Twilight Zone – Need to Know (03/21/86)

Jeck Henries is changing a tire on a dirt road in Loma.  The most interesting thing we will get out of him is that someone took the trouble to make up the name Jeck for a character that will disappear in less than 2 minutes.  His similarly over-monikered neighbor Wiley Whitlow suddenly appears.  Wiley whispers something in Jeck’s ear and Jeck suddenly starts screaming.  It is a good opening, but the effect is blunted because it’s just not a very good scream.  Is it fear, is it pain, is it a scream of insanity?

The government sends Edward Sayers (William Peterson, CSI: Twilight Zone) to investigate.  He is met by Amanda Strickland.  She had called her senator, but apparently only ponied up a big enough campaign contribution for one investigator to be sent out despite 25 people being effected, including her father.  She takes Sayers to see him at the local nut mental hut health facility.  After some creepy chit-chat, old man Strickland begins screaming his head off.

Then they go to the Hotchkiss house.  She had stopped by to see Mr. Strickland earlier that day.  The elderly woman serves them fresh bread and tea.  All is fine until she tries to stab them.

Sayers goes to work in the high school science lab.  He has deter-mined that the craziness is not caused by anything breathed or consumed.  Amanda has an idea that it is a contagious disease and describes the connections that caused it to spread.  I hope it isn’t sexually transmitted because every resident in this town seems to be 80 years old.

Sayers calls his boss in Washington, DC to see if they can set up a quarantine to contain the lunatics so they don’t do any more damage.  Sadly, his boss refuses to build a fence around DC, but promises to send troops to Loma.

Amanda has found hayseed-zero in Andrew Potts who is appropriately-monikered as she describes him a “local crackpot.”  He has gone crazy, but his brother Jeffrey — a professor of Far Eastern studies — still lives in town.  Sayers finds him at home.  With a degree in Far Eastern studies in this farm community, where else would he be during the day?  He says on his last trip to The Orient, he learned “the meaning of everything. Man’s purpose and destiny.  Life after death.  God.  Devil.  Existence.  Everything.”  He leans in to whisper it to Sayers, but he recoils.  No matter, Jeffrey is going to broadcast the secret over the radio.  He brains Sayers with a vase and heads for the radio station.

Sayers races back to Amanda’s house. As Jeffrey is about to give away the big secret, he rushes into her house yelling, “Turn off the radio!” even though he hypocritically left the radio in the Jeep on.

She whispers in his ear and he looks into the camera.  Over an exterior shot of the house, we hear his scream.

The randomly triggered violence reminded me of The Crazies and The Happening.  The mind-blowing revelation reminded me of Monty Python’s Killer Joke.  The whisper reminded me of Scarlett Johannson.  That’s OK, I like all of them.  I don’t even remember The Happening being as bad as everyone claims.

This is just the kind of story I like, and kudos to TZ for choosing the dark side once in a while.  However, a couple of things were problematic.  The screams were just not well-done at all.  A recurring problem is Charles Aidman’s narration.  It is becoming just as much of a buzz-kill as the scores.  TZ made a great choice having Sayers look directly at the camera after the whisper, however, the lackluster scream followed by Aidman’s raspy avuncular voice just drained the menace from the ending.

Still, there was a lot to like.

Post-Post:

  • Amanda was played by Frances McDormand.
  • Skipped Segment:  Need to Know was less than 20 minutes and the balance of the episode was a very good segment, Red Snow.  There was a 30 Days of Night vibe, but this 26 minute segment had more meat than that movie.  The main similarity was vampires above the arctic rim and extended “nights”.  However, Red Snow had the additional elements of a cold war gulag and the vampires’ adversarial / symbiotic relationship with werewolves.  A great movie could be made from this premise.

Twilight Zone – Button, Button (03/07/86)

This segment begins by setting up a story that never arrives.  Norma Lewis (Mare Winningham) is such an insufferable shrew that you have to think that characteristic must be of some great importance to the plot.

Maybe something happened in her past that made her this way . . . not that we’re told.  Surely this will be the catalyst for a dose of 1960’s TZ style cosmic comeuppance . . . eh, not really.  Maybe it will be cathartic when this battle-ax is bumped off in a grizzly fashion . . . nope.  Maybe . . . maybe . . . I got nothing.  She is just a nasty woman for no good reason; so unlikable, that it really casts an unnecessary pall over the whole segment.

OK, money is tight.  The car is broken and she has stolen a shopping cart to get her groceries home.  Her husband Arthur (Brad Davis) is clearly far too good for her.  He is a handsome guy with a cheerful attitude.  All he wants is a kiss after working on the car, but she pushes him away.  She might have nabbed the cart expecting him to push her around town.

The doorbell rings.  This surprises them because WTF would drop in on this couple?  Arthur goes to the door, and finds a package has been left on their doorstep.  He hands it to Norma, I guess hoping it is a bomb.  Inside is a wooden box with a glass dome over a red button.  There is a note on the bottom telling them Mr. Stewart will be by the next day.

The next night, Mr. Stewart comes to the apartment and explains to Norma how the device works.  If the button is pushed, someone she does not know will die, and she will receive $200,000.  When Arthur gets home from work, she gives him the 4-1-1 through a constant sneer and cigarette smoke.

The premise is solid gold, but Mare Winningham sinks the episode.  OK, maybe there isn’t much time in a 20 minute segment to create a nuanced character.  However, there is no need for a character to be so pointlessly repulsive she is unwatchable.  In discussing their options, every sentence is a scream delivered like a zinger, everything is negativity and sarcasm, she is smoking like a chimney, and constantly scrunching her face into a sneer.  And how long is she going to wear that same t-shirt?

Brad Davis also plays it very over-the-top, but at least his character is a decent human being.  Because they are both playing it so broadly, clearly that was the intent of the director.  It just doesn’t suit this story, though.  I guess the writer had issues with it too because he had his name taken off the episode.

Of course Norma is going to push the button.  She is low-life trash and her husband is too whipped to stop her.  They take a long time to get there, but there is never any doubt. Imagine if this had been a classy couple; maybe moderately well off but just suffered some big financial loss.  Or a preacher who sees only the immediate good the money could do for people around him.  Or a parolee who is struggling to be a better person.  Or a dying man who wants to provide for his family.  There would have been some tension then.

She pushes the button, but there is a twist.  I peeked at the Wikipedia page for the short story, and I must admit the TV version has a better ending.  But, overall, what a squandered opportunity.

The most positive thing I can say is that it makes me really appreciate yesterday’s Profile in Silver.  In particular, Andrew Robinson’s performance just gets more amazing.

Post-Post:

  • Classic TZ Legacy:  Written by TZ royalty Richard Matheson, but he used an alias in the credits.  I would love to hear that story.
  • The same short story was the basis for The Box starring Cameron Diaz.  I saw it on 03/23/10, but don’t remember a single frame.
  • Brad Davis was just in the execrable Why Are You Here?

Twilight Zone – Profile in Silver (03/07/86)

Professor Joseph Fitzgerald wraps up his Wednesday Harvard Economics lecture by saying. “We’ll pick this up on Monday.”  So the Harvard Economics class-week is only 3 days?  That would explain a lot.  I know the day of the week because it is November 21, 1963.

One of his students mentions he will be writing a paper about President Kennedy’s speech at the Trade Mart the next day.  In the incredibly unlikely event that the speech doesn’t occur, he wisely has a sure-fire backup plan to interview Aldous Huxley that afternoon.  Back in his office, Fitzgerald empties his pocket of some trash, a piece of gum and a 1964 dollar coin bearing Kennedy’s profile.  He draws the curtains and a colleague from the future, Dr. Kate Wange, materializes.  It is not a formal status report. She just wants to know how he is doing.

Fitzgerald is upset that he must be so detached from everyone here.  He is especially troubled that he has spent the last three years studying Kennedy but hardly got to know him as a man — maybe they should have sent Kate instead.  Now his assignment is ending and he will be forced to watch the assassination.  She busts him for violating the rules by carrying the coin, but wishes him well on his trip to Dallas.

Fitzgerald transports 3,000 miles to Dealy Plaza just as Kennedy’s motorcade makes the turn.  I guess he transported ahead a day to the 22nd also, but that isn’t mentioned. He raises a camera that puts Abraham Zapruder’s to shame and films the cars.  He pans up the schoolbook suppository building and sees Oswald.  He just can’t let history play out as it had before.  He shouts a warning, Kennedy ducks, Oswald misses, and Jackie gets to wear that snappy pink dress another day.  Most injured in this new timeline:  Aristotle Onassis.

The Secret Service detains Fitzgerald, but quickly determine he is “an upstanding citizen.”  He’s from Harvard, after all, and knows Robert MacNamara.  He is taken to Love Field to meet Kennedy who was disappointed to find out it was an airport.  They have to make a quick exit as tornadoes are bearing down on them — wait, what? Fitzgerald is invited to fly back to DC on Air Force One.

Fitzgerald learns that his disruption of the timeline caused the tornadoes, and now the Russkis have captured West Berlin, and Khrushchev was assassinated.  He determines that his shenanigans will inevitably lead to a nuclear holocaust.  He reluctantly admits to JFK that he is from 200 years in the future, and shows a holographic film of the assassination as it really happened.  JFK realizes he must go back and take the bullet in order for the world to survive.

Hologram: Still more solid than Oliver Stone’s version.

Fitzgerald manages to save the world and JFK and not blow the timeline.  There is another fun wrinkle but why give away everything.  Well-played!

Andrew Robinson does an amazing job as JFK in every facet that he has control over — the accent, the inflections, the mannerisms.  Unfortunately he does not bear the slightest resemblance to JFK — and has his own very distinct look — so his performance, though excellent, is a little jarring.  Enormous credit must also be given to the script by J. Neil Schulman which must serve multiple functions; not only the premise, but the dialogue that drives it, the political discussions, and having the words tailored to be absolutely believable coming out of JFK’s mouth — all amazing.  Maybe it is an idealized version of Kennedy, but that’s OK.

At the risk of gushing a little, the set design and production are also phenomenal. Jackie didn’t really have anything to do but was perfectly placed and costumed.  Dealy Plaza and the assassination were cut together — I assume — with footage from another production, but it flowed beautifully.  Even the White House, seen in hundreds of movies, felt more real than ever, down to JFK’s rocking chair in the Oval Office.

The best TZ segment so far.

Post-Post:

  • Classic TZ Legacy:  In Back There, a man goes back in time to save Lincoln.  In No Time Like the Past, a man goes back in time to save Garfield.  Where’s the love for McKinley?  Also, Barbara Baxley (Wange) was in Mute.
  • Title Analysis:  I’m not thrilled with this one aspect of the segment.  I get that it is a reference to Profiles in Courage, and to his profile on the dollar.  But then, Profile in Coinage would have been much worse, so maybe it’s OK.
  • Chappaquiddick!  Whew, been holding that in for 30 minutes with nowhere to use it.

Twilight Zone – Dead Run (02/21/86)

Johnny Davis (Steve Railsback) is driving like a maniac.  Unfortunately for a little convertible and several bicyclists, he is doing it in a semi. He passes the convertible and several of the cyclists run off the road to avoid getting what they deserve.  This is enough for him to have his insurance canceled.

He meets his father’s old friend Pete at a strip club.  Johnny could work with Pete, but Pete tells him it is a terrible job, a real last-resort gig.  Johnny has had 4 accidents in two years, so jumps at the opportunity. The very next day, they are rolling down some unfamiliar roads to a camp.  The gates are opened by guards wearing visors.

Johnny is disturbed by the shambling, moaning prisoners being herded onto the truck. The guards are visored, scarred brutes who are able to light cigarettes with their palms which troubles Johnny because who smokes anymore?  He goes to help a woman being whipped.  Pete holds him back, telling him these people are not alive.  He proves it by repeatedly knifing one of them.  The man has no reaction which makes me wonder how effective that whip was.

Pete tells us in China and India they have trains, in Russia they have tram-lines, in Mexico it’s old buses — all used to take deliver wretched souls from the Annex to Hell Proper.  When they enter Hell, Johnny is surprised there are no flames.  Pete explains that “Management” doesn’t care if they suffer — the goal is to keep them away from decent people.

They pull into the warehouse which is abuzz with activity.  It is like a multi-level prison, with people running all about.  If I saw this as a kid, I would have never forgotten it . . . unless I did see it and forgot it.

Their cargo breaks the rails on the truck and escapes — maybe before they got to Hell would have been a better plan, though.  Some of the damned tell him why they are there. A woman says it is because she was self-centered, a man says it is because he is dull, another woman says she was a bad mother.  Another man says he is there for not believing in God.  Johnny is heart-broken that he can’t help these lost souls or find hookers on the bill of lading.

There are prison-riot style disturbances in Hell as people are being damned for minor infractions.  A corporate lackey tells Johnny that the Boss isn’t making the decisions anymore, so things have gotten fouled up.  He tells Johnny he can help and gives him the location of “The High Road.”

When Johnny is spotted talking to the man, he is taken to meet Management.  Johnny tells him that he has met many people that didn’t deserve to be there.  Management tells him he has “been taken in by a lot of secular intellectual propaganda.”  He says his predecessor was not a religious man; that he thought there could be some discretion in who went to Hell.  Under new Management, the rules tightened to include not only murderers and rapists, but everything from jay-walkers to pornographers.

When hauling his next load, Johnny pulls over and questions his cargo.  The first man “offed a cop,” the next was a rapist and an arsonist.  From there, the infractions get a lot tamer.  An old librarian is there for stocking books by Vonnegut, Salinger and Huxley.  Another woman is a junkie.  There is also a draft-dodger and a gay dude.  Johnny opens the truck gate and lets those last four out.  Luckily the cop-killer and the rapist draw the line at a little pushing and shoving to escape a trip to Hell.

What a vault!  If only there were some way to escape this truck to Hell.

He gives them directions to The High Road which might lead to Heaven.  Johnny tells them about the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection [1] when Jesus was in Hell rescuing the righteous that did not belong there.  He’s just trying to do the same.

He re-locks the truck gate, sealing in the remarkably well-behaved group of doomed souls on their way to eternal Hell.  Although, not to nit-pick, but there was no roof on that transfer truck — these thugs could climb out and escape anytime.  Show some initiative, sheeple — you’re on a Highway to Hell!

I’m a sucker for a good Hell / Purgatory story, especially when live humans are enablers.

I rate it 660.

Post Debris:

Twilight Zone – The Leprechaun-Artist (02/21/86)

JP and Richie ride their bikes to Buddy’s house.  Buddy is using his time wisely, checking out the latest issue of Boudoir Magazine, although making the rookie mistake of holding it up with two hands.

There are some nice shots of the three suicidal lunatics pedaling down the street with no pads and no helmets. My God, how much did the stunt people charge to pull off this death-defying scene?  The boys hop the curb, ride off-road for a bit, and ditch the bikes.  During the opening narration, they climb a rope up a dirt cliff about 12 feet tall. Can this even happen anymore without CGI?  It really is refreshing to see kids portraying kids acting like kids.

They climb into a tree-house and soon spot a wee fellow singing down below — Faith and Begorrah, it’s a Leprechaun!  I’ll say this for the Leprechaun-Americans [1], they’re snappy dressers.  Even strolling through the forest with a bindle, they can be counted on to sport a blazer, frilly shirt and a top-hat.  When he sees the boys have spotted him, he runs away.  His little legs are no match for the boys, so they quickly catch him and haul him up to the tree-house.

The Leprechaun, Shawn McGool, tells them that because they caught him, they get 3 wishes, but cheaply he divides it up to one wish each.  He does mention that the wishes may be used for charity, but concedes that rarely happens.

Buddy, the porn-fan, goes first.  He thinks long and hard — that gives him the idea to wish for x-ray vision.  The next morning, the x-ray vision starts to kick in on the way to school.  In a dangerous scene for TV, Buddy ogles the teen girls getting on the school bus — naked to his eyes, and obscured by bright light to ours.  It is a good effect, because they were pretty limited on how to sensitively (i.e. legally) handle that scene.  As the ability grows stronger, he is repulsed to see the internal organs of another girl and the skulls of his friends.  He soon realizes that it is not cool to look through unsuspecting girls’ clothes — better to be invisible and sneak into the showers.  Luckily, the Leprechaun is able to take back the x-ray vision before he goes home to have dinner with his parents.

JP is next and magnanimously includes his pals in his wish.  He wishes for the ability to control their parents.  JP goes home and asks his mother for $50 for some records (black vinyl discs used to play music); she complies zombie-like.  Buddy sees his parents just sitting in their car.  He orders his father to bark and his mother to sing. Richie’s father is playing chauffeur as Richie lays in the back seat in rock-star shades. They go back to JP’s house for pizza and ice cream as Buddy’s parents continue to bark and sing in the background.  The dim bulbs finally realize that their parents won’t do anything without instruction from the boys.  JP also asks for his wish to be reversed but not before Buddy instructs his parents to add Cinemax to their cable line-up.

The pressure is really on Richie now.  He wishes for a “new, hot, really state of the art automobile, endless gasoline, and a driver with a mind of his own”.  The Leprechaun agrees; his obligation fulfilled, he disappears to a hollow tree, or the end of a rainbow, or most likely a pub.  They go out to the road and find a white limo and a white limo driver waiting for them.  The driver drives like a maniac and they are pulled over by the cops. Of course, the Leprechaun took “hot car” literally — it is stolen.  The driver disappears and they are taken to the police station.  They see the Leprechaun as they are being booked.  Once again, he lets them off the hook.  They run out the station doors leaping into a freeze frame.

There were a lot of red flags going into the segment, but it exceeded expectations on every level.  The kids weren’t Stranger Things caliber, but they were entirely adequate. Their parents were surprisingly memorable given their brief scenes.  Cork Hubbert as the Leprechaun staggered away with the show, though.  IMDb says he was born in Oregon, so maybe was faking the Scottish Irish [UPDATED] accent.  It sounded great to me and he was consistently fun and interesting.  While certainly not an original plot, it is a classic trope and the script here was funny and clever enough to shake the dust off.

One of their best.

Post Debris:

  • [1] I guess he got in just under the wire for the new immigration restrictions.  I mean literally under the wire.  Because he’s so short.  Walked right under.  The wire.
  • This is the second Leprechaun tale in six weeks.  It is nice that they slyly reference the earlier episode by McGool saying people confuse Leprechauns with extraterrestrials.
  • Classic TZ Legacy:  I Dream of Genie and The Man in the Bottle both had wishes going awry.
  • Title Analysis:  No idea what they were going for. [UPDATED: I am schooled in the comments]