Celebrate President's Day With A Good Old Fashioned Cannibal Conspiracy In THE WASHINGTONIANS
Just think, if not for all that era-specific bloodletting, the founder of our country would be 286 years old on Thursday. Seems like just yesterday a young, angsty George Washington was bumming around his family’s tobacco plantation, itching to start a war with the French. Sure, your history textbooks will preach pro-Washington apocrypha all day long. But as everyone knows, if you want to learn the truth (about anything, really), look to the horror genre. One of the more disparaged ‘Masters of Horror’ episodes, The Washingtonians seemed like it might hold the secret truths I’m looking for. Not wanting to diminish our first U.S. president with a poorly-researched puff piece, I delved into the entire The Washingtonians mythology: the short story by Bentley Little, the actual Masters of Horror episode, and the DVD commentary from actor Johnathan Schaech and director Peter Medak (The Changeling). Here’s what I discovered during my explorations.
It’s probably best to start with Bentley Little’s short story, initially published in 1992 (Little has openly stated that the genesis of this story lies in the bloodless news reporting coming out of the Gulf War). We begin with Mike Franks meeting a man in a diner, trying to get a creepy letter from George Washington appraised. The letter is a pretty self-explanatory read:
I will Skin your Children and Eat Them
Upon Finishing, I will Fashion Utensils of Their Bones
Jesus Christ, Mr. President. If you’re gonna eat my kids, at least buy me dinner first. The appraiser is eager to sell the letter to a private collector, but Mike wants to give it to the Smithsonian, for the entire world to see. The appraiser does not approve. Later that night, a bevy of pale-faced men with gnarly teeth come pounding at Mike’s door, demanding the return of the letter. Rightly spooked, Mike takes the letter to a professor at New York University, who promptly negs the hell out of G.W., calling him a fiend, a murderer and (perhaps most egregiously) a child-eater. He tells Mike that the door-pounders are ‘Washingtonians’, a cult out to protect the president’s cannibal legacy. The Washingtonians kidnap Mike’s family and drag them to Mount Vernon in an attempt to obtain the letter, but right before the wife and kid hit the BBQ grill, a bunch of British redcoats bust in (led by the professor!) and cut the George fanatics down with musket fire. ‘Take it to the Smithsonian,’ says the professor of Mike’s letter. ‘Tell the world.’
To summarize, a ragtag group of cosplayers act like colonial cannibals to protect George Washington’s dark secret, and another delusional group of cosplayers pretending to be British redcoats hunt them down and kill them with black-powder weaponry. And then, you know, the Gulf War, I guess.
Not to be outdone, the ‘Masters of Horror’ adaptation really gooses the action from the start, with an amusingly unnecessary prologue featuring a carefully-misted blonde being chased down a rainy street by some sword-wielding Sleepy Hollow extras. The prologue is worth mentioning primarily because director Peter Medak drones on about it through most of the opening credits. Still creased that they had to shoot this scene on a backlot, Medak spouts some grumpy nuggets of directorial wisdom here. (On the woman’s decapitated head drifting dreamily across the screen: ‘Slow motion gets you out of trouble.’) Nothing much to glean about President Washington, unfortunately.
In an attempt to pad out a 20-page short story, a scaredy-cat daughter is introduced to soak up some wide-eyed screen time. After her shit is completely freaked by a George Washington portrait in the attic, dad Mike intercedes and discovers the letter from the short story in the form of a cute little ribbon-wrapped scroll. The MOH episode doubles down by including a bone fork with the letter, in case the whole cannibal angle is unclear.
Mike and Co. head over to grandma’s funeral, only to be greeted by a herd of sketchy old people, a few of which bear more than a passing resemblance to Colonel Sanders. They leer at the daughter like she’s a medium-rare Porterhouse, stopping just short of checking her BMI with a Hansel and Gretel finger squeeze. There are further attempts to procure the cannibal letter, including harassment via horseback, but Mike refuses to let the adorable little scroll out of his sight.
Later that night, the chickenshit daughter gets a doily-cuffed knock on her window and—huzzah!, it’s a George Washington cameo! There he is, the pasty-faced father of our country, gesturing vaguely in an altered frame rate (‘Slow motion gets you out of trouble’). It’s just surreal enough to be creepy. Some hatchet-wielding Washingtonians hit the scene and start up with the door-pounding and letter-demanding, only to be chased off by the po-po.
Mike hauls the scroll to the University professor for the requisite info dump, but here the professor is played by Saul Rubinek, so we get a long, ruminating speech jam-packed with bonus Rubinek hand flailing. He shits all over historians, comparing them to shady politicians, before discussing The Washingtonians’ deep, abiding love of virgin meat. (The whole virgin meat angle is mentioned in the short story, but the MOH episode really runs with it.)
The Washingtonians return, now willing to up their pending charges to full-blown aggravated kidnapping, packing Paul Revere lanterns like they mean business. Mike and his family are dragged to a cannibal feast sponsored in part by K.N.B., and it’s ridiculously, awesomely gross. After some cannibal speechifying, Mike’s femur fork is added to the cannibals’ home court trophy case, rounding out their collection. The Washingtonians reveal an enormous portrait of the cannibal president surrounded by a bunch of bare-breasted cannibal ladies, then regale the family with old-timey stories about how George got the taste for human flesh. But before the cannibal buffet can continue in full, Saul Rubinek busts in with three SWAT guys who light up all the Washingtonians’ wigged, bloody-faced asses. Replacing the batshit British cult from the short story with locked-and-loaded SWAT guys seems like a pretty heavy cultural statement. But on the commentary, Medak cops to the truth: they couldn’t afford the redcoats.
I have to admit, I wrapped up my second viewing of The Washingtonians hugely disappointed that I didn’t discover any new historical secrets. I was tempted to shelve this President’s Day project entirely. But a few brief moments of clarity in the midst of Medak’s rambling stuck with me. I had to take a second pass at the commentary track before I was able to fully pick up on it.
So get this: for most of the commentary, Schaech is happy to let Medak take the floor, allowing him to gripe openly about the overbearing parents of child actors, or pain-in-the-ass child labor laws. But on more than one occasion, when Medak attempts to bring up the ‘hidden meaning’ in this particular episode of Masters of Horror, Schaech seems to cut him off. And Schaech repeatedly goes out of his way to mention how purely ludicrous the idea of a cannibal George Washington is. His open amusement at the premise is so strenuous, it seems like he’s trying to hide something. Eventually, an exasperated Medak simply blurts, ‘But he was a cannibal…if you look up the history…’ before being cut off again by Schaech.
So wait a minute. Does this crazy Hungarian know something we don’t? There was some obvious tension behind the scenes as Medak attempted to get the truth out. Why was Schaech mysteriously trying to squelch it? To my knowledge, the George Washington/cannibal theory has never been entirely disproven. Something worth considering as you’re celebrating President’s Day.