Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Modern Family: “Open House of Horrors”

Illustration for article titled Modern Family: “Open House of Horrors”

Halloween has been good to Modern Family over the years, but “Open House Of Horrors” doesn’t give us a full-ensemble gagfest of the kind that made season two’s “Halloween” an all-time classic. Instead, the families go their own ways, and in two cases even split up for sub-family sub-stories, making this episode feel a little bit crowded and a little bit rushed. But sometimes, you have to break up the group and send the most vulnerable character off on his own to be menaced by haunts and crazies. Without the fragmentation of the ensemble, one of the creative team’s great ideas would be a non-starter.

Scared, desperate Phil is one of the show’s most reliable laugh-generating characterizations, and by sending him off to staff an open house in a suspiciously dark, creaky, antique property on Halloween night, the writers set the stage for terrific scenes from the second and third act of this storyline. It can’t be coincidence that the other brilliant idea in this episode is enhanced by isolating Claire at home, trying to prove that the Dunphy house is still a Halloween destination despite the heart attack she nearly gave a poor dad with a too-scary door-answering get-up. One of the real pleasures of Halloween episodes throughout television history is how elaborate the costuming and decorations are. It’s like peeking into what Halloween could be if we all had access to special effects departments and unlimited wardrobe resources. And Claire’s exploding chest effect, enhanced with copious fake blood pouring out of her mouth, is astounding even by those elevated standards.

Because Phil, in his usual tone-deaf fashion, downplays the resulting investigation by their neighbors as an overreaction to what was at best a mild scare (because Claire just isn’t that scary), Claire wants simultaneously to prove him wrong and to attract trick-or-treaters back to her house, now grotesquely festooned with giant lollipops from which she emerges in her Little Bo-Peep costume to force candy on children. (“It’s a trap!” one child yells while fleeing, and a mother yanks away her daughter from Claire’s crook screaming “Leave it!” when she drops her candy bag.) So she sneaks into the open house and tries to shock Phil, but he’s at first oblivious. Then when the crook by the door clues him in to her presence, he’s interrupted by actual buyers and switches to being terrified that she’ll pop up at the wrong moment and scare them off. “I wouldn’t go in there!” he sputters when the buyers ask about a curtained-off space, and then upon ascertaining that the cost is clear: “…unless you love formal dining rooms!”

The sequence where Phil is trying to simultaneously sell the house’s amenities and sweep for horrific Claire gore effects uses the episode’s overall breakneck pacing to excellent effect. Then, after sending the prospects on their way, it’s all about slow, quiet tension, as the house lights flicker and Claire calls to say that she and the kids are waiting for him at home. And the house just keeps getting more awesomely unlikely as the storyline progresses, finally sporting an ancient console television and old-fashioned cradle telephone in the last scenes

Over at Cam and Mitch’s, the couple is throwing a party so Cam can show off his new slimmer self (“34 and a half,” he announces his total proudly—“I lost Lily!” which prompts Mitch to ask, “Where is Lily?”). But the costume shop reverses the sizes so that Cam is stuck in the bull suit and Mitch gets the svelte matador costume. Mitch uses his preoccupation with this injustice to try to keep from him the fact that Lily’s repeat princess costume is inspired by Mitch leading her to believe that her real mom is a princess. While this storyline relies too much on little Lily saying cute things, I can’t help but feel empathy with Mitch’s excuse for telling Lily the mom-princess fib: “I got tired.” When the two of them finally get together to explain that they don’t know what or where Lily’s mom is but that she loved Lily enough to choose the best family in the world to take care of her (awww), the payoff is a change of costume to Cam’s backup plan: Mr. Rourke and Tattoo.

In the episode’s most strangely truncated plot, Manny goes off trick-or-treating with friends dressed as an Angels player and a devil, leading to a great gag where the two of them trade good and bad advice for Manny over his shoulders. Manny is dressed as Gene Kelly and got in trouble for accidentally tripping the fire alarm with his umbrella, but a popular bad kid from school thinks he did it on purpose to get out of a test and invites Manny to join them in random Halloween mayhem. Meanwhile, back at Jay and Gloria’s place, Jay is worried that he’s losing his charm with the ladies when he fails to get out of a traffic ticket with a female cop, and Gloria resents everyone calling her hot-headed. The very fact that the Pritchetts have three separate storylines shows just how overstuffed (and shortchanged) this episode is. I wouldn’t want to miss Gloria going after two lazy teenagers scamming candy with non-costumes (“I’m a skeleton,” says the one with a bone-printed t-shirt; “I’m a lemon,” says the one in a plain yellow number).

The night is Phil’s, though, as it has been the whole season (with strong Cam support). Phil forcing unwary trick-or-treaters to endure his entire sales pitch and memorize facts for their parents before sending them on their way with candy: “What was our style?” “Pre-war craftsman.” “How many square feet?” “3400.” Phil catching on to Claire’s sexy-scary visit while on the phone with a colleague: “Is someone in the mood to be a bad little ghoul? … Oh Connie, I didn’t mean you… That’s just the divorce talking.” Phil joking lamely at the Claire he hopes is turning the TV on to the static channel: “So this remote you know how to use!”  Phil doesn’t need a costume for a Halloween episode. All we need is for him to be himself.

Stray observations:

  • When Luke asks why the lawn is covered with giant lollipops that taste like cardboard, his dad encourages him: “The world needs more dreamers, Luke—never stop licking things.”
  • The Dunphys can’t even have a jack-o-lantern. “The petition was very specific.”
  • Jay tries this line on the lady cop who pulls him over: “I’m no stranger to the police academy myself—seen all seven of ‘em.” “Sir, no one’s seen all seven,” the cop replies wearily. Au contraire, Modern Family. Au contraire.
  • Cam may have told Lily that fibs kill birds.
  • Phil isn’t impressed by some of the trick-or-treaters that stop by his open house. “A Gryffindor letting his mom carry his Quidditch robe? How Hufflepuff is that?”