It’s about damned time someone had the idea to take tales from one of horror master Stephen King’s collections of short stories and make them into a miniseries.
King’s films may tend to be hit or miss propositions – for that matter, so are the miniseries with his name attached, more often than not – but when you set aside the Hollywood tendency to flesh his stories out to feature length, the funniest thing happens: they tend to be a lot better. There’s the underrated “Cat’s Eye,” as well as his contributions to “Creepshow” and “Creepshow 2”; plus, his stories that have been transformed into episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “Tales from the Dark Side,” and “The Outer Limits” turned out pretty well…which might be why the theme music to “Nightmares & Dreamscapes,” an adaptation of eight of King’s stories from the collection of the same name, is intentionally reminiscent of another anthology series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
“Nightmares and Dreamscapes” was put together by executive producer Bill Haber, a fellow with a limited résumé but a way with putting together a cast, and it was presented as a miniseries on TNT earlier in 2006; it’s quick turnaround to get it to DVD, but, you know, they gotta prey on that Halloween market. There are eight different stories presented, some better than others, but in most cases, even the ones with iffy premises, like “Umney’s Last Case,” tend to be raised above average by their performances.
“Battleground” leads off the set, with William Hurt playing a hired assassin who takes out the owner of a toy company; as a result, he finds himself under attack by some of his victim’s creations. Yeah, I know, it sounds a little like “Small Soliders,” but it works for two reasons: there’s virtually no dialogue within the segment, and it’s directed by Brian Henson – yes, the son of Jim Henson – who unquestionably knows how to go about filming strange little creatures. It’s followed by “Crouch End,” starring Claire Forlani and Eion Bailey as a pair of American newlyweds who, while honeymooning in England, find themselves in a decidedly bad part of town, one sharing its name with the title of the segment. There’s an interesting concept afoot, with claims that the neighborhood of Crouch End is a portal into a nasty alternate dimension, but it plays out clumsily with an insufficient payoff. The aforementioned “Umney’s Last Case,” directed by Rob Bowman (“The X-Files”), requires considerable suspension of disbelief as you watch a pulp fiction writer decide to swap places with the noir-ish private eye character he’s created. Thankfully, William H. Macy plays both the writer and the detective, and that’s a guy who has precious few credits that aren’t worth watching; that having been said, however, the segment doesn’t always succeed in its attempts to blend the humor of the detective with the heavy drama from the writer’s life.
“The End of the Whole Mess” is a success, however, using the framing device of having the narrator (Ron Livingston) filming himself as he tells of how his genius brother (Henry Thomas) set out to save the world but, uh, didn’t; the performances all ring true, and the direction by Mikael Salomon keeps things moving a steady clip while maintaining a high level of suspense throughout. It’s followed by “The Road Virus Heads North,” which starts strong and stays that way almost to the finish line (note the word “almost” and hang on), thanks to Tom Berenger as a horror novelist haunted by a painting he picks up at a garage sale; there’s also a wonderful supporting performance from Marsha Mason, as well as a casual reference to King’s omnipresent town of Derry, Maine (along with a not-nearly-as-subtle moment when Berenger’s character slips on a pile of King’s books). Unfortunately, it reaches a conclusion that will have you going, “That’s how it ends? All that tension for that?” Ugh. “The Fifth Quarter,” however, is arguably the best of the entire miniseries, and it’s possibly because it involves neither sci-fi nor supernatural goings-on; it’s a dark, gritty crime thriller starring Jeremy Sisto (“Kidnapped”) and Samantha Mathis (she’ll always be Nora from “Pump Up the Volume” to me), and it’s a reminder of how King’s been known to do his best work when he’s just weaving a tale of family and friendship, a la “Stand by Me.”
Richard Thomas, a veteran of King adaptations (surely you remember him in “It”), stars in “Autopsy Room Four,” where his role – done predominantly in voiceover – is that of a guy who looks dead, was mistakenly declared dead by an elderly physician after suffering a paralysis-inflicting snake bite, and spends the episode waiting for an autopsy team to rip into him. There’s definite tension throughout, since A) being awake and un-anaesthetized is a fear shared by many, and B) it’s Stephen King, so a happy ending is far from guaranteed. The closing tale, “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band,” is one which you’d never expect to see brought to screen, since most of its characters are major figures in the history of rock and roll. It’s a great concept – a couple (Kim Delaney and Steven Weber) happen upon a town called Rock and Roll Heaven, where they have a concert every night that features every dead rocker you can imagine – but it ultimately falls apart with…what again?...an anti-climactic ending.
So we’re looking at a 5 – 3 victory of good over not-so-good…which means that, all things considered, “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” is one of the better Stephen King translations to the visual medium. Definitely worth checking out.