Judge Bryan Pope couldn't wait to watch this 1984 thriller that pits Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw against Cobra Man...er, never mind. Wrong thriller.
If you think your dreams are disturbing, imagine the nightmares of Stephen King.
When it comes to bringing the horror master's fiction to the small screen, even the most capable directors seem to end up fumbling the ball. For every Salem's Lot (the nightmarish 1979 original, not the limp TNT remake from a couple of years ago), we get…well, just about everything else, now that I think about it.
Facts of the Case
TNT steps up to the plate again with its collection of eight stories, most of them pulled from King's 1993 short story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes. With three exceptions, the results are better than expected.
Eight episodes make up Nightmares & Dreamscapes:
Director Brian Henson makes all the right choices with his simple and straightforward approach. The Muppet master is clearly in his element with this story about avenging toys, and he's matched by an excellent, intense Hurt. Not only is the Oscar winner challenged to play against top-of-the-line visual effects, but he isn't given a single line of dialogue to guide the way. Henson relies on our imaginations for most of the first half before pulling out all the stops for an FX-laden finale. Fun, clever, and exciting. Bonus points for a lovely Mia Sara in a small role. A
What worked on the page doesn't translate successfully to the screen. Bailey and Forlani are fine, and the cinematography and production design are excellent, with increasingly off-kilter camera angles that perfectly convey the couple's gradual descent into madness and isolation. But the story is sunk by hokey special effects, too many unanswered questions, and a headscratcher of an ending. D+
"Umney's Last Case"
Director Rob Bowman, working from April Smith's sleek, sly teleplay (her overcooked P.I. dialogue is deliciously dead-on), brushes up on his noir and delivers an intriguing study of a sad, broken man who prefers his fictional world to reality. Of course, they should thank God for landing Macy. His textured, layered performance (two of them, actually) is Emmy material, and he's clearly having the time of his life as gumshoe Clyde Umney. B+
"The End of the Whole Mess"
Director Mikael Salomon and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen have the advantage of working from a story populated by fully-realized, flesh-and-blood characters. They are also blessed with Livingston and Thomas, two highly skilled actors who anchor the episode with performances that alternate between warmly funny and frantically urgent. By the time the jolting ending arrives (with a hush, not a bang), we're as emotionally devastated as the characters. A-
"The Road Virus Heads North"
This story has been done before (see 1969's Night Gallery, starring Roddy McDowell), but King manages to put his own nasty little spin on it, and director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan turns out a stylish, viciously scary yarn that will have you looking over your shoulder the rest of the night, and quite possibly removing all artwork from your walls. A beefy, aging Tom Berenger handles the material well as a Stephen King stand-in facing his own mortality. Look also for Marsha Mason in one of her usual fine turns. B+
"The Fifth Quarter"
Like "The End of the Whole Mess" and "Umney's Last Case," the "The Fifth Quarter" relies less on its twist ending and more on well-rounded characters. Sisto and Samantha Mathis (as his conflicted wife) are excellent, and director Bowman is quite the visualist, adopting a style akin to that Steven Soderbergh used in Out of Sight, another fine heist film. Intimate and compelling. A-
"Autopsy Room Four"
The series' queasiest, most ghoulish premise is neutered by awful—and awfully unnecessary—voiceover narration. Nothing against Thomas, who does as well as the material will allow, but imagine the hair-raising, white-knuckle suspense in store had director Salomon resisted the urge to hold our hands the entire way. Screenwriter April Smith refuses to tighten the screws, instead tossing in one quip after another. An insulting bore, easily the worst of the bunch. F
"You Know They Got a Hell of a Band"
A tired variation on territory already covered in "Crouch End," but writer director Mike Robe makes a different set of mistakes. The story makes sense for the most part, and Weber and Delaney are serviceable, but the production is a flat indulgence of King's obsession with rock-and-roll music. Will someone please tell this man there's nothing remotely scary about deceased pop icons? D+
Warner Bros. brings the miniseries to DVD handsomely packaged in a three-DVD set. The elegantly designed outer sleeve contains two digipak cases, one containing disc one, the other containing discs two and three. All eight episodes are presented in their original widescreen format with an anamorphic transfer. As expected with a production so recent, the image is flawless. Every episode has a distinct look (especially the rich, golden noir hues of "Umney's Last Case," and "Crouch End" and "The Fifth Quarter"), and each is perfectly preserved here. The Dolby 5.1 Surround is put to good use. Dialogue is crystal clear and balanced nicely with the series' lush score. The rear speakers are put to good use, especially during effects-heavy episodes such as "Battleground." Shame on Warner Bros. for including only Spanish subtitles.
The package includes interviews with William Hurt, Eion Bailey, William H. Macy, Ron Livingston, Tom Berenger, Jeremy Sisto, Richard Thomas, and Steven Weber. Each interview lasts three to five minutes.
"The Inside Look" devotes just over two minutes to each episode, and is basically a series of teasers for Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Very little substance here, but also no spoilers.
The almost two-and-a-half-minute "From the Mind of Stephen King" gives cast and crew members a moment to reflect on the author and his work. Ron Livingston understands Stephen King's appeal more than anyone, noting King's ability to capture the immediacy of what's scary right around us. The five-minute "Behind the Drama of Nightmares & Dreamscapes" and "Page to Picture" cover much of the same material.
"Battleground" gets a five-minute featurette devoted to its special effects, and rightly so. The effects are elaborate and spectacular, especially for a made-for-television production. The segment is brief, but director Henson clearly and succinctly walks us through the many blue-screen effects used during the program.
Like most television adaptations of King's work, Nightmares & Dreamscapes is a mixed bag. The program boasts fine production values and exceptional casting, but only five of King's tales are worth staying awake for.
The jury is at a standstill and is advised to sleep on it. Court will reconvene tomorrow.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Behind the Drama of Nightmares and Dreamscapes"
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