Thursday, April 12, 2012
The Five Most Savage Episodes in Cult-TV History
But the first time I watched each of the following programs, I was rocked back on my heels at the violence portrayed, and more than that, by the brutal vision of humanity showcased by the various programs. These are the five titles guaranteed to trouble your peaceful slumber.
The programs are listed in ascending order, from #5 to #1.
5. The Evil Touch: "The Trial."
Now, Lon intends to destroy the carnival fairgrounds (to make room for condominiums), but his carnie peers put him on trial for his misdeeds, and concoct a punishment that will bring Lon -- formerly Elmo the Geek -- back into the fold. The group's tattoo artist, you see, was once a brain surgeon...
I don't want to reveal more than necessary here, especially because the series is not yet available on DVD, but the episode's final moments generate a throat-tightening sense of panic as Ray Walston's character realizes that there is no escape, and that he is bound for a grisly, life-altering fate. A hard-hitting, just desserts story, "The Trial" is one savage humdinger of a half-hour.
4. Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Other Way Out."
The Ives character goes on and on recounting to Meredith about how he'll receive his comeuppance for murder from his grandson, "Sonny." These stories provoke such fear in Meredith that he attempts to escape the house and is attacked by murderous dogs. He returns to the house, and learns from Ives that there is one "other way" out of the house. Meredith believes he finds it too: a passageway behind a fireplace in the living room, and then a hatchway down deep into the Earth...
Frenetic and frantic, "The Other Way Out" culminates with a surprise revelation about "Sonny," and then another twist about Meredith's "other way out." Again, I don't want to reveal the episode's startling finale, but it's bleak as hell, and a statement about man's cruelty to his fellow man. It all comes down to how you define a way "out," I suppose.
The element most recognizable from the Savage Cinema in "The Other Way Out" is the culture clash. Here a slick businessman -- a creature of the city -- encounters a country, redneck family. Meredith believes he can buy his way out of trouble, perhaps because money has always solved his problems in the past. But the Burl Ives character is having none of it, and decides to hold Meredith accountable to HIS version of God's law.
3. Torchwood: "Countrycide"
I reviewed this startling, grotesque 2006 episode of the British sci-fi series last week. But in "Countrycide" by Chris Chibnall and directed by Andy Goddard, a top-secret British agency investigating aliens learns that all existentialist threats don't come from the heavens above. In fact, man himself is, perhaps, the ultimate "monster." This idea would become a common theme as the series wore on, especially in season three's "Children of Earth." In "Countrycide," however Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and the other team members run afoul of vicious cannibals in the English countryside. One team member realizes -- after gazing into a refrigerator filled with body parts -- that they are to be "food."
Harrowing, bloody and gory as hell, "Countrycide" works as Savage Cinema in part because of its philosophically provocative ending, which finds Gwen interrogating the leader of the cannibals. She demands answers. Why has he done this? Why has he treated people like this, as...food? She needs answers, so she can preserve her view of the world and carry on as moral crusader. But the cannibal's answer to her interrogative was and remains chilling. To hurt other human beings -- to treat them as nothing but ingredients -- makes the killer "happy." It's a chilling response, and one that sends Gwen into a moral tailspin.
This ties in to the reckoning seen quite often in Craven films: that man can be roused to bloody violence (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) but that after the veneer of civilization is ripped off, it's difficult to put the pieces back together.
2. Millennium: "The Fourth Horseman"
That doesn't sound like Savage Cinema in terms of premise, but certainly the presentation fits the bill. In one of the most horrifying scenes I've ever witnessed on American broadcast television, an average, WASP-y American family is utterly and grotesquely destroyed before our eyes. The occasion is middle-class family's Sunday dinner (Mother's Day, if memory serves.) The family members don't realize it, but they are actually eating chicken contaminated with the fatal disease.
After first showcasing trademark images of "Americana" (a backyard grill and the ubiquitous football game on the TV), the scene turns sour rather dramatically. The mother grows ill first, and blood starts to pour from her neck. Then, blood-filled lesions begin to form on the other family members, and they cough and bleed out -- they literally sweat out blood -- in a matter of seconds. In one especially horrific shot, a family member reaches for the telephone to dial 911, but as a finger hits the dial blood explodes from the digit and splatters the device.
What should be sacrosanct -- the safe, secure, American middle-class hearth -- is instead corrupted and destroyed in "The Fourth Horseman." If that isn't indicative of a savage, tradition-shattering modus operandi, I don't know what is. And once more, horror is brought home to us in a palpable, graphic way, and nobody is spared. Not even the kids.
1. The X-Files: "Home."
The Peacocks are no ordinary American family, however. The three adults brothers are horribly deformed, and their crazy old mother -- a quadruple amputee -- lives under her bed on a little, make-shift scooter. The boys pull her out occasionally, chew her food for her, and even -- yikes -- impregnate her to add numbers to the disfigured brood.
After the Peacocks murder Home's Sheriff Andy Taylor and his wife with baseball bats, Mulder and Scully lay siege to the homestead, only to be faced with a vile interior lined with deadly booby traps...
Okay, I love "Home." I absolutely love it. Along with "Bad Blood" and "The Host," I consider it one of the best episodes of the long-lived Chris Carter series. In terms of setting, the Peacock's wrecked farmhouse recalls Leatherface's house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the savage family's finely-honed survival instincts plays like something from The Hills Have Eyes (1977). What makes the episode so remarkable, and the quality that lands the episode into the heralded savage cinematic territory of social critique (like Last House on the Left), however, is the manner in which the story sets up the main conflict, a dueling views of "civilization." The police and "normal" people of Home live by one code, and the Peacocks -- as we learn in bloody fashion -- live by another code. Yet the Peacocks clearly cherish family, right? And they "stand their ground" when attacked by the government on their own land. How different from us are they, really?
One of the most terrifying sequences I've ever seen on television arrives in this episode of The X-Files. The Taylors realize they have left their front door unlocked, and the Peacocks pull up to their house...for bloody vengeance. Sheriff Taylor's wife cowers under the bed as her husband is bludgeoned to death nearby, and then -- boom -- she is up for the same treatment next. It's a blood bath that plays on the universal fear of home invasion.
I'd wager that anybody who saw "Home" in 1996 -- in prime time, no less -- never forgot this particular episode, a grotesque exercise in sheer horror, and in my estimation the most savage episode in cult-TV history.