King of the Road (4.9)
“I don’t know who you are, but I don’t like you.”
WHAT IS IT?
A retired hot rod racer gets dragged back into the life when a hotshot young thug drives into town looking to prove himself against the best.
The casting is quite possibly the best you’ve ever seen on this show. The two central figures are played by Brad Pitt, one year shy of his breakout Thelma and Louise performance, and Raymond J Barry, a terrific character actor recently excellent as the messed up hard ass father of both Dewey Cox and Raylan Givens. As if to counter this retroactively amazing pairing, Crypt has rehired, for the last time, its worst director, Tom Holland (he of Childs Play, Fright Night, and lots of other much more terrible things, including the shitbox episodes “Four Sided Triangle” and “Lover Come Hack To Me”). The writer wrote The Doors, and some other stuff. But who cares about him?
HOW IS IT?
I was looking forward to revisiting this one. I didn’t remember anything about it other than the cast and the basic premise, and those two things are top shelf. Just those two actors playing these archetypical roles should make for a pretty good episode on intensity alone. Barry in a too-rare leading role as a small town sheriff with a hidden past as the king of illegal street racing? Hell, that sounds great. Pitt as a psychopathic young drag racer trying to prove himself Barry’s heir apparent, and willing to kill or fuck anything that gets in his way? Well shit, that sounds even better. How could this one not be kickass, in its gruff early 90s TV kind of way?
Crypt comes up with an ingenious answer to that. They hired Tom Holland. Now to be fair, the script is the drabbest and most generic version of this story possible, and it imposed a ceiling on just how good this one could get, but Holland does far worse to it. On the basis of his Crypt work, he really seems to be about as bad as they get, and indeed, this episode is a veritable case study in how to make something boring. From the terrible camera placement to the tension-eradicating editing choices to the underlit setpieces with no sense of geography to the overlong establishing shots to the utter disinterest in drag racing, as an actual culture or a narrative device, everything Holland does seems to undercut the fun of an easy slam dunk premise. If you want to see some shitty directing, this is almost a class in it. But the worst crime, abetted by the script, is that we never get to know these characters at all. Hell, I wasn’t even sure who we were supposed to be rooting for until Brad Pitt threatens to kill Barry’s daughter, and that happens with like five minutes left.
It starts off all right, with Brad Pitt drag racing. I thought the sequence is meant to evoke Rebel Without a Cause, but I’m kind of second guessing that now. It’s too specific a reference and this isn’t Zemeckis directing (in fact, the whole episode seems meant to evoke soulful 50s teenager melodrama, but it can’t really be bothered with committing to that. I’d say it was something that existed in a previous draft, but I very much doubt this script had drafts). Pitt is playing Billy (as in The Kid), and he sort of/not really kills off his rival. It looks more like the other racer just freaked out and lost control of his car, but whatever. In one of the few moments of characterization, Billy sports a plastic skull with glowing eyes on his stick shift, nailing the ‘Pee Wee Herman’s bike’ aesthetic I’m sure they were going for.
Billy hunts down Sheriff Joe Garrett (Barry), a single father with a teenage daughter hiding a deeply checkered past as the Iceman, a dangerous hot rod racer, and also avoiding a manslaughter charge. Even the nickname Iceman is punishingly generic. Joe plays dumb, but Billy is convinced its him. Billy uses fast driving and his smoldery Brad Pitt-ness to seduce Joe’s daughter Carey (Michelle Bronson, remarkably unremarkable), and as she’s been spatting with Dad lately, she’s all for it. Then, pretty much nothing happens for ten minutes. There is one nice(ish) moment where Billy puts blackmail information and a live tarantula in Joe’s mailbox, which leads to a damn good barefoot spider guts squib, but that’s kind of it for a while.
Basically, the plot is about Billy slowly manipulating Joe into getting back into a car and racing him (to death!). He uses manslaughter blackmail and tricks Carey into falling for him all in order to force the confrontation. When he finally threatens his daughter, Joe agrees to it, goes and picks up his old drag racer from the landlord in Big Lebowski, and meets Billy out in the middle of nowhere. There’s some pointing of guns business and finally, after twenty five minutes of build up, they get down to it. The race last about 100 yards, at which point Joe slams on the breaks and Billy flies into a parked bulldozer, which I guess he couldn’t see because the scene is (horribly) shot at night. This is staged in such a way that it’s implied Joe outwitted Billy into killing himself on the bulldozer, but aside from not slamming directly into it, there’s nothing Joe actually did to accomplish this. Hell, it’s not even a blind turn or something. It’s just a bulldozer right in front of them. So Billy dies, blowing up his car, and there is no twist or revelation of any kind.
Like the last episode Showdown, this was intended to be part of the Two Fisted Tales spin off show, a much more action-based pulp show, and on the basis of the three produced episodes, Two Fisted Tales might well have sucked. Zemeckis’s Yellow is pretty good, but these two are just inert craps. And more frustrating, they both have the DNA to be excellent episodes. I’ll reserve judgement because they’re bracketed by some damn solid Crypt episodes before (New Arrival, On a Deadman’s Chest) and after (Split Personality), and they’re from a different show all together, technically, but it’s episodes like this that make Crypt, here in the fourth season, feel like a show in decline. Early episodes could be terrible, but they were a lot more fun terrible than these. But still, there is a bit of a charge to be had from seeing this cast. Had John Carpenter gotten a shot at this one, it could have been one of the best in the series. As it is, it’s sort of fun to see Brad Pitt in a TV Horror anthology, with a high-pitched youngster voice and floppy hair.
DOES IT HATE WOMEN?
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*In an episode that might actually have benefitted from some 80s style synth, they don’t have any. Instead, Warren Zevon provides the music, which is odd, but also bad. It just sounds like butt rock laid over the video, and it kind of sucks.
*The Crypt Keeper usually has some thematic tie to the episode’s contents, but in this one, he’s just going on and on about his amateur Shakespearean theater group. It’s weird, because it would have fit so well on last season’s Top Billing, but it couldn’t be a worse fit for this episode.
*The wrong kid died!
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“The group has decided to do something classical. We’re trying to choose between A Midsummer Night’s Scream and Ghoulius Caesar!”
Yeah, John pretty much nailed it. They go for kind of a Cape Fear thing with Billy terrorizing Joe and his daughter, but no tension is ever achieved. Pretty much all I enjoyed was watching Pitt go crazy (giving a kind of prototype of the performance he’d later go onto perfect in Twelve Monkeys) and a “training montage” (of sorts) set to a song Warren Zevon wrote specifically for the episode. John’s right that it’s a pretty crappy song, but it’s just cheesy enough to be fun and just rare enough that I’d never heard it, despite being a fairly big Zevon fan.