Family Man is the third episode of Fear Itself but should have been the first: It’s the best of the three so far and the only one which actually delivers on a narrative level. Directed by Ronny Yu (Freddy vs. Jason, Bride of Chucky) and written by Dan Knauf (creator of HBO’s short-lived Carnivale), the episode takes a familiar premise and then plays subtle games with it to keep the viewer off balance. What looks to be a horror movie variation on John Woo’s Face-Off slowly drifts into something much more sly and Kafkaesque.
The story is sketched quickly in broad strokes, establishing Dennis (Colin Ferguson) as the very image of a “family man”: a decent, hard working husband and father whose life is changed forever following a terrible car accident. Dennis wakes up to find himself lucky to be alive, only very unlucky to have somehow switched bodies with another, very different patient in the ER. This man is Richard (Clifton Collins Jr.), who happens to be a serial killer known as the Family Man for his habit of slaughtering entire families. Dennis is placed in jail awaiting trial for his terrible crimes while Richard goes home with Dennis’s loving wife and children, who are all unaware of the monster they are living with.
What Knauf and Yu do effectively here is to show how Richard and Dennis become one another after walking in the other’s shoes. Richard seems to take very well to playing the role of loving husband and father and appears to be on the path of some divine redemption while Dennis becomes more violent and angry as he’s accused of Richard’s terrible acts and treated like a monster by the prison guards. There’s actual suspense to their psychological switcheroo, and that the ending is a surprise at all becomes the biggest shock: It seems obvious where this story is going, but when it gets there, Knauf delivers a much crueler capper than you might have expected.
At around 45 minutes, sans commercial breaks, “Family Man” is more developed than your standard 23-minute Twilight Zone episode but it’s not nearly long enough to feel as dramatically satisfying as a feature film. By the time the main conceit is established, there isn’t a lot of time left to really build the story with a real second act, especially with Yu building up to that ironic end. Both the original Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents experimented with the one-hour time slot, but those experiments failed and the shows quickly returned to their half-hour formats. Rod Serling complained publicly that the stories were not suited to the one-hour format, forcing writers to fill up the time with “soap opera.” The problem with Family Man isn’t that the extra time is filled with soap opera but rather by a plethora of provocative ideas that are set up without much payoff. The episode suggests, for example, that Dennis has developed some kind of supernatural immunity to pain from Richard’s body, but this idea is immediately forgotten about. Of course, it seems pointless to criticize an overabundance of imagination in a genre where ideas are often stale long before they are harvested.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.