Written by: Rod Serling (series creator), Harlan Ellison (teleplay), Stephen King (short story)/Rockne S. O'Bannon (written by)/Martin Pasko & Rebecca Parr Cioffi (written by)
Directed by: Bradford May/Peter Medak/Gus Trikonis
Starring: Barret Oliver, Martin Balsam, and Larry Poindexter
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Given how the original series became a playground for established genre writers, it’s no surprise that the 80s Twilight Zone resurrection eventually turned to Stephen King. Having been established as horror’s reigning titan for about a decade at this point, King was a natural fit for this revival, especially with fellow legendary scribe Harlan Ellison ushering him there with an adaptation of “Gramma,” one of the standout tales from the seminal Skeleton Crew collection. It’s one that’s particularly suited for this show, too, as it’s strikingly simple but nonetheless indelible. When his brother is hospitalized, 12-year-old George (Barret Oliver) is left in charge of tending to his grandmother, an infirm woman whose presence terrifies the young boy—no matter how much he likes to deny it. As soon as the mother leaves, George’s grandma pesters him for tea, awakening the deeply unsettling realization that he’ll have to actually venture into the woman’s room.
His tip-toeing trek is film playfully, reflecting the boy’s trepidation about wandering into this den of horrors, which houses both his grandma’s cackling voice and her long-buried secrets. A clumsy (if not overbearing) voiceover lets us peek into George’s frantic mind, where he recounts the whispers of his grandma’s exile from church on the grounds of being a witch. His discovery of an ominous book below the floorboards—a space that also begins to glow with candy-colored menace—does little to deter him from the growing realization that something is (and has always been) very wrong with his grandma. Only that intrusive narration undercuts the potency here; otherwise, Ellison’s adaptation captures the Lovecraftian horrors summoned by King’s short story, allowing for a feverish freakout full of incandescent lights and a glimpse of the grandmother’s grotesque arm. A creepy little denouement adds one final, devilish little corridor to this house of horrors, one that preys on childhood fears of unsettling old people and ominous portals to hell.
Appearing alongside King’s tale is “Personal Demons” and “Cold Reading,” a couple of similarly playful tales, with the former actually feeling vaguely like something King himself might imagine. In it, veteran screenwriter Rockne O’Bannon (Martin Balsam) struggles with a bout of writer’s block that stretches back 20 years, when he had his last truly original idea. After confessing as much, he suddenly finds himself visited by strange hooded creatures that no one else can see. They pester him, practically haunting him as malevolent spirits that trash his car and house until he finally pleads with them in a wild-eyed frenzy. Their response is impish if not predictable, as “Personal Demons” breezes right on by, with only Balsam’s mania leaving much of an impression.
“Cold Reading” fares a tad better, sending this episode off with a fun little nightcap. Its hook is pretty irresistible but also not loudly, obviously announced. In fact, nothing seems to be at all amiss with Milo Trent’s (Larry Poindexter) new gig on a live serial, the hectic nature of golden age radio notwithstanding. Thrust right into the action with a freshly re-written script, he marvels at the scene—at least until everyone begins to notice something has gone awry in very otherworldly fashion. Each mention of some exotic creature or menace during this serialized jungle adventure conjures them into reality after the producer inadvertently curses the production with a voodoo talisman. Soon enough, the studio is swarming with monkeys, African tribesman, rifles, and even a rainstorm, prompting the producer to feverishly rewrite behind-the-scenes, story coherency be damned. A farcical comedy of errors, “Cold Reading” ends with the Twilight Zone’s trademark mean streak when the producer forgets to rewrite the ad for next week’s show, which promises…well, let’s just say Orson Welles would likely approve.
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