Amazing Stories was a fantasy anthology series created by Steven Spielberg and ran from 1985 to 1987. At the time Spielberg had already been responsible for four (or even five maybe) of the largest grossing films ever made and could do more or less whatever he wanted to. He desired to resurrect sixties classic The Twilight Zone for television (Spielberg had co-produced the ill-fated 1983 Twilight Zone big screen venture and actually got his break in Hollywood directing a story for Rod Serling's Night Gallery) but when that proved to be problematic he decided to create his own original series as a homage to The Twilight Zone - the name Amazing Stories taken from the pulp science fiction magazine launched by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Spielberg was given carte blanche by NBC to do whatever he wanted for Amazing Stories and an impressive collection of talent was arranged both in front and behind the camera. In this first season alone there are episodes directed by Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Peter Hyams, Joe Dante, Irvin Kershner and Paul Bartel. Expectations were understandably sky high when Amazing Stories made its much trumpeted debut in 1985 with Spielberg's Ghost Train. However, despite the anticipation and numerous famous guest stars (everyone from Kevin Costner to Harvey Keitel to Charlie Sheen to Dom DeLuise) Amazing Stories was a ratings dud and cancelled after only two years when the high production costs of the series became unsustainable. It seems to be largely forgotten today (I don't think the second season was even released on DVD over here) so is Amazing Stories worth discovering? The answer is yes with some reservations. There are some surprisingly great episodes but I do think that Spielberg's stated intent to be more "magical than macabre" was probably a part of the problem. It's best to think of this as a reductive Twilight Zone.
Imagine if The Twilight Zone (I know they remade The Twilight Zone in the end but go with me for a moment) was made in the eighties with a much more lavish budget but shorn of Rod Serling's impassioned social and political subtexts and most of the far out science fiction and spine chilling horror episodes. Amazing Stories is mostly about whimsy, magic, miracles and sentiment. This show is often far too saccharine and prime time for its own good (the two very moving Richard Matheson penned stories are a notable exception). When Amazing Stories does venture into more late night fare (for example the terrific serial killer episode The Amazing Falsworth and Scorsese's eerie Mirror, Mirror) it becomes almost an entirely new show and gives one a fleeting glimpse of what might have been had it spread its wings more. A salient problem is that despite licensing the name Amazing Stories, Spielberg declined to use the magazine's endless library of imaginative stories and instead developed many ideas himself. With that knowledge it's unsurprising that there is often little that feels new or inspired here. Spielberg is a director not a writer. I gather that the series also had to cope with producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey (who created the witty hospital drama series St Elsewhere) leaving the show early on. Given all of these problems it's easier to be kind to Amazing Stories now and the anthology connoisseur who does decide to give this a whirl will certainly get a kick out of the better stories. There are twenty-four episodes in season one and - with a couple of exceptions - they run to about twenty-five minutes. No narrations here but you do get a stirring theme tune by John Williams and a computer animated title sequence with cavemen, a suit of armour coming to life, spaceships, magic playing cards etc. I would imagine it was state of the art in 1985 and although dated it's still quite charming. I love the closing titles too. It's a suburban street scene and night gradually falls as lights begin to flicker in houses. Simple but pretty with the music by John Williams.
The series begins with Ghost Train, directed by Steven Spielberg from a teleplay by Frank Deese. Spielberg has a story credit but that seems to be the case with practically every episode so I won't keep repeating it. Anyway, Ghost Train. The story begins with old Opa Glode (Roberts Blossom) moving in with his son Fenton (Scott Paulin), daughter-in-law Joleen (Gail Edwards) and young grandson Brian (Lukas Haas) at their remote country house. Opa is a bit eccentric - something we gather early on when he insists on standing up for the car journey with his head sticking through the sun roof. All seems well though and Opa is delighted to see Brian and soon entertaining his grandson with stories of Native American Indians who used to live on this land. But when he looks out across the surrounding landscape he becomes concerned and starts babbling about the house being in the wrong place. It transpires that the house is situated near where an old railway line used to cut through the fields. Opa is convinced that seventy-five years ago as a small boy he accidentally caused a train wreck when he fell asleep on the line and forced the Highball Express to derail. He believes the Highball Express is going to return tonight and that he must go with it this time. It's his destiny. He also warns that the route of the train is going to take it straight through their kitchen. The parents think that old Opa has gone a bit doolally and do their best to humour him but young Brian still believes in Grandpa. Has Opa gone bonkers or is the Highball Express really going to return to claim him tonight?
Ghost Train is a sentimental ghost story that doesn't make an awful lot of sense when you think about it afterwards and never does anything to surprise you but the presence of Spielberg behind the camera and the stirring music by John Williams certainly lifts it above your usual television fare. There is a decent set-piece at the end (which apparently features some blink and you'll miss them celebrity cameos - including Drew Barrymore) and Spielberg goes for a Close Encounters aura once the story is set up with an apparently ordinary house increasingly subject to strange phenomena. A nice sense of atmosphere is apparent. I thought this maybe took a while to get going (even with the shortish running time of these episodes) though and might be a trifle too sickly saccharine Spielbergian for some tastes. But as a mission statement for what he wanted Amazing Stories to be this is not bad at all and certainly one of the best directed segments in this series. I do admire the way that Spielberg is working on a smaller canvas but still manages to make this feel cinematic. Roberts Blossom (who also appeared in Spielberg's Close Encounters and Always) as Opa is easily the best thing in the cast. He doesn't play Opa as nutty or cranky or too misty-eyed but as a very human amalgam that we can sort of accept as a character. His scenes with Lukas Haas (who was the little Amish boy in the Harrison Ford film Witness) are pleasant. Spielberg's strangest decision here regarding the acting is that for reasons best known to himself he cast a Kate Capshaw lookalike as Opa's daughter-in-law and gives her nothing to do except scream. All in all, Ghost Train is a solid start.
The Main Attraction was directed by Matthew Robbins and written by Brad Bird and Mick Garris. A comic episode set at a high school that becomes more watchable as it goes along but is nothing amazing. Sporting hero Brad Bender (John Scott Clough) is an egomaniac teenager completely in love with himself. Bender likes to believe that high school life revolves around him and so the forthcoming "Prom King" announcement is vital to his sense of superiority. Not entirely sure what a Prom King is myself but let's just say it seems to be very important to Bender in the context of this story. Anyway, Bender has to do some unexpected campaigning to do when the school announces the winner this year will be chosen by who sells the most prom tickets (rather than a straight forward popularity vote). His dreaded rival Cliff (Bill Allen) is running neck and neck in the race and has started his ticket selling drive early. Bender must now get to school as soon as possible and turn on his oleaginous eighties charm to secure the Prom King title. There is only one problem. The night before two meteors struck the town, one of them landing in Bender's bedroom. As he soon realises, Bender now has a truly magnetic personality. The Main Attraction is a broad farce (with performances to match) that is absolutely grating at first but becomes mildly amusing when Bender finds that he attracts anything metallic and gradually turns into a giant dustbin as he manfully tries to complete his promotional obligations for the big contest. These scenes are nicely done and although John Scott Clough is not Chaplin he's better when his performance becomes more of a physical one and he must react to everything magnetic pulling him this way and that. The meteor strike on his bedroom is decent fun in a hokey fifties sci-fi film fashion. I didn't recognise anyone in the cast although Lisa Jane Persky sticks in the memory the most as the geeky school outsider Shirley. I'm not sure I can see myself returning to this in the future but The Main Attraction is by no means a bad episode.
Alamo Jobe was directed by Michael D Moore and written by Joshua Brand & John Falsey. It's 1836 and fifteen year-old volunteer Jobe (Kelly Reno) is right in the thick of the battle for the Alamo. After a chit chat with Davy Crockett our bullet dodging young hero is somewhat perturbed to see strange figures wandering around in shorts idly taking photographs. Hmmn. We could be in for some timeslip capers I think. Jobe is then given an urgent mission by Colonel Travis ( William Boyet). He is ordered to get a message to "General John Leffert of Shuttlecock Road" and duly sets off to escape this smoke hazed war zone. However, after a close encounter with a Mexican soldier, Jobe suddenly finds himself in a most unusual landscape - the San Antonio of 1985. The plucky Jobe has been shunted one hundred years in the future but still desperately tries to find Shuttlecock Road to deliver his message. Will he succeed? This is very Twilight Zone but not exactly One Hundred Yards Over the Rim. The scenes at the start set at the Alamo are very well done I think with good costume detail and a strong sense of atmosphere but the story eventually devolves into Jobe wandering around modern day (ok, 1985 anyway) San Antonio looking confused and never really goes anywhere or even bothers with a resolution. I imagine that Jobe is still in San Antonio today, aimlessly walking around with a white beard and a horse looking bewildered every time a car goes past. There is a decent horse chase scene through the city and the sudden contrast between the Alamo and the present day is mildly arresting at first. You can tell this is the eighties because there are people breakdancing on the street. Ultimately though, Alamo Jobe never really follows through on its initial premise and the ending is unsatisfactory and doesn't make an awful lot of sense. Kelly Reno (who was a child star from one of the Black Beauty films) doesn't have much to do apart from look confused and it's probably just as well because his line readings are a bit wooden when they arrive. Alamo Jobe is watchable but that's about it.
After a middling start, Amazing Stories comes to life with a terrific comedy episode called Mummy Daddy. This was directed by William Dear and written by Earl Pomerantz and is one of the highlights of the first season collection. The story opens in some fog shrouded backwoods swampland somewhere in the deep south of the United States. A film crew is shooting a "Mummy" horror picture loosely based around a local legend about a real life mummy that lurks in the area after some black magic capers by a Gypsy Circus. Actor Harold (Tom Harrison) is playing the mummy and tightly bound in his bandages and realistic looking creature costume. The costume is so difficult to get on and off and takes so long that Harold must stay in it all day and has to sip through a straw when he needs a drink between shooting. Harold then hears that his pregnant wife has gone into labour early and without thinking jumps in the nearest car and makes a mad dash for the hospital. He's forgotten that he's wearing an elaborate and rather spooky mummy costume that he can't remove alone and through a series of bizarre circumstances finds himself trapped in the swamp area shuffling around looking like a mummy. Soon the redneck locals have taken him for a real monster and begun a search and if that wasn't bad enough what about the legend of the real mummy? Could that be lurking somewhere? You don't ever expect too much from comedy episodes in anthology shows but this is a great twenty-five minutes of television. Tom Harrison is superb as the mummy costumed actor and his physical reactions are very funny. I love the way we can't hear him speak but can understand some of his mumbles (a la Kenny in South Park) and some of his sarcastic asides to the various characters he meets this troubled night are very amusing. The costume itself is wonderful with a Creature of the Black Lagoon feel and the swampy backwater makes for an atmospheric setting. A nice touch to have a deadpan Bronson Pinchot as the film director at the start explaining the legend of the mummy too. It sets up the story nicely. You get riffs on Frankenstein and some wonderful little vignettes like Tom meeting the real mummy while in his costume and a fun scene where he tries to get gas for his car and is met by a terrified shop assistant who has just been watching an old mummy film on television and now apparently finds himself face to face with one! Great music by Danny Elfman in this episode too.
Next is an expanded hour long episode with some famous names in the cast. The Mission was directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Menno Meyjes. An American B-17 World War 2 bomber named "Friendly Persuasion" is on its 23rd and final mission over Germany. The Captain (Kevin Costner) is eager to return to England safe and sound but the plane is soon engulfed in crisis when their resident cartoonist and good luck charm Jonathan (Casey Siemaszko) becomes trapped in the belly turret where he mans the machine gun. Some wreckage from a damaged German fighter is lodged over the belly gunner cockpit and far too heavy to lift. The problem? The plane now has only two engines and no landing gear. They will have to land soon and if they do Jonathan - situated as he is at the bottom of the plane - will be killed. Looks like they need a miracle but in what form? I'm not quite sure why this is an hour long (other than vanity on the part of Spielberg I suppose) and it does tread water somewhat around the middle as the action is set almost entirely inside the bomber. Once the situation of Jonathan being trapped is established though this is decent stuff with some tension and naturally above average direction and cinematography for a television series. This is (like Ghost Train) very Spielbergian with stirring music once more by John Williams. The bomber set is realistic and the acting is pretty good too with Casey Siemaszko the stand out. A very young looking Kiefer Sutherland (hey, two Young Guns stars for the price of one!) is fine too as their radio operator Static. Kevin Costner is solid enough as you'd expect although he does seem to be trying a bit too hard to look cool in this with his flight jacket and cigar chomping. The banter between the Air Force crew is rather grating and corny at times but the actors make you feel like this is a real crew. I think the very fantastical ending is going to lose some viewers though. It seems out of place after the taut small scale nature of the situation and feels like a slight cheat.
A surprisingly dark and gripping episode next with The Amazing Falsworth. This was directed by Peter Hyams and written by Mick Garris. The story opens in a dark alleyway. A woman is strangled with piano wire and we soon learn that the city is in fear of a serial killer known as The Keyboard Killer. An alleyway tramp who witnessed the latest murder tries to alert the police in a phone box but is murdered by the killer too - who then ducks into a night club with trenchcoat and sunglasses to hide. It turns out the nightclub is staging a performance by a clairvoyant known as The Amazing Falsworth (Gregory Hines). Falsworth's routine involves him touching people on the shoulder while blindfolded and then being able to deduce all manner of things about them with his pyschic gift. Falsworth does his act, correctly telling people things about themselves just by touch but then he touches the trenchcoated man and immediately goes into a panic. Falwsorth knows it was The Keyboard Killer he touched but when he removes the blindfold the killer is gone and so can't be recognised. Falsworth must team up with police detective Trent Tinker (Richard Masur) and not only find the murderer but persuade Tinker his powers are real and that he really did have a close encounter with the serial killer. You don't expect much from an episode with that title (I thought it was going to be some whimsical affair about a magician or something) but The Amazing Falsworth is fantastic and much closer in spirit to Tales from the Crypt than Amazing Stories. The vibrant lush colours of this series look great here with the bold reds of the nightclub scene and the story essentially becomes a gripping game of cat and mouse between Falsworth and the killer with a good twist in the tale. The late Gregory Hines is terrific as the frazzled Falsworth and Richard Masur is just as good as the detective investigating the case. Peter Hyams' direction is economical and inventive and this sustains itself right to the end. Arguably the best thing in series one.
Fine Tuning was directed by Bob Balaban and written by Earl Pomerantz. A comic sci-fi episode with a lot of jokes about showbusiness and cameos from some famous comedians of yesteryear (that people from outside the United States are probably unlikely to recognise). This reminded me somewhat of that Joe Dante film Explorers only more small scale and blander. Anyway, what is the premise of Fine Tuning? A young teenager named Andy (Matthew Labyorteaux) lives in the Hollywood hills and designs a television antenna as part of a school project. When he places the antenna on his bedroom set he appears to pick up a signal from China but when he shows his friends the contraption they suddenly start receiving images of aliens from another world. The aliens (who sort of look like diminutive talking potatoes) are acting out various fifties American sitcoms and seem to have become obsessed with the Earth television of that era now that signals from our world are reaching theirs. Andy and his friends work out that three of the aliens are due to arrive in Hollywood that night in search of the stars of the shows they've watched and so duly set off to meet these extraterrestrial square eyes. That's more or less it. Andy and friends have lunch with the aliens, take them on a Hollywood tour and introduce them to Milton Berle. They then hit upon the idea of a special show for the aliens featuring vaudevillians from years gone by. Fine Tuning is pretty daft and one of the more forgettable episodes but it does have an inherent sweetness that stops you from ever being able to completely dislike it. I enjoyed the Roger Cormanesque alien masks and it was sort of fun to see Milton Berle (who I only know from his cameos in Woody Allen films) interact with them and dispense a few wisecracks. This is a passable time filer rather than anything you'd be compelled to return to though. By the way, all through this it was really really really bugging me that I recognised the young actor playing Andy but had no idea where from. Any fans of Little House on the Prairie? Matthew Labyorteaux was the little dark haired kid who played Albert Quinn Ingalls.
The next episode is called Mr Magic and also about showbusiness but is much more poignant and deft than Fine Tuning. It was directed by Donald Petrie and written by Joshua Brand and John Falsey. Lou Bundles (Sid Caesar) is a veteran magician who has been performing his act for fifty years now. The problem is that Lou is getting a bit old and confused now for sleight of hand capers and his act has been getting gradually worse to the point where the audience merely ends up laughing at him as his tricks (unintentionally of course) go belly up Tommy Cooper style. He's fired from his regular nightclub slot and it looks as if his long career is over but Lou demands one more chance and buys an old deck of cards from a vintage magic store to use (he dislikes modern cards). The night of his return the deck of cards seems to take on a life of its own and magically flies through the air in fancy arrangements - astonishing and delighting the crowd. Lou has no control over the cards but they've put him back on top. But is this a new lease of life or merely a last hurrah? This episode sounds a bit dull from the capsule synopsis but I enjoyed it quite a bit thanks to the nice performance by Sid Caesar as Lou. The story is rather moving and Caesar (a famous American television comedian who I'm really not familiar with at all) is both believable and likeable as our veteran hero. This scores points for its occasionally downbeat take on the world of showbusiness. A more low-rent side where sentiment is blown to the winds and they only care how you performed last night rather than anything you did in the past. Tiny dressing rooms and nervous nightclub managers telling you to get your act together or face the chop. The special effects are quite good for eighties television too with the nifty flying card sequences. Mr Magic is agreeable enough and certainly worth a look.
Guilt Trip was directed by Burt Reynolds and written by Gail Parent and Kevin Parent. The premise of this story is that emotions are sent to Earth in the form of human beings. "Guilt" appears in the form of Dom DeLuise and goes about his usual business making people feel guilty for eating too much in restaurants or having non-marital sex etc. You get the general idea. Anyway, Guilt then plants guilty thoughts in the minds of the wrong people. He's tired and needs a rest so is sent on a cruise where he meets the personification of Love (Loni Anderson). Can the pair have a romantic future or is guilt and love incompatible? Hmmn. A hard episode to describe and a hard one to watch too. I found Guilt Trip pretty insufferable to be honest and not even the presence of Dom DeLuise manages to save this. He's fun at first making sarcastic quips to people in restaurants and I liked his scenes with Charles Nelson Reilly (who seems to be Guilt's boss in the story) but this is a self-indulgent mess and never half as funny as it thinks it is. They certainly indulged Burt Reynolds here as he has his best mate (DeLuise) and wife at the time (Loni Anderson) in the leading roles. Anderson is fine although she looks weirdly plastic. I can't believe she played Thelma Todd in a biopic but I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, Guilt Trip. Despite the modest running time of these stories I had almost completely lost interest in Love Trip by the time we got to the cruise ship and there is nothing in the look of the film to suggest Reynolds had any great aptitude for direction. The story seems to end up as a spoof on Love Boat but I don't really know enough about Love Boat to get any of the jokes - if that was the intention. No, didn't really get Guilt Trip at all so let's move on.
Remote Control Man was directed by Bob Clark and written by Douglas Lloyd McIntosh. Nebbish hen-pecked husband Walter (Sydney Lassick) doesn't have the most enviable life in the world. He's bullied at work and made to do all the paperwork at his tedious office job. Each night he is nipped on the ankles by the gaggle of yappy dogs from next door as he tries to get indoors. His wife Grendal (Nancy Parsons) makes Danny DeVito's mum out of Throw Momma Off the Train look like an Angel and is always nagging him to make their life nicer and show his family more attention. You get the general idea. It's a drag being Walter. All he wants to do is watch television and I can't say I blame him. His sons Ralph (Jeff Cohen) and Maheshwara (David Stone) are a pain in the neck and it seems as if Walter barely gets a minute's peace in the course of his day. When his wife sells the telly to get money for a new dress, Walter ventures out and ends up buying a new one from a store called Metaluna. The telly looks vaguely futuristic and it soon transpires that the remote control has strange powers. Walter finds he can make people disappear or even change them. But he starts to lose control and the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly blurred. I'm not sure where to start with Remote Control Man. A good beginning that leads one to expect a better episode. Sydney Lassick (you'll recognise him, he played Charlie Cheswick in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) in amusing nebbish mode. Terrible day job, being attacked by yappy dogs. So far so good. And there's Chunk from the Goonies as his son. He was funny that kid. His other son is a Hare Krishna and quite amusing. Oh, and the terrible Grendal is played by Beulah Balbricker from Bob Clark's Porky's. Is Walter going to get revenge on his family and life in general? I thought we were heading there. A very Twilight Zone style premise but this falls apart in the end and simply plays out as an endless series of celebrity cameos as the wall between television and Walter's living room breaks down. There's the Knight Rider car. And Lou Ferrigno as The Incredible Hulk. And Gary Coleman. And dozens of people I don't recognise who are obviously famous in the United States of 1985. American Football players, newsreaders etc. The only cameo that really worked for me was when Walter made his son turn into Face from The A-Team and Dirk Benedict was obviously game for some self-parody as he features in several scenes. Remote Control Man lost me in the end I'm afraid but parts of it are fun. I didn't understand by the way how Walter is supposed to be the selfish one of this piece. He should have zapped everyone!
The next episode is Santa 85 - which is, you'll be amazed to learn, a Christmas story. This is very agreeble with a nice cast. It was directed by Phil Joanou and written by Joshua Brand and John Falsey. It's Christmas Eve and Father Christmas (Douglas Seale) is about to set off on his rounds and deliver presents to all the children around the world. However, he trips an elaborate alarm system in one of the first houses he enters and is promptly arrested on charges of breaking and entering! They don't know he's the real Santa because the police station is full of drunken Father Christmas impersonators tonight and it's hard to tell them apart. But Bobby (Marvin McIntyre), the little boy who lived in the house with the alarm system that Santa triggered, finds one of his reindeer outside and decides that the man found and arrested in their house was the real Father Christmas. He decides to help him escape but it won't be easy because grumpy Sheriff Smyvie (Pat Hingle) absolutely hates Christmas and doesn't believe in Santa Claus at all. The reason? Many years ago when Smyvie was a boy, Father Christmas failed to deliver the Buck Rogers ray gun he asked for. Can Santa escape from jail and make everything right on this most special of nights? This is an enjoyable episode for the cast as much as anything and I love the snow frosted small town atmosphere (think Gremlins). Veteran British actor Douglas Seale makes a fine Father Christmas and his understated reaction to everything is quite amusing. It's Father Christmas as Griffin Dunne in After Hours only with a sanitised prime time Amazing stories gloss. Pat Hingle (who you'll probably know as Jim Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman films) has fun as the miserable Sheriff and it's hard not to like the predictable but heartwarming last act. This would be a nice episode to watch in the run up to Christmas I think.
Vanessa in the Garden was directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Steven Spielberg. This was the only screenplay that Spielberg wrote himself (beyond developing ideas) and he handpicked Eastwood to direct. I can't say I ever really quite got into this episode and it feels somewhat out of place in this series. Like a cross between a Merchant Ivory film and an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. The story is set in the 1920s. Painter Byron Sullivan (Harvey Keitel) is on the cusp of great success and his muse is his beloved wife Vanessa (Sondra Locke). Vanessa features in all of his paintings and the pair are due to attend an exhibition of his work that his agent Teddy (Beau Bridges) has arranged. However, there is a tragic accident and Vanessa dies when a tree is struck by lightning and their horse carriage is overturned. The grief stricken Byron throws his paintings on the fire but one remains. It transpires that when Byron paints Vanessa she appears outside as if alive again and so forth. Spooky painting capers. Not exactly original but this is less straight ahead than the usual anthology take on this well worn theme and more of a love story than a ghost one. This has a pastoral sun hazed look that is a bit too vaseline lens for my tastes but Eastwood is inventive with interiors and flickering candles and the oil paintings add to the atmosphere. I can't say I ever cared that much about the characters to be honest and Harvey Keitel and Beau Bridges are not terribly convincing in period garb (fine actors though they are). The much maligned Sandra Locke (who was married to Eastwood or something and so in everything he did until they had a spectacularly bitter break-up) is ok actually. As far as grieving artist stories go this is well directed and thoughtful but with the lackadaisical pace not the most exciting half hour of television you'll ever encounter.
The next story is called The Sitter. This was directed by Joan Darling from a story by Mick Garris. It is by some distance the worst episode of Amazing Stories so far in this first season. It's like one of those Tales from the Darkside comedy episodes where you have absolutely no idea what is going on and don't even care anyway. Barbara (Wendy Phillips) has moved into a new house with her obstreperous young sons Lance (Seth Green) and Denis (Joshua Rudoy). Barbara needs to go out to work but finding a babysitter capable of looking after her children appears to be mission impossible. The two rascals are fond of playing tricks on babysitters (like cutting the pony tail of one with luxurious and incredibly long hair) and usually have them running from the house screaming long before they were supposed to end their shift. Enter the plump Jennifer Mowbray (Mabel King), a babysitter from a Caribbean Island who seems to know something about voodoo. Have the boys finally met their match? This is pretty tedious and unfunny. Magic comedy capers that were old hat when Bewitched was on air and a generally uninteresting and predictable story. Interesting to see Seth Green as a child star and I suppose this would have been around the same time as he made Woody Allen's Radio Days. Mabel King seems to be enjoying herself as the non-nonsense but ultimately kind hearted Jennifer but I can't see too many viewers enjoying the experience of sitting through this terrible episode.
No Day at the Beach was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter and written by Mick Garris. This is much better and very Twilight Zone. This episode is shot in beautiful black and white and stock footage from World War 2 is skillfully woven into the film. The story begins below deck on a ship where a group of young American soldiers are passing the time playing poker. They are bound for Italy to take part in the Allied invasion. It soon becomes clear that Arnold (Larry Spinak) is the geeky outsider in the platoon and the person who will always be the butt of all the jokes. Arnold just wants to belong and be a part of the gang but it will probably never happen. He wishes he was as brave as the other men and is terrified of what awaits them when they land. Casey (Charlie Sheen) tells him that all the men are scared but he still can't help feeling somehow inferior. It's just his nature. Can Arnold confound expectations and somehow manage to be a hero? To reveal the true nature of the story would be to give the twist away but No Day at the Beach is a surprisingly moving and well crafted episode and I love the sepia palate. This is somewhat reminiscent of a Twilight Zone story called The Purple Testament and one can easily imagine Rod Serling buying this if it had been offered to him in the early sixties. The use of stock footage is excellent and the scenes of the characters nervously braced on their landing craft are none too shabby either. You wonder if Spielberg remembered this one and drew on it for his later forays into World War 2. A moving and beautifully shot episode. Look out for the handsome and popular former world lightweight boxing champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini as the platoon soldier called "Irish". He has one line (or even word) of dialogue but what a face. It looks like it was carved from granite.
One for the Road was directed by Thomas Carter and written by James Bissel. This is a fun little episode. The time is the Great Depression and the scene is a seedy bar somewhere in a blue collar section of New York. The owner Francis (James Cromwell), bartender Joe (Joe Pantoliano) and resident barfly Dan (Geoffrey Lewis) hit upon a what they think is foolproof way to make some money in these difficult times. They take out an insurance policy on the always sozzled and very old Mike Malloy (Douglas Searle). Malloy is such a drunk they feel he's bound to die sooner or later and decide to speed up the process by plying him with preposterous amounts of alcohol. But Malloy has the constitution of Oliver Reed and seems unharmed despite taking in industrial amounts of booze and spirits. The scoundrels decide they might have to step up their attempts to make Malloy shuffle off this mortal coil and consequently up the ante. Can they do away with old Malloy and claim the insurance money? This is a bit broad and the Oirish accents are all over the place but I love the wintry atmosphere with the little bar serving as a cosy refuge and the cast for this one is terrific. James Cromwell and Joe Pantoliano are excellent actors and you might recognise Geoffry Lewis as he was Clint Eastwood's sidekick in those goofy films with the orangutan. Having just played Father Christmas in Santa 85, Douglas Searle returns again and he's great as he doddering and inebriated Malloy. This has a nice resolution and is nicely directed too. Good stuff.
Gather Ye Acorns was directed by Norman Reynolds and written by Stu Krieger. Not too sure about the moral of this story (the contrived ending is fairly astonishing when you think about it afterwards) but I did enjoy this episode on the whole. The story begins in the 1930s. A young boy named Jonathan Swift has an encounter with a little magic tree troll (played by Time Bandits star David Rappaport) that changes the entire course of his life. Jonathan's parents are always telling him that he must work hard and become a doctor but he has no interest in this career path and prefers to live in a fantasy world listening to the radio and reading his beloved comics. The troll tells him that there are more than enough doctors but the world could do with a few more dreamers. He promises Jonathan that he can avoid work and doing things he doesn't want to should he chooses and everything will still be alright in the end. He'll have all the money he wants so long as he he never throws anything away. Jonathan takes the troll at his word and follows his advice. The only problem is his parents get fed up with him refusing to work and throw him out of the house. Flash forward a few decades later and Jonathan (Mark Hamill) is now a whiskered hobo living in an old Cara in the desert all alone. What happened to the tree troll's promise that everything would turn out fine in the end? The resolution aside, which is truly bizarre, I think there is enough good stuff to enjoy here. The period detail in the early scenes, a young Mark Hamill in a non Star Wars role, the kooky desert location with Jonathan's ramshackle tin hut (amusing bit where they play Young at Heart on the soundtrack as it's demolished), David Rappaport doing the cheeky British leprechaun thing. I gather that this was intended to be an hour long story but was then cut back. It would explain a lot as you do feel as if there are parts of this missing. Hammill is a bit hokey when Jonathan becomes a white bearded old man with a walking cane (he looks uncannily like Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park) and the message of the story is puzzling to say the least but Gather Ye Acorns is certainly watchable enough.
Boo! was directed by Joe Dante and written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Expectations are naturally high for the Dante episode but this is never as much fun as you want it to be and plays like a lame Beetlejuice. Richard (Bruce Davison) and Barbara (Andrea Marcovicci) love their big house but are reluctantly forced to move to shorten their commute to work and spend more time with the children. The thing they'll miss the most are the friendly ghosts who live in the attic. The Chumskys (played by Eddie Bracken and Evelyn Keyes) are an old couple who lived in the house many years before and act as kindly spectral guardians for the family. The Chumskys are less than impressed by the new owners of the house. A sleazy and bombastic adult film director named Tony Sepulveda (Robert Picardo) and his bimbo porn star wife Sheena (Wendy Schaal). Can the Chumskys manage to scare these awful people out of their house? I never really got on with this episode too much and it fails to live up to the high expectations you have going in when you glance at the director, writers and cast. Robert Picardo (best known as the sarcastic holographic doctor on Star Trek: Voyager) does his best to breath some life into the film with his daft eighties clothes and penchant for garish art and waterbeds but the characters are never given anything terribly funny to say and the premise is not exactly original. You feel like you've seen this all done before and know this isn't going to be the most hilarious experience of your life when they keep returning to a recurring joke of Picardo's wig falling off. Bracken and Keyes are sweet as the old ghosts but there isn't too much here that lodges in the memory. Interesting to see Andrea Marcovicci though. She was in the 1976 Martin Ritt film about the McCarthy blacklist era with Woody Allen and tipped to be a major star but it never quite happened for her in the end for some reason.
A very mawkish episode next that is hard to dislike but does tread a fine line between being moving and drowning you in treacle. Dorothy and Ben was directed by Thomas Carter and written by Michael De Guzman. Benjamin Dumfee (Joe Seneca) wakes up in hospital and is astonished to learn that he's been in a coma for forty years. It takes a bit of adjustment as you can imagine. Benjamin must now accept the fact that he is seventy years old and that the world as he knew it doesn't exist anymore. As he mopes around the hospital trying to make some sense of this bombshell he notices a little girl in a coma, her anguished parents always camped around the bed praying for her to wake up. Benjamin discovers that he has a telepathic link to the girl, who turns out to be called Dorothy (Natalie Gregory). Although she is comatose to the world in reality she is trapped in limbo and being beckoned to the "nowhere place". Benjamin managed to escape the nowhere place in his coma and he must persuade Dorothy to do the same and return her to the land of the living and her parents. This is the sort of story you feel like you've seen before (it's Richard Matheson territory and he'd have done it much better) and somewhat predictable but Joe Seneca's warm and believable performance manages to drag it along and negate some of the more sentimental interludes. Louis Giambalvo and Lane Smith are excellent as doctors in the hospital although the child actress playing Dorothy is pretty wooden and it's just as well she has little to do apart from waffly lines from beyond our reality as she speaks to Ben telepathically. Dorothy and Ben is a nice episode but maybe not the most compelling or exciting example of this series series. Pretty musical score by Georges Delerue in this.
Next is one of the highlights of season one and along with The Amazing Falsworth the most purely entertaining episode here. Mirror, Mirror was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Joseph Minion. The story opens with best selling horror author Jordan Manmouth (Sam Waterston) appearing on the Dick Cavett show to plug his latest volume. Jordan, as we learn on the show and from comments he makes to his driver afterwards, claims that his macabre stories don't scare or trouble him at all. "The dead don't scare me, it's the ones that are alive." That night he returns to his spacious and expensive but sterile luxury house and while shaving is completely terrified when he sees someone in the mirror behind him. A ghoulish Phantom of the Opera style character with a hat, cape and mask. But when Jordan turns around there is no one there. This phenomena repeats itself whenever Jordan looks at a reflective surface - even someone's sunglasses. He always sees the creepy man approaching him from behind (with piano wire ready to garrote no less!) and spins around to see no one there in reality. Jordan's sanity is soon under severe threat. This has a very simple premise with little dialogue but it's terrific fun and genuinely spooky. Scorsese doesn't restrain himself and riffs on Hitchcock in particular. I love some of the pan backs and he makes excellent use of mirrors and anything that can sustain a reflection and terrify Jordan. Sam Waterston is a great actor best known for appearing in Woody Allen chamber pieces but he's usually very unruffled and suave onscreen so it was enjoyable to see him play such a frightened and confused character. I'm not sure the ending is completely satisfactory but they only had about twenty-five minutes to play with so you let them off. Mirror, Mirror is an example of what this series could have been without the overabundance of sentimental episodes and definitely worh watch at least once if you are a fan of horror films or Scorcese. By the way, the ghoulish phantom is played by an unrecognisable Tim Robbins.
Secret Cinema was written and directed by Paul Bartel (who also appears as an actor). You know who Paul Bartel was. Big bald bloke with a ginger beard and urbane speaking voice. He made Eating Raoul. This is a remake of a 1967 short film by Bartel and sometimes cited as the inspiration for The Truman Show. I'd have to be pedantic though and point out that The Twilight Zone already did this in the early sixties with the Richard Matheson episode A World of Difference. In that an executive is at work in his office and suddenly realises his life is nothing but a film. Here the central protagonist is Jenny (Penny Peyser), a young woman with everyday problems - most saliently the fact that her fiance Dick (Griffin Dunne) is leaving her. It turns out that Dick and her shrink Dr Shreck (bartel) are actors and that Jenny's life is secretly being filmed for the entertainment of millions of people. When she discovers a "secret cinema" with her on the poster art outside all becomes clear. What should she do now? Secret Cinema is interesting but never quite hit the mark for me. There are some amusing moments - like Dunne rigging the house to make it appear as if Jenny is accident prone (this reality film within a film ruse is more slapstick than the subtle string pulling on Jim Carrey in The Truman Show) and Eve Arden as Jenny's mother telling her to stop talking at one point for fear of spoilers. Bartel is dryly amusing too and Mary Woronov chews the scenery in several roles, including that of Shreck's nurse. I'm not sure the tone ever feels truly consistent though. The performances are broad but Bartel keeps it quite dark and seems more interested in a subtext about the dog eat dog nature of the film industry than his premise. A decent episode but maybe I just expected a bit more than I got. Penny Peyser is a bit bland in the lead too and eclipsed by her supporting cast.
Next we have an out and out comedy episode (as I'm sure the title rather gives away) in the form of Hell Toupee. This was directed by Irvin Kershner and written by Gail and Kevin Parent. There has been a strange development with the murders of several lawyers. Young nerdy legal eagle Harry Ballantine (Tony Kienitz) is assigned to the case and makes a puzzling discovery. It transpires that all the lawyers were killed by bald men. What in the name of Captain Picard is going on? I can't say I laughed much but this whizzes along in fairly entertaining fashion and is likeable if nothing else. Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner somehow manages to fit a fairly bizarre story into the modest running time allocated to him with a good sense of pacing and the no name cast are decent enough. This is acted like one of the Airplane/Naked Gun films. Everyone plays it straight but are thrust into ridiculous situations and required to deliver numerous puns. I quite liked the murderous toupee in question. Very Ed Wood as it shuffles along the ground. The whole affair is very tongue in cheek with more jokes than you'll ever pick up from one viewing. This is far from my favourite type of episode but it's so over the top that you'll get an entertaining show at the very least.
The Doll was directed by Phil Joanou and written by Richard Matheson. If Matheson had written every episode of Amazing Stories it would have been truly, er, amazing, but sadly that was never likely to happen. Matheson swoops into season one late in the day and the end result is an injection of pure class and the best episode. The Doll was originally written for the fifth series of The Twilight Zone way back when and dusted off many years later here. It's very sweet and won the great John Lithgow an Emmy. Lithgow is John Walters, a lonely and shy middle-aged bachelor who likes to visit Mr Liebermacher's (Albert Hague) toy shop, mainly for the company of the pleasant Liebermacher. One day, Walters tells Mr Liebermacher he is going to move from merely browsing to actually buying something because his neice is about to celebrate her eleventh birthday. He picks out a doll for her but it turns out his niece is thirteen not eleven and a bit old for dolls. Walters takes the doll and promises to buy her a watch instead but for some reason he can't take the doll back to the shop and keeps it at his house. He becomes entranced by the doll and starts talking to it. He even has a strange feeling that the doll has a surname he can't quite remember. Weird. What is going on? This is a beautiful episode on every level. Lovely direction, a gorgeous music score and a great performance by Lithgow. It's quite similar to Matheson's classic Twilight Zone story Miniature (lonely outsider falls in love with doll) but a slightly lighter affair on the whole and just as moving. There are so many great little lines in this too. Walters' telling the doll that she'd be better off somewhere else because in his apartment there's "not much cheer don't you know." You really pay attention to the dialogue in this because you want to hear everything Matheson has written for Lithgow to say. The Doll is a wonderful piece of television.
One for the Books was directed by Lesli Linka Glatter and written by Matheson again. This is no Doll but pretty good all the same. A humble school night cleaner (or janitor if you want) named Fred (Leo Penn - father of Sean I think) is tidying up one evening and glances at the blackboard - which is full of French phrases. It's gibberish to Fred of course because he doesn't speak French. Or does he? The next day he seems to be fluent. The next night he cleans the physics lab and the next day is a science genius. Hmmn. It seems as if Fred has developed an ability to absorb vast amounts of information merely by sight. Where did this gift come from and how will he and his worried wife Eva (Joyce Van Patten) cope? This doesn't feel terribly original but I liked this episode quite a bit. The performances by veteran actors Leo Penn and Joyce Van Patten are sincere and moving and it's good fun when Fred suddenly starts spewing all manner of facts to an audience of dubious academics. Janitor becomes genius. I wonder if the people behind Goodwill Hunting ever watched this? The difference is that Goodwill Hunting is one of the worst films ever made. The ending is a bit daft but probably the only way they could have wrapped this up. By the way, lot of scenes in this of people at the dinner table with food on their plate but not eating anything. Always annoys me when they do that in films. Surely it would be a more realistic scene if the actors were actually eating?
Last and certainly not least is Grandpa's Ghost - written and directed by Timothy Hutton. This episode is a bit dull and confusing at first but once we get our bearings it's very moving I think. Edwin (Andrew McCarthy) loves visiting his Grandpa Charlie (Ian Wolfe) and the pair get along great. Grandpa tells old stories, they play the piano. Edwin isn't quite so close to his Grandma Helen (Herta Ware) but will have to bridge that gap when Grandpa Charlie dies. His last words were that he was going to sing to his wife and take her dancing. To say more would be to reveal too much but this is a very poignant episode that becomes increasingly dreamlike as it progresses. I love the cinematography and Timothy Hutton (who must have been very young when this was made) shows a great aptitude for direction. This was based on a short story he wrote and a very affecting meditation on nostalgia and elderly love. A very charming way to end the first season. There are no extras with this apart from some deleted scenes and at the time of writing you can buy this four disc collection for under ten pounds. Amazing Stories is a mixed bag on the whole (that's the anthology curse I suppose) with the usual smattering of dud episodes but The Amazing Falsworth, Mirror Mirror, The Doll, and No Day at the Beach are excellent with the two Spielberg segments, Santa 85, One for the Road and One for the Books all worth watching too. I was actually surprised at how good Amazing Stories is at times, the only drawbacks being a surfeit of sentimental stories and too few thrillers. It isn't perfect and you'll have to wade through a few duffers but Amazing Stories is definitely worth a look at some point if you like this sort of thing.