Thursday, January 24, 2013
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Special Delivery
I've been watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes lately. Like the Twilight Zone, the half hours are ideal for watching late at night just before sleeping. And guessing the twist is actually an enjoyable as well as useful mental exercise.
Recently I watched the 1959 episode "Special Delivery":
Bill and Cynthia, a Ward-and-June Cleaverish suburban couple, get a special delivery package from the mailman -- although it's actually for their preteen son Tommy. It's a packet of mushrooms from a company in the bayous of Louisiana, and soon Tommy is growing mushrooms in the family's basement -- indeed, it seems all the neighborhood kids are doing it. Eventually it becomes clear that something very sinister is going on with these kids and their mushrooms, climaxing in a showdown between Bill and a no-longer-so Beaver Cleaverish Tommy.
Early on watching this episode, when neighbor Roger is telling Bill of his suspicions about the mushrooms, before I ever saw the credits, I began to get a deja vu feeling -- the overpoetic, unnatural dialogue was reminding me of The Martian Chronicles. Ray Bradbury has a tendency toward that. Soon when the plot twist became clear I realized it was essentially a reworking of Bradbury's famous "Zero Hour", which had been dramatized several times on radio. You can hear one version here, from the classic series X Minus 1: http://tinyurl.com/bksqnzd. The ending of "Zero Hour" is one of old time radio's greatest moments, fully the equal of Sorry Wrong Number. "Special Delivery's" climax is very spooky -- "Zero Hour's" is blood-chillingly terrifying.
I watched the credits for "Special Delivery" and yes, Bradbury was there -- as the teleplay writer. There was no story credit. I wonder if the AHP brain trust of producer Norman Lloyd (who also directed) and executive producer Joan Harrison wanted to do "Zero Hour" but couldn't get the rights, and had Bradbury provide this variation instead.
Viewers of Special Delivery will note the not- entirely-passing resemblance to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. As it happens Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers was published in 1955, while "Zero Hour" had appeared in Bradbury's collection The Illustrated Man in 1951 (for those curious about John Wyndham's similarly-themed novel The Midwich Cuckoos -- filmed as Village Of The Damned -- it was published in 1957).
Portraying a child as villainous was not completely unknown in films: There was These Three (an adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour) in 1936, with a teenage girl maliciously spreading gossip, and the anti-Nazi propaganda piece Tomorrow The World in 1944, in which a German product of the Hitler Youth comes to live in prewar America and wreaks havoc on a nice upper- class household. But these were presented as freakish, isolated cases, a treatment also given to
the much later play and film of The Bad Seed in 1956. In "Zero Hour"/"Special Delivery" the villain is not simply a child but CHILDREN themselves, as a group -- a fascinating twist in the era of Baby Booming, Dr. Spock, and 2.3 kids for every split-level ranch-style in the sparkling new suburban paradise.