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Friday, December 23, 2005

1.11 --- Nightcrawlers

Directed by : William Friedkin
Written by : Philip DeGuere (story by Robert R. McCammon)
Starring : Scott Paulin, James Whitmore Jr., Robert Swain, Exene Cervenka
First aired : 18th of October, 1985.

During a tremendous storm, state trooper Dennis Wells (James Whitmore Jr.) stops by at a local roadside diner for some coffee and food. While waiting for his meal, Wells informs the owners - a burly fellow named Big Bob (Robert Swain) and his waitress (Exene Cervenka) - that he just finished surveying a crime scene at a nearby motel, which is best summed up with the word "slaughter". If that wasn't enough, Wells casually adds that the criminal is on the run, and might be heading into this direction.

Their conversation is interrupted by a family of three, husband, wife and a teenage son, who are passing through on their way to Denver (episode is set in Utah). Wells cautiously advises them against driving on during the night, and offers to escort them to a motel until the storm clears, to which they agree. But then, something on the outside catches their attention - a blue car manically swerving off the highway and parking in front of the diner.

The driver, a scruffy, skinny looking fellow (Scott Paulin, Cat People, The Right Stuff), enters and orders a coffee, which he promptly downs in one gulp. Wells gives him a light ribbing about his reckless driving, but the stranger shrugs him off, curtly apologising and continuing to mind his own business. After downing another coffee, he asks Bob if they serve beer. Bob responds that they don't have a liquor licence, but is amazed to see that stranger's cup of coffee suddenly transformed into a can of Bud. Thinking he is imagining things, he turns to Wells, who didn't spot this, and glancing back at the beercan he's somewhat relieved to see a coffee mug again.

Wells is adamant that there is something wrong about this particular guy, and he continues to bug him with questions. First he asks him if he has prescriptions for the pills he swallows with his coffee, then tries to convince him to spend a night at a motel and not keep on driving through the night (which he refuses flatly), and finally, after the waitress notices an inscription saying "Nightcrawlers" on stranger's lighter and he confesses he's a Vietnam veteran, urges him to talk about his war experiences. At first, the stranger is reluctant to talk about it, but after further insisting by Wells, he opens up - and then some.

Standing up and facing Wells, the stranger unfolds his story. He was in special forces doing recon, and is the only person from his unit who survived. One particular night he and his friends got ambushed by Viet Cong, and he had to run to save his life. He is overwhelmed by guilt, and feels like he his comrades down. When Bob remarks that the war is over, stranger - who Bob addresses as "Price" - quips that for him, it isn't.

Turns out Price can materialize things out of thin air, which he proves by simply creating a steak sizzling on the grill by mere power of thought. Adding that he met another four veterans with similar powers, Price explains that this is likely the result of some chemical weapon VC used on him during the war, and how he can control himself while awake, but when asleep things go out of the hand, vividly recalling what happened last time he fell asleep. Wells is quick to make a connection between the motel massacre and Price and tries to arrest him, but Price simply overheats his gun, which Wells drops with a painful grimace. He makes his way towards the exit, however, Wells seizes the opportunity and knocks him cold with a ketchup bottle.

Seconds after, Wells realizes he opened a can of worms. Everybody in the diner gathers around Price trying to wake him up, but their effort is interrupted by sporadic gunfire from the outside. All of a sudden, Big Bob's joint is turned into a legit warzone, with four commandos with M-16s wreaking havoc on the outside. After causing enough carnage (and accidentally killing Wells), the soldiers barge inside, pointing their guns at Price who briefly awakens and stops them in their tracks. Bob grabs a frying pan, aiming to kill Price and end this nightmare, but Price just faints again, and the horror continues - first, the soldiers shoot Bob in the chest, and then open fire on Price, who is screaming "Charlie's in the light !" while being shredded by gunfire.

Some time later, police and ambulance arrive at the scene, which looks like it was napalm bombed into oblivion. The ambulance staff and waitress are helping Bob to the ambulance wagon, but Bob, in state of total shock, can only repeat one thing - that there are four more men with same powers somewhere around the country...

***

Almost universally regarded as the high point of the colour Twilight Zone, Nightcrawlers, based on a short story by Robert R. McCammon, definitely delivers, but also leaves a lingering feeling it was a bit rushed into the 20-minute running time it was allocated. Admittedly, the episode has a lot going for it - Scott Paulin is terrific, going from calm to positively mental, in a performance that Mark Scott Zicree described as a "taut piano wire" in his Twilight Zone Companion addendum about the new Twilight Zone, his behavioural progressions accompanied by a great score composed by The Grateful Dead. Director William Friedkin, who previously scared theatrical audiences with The Exorcist, backs Paulin's performance by slowly upping the tension scale until it reaches boiling point, and the special effects and production design are top notch.

Still, this episode would have been even better if padded with additional five, maybe ten minutes of Price's character - who, mind you, never mentions his name, yet both Bob and his waitress address him like that. I might be wrong - consider the fact English is not my native language and I'm watching all those episodes without subtitles, so Paulin possibly mentions his name somewhere. However, it is obvious from the beginning he is an unknown to the diner patrons, yet when he leaves, he has a rather personal goodbye moment with the waitress, who acts like the two of them go a long way back.

All issues aside, this remains a great Twilight Zone episode, and a worthy television landmark. It should also be noted that James Whitmore Jr., who is rather forgettable in his state trooper role, later turned a television director himself, helming various episodes of such shows as 24, The Cold Case, Melrose Place, Dawson's Creek and even X-Files. Oh, and speaking of X-Files, I distinctively remember an episode from (I think) 2nd season, involving a Vietnam vet who can't fall asleep...hmmm...

Comments on "1.11 --- Nightcrawlers"

 

Blogger The Plush Armadillo said ... (8:27 AM) : 

Price is wearing his old Army field jacket throughout the episode... which has his last name on it.

 

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