Monday, March 26, 2012

Book to Movie: Night Call (1964)

Book to Movie: Night Call (1964)
Based on the short story, Long Distance Call by Richard Matheson
The Twilight Zone, Season Five, Episode 9
Original Air Date: February 7, 1964

By season five of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was burning out on the show. He told one interview by the time the show had reached its fifth season, which was a long run for a television show in the early days of TV, he could not tell a good script from a bad script anymore.

I think Serling was being hypercritical of himself and his fellow writer because I would rank it as the show’s finest season and the Episode Night Call as the show’s finer attempts at pure horror.

Matheson adapted his short story, Long Distance Call, into a 24 minute script. He changed the twist at the ending to fit the Twilight Zone motif, and made one of the better episodes of horror television I’ve ever seen. It was so far out of character for the show that, although I knew I had seen a television adaptation of the story upon reading it, I could not recall which show it was, thinking perhaps it was Thriller.

Just as in his short story, an old, infirm woman starts receiving strange phone calls at night. At first, there is silence on the line. She calls the telephone company who tells her a storm has knocked down lines and she is probably receiving errant phone calls. They assure her the problem will be fixed soon.

The calls continue. Instead of silence, there is a man’s distorted voice on the line, saying hello to her. She is frantic and frightened. She pesters the phone company to find out who it is calling her and to repair the line.

In the book, the calls start to become menacing. However, in Matheson’s script, there is only a the attempt to communicate. She finally tells the caller, “Never call here again!” and hangs up.

The next day, the phone company calls her to tell her they have located the problem. The old lady asks who was calling her. The operator says it is impossible for anyone to have spoken to her from the downed line because there is nobody at that location. That location, the operator tells her, is the cemetery.

Matheson’s story ends with one final phone call where the voice on the line assures her he “will be right over. . .” Matheson’s teleplay twists the story to give it a less chilling, but more shocking ending.

The old woman and her nurse travel to the cemetery. They locate the downed line. It is draped over the headstone of a man named Brian Douglas. Brian, the old woman tells her nurse, was her fiancĂ©. He died a week before they were to be married. They were in a car accident together. She was driving and survived. He did not. “He would always do whatever I told him to,” she recalls fondly.

That night the phone rings. Instead of dread, the old lady answers it with anticipation, hoping to talk to her long lost love. She picks it up and screams, “Talk to me!” The voice replies, “I always do what you tell me,” and hangs up. She remembers bitterly her admonition to not call her again. She is left plaintively crying for Brian to talk to her.

The fifth and final season of Twilight Zone was not the subpar effort Serling thought it was. Many of the episodes I recall fondly from my childhood were in this season including Matheson’s Steel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Other great episodes include The Old Man in the Cave, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge based on the superb Ambrose Bierce story, Living Doll, and I am the Night – Color Me Black. The rock band, Rush, memorialized A Stopover in a Quiet Town in their song off the 2112 album, Twilight Zone. The best of the season, and in my opinion the best episode of all time, aired in the fifth season. That was Probe Seven, Over and Out.

Matheson was a master at adapting works to the big and small screen. He knew where to make changes to adapt the story, what to leave alone, what dialogue belonged and what didn’t. While Night Call might not be the finest example of this, it is perhaps the most textbook example of Matheson’s mastery of screen writing adaptation.

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