Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Episodes 7 & 8

My expectations for TNT's Stephen King anthology series steadily diminished through the run, to the point that I was amused by the final two episodes even though neither was precisely what I'd call good. I guess I was applying what John Kessel calls, in reference to genre fiction, "alternate standards of excellence."

Of the two, I preferred "Autopsy Room Four," with Richard Thomas as a paralyzed man who awakens on a gurney to find himself being prepped for autopsy, with no way of communicating that he's still alive. Veteran couch potatoes like me immediately will recognize this as the premise of "Breakdown," an episode from the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- an episode starring Joseph Cotten and directed by Hitchcock himself.

In King's short story, the protagonist remembers that Hitchcock episode, too, though it doesn't help him any. The Nightmares & Dreamscapes episode likewise acknowledges the original; during a flashback, it's on a TV screen in the background. This sort of footnote absolves the living from charges of plagiarism, but not from charges of unoriginality. To King's credit, his short story is a real page-turner and a tour de force of point of view, as the reader experiences everything poor Howard Cottrell experiences, but nothing more.

Much of this power is frittered away for television, alas, in order to pad the story to an hour's length. Writer April Smith and director Mikael Salomon give us not only lengthy flashbacks involving Cottrell's fiancee (a character not in King's story), but scenes involving the fiancee, the golfing partner, the doctor who makes the hasty diagnosis, the slacker orderlies, etc. -- all of which takes us away from where we ought to be, on the slab in Autopsy Room Four. And the ending is even sillier than King's ending, which I would not have thought possible. Still, whenever my interest threatened to flag, someone picked up a pair of shears or an anal thermometer, and I was right there on the table with John-Boy again.

"Breakdown" was remade, with John Heard, for the ill-considered 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so "Autopsy Room Four" really is the third go-round for this story on the small screen. The original Hitchcock episode was written by Francis Cockrell and Louis Pollock, and my hat's off to them.

Before I leave "Autopsy Room Four" behind, I must quote King's afterword to the story, in his collection Everything's Eventual. The paralysis in the story is caused by the bite of an exotic snake, a Peruvian boomslang. King writes:
I doubt like hell if there's any such reptile as a Peruvian boomslang, but in one of her Miss Marple capers, Dame Agatha Christie does mention an African boomslang.
Ah, research!

With "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band," Nightmares & Dreamscapes goes out not with a bang, but with a couple of guitar riffs, maybe on air guitar. Kim Delaney and Steven Weber play a vacationing couple who drive themselves right off the map and into a town called Rock and Roll Heaven, where they are menaced by the likes of Roy Orbison, Duane Allman and Otis Redding. The actors playing the dead rock stars look almost nothing like the dead rock stars (Orbison looks more like Phil Harris, who sang "The Bare Necessities" and "The Thing"), and the episode would have been greatly improved had writer-director Mike Robe hired Bruce Campbell to play Mayor Presley, but in a weird way the poor likenesses actually work, since this isn't supposed to be, say, Janis Joplin, but a lip-syncing, maggot-spewing malevolent entity masquerading as Janis Joplin, in a sort of Karaoke Festival of the Damned.

This may be the silliest story King's ever written, but anyone forced to listen to 30 minutes of classic-rock radio will find the episode's view of Hell rather convincing.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your diligent evaluations. I have to say I enjoyed your reviews more than I enjoyed any of the episodes themselves.


Tracy S. Miller said...


Also, may I point out that the WIFE was in NO WAY involved in that couple "driving themselves off the map" as you so sweetly put it.

Love the blog...

Anonymous said...

A belated P.S.: When I wrote the above comments, I'd forgotten I hadn't watched the final episode, which I finally did today. It didn't change the sentiment expressed in the previous message, but I did appreciate the degree to which the episode served as a metaphor for the stranglehold "classic rock" continues to have on my generation.