Amazing Stories: The Complete First Season
August 1, 2006
Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese,
Starring: Lukas Haas, Kelly Reno, Tracey Walter, Kevin Costner, Gregory Hines, Sid Caesar, Dom DeLuise, Pat Hingle, Harvey Keitel, Seth Green, Charlie Sheen, Forest Whitaker, Sam Waterston,
At the height of his mid-1980s fame, Steven Spielberg parlayed his clout to convince Universal Studios to back a weekly anthology show on network television that would be called Amazing Stories (named from the pulp fiction magazine of the same name) and would showcase fantastical or horrific stories directed by and starring big name talent from Hollywood. NBC picked up the show and committed to two seasons with the stipulation that Spielberg himself direct two episodes in the first season.
He decided to mix veteran directors like Clint Eastwood with up-and-comers like Phil Joanou and do the same with the casts for each story. The budgets of the episodes were unusually high for T.V. at the time (in the neighbourhood of $800,000 to $1 million) no doubt due to Spielberg’s reputation. At the time, Amazing Stories’ main competition came from another anthology series on a rival network, an updating of the Twilight Zone that also featured prestigious Hollywood talent behind and in front of the camera.
Some of the highlights from this season include “The Mission,” which is set during World War II with an American bomber on its 23rd and last mission. Along for the ride is the crew’s good luck charm – their belly gunner (Casey Siemaszko) who is also an amateur cartoonist. However, during their mission, the plane takes a heavy hit that traps the young man in his compartment. With the landing gears destroyed, it looks like the trapped gunner is doomed until a fantastical moment (thanks to divine, albeit hokey, inspiration) intervenes.
Aside from anticipating the similarly themed Memphis Belle (1990) film, it is a masterfully crafted episode as one would expect from someone of Spielberg’s skill. What is so interesting to watch are young actors Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Costner as crew members of the plane. They are both excellent but it is Siemaszko who is absolutely heartbreaking as the doomed gunner. This is one of the show’s signature episodes and the one that most people remember from the series.
“Vanessa in the Garden,” directed by Clint Eastwood, features an Impressionistic painter (Keitel) distraught over the death of his wife (Sondra Locke) and primary inspiration. One day, he inadvertently finds a way to bring her back through his paintings. Eastwood’s trademark, low-key direction is in fine form here and serves the story well as he establishes the right amount of pathos without being too manipulative. He also keeps Harvey Keitel reigned in, not letting the actor go too wild during his grieving scenes. Keitel is excellent as a tortured artist who loses his creativity with the loss of his muse.
“Boo!” anticipates Beetlejuice (1988) by a few years as Joe Dante directs an episode about two ghosts, a husband (Eddie Bracken) and wife (Evelyn Keyes), who try and get rid of an obnoxious couple (played to trashy perfection by Dante regular Robert Picardo and Wendy Schaal) who move in and naturally scoff at the previous family’s warning that the place is haunted.
The ghost couple evokes a bygone era with their love of big band music and Dante playfully contrasts this with the tacky ‘80s fashion sense and porno chic décor of the new couple. At first, the ghosts aren’t too successful in scaring off their new occupants but once these interlopers start messing around in the attic – their private space – the kindly couple up the ante in order to drive them out.
“Mirror, Mirror”, directed by Martin Scorsese, features Sam Waterston as popular horror writer Jordan Manmouth, a man who is a little too proud of his gory creations. In fact, he doesn’t find his fiction scary at all and seems to loathe the fans he has to interact with and the press junkets he has to do in order to promote his work. After a hot bath, he repeatedly spots someone in his bathroom mirror that scares the hell out of him, giving Manmouth a taste of his own medicine. Soon, he starts to see the hideous creature (a completely unrecognizable Tim Robbins buried under grotesque make-up) reflected in other mirrors.
Scorsese cleverly references the early films of Italian horror film maestro Mario Bava in the episode’s opening clip from one of the films based on Manmouth’s books. It is great to see Waterston in a non-Law & Order role playing someone who is cocky and confident initially but comes completely unglued by the end of the episode.
Also include are over 20 minutes of deleted scenes for various episodes.