As we begin to close out season two of Monsters, producer Debra Hill directs one of the better episodes of the series so far, in spite of something of a shaggy dog ending. Hill is best known as John Carpenter’s early-career writing and producing partner, working with him on such classics as Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. This is one of only two directing credits under her belt, the other being an episode of the ‘90s TV series Dream On.
She’s also not the only interesting name behind the scenes of “Far Below.” The script is one of only two in this series by Michael McDowell, whose name will be familiar to longtime readers from some of the better episodes of Tales from the Darkside. And it’s adapted from the most famous story by Robert Barbour Johnson, a particularly Lovecraftian bit of ghoulery originally published in Weird Tales in 1939 and anthologized at least as recently as Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s doorstop survey of the form, The Weird. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McDowell follows the original story pretty closely, to the point of lifting some of the dialogue, though the story’s ending – while similar – is carried off much better there.
In front of the camera, most of the heavy lifting is done by Barry Nelson, a veteran character actor since the ‘40s who may be most familiar to modern audiences for his turn as the hotel manager in The Shining. Well, him and the monsters, of course. As befits “giant carrion-feeding, subterranean moles” with humanoid characteristics, the monsters mostly look like the Morlocks from the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. There are worse designs to rip off.
As in the original story, which is worth tracking down, the plot concerns a special security detail that controls a small stretch of the New York City subway system. The expensive and high-tech operation is necessary because the stretch of subway is home to the aforementioned monsters, who don’t seem to venture much beyond it, which is good for everyone involved.
That the next episode can’t compete is more a testament to how good “Far Below” is than a condemnation of “Micro Minds,” which comes to us courtesy of a couple of series regulars. D. Emerson Smith only has three writing credits on IMDb, and they’re all for episodes of Monsters. “The Mother Instinct,” back in season one, this episode, and “The Gift,” which we’ll get to in a bit. It’s directed by Anthony Santa Croce, producer on some 28 episodes of Monsters – and 40 of Tales from the Darkside!
The plot will be familiar enough to anyone who has seen the “Genesis Tub” segment of The Simpsons episode “Treehouse of Horror VII,” which, in turn, borrowed ideas from the 1962 Twilight Zone episode “The Little People.” In it, two scientists find that the transmissions they think they’re receiving from outer space are actually from the cooling tank of their radio telescope, where microscopic lifeforms have evolved advanced intelligence. What goes on from there will not be surprising at all to anyone familiar with either of the stories I’ve already mentioned.
“Refugee” is yet another noir-inflected episode about Satanic minions come to collect their due, this time set against the backdrop of the Cold War. It comes to us from the word processor of a regular of these kinds of shows. This may be the first (but not last) time that Haskell Barkin’s name has been found in the credits of Monsters, but he also penned episodes of Tales from the Darkside and the reboot of The Twilight Zone.
In “The Gift,” a rich kid from a fancy prep school (implied) is held for ransom by a pair of sub-Coen Brothers criminals, one of whom is played by Abe Vigoda. They are hiding out in a cabin in the woods, the basement of which somewhat inexplicably contains a nearly-immortal beast-man who can communicate with the kid telepathically, explaining how he came to be in that situation, and how the kid might escape his own bondage. It’s an odd setup for the last episode from screenwriter D. Emerson Smith, who we were just discussing.
The premise of “The Bargain” is more straightforward. Kim Greist (C.H.U.D., Manhunter) plays a lonely bookstore owner who trades the thing that matters most to her in the world for a new face that will allow her to win over the man she loves – a regular customer who never seems to notice her. Of course, this is a “be careful what you wish for” deal, with a sting in the tail. Though the story itself is no great shakes, it’s executed with humanity and restraint, making for one of the better episodes of the series so far.
What makes “The Bargain” particularly interesting is that it was written and directed by offbeat character actor Tom Noonan, himself no stranger to playing outcasts and even monsters in plenty of movies – he was Frankenstein’s creation in The Monster Squad, for example. It’s also not the only episode that Noonan penned and helmed. He’s got an episode in season three that I’ll be looking forward to, based on how good this one was.
It seems like there is probably some subtext at work in the rather unspectacular episode that closes out season two. “The Family Man” sees a young boy putting on his deceased father’s old glasses and, through them, seeing the reptilian “true nature” of his mother’s new boyfriend. Like I said, there’s some unpacking to do there, but the episode seems mostly uninterested in doing it, and is a relatively forgettable end to the second season, despite some adequate creature makeup.
We’ve only got one season of Monsters left to go, dear readers. So far, it has been a reliable – and also reliably middling – series. Can it pull out a real “killer app” in season three, or is it destined to always be an also-ran to Tales from the Darkside? Tune in next time and we’ll try to find out!
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.