Monday, August 13, 2012

Night Gallery: Season Two, Episode Six

Night Gallery 2.6
First aired 27 October 1971
Overall rating: 6/10

Preceding episode Night Gallery 2.5
Following episode Night Gallery 2.7, coming soon-ish

The Halloween episode, so we'd think by its date, features traditional horror fare, with its haunted house and its vampires. The narratives themselves are also a little traditional, and while the first has some fun tossing in some twists among its standard tropes, the second is predictable and flat.

In neither segment does Rod Serling dip his writing talents.

A Question of Fear
Directed by Jack Laird
Written by Theodore J. Flicker from the short story by Bryan Lewis
Starring Leslie Nielsen, Fritz Weaver
Rating: 7/10

"The World is divided between those with courage and those without."

Colonel Dennis Malloy has no patience for the weak. Having lived through countless battles, facing death head-on and having killed men with his bare hands, he considers himself to be the epitome of bravery. The wealthy Dr. Mazi, on the other hand, isn't ashamed to share his tale of a haunted house experience that turned his hair white overnight. When Malloy ridicules Mazi at their club, the doctor bets the colonel ten thousand dollars that he cannot stay at that house, which Mazi still owns, for one whole night without feeling fear. The colonel accepts, partly for the money and partly because it would've otherwise been a pointless and very short episode.

Malloy arrives at the house and searches its rooms. There are thick spiderwebs housing large spiders, candles that blow out by themselves, maniacal laughing bright and glittery ghost heads, spontaneously dripping blood, fiery piano-playing uniformed figures, a strange streaky substance in the basement... a whole mess of things. Malloy remains level-headed and only a little jumpy, discovering soon enough that the strange occurrences are manufactured. But why would Mazi spend so much money for such an elaborate gag, he wonders. Malloy comes across a clean and tidy bedroom with a lit fireplace and a comfortable bed, and gratefully settles down for the night after cutting the electrical chord he finds underneath the bed. In bed a cage wraps around him as a swinging blade descends toward his neck. Afraid at first, he calls out to Mazi knowing the other wouldn't commit cold-blooded murder, and the blade stops.

[Spoilers] The following morning Malloy awakens refreshed, and finds breakfast waiting in the kitchen, as well as a monitor on which Mazi appears, his hair no longer white. An elaborate gag indeed, and Malloy has proven himself brave without comparison. But Mazi has something else under his sleeve, involving that slimy streak we encountered earlier in the basement. He convinces Malloy there is a horrible creature in the basement, and the colonel blows his brains out, after which Mazi announces that it was all a lie. The end.

Somewhat disappointing on one level, perhaps, as there is a certain anticlimactic quality to Mazi's final announcement. Yet this is a battle between two strong characters, and the real point being addressed here is that the doctor defeats the colonel, as he has frightened the eternal survivor Malloy to such an extreme that he takes his own life. There is a lack of satisfaction in that Malloy will never know he was tricked, though by taking his life he is admitting defeat. In addition, Malloy is outed as a horrible tyrant and war-time murderer by Mazi, so that this not a case of an arrogant man getting more than he deserves, but a murderer being dealt with outside the confines of the law.

An enjoyable and suspenseful little play, it is also highly watchable with the pairing of Leslie Nielsen and Fritz Weaver. Some of the props don't quite work, as with Malloy's obviously fake eyepatch, the rubber spider dangling on the spiderweb that Malloy first tears asunder, and the mechanical dummy piano player who is obviously a real man. While these do add a certain charm to the 1970s set, they really could have done away with that silly and pointless disco ghost head.

Leslie Nielsen does a surprisingly good job as the crusty colonel, though the role was likely imagined for a slightly older actor with more military experience. I won't list Nielsen's anthology history as he's appeared in nearly everything, including both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as Naked City, Thriller and several episodes of Tales of Tomorrow and Suspense (1949). This is Nielsen's second of two appearances on Night Gallery; he was in the first season segment "The Phantom of What?" Surprisingly Nielsen never appeared on The Twilight Zone, though his presence was implied in many episodes since the show re-used several props built for Nielsen's big screen adventure, Forbidden Planet. Fritz Weaver is very well cast as the methodical and utterly wealthy Dr. Mazi. Like Nielsen he has appeared in numerous anthology series, including two for Tales from the Darkside: "Inside the Closet" (1.7) "Comet Watch" (2.13). Unlike Nielsen he appeared in two The Twilight Zone episodes, both of them remarkable: "Third from the Sun" (1.14) and "The Obsolete Man" (2.29). Both actors appear in different segments of the enjoyable 1982 anthology movie Creepshow.

The Devil is Not Mocked
Directed by Gene R. Kearney
Written by Gene R. Kearney from the short story by Manly Wade Wellman
Starring Francis Lederer and Helmut Dantine
Rating: 4/10

A Nazi commander leads his troops to rest and food at a tiny isolated village. General von Grunn wants more than food though, as he is convinced that the village is home to a dangerous resistance group. Our host, Dracula, along with his servants, are kind and passive toward the visiting Nazis, and remain overly hospitable as the clock's hand is approaching midnight.

I found this episode drab and predictable. The narrative frame of Dracula years later (in 1971, I presume) telling the tale to his grandson, adds little to the teleplay. Essentially produced so that Francis Lederer can reprise his role as Dracula from the 1958 movie, The Return of Dracula, which though a commercial failure upon its release, was by 1971 elevated to cult status by horror enthusiasts. This was Lederer's final screen role, according to IMDb.

Austrian actor Helmut Dantine was an active anti-Nazi activist whose parents perished in a concentration camp. Though Austrian he portrayed many fascist Nazis throughout his career. He is best known as the naive young gambler in Casablanca, and has appeared in many early anthology series.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Unthology No. 1 (2010)

Unthology No. 1, edited by Robin Jones and Ashley Stokes, Unthank Books, 2010.

Unthank Books webpage
Unthology 1 at Goodreads

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog instead.

More of a neglected book than a forgotten one, this anthology, the first in an annual series, was released under the radar, which is truly a shame as it features some fine writing and more variety than we normally come across in similar publications.

The editors over at Unthank Books kindly asked me to review some of their publications, and I broke a streak of declining such requests by happily accepting. (A footnote to handling review requests was posted here.) The first two unthologies came to my door in a single envelope, and excited as I get receiving books in the mail, I tore the envelope open... actually that's not quite right. I was at home heading out to get work done in a coffee shop, needing a change of setting with a deadline looming not far ahead, and nabbed the package from the mailbox on the way out. At the coffee shop I sank into a cozy chair with a cup of dark coffee, and rather than plunge toward meeting my deadline I opened the envelope and admired the two books. I liked the paper feel--no glossy plastic here--and the colourful and detailed front cover. I would gladly place them on my too organized shelf dedicated to my nicer literary journals/periodicals (yes I have such a thing), but half-way through the volume I had an accident with a mug of coffee and sadly destroyed the cover. The pages are mostly fine but the cover is utterly mangled, warped beyond recognition. I felt terribly, even though it's "only a book," especially since I take good care of such volumes, and don't normally leave the house with them.

But I digress...

Unthank Books is a small press located in the UK that focuses on alternative, non-commercial fiction and non-fiction. They specialize in daring, experimental writing, as displayed on their home page and as discussed in the unthology's brief introduction. We need daring, unconventional short fiction, the editors are claiming, and I totally agree, particularly because most high profile journals prefer to play it safe and publish standard, semi-marketable mainstream fare. (I say "semi-marketable" because terribly few literary periodicals are straightforwardly marketable.) "Unthology is an attempt to reverse this trend," the introduction states; the trend of essentially marginalizing and constraining the short story, a form that once was a common portion of the publisher's agenda. The mainstream public, according to J. G. Ballard, has lost the gift of reading short fiction. I'm not sure if the ability to properly read short fiction is a gift but more of a practiced aptitude. I wouldn't like to call my own abilities a gift, but rather something I've developed through study and practice. ("Gift" does sound nicer, though.)

I do wonder why there are two novel extracts in a book promoting the standards of the short form, but then again Unthology has "no agenda," no limitations on theme, form or length. I'm glad there is no agenda, since the two excerpts are surprisingly among my favourite selections in the volume.

Unthology is certainly different. Unlike most periodicals or anthologies, this volume contains a wide range of styles among its seventeen selections. On one hand this offers a great reading challenge, as our minds must get accustomed to each individual story. Many periodicals like the über popular Glimmer Train don't offer this challenge, each story so similar that the brain is set to monotone mode and the reader might as well have picked up a novel. On the other hand this variety offers a risk, since human tastes vary and each reader will likely encounter two or three stories they are not particularly fond of. Personally I didn't dislike any of the stories here, but there were a few that just didn't grip me, though each was well written. My two favourite entries are those by Viccy Adams and Ashley Stokes, but others that stand out for me are those by Mischa Hiller, Laura Stimson, Sherilyn Connelly, Sarah Dobbs and Tessa West.

extract from "Doing it by the Book" by Viccy Adams. 7/10

I don't always read excerpts. In fact, I'm pretty mixed about the concept. I find sometimes it's merely a form of advertisement rather than a valued piece of writing that manages to stand alone. "Doing it by the Book" stands strong on its own, that I'm actually surprised it's part of a longer project. (I tried to learn more about the project and understand it was part of Adams's dissertation, but haven't been able to figure out much about the project itself. You can visit Dr. Adams's website here.)

Our narrator hero is riding home on a train. He's got his coat, his book and his nice red suitcase with him. He takes a moment to step into the train's washroom and when he returns his entire life has been turned upside down. There is a man sitting in his seat, with his coat and his book and his nice red suitcase, and suddenly our narrator's life has become suspect. As we follow this amnesiac and possibly schizophrenic man across several hours of losing himself, we witness a systematic breakdown of a rational civilized individual, and discover, sometimes abruptly and at times subtly, that this seemingly stable narrator is a downtrodden, coldly violent and deluded individual. There is desperation mixed with a strange form of sincerity and the ridiculous that is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun's Hunger. The ending was, as expected from an excerpt, not too satisfying and a little too much like a punch-line.

Very well written, with an appropriately cold and precise prose, I would be interested in reading the work in its entirety.

"Write or Die" by Sandra Jensen. 5/10

A teenage girl's confession over killing a man reveals the dark side of a rural working community. The narrative is at times amusing and there is quite a bit of suspense, but the side-tracking and repetition of what's going on down in that cellar, writing that confession while the men with guns are upstairs, served as unfortunate interruptions, removing me from the narrator's story as soon as I've managed to settle in. With shades of Equus.

There is an inherent problem with the idea that an uneducated country person trying to piece together a comprehensive written narrative. Some words are misspelled and there are obvious typos, but most sentences are well crafted, properly subordinated and really, there just ain't enuff errerers for som 1 who ain't ever used a typewriter before, or even barely written anything more complex than a grocery list. It's written as though speech is being transcribed, and would have worked better had it been transcribed speech, a recorder rather than a typewriter. Besides, I don't believe anyone, even an expert typist, can piece together such a "fession" in ten minutes. Of course I'm being nit-picky, but the logic itches at the back of my hed as i reed the storie nowin n relity da ritin and typps ud mak et al unredble.

"The Burning" by Mischa Hiller. 7/10

I reviewed Hiller's story "Room 307" from All These Little Worlds (The Fiction Desk, 2011). Though both that and "The Burning" deal with burdened, crumbling relationships, they are utterly different. I liked "Room 307," but I like "The Burning" even more.

The tension in this short piece is incredibly thick, beginning with the immediate action as Jack breaks Helen's concentration reading the paper when he places his key in the front door. Told through Helen's point of view, every action and every detail is fraught with layers of complexity, from Jack's selection of the chipped tea mug to his sighing and not turning on the lights. A successful biological stem cell researcher, Jack is evidently more involved in his research than in his marriage. Stem cell research is broad and can involve many facets of science, from saving endangered species to research into cancer and other diseases. It is Jack's cold statement, as delivered through Helen's thoughts, that he does not want any children that makes me think his work deals with cloning. But of course this is my own invention.

It is the awarding of a prize and the letter invitation from Stockholm that sits between them like a lump of lead, and acts as a kind of deus ex machina to hurl us to the final act of burning and an almost resolution. What we learn is that Helen herself is troubled internally, troubles that are aggravated by Jack rather than caused by him. A solid story burning for a second read.

"The Latvian Motorcycle Princess" by C. D. Rose. 5/10

A character sketch of a Latvian motorcyclist passing through the UK town of Thetford. Fairly well written but not gripping as it lacks a bit of direction. And lacking direction when on a motorbike can be dangerous.

"Turtle" by Melinda Moore. 6/10

A little girl in the town of Milford Haven is curious about death. Living by a funeral parlour feeds that curiosity, as does the fact that there have been an unusual number of deaths these last few weeks, and an increasing number of flies. "Turtle" is a subtle story that deals not with death but with neglect and consequence. And yes, there is a turtle in the story, though briefly, which kept reminding me of Lonesome George.

"Herringbone" by James Carter. 5/10

A short, playful piece about herrings. Sort of. Also about a person with paranoid delusions. Well enough written but this one didn't grip me either.

"Post Day" by Laura Stimson. 6/10

Frances is bored on post day, the day her mom sits drinking wine and opening her mail. A tight and interesting short sketch of a broken family through the point of view of a little girl. Unlike the previous two stories I found this one vivid, evocative and even gripping. Interestingly, this one as well as "Turtle" features a girl wondering who she will stay with if her parent dies.

I've read of editors complaining of stories written in present tense, first person. Apparently there are too many being written these days, so it's a kind of trend that, from what one major editor told me, is more conscious of its voice than the story being told. "Post Day" is a fine example of how a first person present tense story should be employed. The story, for one thing, has no finish and no sense of a finish, as Frances and the reader are caught in time, faced with an impression. In fact, the story acts less like a story and very much like a painting.

"Waiting Room" by Martin Pond. 6/10

A boy is seated in a waiting room, waiting for the test all boys his age must write. We are in the near future, and overpopulation has forced the state to implement a test to attack the problem. I am being vague, since the story is told through the boy's point of view, and the narrative relies on irony as the reader slowly learns the tragedy of what is really going on in this world, while the boy sits patiently to write that all important test.

Another first person present tense story, it actually relies much on the past tense to tell its tale.

"The Mall" by Deborah Arnander. 6/10

A woman walks through church grounds where she sees, through the window, a childhood friend's mother. The incident triggers a series of reflections on this friend and the tragedy that made up their relationship. A strong story, well written.

"The Last Dog and Pony Show" by Sherilyn Connelly. 6/10

A clingy transsexual joins a dog and pony show to be near his/her girlfriend, deciding to take on the role of a cat since she feels attuned to the feline instincts for solitude and self-preservation. Told through the point of view of the cat wanna-be, the narrator is annoying with his/her clingy needs, yet manages nonetheless to garner sympathy from the reader. The narrative is funny and the emotions genuine, the story is a pleasure to read. There are some unfortunate obvious typos in the text, and while there might have been typos in earlier parts of the book, I didn't notice them.

"Extract from The Lemonade Girl" by Sarah Dobbs. 7/10

Married to a loving wife and father to two children, Michael's world faces potential tension when his ex-girlfriend, presumably dead, might be trying to get in touch with him. Unlike the previous excerpt, this one does not hold up as an individual story, so I can't comment too much as it sits in the middle of the anthology unfinished. I did, however, enjoy these opening ten pages, and am impressed with Dobbs's ability to capture the male voice (though there is perhaps too much focus on his... but I digress). Some humour and quite a bit of suspense, I do hope the novel gets published.

"Impilo" by Jenni Fagan. 5/10

This surreal tale of severed limbs and strange relationships is well written, but unfortunately its characters don't stand out as we're introduced to too much gore before we get the chance to properly meet them. I did find myself getting unexpectedly pulled into the story, but by then I was already on the last page.

"Dick's Life" by Maggie Ling. 5/10

A middle-aged man in crisis mode reflects on past expectations, being "trapped" in marriage, his mentally disabled daughter, aging wife and notions of guilt. The story lulls during its mid-point, particularly as the narrator wallows in self-pity, but is bookended by a good opening and last couple of pages.

"Parallax" by Tessa West. 7/10

A woman has the opportunity to apply for an ideal position, a position that would require a move. When her husband is less than supportive, downright dismissive of the career opportunity, the woman wonders at his extreme reaction and wonders if she is ever less than supportive toward him. This is pretty much all the story contains, along with a near climactic deus ex machina, and yet the piece works well on several levels. Structurally we are presented with a series of terms borrowed from photography, a passion of the husband's, and these terms expose (pun intended) the nature of not just the relationship, but how people view different aspects of their lives. The story appears so slight that it can easily be overlooked, and yet its quietness is what gives it so much strength. My personal favourite of the shorter pieces.

(Sorry Green Lantern fans, but this has nothing to do with that Parallax.)

"The Soul of Cinema" by Karen Whiteson. 6/10

Like the previous "Parallax," this story enlightens its thematic elements by contrasting them with appropriate cinematic concepts (cinema in place of photography, a related though younger art form). Here the concepts come across as part of a lecture at a film conference, and are played against the narrator's thoughts on a gossiping colleague. Whereas the previous story was more concerned with theme, "The Soul of Cinema" is more conscious of language, and there are some fine turns of phrase, some well structured sentences that manage to eke out a bit of humour.

"A Short Story about a Short Film" by Ashley Stokes. 7/10

"A Short Story about a Short Film" is a great example of how a structurally different story can be both entertaining and act a proper medium for its thematic content. Outwardly the story is bland, as it can be summed up as a pretentious and insecure young filmmaker struggling with his obsession with his ex-girlfriend, and through that obsession achieves an important moment of self discovery. Yet there is depth in the unity between narrative and structure. The story is a screenplay of a short film inset with a series of footnotes. The short film emulates the great shorter films of mid-century Eastern Europe, while the footnotes are by the filmmaker as he has pieced together his own kind of director's commentary, and uses that commentary to reveal the behind the scenes drama amid the filming of the short. The idea of introducing footnotes is not original, but this is likely the first time I've read a story in which the footnotes act as extras on a DVD, a concept which I like since I'm a sucker for good extras. Overall it's well presented, particularly as the story manages to create various layers and connections between the short film and the self-indulgent love story, making it engaging and often funny.

Our filmmaker Stasi Lloyd is not very likeable. He is weak and self-interested, obsessed with film and with his former girlfriend-cum-former lead in his debut film, Kaliningrad. What begins as a pretentious undergraduate film project of a pretend totalitarian society replete with its spies, its mysterious women and its relentless clacking typewriters, not to mention vodka and onions, the little film turns out to be little more than a dramatic love triangle, emulating real-life behind-the-scene events. The entire thing is ridiculous, but in a funny, engaging and even thought-provoking way. There are a myriad themes interconnecting the fantasy of film and of the real-life drama, as love and lust are secretive, even persecuted (by a jealous third party), and the real life director becomes the shady spy of his own film, sneaking into his former lover's parents property, taking the entire film crew to the vicinity as an excuse to be there in the first place. The dark film society he portrays is illustrative of his own dark, guarded nature; he tries to rationalize the situation by being removed and understanding, but is essentially driven by a stronger form, that of raw emotion, so that the melodrama of life is so much greater than that of film. And what is it all for, since like the film, life too is short. I was surprised, though pleasantly, that the narrator gains some insight through these straining experiences.

The story is perhaps a little too long.

Which got me thinking about the title. Certainly it's about a short film, but technically it's a novelette, so it should be titled "A Novelette about a Short Film." But it's not about a short film, particularly since the film's ending is changed due to life's influence. In many ways the city embodies both the film and the filmmaker's final transformation, so I thought a good title would be "Kaliningrad with Footnotes." Though that sounds more like a painting than a film.

"Bleach" by Michael Baker. 6/10

A visually hallucinatory narrative about a paranoid delusional man, possibly schizophrenic. The zaniness of the narrative is fun at first, but I grew quickly tired of it as the story seemed to lack direction. It does improve with a healthy dose of morbidity just when a sense of hope is creeping in, but I would have preferred it had it begun a little sooner.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Night Gallery: Season Two, Episode Five

Night Gallery 2.5
First Aired 20 October 1971
Overall Rating: 7/10

A review of episode 2.4
A review of episode 2.6 (coming soon)

Episode 2.5 features only two dramatic segments and no silly comedy, which is probably the show's best possible format. But this episode's real strength is its second segment, a brilliant little film which features Orson Welles narrating Gene Kearney's adaptation of Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow." A better first segment could have transformed this episode into perhaps the strongest of the series, but alas, the generic supernatural tale of ghosts and werewolves is much too generic.

The episode presents us with an interesting David Carradine connection, which isn't surprising for an actor with so many roles over so many decades.. The actor appears in "The Phantom Farmhouse" segment, yet has ties with two actors in the "Silent Snow, Secret Snow." Radames Pera appeared alongside Carradine in the popular series Kung Fu, while Lonny Chapman appeared alongside the actor Carradine's first of two The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, "Ten Minuntes from Now." Meanwhile, David McCallum, the lead in "The Phantom Farmhouse," was a lead on the popular series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., in which his "Phantom" co-star Linda Marsh and Jason Wingreen from "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" both guest-starred, the latter in four different episodes.

The Phantom Farmhouse
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Written by Halsted Welles from a short story by Seabury Quinn
Starring David McCallum, Linda Marsh, David Carradine, Trina Parks, Ivor Francis, Ford Rainey
Rating: 5/10

At an isolated psychiatric institution, psychiatrist Joel Winter (David McCallum) gets involved with a fantastic tale of ghostly werewolves. After one of his patients is found torn to pieces, Winter discovers that rebellious patient Gideon (David Carradine) had sent the dead man to a set of ruins once belonging to a farmhouse. On his way to investigate, Winter finds the farmhouse erect, and moreover he finds it occupied by a young woman named Mildred Squire (Linda Marsh) and her two parents. Love and lychanthropy are eventually brought to an end through Mildred's self sacrifice and the help of the Good Book.

A standard tale, not too interesting or original, highly predictable, yet nonetheless well shot. There is an interesting visual contrast between colourful artificial sets and the sparsely forested dusty brown landscape of the institution and farmhouse. Unfortunately the supernatural aspect of the ghost-cum-werewolf tale is muddled, as we're not too sure whether we're watching a ghost tale or a werewolf tale. Moulding the two sub-genres is fine, only here it appears that these werewolves are made ghosts simply to allow the writers an easy resolution. The resolution is simplistic, tossing in a bible for good measure, so I suppose the exorcism reveals the creatures to be more ghost than werewolf. Along the way there is little suspense, and the protagonist is essentially a passive and impotent fella, who does little other than swoon over Mildred and do everything she tells him without an inkling of thought. But I guess that's true love, Hollywood style.

Mildred's long index finger (for werewolves in human form have an index finger longer than the middle) is ridiculous, since at first she is obviously bending her middle finger to make it appear shorter. Later, from a distance, the longer finger is clearly a fake, and the top knuckle unbendable, so that when even the middle knuckle bends the upper one remain impossibly straight. On the other hand the werewolf attack sequence is well edited, so that the cute pups actually do somewhat resemble ferocious rabid dogs (not exactly werewolves, who should be considerably larger, traditionally speaking).

Directed by Night Gallery regular Jeannot Szwarc. Glaswegian David McCallum who is good in the role of Winter. Best known for long stints on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS, McCallum also appeared in several top-notch movies including The Great Escape. He hasn't figured much on anthology series, though he was in two episodes of the original The Outer Limits ("The Sixth Finger" & "The Forms of Things Unknown"), the 1980s Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Murder Party") as well as in the second The Outer Limits ("Feasibility Study"). Linda Marsh was a secondary television actress who did guest star alongside McCallum on an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Most notable cast member is the recently departed David Carradine. Familiar to many through countless roles, the eldest and most familiar of the Carradine brothers did appear twice on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ("Ten Minutes from Now" & "Thou Still Unravished Bride"), and even on the terrible Spielberg produced Amazing Stories ("Thanksgiving"). Trina Parks is best known as the first African American Bond girl, in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Silent Snow, Secret Snow
Directed by Gene R. Kearney
Written by Gene R. Kearney from the short story by Conrad Aiken
Starring the voice of Orson Welles, along with the bodies & voices of Radames Pera, Lonny Chapman, Lisabeth Hush, Jason Wingreen, Frances Spanier
Rating: 8/10

"Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is a little masterpiece of a film that depicts a young boy's withdrawal from the world, essentially his descent into an unnamed illness, perhaps schizophrenia, autism or asperger's. The segment is a reworking of a fabulous short film Kearney produced five years earlier, in 1966, only now with an actual budget. This version is almost as good as the original, with a few stronger points, and while I'd like to compare the two pieces, I'll refrain since this is a review of the Night Gallery teleplay.

One major coup managed by Night Gallery producers is nabbing the iconic Orson Welles to perform the narration. His tone and intonation are always excellent, and here Aiken's poetic prose flows beautifully off Welles's articulate tongue. Kearney's adaptation of Aiken's text is strong, and cleans up some of the rougher phrases from his earlier short film. The Aiken/Kearney prose is properly enhanced by the nice visuals; I particularly like the postman sequences. There is nothing visually fancy, but a nice set, good use of colour and light as well as strong support from a fitting musical score. A must-see which gets even better as I think about it.

Adding to the technical aspects of the play there are some nice thematic touches. We watch a boy's world getting smaller and smaller, a reality contrasted by both a wider world as well as a narrower one, so the boy appears to have a choice between the two. He is learning geography in school, grasping ideas of the wide expansive world around us, and yet he carries with him a small snow globe, as though his own personal world is encapsulated in the tiniest of universes imaginable.

Kearney was one of the regular writer-directors on Night Gallery, producing a mix in work quality. The great Orson Welles needs no introduction, and hasn't appeared in any other notable anthology series. The boy Paul is played by Radames Pera who will go on to star alongside David Carradine in the successful series Kung Fu. The father is played by recognizable versatile character actor Lonny Chapman, who has appeared in numerous 1950s and 1960s anthology series, as well as Suspense (1950s) Naked City, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ("Ten Minutes from Now") and Suspense (1960s). The mother is portrayed by Lisbeth Hush, who also appeared on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ("Annabel"). Jason Wingreen who plays the doctor has a long series of anthology credits, including three appearances on each of The Twilight Zone ("A Stop at Willoughby," "The Midnight Sun," "The Bard") and The Outer Limits ("O.B.I.T.," "The Special One," "Expanding Human").

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Night Gallery: Season Two, Episode Four

Night Gallery 2.4
First aired 6 October 1971
Overall rating 7/10

Previous episode 2.3 is here.
Following episode 2.5 is now here.

Episode 2.4 features three segments along with one terrible comedic sketch. Each of the segments are good, though none are outstanding. None are original teleplays but based on short stories by Elizabeth Walter, Joan Aiken and David Ely respectively. It appears that Mr. Rod Serling was a fan of the Christine Bernard edited Fontana anthologies, since all three of these stories were included in the first three books of the popular series, The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. These Fontana books included mainly reprints with a few originals, and Walter's "The Spider" was among the originals, first published in the second volume (1967). Joan Aiken's "Marmalade Wine" was reprinted in the first (1966), and David Ely's "The Academy" was included in the third (1968), a book I read back in my teens in the 1980s, introducing me to the fine series. All but "Marmalade Wine" were adapted by Serling, and though the producers of Night Gallery tried to keep Serling at a distance, he likely had a say in the stories adapted for the actual segments.

A Fear of Spiders
Directed by John Astin
Written by Rod Serling from a short story "The Spider" by Elizabeth Walter
Starring Patrick O'Neal, Kim Stanley and Tom Pedi
Rating: 7/10

Elizabeth Walter, "The Spider"
  • The 2nd Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, ed. Christine Bernard, Fontana, 1967. pp. 9-34
  • The Sin-Eater and Other Stories, Harvil, 1967; NY: Sten & Day, 1968
Food and design columnist Justus Walters is an arrogant and self-interested bachelor who has a deathly fear of spiders. He cruelly tosses aside the advances of his romantically inclined upstairs neighbour Elizabeth Croft, but when he sees large spiders in his apartment, he quickly seeks out her company. This getting what he deserves (and more) story is predictable, sure, but it's well crafted and a pleasure to watch.

What is great about "A Fear of Spiders" is that there are hardly any spiders to be seen. What few spiders there are might not even be there, but exist in Justus's overwrought imagination. Our columnist is a fussy and compulsive man. Everything in his apartment is in its proper place and when he works he must have absolute silence, so that even a dripping faucet is too much for him to bear. When he deals with the drip he wipes the sink with a cloth, implying that the water sitting there would also drive him to distraction. Everything must be in its proper place. "I have three columns to write!" he yells at Elizabeth when she comes to his door, but it's likely he'd find distraction even when none is around. The fear of spiders acts as a manifestation for his fear of people, and he treats everyone around him with blunt cruelty, expecting to be left alone and in control of his environment. The building maintenance man appears in a small part to show that it is not only Elizabeth who Justus looks down upon, but pretty everyone other than himself.

If you were paying attention you might have noticed that the main characters' names are borrowed from those of the short story author: Elizabeth Walter broken into Justus Walters and Elizabeth Croft. Both Patrick O'Neal and Kim Stanley do a great job in their roles, and both work well with Serling's wordy yet playful script. Like many of his generation, character actor O'Neal has appeared in many anthology series, including each of the four excellent series The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Naked City and The Outer Limits. Stanley was primarily a stage actress and an great choice for the role, and though she hasn't appeared in many screen projects she has had many memorable roles, including the narration for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Some good directing and editing, including a smart decision to show the big spider for only an instant. I admit I jumped a little when I saw it even though it's clearly a large teddy spider. Director veteran and prolific actor John Astin, who directed three segments of Night Gallery ("The House," "A Fear of Spiders," "The Dark Boy") and starred in three as well ("Pamela's Voice," second episode coming up, "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes").

Directed by Theodore J. Flicker
Written by Gene R. Kearney
Starring Wally Cox and Barbara Flicker
Rating: 1/10

These second season comedic sketches seem to get worse with each episode. In this one a couple is asleep as we hear a child's voice calling out to daddy for a glass of water. Daddy looks over to mommy who says, "He's your child," so daddy gets out of bed and brings Junior a glass of water. The child turns out to be Dr. Frankenstein's monster lying in a partially assembled crib, or one of those cribs that can extend into a bed. Junior thanks daddy and then, as the camera closes in for a close-up of the classic Frankenstein monster make-up, Junior pours the water over his forehead. This, I think, we're supposed to find funny, which leads me to think that Jack Laird considered his audience to be made up of dimwitted folk with poor attention spans.

Absolutely awful.

The role of the father is played by versatile actor Wally Cox. Unknown Barbara Flicker is likely related to director Theodore J. Flicker, co-creator of the wonderful Barney Miller.

Marmalade Wine
Directed by Jerrold Freedman
Written by Jerrold Freedman from the short story by Joan Aiken
Starring Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee
Rating: 7/10

Joan Aiken, "Marmalade Wine"
  • Suspense, September 1958
  • Horror Stories, ed. Syd Bentlif, Mayflower, 1965. pp. 119-126
  • The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, ed. Christine Bernard, London: Fontana, 1966. 213-221
  • The Windscreen Weepers and Other Tales of Horror and Suspense, Gollancz, 1969
  • The Tenth Pan Book of Horror Stories, Herbert van Thal, London: Pan, 1969. pp. 217-224
  • The Green Flash and Other Stories of Horror, Suspense and Fantasy, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971
  • A Bundle of Nerves, London: Gollancz, March 1976
  • Stories of Terror, ed. John L. Foster, Ward Lock, 1982. pp. 19-26
  • The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women, eds. A. Susan Williams, Richard Glyn Jones, London: Viking, May 1995. pp. 124-131
Based on a short story by Joan Aiken, daughter of Conrad Aiken, "Marmalade Wine" is a simple tongue-in-cheek tale of coincidences with a surprise ending. The story was well conceived by writer director Jerrold Freedman (assuming he was behind the filming concept). Photographer Roger Blacker is caught in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a rainstorm, and is brought into the dry home of Dr. Francis Deeking. The two men chat over some home brewed marmalade wine, and we learn that Blacker has the knack of accurately predicting the future, while famous surgeon Dr. Deeking recently moved out here away from civilization because... but Blacker can't seem to recall exactly why, though it's been in the news.

The story is not remarkable nor terribly memorable, but the episode is pieced together with some odd humour and minimalist sets that make it a pleasure to watch. The actors appear clown-like in their roles, with exaggerated movements and facial features. We first encounter Blacker as he's stumbling along a forest path, slippery with rain, fumbling and tumbling until Deeking appears above through a window. The set is minimalist, shot in a studio with a black backdrop and resembling something put together quickly for a high school play, with white cut-out trees that re-appear continuously as Blacker is running, reminiscent of The Flintstones assembly belt backdrops. The interior of Deeking's home is just as minimalist, with walls borders yet no walls and simple white furnishings. There is no pretense here as crew and actors are having fun with the staging, and we can even see Deeking through the wall before he comes through the door. All of this adds a sense of story-book surrealism, so we accept huge coincidences and obvious dialogue such as Blacker wondering aloud: "Now what was it recently read about Dr. Deeking? It was in all the papers."

Written and directed by Jerrold Freedman, who was behind the camera for six Night Gallery segments, including the good "Room with a View" and the bad "The Flip Side of Satan" (the others I haven't yet reviewed). Blacker is played by Robert Morse, currently on Mad Men but previously appeared on twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, Tales of the Unexpected and the 1980s The Twilight Zone. Established entertainer Rudy Vallee's was primarily a musician and bandleader, and though he's appeared in many notable films and series, is best known for his musical contributions.

The Academy
Directed by Jeff Corey
Written by Rod Serling from the short story by David Ely
Starring Leif Erickson, Pat Boone, Larry Linville and Ed Call
Rating: 6/10

David Ely, "The Academy"
  • Playboy, June 1965.  p. 113 
  • The Best American Short Stories 1966, eds. Martha Foley, David Burnett, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966
  • The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural, eds. of Playboy, Chicago: Playboy Press, 1967
  • The Third Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories, ed. Christine Bernard, London: Fontana, May 1968. pp. 54-63
  • Weird Show, eds of Playboy [Ray Russell], Chicago: Playboy Press, 1971. pp. 125-136
  • Fantasy: The Literature of the Marvellous, Leo P. Russell, McGraw-Hill, 1974. pp. 204-211
  • Rod Serling's Night Gallery Reader, eds. Carol Serling, Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg, Dembner Books, 1987
  • Nursery Crimes, eds. Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, Martin H. Greenberg, Barnes & Noble Books, June 1993
Mr. Holston visits the director of the academy thinking it is a good place for his troubled and troublesome son. Holston is a busy man, a single father, whose son seems to be a bit of a problem child. The academy, on the other hand, is a military-style institution where discipline and respect for authority are integral daily rituals. Yet as Holston receives a tour of the facilities it appears that the cadets are a little older than he'd expected.

David Ely's "The Academy" is a difficult story to pull off, and yet Night Gallery manages to produce a good (though not excellent) adaptation. In his script Serling removes an integral level of irony by making Holston aware of what is going on, and conspiring nonetheless against the better interests of his son. Not only does this make the story possible for a televised adaptation since we must actually see the cadets, it also adds a commentary on the values of modern man, as we would rather pay to have our problems hidden away than be burdened by them amid our busy professional lives. Even if this problem is our very own child. Serling could have had the cadets appear hidden, as the medical staff were left in the dark throughout the memorable The Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder," but here, in full daytime colour, it would appear far too obvious and cheap.

Author David Ely's most anthologized story, he is best known for his novel Seconds which was filmed by John Frankenheimer in 1966. Holston is played by singer-songwriter Pat Boone, while the director is portrayed by long-time character actor Leif Erickson, who is to reappear in season three of Night Gallery for the episode "Something in the Woodwork." Erickson has been in a number of great films, while on television he's appeared primarily in westerns. He was featured in numerous dramatic anthology programs in the 1950s, as well as four times in Climax!, once in Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("The Equalizer") and twice on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ("Consider Her Ways" and "The Monkey's Paw: A Retelling"). Oddly, unlike many of his contemporaries and many established actors who have had a turn on Night Gallery, he did not appear in Naked City. You might also recognize, in a small part as Cadet Sloane, Larry Linville, best known as Major Frank Burns on the once extremely popular M*A*S*H.

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As of 24 December 2015