Saturday, October 1, 2016

every witch way

“Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay” (NIGHT GALLERY, originally broadcast September 29, 1971)

In this episode of Night Gallery, we’re introduced to a most unusual, resourceful old woman, one miss Ada Burn Quigley (Jeanette Nolan).  Miss Quigley has recently moved in with her young, married great-niece, Joanna (Michele Lee), and her husband, Craig Lowell (James Farentino), a professor at the nearby university. 

From the opening moments, it’s clear that the arrangement is less than harmonious as the 90 year old Aunt Ada tends towards eccentricity, while Craig prefers things very structured and ordinary.  Ever since she’s moved in, Craig senses something not-quite-right about the woman, something he can’t quite pin down.  And yet being a professor of Logic and Scientific Method, he’s naturally averse to implausible speculation.

But when things start happening that defy explanation, the steady, reasoned professor must begin to consider other possibilities.

In all my discussions and research regarding Night Gallery, a few episodes seem to garner far more attention than the rest--this one, "The Doll" and "The Caterpillar".  I think the reasons are fairly obvious.  While Night Gallery was a horror/fantasy anthology show that emphasized frights (under the tutelage of executive producer Jack Laird), it rarely ever truly achieved them.  This episode is one of the few exceptions, as Aunt Ada seems to have left an indelible impression on many--resulting in many a sleepless night.  

Soon after we're introduced to the young married couple and the newest addition to their household, a strange game of cat and mouse begins transpiring. Ada knows Craig is of a particular breed of rational thinking men, one whose beliefs and philosophy are so deeply rooted in a seemingly infallible sense of logic that he'd never even consider the possibility of the supernatural.  And so she begins toying with him, even at the risk of compromising her ominous plans for his wife, Joanna.

Besides revealing just enough to keep Craig's head spinning, Aunt Ada has been giving Joanna herbal concoctions to drink daily, passing them off as vitamins during the day and, "herbs, dear...herbs to help her sleep", at night.

When Craig swipes a sample of the herbs to have analyzed, he finds out it’s a sea weed called Hydrodendon Barelia, without any pharmacological use, though his colleague in the lab mentions in passing that in the realm of folklore it is referred to as “the sinister witch's weed of antiquity”.  He then jestingly refers Craig to the university’s resident occult expert, the peculiar Professor Porteus (Jonathan Harris, wonderfully flamboyant as ever), whom Craig naturally views as  some kind of anathema.  

"Disbelieve if you will, but do not forget..."
Alerting Craig to the weed's use in witchcraft as a means to replace an old, dying body with that of a younger woman's, Porteus issues a stern warning to the still-skeptical younger professor, who scoffs incredulously, though not without some ambivalence.  

Following a paper trail leading to the grave of a woman buried several months back, Craig becomes convinced that "Aunt Ada" is of no relation at all to his wife, and so begins to take Porteus’ advice to heart...but is it too late?

Though Jeanette Nolan’s storied career had spanned several decades in film and television, and even saw her cast as Lady Macbeth opposite the great Orson Welles (in his 1948 film adaptation), her hair-raising portrayal of Aunt Ada might well have left the most lasting impression.  

"Don't fret, little fox-foot.  It won't be much longer."

I first saw this episode on TV about 20 years ago and, no longer a boy, I was surprised to find myself...let’s just say I was a bit more susceptible to Aunt Ada's wiles than I would like to admit--and horror, for better or worse, is in my blood. 

Speaking of which, it’s October 1st, which means I’m breaking out the horns for a month-long blog-stravaganza of things that go bump in the night.  I know, how original...  

Like I said, it's in the blood.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

By way of the dinosaurs

When we're all long gone and forgotten and the concept of humor has been consigned to some godless oblivion, this clip might still be kicking around somewhere, waiting to be discovered once again. And if it's found, one can only hope "they" get it--and after wiping away the stream of laughing tears and taking a moment to reflect on their discovery amidst all this rubble and refuse that had once been a glorious civilization, they might scoff a bit glibly and shake their heads as they mutter to themselves, "man, what a waste", and then, "did he really just say that about Rickle's wife?!"

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I Love You Not

 "Word Processor of the Gods" (Tales from the Darkside, 
originally broadcast November 25, 1984)

In this most memorable, morally ambiguous episode of the syndicated 80’s horror anthology show, Tales from the Darkside, it takes all of 20 minutes for a man, the protagonist (if you will…), to erase his wife and son from existence and replace them with the family he’d always wanted.  And you’ll more likely than not find yourself hoping he succeeds, troubling implications notwithstanding.  They didn’t call it Tales from the Darkside for nothing, people.

More or less faithfully adapted from the short story by Stephen King, the episode begins soon after a funeral (in which a family of 3 has been buried).  We’re introduced to one Richard Hagstrom (Bruce Davidson, the star of WILLARD), the long-suffering husband of Lina Hagstrom (Karen Shallo) and less-than-proud father to stout teenaged lout, Seth Hagstrom (Patrick Piccininni).. 

Richard and a man named Tom Nordhoff (William Cain) are carrying boxes into the embarrassingly untidy Hagstrom residence.  Nordhoff had been the neighbor of Richard’s brother and his family, all of whom have just perished in a car accident.  Apparently, Richard’s brother was a lousy drunk, and being so, drove his wife and teenage son off a cliff.  From their conversation, one gathers that the family that has been buried will be greatly missed--all, that is, except Richard's wretched brother. Much like Richard himself, his brother's wife and son had long suffered the tyranny of the ill-tempered drunk.

Nordhoff's discomfort in the presence of Richard's wife, Lina, is abundantly clear, as her coarse appraisal of the awful accident quickly drives Tom to disgust.  "No other relatives except us and we're not getting a single know how much a triple burial costs these days?"

"It was a terrible tragedy."
"Richard's brother was a drunk...good thing he didn't have any more relatives."
"Jonathan was a good of the best boys I ever met."
"Lot of good it did him, seeing as how his old man drove his van right off that cliff."

As Lina Hagstrom, actress Karen Shallo has one job, to make us hate her.  To that end, she performs exceedingly well.  Ignoring her husband's request to get Nordhoff a glass of water, she's also quick to admonish Richard when he asks his son Seth for help carrying in the boxes from outside.  "Leave him alone, he's practicing!"

"Seth, can you give us a hand?"     "Later!"
The boxes they're bringing in contain a birthday present for Richard.  His nephew Jonathan (Jon Shear) was quite a smart kid and "fine boy", we're told, and had been diligently putting together a word processor from scrap parts just before his death. Through flashback, Richard recalls a conversation he'd had with the teen in which Jonathan had toyed with the idea of building the machine for his beloved uncle, who also happens to be a struggling writer.  It's a bond and love he quite evidently doesn't share with his own son.

We also learn that Richard had once been in love with his brother's lovely wife, Belinda, but his brother the bully had stolen her away and he'd eventually settled for Lina instead.

After examining the clunky, make-shift word processor Jonathan has pieced together for his uncle, Nordhoff has some cryptic advice for Richard.  "Mr. Hagstrom, a boy is just a boy, bright or otherwise, and sometimes love can be misdirected.  Do you take my meaning?"  I'll just assume this is Nordhoff's way of letting us know he's read the script all the way through to the end.

Once he is left alone in his basement study, Richard fires the machine up and is startled to find it actually seems to work.  

To test it out, he types in a rather innocuous sentence.  "My wife's picture is on the book shelf in my study."  Staring at the words a few seconds too long, Richard hits delete, then casually glances back over at the book shelf where his wife's picture no longer sits.

This, of course, sets Richard's mind racing with possibility.  He then types: "The floor of my study is bare except for 12 Spanish doubloons in a small sack."  And sure enough...

"Mr. Nordhoff, can you come over tonight, right now?"  "No, I don't think I want to do that, Mr. Hagstrom.  This ought to stay between you and Jonathan.  And whatever you careful."  Well, okay then.  Defying explanation (beyond, perhaps, he's old and wise), Nordhoff knows something is amiss, somehow.

Richard's next sentence takes his greed one logical step further, doubling down on the gold he's already wished for.

But before he's able to hit the "execute" button, his oafish son's blaring, insufferable electric guitar tinkering blows a fuse. Once Richard's got things back up and running, a new idea altogether has taken hold.

And whether or not intended so, we're somehow complicit in this act.  While typing out his unspeakable desire, the strange word processor begins to get louder and emit smoke.

And just like that, Seth Hagstrom is no more.  Rushing to his son's bedroom, he finds an empty guest room.  "He's gone...and he's taken all his junk with him."  

And when his wife gets home...
"Lina, are you sorry we never had any children?"
"What in God's name would I do with a rugrat?  Any peanut butter cups left?"  
And then...
"You going back downstairs to moon over your new toy?"
"For awhile...funny it came today.  It's my birthday today."
"Well, if you make a wish, wish for some damn money, will ya?"