Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 25, 2006)
Back in 1985, Steven Spielberg could do little wrong. He was at the top of his game and almost everything he touched turned to gold. I certainly know that I looked forward to all his works, and that meant I – and others – eagerly anticipated Amazing Stories, a new TV series that promised a wide mix of exciting tales each week.
Stories would be a real anthology series. It featured no recurring themes or characters. Instead, each episode would stand totally on its own. That made it ambitious and a throwback to earlier series like The Twilight Zone.
I don’t think Stories ever lived up to its potential. The series lasted only two seasons and never became the hit it was expected to become. It came across as a noble failure.
At least that’s how I recall things. More than 20 years after its debut, I figured it’d be fun to re-examine Amazing Stories via this Season One DVD package. I’ll check out the shows in the order broadcast. The plot synopses come straight from the set’s notes.
Ghost Train (directed by Steven Spielberg): “A grandfather is haunted by visions of the past when his son builds a country home on the site of a previous train wreck.”
When I look back at why I felt so disappointed by Amazing Stories, I think “Train” stands as Exhibit A. With Spielberg behind the camera, I expected a lot from it, much more than this warmed-over bedtime story can provide. It feels like Spielberg Lite; his signature style is on display, but “Train” lacks the drama or excitement it promises. “Train” is a forgettable launch to the series.
The Main Attraction (directed by Matthew Robbins): “An arrogant high school jock suddenly becomes attractive in ways he never dreamed of when he is struck unexpectedly by a meteorite.”
“Attraction” comes with a thin premise but it manages to create an entertaining show. It proves quirky and enjoyable as it offers some fun twists. Look to a fine physical performance from John Scott Clough as a highlight of this good program.
Alamo Jobe (directed by Michael Moore): “Young ‘Alamo Jobe’ finds himself in the right place at the wrong time when he tries to deliver a message during the Battle of the Alamo and ends up in 1980s San Antonio.”
“Jobe” might’ve been more interesting if it didn’t feel like a spin on Back to the Future. The time-travel premise doesn’t go beyond the predictable fish out of water scenario, especially since Jobe himself is a bland personality. This means that the episode never seems like it’s as much fun as it should be.
Mummy, Daddy (directed by William Dear: “An actor unearths terror at a hospital when he neglects to remove his mummy costume before rushing to his wife’s side in the delivery room.”
In the annals of idiotic story premises, “Daddy” may reign supreme. It requires many suspensions of disbelief just to get the actor in the car on the way to the hospital, and all of this becomes too much to swallow at times. That said, the show musters a fun sense of B-movie charm at times along with many allusions to horror classics. It doesn’t soar, but it’s unusual and amusing enough to entertain.
The Mission (directed by Steven Spielberg): “Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland shine in this thrilling one-hour episode where a routine World War II mission quickly becomes a life-or-death situation for a young bomber with a damaged landing gear.”
Spielberg returns to the directorial chair here, and the results prove more interesting than “Ghost Train”. “Mission” offers a stronger tale with more drama to it, as we don’t know how events will progress. The main problem stems from Jonathan, the bomber in danger. He’s so irritating that I almost hoped he wouldn’t make it. The show also comes with a highly unsatisfying ending. The show provides a reasonably tense and taut tale up until that point, but the moronic conclusion undercuts the prior positives.
The Amazing Falsworth (directed by Peter Hyams): “Gregory Hines guest stars as an amazing nightclub mindreader who unwittingly taps into the visions of a murderer somewhere in the audience.”
“Amazing” backs up a clever premise with pretty good execution – to a degree. Like too many of these episodes, “Amazing” suffers from some predictable elements. Despite that, it works as a generally tense and dramatic show. It’s one of my favorites so far.
Fine Tuning (directed by Bob Balaban): “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery when an extraterrestrial transmission reveals aliens imitating characters from 1950s TV shows.”
Despite a fun premise, poor production values undercut “Tuning”. The alien costumes and sets all look like they cost about 30 cents. Sure, I suppose the show wants a tacky, minimalist vibe, but it should look quite so cheap and crummy. The program also suffers from an ending chock full of filler. These don’t harm all the show’s fun, but it doesn’t work as well as I’d hope.
Mr. Magic (directed by Donald Petrie): “A once-great illusionist (Sid Caesar) finds one more trick up his sleeve with the help of a magical, mysterious deck of cards.”
Perhaps it wasn’t a great idea to run two episodes back to back that feature old-time TV stars. “Magic” works at times, but it comes with an awfully thin plot. Caesar does a fairly nice job as Lou, at least, and his performance helps make the show decent.
Guilt Trip (directed by Burt Reynolds): “There’s romance on the high seas when an overworked emotion, Guilt (Dom DeLuise), decides to take a vacation cruise and falls hard for Love (Loni Anderson).”
“Trip” risks faltering due to its goofy concept. Indeed, it does stumble at times as we watch it follow its course. However, a peppy lead performance from DeLuise and a few good gags make it a winner.
Remote Control Man (directed by Bob Clark): “Reality TV takes on a new meaning for a man who discovers a remote that brings TV characters to life. Includes guest cameos by Richard Simmons, Dirk Benedict, Barbara Billingsley, Gary Coleman and Ed McMahon.”
One of the broader episodes to date, “Control” bears a resemblance to the recent Adam Sandler flick Click. It provides a fair amount of humor and gives us a fun fantasy. Pay close attention for some surprisingly off-color comments such as when we hear a beauty contest lives in a town called “Choke a Chicken”.
Santa ‘85 (directed by Phil Joanou): “Christmas cheer is in noticeably short supply when Santa is arrested while delivering presents, and it’s up to one little boy to bust him out.”
The concept of how Santa would deal with a cynical, harsh world isn’t a new one; heck, that’s essentially the premise behind Miracle on 34th Street, isn’t it? “’85” doesn’t add a lot to the equation, though it kicks in enough of a twist to entertain. Don’t expect a classic, but the show seems reasonably charming.
Vanessa in the Garden (directed by Clint Eastwood): “An impressionist painter devastated by the loss of his wife discovers a unique way of having her live on in her art. Harvey Keitel and Beau Bridges guest star.”
Darker than most episodes of Amazing Stories, “Vanessa” still includes the requisite amount of magic. Nonetheless, it proves decidedly more dramatic, and that allows it to stand out from the crowd. “Vanessa” is one of the richer programs so far, largely because it’s one of the few that doesn’t feel like a gimmick with a show attached.
The Sitter (directed by Joan Darling): “Two mischievous boys manage to scare away every sitter in town, only to meet their match in Jennifer Mowbray (Mabel King), who uses voodoo to gain the upper hand.”
Zowie – “Sitter” lets us see a very young, very dorky Seth Green. The show has some good moments, mostly when Jennifer uses her magic to get back at the boys. Unfortunately, the show throws out too much chat about mystical concepts and too little action.
No Day at the Beach (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): “During an amphibious assault in World War II Italy, a simple-minded GI, Arnold Skamp (Larry Spinak), unexpectedly finds a chance to prove himself a hero.”
The most impressive aspect of “Beach” comes from its surprisingly effective black and white photography. The show looks great and aptly conveys the WWII feel. The story itself is less compelling. It’s interesting but its big twist isn’t as powerful as I’d like.
One for the Road (directed by Thomas Carter): “A group of Depression-era barflies scheme to strike it rich by tricking the local drunk (Douglas Seale) into signing an insurance policy, hoping he’s just a few glasses away from drinking himself to death.”
“Road” follows its cynical premise with reasonably cold-hearted execution. And that’s a good thing, though the show spices its action with enough comedy to ensure it doesn’t come across as frightfully nasty. This adds up to an effective black comedy and one of the series’ better programs.
Gather Ye Acorns (directed by Norman Reynolds): “A mysterious troll (David Rappaport) tells a young dreamer (Mark Hamill) never to throw anything away. But after 50 years of living a life of a pack rat in a veritable junk yard, the man wonders if he really has anything to show for his life.”
Wow – what a funky concept! Some dude lives his life based on the instructions of a creepy little hairy guy? Does this mean I should’ve followed the teachings of Robin Williams?
Odd execution aside, “Acorns” works on an interesting idea: what if we ignored practical pursuits and just lived on our dreams? The ending twist is fairly predictable, but the show is entertaining.
Boo! (directed by Joe Dante): “Two ghosts (Eddie Bracken and Evelyn Keyes) are dying to get rid of a porno star and her husband who have moved into their house.”
Shades of Beetlejuice! “Boo!” beat Tim Burton to the punch by a few years with this story of a non-scary couple who try to evict unpleasant residents. Beetlejuice is funnier, but “Boo!” offers a good time with the subject.
Dorothy and Ben (directed by Thomas Carter): “Revived after 40 years in a coma, Ben Dumfy (Joe Seneca) discovers he can communicate telepathically with another comatose patient, a young girl on the brink of death.”
“Ben” walks a fine line between being touching and being cloying. Happily, it stays on the right side of that divide. The show pulls of the magical elements well without turning cheesy, and it packs some real emotion. It’s one of the series’ best.
Mirror, Mirror (directed by Martin Scorsese): “After claiming that his monstrous creations don't bother him, popular horror novelist Jordan Manmouth (Sam Waterston) is haunted by a mysterious hooded figure in his mirror.”
Scorsese doesn’t usually take on horror stories, so that makes his handling of “Mirror” intriguing. He does a pretty nice job with the material, as the tale creates a taut set of scares. “Mirror” keeps us off guard and presents an effective little thriller, though a silly ending undermines it.
Secret Cinema (directed by Paul Bartel): “A young woman named Jane becomes convinced that the people closest to her, including own mother (Eve Arden), are involved in a conspiracy to film her life using secret cameras.”
Shades of The Truman Show! The two aren’t tremendously similar, though, as “Cinema” prefers to take a darkly comic view of things. It has some good moments, but it eventually collapses under the weight of its own pretenses.
Hell Toupee (directed by Irvin Kershner): “After buying a new toupee, an otherwise mild-mannered attorney is inexplicably compelled to murder other lawyers.”
In the annals of goofy concepts, the killer hairpiece deserves mention. Kershner maintains just the right overwrought tone for this delightfully idiotic story. It’s a hoot.
The Doll (directed by Phil Joanou): “In an Emmy-winning performance, John Lithgow portrays a lonely bachelor who finds that the handmade doll he bought for his niece (Rainbow Phoenix) is no ordinary toy.”
As a 39-year-old single guy, maybe “Doll” hits too close to home for me to enjoy it. If I ever have a dinner date with a doll, though, that’s when I’ll really get scared. “Doll” is a rough combination of creepiness and sappiness that doesn’t work.
One for the Books (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): “An old janitor finds that he can pick up more than garbage when he realizes he can gain knowledge from the books around him.”
“Books” unwinds slowly, but it provides an intriguing tale. I like the idea behind it and we get an interesting theme as it goes. Unfortunately, like too many Amazing Stories episodes, a dopey ending finishes things on a weak note.
Grandpa’s Ghost (directed by Timothy Hutton): “A devoted young man (Andrew McCarthy) tries to help his grandmother come to terms with her husband’s death – even though Grandpa keeps appearing when his grandson’s not around.”
Since the title alerts us that Grandpa will die, the only potentially interesting elements come after his demise. Some surreal moments add a little pizzazz, but “Ghost” largely follows an expected path. It attempts to deliver emotion but fails, and another absurd ending doesn’t help.