The Screwfly Letter

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Dear Joe,

When you said you were sort of glad you didn’t get James Tiptree’s story The Screwfly Solution made into a film in the ’80s because it’s so depressing it might have killed your career, you weren’t kidding!

Yours sincerely

David Cairns

In 2006, courtesy of Masters of Horror, Dante got to make his film as a one-hour TV special. Returning to the more explicit gore and nudity of THE HOWLING, while abandoning the jocularity that undercuts Dante’s usual genre mode, the movie is a real departure. Nothing about it is “fun.” Although it could still be said to deploy a form of sociopolitical satire…

Due to circumstances not immediately made clear, an airborne virus spreads through the human male population, triggering fits of religious mania and physical violence as a response to sexual arousal. Soon the homicide rate is out of control, as men start killing women in response to a mutated sexual instinct. “Male sexual urges are very closely linked with aggression,” explains scientist Matthew Perry Jason Priestley, “Now, somehow, someone has figured out a way to erase the difference.”

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It starts nasty and gets worse. Mostly, the idea is developed with the kind of frightening logic that makes a fantastical idea scary, which is similar to the logic that allows a satirical conceit to reduce a scenario to the absurd (really, we should talk about EXPANDING something to absurdity). There are a couple of flaws, which are in themselves interesting.

Elliott Gould plays one of the few dependable males in the story. “The young men I’m attracted to are more than capable of defending themselves,” he says. But we never see him affected by the virus at all. Are gay men immune? That doesn’t make sense to me, since whatever the essence of male homosexuality may be said to be, and whether we consider it genetic or conditioned or learned or a combination (I think a very complex combination is likely), it’s definitely male.

There’s also a line where Gould suggests putting women in camps for their protection. This is a pretty flawed idea, but I can accept it because it’s the kind of flawed idea somebody might have. Obviously, putting the men in camps would make a lot more sense. They’re the dangerous ones. As usual, the authorities are useless at taking action (in the most amusing scene, a general rejects the idea of chemically castrating the entire army, demanding an alternative: Gould suggests actual physical castration).

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Flawed thinking turns up again in the DVD extras, where we learn that concern was expressed about a scene where the patrons of a strip bar run amok and glass the strippers. The offending shot showed one man punching himself in the groin with a barbed-wire-wrapped fist. Unpleasant, yes, but if I was going to pick something to be offended by, I’m fairly sure I’d focus on the women being brutally murdered, not on the act of probably-non-fatal self-mutilation which is at least, by its very nature, consensual. Not that I am offended. Shocked, yes. All in all, the film managed to draw stunned expletives from Fiona and I once every five to ten minutes.

The story spans a couple of months during which the misogynist plague spreads across the Earth. It’s an epic tale to realize on a modest TV budget, made possible in part by speedy filming (a handicam mounted inside a steering wheel allowed for an extremely swift, dynamic shooting style). What’s most intriguing is the difficulty in figuring out what appealed to Dante in this story. It shouldn’t be a problem, because the story is obviously powerful and original, but since it’s so different from everything else in the Dante oeuvre, it does present a puzzle. Elsewhere, he hasn’t seemed like a feminist filmmaker in any sense, indeed his films are populated with satirically sketched frustrated/frigid career women, in everything from GREMLINS II: THE NEW BATCH to LOONY TOONS: BACK ON ACTION and SMALL SOLDIERS (the memorably named Dr. Kiegel). And HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD features some dubious rape jokes which turn out particularly unpleasant due to a lack of any real humorous point — it’s as if the filmmakers assume sexual violence is  inherently hilarious. “Hey, it’s the seventies!” Fortunately, Dante has not only matured since then, he’s become far more skilled at comedy, so that even on a technical level such gags wouldn’t pass muster in a modern Dante screenplay.

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The humour in Screwfly is grim and unfunny too, but the filmmaker is in control of it. When an air steward snaps a screaming female passenger’s neck, another male passenger pointedly remarks “Thank you!”  as if a nuisance had been quietened in a more conventional way. The vision of a world where male-on-female violence is seen as completely normal by the men is a frightening exaggeration of attitudes that do exist, rather than an invention out of whole cloth.

What’s so commendable about Dante is that he used the format provided by Mick Garris’s Masters of Horror to make two films he could never otherwise have gotten made: Homecoming, which addressed the Iraq war back when no fiction filmmaker was going near it, and did so in a scathingly scabrous and bitter satiric fashion — like Michael Moore with FAHRENHEIT 9:11, Dante found a way to make a polemic entertaining; and this film, which nobody would have allowed Dante to make as a standalone feature, since it’s so far from his usual style.

24 Responses to “The Screwfly Letter”

  1. Wow this sounds wonderful! Elliot Gould play Gay? I’ll bet he asked Jason for notes. (They came to th Milk premiere together, and Jason says he’s staying behind the camera from now on.)

  2. Genetic? Learned? Really now, doesn’t everyone know homosexuality is caused by exposure to Dolores Gray production numbers seen at an “impressionable age”?

  3. That might count as “learned,” I guess…

    It wasn’t clear to me that Gould was playing Gay until his character comes out and says it. I just thought he was being Elliott Gould only more so. All those mannerisms he has that in theory COULD seem gay but just DON’T. But that’s fine, it’s not as if he should be OBVIOUS.

    Howard Keel, on the other hand, certainly had a highly developed sense of camp!

    Perry’s not bad in this. Fiona thinks he looks better older.

  4. Well Howard had to. It was the Freed unit after all.

  5. As for Elliot, he won Absolute Immortality here —

  6. Yes, the cat business is glorious. It’s a fascinating feat of casting: Leigh Brackett wrote the film as 40s Marlow trapped in 70s LA, which was the concept Altman intended, and then he cast somebody quintessentially 70s in the role. Plus, as Brackett observed, Gould is an inherently gentle actor, which sits oddly with the character. And in the end it plays beautifully.

  7. Thought this was quite good as well; HOMECOMING, however, is really great.

    Cairns, IRT the first flaw, Gould’s character says he took the chemical treatment he’d proposed to the Army. When he asks Priestley, the latter says he also took it, or would, but in either case lied. Hence, Gould’s character’s gayness doesn’t save him…presumably all the men on earth who didn’t accept treatment turned psychotic.

    SCREWFLY’s final scenes are bleak, bleak, bleak (beginning with the final shot in the maternity ward), but beautifully handled.

    Also, if you see THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, you’ll discover that Dante was – as of ’97 – not scared of taking audiences/viewers to dark, sobering places.

  8. I *think* Gould shrugs off the question of whether he took the treatment, but maybe I misread that. Perry basically says he’ll take it when he needs it, which is stupid of him. The weak points generally are when smart characters do dumb things for plot reasons. A shame, because you can see this kind of situation spiraling out of control pretty easily anyway.

    I’ve seen The Second Civil War and thought it was pretty interesting, hard to pin down politically, in a way, but surprisingly sober, yes.

  9. Dante seems to be the only one who really took the Masters of Horror idea (total freedom within a strict budget) and really ran with it. Stuff he could never do on the big screen. It’s a shame the rest of them were so flawed
    Carpenter’s were interesting ideas but I thought the results were appaling- almost as bad as Tobe Hopper. Larry Cohen’s was one of his clever little concepts
    The Peter Medak one had potential but flopped- stillprobably the most interesting thing he’s done in decades.

    Elliot Gould also plays gay in the rather sweet movie “Johns”. He plays a john

  10. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but you keep calling Jason Priestley “Matthew Perry”, which really isn’t fair to Jason Priestley.

    Among other things, he was the one bright spot in the otherwise dismal DIE, MOMMIE, DIE!.

    As for the “stupidity” of not taking the chemical castration treatment, the implication for me was that even the relatively enlightened Priestley character was reluctant to give up his “manhood” and preferred denial about his condition instead.

    What got me was the implication of the scene where the boy doesn’t show up at the general store. “Remember Abraham and Isaac”…. the parties responsible clearly decided to up the ante on the “pesticide”.

  11. Ack! How did THAT happen? I have actually little or no idea who either Perry or Preistley are, to be honest. Which one did a cameo in The Simpsons? “My face, my beautiful face!”

    I think you’re right re the stupidity, maybe he just didn’t quite sell the idea.

    The scene implying they’re moving onto boys was pretty interesting, and the logical end point of the idea. Remove all the women from the world and the men aren’t going to stop getting horny…

  12. Corrected it, thanks. Oh yeah, the Friends guy. Fat Matt, as the British crew nicknamed him on Lost in Space after he discovered the joy of real ale and his costume had to be let out three times.

  13. Almost re: the cat business.

    A thing that’s always delighted me about the opening of The Long Goodbye was the musical direction. The music cutting to different arrangements of the same theme as the narrative shifts between settings and characters; and that the theme doesn’t lose a beat in and amongst these cuts; always struck me as being a little light touch of perfection.

    Strangely, from what I can gather, the version played in the supermarket scene wasn’t released with the rest of the soundtrack.

  14. The music is terrific. Good old Johnny. Altman wanted to parody the way movies would exploit a song into the ground like that. Orson Welles got into a little of the same thing in Lady from Shanghai, although it was forced on him.

    My guess, js, is that the Masters of Horror directors mostly took the brief at face value, whereas Dante decided to go crazy with it, twice. Agree that Carpenter had good ideas, but he’s never really been an ideas-driven director. In the Cigarette Burns one it should’ve been obvious that the one thing he couldn’t do was SHOW the accursed movie. Great title though.

    The Takashi Miike film is pretty extraordinary, GREAT story. I couldn’t actually watch the torture scene though, he really is unflinching.

    Meanwhile, this gave me a lot of pleasure (scroll down to the last few comments). I always like connecting to people I’ve written about (or their heirs).
    https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/10/21/hypnotising-charlie/

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Back to Dolores Gray. i remember that some time in the late 50s a British tabloid newspaper had a photo of a distraught Gray recovering from her boyfriend ripping her engagement ring from her finger with her mother condoling her.

    Any further feedback from Ehrensteinalnd archives?

  16. According to Hank Moonjean (go to the IMDB for his producer credits) the most important person in Dolores Gray’s life was her mother. Hank was AD on Kismet. After every take the first person Dolores would look at was her mother — who like all stage mothers was sitting off to the side quietly knitting. If Dolores’ mother nodded then the take was OK. If she shook her head Dolores would turn to Minnelli — who usually was in mid “Brilliant, Dolores! I oved it. I simply don’t know how you do it!” only to hear “No Vincente. It wasn’t my best. PLEASE let me do it again!”

    It’s a wonder Dolores Gray’s mother didn’t request arbotration for co-director credit.

  17. She looks great there. And normal! She kind of scares me when she’s younger.

  18. Well sure. That was part of here charm — especially in It’s Always Fair Weather.

  19. Oh yes! A creature out of nightmare in that one — but they know it and use it extremely well.

    Whereas in the Follies clip she’s just a big mad auntie.

  20. We here she is in Nightmare Mode

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