Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Twilight Zone: Long Distance Call

"Long Distance Call" is an effective, character-based thriller that doesn't overstay its welcome. I wouldn't call it one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it's suitably creepy and gets the job done. It never feels like it's straining for material.

The episode opens with a birthday celebration for little Billy (Bill Mumy) that involves his parents (Philip Abbott and Patricia Smith) and his grandmother (Lili Darvas). We see right away just how close and loving the relationship between Billy and his grandma is when she says refers to him as "my wonderful little boy who gave me life again." She gives him a toy telephone, "so you can always talk to Grandma, even she's not there." Before long, grandma dies, but Billy clings to the telephone, always speaking into it. When asked who he's talking to, he says Grandma.

We see and hear Billy talking into his phone quite a bit in this episode, but to the episode's credit, it never reveals whether Grandma really is speaking back to him, so it creates uncertainty. Is her spirit really communicating to her grandson from beyond the grave, or is this little boy, who doesn't fully grasp the nature of death, pretending and convincing himself she's really there and that she really wants him to join her? It would have been much less effective to have given her a raspy, scary voice because when Smith puts the receiver to her ear and then screams that she can hear Grandma's breathing on the other end, nothing can be scarier than what's being imagined.

It's so easy imagine how this story would have been padded if it were made today. There would probably be a lot of special effects and jump scares as Grandma would likely influence other objects to get a jolt out of the audience, and we would probably see her in spectral form. Instead, the episode wisely limits her presence to the phone. The big emotional payoff is when the skeptical Abbott, not knowing if this will work, clutches the phone and weepingly begs his mother not to take his son.

The characterization of the episode is strong. Billy loves his Grandma and is too naive realize what it means to speaking to her on a phone after her death or what trying to join her would entail. The parents have tension: Mom thinks the closeness Billy has to Grandma even before her death is disconcerting while Dad tries to be accepting, telling his wife that his mother lost two children before he was born (That's never explained, but judging from Darvas' European accent, I suspect she lost her other children during World War II).

Even Grandma, the ostensible, unseen, unheard villain, is sympathetic. A woman who has lost so much, she clings with all her might to the one thing, her grandchild, who has given her purpose and joy. If she is trying to reach out and take him with her, it's out of love, not evil. Somehow, that's even more frightening.

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