Given that today is President’s Day, it seems like a good time to look back and celebrate the first man to hold the office—our nation’s Founding Father, George Washington. What better way to do that than by sullying his good name with a look at the Masters of Horror episode “The Washingtonians”, as well as the short story on which it was based.
Masters of Horror debuted on Showtime in 2005, and although it didn’t invent the anthology format by any means, it had the potential to reinvigorate it. Previous forays spotlighted the host—Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock, and the Cryptkeeper, for instance—however Masters of Horror spotlighted the director. Genre fans were thrilled with the idea of having all new mini-movies from their favorite horror directors, however the results were occasionally uneven.
The episode revolves around Mike Franks and his family who, while exploring the house of his recently-deceased grandmother, stumble upon an ancient letter that appears to have been written by George Washington. The contents of the letter contain the threat “I will skin and eat your children. Upon finishing, I will fashion tools out of their bones.” Adding credence to this disturbing notion is the fact that they find a fork along with the letter, which appears to be carved out of a femur.
Mike finds himself in quite a predicament: He can go public with this information and rip apart American history at the seams; or he can keep it quiet, and let the world go on believing the lies that they have been force-fed for centuries. Just in case he’s leaning in the wrong direction, there’s a flesh-hungry cabal of Washington enthusiasts who are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the great presidential secret.
While the idea of being pursued by cannibals, for whatever reason, is a frightening one, when those cannibals are wearing colonial garb in modern day, it quickly becomes absurd. And that’s really the weakness of the episode—the whole concept is so absurd, and the performances so arch and over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously. If it’s supposed to be a dark comedy, it fails there as well as the only moments that are funny are those that you can tell were not meant to be. And the whole thing ends with what is either a truly insipid punchline, or a terribly unclear piece of political commentary. Whatever it was meant to be, this episode has no bite.
The Bentley Little story on which the episode is based, however, does manage to fare a bit better. It doesn’t deal with the introductory character scenes, instead it dives right into the plot with only a few minor differences in story. The most notable difference is that the Washingtonians have a rival sect that dress like Redcoats and are cast in something of a heroic light. Onscreen, this would likely have doubled the absurdity quotient, but it’s easier to get away with on the page, when the events aren’t literally played out before us. There’s also no jokey finale, so overall the source material beats the adaptation hands down.
Although the plot point of George Washington being a cannibal is a fictional device, the overall message remains one of truth. “History is written by the victors” is a famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill, and it’s difficult to argue against. The victors tend to have the most survivors, and those are the only ones who are around to tell the tale. History is a belief structure that is based on a democratic congress, and just like in a democracy, the majority rules.
And that is the true horror at play here.