Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Perfectly Realized Nightmare

"It's a Good Life."
The Twilight Zone (156 episodes, 1959-64).
Season 3, Episode 8. First broadcast: 3 November 1961.
Online HERE (24 minutes 55 seconds).
IMDb listing HEREFor sale HERE.
Director: James Sheldon. Writers: Rod Serling (1924-75), based on a story (online HERE) by Jerome Bixby (1923-98).

Cast: Billy Mumy (Anthony Fremont), John Larch (Anthony's father), Cloris Leachman (Anthony's mother), Don Keefer (Dan Hollis), Max Showalter (Pat Riley), Alice Frost (Aunt Amy), Jeanne Bates (Ethel Hollis), Lenore Kingston (Thelma Dunn), Tom Hatcher (Bill Soames), Rod Serling (host and narrator).
Tonight's story on The Twilight Zone is somewhat unique and calls for a different kind of introduction. This, as you may recognize, is a map of the United States, and there's a little town there called Peaksville. On a given morning not too long ago, the rest of the world disappeared and Peaksville was left all alone. Its inhabitants were never sure whether the world was destroyed and only Peaksville left untouched or whether the village had somehow been taken away. They were, on the other hand, sure of one thing: the cause. A monster had arrived in the village. Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines — because they displeased him — and he moved an entire community back into the dark ages — just by using his mind.
Now I'd like to introduce you to some of the people in Peaksville, Ohio. This is Mr. Fremont. It's in his farmhouse that The Monster resides. This is Mrs. Fremont. And this is Aunt Amy, who probably had more control over The Monster in the beginning than almost anyone. But one day she forgot. She began to sing aloud. Now, The Monster doesn't like singing, so his mind snapped at her, turned her into the smiling, vacant thing you're looking at now. She sings no more. And you'll note that the people in Peaksville, Ohio, have to smile. They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because once displeased, The Monster can wish them into a cornfield or change them into a grotesque, walking horror. This particular monster can read minds, you see. He knows every thought, he can feel every emotion.
Oh yes, I did forget something, didn't I? I forgot to introduce you to The Monster. This is The Monster [we see a little boy swinging on a gate]. His name is Anthony Fremont. He's six years old, with a cute little-boy face and blue, guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you'd better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge. This is the Twilight Zone.
We used to think Rod Serling's introduction to "It's a Good Life" is too long and gives away too much from the start, but now we're not so sure. (During the long run of his series, Serling had a tendency, which he sometimes indulged, to be verbose and preachy—but he was also capable of affecting poetry.) It's hard to think how Serling's "set up" could be done differently or better. To start in medias res without this necessary information could have proved disorienting to the audience of that era.

Anyhow, for our money "It's a Good Life" just might be the finest horror story ever produced for television. There isn't a wasted word or gesture, the pacing is perfect, and the tension generated by all the actors is palpable. Everyone except the little monster conveys the smothered fear they're experiencing, the overwhelming need to run away from this living hell they're trapped in. Yes, TENSION and DREAD encapsulate the emotional states of the grownups, as they tiptoe around a living bomb with the full knowledge of what happens to anyone who crosses him: being wished away into the cornfield (it sounds so innocuous, doesn't it?).
Seeing adults who should be in charge abasing themselves before a child, feigning cheerfulness with as much earnestness as they can muster, being complaisant when their impulse is to take a stick or a bottle or something and beat this kid to death—the whole situation is a complete inversion of the normal order of things, and we're sure Bixby and Serling—being writers who strove to wring out of their characters as many emotional variances as possible—loved it.

For example:
The Monster: No kids came over to play today, not a single one, and I wanted someone to play with!
His Father: Well, Anthony, you remember what happened the last time some kids came over to play? The little Fredricks boy and his sister.
The Monster: I had a real good time.
Father: Oh, sure you did, you had a real good time, and it's good that you had a good time, it's real good. It's just that . . .
The Monster: It's just that what?
Father: Well, Anthony, you, uh . . . you wished them away into the cornfield, and their mommy and daddy got real upset.
The dreadful irony of what the father is saying — "it's good that you had a good time, it's real good" — isn't lost on the audience or the father, who must make murder seem like a good thing. GOOD—count how many times that word is used in the script, and think how often it's employed as a euphemism for EVIL.

Another instance: When the father, a farmer who makes his living off the land, looks out the window he almost loses his cool:
Father: It's snowing outside! Anthony, are you making it snow?
The Monster [nonchalantly]: Yes, I'm making it snow.
Father: Why, that'll ruin half the crops! You know that, don't you, half the crops! That's what that . . . [His wife hurries to his side and through small, barely perceptible gestures urges him to calm down, which he does] But it's good you're making it snow. It's real good. And tomorrow's going to be a good day too.
Only it isn't.

Just 25 minutes long, "It's a Good Life" will have you as tied up in knots as the characters on the screen. This show proves that Hollywood is—or at least was—capable of producing engrossing entertainment without bludgeoning the viewer with a message.
But Hollywood is also capable of producing gross "entertainment." A feature-length film, Twilight Zone: The Movie, was released (or maybe it escaped) in 1983, in which they unsuccessfully attempted to remake "It's a Good Life" with major annoying changes in the plot—and in color. They shouldn't have bothered.

And they shouldn't have bothered with a "sequel" of sorts, either, in the reprised Twilight Zone episode "It's Still a Good Life" (2003), in which The Monster has a daughter.

Rod Serling said that when he looked back over his series (156 shows in all), about one third of the stories were bad, a third were only fair—but a third of them were something to be proud of. In our estimation, "It's a Good Life" is definitely one of those he should have been proud of.

Category: Science fiction (tales of terror department)

No comments:

Post a Comment