Go beyond the ordinary. Go beyond the sane. With Stephen King as storyteller, you’ll travel to worlds of the imagination where the extraordinary is commonplace and madness lurks just beneath the surface in eight mind-bending stories.
eyelights: it’s eclectic – it’s not just horror.
eyesores: the inconsistent, cheap CGI.
In my first year of high school I discovered Stephen King. He
didn’t employ as many ghost writers then wasn’t nearly as prolific yet, so I had been able to catch up on much of his works thus far. I especially liked the short story collections, like ‘Night Shift’, ‘Skeleton Crew’ and even ‘The Bachman Books’, because they covered so many different genres. Granted, not every short was a winner, but there was a lot to sink your teeth into.
I stopped reading his books in the mid-’90s, after ‘The Green Mile’. And not because it turned me off of his works – the fact is that I was enamoured with it. The thing is that King published so much that it became impossible to keep up. So I started to rely on the TV movies and mini-series as well as the big screen adaptations of his works. As with the novellas and short stories, they were all of differing quality, but it was the only investment I cared to make.
I lost track of both his published works and the movies with time. I don’t know if it was due to a changing focus in my life, if he got buried in a sea of information (what with the breakout success of the internet), or if his stature has simply declined over the years, for various reasons, but I only know about Stephen King through the discount racks at the local book stores now. I don’t know why that is, but his hardcovers seem to lose value precipitously after publication these days.
So it came as a surprise to me when I saw ‘Nightmares and Dreamscapes’ on the shelf of one of my local CD/DVD purveyors. I had no idea that a TV series had been named after his 1993 collection, but I was immediately intrigued – I had fond memories of having purchased and read that particular book. And what was great about it was that each episode was in the 1-hour bracket (i.e. approximately 47 mins each, after commercials), giving them enough time to develop their plots, and they all featured recognizable guest stars.
So I decided that I had to get me some of that:
1. Battleground: I remember with both bemusement and fondness reading this short story back in the day. Seeing it interpreted in live action before my eyes had me laughing at the absurdity of it all throughout – watching little toy soldiers wage war on a full-sized professional killer was a real blast. William Hurt may not be convincing as a pro, given his aging physique, but the fact that he got through the whole episode without one line of dialogue says something about his ability as an actor. The whole show is dialogue-less, which can sometimes be awkward, but it mostly worked. And, to top it all off, this was ably directed by Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son. 8.0
2. Crouch End: I found this one barely tolerable. Not only did I hate the style of the piece, but the actors annoyed me – and, given as they are the only two actors for most of the show, they made for tedious company. Eion Bailey was like a wax figure and, even when he emoted, you got this numb look from him, as though he wasn’t feeling anything. It was weird. As for Claire Forlani, well, I’ve always liked her despite the permanent pained expressed on her face – but it gets tiring to feel that she has to strain to show anything but emotional torture, as though she has to force other emotions to the fore. Also weird. Anyway, I like the idea that parts of the world might have temporary openings to other dimensions, and it makes the episode kinda creepy, but the whole bit was squandered by poor direction and acting. 6.0
3. Umney’s Last Case: William H Macy taps into the same eagerness that he injected into ‘Pleasantville’ as the fictional late-’30s gumshoe of a clichéd-riddled tale… who meets his maker, a man so torn by his own life that he decides to swap places with his own creation. For a moment, desperation fills the piece as one character worries about his fate and the other recounts the recent trauma of his life, leaving the other to wonder what he will do next. Macy makes the piece work; it’s a terrific idea, but an hour just isn’t enough to do it full justice. Still, watching the two trade lives and try to adapt to their new environs was amusing and quite enjoyable. 7.25
4. The End of the Whole Mess: A very interesting story, which is slightly marred by the obvious outcome. The aptly-titled ‘The End of the Whole Mess’, is the story of a super-genius who decides one day to try to solve the world’s problems. It is told to us by his brother, who is filming what appears to be a testimonial. From the onset, we know that something’s gone wrong, but we don’t know exactly what. However, it becomes clear soon thereafter that there will be terrible repercussions to his brilliant sibling’s experiments. As viewers, all we needed to do was watch it unfold to see how bad it got. Pretty bad. But not unexpectedly so. 8.25
5. The Road Virus Heads North: God I hated this. I wonder if the tale was ruined in the adaptation process, because it didn’t flow well at all, and Stephen King usually knows how to spin a yarn. Add to this a bloated Tom Berenger, whom I’ve never once warmed up to in his whole career, and some really cheese-@$$ direction that made it look like the episode was shot on video by an amateur, and I couldn’t watch this. The only thing that had potential here is the notion that the painting our protagonist had bought might have been possessed or connected to an undead psychopath. Otherwise, forget it. 3.5
6. The Fifth Quarter: This one is straight drama. It’s about a career criminal who gets sucked back into a life of crime when an old cell mate drops in on him the very day that he goes back home. This one could have fit pretty much any crime series on TV, which doesn’t make it bad at all – just slightly conventional. Still, for what it is, it was delivered appropriately and the acting was mostly decent. I can’t complain. 7.5
7. Autopsy Room Four: This one should have rated higher. Much higher. It’s the story of a man who finds himself conscious while on an autopsy table – but completely paralyzed. The idea, in and of itself, is a scary one: I mean, can you IMAGINE being aware while being dissected by doctors? Eek! Unfortunately, the episode was marred by a penchant for situational comedy, which detracted from the terrible horror of the situation. Furthermore, the main character’s thoughts overlayed everything else that was taking place and being said, which made it difficult to concentrate (should you listen to him or the other characters? Who knows!). And it didn’t help that I found the guy’s mug and delivery irritating. 7.5
8. You Know They Got a Hell of a Band: I remember reading this one. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like it now. I was annoyed with Steven Weber’s character, which is par for the course in the many Stephen King adaptations he’s done. It’s too bad, too, ’cause I like the guy. Here he plays a stereotype: a guy who won’t ask for directions and won’t recognize that he’s made a mistake. But the worst of it is the idea that all the dead rock and roll stars end up in the boonies, together, playing for people who got trapped there. I like the idea of rock stars playing together in the afterlife, but not in some uncharted neck of the woods. Furthermore, the actors chosen to incarnate these rock icons looked almost nothing like the originals, making it even harder to appreciate. 5.5
All in all, ‘Nightmares and Dreamscapes’ is an excellent example of Stephen King’s eclectic nature. While he will always be remembered as the master of horror, he has done so much more than just write scary stories – it’s just that those other tales either fly by unnoticed or his name somehow doesn’t get associated with them, as though the idea couldn’t stick. This series manages to put enough variety together to likely astonish a number of viewers.
It’s King’s fans, however, who must be the most surprised. Some of these stories probably didn’t have a hope in Hell of being produced for the big or small screen, especially since King anthologies have not been released since the ’80s – so it is wicked-awesome that they snuck their way into this series. Personally, I’m especially pleased that ‘Battleground” made the cut, because I have no idea how else it would have seen the light of day – it’s too much of an oddity.
The overall quality of the series is decent, but one has to keep in mind that it is television and that production values are quite different on TV than on the big screen; networks are unlikely to throw tons of money at episodes that only get their money back through advertising or home video sales – not inflated ticket prices.
This means that special effects are cheap, b-list actors are cast, there are no big name directors, and the overall look of the episodes has somewhat of a low-budget feel to it. Thankfully, being a Stephen King-related production, they were able to reel in decent casts and it looks like the money tap flowed somewhat – this is not a SyFy-produced piece of crap.
So I’d recommend ‘Nightmares and Dreamscapes’ to Stephen King and/or anthology enthusiasts – albeit with the afore-mentioned caveats well-considered. It’s about as good as reading one of King’s short story collections, and it doesn’t require much investment – either emotionally, given that characters only appear in individual episodes (i.e. it’s not a full series), or time-wise.
And the beauty of this mini-series is that it shouldn’t keep you up at night; if anything, Nightmares and Dreamscapes’ will just tease your brain in that special way that King’s imagination tends to do when he’s at his best.
Date of viewing: Sept 30-Oct 6, 2012