DVD Review: Masters of Horror: Joe Dante - Homecoming
Release Date: July 11, 2006
Distributor: Anchor Bay
· Jon Tenney
· Thea Gill
· Robert Picardo
by Troy Riser
Published: July 13, 2006
According to Joe Dante, the 'Master of Horror' director of "Homecoming", "All horror movies are political."
Although Dante qualifies the remark in the next breath by saying that horror movies are a snapshot of their era, a kind of time capsule microcosmically containing the then-prevalent cultural and political milieu, isn't that also true of other film genres, music, the visual arts, fashion, and furniture? Is furniture, then, political? By reducing the provocative opening statement to a vague, rambling commentary on film as historical artifact, Dante demonstrates a keen awareness of the value of dissembling and equivocation. The word 'political' is like the word 'art': if anything is art, nothing is; if everything is political, nothing is. Expand the meaning of a word to encompass everything, and that word is rendered meaningless.
Satire and horror films are not strangers. George Romero initially eschewed the notion that his "Dawn of the Dead" is a cynical paradigm of America's consumerist society, only to later embrace the idea that he -- Romero -- is a serious creator of serious films with serious messages to make, which is why "Land of the Dead" is such a dismal, disappointing entry in his famous zombie series, weighed down by its director's portentous self-indulgence. And while it is true that some horror films such as "Them" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" have been interpreted as satiric expressions of Cold War anxiety, for example, it is equally true that human nature demands to see any given thing as a symbol for something greater, more significant, more meaningful, and films of any genre are not exempt. The problem with interpretation is that sometimes a giant radioactive ant movie is "about" giant radioactive ants (picture an English professor making those little "quote mark" gestures with index and middle fingers).
What about some of Dante's previous horror films? Was "Piranha" political? Well, the scene in that film where the well-to-do guests of the Lost River Lake Resort are eaten en masse by ravenous, speed-framed hordes of rubber fish might arguably constitute political satire. How about "The Howling"? Would a viewer of that film, after parsing and extrapolating and carefully searching out clues cleverly hidden within the narrative subtext, enjoy "The Howling" as a subtle commentary on California-style, feel-good psychology or as a straightforward, reasonably scary werewolf flick? I vote Werewolf Flick -- whatever social satire Dante injected into "The Howling" is so deeply submerged as to be nonexistent. (As a somewhat intrusive aside, it is all I can do not to use the phrase 'biting social satire' when referring to zombie, werewolf, and piranha films in this context.)
"Homecoming", starring Jon Tenney, Thea Gill, and Robert Picardo, written by Sam Hamm, is frequently -- even invariably -- described as satire. Satire, as a literary form especially, has often been likened to weaponry: scalpel-sharp, as in Oscar Wilde, or club-blunt, as in Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift. Either blunt or sharp, satire is achieved by accentuating or exaggerating the foibles or flaws of one's target, and one's target can be just about anything related to the human condition. Satire is essentially an argument for or against, showing not telling, intended to persuade, usually cloaked within the artifice of fiction. (In his A Modest Proposal For Preventing The Children Of Poor People In Ireland From Being A Burden To Their Parents Or Country, And For Making Them Beneficial To The Public, Swift used the convention of essay rather than story, but the satiric intent is clear.) As broadly as satire can be defined, it is usually -- but not always -- humorous. For example, the lynch mob scene in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is highly satiric, but distinctly unfunny.
In the world of "Homecoming", the only evil thing the Karl Rove/Kurt Rand character played by Robert Picardo does not do is drop-kick puppies. In this world, the Ann Coulter/Jane Cleaver character played by Thea Gill is a cynical orgasm junkie, publicly invoking God and proclaiming family values while privately engaging in whips-and-candles black leather S&M with the protagonist, amoral political operator David Murch, played by Jon Tenney. In this world, evangelical Christians are despicable hypocrites. In this world, the Cindy Sheehan-like character is eminently soft, articulate, sympathetic and maternal, completely unlike her shrill, visibly deranged, real-life counterpart who murders her brave son's memory at every available media moment. Vietnam veterans are emotionally unstable. Repressed memory syndrome is actually true. Antiwar protesters are summarily jailed. The presidential election is stolen. Zombies do not eat people.
No, really. The zombies of "Homecoming" don't eat anyone. Imagine the suspense generated by all this rampant rising from the grave and shuffling around and speaking out at antiwar rallies.
So is "Homecoming" satire? The best satire appreciates the perception and intelligence of its audience while the worst is written as if its readers or viewers are children and fools: the characters are cardboard cutouts hauled awkwardly across the stage or the page or the screen, each labeled Hero, Villain, Hypocrite, Love Interest, Bit Player and so on, in big block letters so even the most feeble-minded won't miss the point. So if Joe Dante's "Homecoming" is satire and satire is argument, an attempt to persuade, then as a satiric weapon, "Homecoming" is a big Styrofoam club not unlike the kind found on low-budget movie sets.
Lastly, since the undead soldiers in "Homecoming" are largely lovable and harmless, is this film even legitimately a horror movie? Well, it does feature Republicans in power.
The horror, the horror.
As is typical of Anchor Bay, the "Homecoming" DVD is loaded with extras. One segment, in particular, justifies its existence, er, purchase: the 1978 Fantasy Film Festival interview promoting the "Piranha" release, featuring actress Barbara Steele, the late, great Paul Bartel, director Joe Dante, and interviewer Mick Garris. Watching Barbara Steele is always worthwhile: she is beautiful, witty, articulate, and charming. There has always been a lithe, catlike quality to her movements and gestures that fascinates and enthralls. Paul Bartel, too, is engaging to watch. It was he, with co-star Mary Woronov and co-writer Richard Blackburn, who made "Eating Raoul", an excellent -- even classic -- example of comedic satire wrapped in horror genre conventions.