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AMAD Special Tribute: PHANTASM’s Don Coscarelli on bizarre sci-fi horror flick THE TWONKY (1953)!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s Special Tribute A Movie A Day entry, the fifth of six total, this time from Don Coscarelli, who not only one of my favorite filmmakers, but one of my favorite people. He’s famous for his PHANTASM films as well as the ‘80s gem BEASTMASTER and, more recently, the great indie horror comedy BUBBA HO-TEP. He enthusiastically responded to contributing an entry into this special run of AMADs. Now, he’s bending the rules a bit. He is reviewing a film he has already seen, but hasn’t seen since childhood. I personally think it’s a fascinating angle for a review, looking back past nostalgia and viewing a film through adult eyes, without the forgiving fog of memory. The movie he chose was THE TWONKY, a film not readily available on (legal) DVD about a killer… well, you’ll see. Here’s Don!

The scariest movie I ever saw? I was in third grade. I saw it on TV. I tuned in late so I didn’t even know the name of the movie and that made the experience even more creepy. The star, Hans Conried, was the familiar host of a show of silent comedy shorts called “Fractured Flickers’. He was all over TV playing comic characters every day in shows from “Gilligan’s Island” to “I Love Lucy.” That’s what lulled me into watching this movie. I was expecting an average kid-level comedy, with a familiar star, but what I got instead was weird and strange and scary. All these decades later I have never seen this movie again…anywhere. Not on TV, cable or DVD. It just disappeared. For years I thought I might have completely imagined the movie myself, that it wasn’t real. My memory is that the movie was about this college professor who finds strange things going on with his television set. The television set even had a name… “The Twonky.” At first it appeared to be just a regular TV set. The thing was, this Twonky had a mind of its own… it talked, it even walked on these spindly wooden legs. My dim recollection is that it might have even been an alien in the form of a television set. The Twonky took over this poor sap’s life. Imagine a relentless, walking, talking TV set out to get you.

Well, ImdB informed me that it was, indeed, a real movie. Made in 1953 and directed by Arch Oboler. As far as I could tell it never had been released on VHS or DVD. So now, thanks to Quint, and a bootlegger on ebay, I must sit in a dark room, face my fears and revisit The Twonky as an adult. Here goes… … … … OK, I survived. What a trip! Not exactly as I remembered…and the effects aren’t scary from a modern adult point of view… but wow, “The Twonky” is one downright weirdass movie! The director and screenwriter, Arch Oboler, was a celebrated writer for radio and was notorious for his hit horror radio show in the 30’s called “Lights Out.” Oboler’s most memorable script for that radio show was a science fiction horror piece called “Chicken Heart”, about a tiny piece of a chicken’s heart, kept alive by scientists in a petri dish which begins growing and growing until it consumes the world. That radio show inspired a very funny stand-up comedy routine by Bill Cosby which you can listen to here. Before The Twonky, Oboler directed the first 3D color movie, “Bwana Devil.” So the guy definitely had some genre cred. Based on a short story by novelist Henry Kuttner, “The Twonky” tells the story of Cary West (a rather subdued Hans Conried) as a married, college professor whose life is invaded by an out-of-control television set with a personality of its own. During a lonely weekend, with his wife out of town, West discovers her new purchase, a brand new television set. He has no clue that this set is much more than your average television and very strange things are in store. This bizarre television set is given its name by West’s football coach friend, Coach Trout (played by Billy Lynn) who says, “A Twonky is something you do not know what it is.” The Twonky begins to manifest itself by shooting a laser beam out of its screen and lighting West’s cigarettes.

Then the Twonky begins to follow West around his house, shadowing his every move. The walking effect has a bizarre quality which is always preceded by a creepy clunking sound. Pretty soon the Twonky’s laser beam is doing West’s chores and loading his dishwasher. The Twonky is capable of self-defense and manages to zap the school football team when they come to West’s aid and try to destroy it. “I have no complaints.” The revelation of the Twonky’s mind control effect is when things really take a turn to the weird. It zaps the TV repairman and the Coach with its laser, and they are immediately transformed into zombies, chanting a mantra over and over of “I have no complaints.” The same thing happens to the local police when they try to intervene. The Twonky even manages to zap the dress right off a sultry bill collector and she flees the house naked. West finds himself more and more isolated as anyone who tries to help him is lobotomized by the Twonky’s laser.

A Time Traveling Alien While West is totally flummoxed by his television, the Coach is the one who somehow comes to understand that the Twonky is in fact a time-traveling, shape-shifting alien from the future. Leave it to the Coach, before his brain is fried, to speculate on the origin of the Twonky as he profoundly states, “In the world of the future where this Twonky comes from, every house, every family has a Twonky of its own to carry out the dictates of the super state. There is one place in every home to regulate every thought according to the dictates of the super state.” Pretty heavy stuff for a third grader. No wonder this movie freaked me out! Well suffice to say that poor Professor West will struggle mightily for the rest of the film to evade his nemesis, the Twonky. And who prevails, Twonky or Conried? Well, you’ll have to dig up your own bootleg copy to find out. I do find it amazing that when this film was made in 1953, television broadcasting was in its infancy and yet these filmmakers put forth some profound themes that are still relevant today. The concept that television could be ubiquitous, have a mesmerizing effect, that it could take over our lives, is more relevant now with 500 channels of 24 hour digital cable and with TV performers like Oprah and Simon Cowell attaining God-like worship. In addition, some of Oboler’s science fiction themes would later be taken to heart by a cadre of later generation filmmakers including Cameron, Kubrick and even yours truly.

The Twonky was made on a very low budget, probably only a couple thousand more than “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” so it needs to be appreciated from that perspective. It was released by the independent distributor United Artists and promptly bombed. Yet the movie still has an impact, and it certainly did on me when I was in third grade. It’s interesting to think that kids, more than the rest of us, have an ability to accept and see past cheesy sets and effects and yet still grasp the key themes and feel the genuinely uneasy moments the rest of us might dismiss. Well thanks Quint for the opportunity to revisit this strange experience from my past. I have to get going now. I’ve got some TV to watch. Don

Thanks, Don! That image of the TV set walking up the stairs freaks my shit out. But then again, TVs are always scary. Look at POLTERGEIST and VIDEODROME if you don’t believe me. One more AMAD Tribute left and I think you guys will all be happy with who the guest reviewer is and the quality of their work. See you early, early Saturday morning with that! Previous A Movie A Day Tributes: Edgar Wright discusses 1971's VIRGIN WITCH
Rian Johnson discusses 1971’s A NEW LEAF
Randy Cook on 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF
Aziz Ansari on 1988’s MAC AND ME

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