Mom's mantra was a rhetorical question: “Why don't you go outside and play?” If only little Stevie King's mother had asked the same question of him, and been more persistent about shoving him outdoors. Then little Stevie might have lost all interest in dreaming up foolish, spooky schlock and become not a writer but, oh, a great garbage, butterfly or income tax collector instead.
But we can't go back in time and so, every 90 days or so (at least that's how it seems), television emits yet another movie, TV series or miniseries based on a novel, short story, grocery list or doodle by Stephen King.
Yet for all that carping and caviling, allow me to concede an exception to the rule -- namely “Battleground,” the opening installment in the new TNT anthology “Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King.” “Battleground” (to be followed by another King story) is a luminous chunk of sparkling dark crystal, a devilishly haunting gem polished to near-perfection by director Brian Henson and adapting writer Richard Christian Matheson.
What did Matheson adapt? On the surface, those with very good TV memories might think he adapted a rip-off; it's not as if King's ideas all resonate with originality. The primal tale — about a tiny army of toy soldiers waging war on a big, bad man who killed a crusty old toymaker — is strikingly reminiscent of “Amelia,” the third story in a TV-movie called “Trilogy of Terror,” produced by Dan Curtis for ABC in 1975.
Yes, children, we had TV in 1975.
Karen Black played the title role, a woman living alone in a small apartment who receives a mysterious gift in an unmarked box: a fetish doll, maybe six inches tall, from some primitive culture. It carries a nasty little spear and perpetually flashes a set of spiky choppers. One night the doll comes vindictively to life, and the film consists mainly of Amelia's efforts to survive the night with it chasing her over, under, around and through the furniture and hallways. And she in her bare feet, besides.
(And yes, in addition to its obvious “Gulliver's Travels” antecedent, the “Amelia” story had similarities to a famous “Twilight Zone” episode in which Agnes Moorehead, armed only with household items, battled itsy-bitsy invaders from another planet whose toylike space craft landed on her roof.)
Anyway, before any lawyers start drawing up plagiarism cases, the whole story is sort of all in the family. Richard Christian Matheson, it happens, is the son of Richard Matheson, one of the most brilliant and inventive of all sci-fi writers and a frequent “Zone” contributor (“Nightmare at 10,000 Feet”). He is also the writer who made "Amelia" such a fine finish to Curtis's “Terror” trilogy. In homage to Matheson and the original movie, the filmmakers include a shot or two of the fetish doll sitting on a shelf; if you saw the original “Trilogy of Terror,” you'll likely recognize it immediately even though its appearances are brief.
The little monster made a big impression.
“Battleground” has other distinctions. It stars William Hurt, who doesn't do a lot of television work, and it tells its hour-long story without any dialogue from the main characters. When Hurt, at the airport, stops to watch a newscast on a TV set, in fact, the sound's been turned down and the closed captions turned on, so we don't even hear the anchor talk.
The story opens in Dallas, where the hit man and espionage artist whom Hurt plays — mainly via a series of grunts and groans of pain — sneaks into the office of toy magnate Hans Morris and, in addition to pilfering an innovative invention, shoots four bullets into poor Hans's chest. But the toy community, it seems, has excellent communications. Hurt gets back to his astonishingly gorgeous apartment (the film was shot in Australia and thereabouts) and finds a mysterious package waiting. It contains not a fetish doll but a cute army of toy green soldiers.
Cute — but not so cute they wouldn't shoot a hole in your chest if they could aim their bazooka just right.
The special effects, which really do make or break the thing, are delightful — in a sinister sort of way. One could recommend the film to older, thrill-seeking children, but with a caveat: There are long, gruesome close-ups of Hurt's growing garden of wounds. Pretty soon, his face has so many scars he looks like the evil Chucky doll from the most recent “Child's Play” movie.
Hurt throws himself into this captivating nuttiness and is even obliging enough to turn a Coca-Cola bottle so that its logo faces the camera (and another product placement is thus consummated). “Battleground,” which will air without commercials, doesn't rank as some impressionistic TV masterpiece, but at least it shouldn't leave you cursing the name of Stephen King and the fortunes he has made.
For the record, TNT says “Battleground” originated in a 1978 King short-story collection called "Nightshift." That would be three years after “Trilogy of Terror” aired on ABC and the toothy fetish doll chased poor Ms. Black hither, thither and everywhere else. Coincidental, or copycatty? Truth — or fiction? Genius — or big thief?
The world may never know.