly silly and on the nose: not only does the Washingtonian cult dress up in pasty-faced, colonial digs, but there’s an abundance of obvious, pun-laden humor from the locals (all of whom are weird old yokels, naturally). For example, upon meeting Mike’s daughter, a loony old lady declares her “good enough to eat” with a long, loud cackle. Similar scenes, like one involving gaggle of leering elderly folk ravenously chowing down on their food, hammer relentlessly on the film’s one note and drive it right into the ground. The Washingtonians ends up playing to the wacky side of its concept, which wouldn’t be so bad if it built towards that point; instead, it pretty much barrels right out of the gate with the standard issue Creepy Old Man introducing the family to the house, and every manner of cliché follows suit.
It’s too bad, too, since Medak really carved his legacy into this genre with the understated and genuinely unsettling The Changeling (which actually trod a similar sort of conspiratorial territory, now that I think of it). There’s precious little in the way of the mood or tension that permeated that film here; while The Washingtonians is well-photographed and occasionally makes good use of its woodsy, rural surroundings, whatever atmosphere it has is lost in the parade of gross-out effects, which are admittedly great. I’ve probably said this for nearly every episode for the second season of Masters of Horror, but Nicotero and Berger have consistently lived up to the show’s title, and The Washingtonians is no exception. Some of the displays during the climax are nothing short of astonishing, as bodies are gleefully torn apart and eaten with sloppy, reckless abandon. Talk about chewing the scenery.
Still, I can’t help but think that this story deserved something better than a bunch of splattery punch-lines; I realize that Cannibal George Washington seems laughable, but The Washingtonians really goes for broke by opting for such a campy approach. By the time I arrived at its eye-roller of a conclusion it had worn out its welcome, so it’s probably a good thing it was confined to a 55 minute runtime. Despite my love for speculative and alternate history, The Washingtonians didn’t hit with me beyond its premise, but Anchor Bay did a bang-up job with the DVD (as always). In addition to another solid presentation, the disc is filled out with the usual behind-the-scenes extras and a commentary with Medak and Schaech. I’d like to recommend it for your collection and consider it a reminder of Medak’s overlooked talent within the genre, but I cannot tell a lie. Rent it!
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