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Thursday, November 25, 2021

5 Tales of Family Horror from 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.

At the heart of horror is family. Demons, ghosts, and monsters do not instill fear anywhere as much as a terrible family can. The horror genre regularly tears down the walls of what is deemed normal, and nothing screams “normal” like a nuclear household. Of course no one has the perfect parent or sibling relationship, but certain circumstances in horror make them more strained than usual.

So as much as family can be a blessing, it can often feel like a curse. The characters in this collection of TV anthology tales can attest to that opinion.

The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
The Masks

Greediness almost always leads to downfall in horror, and families are not spared from this moralistic lesson. Rod Serling exposed one clan to a cruel fate in the iconic Twilight Zone episode “The Masks“. The story, directed by Ida Lupino, remains a classic for very good reasons.

Set on the night of Mardi Gras, “The Masks” centers on a dying old man, Jason Foster (Robert Keith), who ‘welcomes’ his family into his home for one last gathering. His relatives are as selfish and money-grubbing as they come, and soon their behavior will be judged. Before the eldest Foster passes on, he requests his family members each wear a grotesque mask until midnight. They live to regret his unusual demand.

By now, everyone probably knows the twist of “The Masks”. The outcome of this harsh parable has been etched into minds old and young because they understand its significance. Of course the chance of a mask rendering someone’s face monstrous is impossible. It is the idea that people’s grossest flaws can become permanently externalized that shakes viewers to their core.

Serling works so hard at emphasizing the episode’s cautionary aspects that he overlooks its characters. They feel like caricatures who some might not feel are entirely deserving of their punishment. Be that as it may, Serling and Lupino set a high standard for Twilight Zone at its most morbid and unkind.

Night Gallery (1969)
The Cemetery

Before Rod Serling’s Night Gallery became a full-fledged series, it began as an anthology TV-movie. The 1969 telefilm was essentially a pilot with an unmistakable format; several self-contained stories linked by Serling’s insightfully creepy narration. The eponymous location was also more minimal in appearance and space than the one seen in the eventual series.

Starting things off is Boris Sagal‘s “The Cemetery“, one of Serling’s scariest creations. Roddy McDowall plays an incorrigible swindler named Jeremy Evans, and he seeks his ailing uncle’s wealth. He does the expected and kills the sick old man, but his crime does not go unpunished. For Jeremy believes the ghoulish subject of his uncle’s painting is alive and moving all throughout the canvas until it finally breaks through to reality.

Of all the segments in the Night Gallery movie, “The Cemetery” is easily the most ghastly. The neighboring stories have their own merits, but the first one is overtly frightening with a patent method of suggested terror that still sends chills down spines today.

How the antagonist comes undone stands out in the vast world of comeuppance tales. McDowall’s dramatic performance as the despicable Jeremy is notable as well. Night Gallery truly outdid itself with such a macabre opener.

Dead of Night (1977)

One of the most esteemed genre writers of yesteryear is Richard Matheson. General audiences know him best from his contributions in the original Twilight Zone as well as the film adaptations of his novels like I Am Legend and A Stir of Echoes. One of his lesser known creations — or really something they did not realize he was the mastermind behind — is the unforgettable story “Bobby” from Dead of Night.

While a good sum of Matheson’s works began as a novel or short story, “Bobby” is purely original and unique to this 1977 TV-movie. Dark Shadows and Trilogy of Terror creator Dan Curtis directed the made-for-television anthology for NBC while Matheson co-wrote two of the entries. “Bobby” is undoubtedly the most memorable of the bunch.

In “Bobby”, a grieving mother (Joan Hackett) resorts to the dark arts to end her pain; she brings her son, the segment’s namesake, back from the dead. The spell indeed revives her child, but Hackett’s character quickly learns something has gone wrong in the process. Bobby is not himself… or is he?

While other writers ignore the sage rule of “less is more,” Matheson lived by it. He points out Bobby’s abuse at the hand of his mother without necessarily saying so. Matheson trusts the audience to figure it out, and once they do, it stays under their skin. The conclusion of “Bobby” is as perfect as it is horrifying. And Curtis apparently liked this story so much he remade it in his 1996 TV-movie, Trilogy of Terror II.

Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988)
Death in the Morning

Marrying into a family is never easy. Especially when the bride is notably younger than her groom, a wealthy man (Moray Watson). In this Season Five episode of Tales of the Unexpected, Karen (Cherie Lunghi) finds herself out of sorts after moving into her new husband’s country manor. At first Karen thinks she is simply having a hard time adjusting to her new surroundings, but she soon suspects someone is out to harm her.

Tales of the Unexpected hardly broached the supernatural like its contemporaries. It was more keen on psychological horror and manmade suspense. With “Death in the Morning” airing on Halloween, it only seems fitting to go the extra mile. John Gorrie‘s adaptation of Zia Kruger‘s story is a subtle one even by Unexpected standards. Further rewatches will reveal how sharply made it is.

What makes “Death in the Morning” so laudable is its touch of vagueness. Is Karen imagining her troubles or is there really evil in the works? Unexpected episodes in general had a bluntness to them, but here the dilemma is shrouded in fine mystique. Karen tries to fit into her husband’s life as best she can; she makes nice with his son, staff, and his friends. They are quite set in their opinions about the new wife, though. Yet are they resentful enough to kill Karen?

“Death in the Morning” negotiates reality and the supernatural by introducing the element of historical witchcraft with only the assumption of it being actively practiced by someone in the cast. It is handled with grace like most everything else here. Other episodes in the latter seasons of the series were on the brink of sordid, but this one comes across as much more refined in spite of its fiendish finish.

Monsterland (2020)
Eugene, Oregon

Family caregivers tend to be more depressed and alienated than the average person, and “Eugene, Oregon” from Monsterland grapples with that sad fact in a singular way. The episode is based on “SS” from Nathan Ballingrud’s short story anthology, North American Lake Monsters.

In “Eugene, Oregon”, a teenager named Nick (Charlie Tahan) is forced to drop out of school after his mother has a stroke and can no longer work. Nick’s struggle to pay their bills and afford medication leads him to an online forum after he spots ‘strange shadow’ people lurking in his house. His new support group, however, has ulterior motives for helping him.

The episode might appear to sympathize with the far-right extremists proliferating society today, but it actually tries to explain in understandable terms how these people reached such a point in their lives. The metaphorical use of shadows is clever; they are innocuous until someone like Nick’s online friends says they are not. From there someone like Nick is then indoctrinated into a radicalized group.

“Eugene, Oregon” is a heartbreaking and relevant story about a young person failed by multiple systems. His parents are either sick or absent, his school wants nothing to do with him after he drops out, and his job fires him. The saddest part is how Nick will never realize who the real monsters are in his life. The ones claiming him as family now are the ones willing to sacrifice him for their heinous cause.


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