Written by: Stephen King (story), Michael McDowell
Directed by: Michael Gornick
Starring: Bruce Davison, Karen Shallo, and Patrick Piccininni
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Oh, Johnny. I guess you didn't have much time."
After collaborating on landmark anthology Creepshow, George Romero and Stephen King naturally rejoined forces on Tales from the Darkside. In fact, what’s more surprising is that the latter’s work was only twice tapped in the course of the television show’s four seasons. Given the era’s King mania and the number of short stories that would have been at the series’ disposal, you might have expected to see more of them brought to the small screen. But alas, we’re left with only two, the first of which was the curious, almost quaint “Word Processor of the Gods,” an episode adapted from the short story of the same name from the Skeleton Crew collection.
Few King stories would have felt as appropriate as this one though, as it hails in the tradition of similarly themed Twilight Zone episodes. In this tale, disenchanted writer Richard Hagstrom (Bruce Davison, just as emasculated and ineffectual here as he was in Willard) is sick of his life: not only is his career going nowhere, but he’s subjected to an overbearing wife and a disrespectful son who pounds out grating guitar riffs all day long. When his estranged, alcoholic brother causes a fatal car accident that also claims the lives of his wife and son, Richard is grief-stricken, particularly at the loss of his beloved nephew Jonathan, a gadget whiz who left behind a word processor for his uncle. At first glance, it seems like a bittersweet memento, one for which Richard will never be able to thank Jonathan; soon, however, the author learns the machine has reality-bending powers capable of delivering his every wish with the stroke of the keyboard.
“The Word Processor of the Gods” has an obviously irresistible hook that prompts viewers to wonder what they’d do if granted a similar power. For the most part, it proceeds as these tales typically do, with Richard reveling in his newfound abilities on a small-scale before graduating to bigger wishes, like deleting his child from existence. While the episode feels lighthearted even with this development, there’s something vaguely bone-chilling about the implication: we watch Richard as gets acquainted with an alternate reality where he’s still married to a boorish wife but has no children, and his initial delight is unsettling in its existential implications. How could a father so callously erase his son, much less look to reshape even more of his life when his wife continues to nag him even in this version of his life?
It’s at this point “The Word Processor of the Gods” begins to veer off-course. What looks to be a typical cautionary tale just itching to dole out some horrible comeuppance to a man grown mad with power never quite goes there. Things certainly go haywire as the audience expects that other shoe to drop on Richard, but the climax offers a different resolution, one that’s almost happy for a Darkside episode. When confronted with it, the tendency is to balk: how did this show and that author deliver such an ending? Something about it works, though, thanks in large part to Davison’s boyish, charming turn: if anyone ever deserved for this type of situation to not backfire and blow up in his face, it’s poor Richard Hagstrom, a poor bastard who only ever wanted an ideal family—even if he has to conjure them up from beyond the grave and into an alternate reality.
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