Ray Bradbury Theater – Banshee (02/22/86)

Screenwriter Douglas Rogers is taking a cab to meet with renowned Irish director John Hampton.  The cabbie says that Hampton left one wife to take another.  He continues,  “We know all about him, and can tell far more than we know.”  What?  Is this a joke?  A mistake?  An Irish colloquialism?  I am too fatigued with RBT to care at this point.  This is the last episode I need to watch, and son-of-a-bitch if I don’t have to read the short story too.

Hampton greets Rogers at the door.  He immediately begins pulling pages from the file, glancing at them, and dropping them to the floor.  After skimming, skipping, and discarding pages, he pronounces, “Damn you, it’s good!”  Hampton is distracted by a sound outside.  He says it is the titular banshee, “The spirits of women who roam the woods the night someone is to die.”

Hampton challenges Rogers to go outside and have a look.  He humors the old drunk and walks into the woods.  And walks and walks.  He sees nothing for 2 1/2 minutes which, in TV time, is enough to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  Then he sees the woman in white.  She gazes past Rogers to the house.  “Is he in there now,” she asks.  “The great animal who walks on two legs.  He stays, all others go.  Girls are his napkins, women his midnight feast.”

I started transcribing, thinking it would eventually pay off.  She droned on for 5 minutes which, in TV time, is enough to hike the Pacific Crest Trail twice.  She tells Rogers to go back to the house and send Hampton out.

Blah blah blah.

There is just nothing interesting here to grab onto.  The performances were fine.  If you want to see a foppish Peter O’Toole chewing the scenery in pair of knickers, this is your lucky day.  Me, I just found him annoying.  Charles Martin Smith is solid as always.  He has shown up on Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Outer Limits and always delivered.

I could even imagine the story working on film, but it just was not well-adapted.  The long walk into the woods and the long scene with the banshee were excruciating.    There were some mind games between the two men which could have been a fun duel, but that too is painful to watch.  Finally the last scene is just squandered.  An unknown entity rattling the doorknob, if properly set up, is a classic.  To be fair, that did create a tiny bit of suspense.  However, Rogers fleeing up the stairs for a freeze frame and fade to black was just an utter nothing.  It could have been worse — in the short story, Rogers literally jumps into bed and pills the covers over his head.

Other Stuff:

  • Nothing to see here.
  • Thus endeth RBT.

Ray Bradbury Theater – The Screaming Woman (02/22/86)

Drew Barrymore is in bed screaming.  Unfortunately, this is 1986, not 1996; and she is reading a copy of Tales from the Crypt.

Unlike her real childhood, she apparently has parents in this episode.  Her mother sends 11 year old Drew to get some ice cream.  To avoid a DUI, she takes her bike.  She rides through the standard ET / Poltergeist neighborhood of the type that you won’t be seeing much more of on RBT (i.e. American).

We see her buying ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, which is probably product placement by Dairy Queen.  She is next reading her TFTC inside a construction pipe. This is another shot of the type that you will not be seeing much more of on RBT — well composed and executed.  But what happened to the ice cream?  Oh, the humanity!

She faintly hears a woman screaming and goes into the woods to investigate.  The sound seems to be coming from underground.  Drew is spooked and rushes home.  She runs into the kitchen screaming, “There’s a woman screaming!  A screaming woman!”  Her mother blames it on the pulps she is reading, and the cocaine.  Her father says if she cleans her plate, he will go back with her to check it out.  So either a) he doesn’t believe her, or 2) he does believe her, but is leaving the woman in peril until Drew finishes her supper and has a smoke.

Drew and her father go back to the woods after dinner, but there is no sign or sound of the woman.  Undeterred, she finds a couple of shovels and recruits her dippy friend Chubby, no her chubby friend Dippy, to help.  They go back to the woods.  They start digging, but before they get far, the owner of the land, Mr. Kelly, chases them off.

Drew decides it is probably Mrs. Nesbitt screaming.  Her parents had talked about how much the Nesbitts fight.  They also said it had been quiet lately.  She goes to the Nesbitt’s house and Mr. Nesbitt answers the door. She nervously makes up a story about Mrs. Nesbitt offering to give her the recipe for peach pie.

Mr. Nesbitt asks her to come inside and wait.  Drew not only goes into house of the murder suspect who is swilling scotch, she tells him about the titular screaming woman on Mr. Kelly’s land.  He chuckles nervously and says, “You certainly have a weird imagination.  How about a drink?”  When he goes to the kitchen to get the vodka, she gets scared and runs back to the woods.

Yada yada, Drew goes back home, hums a song Mrs. Nesbitt wrote, and returns to the woods.  That night, her father remembers where he heard that song, then finds her bed is empty.  Mr. Nesbitt attacks her in the woods.  Her father heroically shows up and brains him. The cops start digging.

Sure enough, they find a large wooden crate, larger than a casket.  They open it up, and after a few seconds, fingers appear grasping the side.  Yea!  Drew has saved the day!

Not to nitpick, but that must not have been the first scotch Mr. Nesbitt drank that week:

  1. So he kills his wife; let’s even give him the benefit of the doubt and say it was premeditated.  He built or bought this big-ass crate in preparation.  Didn’t his wife question what it was for?  Maybe that was the trigger — “You spent $300 on a big-ass crate, you idiot?”
  2. After killing her, he hauled this giant crate out to the woods by himself with no one seeing him?  Or when he bought it, did he tell Home Depot [1] to deliver it to the woods?
  3. Why not just wrap her in a carpet or blanket?  That big box would store way too much oxygen.  Scorpio didn’t leave his victim that much air.
  4. Which wouldn’t have been a problem if, ya know, he had not done such a half-assed job of killing her.
  5. Why dump her body on Mr. Kelly’s land?  Seeing how he quickly caught Drew and Dippy, he clearly keeps an eye on it.
  6. And, as I am tired of pointing out every few episodes:  A dumpy middle-aged guy is not going bury a 3 x 3 x 6 box a few feet down without a backhoe.
  7. Most nit-picky of all, there was no sign of fresh digging, or a 3 x 3 x 6 pile of displaced earth.  Maybe he had a second 3 x 3 x 6 crate that he put the dirt into and carried it away on his f***n’ back.

But none of this matters in a good episode; and this was a good episode.  It really doesn’t take much to satisfy me.  Drew Barrymore was not a natural young actress, but she really does light up and energize a scene.  I got the sense that the director knew exactly what to do with her, too.

Further kudos to the director for some good locations and imaginative shots.  Much of this was probably due to higher budgets in RBT’s first season.  Still, I think he transcended what he was given.  Good stuff.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] Or maybe Crate & Barrel, heyyyooooo!
  • The episode is strangely bookended with unnecessary (but not necessarily unwelcome) vignettes.  In the opening, Bradbury does some acting as he leaves his “magician’s workshop” in search of a story.
  • There is a scene at the end in which Drew mentions Mrs. Goodbody and some boys raising giant mushrooms in their cellars.  I take this as a cryptic reference to the future RBT episode Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!  How very Lost-ian to lay the groundwork for a future episode.  Maybe there was supposed to be a Ray Bradbury Expanded Universe.
  • These first season episodes have ranged from OK to pretty good, so I’m not sure why I bailed on the series.  I think it might have had to do with the next episode which I recall as being dreadful.
  • See you in September!

Ray Bradbury Theater – The Town Where No One Got Off (02/22/86)

It’s hard to believe these first few episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater are part of the same series I grew so contemptuous of while watching the later episodes.  Maybe, in some sense they are not, in the same way you can’t urinate in the same river twice. [1]  

This episode clearly has a larger budget than the later episodes.  Not only are there dozens of extras, many exteriors, and multiple locations, but they have a real train.  It has an experienced director to move things along, and get the occasional interesting shot.  It also has some star-power with Jeff Goldblum after he had already had a few big roles, and the same year as The Fly.

Cogswell [2] (Jeff Goldblum) is gazing out the window at fields and small towns.  They must be on their way to New York because the passenger across from him wonders, “What kinds of lives do people live in God-forsaken places like that?”  Cogswell suggests that they enjoy peace and quiet, clean fresh air, friendly people; it is a farming community where people “look out for each other instead of looking out for number one”, although they do have to look out for number two.

The man spots Cogswell as one of those “bleeding hearts with their heads stuck in the past.  They think the solution to the life’s problems are waiting around the bend on small town front porches.”  So he’s a bleeding heart conservative?  He challenges Cogswell to get off at the next stop and talk to the boring-as-hell rubes.  Maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is the Acela Express.

The idealistic Cogswell does get off at the next random town even though it is not a scheduled stop.  As the train pulls away, he sees the other passenger through the window shaking his head at either 1) Cogswell’s naivete about humanity, or 2) in amazement that his absurd ruse to clear the seat in order to put his feet up actually worked.

At the train station, Cogswell encounters a a very rude clerk, and a sleeping old man who is only slightly less responsive than the clerk.  He leaves his bags and starts touring the town.  He walks past the cemetery, past some horses, into the small town.  He tries to get a drink from a machine, but it is as unresponsive as the citizens.  A scowling clerk tells him it is broken.  It must be said that Cogswell is doing an admirable job of trying to be friendly and engage these awful people.

He sees the sleeping man has awakened and is standing down the street.  When he sees Cogswell has noticed him, he turns his back.  However, he starts following Cogswell.  He next walks down a street covered in fallen autumn leaves.  He sees a little girl on a swing.  He asks the girl’s mother about the room-for-rent sign.  She rudely tells him it has been rented.  He sees the old man again and walks the other way.

He goes back to the store with the scowling clerk.  He asks two guys playing checkers what time the next train stops.  The men ignore him, but the clerk says, “It don’t.”  She explains that it only stops if there is a flare on the track.  He steps out and sees the old man window-shopping pocket knives at the hardware store.  He reaches for the door, but someone immediately closes the blinds and puts out the CLOSED sign.

A dog barks at him, and the police station is locked.

He finally comes face to face with the old man.  He tells Cogswell he has been waiting a long time at that station.  After more walking and talking than an Aaron Sorkin script, the man leads Cogswell into an old garage.  The old man confesses he has long wanted to murder someone and figures a stranger in town would be the perfect victim.  Cogswell counters with a story that coincidentally he also wants to murder someone and figures visiting a town where no one knows him would provide the perfect opportunity. Cogswell gets back on the train, and the old man resumes his nap at the station.  The end.

They were wise to pay the money to get Jeff Goldblum.  There is a lot of mundane dialogue in the episode, but he is endlessly fascinating to watch.  But to what end?  In the final face-off, is Cogswell bluffing about committing a murder?  Almost certainly, but it is a nice turning of the tables.  But that confrontation really has nothing to do with the why the townsfolk are all so surly.  So ultimately, we get resolution on why one man is acting crazy toward this stranger in town, but no mention of the much bigger mystery — why are all the rest of the people here such assholes?

Still, it looked great, and Goldblum was great in it.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] Note to self: Might need to brush up on my Heraclitus.
  • [2] For some reason this strikes me as a terrible character name.  Maybe because it suggests he is a cog in some mechanical or metaphysical process. And I’m not hard to please — I thought Fiorello Bodoni was a perfectly fine name for a rocket man.
  • Title Analysis: My guess is that Bradbury was too pure of heart to even get the naughty spin of the title.  In fact, that might be what doomed this series to low-budget hell.  Maybe HBO wasn’t going to keep funding it if it wasn’t going to occasionally show a little skin like Tales From the Crypt or The Hitchhiker.
  • The town seems be to named Erewhon.  That is the name of a utopian novel by Samuel Butler, a health-food store in Los Angeles, and is nowhere spelled sideways.  Tip o’ the hat for the Butler reference here.
  • Yeah, during the talky parts, I was thinking, “Must go faster!

Ray Bradbury Theater – The Crowd (07/02/85)

After midnight, Spelliner leaves a party and is driving his white Datsun 280-Z home when a dog runs in front of him.  Not being a bike messanger, he actually swerves to avoid it and flips the car.  He tries to crawl out.  Before the wheels even stop spinning, he is surrounded by people.  And not the kind of people you expect to be out at 2 AM, but a nice cross-section of male & female, young & old, white & off-white.  When the ambulance arrives, the crowd disperses.

A few days later, he is back at work in his neon sign studio.  He and his partner Morgan hear a car wreck and go to the window.  Spelliner pulls out his Casio digital watch and times that it only takes 21 seconds for the crowd to assemble.  They are the same people that flocked to his accident.

Spelliner first tries roaming the streets with a camera hoping to witness an accident.  Luckily, Morgan is able to get his hands on a stack of surveillance tapes [2] and episodes of America’s Wackiest Fatal Car Accidents.  He finds the same group gathering at 11 different accident sites.  There is one man in dark clothes whose face is never visible.

Shop Spelliner’s Gallery for all your Sumo-Wrestler ass art needs.

He shows all this to Morgan, who asks what the connection is.  Spelliner then produces morgue photos of these same people who had been killed in auto-accidents.  His friend suggests he drop it.  Spelliner believes the crowd is former accident victims who try to steal the air of those injured in current accidents.  He wants to meet these killers.

They go out looking for trouble.  They see no accidents, but do see some of the crowd-members individually walking around which kinda undermines the story. Spelliner panics and runs over Morgan, and flips his car again.  Spelliner climbs out of the car.  The crowd has assembled around Morgan lying dead in the street.  He looks around and sees Morgan is now one of the crowd.

There was a great premise here that falls far short of its potential.  Part of the problem is simply the times.  The synths, the hazy cinematography, the goofy clothes, the neon — they just don’t time-travel well.  Some of the fault must also fall on Nick Mancuso’s painfully dull performance as the awkwardly named Spelliner [1] (to be fair, I’m not sure it was ever spoken, but it was tough to type).  Morgan was mostly a non-entity as well.

Credit where it is due. It is a simple shot, but maybe the best in any RBT episode.

And what of the faceless man on the tapes?  Surely that was supposed to be Spelliner or Morgan, but it is just left hanging.  I’m not saying that would have made sense, but it would have tied things up.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] It is slightly more manageable as Spallner in the short story.
  • [2] I guess they are surveillance tapes.  When he hands them to Spelliner, he says something I have been unable to decipher after multiple replays.
  • LOL — Googling the episode, I found a New York Times article that called HBO’s Hitchhiker series “embarrassing”.  Shockingly, they did not blame Donald Trump.

Ray Bradbury Theater – The Playground (06/04/85)

We open in the titular playground which looks like it was shot in a sandstorm on Mars with a sepia filter during magic hour.  This dissolves to a strangely constructed shot of a kid in a cage, or in some sort of playground equipment.  There are sticks striking the bars and hands trying to grab him, but no other kids are actually shown.

Charles Underhill (William Shatner) is at home playing with his young son Steve when his wife interrupts them to tell Charles he doesn’t spend enough time with his young son Steve.  I don’t have any idea what this director was thinking, but he sure loves his earth-tones.  Charles goes into the dining room for breakfast.  The table is brown, the bureau is brown, the door is brown, we see through to the brown kitchen, there is brown paneling on the wall, and his tie and pants are brown.  The 54 year old Shatner’s toupee is a rich mahogany.  Even the toast is burnt.

Oops, not his wife, but his sister Carol.  She has a career and is getting married, so she won’t have time to take Steve places anymore.  She chides Charles for not even taking him to the local playground so he can meet some other kids.  She is worried he will never learn to fit in; a misfit who lives with his sister — just like Charles, or countless men on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

That night after work, Charles walks by the playground to see if it is safe for his son.  He sees a lot of kids having fun on swings, on a corkscrew slide, running around, riding a lazy susan, roller-skating, see-sawing.  Things gradually darken so the kids are getting hurt, some are crying, bullies begin hassling one boy.  Charles calls them out and they stream by him like a flock of assholes.

That night, at his sister’s insistence, he takes Steve to the park.  At night, I say.  To the park.  Who goes to the park at night?  A lot of kids apparently, as it as filled with kids when they get there.  When they arrive, the kids stop and stare at them.

One of the kids calls to him, “Come out and play, Charlie!”  He sees them as monsters as they approach him.  To be fair, this is one homely bunch of kids.  He panics and runs home like a little girl.  Well, not like the ones he is running from.

The next day on the train, he is gazing despondently out the window.  He has this exchange with his twitchy, gum-chewing co-worker:

Charles:  How do you raise a boy?

Twitchy:  I don’t know.  You find a cement mixer, you throw him in, you let it run for five minutes, you take him out.

What?  That’s not how you make anything.  That’s not even how you make cement.  And he didn’t say make, he said raise.  Bradbury was a great prose stylist, but some of his dialogue is just painful.

As Charles passes the playground that night. he sees Steve running around having fun with the other kids.  He chews Carol out for bringing him and picks him up in his arms.  Again a kid calls his name.  Charles recognizes it as Ralph who bullied him as a kid.

That night after PTSDing over his childhood, Charles goes back to the playground.  He sees 12 year old Ralph and runs home.

The next night — or maybe it’s the same night; who the hell knows?  This playground only seems to be open sunset to sunrise — when they get to the playground, all the kids stop and stare at them.  And I can’t stress enough how hideous these kids are.  If there were a juvie version of Escape From New York, this would be it.

What happened next actually shocked me.  I expected a long-winded soliloquy from Bradbury on the innocence of children.  Actually, I got some interesting imagery and a body swap between Charles and Steve.  Charles, now in Steve’s body, is once again chased up the monkey bars and the kids are poking at him.

I was surprised again.  I expected Steve, now in Charles’s body, to rescue li’l Charles.  But no.  He mills around, does a little swinging on the swing set.  Makes his way toward the gate, and leaves.  What do you expect, he’s just a dopey little kid.

This was peak-Shatner, filmed between Star Trek III and IV.  Yeah, you get the breathy pauses and the permed brown toupee, but people forget how good an actor he was.  The image of him, with Steve’s katra in him is tough to shake.  The easiest thing would have been for Bradbury to have him go save Steve, they switch back, and have a good cry.  However, with the mind and soul of a six year old, the Charles-body doesn’t know what to do.  He stays away from the crowd.  Maybe he doesn’t fully understand what is happening.  He plays a little by himself, then gets bored and leaves.

Maybe a little too melodramatic, but one of RBT’s better episodes.  It certainly would have made a better debut than Marionettes, Inc.

Other Stuff: