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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

5 Wintry Tales of Terror from Horror TV Anthologies [Series of Frights]

Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories each one adhering to an overall theme from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.

A sudden burst of cold makes people feel physically vulnerable, but it can also shake their assuredness in knowing everything will be okay. That downturn in temperature challenges the order of everything accepted as normal. The everyday systems society lives by can be thrown into chaos by the first sign or snow or by a night so wet and frigid, stepping into that bitter terrain can feel like entering the vast unknown.

Sinister stories set around the winter holidays are widespread given the loneliness and despair that swell around that time of year. Yet, much like the icy winds, rain and snowfall that remain long after the Christmas trees and lights come down, horror lingers. 

Chilling tales like these might just leave someone frostbitten.

One Step Beyond (1959-1961)
The Haunting

Although ABC’s Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond debuted months before The Twilight Zone premiered on CBS, it was eclipsed by Rod Serling’s series in terms of popularity and, eventually, legacy. John Newland served as both the host and every episode’s director; each tale he presented was supposedly based on a real-life account.

“The Haunting” begins in the Swiss Alps where an engaged man, Colin (Ronald Howard), leaves his friend and best man Peter (Keith McConnell) to die in the snow because of unfounded suspicions. Upon returning to England for his wedding, Colin is then haunted by not only questions about Peter’s “accidental” death but also an unearthly presence that brings coldness wherever it goes.

Paranoia about his fiancĂ©e being unfaithful with Peter gets the best of Colin. No one suspects the groom of foul play, of course, but in addition to a supernatural punishment, he still has to hear all about Peter’s accomplishments and desirable attributes. Another character indirectly insults Colin by saying Peter’s death was strange because such a thing shouldn’t happen to a “big, strong man” and war veteran like him. Even though the best man is out of the picture, no one can stop talking about him.

A jealous friend and partner getting their just desserts is routine by today’s standards. Seeing past the episode’s inevitable predictability, those enamored with Old Hollywood’s nebulous depictions of ghosts will find pleasure in the episode’s sound design and general eeriness. Once the low-howling winds start to appear and signal the arrival of cold vengeance, “The Haunting” lives up to its apt title.

The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Nothing in the Dark

One fateful and snowy day, Wanda Dunn (Gladys Cooper) sees strangers lurking outside her basement apartment. Following a pair of gunshots and a plea for help heard from her doorstep, the frightened occupant then reluctantly brings in a wounded man (Robert Redford) little knowing how he might repay her act of kindness.

This episode was filmed for Season Two but was postponed along with “The Grave” to give “the series a running jump for Season Three,” according to Martin Grams Jr.’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. Although Redford apparently was unhappy with his performance, “Nothing in the Dark” has gone on to become one of the series’ most profound episodes with an enduring theme to remember it by. Despite the episode airing nearly six decades ago, the main character’s debilitating sense of panic is particularly vital when trying to understand old-fashioned mindsets. Dunn, a person of another generation now incapable of accepting progress, would rather live in terror of the unknown than evolve and be more aware of what’s going on around her.

“Nothing in the Dark” is a one-location episode where the characters never leave Dunn’s dilapidated apartment; which feels more like a prison than a home because the woman is so trapped by her absolute fear of dying and a determination to live. Yet as she confides in Redford’s character Harold about her paranoia, she slowly accepts that it wasn’t the looming threat of “Mr. Death” that truly scared her. Rather, it was the prospect of change that inspired her self-imposed isolation from the rest of society.

George Clayton Johnson’s script isn’t a polemic against people who fight change. Rather, it makes a case, both frank and progressive, to help ease those like Wanda Dunn into thinking differently about the things they feared all along.

Night Gallery (1970-1973)
Silent Snow, Secret Snow

While the weather is chiefly warm in this adaptation of Conrad Aiken’s 1934 short story of the same name, the central character fantasizes about the wintriest of winters. The late Orson Welles narrates this downhearted segment about a boy whose flights of fancy consume him. In every waking moment, the young protagonist Paul Hasleman (Radames Pera) is daydreaming of a world unlike his own; for he stares into a snowglobe and covets that temporary tempest within. The heat and unsightliness of reality have become too unbearable, and ultimately, only the cold can comfort Paul.

Here, the main character regularly gets lost in the winter wonderland inside his mind. It all innocently begins with Paul stargazing into a snowglobe before his reverie becomes intrusive in real life. His parents look for medical advice, but of course, their boy isn’t physically unwell. On the contrary, what he suffers from is something entirely intangible. Aiken compellingly puts into words what depression can feel like when experienced by a child.

From emotional camouflage to symbolic rebirth, a heavy blanket of snow has multiple meanings in storytelling. Paul’s occupation with it is likely a response to an uneasiness that he can’t quite explain to those around him. As the writing might suggest — “Snow growing heavier each day, muffling the world, hiding the ugly” — snow is a panacea for Paul. Thinking of a storybook white winter, he can, for the time being, escape the apathy he has toward life.

Aiken’s most famous work provides the basis for one of Night Gallery’s most glaring successes. Welles’ delivery of the author’s prose, a poetic veneer that accentuates everything shown on screen, is a perfect touch. It’s thinly horror when compared to other offerings in the series, but Paul’s metaphorized and unresolved misery is as alarming as it is haunting.

Fear Itself (2008)
Skin & Bones

Director Larry Fessenden has never shied away from the lore of the Wendigo, and he brings his stock of knowledge about the mythical creature to Mick Garris Fear Itself. Set on an isolated ranch near the snowy mountains, a family anxiously awaits the return of their lost patriarch. Just as the uncle is about to start a search, his missing brother returns. However, he’s not himself and there are questions about his survival that cannot be easily answered.

Unlike his movies Wendigo and The Last Winter, Fessenden didn’t have a hand in writing “Skin & Bones;” Masters of Horror carryovers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan are responsible on that end. Even so, the director’s intrigue with Wendigos is patent throughout the episode. He battles his way through middling dialogue and censorship, finally revealing one of the most depraved entries in the entire series.

Genre character actor Doug Jones plays Grady, a ranch owner who disappeared after going hunting with his friends. He makes his way home, alone, after ten days in the wild, but he was severely affected by the elements. His wife, two sons, and brother are all concerned with the state of his health — both physical and mental. After learning of how Grady survived the inclement weather, his family is fearful of the monster he’s quite literally become.

The story relies on a variation of the Wendigo myth about humans becoming said creature after committing cannibalism. Fear Itself had already visited the taboo topic in “Eater,” but the series takes the act even further here. Rather than showing Jones’ gaunt and demonic-looking character maim and consume someone on screen, he forces another person to prepare his next meal and then eat it with him. The scene in question is never especially gory; revulsion mostly comes from the power of suggestion. Still, Fessenden sprinkles in unambiguous moments like raw, bloody flesh falling into a pot of boiling water to further emphasize what’s actually unfolding in the episode’s tense denouement. “Skin & Bones” was a wicked highlight in this short-lived series.

Inside No. 9 (2014-)
The Stakeout

After his previous partner is murdered on the job, Constable Thompson (Steve Pemberton) relentlessly searches for the unidentified culprit. Meanwhile, his new partner Varney (Reece Shearsmith) joins him as they stake out a cemetery in hopes of catching the killer.

The cold open, showing Shearsmith’s character all bloody-mouthed and sitting in the backseat of a squad car, strongly suggests “The Stakeout” is a riff on brutally unhappy police procedurals. The episode even mocks itself by calling out police drama tropes like “the maverick loner who wants to solve one last case before he retires.” The thing with Inside No. 9 is, audiences are never quite sure what’s going to happen as the creators, Pemberton and Shearsmith, enjoy blending genres and toying with viewers’ perceptions until the last second. Season Five’s closer is no exception.

The central setting is a police vehicle identified as Oscar Nine, and to a large extent, the main characters stay put inside of that car. By not showing the dreary and wet outside world, “The Stakeout” can focus on the interiority of its key players without the distraction of other locations and events. A convenient game of Fortunately, Unfortunately helps to peel away at layers and get a better grasp of these two very different policemen.

As engaging as this character study is, the final act is blindsiding. The essential breadcrumbs are there, and they’re even restated matter-of-factly at the end. The success of Inside No. 9 hinges on rug-pulls, but “The Stakeout” stands alone. Now, whether or not that reveal works can be an issue; everyone’s mileage will vary when it comes to abrupt plot developments. While conclusions like this don’t have the same power the second time around, they make for an impressionable first-time watch.


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