Monday, October 7, 2013

(Dis)Comfort TV: Classic Halloween #1

 Sometime around 1995, Halloween hijacked the month of October. Last year, with the exception on one Munsters vs. Addams piece, Comfort TV sat out this annual tradition. But this year I’ve caught the spirit and will be offering recommendations on some classic Halloween episodes and some off-the-wall holiday specials.

This week, let’s take a look at five Comfort TV episodes that, while not specifically Halloween-themed, were still more frightening than a Miley Cyrus video.

“Living Doll”
The Twilight Zone
Choosing just one episode of The Twilight Zone for a piece on unsettling television is like trying to choose the worst episode of Small Wonder. There are just too many exceptional nominees. But even among such classic stories as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Long Distance Call,” “The After Hours,” “Twenty Two” and “Eye of the Beholder,” the TZ story that lingered longest in my memory was “Living Doll.” Telly Savales played the abusive stepfather to a little girl who had a doll named Talky Tina. And Tina did not like Telly.

Do we need spoilers for a 50 year-old episode? If you haven’t seen it but are familiar with the Child’s Play movies, you probably have some idea where the story is going. Savales’s heightened desperation, an ominous Bernard Herrmann score and the voice of June Foray as Tina create an escalating mood of tension that plays with the viewer’s loyalties. We enjoy watching the mean old stepdad get his, but the zinger at the end of the episode suggests that Tina may have already chosen her next victim.

“Twilight Town”
As the title suggests, “Twilight Town,” seems inspired by The Twilight Zone. The episode opens with Little Joe (Michael Landon) being knocked unconscious by a horse thief, and wandering into the mysterious town of Martinville. At first, he thinks the town long abandoned, but gradually Joe discovers he is not alone. After being nursed back to health, he is urged to become Martinville’s new sheriff.

The scares come not from quick cuts to frightening images, but from the slow realization of being trapped in a nightmare, in which everything seems normal on the surface but not quite right if you look a little closer. The climax seems to provide a logical explanation for what happens to Joe, but then there’s a little twist at the end that blurs the line between what’s real and imaginary.

“Fright Night”
The Brady Bunch

Whether it was building houses of cards, or Greg running against Marsha for class president, the “boys vs. the girls” episodes of The Brady Bunch usually ranked among the series’ best. Here, a ghost in the backyard frightens Jan and Cindy. They later discover that their brothers created it. The three very lovely girls plot their revenge and the usual hijinks ensue.

Maybe some suspension of disbelief is required to believe that the cellophane ghost rising from the trunk could really be that terrifying. But the attic sequence is certainly fun, and there’s an amusing climax when all six kids put their differences aside and team up to scare Alice. Also, watch for Maureen McCormick’s amusingly unsuccessful attempt to pronounce the word “werewolves.” 

“The Ghost of A. Chantz”
The Dick Van Dyke Show

A reservation glitch at a mountain cabin lands Rob, Laura, Buddy and Sally in the same isolated cottage for one night, and strange things start to happen. Some of the scares are surprisingly intense for a breezy sitcom, particularly the sinister faces that appear in the mirrors.

Morey Amsterdam plays the Lou Costello role to perfection, and the mystery is resolved in an unexpected and satisfying manner. 

“Assignment #1”
Sapphire and Steel

There were just six episodes, aired between 1979 and 1982, but the British sci-fi series Sapphire and Steel still retains a loyal cult following, and has just been released for a second time on DVD. David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, both better known for other TV roles, play inter-dimensional agents assigned to correct any unnatural breaks in the timeline.

In the atmospheric first episode, Sapphire (Lumley) and Steel (McCallum) arrive at a remote 18th century farmhouse to help two children whose parents have disappeared. The story unfolds over six half-hour episodes in which the two leads remain stubbornly enigmatic, and even brusque with the frightened kids they are ostensibly there to aid. The story is deliberately paced, which is usually a polite way of saying ‘slow.’ But if you have the patience for Jon Pertwee era Doctor Who, and don’t mind rudimentary visual effects in the service of intriguing stories and characters, the eerie, foreboding tone that emanates from this tale will draw you under its spell. 

Next week, I’ll look at five memorable episodes that were directly inspired by All Hallow’s Eve.

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