Thursday, November 24, 2016

"Pain Killer"

Original Airdate: October 14, 1984

Directed by Armand Mastroianni.

Written by Haskell Barkin.

Starring Lou Jacobi (Harvey Turman), Peggy Cass (Nadine Turman), Farley Granger (Dr. Roebuck), and Fay Sappington (Mrs. Tracey).

SYNOPSIS: Harvey is feeling the pressure from his wife Nadine as she pushes him to become an executive at the computer firm he currently works in as a maintenance man. When Harvey’s back starts seizing up without any observable physical ailment besieging him, it becomes clear that the senior is just suffering from good old emotional tension. But the sinister Dr. Roebuck has an unorthodox prescription in mind for Harvey. Namely having his naggy wife bumped off!

I... am... Iron Wimp.

CRITIQUE: If you viewed Tales from the Darkside’s third official episode as a letdown from the previous entries, you really couldn’t be blamed. The earlier stories are grand epics compared to the extremely low stakes that are at play in “Pain Killer.” It’s an episode where the entire dramatic arc hinges on our clueless protagonist’s nasty cramps, with the mysterious workings of Granger's mad medico of fleeting interest for all the impression they make. One needn’t look any further than the moment when Harvey realizes after his wife’s “happy accident” that his back no longer hurts, a revelation that is promptly followed by an ominous sting of music. It’s about as exciting as it sounds, which is of course to say not much at all. 

This is a more homey kind of a tale, one that veers into Hitchcockian territory at the second act mark when Dr. Roebuck recommends wiping out Nadine to alleviate Harvey’s nerves. It’s an idea the Master of Suspense was more than familiar with, but try making “Pain Killer” into the next DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) and you’ll be sorely disappointed.

In that light it’s certainly appropriate having Farley Granger on hand. The actor, who starred in both ROPE (1948) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), is a true silver fox as Roebuck, his voice the velvety cooing of a much younger man. His role is, unsurprisingly, the most assuredly performed and intriguing. The script by Haskell Barkin only recognizes Harvey and Nadine as two caricatures, so Jacobi and Cass can’t be held entirely responsible for the flatness of their characters. Cass whines and bitches and Jacobi shrugs and mutters as is becoming of a henpecked husband and his battle ax of a spouse. 

Our leading contender for Miss Darkside 1984.

Still, it's hard to generate much interest in Jacobi's plight. He looks like someone's roly poly grandfather, just as vexed by a nefarious homicide cabal as he would be by a mustard stain on his sweatshirt. The entire supernatural conceit--if it can even be called that--of Roebuck's ring of pay-it-forward patients who provide their murderous services after their own "illnesses" are taken care of is treated so haphazardly within the duration of the episode that the viewer fails to feel its importance and gravity. There's certainly no harm in keeping the finer details in the shadows so as to further build the mystery, but the head-scratching fashion that the episode ends in is clearly the work of a writer just as undecided as we are. Is Roebuck a brilliant sociopath? The Devil? The world may never know...

And where the hell did that thunderstorm come from?

In truth, "Pain Killer" is not the worst thing you'll ever see. Despite its relative ineptitude it never panders or insults the intelligence. Barkin even manages to sneak in a few insightful bits, such as when Nadine scolds Harvey over his supposed pains ("You were giving in to it. That was your problem."), little realizing that her words perfectly reflect their own fractured marriage. There is also one darting glimpse we get into more interesting terrain when we see Harvey return to his disordered house to scarf down the chocolate sweets that were forbidden to him when Nadine was around. It might have proven more fruitful had Barkin chosen to examine how Harvey's life would become even worse without the presence of his emasculating (but in-control) wife, perhaps even with the arrival of new and even more torturous physical pains than his back troubles. But there I go rewriting someone's material.

For what's it worth, this episode also gives us our second consecutive angry telephone greeting. Cass almost trumps Keenan Wynn's gruff address from "I'll Give You a Million." I know if I heard her "Hello" I would just hang up. This may just in fact become a regular Darkside hallmark and require the implementation of a drinking game. Now there's something to make these episodes more interesting!

"My patient is in so much pain..."


RATING: 1 1/2 Lizzies

COMING UP: Danny Aiello finds out that all bets are off in "The Odds."

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