Thursday, January 5, 2017

"A Case of the Stubborns"

Original Airdate: December 2, 1984

Directed by Gerald Cotts.

Written by James Houghton, Based on the story “A Case of the Stubborns” by Robert Bloch.

Starring Eddie Bracken (Grandpa Titus Tolliver), Christian Slater (Jody Tolliver), Barbara Eda-Young (Ma Tolliver), Bill McCuthcheon (Dr. Snodgrass), Brent Spiner (Reverend Peabody), Tresa Hughes (Voodoo Woman).

SYNOPSIS: Jody and his mother are just sitting down to a good ol’ country breakfast when Grandpa comes down to join them. Trouble is, he’s just kicked the bucket and he isn’t heeding any advice to the contrary even in the face of rigor mortis. Exhausting every authority in his hick hamlet, Jody tries to see if the local witch woman can find a way to get gramps into the ground.

CRITIQUE: Well jumping Jee-hosophat! If this critter fritter isn’t the darn tootinest example of the blackest humor this side of the Appalachians then you can just paint my fence blue and grab a bus down to Crusty Town. All of this genuine Southern dialect is a colorful means of simply saying that “A Case of the Stubborns,” the series’ first fully-fledged comedic episode, gets high marks from the hangman.

This is hardly surprising when one considers that the segment was based on a story by genre legend Robert “The Man Who Wrote PSYCHO” Bloch, a scribe who was more than familiar with the blood that bounded horror and comedy together. Even though the story was adapted for television by James Houghton (more noted as an actor on such programs as Knots Landing), the final product still has Bloch’s signature all over it. The ornery attitude and old-fashioned smart-assery that Grandpa Titus trades in was a signature of the author’s work. One imagines that if Bloch found himself in Titus’ shoes he’d act in much the same way, if only with a greater use of puns.

Why yes, that is what my nightmares look like. 
Owl-faced Eddie Bracken (THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK) is perfect in the role of Titus. From the minute that he sits down for his breakfast of eggs and biscuits, Bracken gushes with feistiness and frothy impatience, no doubt due to the gases that are trying to escape his moldering form. He gets to deliver some real rippers, from his earth-shattering roar of “WELL IF YA GONNA EXAMINE ME, DANGIT…!” to his snappy retort to the drunk town doctor’s insistence that his signed death certificate will stand up in any court: “And so will I!”

What’s especially effecting about Titus’ character is not just his irascible humor. Bloch and Houghton show us that he is, at heart, a good man, an old-timer who’s willing to fight for his rights—rights that everyone else is trying to explain to him—but who is also willing to accept the fact that he may be wrong. He demonstrates a gentleness that is exemplary of his benign spirit, telling his overwrought daughter and concerned grandson that he’s not looking to cause either of them any undue trouble and only requires solid proof of his deceased state in order to be able to move on. Titus possesses a determination to hold onto his existence even as it literally decays all around him, but underneath it all is the weariness that comes after having lived a full life, whether he knows it or not.

And proof he gets, in the form of a money shot that goes for the big gross-out and is more effective for the fact that not a drop of blood is spilled. After consulting with the town voodoo woman, Jody pours the “magic powder” she gave him into Titus’ napkin. The “powder” is actually just strong black pepper, but when Gramps goes to use the napkin it performs the desired effect just as well. Titus lets loose with a big sneeze and finally having his proof, shuffles his stiff legs up the stairway to heaven. What he saw? His own detached nose, overflowing with green snot strands and wriggling worms. It’s the type of low joke that the trashy juvenile horror stories I read as a kid would have, but damn it all if it doesn’t work.

Are you pickin' up the funky beat that the good Lord is throwin' down, my brother?
The episode has a noteworthy extraterrestrial pedigree: Bill McCuthcheon is on hand as the boozy physician, “fondly” remembered by fans of cult cinema as “Dropo,” the alien beloved by children everywhere from SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964) with Brent Spiner showing up as sermonizing Reverend Peabody (“When the Lord calls you’re sposed to answer.”), more familiar to TV viewers as the android Data on that other syndicated hit, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Barbara Eda-Young, Al Pacino’s gal from SERPICO (1973), and prominent fixture of the stage Tresa Hughes round out the supporting cast, with Eda-Young showing panache as a gangly, overwhelmed comedienne. From here Christian Slater would make his big screen debut in THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JACK (1985); it won’t be the last we see of him, either. Ambrose, the witch woman’s stuffed owl, appears as himself in his only known onscreen credit.

“A Case of the Stubborns” is a sweaty slice of the American Gothic pie and, despite the persistence of flies and cracked, puckered flesh, it never comes close to stinking.

“I reckon there’s no fool like an old fool.” 


Rating: 3 1/2 Lizzies

Coming Up: Charles Levin and Colleen Camp fall into the lamp of the gods in "Djinn, No Chaser."

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