When Wes Craven passed on, horror lost one of its most beloved voices. In a series of reviews, CHUD looks back on everything he ever directed. This entry tells you a little about the handful of TV episodes he did. Expect to read about aliens kidnapping cows, Morgan Freeman playing cards with the Devil, Bruce Willis fucking up Bruce Willis’s life, and more.
The Twilight Zone Days
After his big success with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven did two new movies in 1985: The Hills have Eyes Part II which went theatrical, but bombed, and the made-for-television movie Chiller which scored him good money. He took note of that and immediately went further into TV work, by helping the revival of the legendary science-fiction anthology series The Twilight Zone. It was of course resurrected due to the amusing Steven Spielberg / John Landis / Joe Dante / George Miller movie that had hit theatres in 1983 (remember the goblin on the wing of the aircraft? You sure do).
The Twilight Zone (1985) episode 1×01: Shatterday
Written by Harlan Ellison (I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream), the first story of the pilot episode stars Bruce fucking Willis. Way to premiere a show, right? And it is in fact a cool story. Three years before Die Hard would change Bruno’s life forever, Willis plays a guy who accidentally calls his own home from a bar. Weird thing is, he speaks to what appears to be himself. Feeling punked at first, he quickly realizes that there’s actually another version of him at home. One that begins to win over his friends and relatives, and to slowly take over his life.
It’s a rather brave story to jumpstart a TV series as it’s about depression. Instead of going for a physical confrontation with the doppelganger, it’s a rather atmospheric piece with an emphasis on talking on the phone. Losing everything to what is basically a better version of himself really fucks the original guy up, and it’s uncomfortable to see that guy’s world crumble, and to see Willis (with full hair) delve deep into paranoia. This could easily be an adaptation of a solid Stephen King short story.
The Twilight Zone (1985) episode 1×01: A Little Peace And Quiet
This second half of the first episode was also directed by Craven. Melinda Dillon who played the mother of the abducted kid in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a housewife overwhelmed by the stress of her family life. One day she finds an amulet that enables her to freeze time. She uses it to get some peace, before a real shocker of an ending sets in. World War Three starts, and a Russian nuclear missile is about to eradicate the whole city. She quickly freezes time, but where to go from that?
The second story is a great example for a typical Twilight Zone tale. It quickly develops a very common situation, only to then put a weird fantastic spin on it. A mean spin that makes one think about how oneself would decide. It’s about ideas, and this one is a really good one. Just don’t expect any great visual effects: when time freezes, everyone just stands still goofily. Funnily, the mother passes a theatre that has Fail Sail and Dr. Strangelove on its marquee.
The Twilight Zone (1985) episode 1×02: Wordplay
Apparently, Craven liked the work so much that he returned for the second episode as well. Wordplay stars Annie Potts (the Ghostbusters’s secretary) and Robert Downey Jr.’s father. It’s a rather boring story though: a salesman loses the ability to understand the meaning of words. For example instead of “lunch” he begins to hear the world “dinosaur”. It doesn’t really work and there is no pay off.
The Twilight Zone (1985) episode 1×02: Chameleon
The second episode had three stories, and Craven directed the third one as well. John Ashton (Taggart from the Beverly Hills Cop movies), Lin Shaye, and Terry O’Quinn (Locke from Lost) star in an intriguing short about a shape-shifting alien trying to fool NASA scientists. Astronauts accidentally bring back an alien that imitates a broken camera at first, and they manage to put it into quarantine. The creature dissolves the scientist played by Ashton, then imitates him in an attempt to get free. When his colleague played by O’Quinn doesn’t fall for it, the alien changes into a nuclear bomb. This threat finally does work, and they let it go.
This little gem is b-movie gold. The budget restrictions put Craven visibly under stress, but he makes the most of it. This could easily been a solid X-Files episode, or maybe even a movie.
The Twilight Zone (1985) episode 1×08: Dealer’s Choice
So, Craven returned once again. Why? Morgan Freeman, Dan Hedaya, and M. Emmet Walsh sit down to play a game of poker, with one of them being the Devil himself. Of course, it’s Hedaya, and after losing a high stakes game he gifts everyone free beer. What a good guy.
It’s a fun short, and of course the assembled group of actors make it worth alone. A pleasant surprise, and this too is basically good enough to warrant a whole movie. Craven had created two really cool episodes in a row, but it wouldn’t stay that way.
The Twilight Zone (1985) episode 1×12: Her Pilgrim Soul
After taking some time off, probably to direct that Disney Sunday Movie project, Craven did another episode. This one has only one familiar face in it: Danica McKellar from The Wonder Years. Two programmers working on a holographic projector discover an image of a growing woman. Turns out, one of the guys has had a tragic romance in his previous life and now the soul of his deceased woman reappears in his machine to spend some more time with him.
It’s a rather spiritual episode, not going for either scares or interesting science facts. I didn’t like it at all, and in 1985, no one else did. Ratings had been dropping since the middle of the first season and it never recovered from it.
The Twilight Zone (1986) episode 2×07: The Road Less Traveled
By the time this episode aired, the show had already been canceled. Ratings had fallen even deeper, and while the studio eventually brought the series back and produced a whole third season, Craven was done with it.
And get this: this episode was written by Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin (for realz). It’s not good though. A kid tells her father that something is scaring her inside her room. He tries to prove that she’s wrong, but then he sees visions of Vietnam, and of a soldier version of himself. Turns out that he deserted, and now a version of him that did go to war haunts him. It doesn’t reach any heights, and with Steve Miner’s House having been released earlier that same year, it doesn’t even feel original.
Nightmare Cafe (1992) episode 1×6: Aliens Ate My Lunch
After the success of The People Under The Stairs, Wes Craven went back to TV and attempted to create his own version of The Twilight Zone, and boy was it tailored to Robert Englund. Englund had of course starred in the A Nightmare on Elm Street spin-off series, Freddy’s Nightmares, which had Krueger mostly presenting standalone stories set in Springwood. The series ended in 1990, and in 1991 Craven and Englund were shooting this new series with ‘nightmare’ in the title, probably pissing off Bob Shaye big time.
The concept was fresh, but pretty much the same as Freddy’s Nightmares (or The Twilight Zone): anthology stories. Englund would show up in an otherworldy cafe, presenting a horror story set on Earth. Six episodes were made, and Englund additionally shows up in small bit parts. The episodes had two things in common: they were rather campy, and quite shitty. Craven directed the final episode about a reporter trying to find aliens in a village. Cows get kidnapped, Don S. Davis shows up, and there are lot of midgets. It’s obvious that Englund loves to act with the kind of passion only found in the movie Chained Heat, but it’s probably the worst thing Craven has ever directed. Even his bizarre hardcore porn movie Angela is the Fireworks Woman has a better story, better acting, and more coherence than this.
Conclusion: Out of the eight TV episodes Craven directed, half of them were pretty decent. He never had a true gem at hands, but you can feel that he was never really that passionate about TV anyway. He mostly worked for hire and used the money to produce his theatrical flicks. Even when he finally got to create his own series, it wasn’t much more than a vanity project for his buddy Robert Englund. Still, he wasn’t a bad TV director. He could easily have stayed there and would probably have made more money than he did before Scream arrived, but he chose the hard road instead. One that brought us Vampire in Brooklyn, My Soul to Take, and Cursed, but also Scream, Red Eye, and Shocker. Worth it.