Friday, July 4, 2014
Tales from the Darkside: Ursa Minor
In terms of execution, "Ursa Minor" resembles a classic Twilight Zone episode, "Living Doll." In that one, Telly Savalas plays a man who becomes convinced something is off about his stepdaughter's new Talky Tina doll. In fact, even the subtext, domestic turmoil between a husband and wife, is similar; the difference this time is it's the wife, Joan (Marilyn Jones), who becomes convinced something is off about her daughter's new stuffed toy. Meanwhile, the husband, Richard (Tim Carhart), is an irresponsible drunk who blacks out, falls asleep with a lit cigarette, and seems resentful that his wife is on a more stable career path (she's earning her master's in social work while his carpentry business is going nowhere).
Like "Living Doll," "Ursa Minor" doesn't do anything too fancy to show off whether the bear is actually sentient, at least not until the end. Most of the time, we don't see Teddy do anything. When something bad happens - a vase breaks, something is spilled - little Susie always says, "Teddy did it." This creates ambiguity: is Susie acting out when her parents aren't looking, or is Teddy really alive and mean? Not until Joan finds the trash can she stuffed Teddy in knocked over does she become completely convinced. By the time we see Teddy crawling across the bed to get to Susie, we're convinced, too.
In addition to keeping the bear off screen when it commits its crimes, "Ursa Minor" also makes effective use of shadows. The family's home is a creepy, dark place at night, and we sometimes see Teddy only illuminated by his evil, glowing eyes; it goes along way to cover up the fact Teddy is a cute and cuddly toy.
That all said, "Living Doll" is an infinitely superior effort of this type of story. The black-and-white cinematography is more effective, the performances are better, the story builds better, and a plastic, human-like doll that taunts and destroys a man is inherently creepier than a soft, adorable bear. "Ursa Minor" could also do to eliminate a scene in which a professor explains why the bear might be evil as well as come up with a better ending. Which is scarier? A giant, fake-looking bear claw swiping at the screen or a blank, emotionless doll saying, "My name is Talky Tina, and you better be nice to me."