Stephen King, in the course of 30 years, has become a gargantuan commercial success. And why not? He is wicked scary and chillingly entertaining. But part of King's success is attributed to his ability to raise common, fundamental truths and write characters with universal human flaws in his warped, fantastical stories - truths which any audience can latch onto and flaws which everyone can identify with. It's no different with the fabulous TV cable rendition of his Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Themes of isolation, alienation, mortality, the human condition, and social disintegration are touched on.
This lavish, all-out TNT production doesn't stinge in its mini-series adaptation. I was amazed by the acting talent brought on board: William Hurt, William H. Macy, Kim Delaney (still sexy), Tom Berenger, Samantha Mathis... Stephen King's stories are magnificently and thoughtfully realized by wonderful, fully committed acting, production values of superb quality, and across-the-board earnest efforts by the writers and directors, who honor Stephen King by cleaving close to the spirit of the author's works. The 8 episodes are selected for their diverse storylines and are uniformly excellent. They are, in turn, comedic, meditative, tense, gentle, allegorical, apocalyptic, and, YES, scary. Personal favorites of mine are "Battleground," "Umney's Last Case," and "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band."
For the completists, of the eight episodes, only five are actually from King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes short story collection. "Autopsy Room Four" and "The Road Virus Heads North" are from Everything's Eventual, while "Battlefield" is from Night Shift. TNT's motto is "We know Drama." But, it seems, they also know horror.
Here are the 8 episodes:
"Battleground" - In this terse, funny, cool f/x-laden episode, William Hurt stars as an icy professional hit man who assassinates the CEO of a prominent toy company and ends up waging a one-man war against living plastic toy soldiers from a Jungle Army Footlocker. The little Savage Commando at the end is awesome! No dialogue in this one, which, in a way, enhances Hurt's acting even more. This episode, pretty much a one-man show, pays homage to the 1975 horror movie Trilogy of Terror, which starred Karen Black and the Twilight Zone's classic "The Invaders."
"Crouch End" - A newlywed American couple, superstitious Doris and the more practical Lonnie (Claire Forlani and Eion Bailey), honeymooning in London, are invited to dinner in the neighborhood of Crouch End. A London cabbie earnestly warns Lonnie not to go there but of course, the couple pays no heed. In Crouch End, strange things begin to happen - and weird, scary denizens begin to menace them - and, gradually, they come to realize they've ended up in a "thin spot" - an alternate world. This is an unsettling, spooky tale, as the more they get lost, the more desperate the circumstances become. Another instance of a normal, initially happy couple being faced with weird events and having their personal relationship gradually fall apart.
"Umney's Last Case" - Clyde Umney is a private eye plying his trade in 1938 whose world is upended when a man who looks just like him, named Sam Landry, shows up, claiming to be from the future of 2005. Sam has been writing a series of detective novels, with Clyde as the leading character. Sam and his wife Linda are suffering from the loss of their child, and Sam can't handle it; so he swaps places with Clyde. Everyman William H. Macy, as usual, is superb in both the roles of Clyde and Sam.
"The End of the Whole Mess" - Ron Livingston plays an award-winning filmmaker who, in his final hour of life, narrates the story of how his altruistic brother (Henry Thomas), by chemically finding a cure for all violence, instead brought about the end of the world. This is probably my least favorite story. It has its merits, but it moves at a plodding pace.
"The Road Virus Heads North" - Richard Kinell (Tom Berenger) is a famous horror writer shockingly diagnosed with a form of cancer. When driving to Boston for a book-signing event, he chances upon a garage sale and purchases a painting of a car travelling on the road. Eerily, this painting gradually changes and grows more menacing as Kinell goes along. Now, is the painting real or is Kinell delusional? Or is the painting, in reality, controlling his destiny? The painting is obviously a metaphor for Kinell's suddenly shortened mortality, but knowing that doesn't diminish the viewing of the episode.
"The Fifth Quarter" - Willy Evans (Jeremy Sisto) just never has any luck. Caught in a vicious loop of always making wrong choices, he repeatedly ends up in jail. Finally released but desperate to land that one big score and provide for his hardluck family, he goes in search of a treasure's burial site, aided by one quarter of a treasure map. Will his luck change this time? I couldn't help but root for Willy and his wife Karen (Samantha Mathis), who are inherently good people, but who are stuck in an impoverished situation, with no other recourse but crime. I mean, what would you do? Very good, dramatic character study.
"Autopsy Room Four" - King does his version of the "buried alive" scenario with this "bottle" episode. The story is mainly told thru the eyes of Howard Cottrell (Richard Thomas), who is bitten by a snake and pronounced dead. He is taken to the autopsy room, where the coroners begin talk of cutting him open. But here's the thing: Cottrell isn't dead, merely paralyzed, and desperately trying to let the coroners know it. Richard Thomas does a very good job conveying vulnerable, stark terror while - due to his frozen position on the slab - unable to properly emote. This is nerve-wracking stuff.
"You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" - This is a very cool episode. Kim Delaney and Steven Weber star as a troubled couple on a road trip thru Oregon who get lost and end up in a quaint little town called Rock & Roll Heaven, where the great musical icons of the '60s and '70s are alive and well. It seems like Shangri-La, there's a free concert every night. But, admission comes at a cost: once you enter, you can't leave. Uncanny resemblance between the actors and the musical legends they portray.
I only wish other stories from the Nightmares & Dreamscapes collection had been adapted to the small screen. It would've been interesting to see these following stories interpreted on television: "Suffer the Little Children," "The Ten O'Clock People," "The House on Maple Street," and "The Doctor's Case" (a kind-of posthumous Sherlock Holmes story). *Sigh* but you can't have everything. And what we do have, in these 8 stories, are certainly good enough and thought-provoking enough to tide us over until the next Stephen King project.
From what I understand, extras on this beautiful, slipcase three-disc set include additional scenes, featurettes, interviews and production sketches. Running time: 480 minutes. Screen aspect: Original Aspect Ratio - 1.78, Widescreen (16:9 Transfer).