I try to never pre-judge, but this title does not bode well for a series that too often forgets its sci-fi / horror roots and wallows in sentimentality.
Meet Tanner Smith, circa 1916. Disciple of Jack London, Tanner Smith now consigned to what is affectionately known by the Bowery Boys as The Ref . A grim sojourn into solitude, despair, pain and sooner than he knows, a curious corner in the Twilight Zone.
OK, they get me excited with that pain & despair talk, but Charles Aidman’s raspy avuncular voice mitigates the dread as usual.
Tanner goes into the barn where the headmaster’s daughter Amy Hawkline is doing whatever it is that you do to horses. He gives her a line that never works for me, “I’ve been watching you.” Possibly his success is due to him not having a Nikon with a 400mm lens slung over his shoulder.
They discover a mutual interest in reading, and the library. Tanner especially likes books about wolves. She is afraid of her father catching them, so Tanner leaves. They meet up that night in the barn. Amy brings him another Jack London book about wolves. Fearing the evening is veering off course, he blurts out, “A wolf mates for life, Amy. Did you know that? For all his life.” He is on thin ice, however, when he continues, “and lady wolves don’t make the guys wear sheep’s intestines on their John Thomas!” He has also brought her a gift, a cameo necklace. As they finally get down to a literal roll in the hay, the Headmaster discovers them and beats Tanner half to death.
Amy says she hates her father and he belts her. If he catches them together again, he’ll “see that he is found dead in some dark hallway.” Town drunk Hoakie overhears this and goes to Amy’s room. He says he won’t let them get hurt. Amy says, “You? You’re just a broken down old bum — what could you do?” Hoagie tells her to go f*** herself. No wait, that’s what I would have said.
Amy decides the only way they can escape is through the front door or during the ample time they spend outside. No wait, it is through a mystical old book. By staring at the horizontal markings, you will begin to drift off, just like when reading Pilgrim’s Progress. “Then you pass right through it,” she says. “But to where, Amy? Where?” Tanner asks, in one of acting’s all-time worst line readings. “A better world,” she says. “A free world.”
After Tanner is scared away by one of the Headmaster’s goons, Amy gives it a try. She stares at the lines until she is briefly transported to another world. Headmaster Hawkline catches her having incorrect thoughts and takes the book away. A man ahead of his time, like college presidents a hundred years later, Hawkline decides ideas he doesn’t agree with must be suppressed. Well, he actually tosses the pages into the fire, but that’s coming in our century too, I tells ya.
Amy kills herself, or at least appears to have. Tanner blames Hawkline and tries to brain him with his own cane, but the old man fights him off. His goons throw Tanner into the basement. Later, Hawkline takes a pistol downstairs to kill Tanner. Hoagie has sneaked Tanner the page from the book. He disappears into the page just as Amy did.
The final shots are of two white wolves running free in a younger world. One of them is wearing the cameo. I hope Tanner and Amy like running down small animals and eating them raw. And shivering outside during the winter without the glow of blazing books to warm them. Are they still human souls? Do they each really want to have the sex with another animal now? Although Tanner did find a loophole in that sheep’s intestine thing. Well played, old boy. Well played.
So, I was completely off-base on the title (see below). The actor playing Tanner is just dreadful. Roberts Blossom takes a break from playing likable old coots to be an effectively sadistic headmaster (well, he did play the Devil in Burning Man and that serial killer in Home Alone). Jennifer Rubin is fine as Amy, but those shots of her gazing banjo-eyed into the portal are a hoot. The score was a little over the top at times, but better than usual.
Overall, a pretty good TZ. But it would have made a better Night Gallery.
-  House of Refuge, Reformatory for Wayward Boys.
-  To be fair, it is a brutal line to say. Maybe only William Shatner could have pulled it off. No, seriously.
-  They put him into what I assume was a straight-jacket of the time. But it really looks like they sewed him into a giant stripper’s thigh-high boot.
- If I were smart, I would have recognized Song of the Younger World as a line from Call of the Wild. Song of the Undiscovered Country — that I would have gotten. But only after Star Trek VI came out.
- Noel Black also directed the great To See the Invisible Man, and the even greater Private School.