Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thriller Thursday: Child's Play

CHILD’S PLAY




Season: 1, Episode: 2.
Airdate: 9/20/1960


Director: Arthur Hiller.
Writer: Robert Dozier (THE CARDINAL and the Ryan O’Neal version of Elmore Leonard’s THE BIG BOUNCE.)
Cast: Frank Overton (Dad), Bethel Leslie (Mom), Tommy Nolan (Hank).
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Bud Thackery.




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Sometimes children become so lost in a world of imagination, they’re unable to find their way back. Then there is only danger before them, sure as my name is Boris Karloff. We’re concerned now with a boy whose imagination brings him to a crisis involving not only himself but also his family. A crisis that begins, but does not end as child’s play. Let me assure you my friends, this is a thriller!”



Synopsis: Kind of a scaled down version of THE SHINING, minus the supernatural elements. An ignored, love starved wife (Bethel Leslie) makes a last ditch attempt to save her family by insisting that her cold, self centered, workaholic husband (Frank Overton) and their completely neglected son Hank (Tommy Nolan) spend three weeks vacation in a remote mountain cabin where they will have no choice but to bond and heal. Great plan, but ahole Dad claims one room as his office and spends the whole time working (he’s a writer, like Jack from THE SHINING) and forbids any disturbance for the entire three weeks (though demands that his wife keep his coffee cup full). So, no healing for the family again this year.

While the wife sulks, the son (who is used to being completely ignored by his parents) spends his day imagining epic adventures outdoors... playing cowboy sheriff chasing an evil desperado named Black Bart. The episode begins in media res with an incident from close to the end of the episode where Hank points a *real* rifle at a terrified fisherman...

But our story opens with Hank playing with a toy six shooter and pretending that a fallen tree near the cabin is a dangerous cliff he must balance on the edge of wile chasing his quarry... as his Mom calls him in for lunch. She comes out and asks him what he’s doing, he explains the perils of falling off the end of a cliff, and she tells him he needs to hurry up and get across or he’ll miss lunch. That’s when Dad comes out, and orders him to come in right this very minute... and Hank falls off the log, screaming all the way down...

This is a great way to show the family dynamics and set up Hanks’s underlying motivations throughout.

Mom pulls Dad aside and explains the reason why Hank is spending this vacation in his imagination is because Dad is completely ignoring him. Dad says he’s very busy, doesn’t have time for this, and Mom suggests he take a break and take Hank hunting this afternoon. Dad says he’s too busy this afternoon... but maybe tomorrow. Which is what he says *every day*. They go in for lunch...



Hank tries to engage his Dad in conversation... but Dad is pretty much a dick. When Mom suggests Dad take Hank hunting this afternoon, Hank gets excited and starts talking about the animal tracks he spotted this afternoon... Then Dad says he’d like to take Hank hunting, but can’t: has too much work. Hank is broken hearted, excuses himself. Dad lashes out at Mom for putting him on the spot like that. An argument begins that will last the rest of the episode.

Hank puts on his toy gun... then sees the real rifles in the gun rack. Grabs one, fills his pockets with shells, and goes out to play.

Most of the rest of the episode focuses on the argument between Dad and Mom, with a few shots of Hank wandering around in the woods with a loaded rifle, chasing “Black Bart”. Dad wants to know why Mom doesn’t punish Hank more often, why she allows him to play let’s pretend instead of dealing with reality. The more Dad says things like this, the more we realize that he’s the reason why Hank is this way. Dad just wants to be left alone for the rest of the vacation so that he can work. Unlike Jack’s novel in THE SHINING, this Dad writes completely accurate technical articles... and has no understanding of imagination. At one point the argument escalates so that Mom admits she has been considering divorce, and this vacation was supposed to get the family back together... which leads Dad to snap back that she hates his job. Hates that he works. Why can’t she just raise the kid and do the housework and leave him alone!



Dad asks Mom why Hank is even here, why didn’t he go to the summer camp he went to last year, so that he’d be out of their hair and Dad could get some work done? Well, it seems that Hank has been kicked out of the summer camp for acting out last year. He tried to play William Tell by shooting an apple off another kid’s head! Dad asks why she didn’t tell him so that he could punish Hank? Mom says that may not have been the best solution to the problem, and Dad says he’s punish Hank when he gets back from playing. This guy is never going to win Dad Of The Year or Husband Of The Year.

Meanwhile, Hank has happened upon a Fisherman (Parley Baer) and aims his rifle at him. Fires a couple of shots when the Fisherman starts towards him. Then they both sit down while Hank figures out what to do next.

Mom and Dad’s blow up leaves Dad alone in his office... finally realizing that his family is disintegrating and maybe he should stop being a major dick. He decides maybe he will go hunting with Hank afterall, goes to grab the guns... and realize that one is missing! Mom and Dad are worried, Dad says he’ll go out and get Hank... and loads up the other rifle. Um, WTF? Dad is going to shoot his son? Mom mentions the rifle may not help the situation, so he reluctantly puts it back on the rifle rack and they go to find Hank together.

Meanwhile, Hank has gotten the Fisherman to put an apple on his head, and the Fisherman is doing everything in his power to talk Hank out of shooting at it. The whole thing ends up about the William Tell trust test thing, and Mom and Dad find Hank in time for Dad to offer to take the Fisherman’s place and put the apple on his own head. Hank shoots it off, and the family hugs each other. Oh, and Dad’s name is *Bart*.



Review: Unlike the first episode which had too much happening for an hour long show, this episode is simple and direct... but suffers one of the same problems that first episode had: basically a drama until the end, when everything happens at once (and it feels rushed). For a show called THRILLER, these two first episode manage to spend 3/4 of the show on the build up (without suspense or thrills) and then try to cram in all of the thrills at the end. Though this show is about a kid trapped in fantasy world running around with a loaded rifle, the majority of the running time is that argument between Mom and Dad. When we get a shot of Hank with the rifle, he’s just walking around. (Though, at one point they have him cross a waterfall which is dangerous.)

It’s more than halfway through the running time when Hank stumbles on the Fisherman... and then they just sit down on the ground while Hank figures what he’s going to do with him. The last ten minutes (of a 50 minute episode) is when we get the William Tell Apple On The Head thing... and it’s only the final 7 minutes where we have Mom and Dad and Hank and the rifle (and the Fisherman, of course) all in the same scene! So, 7 minutes with some thrills in a 50 minute episode! Oh, wait, I forgot to subtract the family hug screentime.

The problem is, instead of focusing on the kid with the loaded rifle wandering around (and eventually holding a man hostage) which is suspenseful, they focus on the husband and wife arguing... which is boring. This argument doesn’t even work as a discussion of baseball statistics while a bomb ticks under the table, because there is no bomb until the last 10 minutes! The suspense stuff is rushed instead of stretched until it becomes unbearable. That’s how suspense works: because it is the anticipation of an event, we want to stretch out that anticipation. So instead of Hank trying to shoot the apple of the Fisherman’s head in the last 10 minutes, that should have been bumped forward. Instead of being in the last quarter of the episode, it should have been either at the halfway point... or maybe at the end of the first quarter. The show should have focused on the suspense of the kid with the gun rather than the bickering parents.

Frank Overton who plays the Dad is all one note ahole, even after they are out searching for Hank together at the end. It’s as if he’s still an ahole, and after this hug he’s gonna paddle the hell out of Hank. The performance needed to better show Dad realizing the errors of his ways and softening, the Overton didn’t do that. Overton was the Sheriff in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD who says “Let the dead bury the dead” at the end and lets Boo Radley off the hook... a compassionate performance. So maybe it was Arthur Hiller’s direction, though Hiller is a damned good director. The Dad character just never changes, when that is kind of the point of the story.



Also, the child actor who plays Hank is *way* too old. He’s a teenager, in a role that seems written for some one younger.

Music by Pete Rugolo is great this time around, lots of primal percussion instruments.

By the way, I really dislike stories that equate an active imagination with being violent and dangerous. Why do writers write stuff like this? There are freakin’ serial killer scripts (and movies) about kids with imagination who take it too far and kill a bunch of people. Um, I have an active imagination and am one of the least dangerous people I know. I kind of suspect those without imaginations are more dangerous, they may lack empathy. I can imagine myself in someone else’s shoes, they can’t. It almost seems like this episode was written by the Dad character at times!

The show will *soon* find its footing and live up to its name (episode 5, ROSE’S LAST SUMMER has some great hints of MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, and episode 7, THE PURPLE ROOM, is great stuff!), but these first couple of shows are not the best examples of the show I fell in love with as a kid.

FADE OUT.

Bill

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