Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Town Has Turned to Dust (1998)

Network: Sci-Fi Channel
Original Airdate: June 27th, 1998

Before the SyFy Channel (then Sci-Fi) produced A Town Has Turned to Dust in 1998, the original story and its many adaptations already had a long, and varied history. Originally conceived as a stage play about racial injustice, and inspired by the horrifying death of Emmett Till, Rod Serling wrote Noon on Doomsday, intending to showcase the power behind defying and inverting mob mentality to create a proper justice system. Although it was met with a bit of controversy, a recording of that play was produced by the United States Steel Hour and aired on April 25, 1956. This version was directed by Daniel Petrie and featured both Jack Warden and Lois Smith (I loves me some Lois!).

It was then restructured into a story about the lynching of a Mexican boy and how this act haunted the townspeople who did nothing to prevent it. This version, titled A Town Has Turned to Dust was produced as part of the Playhouse 90 series, and originally aired on June 19th, 1958. It also featured some fine people working on and off camera, including renowned director John Frankenheimer, and actors such as Rod Steiger, William Shatner and James Gregory, among others.

Then (are you following this?), Serling adapted his story yet again for a Twilight Zone episode titled Dust, which explores how the opportunistic prey on the desperate. This episode aired January 6th, 1961. (For more on Dust, check out Tom Elliot's amazing Twilight Zone podcast. Details with links can be found at the end of this review.)

Jump ahead some three decades later to a completely (well almost) unrelated event. In the early 1990s, the Sci-Fi Channel (I hate writing SyFy... whoops! There I go!) began producing original films, the first of which was titled Homewrecker (OAD: December 17, 1992), which debuted in their Planetary Premiere slot. The incredible Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls) directed this telefilm about a computer who falls in love with its programmer, and features Robby Benson as the aforementioned hottie coding nerd, and Kate Jackson as the voice of the computer! Not that this film fared so well critically, but, following in the footsteps of the USA Original, it is a reminder of the early days of cable and how they took a page out of the book of old school network programming.

So, with all of that in mind, sashay up to 1998 when Sci-Fi gave yet another nod to golden age TV and re-adapted A Town Has Turned to Dust, restructuring it yet again as a post-apocalyptic tale about a beaten down town divided by the indigenous peoples and the settlers seeking mob justice (and, ultimately, the price they pay for such an act).

Whew! That’s a lot of history for what is a fairly by the numbers, but arguably watchable, made for television movie that essentially came and went. Director Rob Nilsson was a bit of a indie film scene renegade, pioneering the video to film transfer, which would help revolutionize the digital filmmaking of today. I remember Nilsson’s Heat and Sunlight (1987), which was completely improvised, and shot in black and white. And while, quite honestly, I wasn’t all that taken with the film, it would seem Nilsson was an incredibly interesting choice to direct Town. At this point, he had never worked in television (and as far as I know, had not worked in the sci-fi genre either), and was an indie filmmaker who thought outside the box. What better way to re-introduce Serling’s work than with another outsider who had a better understanding of film as art than most workmanlike TV movie directors (not a slate against my TVM guys, just to be clear).

However, maybe that was the issue. TV movies have to accomplish big ideas with very little time or money. For his part, Nilsson assembled a great cast, which includes Ron Perlman, Judy Collins (!), and Stephen Lang, but while it seems fairly faithful to Serling’s story at least in terms of themes (in fact, Serling gets sole writing credit), it just doesn’t click the way it should. Subsequently, Town was met with mediocre reviews, both People magazine and Entertainment Weekly were less than impressed with the final product, with People aptly synopsizing Town as a “disappointing trip back to the future.”

So, what went wrong? It’s hard to pinpoint. Town is not necessarily a bad film, but it’s not very good either. It lacks pacing, and doesn’t have the emotional oomph it should, especially considering the rich subject matter and source material. Part of the problem stems from its futuristic setting, because even with all that neat red dust and dystopian imagery, the story feels completely dated. There is an awkward mix of apocalyptic towns dubbed “New Angeles” and that old school approach to the themes of race and class.

What it does have going for it though is genuine performances from all involved. Lang is particularly good, even if the character isn’t all that memorable, and Perlman is appropriately sleazy. It’s really too bad that things didn’t work out for Town because although it is playing with traditional beats, it unfortunately presents what seems to be a timeless tale of marginalization and the sad state of mob mentality. Perhaps Town is due for another retelling, but instead of trying to update the story with spiffy modern visuals, it should concentrate on its original inspiration and reflect on whether or not the world has changed much since Till’s death. Now, that would be a chilling tale.


This review was inspired by Tom Elliot's excellent Twilight Zone podcast. In the latest episode Tom takes an in-depth look at Dust, which is yet another adaptation of Town. You can download the episode via the site or through iTunes. (Also check out Tom's other podcast The Strange and Deadly Show while you're at it, cuz it's, like, the best thing ever!)