Anthology genre shows have made a comeback in recent years, but the return of Amazing Stories is one of the more exciting prospects of them all. Steven Spielberg’s original series aired for two seasons in the 1980s and won a bunch of Emmy awards, but its tenure was short-lived and it’s a shame that more episodes weren’t produced. Hopefully, the new Apple series has a longer shelf life.
Unlike the cautionary tales and darkness of shows like Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt, Amazing Stories brand of strange storytelling was often optimistic, which made for a refreshing change of pace for shows of this ilk. That said, as this list highlights, some episodes explored some less than hopeful subject matter, making for a series that was quite diverse and full of unpredictability.
Now that the new series is underway, I decided to revisit some of our favorite episodes from the show that started it all. We hope you check them out if you want some follow-up viewing after you’ve checked out the latest incarnation of the show.
Gather Ye Acorns
Mark Hamill stars as a high school graduate who has no interest in following life’s conventional routes. Instead of going to college and getting a job, he just wants to live free and relax because his outlook was informed by a mystical troll he met as a child. The creature told him to keep his childhood treasures as they’d pay off for him one day, but was that good advice? The years pass and the boy becomes an old man with suicidal thoughts and no money, but it might not be too late for him after all. “Gather Ye Acorns” is a thought-provoking episode that also taps into the collector culture fad that’s become prevalent throughout the years, and it’s bound to strike a chord with anyone who still values their geeky childhood possessions.
Directed by Spielberg, this story revolves around a kid, his grandpa, and a house that’s built on an old railway, which just so happens to be the route of a supernatural train. 75 years ago, the grandpa fell asleep on the railway while waiting on the train, causing it to crash and kill all of the passengers. Now that he’s back in town, he expects the train to return for him and take him to the afterlife. The episode is pure Spielberg, from its sentimental characters to the special effects-laden finale, and while it’s not as good as creepy as Poltergeist, “Ghost Train” is still an entertaining encounter of the spooky kind.
Martin Scorsese was one of several popular directors to lend his talents to an episode of Amazing Stories. It’s also one of the better horror-centric episodes in the entire canon, showcasing a side to the legendary filmmaker that he rarely shows. The tale revolves around a horror novelist who is haunted by a black-robed phantom who keeps appearing in the mirror, which causes the writer to lose his mind. What ensues is a tale of mystery that explores the idea of artists being unable to separate their working life and personal one. This was essentially a director-for-hire project for Scorsese after hitting a rough patch in the ‘80s, but it’s an entertaining episode that’s chock-full of suspense, and one which paved the way for some of the director’s subsequent flirtations with the horror genre such as Cape Fear, Bringing Out the Dead, and Shutter Island.
The Amazing Falsworth
In this one, the great Gregory Hines plays a nightclub psychic whose job involves him reading people’s minds while blindfolded. During one show, however, the psychic reads the thoughts of a serial killer who just happens to be in attendance, but he can’t identify the homicidal maniac due to the blindfold covering his eyes. He then teams up with a detective to track down the killer, and the episode culminates with one of the series’ great twist endings. “The Amazing Falsworth” is a suspenseful mystery that was clearly inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and it packs a lot of story into its brief running time.
This is a notable episode because it’s the only animated one in the entire original series, but it’s also one of the most memorable too. Furthermore, the bold stylistic move is backed up with some strong content, so anyone who’s worried about the episode being too out of place can relax. The beauty of Amazing Stories is that it’s quite all over the place at times. “Family Dog” is composed of three short stories, all of which revolve around a family dog, funnily enough. The best of the bunch is the final segment, which sees the pooch try to protect the family’s house from burglars. Like all of Brad Bird’s work, the animation is impressive, and the episode works as an animated sitcom told from the dog’s point of view, which is a neat idea. This episode also spawned its own spin-off show, which ran for 10 episodes in 1993.
Adapted from a story by Richard Matheson, “The Doll” stars John Lithgow — who won an Emmy for his performance — as a lonely man who develops an emotional connection to a doll. He eats meals with the doll and talks to it because he has no one else in his life, which on paper is quite a depressing premise. He also wants to find the woman that the doll is modeled after, which is quite a stalker-ish concept. This could easily have been the set-up to a horror story about a doll causing havoc or a man descending into madness, but the episode is optimistic, sentimental, and romantic territory instead. Lithgow’s character is written as a lonely person who’s easy to sympathize with, and the actor’s performance brings him to life in such an endearing way.
Go to the Head of the Class
In this episode, Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis reunited with Christopher Lloyd for a ghoulishly funny tale featuring black magic, spooky cemeteries, and decapitated heads. The story follows two teenagers who cast a spell on their mean old English teacher, only to regret their decision later on when his headless body seeks payback on the young rapscallions. With its thunder and lightning storms, creepy old houses, skeletons, and monstrous English teachers, “Go to the Head of the Class” feels like an episode of Tales from the Crypt, and it’s a helluva lot of fun, boasting an old school horror quality, coupled with some zany humor that’s reminiscent of Re-Animator and Evil Dead 2.
Dorothy and Ben
This episode bears some similarities to Twilight Zone’s “One for the Angels,” in the sense that both revolve around characters who give up their own lives to save children. In this one, a man awakens from a coma after 40 years and finds himself psychically linked to a little girl who’s currently in a coma of her own. He then proceeds to relay messages to her in order to coax her to continue fighting, but there are men in the psychic world who want to take her to the afterlife, and she’s tempted to go. The man knows what must be done in order to save her. This is a sad episode and perhaps the most emotional of the original series, but that’s also what makes it so fantastic.
Another Spielberg-helmed effort, this one takes place during World War II and stars Kevin Costner and Kiefer Sutherland. The story follows a gunner/aspiring cartoonist who gets stuck in his aircraft after a mission goes wrong. With time running out, he must rely on his imagination to get out of the terrible situation, which leads towards an ending that viewers will either find ludicrous or utterly charming. I am of the latter opinion, and can’t recommend this episode enough. The performances are all strong across the board, and there is an intense atmosphere throughout that makes for a very gripping experience.
One of the hallmarks of Amazing Stories is a strong and frequent reliance on comedy. It’s often subtle and warm, but sometimes the episodes go for bigger, broader laughs, and one of the best examples of that is the show’s fourth episode, “Mummy Daddy.” The setup is an example of brilliant simplicity — a horror movie actor in full mummy makeup leaves the shoot to rush to the hospital where his wife is giving birth, but not only do locals mistake him for the legendary mummy reputed to haunt the area but that real monster is newly awakened and not pleased with this imposter. The scenario sets up all manner of fun beats, and I still laugh aloud when the lead arrives on horseback to the hospital and ties off the beast to an old woman’s walker. From the punny title through the final look into the camera, it’s a fun ride into wonder that still holds up. (Rob Hunter)
Related Topics: Amazing Stories