Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Evil Touch: "The Obituary"

In “The Obituary,” an “old newspaper man” with a cane, Pettit (John Morris) hobbles into an airplane hangar and confronts the pilot working there, Willie Tremaine (Leslie Nielsen), about an incident from his past. He flew a plane drunk, once, and the plane crashed, killing 53 innocent people.  Although Tremaine was vilified in the press, he was never charged with a crime, and he has always proclaimed his innocence. In short, Willie was “legally cleared, but never forgiven.”
But Pettit has shown up on this day to warn Willie that he has not escaped scot free. A murderer named Henderson has been released from prison. He lost a wife and child on that fateful plane flight, 3000 nights earlier. And now he wants revenge for the death of his family.
Willie reaches out to his own wife, Susan, and son, Billy, but can’t find them anywhere. They don’t answer his telephone calls, and they are not at home when he races there. Willie begins to believe that Henderson has abducted his loved ones, and is planning to kill them.  A desperate, weeping Willie confesses to being drunk on the flight and causing all the deaths.  “I made the mistake. How do you think I feel?” He acknowledges.
Willie soon discovers, however, this family is safe. Henderson died a month ago. And even more mysteriously, Pettit, the reporter is also dead. He had been in a coma for two weeks before his demise, meaning that Tremaine confessed to a ghost!

As Anthony Quayle’s narrator reminds the audience at the end of “The Obituary,” “confession is good for the soul.” This is the story of a man, Willie Tremaine, who has never taken responsibility for his actions, and for 3,000 days, has lived with the weight of a guilty conscience. He has never told anyone the truth about his actions, and only confesses when his family that is threatened.
The episode’s final sting, or kicker, is that Pettit, the newspaper man who visits Tremaine in the airplane hangar, is actually dead, forcing this confession as a kind of last act on this mortal coil. This is a twist that feels very Twilight Zone-ish, and yet works well for the episode overall.
What makes “The Obituary” such an intriguing cult-TV half-hour, however, is the fact that other than in the opening and conclusion, there is a lot less-talking here than there is action.  There are long stretches in this installment where there is no dialogue, as Tremaine goes in search of his family, looking for them everywhere, and coming up empty. These moments are tense, and we empathize with Tremaine as he dashes about. He races from scene to scene, hoping to prevent a disaster that he knows he has caused.  Still, the approach is intriguing. Perhaps the series’ low budget precluded more performers from appearing per half-hour, and also precluded more scenes of character development?  Instead, this is virtually a one-man show with Leslie Nielsen on the run.
The funny thing, of course, is that once upon a time, Leslie Nielsen had a well-known reputation as a dramatic actor, and more than that, an actor willing and able to play dastardly villains.  He appeared as a bad guy in series such as Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973) and in films including Day of the Animals(1977) and Creepshow (1982).  Everything changed for Nielsen with Airplane (1980), and also, ultimately, The Naked Gun(1988). Those films cemented him as the perfect deadpan actor to feature in utterly outrageous comedies.  But in “The Obituary” Nielsen is still firmly ensconced in his earlier career mode, playing a morally compromised, not entirely likeable man.
Of the three stories I’ve reviewed thus far for this retrospective, I would say I enjoyed “The Obituary” the most, in part because it hints at the supernatural without delving deeply into it. As was the case in “The Lake,” there is a ghost haunting the main character, but in “The Obituary,” that ghost is really the past.  Pettit shows up as a phantasm, perhaps, during an out-of-body experience (while he is in his coma), but Tremaine’s haunting is all about what he’s done, what he’s responsible for, not the machinations of a villainous specter.
It’s also worth noting that The Evil Touchin three installments has approached three  distinctly different sub-genres of horror. “The Lake” was a supernatural ghost story. “Heart to Heart” was a serial killer show and thriller. And “The Obituary” feels of a piece with The Twilight Zone, a little paranormal, and very dramatic.
Next up, back to suspense thrillers: “Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie.”

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