Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Ray Bradbury Theater - Season 1 (1985-86)

The 1980’s was an excellent time for enthusiasts of the anthology format on television. I can certainly count myself as one of those, as my total inability to follow an ongoing narrative over twelve or possibly twenty four episodes testifies. It’s hard to pinpoint where this renewed interest began; perhaps it was the big screen success of such films as Creepshow (1982) and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).  Certainly the latter would have been instrumental in the resurrection of The Twilight Zone (1985-89), and the former might have played a large part in George A. Romero’s thinking when he set up Tales from the Darkside (1984-88). In addition to The Twilight Zone in colour, we also got to see a re-colourised Alfred Hitchcock introduce a whole new batch of episodes as Alfred Hitchcock Present (1985-89) made a return. Other anthology shows that took their bow in the 1980’s included Amazing Stories (1985-87), The Hitchhiker (1983-91), Monsters (1988-91), Tales from the Crypt (1989-96),  Hammer House of Horror (1980), Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-90) and Friday the 13th – The Series (1987-90) to name but a few.

One area which would provide rich pickings was the bibliography of Ray Bradbury, which dated back to the 1940’s and encompassed hundreds of short stories which were perfect for the new found popularity of the anthology format. With a filmed introduction by Bradbury himself (in a study surrounded by the paraphernalia of his short stories) and all episodes adapted for the screen by Bradbury, this hand on approach ensured a good deal of fidelity to the original stories. The show was originally picked up by HBO, who broadcast the first three episodes in mid 1985 and the next three episodes in February 1986. The DVD release wisely conflated these two mini-seasons into one six episode season. After which the programme was picked up by USA Network and broadcast for an additional four seasons between 1988 and 1992. In total sixty five episodes were produced, and here is my humble effort to catalogue and review them...Welcome to the world of The Ray Bradbury Theater.

Episode 1 – MARIONETTES, INC. (21/05/1985)
Director – Paul Lynch

The opening episode of The Ray Bradbury Theatre is an appropriate choice as it explores one of Bradbury’s key thematic preoccupations; the conflict between man and machine and mankind’s increasing reliance on technology. Marionettes, Inc. first appeared in print in Bradbury’s excellent and memorable 1951 anthology The Illustrated Man, which itself was made into a rather lacklustre film in 1969 featuring Rod Steiger. It was first adapted for the screen for the fourth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and re-titled Design for Loving and was a clear influence on such later films as The Stepford Wives (1975).  Bradbury’s wry sense of humour is in evidence throughout; from the clinging and suffocating behaviour of Mrs. Braling (Jayne Eastwood) who as it turns out is only desperate for her love to be reciprocated, to the stylised absurdity of Leslie Nielsen’s performance as the CEO of Marionettes, Inc. However this episode belongs to James Coco as Braling, who at first seems trapped and put upon, but emerges as a cold, selfish and jealous individual who is punished for his lack of empathy and warmth towards his doting wife.  In a neat little subplot Bradbury also illustrates that it is not only husbands that can make use of Fantoccini’s skills in artificial intelligence. This episode was directed by British filmmaker Paul Lynch who proved his skills in the horror genre with the enjoyable slasher flick Prom Night (1980), and the significantly less enjoyable Humungous (1982). His later career would largely be spent in television.

Episode 2 – THE PLAYGROUND (04/06/1985)
Director – William Fruet

The second episode of The Ray Bradbury Theatre takes as its central theme the idea of how childhood trauma can visit itself upon the next generation, through the neuroses of the victim. The original story was published in the October 1953 edition of Esquire before finding a place in the anthologies Dark Carnival (1947) and The Illustrated Man (1951) and is one of Bradbury’s most memorable efforts. The writer conjures up a brutal and harsh vision of childhood, totally bereft of nostalgia, in which power in the playground, and the effect of merciless bullying, can have far reaching consequences. William Shatner plays Charles Underhill, the subject of the childhood torment, and though Shatner is an actor with limited range, he does a serviceable job as a father determined to wrap his son in cotton wool and protect him from what he perceives as the cruelties of playground culture. Underhill’s paranoia initially seems unjustified, by seeing the kids in the playground as feral wolf like creatures, it says more about his fractured and damaged state of mind than it does the realities of this communal space. As the story progresses however the supernatural begins to take over, thus entirely vindicating Underhill’s position. His final act of sacrifice in which he swaps bodies with his son to protect him from the bullies, is confusing, absurd and oddly touching. The absence of the unseen and mysterious playground manager from the short story is a major weakness, and only serves to make Underhill’s sacrifice less affecting. William Fruet (Canadian director of such interesting genre fare as Death Weekend (1976), Trapped (1982), and Blue Monkey (1988)) does a serviceable job behind the camera.

Episode 3 – THE CROWD (02/07/1985)
Director – Ralph L. Thomas

The Crowd is without doubt one of the highlights of the first season of The Ray Bradbury Theatre. The original story first appeared in the May 1943 edition of Weird Tales, before finding itself anthologised twice; firstly in Dark Carnival (1947) and then in The Small Assassin (1976).  The story itself functions tremendously well as a modern American ghost story, as Bradbury explores the nature of those who ghoulishly spectate at the scene of accidents. The teleplay benefits tremendously from the performance of Nick Manusco as the obsessive and driven Spellner, who so disturbed by the crowd that inexplicably materialises at the scene of his accident, makes it his life’s quest to discover who or what they are, and how they appeared so swiftly. He is aided in this dark odyssey by videographer Morgan (R. H. Thompson) who initially indulges his friend, but begins to believe there is something odd occurring when Spellner shows him video evidence of the same faces appearing at a multitude of car accidents. This sequence in which Spellner uses grainy CCTC footage to mount his case is disturbing and effective. It works extremely in combination with the highly stylised visuals on offer. Whereas the previous two episodes displayed a certain visual blandness, here the director Ralph L. Thomas and his colleagues create a cold, snowy, and eerie urban cityscape. It is a space drained of colour and life, a very effective spatial metaphor for the true origins of the mysterious members of the crowd. 

Episode 4 – THE TOWN WHERE NO ONE GOT OFF (22/02/1986)
Director – Don McBrearty

This unsettling little shocker features the human fly himself Jeff Goldblum as the aspirant author Cogswell, who when goaded by a vulgar salesman on a cross country training journey, stops off at an unvisited and entirely random town, in order to gain inspiration. The teleplay does a good job in the conversation between Cogswell and the salesman of highlighting the dichotomy between the rat race existence of the urban sprawl, and the slower paced life of a more rural location. The salesman mocks Cogswell’s open minded idealism and comes across as smug, self satisfied and deeply pessimistic. Oddly enough, the events that transpire in the small unnamed town actually vindicate the salesman’s deep seated cynicism. Much of the story is concerned with Cogswell wandering the streets, encountering hostile and uncommunicative locals, and wondering why exactly he has been followed all the way from the station by an old man. The old man is an embodiment of that darkest of secret desires; the desire to commit murder. Cogswell uses a psychological sleight of hand to escape with his life, and ultimately both survive with their lives intact. But any optimism about human nature engendered by this conclusion is shattered by the old man resuming his vigil outside the train station as he prepares to wait another twenty years for his perfect victim to disembark. This episode has a degree of subtlety, and the essential theme is explored through dialogue exchange, but it is no less unsettling for it. The story was original published in the October 1958 edition of Ellery Queen, before being anthologised in The Day it Rained Forever (1959) and A Medicine for Melancholy (1960).

Episode 5 – THE SCREAMING WOMAN (22/02/1986)
Director – Bruce Pittman

In one of the more effective and memorable tales of the first season Drew Barrymore plays imaginative youngster Heather Leary; a bright and inquisitive girl who feeds her regular flights of fancy with heavy doses of Tales from the Crypt. Here Bradbury delicately lifts the lid on the smooth facade of modern suburbia and finds within the deserted woodlands that neighbour the American Dream, a woman buried alive by a murderous husband. Of course much of the story sees Heather trying to convince the unbelieving adults that she has heard a woman screaming in the woods, but Bradbury ultimately vindicates Heather’s interest in the comic books her parents mock, by proving her assertions to be correct. The teleplay carries over the first person strategy of the short story, and throughout depicts the events from the perspective of the young girl. This makes it both unusual and intriguing, both as a vision of the close-mindedness of adulthood, and of the singular belief and determination of childhood imagination. The short story was originally published in the magazine Today in May 1951, and anthologised for the first time in S is for Space (1966). Those of a certain vintage may remember the ABC movie of the week adaptation which appeared in 1972 and featured Olivia de Havilland, but for me this episode remains a more interesting alternative.

EPISODE 6 – BANSHEE (22/02/1986)
Director – Douglas Jackson

The finale of the first season of the Ray Bradbury Theatre breaks with the tradition of adapting old short stories, in favour of one that was published just two years before. Banshee was published in the Sept/Oct 1984 edition of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine, and was a clear autobiographical reconstruction of Bradbury’s strained relationship with director John Huston. In place of Huston we have the equally manipulative, cruel, bullying practical joker John Hampton who is played with rich aplomb by the eminent Peter O’Toole. In Bradbury’s place is the writer Douglas Rogers played with strength and determination by Charles Martin Smith. I found the Banshee itself to be something of a side issue to the battle of wills between the sneering mockery of Hampton, and the resolve and faith of Rogers. The setting deep in the countryside of Dublin, with its folkloric traditions and mythology is particularly effective, as is the suitably gothic manor house that Hampton calls home. The ethereal whining of the wind which gives Hampton inspiration for his Banshee story and for the challenge which ultimately becomes his undoing adds a veneer of creepiness. But veneer is all we get, because Banshee is quite lightweight on atmospherics, and the chills are decidedly muted. But we do get the magnificent Peter O’Toole and the erstwhile and capable Charles Martin Smith to provide an entertaining twenty-five minutes.


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