In the wake of cable television’s recent success in the horror anthology genre, TNT brings us 8 tales from the mind and pen of Stephen King. Showtime’s hugely popular Masters of Horror series set a high standard while proving that this time-honored method of storytelling could survive. Cable’s unique ability to circumvent many of the censorship problems that plague network television puts them at a distinct advantage. Here it’s easier to tell compelling stories, with limitations, for the most part, only in the imag…nation of the story teller himself. And oh, what an imagination to cultivate, that of Stephen King. In his garden some of our most frightening nightmares are tended like the fragile leaves of a new basil plant. Here our fears are planted in fertile ground indeed, as fertile as graveyard dirt. These stories are what set apart this series from the many that have come and gone before. Most of the stories carry a feel very much like the 1990’s Outer Limits episodes we saw on Showtime a decade or so ago. You can almost hear the controller’s voice delivering a sober moral as each piece fades away. There are 8 episodes, each about 45-50 minutes spread out over 3 discs.
“Battleground” The teleplay is by Richard Christian Matheson, son of the great Richard Matheson who brought us many Twilight Zone adventures as well as “I Am Legend”, basis for a third version starring Will Smith, coming soon. The father also wrote the teleplay for the famous “Prey” segment of Trilogy Of Terror. This story is very much an almost remake of that episode. The story is unique in several ways. The most obvious is that there is no dialogue in the entire hour. I found it slowed the story down quite a bit, particularly in the overlong setup. Here William Hurt plays an assassin who slowly breaks into the headquarters of Morris Toys, where he apparently was hired to kill Morris, the owner. He commits his dirty deed and steals a music box dancer as a souvenir. Back at his plush penthouse apartment, we see he has collected many of these trophies over the years. In Battleground, we find that payback’s a bitch. A mysterious package arrives by carrier. Inside is a chest full of plastic army men and play equipment. These guys are pretty much like the versions we all had as kids. The toy regiment comes complete with choppers and jeeps as well as a “surprise item”. Our killer’s apartment becomes the titular Battleground when the toys come to life and terrorize the man. The f/x here are simply amazing as the toys wage a war with our gunman. There are even shades of another King classic, “The Ledge” from the Cat’s Eye collection here. After that slow start, things move at a brisk pace now that the battle is on. The Zuni Doll from the original Trilogy Of Terror episode also makes a cameo in this story. It acts as a nice moment of foreshadowing. Hurt has to carry the story, at least until the real action kicks in. You’ve just got to have some patience and it will finally be paid off.
“Crouch End” How many horror movies have we seen start with strangers entering a small town looking for a particular place? Of course, when they seek directions to this place, they get cryptic warnings and frightened aggression from the natives. Crouch End is one of those stories. Whether it’s Dracula’s Castle or Camp Crystal Lake, the result is always the same. Our travelers will ignore the local warnings and proceed without any caution to the dark destination. That’s how End begins, and that’s how we know with absolute certainty that things will not end well for our honeymooners. There are certainly shades of Lovecraft here, as Crouch End appears to be a shallow border with another dimension. We never get a clear idea what forces are at work, but the young couple’s nightmare is well played out by actors Claire Forlani, the I-told-you-so wife, and Eion Baily, the devil-may-care husband. Most of the episode involves this unseen terror swirling about the distressed couple like a tornado of fear. A few glimpses of mutated faces is about all we really see of the danger. Still, we are no less sure the danger is real and that at least one of these two won’t be around for their wedding anniversary.
“Umney’s Last Case” William Macy gives one of the best performances in the series in the dual role of Umney and the writer who created him. The show begins in a very film noir world of the 1930’s. The sets and characters are straight out of a Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler dime novel. Cliché upon cliché plays out in scenes that are predictable because we’ve seen it all a thousand times before. What’s going on? you ask. After all, is this a Stephen King tale or a Dixon Hill holodeck adventure. Just as we’re settled into the stylized story, things begin to change. Umney’s world begins to showcase colors out of place in this era. The characters around him stop acting in their predictable ways. Even his favorite “joint” is closed down. All of these unsettling moments are merely advance preparation for the arrival of God, or at least the writer who created him. It seems the writer’s world is not so good. He lost his son and can’t seem to relate any longer to his grieving wife. He decides to change places with his detective creation. He would play in the fantasy realm while Umney can journey to the real world and help his wife, as it seems he’s done so well for his clients. Nothing all too terribly original here, but it might well be the most entertaining story in the bunch.
“End Of The Whole Mess” What good would a Stephen King collection be without an “end of the world story”? Band of Brothers veteran Ron Livingston stars in what is essentially a narrative. At first he seems to be telling us the story of his life. There are the moments he discovered his writing talents, which led him down the path of a well respected documentary creator. There are tons of heartwarming moments with his genius brother. The story sets out to be quite an endearing little tale. It’s almost as if King himself is addressing his “gentle reader” in that tone I love so much about Charles Dickens. We almost buy into this one… almost. When genius brother develops a cure for violence, he attains the impossible: World Peace. Pretty cool, right? Guess again. Don’t forget who’s writing this stuff, and it ain’t Dickens. As Livingston’s character Howard informs us: “The Devil’s in the details.” Before long Howard himself is clueing us into the fact that something has gone horribly wrong. Turns out this cure has an unforeseen side effect. What is it? Forget about it.
“The Road Virus Heads North” It’s all too common for Stephen King to write about writers. You have to wonder sometimes if he sees himself in these characters. Rich Kinnell is a successful horror writer with a large base of at times obsessive fans. (Sound like anyone we know?) He lives in seclusion in Maine. Following a medical test that might indicate trouble, Kinnell is on the road and stops at a yard sale. Here he is attracted to a morbidly horrid painting done by an artist who killed himself soon after. All the while he is mourning the potential loss of control over his life and perhaps death. But does the strange painting have that control now? Before long the painting begins to change, and Kinnell is convinced the fanged driver in the painting is pursuing him. He attempts to destroy the work, but it seems all sales are final. The story builds to a pretty unsatisfying conclusion. This is perhaps the least entertaining of the 8 stories.
“The 5th Quarter” Willie is finally on his way home after seven long years in prison. He’s understandably anxious to see his wife and young son. He’s determined to go straight, but it appears fate has other plans for Willie. Jeremy Sisto from Six Feet Under does a great job in portraying the ex-con who can’t seem to escape fate. This tale really has no supernatural angles to it at all. Willie is simply drawn into a heist he actually had no part in when his friend turns up dying at his doorstep the day he gets out. Plenty of action is what you’ll find in place of the otherworldly connections most often found in a King tale. Willie is sent on a 24 hour search for revenge or that elusive score that might just set him up for life. What works best here is how much we grow to like Willie in the short time we get to know him. In spite of his deeds, we can’t help but feel something for the poor guy. An ambiguous ending allows you to draw your own conclusions as to what really ends up happening. At first I found that frustrating but soon came to realize the beauty of the final moments.
“Autopsy Room 4” This story is very much reminiscent of the classic Hitchcock Presents episode “Breakdown”. In the Hitch version a man is involved in a car accident and is pinned under his steering wheel. Paralyzed, he is unable to communicate with the outside world that he is indeed alive. He is spared at just the last moment before he is to be cut open in the Autopsy Room. Autopsy Room 4 is pretty much the same story. Although Richard Thomas’s Howard is bitten by a snake on a golf course, the story is almost exact. Even some of the dialogue is eerily familiar. Both stories are told from inside the mind of the victim. Both scripts concentrate on the helplessness and terror of the victim who can’t seem to get anyone’s attention. Richard Thomas does an amazing job considering his movements are limited to absolute stillness. His acting must come from the narrative. We have to feel his situation in his voice and we do. The bit plays out a little too long and perhaps worked better for Hitchcock because of the half hour format.“You Know They Got A Hell Of A Band” One of Stephen King’s favorite elements is 50’s and 60’s Rock “n” Roll. Song quotes and rocker stereotypes appear in all of his work. He even has a charity band formed with other writers that performs this stuff. So why not a trip to Rock “n” Roll Heaven? Steven Weber and Kim Delaney are an old married couple perhaps trying to find the old spark again. A cross country trip through Oregon gets them lost. They happen upon a quaint little village on the outskirts of nowhere. The inhabitants just so happen to be dead rockers. Elvis is the mayor and Rickey Nelson’s making cherry pies in the local diner. Might be a nice place to visit, but getting out proves to be a bit of a problem. It seems they’ve got a great concert lineup every night, but keeping an audience has proven to be a challenge. This must be what they mean by a captive audience.
Each episode is presented in a fine 16 X 9 widescreen presentation. I’ve seen a couple of these on TNTHD and the picture is pretty much the same. Colors are bright, and all of it is near reference. Black levels are full of detail. The picture is razor sharp, and not a flaw is to be found from the original transfer. Each episode is consistent throughout.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does the job. Different episodes have different audio requirements. Outside of the first, there really isn’t a lot of dynamic noise, so that dialogue remains the crucial element. While not terribly aggressive, the sound is served quite well all the way around.
Each disc sports a small collection of short (3-5 min) features related to the content on that disc.
“Inside Look: Battleground and Crouch End” This is a very brief look at the first 2 episodes. Fast moving clips and a couple of interview segments fly by at such a rapid pace, it’s hard to walk away with anything significant here.
“Battleground F/X” Of all of these short segments, this is one of the best. The f/x for this episode are outstanding and deserve a second look, if all too briefly. Sam Nicholson and Brian Hensen talk about what they describe as one giant special effect.
“William Hurt of Battleground” Pretty much everything you would expect. Hurt discuses his role and the story a bit. Seems he based his character’s movements on zoo animals. Interesting.
“Eion Baily of Crouch End” Baily is the husband who is being sucked into Crouch End. He basically just summarizes the story with his 3 minutes. He adds a little praise for Stephen King for good measure.
“William Macy of Umney’s Last Case” Another synopsis is offered. Macy gives us a little insight into how he created the nuances of the two characters. Most of the identity he found in their voices.
“From The Mind Of Stephen King” You would expect this thing to be longer than 3 minutes. Mostly it’s a love fest from the cast and crew to Stephen King. A lot of sucking up, it appears. One of the people says how on one story you start out thinking everything’s going to be all right. I don’t know about you, but when I read Stephen King I NEVER think everything’s going to be all right.
“Ron Livingston of The End Of The Whole Mess” He treats his story as that moment when your life flashes before your eyes.
“Jeremy Sisto of The 5th Quarter” Another synopsis with episode clips but at least Sisto offers some insight into the sets and the Prison location used for the film’s opening scenes.
“The Inside Look at Umney’s Last Case and The End Of The Whole Mess” Again. These things are coming at you at warp speed and offer almost no insight whatever. There is also getting to be far too much reuse of interview clips in these things. At just a few minutes each you’d think that they could avoid repeating segments.
“The Inside Look: The Road Virus Heads North and The 5th Quarter” This is getting monotonous here. Nothing you haven’t already seen or heard before.
“Tom Berringer of The Road Virus Heads North” He at least admits that his character sounds quite a bit like Stephen King.
“Page To Picture” King’s work has always been a challenge to translate onto film. Here the various producers discuss how they worked with each director to fuse their vision with the printed words. F/X are addressed again. This is one of the more informative features.
“Richard Thomas of Autopsy Room 4” John Boy did a real good job here. It’s obvious he had a good feel for the material.
“Stephen Weber of You Know They Got To Have A Hell Of A Band” Weber feels connected to King. Of course this is not his first Stephen King story. He was in the mini-series remake of The Shining. Still more summary and clips.
“Inside Look Autopsy Room 4 and You Know They Got To Have A Hell Of A Band” Is there any 2 seconds of this piece we hadn’t already seen?
The features here were pretty lame. Not sure why we weren’t treated to some commentary tracks at least. Still, for King fans everywhere, this is a solid anthology. There is a pleasant mix of story types, so it doesn’t all feel rehashed. The cast is pretty much top drawer, and just about everybody delivers the goods. It’s not hard to get drawn into King’s macabre world. “Maybe it’s more like we’re trapped.”
Special Features List
- Inside Look at each episode
- Actor Interviews
- Page To Picture Feature
- Inside The Mind Of Stephen King
- Battle ground f/x feature