Monday, April 23, 2012

"Nightmare as a Child"

Image from a nightmare: Janice Rule as Helen Foley and Terry Burnham as Markie
“Nightmare as a Child”
Season One, Episode 29
Original airdate: April 29, 1960

Cast:
Helen Foley: Janice Rule
Markie: Terry Burnham
Peter Selden: Shepperd Strudwick
The Doctor: Michael Fox
Police Lieutenant: Joe Perry
Little Girl on Stairs: Suzanne Cupito

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling 
Director: Alvin Ganzer
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: Don Klune
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Philip Mitchell 
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week, you’ll spend a few rather unforgettable hours in this living room watching Miss Janice Rule and Mr. Shepperd Strudwick partake of a dramatic delicacy that is one part nursery rhyme, one part terror.  This is designed for those of you who are getting too much sleep.  Next week on the Twilight Zone, ‘Nightmare as a Child.’  I hope we’ll see you then.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Month of November…hot chocolate…and a small cameo of a child’s face—imperfect only in its solemnity.  And these are the improbable ingredients to a human emotion...an emotion, say, like fear.  But in a moment, this woman, Helen Foley, will realize fear.  She will understand what are the properties of terror.  A little girl will lead her by the hand and walk with her into a nightmare.”

Summary:
Helen Foley is a young school teacher who lives a quiet existence alone in her small apartment.  Upon entering her apartment building one day, she encounters a little girl sitting in the stairwell in front on her apartment door humming a nursery rhyme.  She strikes up a conversation with the girl and invites her in for some hot chocolate.  Once inside, Foley immediately begins to feel uncomfortable her.  The girl says her name is Markie and that she lives in the building.  She begins to interrogate Foley by asking her about her childhood.  She seems to know a great deal about her like, for instance, how she got the scar on her arm.  Foley admits to Markie that she does not remember much about her childhood due to a highly traumatic incident she witnessed as a little girl.  Markie asks Foley about the man she saw in town today even though Foley has not mentioned him.
                During their conversation the man in question arrives at Foley’s door.  Before she is able to let him in Markie runs out the back door.  Foley opens the door and the man invites himself in.  His name is Peter Seldon and he was a friend of Foley’s late mother, who was murdered right in front of Foley when she was only a child.  He asks her if she remembers him at all and Foley tells him she doesn’t.  After her mother’s death she moved away to live with relatives and has only recently moved back.  Foley then hears the faint sounds of a child singing somewhere in the building and she recognizes it as Markie’s voice.  She asks Selden if he hears it but he says he doesn’t.  She tells him about the conversation she had with Markie just prior to him arriving at the apartment.  He tells her that “Markie” was her nickname as a child and he shows her a picture of herself when she was young.  The girl in the photograph is unmistakably Markie.  Seldon tells Foley goodbye and takes his leave.
                Some time later, Markie returns.  Again, she begins her rigid interrogation of Foley.  Irritated, Foley suggests that perhaps it’s time Markie went home to her mother.  Markie tells her that she has no mother, at least not anymore.  After pressing Foley even harder to come to a realization, Markie raises the curtain on the mystery and tells Foley that they are, in fact, the same person.  Not emotionally able to cope with the realization that Markie is not a real child but only a frightening manifestation of herself as a child, Foley collapses on the floor, weeping.  When she finally looks up she sees Seldon standing over her.   He informs Foley that she has been living in ignorance for far too long.  He confesses that he was the one who killed her mother.  After discovering that Sheldon was pocketing money from the place where they both worked, Foley’s mother told him that she was going to notify the police.  Enraged, he strangled her to death right in front of eight-year-old Foley causing to child to scream with terror.  Neighbors rushed over before he was able to kill the child.  Afterwards, Seldon learned that Foley did not remember anything about the incident.  So he waited.  One day the pieces would come together for her.
                Realizing that her life is in danger, Foley rushes out of the apartment and into the hallway.  Seldon runs after her and they struggle intensely before he loses his balance and tumbles down the stairs, snapping his neck before landing face down on the floor below.
                Afterwards, after the police and other emergency officials leave, Foley hears the sounds of a child singing just outside her door.  Hesitantly, she opens a door sees a little girl seated on the stairs.  To her relief, it’s not Markie.  She tells the girl that she has a beautiful smile, and that she hopes it’s with her always.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Miss Helen Foley, who has lived in night and who will wake up morning.  Miss Helen Foley, who took a dark spot from the tapestry of her life and rubbed it clean-then stepped back and got a good look at the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
Episode 29 of The Twilight Zone offers a bizarre story of psychological confrontation.  “Nightmare as a Child” is quite similar to several other Serling episodes that examine the realm of suppressed emotional turmoil, most notably Season Three’s “The Arrival” and Season Two’s “King Nine Will Not Return.”  As with these episodes, “Nightmare” is almost entirely devoid of any supernatural elements because much of the action takes place in Foley’s mind.  Serling may have been inspired by Truman Capote’s 1946 O. Henry Award-winning story “Miriam” when he wrote this episode.  While the two stories are different in many ways there are also quite a few similarities between them, and chances are that Capote’s psychoanalytical story of identity crisis would have appealed to Serling for it is a theme that can be found throughout his work on The Twilight Zone—“The After Hours,” “Judgment Night,” “The Lateness of the Hour” and “Where Is Everybody?” are only a few of the episodes written by Serling that explore the world of mistaken identity.  Capote’s story centers around a sheepish, soft-spoken woman named Mrs. Miller who meets a young girl named Miriam one day at a movie theatre.  Coincidentally, Mrs. Miller’s first name is also Miriam.  The next day the girl shows up at Mrs. Miller’s apartment; Mrs. Miller is a widow and lives alone.  She invites Miriam into her apartment and for the rest of the story the young girl verbally berates and antagonizes her host to the point of tears.  Terrified of her, Mrs. Miller runs downstairs to the apartment of a young couple whom she does not know and tells them about the horrible child who refuses to leave her alone.  The man goes over to her apartment to check on Miriam but when he returns he claims not to have seen her anywhere.  Reluctantly, Mrs. Miller returns to her apartment, realizing that there is no Miriam and that she might possibly be losing her mind.  She sits down on the couch and closes her eyes and after deliberating on her sanity for some time she suddenly hears the sound of a bureau drawer opening and closing and silk being ruffled.  Then she opens her eyes.  The last line of the story, “’Hello,’ said Miriam.” is ambiguous because Capote does not specify whether it is spoken the young girl or Mrs. Miller.  While Serling’s story is different in terms of plot, being a fully realized story versus “Miriam” which is more of a character sketch, thematically these stories are very similar.  Both of them concern women who have experienced the loss of someone close, in Mrs. Miller’s case it’s her husband and for Helen Foley, her mother.  Foley’s fear of confronting her mother’s murder has manifested itself into the image of Markie while Mrs. Miller’s overbearing loneliness and uninspired lifestyle may be the cause for her mental hallucination.  But Serling’s story is far less ambiguous and it places a solid link between the character of Peter Seldon and the reason for Helen Foley’s mental breakdown.  And while this episode may or may not have been based on Capote’s story, the similarities between the two stories are interesting just the same. 
                While this episode does achieve a chilling atmosphere, for the most part it seems to fall flat.  It’s a story that most likely worked well in Serling’s original script but when transferred to film it loses much of its desired effect.  For one thing, it is quite apparent almost from the moment she first appears on screen that Markie is a younger incarnation of Helen Foley.  Likewise, from the moment we first see Peter Seldon and listen to his story we are absolutely certain that he is in some way responsible for the murder of Foley’s mother.  This appears to be done intentionally by Serling in order to heighten suspense and make Foley a vulnerable protagonist.  Not a terribly bad plot structure at all but, once again, it seems to lose much of its effectiveness on the screen and instead of looking vulnerable Foley comes off as painfully naïve and unsympathetic.  There are also several times during this episode where Serling unnecessarily explains the plot to the audience which, in many ways, shatters the subtlety of the story.
                But even if this episode does fall short in many places it’s saved by the delicate, dreamlike atmosphere created by director Alvin Ganzer and composer Jerry Goldsmith.  Ganzer already had two episodes of The Zone on his resume, “The Hitch Hiker” and “What You Need,” both of which have the same ethereal quality found in “Nightmare as a Child.”  As this episode has a great deal of dialogue, Ganzer chose to minimalize Goldsmith’s score and keep most of the scenes very quiet which cloaks this episode in a dreamlike haze and makes the scenes with music that much more effective.

Shepperd Strudwick as the horrible Peter Seldon
                Of the three leading roles in this episode the one that obviously stands out to most viewers is that of Markie played by Terry Burnham.  She never shows any restraint in her interrogative discourse with Foley and her character is the most frightening thing about this episode.  Burnham enjoyed mild success as a child actress in the 1960’s but seems to have abandoned acting upon entering adulthood in the early 1970’s.  Janice Rule turns in an adequate performance here as Helen Foley.  Rule enjoyed a fairly versatile career in television, film and on Broadway.  Because she was known for rebelling against the sexism of the Hollywood studio system in 1950’s, she was often given roles portraying strong, independent women.  She bounced easily from comedy to drama and her notable films include Bell, Book and Candle (1958) with James Stewart and Kim Novak, The Chase (1966) with Marlon Brando, The Swimmer (1968) with Burt Lancaster and 3 Women (1977) with Shelley Duval and Sissy Spacek.  She died in 2003 at the age of 72.  Character actor Sheppard Strudwick, sometimes appearing under the name John Sheppard, garnered his reputation on Broadway before moving to Hollywood in the early 1930’s.  Given his dark, chiseled facial features and chilling voice he often played villains or other visceral-type characters and despite a very successful theatre career he never achieved leading-man status in Hollywood.   He appeared as Edgar Allan Poe in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) and in the Hollywood classics Joan of Arc (1948), All the King’s Men (1949) and A Place in the Sun (1951).  He died in 1983 at the age of 75.
                While it is not generally considered a memorable first season episode, “Nightmare as a Child” does have moments of heightened suspense that are as chilling as some of the more well-known episodes.  It is an interesting take on what would be a prevailing theme of the series.

Grade: C

Notes:
--Rod Serling named the main character, Helen Foley, after his favorite high school English teacher.  Richard Matheson would later borrow this name for Kathleen Quinlan’s character when writing the script for Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983).
--Joe Perry also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Midnight Never Ends."
--Alvin Ganzer also directed the Season One episodes “What You Need,” “The Hitch-Hiker,” and “The Mighty Casey.”
--"Nightmare as a Child" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bonnie Sommerville.

--Brian Durant

8 comments:

  1. This was never one of my favorite episodes. I always found it too obvious. Nice writeup, though, and the possible connection with the Capote story is intriguing.

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  2. Thanks, Jack. And I agree that this episode falls short in comparison with most of the episodes from Season One. Whether or not Serling based it on Capote's story will most likely remain a mystery, but the comparison is still interesting.

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  3. How did she get the burn scar? It wasn't revealed in the story nor in the commentary.

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    1. No, Serling never reveals how she got the scar. I assume she simply suppressed it from her memory due to her childhood trauma.

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  4. This could have been a great episode if the script had been better worked out. Whether influenced by the Truman Capote story or not it has legs of its own, but one of Rod Serling's greatest weaknesses as writer are fully on display here: his lack of subtlety, maybe even sophistication. He was a worldly man but not smooth as a writer. Even when he had a great idea by the throat he had a way of strangling it (mixed metaphor, that).

    Nightmare As A Child is for all its flaws an episode I do like even as I see what's bad about it. I don't care for Janice Rule's performance, and she wears way too much eye makeup. She lacks the vulnerability that Inger Stevens and Anne Francis had in their episodes, and that's absolutely essential for the main character to work: to draw on audience empathy. The expert performances from little Terry Burnham and creepy Sheppard Strudwick make up for this somewhat. Strudwick really shines, with a kind of black light, at the George Macready level, making me wish he'd done more work in film and on television.

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  5. I agree with you that it has the potential to be a solid, original episode even if it was influenced by the Capote story but unfortunately it never gets the opportunity. The plot is too obscure, the pace too slow, and the main character way, way too stuffy. Rule wasn't right for this character at all. In fact, out of all the characters in the episode I like her the least simply because she looks so frigid. As for Serling, he did often have trouble, especially with fantasy, penning a tight, sharp story with no loose ends. But what he sometimes lacks in plot structure he usually makes up for with sympathetic characters and crisp, powerful dialogue which gives his work a familiar and often warm atmosphere. But this story is definitely an exception for his script doesn't help this episode in any way.

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  6. I've never understood the significance of Seldon saying he'd had a crush on Markie. He was clearly too much older than she.

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  7. I'm not really sure about this one either. It may just be a quick way for Serling to influence the audience's opinion of him. Thanks for the comment!

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