… It wasn’t an angel.
I think I saw a real estate agent.
– Alice Sheldon, The Screwfly Solution
The Screwfly Solution was a short story. Written in 1977 by Alice Sheldon under a pen name, the story and the segment of Masters of Horror are nearly the same. I would highly recommend reading the short story, as I think you get more out of it than you do the short film. You can read it HERE in pdf format. (Scroll down, it’s the second story, unless you want to read the first story.)
I read The Screwfly Solution a few years ago when I was in college and it bothered me for weeks. My brain wouldn’t turn it loose and I kept gnawing on it in my thoughts. The segment Joe Dante directed for Masters of Horror is no different, but I think it packs less of a punch.
Alan and Anne are a happily married couple with a daughter, Amy, and close friends like Bella and Barney. Alan and Barney are scientists who specialize in bugs, namely eliminating pest problems. When The Screwfly Solution begins, Alan and Barney have returned from Central America. They have successfully eliminated the cane fly problem there by utilizing methods that confuse the flies on the proper way to mate.
When Alan and Barney arrive back in the US, they discover that women all over the world are being murdered in various cities for no real reason at all. In Pensacola, Florida where the first rash of murders are reported, over 1,500 women are murdered in the first few days. Epidemiologist friend Bella is dispatched to discover what disease might be causing these pockets of murderers, but it’s not until Bella herself is killed by the local mayor that Alan and Barney can piece together what’s causing men to viciously kill women.
The two try to warn people that the sexual impulses of men are being redirected toward anger and aggression towards women, but few take heed. Barney warns that the only way to protect women is for men to be chemically (or physically) castrated, but he is the only man who steps up to take the plunge. Both of them warn that this is a way to exterminate the human race. The leaders they speak to chalk it up to a new fundamentalist movement that calls for women to be “purified”, but Barney and Alan’s pleading that the religion is an effect, not a cause, is ignored.
Barney continues to research but Alan heads home to his now worried wife and daughter. On a disturbing plane ride home in which two of the female passengers are killed, Alan comes to the stark realization that he is infected. He calls home, tells his wife and daughter to head north and to shoot him if they see him. When he shows up at their cabin unannounced, he ends up killing his own daughter after she steals away from her mother to see him.
Alone, Anne struggles to stay alive. Barney finds her, and as he’s the last man on earth who doesn’t want her dead, he helps her survive and escape a hellish hospital.
Barney dies of sickness, leading Anne to fend for herself. She barely survives a trip into town to stock up on supplies after hunters discover she is a she. Anne heads into the woods with the hunters in pursuit when she spots an “angel”. Most of the men have been blabbering about seeing angels during the entire segment, and Anne sees several.
The “angels” are aliens. If you’ve been paying attention, this fact is telegraphed throughout the entire episode, but the idea is that the aliens are cleaning house to take over the planet. They use the same system humans use on flies and pests to exterminate human life on Earth.
The Screwfly Solution is not pleasant, nor does it offer much hope for humanity at the very end. Dante and writer Sam Hamm stuck very closely to the source material with a few exceptions, only one of which I have a bone to pick over with Hamm. (In the short story, women are at least portrayed at fighting back against the crazed male population. Here, not so much.)
Dante adds some nice touches; deaths are often off screen with context visual cues to tell you what’s going on, like the mayor exiting the office where he kills Bella, shirt bloodied and pants unzipped. That tells you quite a bit without any character showing up to throw a ton of dialogue at you.
Jason Priestly does an alright job as Alan, the reasonable husband gone infected-mad, but Kerry Norton as Anne is the real knockout. Brenna O’Brien who plays Amy, the couple’s daughter, is little more than a shrill, spoiled girl who gives the weakest performance in the segment.
While Masters of Horror is a TV show, I tend to give each segment its own due as a short film more than anything else. With only an hour long running time, Dante and Hamm had serious time constraints that hamper them. An hour and a half would have possibly been better for them, I think, rather than an hour due to how much time passes in the film and the story. Overall, it’s a great effort and starkly realized, a film as frightening as the short story.
Sheldon’s work was gender and political commentary cloaked in science fiction. Alice Sheldon was a writer who spent most of her life playing the professional part of a man, as she wrote under the pen name of James Tiptree, Jr. (To find out more about Alice Sheldon, here’s her Wikipedia entry.) Both the movie and the story are about violence toward women, religious fanaticism and the intermixing of the two as well as gender roles and a smattering of scientific fact.
While it’s true that the cause of the disease is an alien race, Sheldon’s point (and by proxy, Hamm and Dante’s) is more about women than anything else. I don’t know about men but watching this as a woman is unnerving and a little terrifying. While I don’t think any rational woman believes the entirety of Earth’s men will rise up to kill her tomorrow, I do believe there’s not a woman I know who hasn’t faced the bitterness of misogyny and sexism. More than a few moments in the movie like construction workers leering at women, men calling women “stupid bitches”, and religious types preaching about the sins of women and how women need to be “purified” strike close enough to home to be bothersome. The Screwfly Solution takes misogyny and femicide to an extreme; however, it’s there for a reason, if only to frame real-life situations that could be far worse. And if you think about it, there are countries and regions where The Screwfly Solution in parts is not so outlandish, where women have few rights. Sheldon was unequivocally a feminist author, I believe, and that’s a cornerstone of her work.
The Screwfly Solution is also an unsparing look at a scientific, clean way to rid the Earth of the human race. It makes sense as long as the aliens are willing to wait it out.
If you have an hour to give it, I think it will stick with you long after the fact. You can find it on Netflix quite easily.