Thursday, December 29, 2016

"The Word Processor of the Gods"


Original Airdate: November 25, 1984

Directed by Michael Gornick.

Written by Michael McDowell, Based on the story “The Word Processor of the Gods” by Stephen King.

Starring Bruce Davison (Richard Hagstrom), Karen Shallo (Lina Hagstrom), Patrick Piccininni (Seth Hagstrom), William Cain (Tom Nordhoff), Jon Shear (Jonathan), Miranda Beeson (Belinda).

SYNOPSIS: Richard has just received a homemade word processor from his recently deceased nephew Jonathan, the victim of a car accident that also claimed the lives of his mother Belinda and drunkard father. Richard’s wife Lina derides him for his writerly ambitions, and his punk son Seth is too busy wailing on his guitar to pay him any mind. Not the best life, but Richard finds that the machine is here to fix that with whatever command he types on the keyboard.


CRITIQUE: Is there some unwritten rule that stipulates that all ambitious writers must be wed to total jerks? Richard’s wife has a complete lack of faith in her husband’s talents—even though he has published a novel—and sees the whole pursuit as a waste of time. It’s true that the vocation can be a very unfulfilling one, but I can’t help but notice that in almost all of the stories of this type the spouse of the struggling scribe must be the kind of “you’ll-never-really-amount-to-anything” bully that invariably sets up our protagonist for a “Well I’ll show them!” comeback.

For some inexplicable reason, Mr. Nordhoff remembers he left bacon on the stove. 
The cliché is given a further dollop of tired tropes by having Lina be an overweight, shrewish wife who guzzles soda and donuts in between emasculating her sweater-vested hubby and letting the house go to a messy hell of dirty dishes and garbage. Oh, and she plays Bingo. So now the stereotype is officially complete. This is all perfectly serviceable for the story—this is not one of King’s more powerful tales, working more in the simplistic E.C. vein that some of his early work did—but sometimes I just wish someone could turn everything around and maybe show the wife supporting her husband’s goals but growing steadily weary of the financial strain. Something that would show she actually did love him but also had her own personal limits. But I digress.


This is another in a long line of wish-fulfillment stories that the series will present to us, but this is a rare case where our hero doesn’t come to regret his desires and actually gets what he wants, probably because he wears glasses. Poor vision is usually a solid “Get Out of Eternal Judgment” card. An intriguing spin occurs when we discover that Richard had loved the late Belinda and had felt a fatherly kinship with whiz kid nephew Jonathan. It adds some perspective to Richard’s desire and makes his plight more sympathetic to us: he only wanted what was in his reach, but he could never have it.


The episode also realizes one of man’s deepest inherent wishes, to be able to write the book of our lives and dictate an upturn in our fortunes by the mere click of a key or rub of a magic lamp. The rest of the segment operates under the same trajectory of events that we have come to expect from this type of drama: Richard gradually realizes the power of his enchanted totem, here represented by the “Execute” and “Delete” buttons on the keyboard, first experimenting on some random object (a framed picture of his wife) before making a legitimate wish to further glean its power (first for twelve Spanish gold doubloons and then for his son's disppearance) only to hurriedly issue a final plea to restore order as everything goes up in smoke. If you’ve read “The Monkey’s Paw,” you’ve seen this before.


There’s a touch of W. W. Jacobs in a bit where Richard answers the door after he’s zapped Seth into the ether to find a weeping Lina in funeral garb, her running mascara giving her the look of a revenant as she stumbles forward and accuses Richard of killing their son. This is just a fake-out, a nervous vision inspired by Richard’s guilt, but it does distract for a little while with its expressionistic blue lighting that recalls the vibrant hues of CREEPSHOW (1982). The lead-up to Seth’s deletion is also reminiscent of THE BODY SNATCHER (1945) when we hear the guitar’s shrieking cut off after the duct tape-bound machine has carried out its function.

Rock all day. Every day.

McDowell’s adaptation of the material carries over King's tone and content so completely that it almost appears that Gornick simply filmed the story, adding a few small filmic touches that allow it to play out a little better for the aural/visual medium. The faithfulness to King is both for better and worse as some of the author's hinky dialogue gets carried over; at the conclusion Richard asks the revived Jonathan to "delete [the word processor] from our lives." The episode takes the overly-sweet final note of the boys indulging in a cup of hot cocoa like a real family and gives it some emotional resonance with the heavenly image of the radiant Belinda waiting for them, silent but smiling. It’s enough to make you forget the formulaic journey it took for us to get here and ask “Wouldn’t it be nice?”

"The Word Processor of the Gods" originally appeared in the January 1983 issue of Playboy, the magazine for shrimpy writers with fat wives fantasizing of better lives (and hotter women) everywhere. Pair with a cold Budweiser for optimium satisfaction.


“It’s always the wrong people who die, Mr. Hagstrom.”

***
Rating: 2 1/2 Lizzies














Coming Up: Christian Slater finds his grandpappy is restless in peace in "A Case of the Stubborns."

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"Inside the Closet"


Original Airdate: November 21, 1984

Directed by Tom Savini.

Written by Michael McDowell.

Starring Fritz Weaver (Dr. Fenner), Roberta Weiss (Gail Aynsley).

SYNOPSIS: With exams coming up and a shortage of available room and board, student Gail Aynsley resorts to renting out a humble space from veterinarian Dr. Fenner. He’s a bit of a stiff, and the small closet in the bedroom that always remains locked can’t help but pique the girl’s interest. Far less interesting and more terrifying are the weird scratching noises she hears in the dead of night and the unshakable feeling that something is lurking within the walls of the old house.


CRITIQUE: We can sit here all day and talk about the intelligent commentaries that some of these episodes bring up, but nothing quite stays with you like a nice, solid punch to the gut. We always remember the things that have some kind of emotional attachment to them, whether it be love or sadness or joy. Our minds may crave cerebral caviar, but our guts cry out for the greasy shock and the instant satisfaction it brings. With horror though, that satisfaction is more than likely to come in the form of a cold weight in the pit of the stomach than any sense of warm contentment.  

“Inside the Closet” remains so memorable to fans of the show because it fulfills this hunger. It can be enjoyed without paying any mind to subtext or metaphor or whatever other academic term you want to throw in there but that is not to suggest that it is lacking in any of these areas; we’ll get to that in a minute. The episode functions primarily as a ghost story, a campfire tale, a shudder yarn. Its design is to prey upon our terrors of the dark and the unknown and make us feel uneasy for a little while. When the question of just what is inside the closet is revealed by the shaking beam of a flashlight, all that’s missing is a big, loud “BOO.”

Roberta, I love you even with the eyebrows. Hell, I love you because of the eyebrows.

This entry marks the first script by author Michael McDowell (of such emblematic 80s paperbacks as THE AMULET, COLD MOON OVER BABYLON, and the BLACKWATER series), who would go on to become the most prolific screenwriter for the series with many memorable titles to his credit. Here he plays on that oft-feared mainstay of childhood, the Thing in the Closet. Simple in concept, but oh-so-powerful in execution. All we need be told is that there is a door that is never--under any circumstances--to be opened or even can be opened; the sight of that door yawning wide, the inner darkness full of horrible implication, does the rest.


Tom Savini, renowned for his makeup effects for such genre efforts as DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and MANIAC (1980), takes his first stab at directing and shows that he has a steady hand and keen eye for imagery. He frames the characters in some modestly innovative ways that subtly add to the tension between Gail and Fenner, such as when the doctor speaks directly to the camera, the lens slowly dipping down and angling up to give us the impression that we’re looking up at the domineering medico or the slow pan away from Gail as she desperately tries to explain her apprehension, moving further back from her as Fenner derisively shoots her theories down, isolating her.


The episode is really a small masterpiece of camerawork, not even mentioning the suspenseful POV shots that we get as the closet creature scampers across the bedroom and ducks under the bed. This leads to another moment of repressed kinder-horror: the thought that the beastie under the bed will grab you by the foot if you’re foolish enough to dangle it over the edge like a tasty bit of bait. Gail misses out on realizing this phobia, but only just. There’s another nice touch when we see slides of Bosch’s paintings of Hell that Gail is viewing. The snap of one of her mouse traps sounding off in the closet gives her pause and her panting shadow is cast over the two-dimensional tortures. She knows she’s about to come face-to-face with her own denizen of the inferno.


One of the smaller details that I enjoyed and was only able to glean after several viewings was the décor of Fenner’s house. His main foyer and living room are bedecked with stuffed animal heads and skulls, their gleaming ivory fangs pointing us to the eventual reveal of that which slumbers in the crawlspace of the house. McDowell ends the story on a sardonic note that brings it all back to his original premise: as kids we were scared of the closet, but did we ever think that what was inside was another child all along? For the albino, scarlet-eyed biter that snatches Gail away for private playtime is none other than Fenner’s own daughter, the monstrous offspring of his late wife. When we see her cuddle up on her daddy’s leg, it seems like it’s meant to be comforting in an “Aww, the monster wasn’t so bad all along” way. But it’s not. It’s actually very perverse. I’d like to think that McDowell knew that.


This was another aspect of “Inside the Closet” that caught my attention on the last viewing. Fenner describes his wife’s passing from malignant cancer, detailing the futile operations that she underwent in the process. Are we to assume that Lizzie—as the lovely creature is so-called outside the narrative of the actual episode—was mutated as a result of her mother’s tumor-riddled body? And just when was Lizzie born anyway? Could it have been through a post-mortem Caesarian? And is it an accident that Fenner is, of all things, a veterinarian?

It may be a bit of stretch to assume that the doctor had some kind of animalistic coupling, but that’s what I love about McDowell’s story. The questions are still there. We turn them over in our heads as we lie in bed, trying to tell ourselves that the open closet across the room is really nothing to be afraid of.


“There are no rats in this house.” 

***

Rating: 4 Lizzies (But she's biased)



Coming Up: Bruce Davison is looking for happiness in all the write places in "The Word Processor of the Gods." 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Slippage"


Original Airdate: November 11, 1984

Directed by Michael Gornick.

Written by Mark Durand, Based on the story "Slippage" by Michael Kube-McDowell.

Starring David Patrick Kelly (Richard Hall), Philip Casnoff (Chris Wood), Kerry Armstrong (Elaine Anderson Hall), Harriet Rogers (Mrs. Hall), David Lipman (Mr. Blake), Ruth Miller (Secretary).

SYNOPSIS: Richard Hall has been feeling pretty rotten lately, but you would too if your employer misplaced your paycheck. Or if you didn’t get an invite to the high school reunion. Or if your wife suddenly got the car registered in her maiden name. Or if everyone generally seemed to be forgetting about you. All of these have happened to Richard and he simply can’t account for it. Not unless it means that he is slowly being wiped from the face of existence. 


CRITIQUE: “Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all” is a sentiment that you’d have a hard time sympathizing with if you had to watch everything you loved and cared for being systematically removed from your life. To have it happen at the point in your life that Richard Hall has it would be nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment. Richard is at a job where he gets to use his talent but one in which he feels creatively unfulfilled, with a pay rate and working conditions that leave a little to be desired. His relationship with his wife is comfortable if just short of lifeless. His memories of his beloved small hometown are growing smaller with distance.

The darkside has shown us that it is prepared to exact fitting judgment on the leeches and vultures of society, the lazy and the inhibited, but with “Slippage” we see that it is clearly without mercy, pushing men who are already low to the ground even lower until they're grinded into cosmic dust and scattered by nocturnal winds.


Richard’s plight is not dissimilar to those faced by the protagonists of episodes from THE TWILIGHT ZONE such as “And When the Sky Was Opened” and “Person or Persons Unknown.” A line from Kube-McDowell's story sounds like something that could've been lifted directly from Richard Matheson's source tale for the former TZ episode, "Disappearing Act":

"I feel like I'm being followed--like someone is tracking me down the paths I've taken through life and systemastically tearing them up behind me. And getting closer to where I am, all the time. It's as if I've done something terrible, and to punish me they are erasing the traces that I ever existed."

Richard and the others are people who see the carpet being pulled out from under them by God’s invisible hand, and they are rightfully terrified. At one point in the story Richard even wonders if his atheism is to blame for his situation: "I've never believed in God, Chris. Maybe--maybe He's finally decided He resents that." 


Richard seems to exhibit less outward fear than his predecessors, showing a mixture of frustration and confusion at the outset of his situation. He suspects infidelity between his wife and best friend (who lands the professional gig that Richard has been gunning for for some time) when he sees the letter from the DMV. He calls up his old school chum who was the head of the reunion committee and cordially tries to explain to the man’s befuddled wife who he is. When he goes to his elderly mother’s house and speaks to her through the front window only to be told by the woman that she has no son, Richard moves from outright despair (“Please don’t do this to me, mother”) to chuckling sadly to himself and admitting that he must have the wrong house. It’s at this point that we see Richard has begun to accept his ultimate fate, whatever that may be.


David Patrick Kelly, immortalized as a psycho street punk and nightmarish Snake Man for a generation of movie fans, is pleasurably at ease in his comparatively toned-down role here, looking quite comfortable in his flannel shirts and glasses. His calm, unmistakable voice draws us in, explaining in the end to his friend Chris that this existential conundrum he’s found himself in is partly his fault: “Richard Hall cared less and less to connect until he started to slip through the cracks of time.” It was Richard’s growing indifference with his lackluster existence that led to his removal (or reassigning, if you like) from our world. He doesn’t get the chance to go back to his cherished childhood and learn from his mistakes like Gig Young. "Not happy with your life?" ask the Powers That Be. "Then don’t have one."


There’s a note of irony made when Richard’s wife tries to get him to sit down and watch his favorite movie, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Of course it’s a loaded reference, pertaining to Richard’s own inherent desire to get a do-over and one that his spouse blurts out in her anger when she says she wishes he was never born. In Kube-McDowell's original story, Richard draws the parallel himself when he says he feels like the victim of a "new crime":

"You take a guy and ignore him, pretend like he's not there, until he cracks up. I feel like Jimmy Stewart in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, only there's no guardian angel."

When the haggard and sickly Richard reveals a trio of self-portraits he’s drawn to Chris, one of himself as a baby, adult, and old man, they act as a series of his very own Dickensian spirits, the final picture showing a what-if projection of the Ghost of Christmas Never to Come.


The program further demonstrates its canny use of simple effects to register a sense of the otherworldly. As Richard gives his final statement, the lights gradually dim upon his wasted frame until he is in complete shadow before he disappears altogether. The sequence could just as easily have been done with Richard himself slowly fading away, but the encroaching darkness gives the sequence a more imposing sense of doomed finality that greatly adds to the moment.

Although the final image of a door being blown open by a gust of wind is slightly confusing (are we to assume that Richard is not gone after all and that the story now has no point?), the preceding events still pack a solid punch in its warning to the viewer: Be very thankful for all that you have.

"Slippage" originally appeared in the August 1982 issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.

Durand's adpatation for DARKSIDE remains very faithful to the original story's content, with only minor changes made to details concerning a favorite restaurant burning to the ground and Richard's disappearance taking place in his friend's car as they drive back to his apartment.

More importantly than that, Durand's script demonstrates more patience with the story's emotional beats, namely Richard's confrontation with his mother and final acceptance of his fate, and a better creative realization of the material (the touch with the three drawings is Durand's), making the televised episode more wholly satisfying as a drama

“Wouldn’t want anyone around here to think you were slipping…”

***

RATING: 3 Lizzies





Coming Up: Skeletons are the least of Roberta Weiss' troubles in "Inside the Closet."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

"Mookie and Pookie"


Original Airdate: November 4, 1984

Directed by Timna Ranon.

Written by Dan Kleinman, Story by Dan Kleinman and Marc Fields.

Starring Justine Bateman (Susan ‘Pookie’ Anderson), Tippi Hedren (Ruth Anderson), George Sims (Harold Anderson), and Ron Asher (Kevin ‘Mookie’ Anderson).

SYNOPSIS: Mookie and Pookie are twins, and as twins are emotionally inseparable. Brother Kevin is a computer whiz who is gradually dying from an unnamed illness, forcing him to spend most of his time locked away in his bedroom with his beloved modems. When he passes away, his sister Susan promises to finish the program that he started, her obsession with the project dismaying her parents. But the program Susan is completing will in fact restore her brother to the family unit once more.


CRITIQUE: When Roald Dahl tangentially tackled similar territory as “Mookie and Pookie” in his 1959 short story “William and Mary,” his take was of a decidedly cynical bent, dealing as it did with the dissolved-by-death marriage of an older couple and the husband’s continuation of life in the form of a pickled brain. Mary used this strange opportunity to take back her existence from the tyrannical rule of the despised William, but Dan Kleinman uses the same conceit to show not the bitterness of a holy union but the unwavering devotion of familial love.

The episode is by no means a tearjerker, but it does provide a wistful glimpse into a world where death can be conquered by the right algorithm of binary code. Ron Asher is on the scene only for the establishing scene that paints him as one of those dreamer-geniuses who have posters of Einstein decorating their walls, but the brief time he shares with Justine Bateman (FAMILY TIES) is serviceable and effective enough to sell us on their relationship. Kleinman wisely declines using any sugary-sweet “Aw shucks, bro” type of interactions that might hamper a lesser drama and their bond is understood without ever coming off as showy. Even though the buzzer alerting the family to Kevin’s failing life support system occurs before the first commercial break, we can still appreciate the sense of loss.


The attitude that the parents have towards computers in general is amusingly reflective of the time period, with Dad getting especially irked by his daughter’s use of the technical term “glitch” during their game of Scrabble. George Sims (who was last seen in ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION) gives his daughter a little too much credit in her technical know-how when he surmises that she hacked into a bank database to look up a check he had written for the sale of the computer, but he strikes just the right chord of angry disbelief and stern parental guidance to balance the tone. His character is particularly odious when he tries to give a message to Susan "from Mookie" asking her to give the computer up. Sometimes parents can be even more insidious than the harm they think they're protecting their children from.


If the dictum that states that parents never truly understand their children is true, the episode agrees. Mom and Dad are seen as interfering in Susan’s search for her brother’s soul in the digital ether, insisting that her grief is affecting her judgment. They do this without ever truly saying it, which is the norm in family politics. No one ever comes out and says their feelings unless the script tells them to. Mom eventually comes around, but there’s a very telling moment right before she does when she tells Susan that she’s signed her daughter up for riding camp that summer. This was a privilege that was originally denied to Susan because of her brother’s condition. The part where Mom acknowledges that Susan can go now because of her son’s death and explains that this is also a means to get Susan away from the keyboard goes unspoken, of course.


An interesting parallel develops late in the story that compares Susan's battle to the moralistic plight surrounding humans in vegetative states. Throughout the episode Susan desperately tries to convince her parents that Kevin is in fact alive. Both Mom and Dad type questions on the screen--electric blue light against the blackness of the unknown--that go unanswered but Susan insists that her brother is “there.” It is only when Dad threatens to pull the plug that Kevin’s mechanized plea bursts from the voice synthesizer, shattering the protective cocoon of reality from around him. Realizing that he has come close to bestowing a second death on his son, Dad decides that he needs to go sit down and think for a little bit.


The resonance of this scene is softened by the slightly-cheesy denouement that sees the smiling family back at the dining table playing their regular game of Scrabble with the now computerized Kevin offering his word choice on the interface of his screen as the rest of the group laugh warmly. They don’t freeze frame the moment though, thank Christ. "Mookie and Pookie" may be tame stuff when compared to other episodes but serves as a sweet little testament to the belief in undying love. This one’s for all the brothers and sisters out there.


“It must be the hardest thing in the world to lose a twin.” 

***

RATING: 2 1/2 Lizzies













COMING UP: David Patrick Kelly is feeling wiped out in "Slippage."

Friday, December 2, 2016

"The Odds"


Original Airdate: October 21, 1984

Directed by James Sadwith.

Written by James Sadwith.

Starring Danny Aiello (Tommy Vale), Tom Noonan (Bill Lacey), Robert Weil (Horace Chadway), Anthony Bishop (Phil the Bartender), Mario Todisco (Mafioso), and Michael Quill (Lacey's Man).

SYNOPSIS: Bookie Tommy Vale has earned a reputation of never turning down a bet, no matter what the odds are like. Vale finds his mettle challenged when a strange figure from the past comes calling, placing big bets that keep winning big bucks. It doesn't take long for the sharp Vale to gather that the man is the long-dead Bill Lacey, a former customer who committed suicide after taking a huge loss. But the stakes become considerably higher when Lacey proposes that Vale bet against the time of his own death...


CRITIQUE: This episode marks the first occasion in the series when the same person has directed from their own script, creating a real unity of vision here compared to the last few good-to-okay (but muddled) stories. Right from the get-go Sadwith establishes his hardboiled world of tough bookies and wise guys and keeps it running smoothly all the way to the finish line. Sadwith is comfortable in this type of atmosphere and it shows, much to our enjoyment.

"The Odds" also has the benefit of playing like a one-act play, confined as it is to a single location peopled with just a few characters. This may spell "boring" for some, but as Aristotle would be quick to remind us, the most effective dramas take place in the span of twenty-four hours. I myself have a strong affinity for this type of story, both for its succinctness and its noir qualities, and the marriage of the two works incredibly well under Sadwith's assured hand.


These are traits that, like many from other TFTD episodes, harken back to The Twilight Zone. The sweaty bar full of meat-heads was a prominent fixture in "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" and the central notion of the impossible bet is familiar to anyone who has seen another second season entry, "The Silence." Remaining quiet for one year is comparatively easy next to defying one's own death, but the two episodes both use the concept of the bet to reveal the deceptive natures of their characters. In order to uphold his part of the bargain, the chatterbox from "The Silence" has his vocal chords removed prior to being stuck in his observational glass cage. In "The Odds," Tommy performs "the oldest trick in the book" by turning a clock back one hour in order to live past his expiration date. Our imperfections have a tendency of bubbling to the surface during our most desperate hours.


The dramatic thrust of the story deals with revenge, but Sadwith is less concerned with the bad guy's just-desserts comeuppance as he is with the chemistry between Vale and Lacey. Though the two men appear to be ciphers for the forces of good and evil at first, the truth isn't quite so clear by the end of the episode. Vale may be considered ruthless and hard-edged, but he is nowhere near the morally deranged old codgers we saw in "Trick or Treat" and "I'll Give You a Million." When we find out how he managed to beat the Angel of Death, it's clear that Vale doesn't think much of dishonesty so long as it means coming out the victor in the end either.


Lacey arrives on the scene like an angelic man from the south, toying with Vale by placing wagers that he knows through his divine knowledge will come through. His sharing of hot leads with Vale's other customers appears to be cosmic justice in action, bleeding the stuck pig of all his dough so that he may start to sweat like his other victims. It seems like heavenly powers are righting the scales of justice and everybody's getting what's theirs, as they should be.

The Aiello in its natural habitat

But in spite all of this, it's hard to peg Vale as truly evil. Even when he's tearing Lacey down after winning the bet--a moment that seems to be heartless and malicious on the surface--the exchange could just as easily be interpreted as the more stout-hearted, worldly man confronting Lacey with his own transgressions. Vale tells Lacey that the man dug his own grave, both by betting more than he could afford and killing himself afterward when he lost everything. Lacey's spirit has determined to make Vale feel this same torture, but after this confrontation we can't help but consider how much responsibility Lacey is passing off from himself and onto the Big Bad Bookie.


Aiello and Noonan are great, with Weil providing a nice grounding to their clash. But it's really Aiello that this episode hinges on, and he delivers a performance that manages to highlight his character's nastiness and pomposity while still eliciting a quiet respect from the audience before his number is finally rung in. It seems only fitting that he should die in the only world he has known for all his life, waiting for the cool reprieve of a frosty mug of beer on the way to whatever waits for him on the other side.


"You're not broken yet, are you Tommy?"

***
RATING: 3 1/2 Lizzies






COMING UP: Justine Bateman cannot compute the strange happenings in "Mookie and Pookie."