Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"The Grandchild" (The Waltons, 1977)

I never was a watcher of The Waltons, nor was anyone else in my family. So I'm not exactly sure how it was I came to view the (exactly) two episodes that I remember seeing as a child back in the late 70s. But I do remember this--they rank among the scariest things I had seen on TV up to that time.

One of these, The Changeling (Season 7, Episode 5, 1978), has since become a bit of a cult phenomenon (and holds the honor of being the subject of Kindertrauma's debut post).

The Walton household turns into a G-rated version of the Amityville Horror when a poltergeist haunts daughter Elizabeth (Kami Cotler) on the cusp of her 13th birthday, causing rocking chairs to hover in the air, and her Raggedy Ann doll to move on its own.

But that was child's play compared to the scares contained in a 1977 episode called The Grandchild, elements of which I've remembered ever since.

I'm not sure why The Grandchild seems to have gotten overlooked among seekers of television fright. Maybe because it's a long, two-part episode, and the scary elements only occupy a small portion of one of several subplots.

Mary Ellen (Judy Norton-Taylor) is expecting her first child with husband and town doctor Curt Willard (Tom Bower). She works as a nurse at her husband's practice, and can't wait for her baby to arrive.

One stormy evening, Ab Hineman (David Hooks) arrives at Dr. Willard's office seeking help for her grand-daughter, Cassie (Beth Raines), also pregnant and going into a difficult labor. Dr. Willard is seeing a patient in a neighboring town, so Mary Ellen rides out with Mr. Hineman to provide assistance.

They arrive at the dark cabin amid wind-whipped trees and flashes of lightning.

Cassie has already given birth, and is holding her newborn, but it is eerily quiet.

Mary Ellen has to break the news that the baby was stillborn.

Cassie, a simple and superstitious person, believes the baby's death was caused by the ill omen of her having seen a dead bird the day before.
"I saw a dead bird yesterday. He had his eyes open and I looked right into them. They was all yellow and dead. It's an omen! Today, my baby's dead!"
And now that Mary Ellen has looked into the face of her "sweet dead child", Cassie now believes that Mary Ellen's baby is cursed to the same fate.

It's here that Cassie starts reciting a verse, slowly and rhythmically, as if casting a spell, that has haunted me ever since first hearing it over thirty years ago.
"Look upon the face of death...
And never feel your baby's breath."
She chants it over and over, disturbing Mary Ellen, who at first dismisses it as mere superstition, but is soon fleeing the cabin in fear.

What's waiting for her outside only tightens the psychological screws. It's the surreal scene of Cassie's grandpa, standing over a table in the middle of the lightning storm, building a baby-sized coffin.

Now in a full-fledged panic, Mary Ellen flees down the dark forest road, when a mysterious electrical phenomenon appears along the fence, blue sparks that she perceives as some supernatural sign.

She is picked up shortly by her late-arriving husband, who tries to comfort her by explaining everything in rational terms (the strange lights were just static electricity created by the lightning, etc.)

Days later, after things seem to have returned to normal, Mary Ellen is enjoying her baby shower.

Flossie Brimmer (Nora Marlowe), who wields "occult powers" as a hobby, is reading people's fortune through tea leaves. But when Mary Ellen playfully invites her to read hers, Ms. Brimmer doesn't like what she sees.

This is when a fluttering curtain betrays the presence of someone--or something--just outside the window (and we get a great Window Into Fear moment.)

It's an increasingly unstable Cassie, spying on the shower from the bushes.

Later, Dr. Willard pays Cassie a visit to check up on her well-being (he hasn't had a chance to examine her since her miscarriage.) She's hiding in the dilapidated house of her long dead parents.

Dr. Willard tries to speak kindly to her, but she states coldly: "Nothing's gonna save your baby."

After the doctor leaves, it's revealed that Cassie has been playing mother to something wrapped up in a blanket--why, it's none other than our little haunted friend from The Changeling episode!

Being The Waltons, I guess it's no spoiler to reveal that everything turns out alright in the end--but there is a last minute dramatic turn that will have anyone who's ever seen The Other (1972) looking for the nearest wine barrel.

Man, that old Walton's place gives me the creeps!

Both The Waltons Season 6 (featuring The Grandchild) and The Waltons Season 7 (featuring The Changeling) are available on DVD.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Spacecraft 2000 to 2100 AD (Stewart Cowley, 1978)

Let's imagine for a moment that we're in the far, far future. It's the year 2000. Can you even conceive what life will be like? Space travel. Colonies on other planets. Discovery of alien life forms. Oh, the possibilities!

Okay, so the millennium is already old news, we still live on Earth, and the closest we've gotten to alien life forms is the freak show that is reality television. It's still fun to speculate what COULD have been, especially when peering through a telescope firmly planted in the year 1978.

Which brings us to Spacecraft 2000 to 2100 AD, a fictionalized retrospective of the first 100 years of interplanetary space travel, all told from an "in universe" perspective, in which we're to believe that space freighters first launched in 2004, a lunar station was established on Mars in 2011, and aliens from Alpha Centauri were contacted by a survey ship in 2036.

Author Stewart Cowley, incidentally, is purported to be a veteran officer of the Terran Defence Authority, who served a tour of duty defending Mars. Here's a photo of him holding his trusty space helmet.

The conceit that this is all based on historic fact, and the book itself an artifact from the future, made Spacecraft... all the more captivating to me when I first discovered it in the school library. (And for a very different example of another "in universe" book that I also loved as a kid, check out The Witch's Catalog.)

Spacecraft... is just one title in a series of similar guidebooks covering military and civilian craft (Starliners: Commercial Space Travel in 2200 AD), intergalactic wars (Great Space Battles) and wreckage (Spacewreck: Ghost Ships and Derelicts From Space), all strikingly illustrated by various sci-fi artists, among them Angus McKie, Bob Layzell, Colin Hay, and Tony Roberts. Below are some of my favorites.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dark Night of the Scarecrow soundtrack available now!

Somehow without my noticing, the creepy and haunting soundtrack for made-for-TV classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981, Glenn Paxton) has been quietly released as a download-only purchase, available at I-Tunes and Amazon.com.

Buy each song individually, or get the whole 17-track album for under ten bucks. Below is a full track listing (and a secret: the final End Credits track not only contains the signature nursery rhyme-like synthesized theme, but ends with nearly a minute of the isolated sound effect of cornfield insects chirping.)

1. Main Title (1:59)
2. Bubba and Marylee (0:52)
3. Dog Attack (0:41)
4. The Chase (3:27)
5. Vigilante Execution (1:53)
6. Bubba Didn't Do It (1:39)
7. Bubba's Not Gone (5:04)
8. The Scarecrow Appears (1:51)
9. The Chipper (3:16)
10. Hocker Dead (1:54)
11. Eye for an Eye (1:54)
12. Scared to Death (2:38)
13. Deadly Silo (4:15)
14. The Grave (1:08)
15. Truth Revealed (1:21)
16. Scarecrow Justice (3:33)
17. End Credits (2:30)