Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson fit together as comfortable as PB &J, warm slippers on a cold day, and the best of TV horror. Dead of Night (1977) is the follow up to their critically acclaimed anthology Trilogy of Terror (1975), in which Karen Black starred in three distinct episodes of small screen mayhem. And much like that one, Dead of Night shall always be remembered for a terrifying final tale.
Originally broadcast on March 29th, 1977 on NBC, Dead of Night was Curtis and Matheson’s sixth collaboration of some sort, starting with Curtis producing the arrival of Kolchak and The Night Stalker (1972). And while this isn’t the best of their ventures together, solid performances and strong writing leading up make that final segment worth the wait.
Let’s dust off our TV GUIDE and see what the duo have in store for us:
DEAD OF NIGHT (Tuesday, 9pm, NBC)
Three more chilling tales from Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson, who gave you that really messed up Karen Black episode a couple years ago. Remember that? Yikes. Ed Begley, Jr., Patrick Macnee, Joan Hackett star.
First, let’s recap each story:
SECOND CHANCE – Ed Begley, Jr. plays a college student who restores a car from 1926 to its former glory, resulting in him time travelling back to the year it was made.
NO SUCH THING AS A VAMPIRE – Try telling that to Patrick Macnee in this period piece. He and his wife have been bitten; the townspeople are locking their doors, so he calls upon a younger colleague (Horst Bucholz) to help him solve the mystery.
BOBBY – A mother’s love is eternal, and witchcraft seems to be the way for Joan Hackett to hasten her son’s return after he accidentally drowned and disappeared months before. Are milk and cookies in order?
As you scan the above, Second Chance seems like the odd man out, and you’d be right. This timid tale is very Spielbergian, but much more Amazing Stories than Night Gallery. I mean, it’s a sweet little story, but it really has no business being here. Oh well, Vampire is definitely in the right place; it has a nifty twist atypical of vampire lore, shall we say, and boasts a clever turn by Macnee. Bobby is the real discovery here; ostensibly the umpteenth rewrite of The Monkey’s Paw, it turns on a powerful performance by Lee H. Montgomery (Burnt Offerings) as the returned titular boy.
This was the template that Curtis and Matheson hit upon with Trilogy of Terror; I firmly believe that they structure their anthologies not as separate entities, but rather like a three act film. An old fashioned one to be sure – they save all their juice for the third act in order to go out with a bang; a strategy that works well for a feature length, but not really something that folks looking to be thrilled throughout can cling to. Regardless, no one can touch their third acts if they tried.
And this one has a corker. Bobby sails by the others with its intense, gripping look at a fractured familial relationship. Bobby has been presumed dead from an accidental drowning for a few months when the story opens; mom (Joan Hackett – The Terminal Man) has been mostly housebound and dejected, dad is a salesman who is never more than a voice on the phone. Mom decides witchcraft will bring her Bobby back, and uses the standard chalk marked pentagram and incantations to make it so. Of course she chooses a dark and stormy night to summon the spirits, ensuring for us at least some mood lighting for the shit show about to go down. Within minutes a knock on the door reveals her poor, shivering Bobby, confused and eager to be in mommy’s arms again. At first. Bobby takes a turn that is not unexpected, but as it is with the best of their collabs, Curtis and Matheson hit the ground running and don’t let up until the last terrifying image. (These two excelled at the horrific final frame.) It’s built for suspense, each darkened corner and flash of light pulsating with tension and no release. Easily one of the most effective shorts I’ve ever witnessed, Bobby singlehandedly earns Dead of Night a must watch spot for anthology lovers.
As with Trilogy of Terror, the complaint is the same here: One amazing short plus filler. However, when your shorts mine deep dread like Amelia and Bobby do, everything will pale in comparison. But at least there is a commitment in each tale to detail and character, regardless the level of mundane. That’s nothing less than impressive, and your patience is rewarded with a heartwarming tale of love lost. And unfortunately, found.