Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween, 2015; Darkroom: "Siege of August 31" (1981)

"You're in a house. Maybe your own. Maybe one you've never seen before. You feel it. Something evil. You run. But there's no escape. Nowhere to turn. You feel something beckoning you. Drawing you into the terror that awaits you in...the darkroom."
-James Coburn's opening narration to Darkroom, a 1981-1982 horror anthology

On Friday nights in 1981, the place for avid horror fans was the Darkroom, a creepy ABC anthology that ran for seven hour-long episodes before cancellation. 

Produced by Christopher Crowe and executive story consultant Jeffrey Bloom, Darkroom was very much a series in the spirit of Rod Serling's Night Gallery. 

Each 60-minute story featured one or more macabre tale, usually with a supernatural bent and some diabolical twist ending. Not available on DVD today, this is one of those fondly remembered horror shows that hasn't seen the light of day in a long time. In the 1990s it sometimes appeared on the USA Network or the Sci-Fi Channel.

The series' opening montage was a work of art in its own right. A camera positioned low-to-the-ground - and likely a steadicam - races at warp speed through an entirely empty but ornate, Gothic-style Victorian house. 

The camera whips down the stairs, cruises across long empty spaces, and rockets about to the baritone words of James Coburn's narration (above), until it stops at the imposing door of...the Darkroom. Perhaps this sequence was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's similar charting of inner space via steadicam in The Shining (1981).

The trademark Darkroom episode, perhaps the most heavily publicized and most eagerly anticipated of the short run, was a special effects extravaganza entitled "Siege of August 31" which involves a Vietnam veteran and southern farmer named Neil (played by Ronny Cox) locked in combat with toy soldiers (and toy vehicles, including a helicopter) made animate.

The final confrontation, an impressive collage of rear projection, blue screen and miniature effects, occurs in a barn by black of night as the veteran adorns his uniform and literally returns to the war that haunts his dreams. 

The specifics of the tale involve Neil bringing home to his son Ben two toy play sets of "Company B" -- American soldiers. 

As the ten year old boy is forced to attend military school by his demanding father, the toy soldiers begin speaking to the boy, telling him about the atrocities committed by American military men in Vietnam. 

Neil thinks the boy is trying to spite him, since there is no way young Ben could possibly know about his wartime experiences. The last straw is when Neil stumbles upon a toy Vietnam destroyed in flames. Neil's wife (Gail Strickland) begs Neil to let the boy stay home and not attend the school but the father refuses to relent. In fact, he decides to send the boy the very next day. It is that night that Neil meets his destiny in the barn, fighting a toy army and air force.

Based on a short story by Davis Grubb, and written for television by Peter S. Fischer, "Siege of August 31" is directed by Peter Crane. 

Watching it today, one gets a sense of how deeply conflicted the story is, a reflection of how ambiguous the Vietnam War experience was for the nation, I suppose. 

On the one hand, Neil (Cox) is portrayed as a veteran who was wounded in war (he lost a leg...) and who wants what is best for his son. He wants Ben to be more than him, more than "just a dumb old dirt farmer." 

The best he ever felt, he claims, was as as a soldier. "I felt like I counted as something. Like I had something to give." 

His wife is not so pleased about the whole military academy thing. She doesn't want Ben to be a soldier.. "They got your leg," she tells Neil. "You want them to get your son too?"

On the other hand, Neil is depicted in deliberately unflattering, villainous terms as well. He strikes his wife across the face not once but twice, and is merciless -- nay, actually vicious -- with Ben, his son. He refuses to relent in his quest to send the boy off to a military academy against his will. 

Which leaves the toys no alternative, I suppose, but to intervene and stop him. 

In the end, Neil is a casualty of this personal and very odd war, and his wife eulogizes him. "He was a good man, a fine man," she tells Ben. "[That was] before he went off to war. He used to laugh all the time."

So, on one hand, "Siege of August 31" is an anti-war statement, commenting on atrocities committed under orders (the same mantra used by the Nazis tried for war crimes...), but on the other it wants to support the troops, saying that they did what they had to do. 

Basically, the story doesn't make a lot of narrative sense, especially since the teleplay explicitly states that Neil did not participate in the particular atrocities depicted by the toys. In fact, he has to phone his colonel to ask about that particular village. So, as a soldier, is he responsible for what the other soldiers do? Is he responsible for being part of a corrupt system? Is that the real "villain" of the piece, the government that sends men to war in the first place?

This is not a small question. Perhaps I'm being pedantic in demanding the story pick a definitive side in what is a complicated issue, but the story is less than it should because it never decides what the point here is. 

Had Rod Serling been writing, he would have picked a side, either choosing the soldiers and coming down on the side of nationalism, or -- much more likely -- making the Neil character someone who has to pay for his bad deeds. As it is, the story is diffident instead of forceful. I mean, if it is the system at fault, then both the animate toys and Neil are collateral damage. Why are they fighting each other and not Washington D.C.?

Yet "Siege of August 31" remains incredibly memorable because of that great special effects denouement (which was trumpeted in commercials and previews for the series).

One suspects that the battle between Cox and the toy army is the show's real raison d'etre, and truth be told, the special effects hold up pretty damn well today. As a signature episode of Darkroom, the episode is a nostalgic blast, but one wishes that the producers had decided to tell the story in more convincing and clear-headed terms. 

Instead, the series wants to play things both ways. Neil is both a victim and an aggressor, and that makes the role of the vengeful toys that much harder to ferret out. Ultimately, in the end - during that great spfx battle - you don't know who to cheer for. And for the story to work well, you really, really should. 

Instead, you're kind of left feeling sorry for everybody. Ben has no father because the toys killed him. Neil was brought down by his blind patriotism and learned nothing. 

And what force brought the toys to life? 

1 comment:

  1. I remember this episode, but I had no idea it was that long ago. I would've been 6 or 7 when it aired in 1981.

    In the late '80s, I went through a Stephen King phase (my parents were just happy that I was reading.) His short story "Battleground" is similar to this episode, although without the same thematic elements.