Matty explores one of genre TV’s most interesting what-could’ve-beens. Featuring a few quick words with writer and producer A.L. Katz!
In between helming a pair of fascinating Tales From the Crypt episodes for the show’s wilting sixth and seventh seasons (the excellent Only Skin Deep (1994) and the unfairly maligned Report From the Grave (1996)), William Malone was tapped up to tackle one of Joel Silver’s Crypt spin-offs.
In addition to the titular horror comic and its ghoulish sibling publications Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear, Silver and his fellow co-exec producers Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill and David Giler had procured the rights to a bunch of other EC properties — namely their action and adventure strands Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, and their sci-fi and fantasy imprints Weird Science and Weird Fantasy. Silver’s plan was to craft more TV in the Crypt mode. Alas, the projects that came from them generated little interest. Originally broadcast on Fox on 18th January 1992, the solid, feature-length anthology pilot Two-Fisted Tales failed to turn into a series, leading Silver and co. to repackage its three stories — Donner’s Showdown, Zemeckis’ Yellow, and Tom Holland’s King of the Road — as Crypt chapters in its third and fourth seasons. And despite its brief ten episode run on HBO in summer 1997 — just under a year after Tales From the Crypt’s not so grand finale for the network — being every bit as good as the finest episodes of its forbearer, Perversions of Science quickly vanished into the ether. In the middle of Two-Fisted Tales and Perversions of Science, though, was W.E.I.R.D. WORLD. Like Two-Fisted Tales, W.E.I.R.D. World was a feature-length pilot shown on Fox on 26th September 1995. And as with Perversions of Science, it took its cues from EC’s sci-fi output, and was directed by Malone. However, where Malone was but one of eight directors in the Perversions of Science roster, in the singular W.E.I.R.D. World he was flying solo, shaping the template that the rest of the series was set to follow had it been commissioned. And what a shame it wasn’t: while far from perfect, W.E.I.R.D. World is consistently interesting and it would have been nice to have seen where it went, at least based upon Malone’s stylistic and tonal blueprint.
Malone certainly laid enough conceptual and story footing to build on. In fact, judged purely as the standalone TV movie it was released as, that’s W.E.I.R.D. World’s greatest flaw: it’s so packed with characters and dangling threads that it’s often overwhelming trying to keep up with it all, until things start coming together in its exciting and inevitably twist-y last third. Working from a dense script by Tales From the Crypt showrunners A.L. Katz, Gilbert Adler, and Scott Nimerfro that eschews the straight portmanteau approach in favour of a vaguely Pulp Fiction (1994)-esque interlocking device, Malone unleashes a cornucopia of scientists, lab assistants, behind the scenes personnel, and industrial spies as we’re introduced to the staff of the eponymous Wilson Emory Institute for Research and Development. A top secret, government-backed facility located within an abandoned airbase in the California desert, the institute is fronted by the slap-headed Dr. Monochian (Married… with Children’s Ed O’Neill), and the thrust of Katz, Adler, and Nimerfo’s plot concerns the professional and private turmoils of its denizens. Played by a cast of lower-to-mid-range genre/cult recognisables, there’s the ambitious yet sociopathic Dr. Bledsoe (Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook); his former love rival-cum-robotics expert Noah Lane (Jim True-Frost); Dr. O’Reardon (Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth’s (1992) Paula Marshall) and her selfish lab partner/older boyfriend Dr. Mayhew (April Fool’s Day’s (1986) Clayton Rohner); duplicitous security chief Bob Provost (Return of the Living Dead’s (1985) Miguel Nunez) and his noble, physicist sister Patty (Showgirls’ (1995) Gina Ravera); and a boatload of other fringe dwellers on the edges of W.E.I.R.D. World’s narrative, as experiments go wrong, dramas unfold, and wisecracks are exchanged.
Aside from a bored-seeming turn by O’Neill — who, according to Katz, was mandated by Fox and wanted to do the show “about as much as he wanted a proctological exam” — the rest of W.E.I.R.D. World’s ensemble adequately equip themselves with both the bursts of cool FX tomfoolery (courtesy of Todd Masters) and the film’s spikes of surreal, dialogue-driven comedy. It’s a pleasing mix: brisk chatter hints at a bleak, virus-addled future-shock dystopia beyond the walls of W.E.I.R.D., but, as he’d do with his later big screen epics FearDotCom (2002), Parasomnia (2008), and the sublime House on Haunted Hill (1999) remake (which, of course, was produced by Silver, Zemeckis, and Adler), Malone is as committed to entertaining with subversive black humour as he is to disturbing.
Indeed, irrespective of the film’s writing issues — issues which, as you’ll read shortly, were as much a result of production difficulties as they were a symptom of the need to scaffold for potential continuation — it’s as a typical visually rich Malone auteur vehicle that W.E.I.R.D. World is best considered. Lensed by fellow Tales From the Crypt alum Levie Isaacks, W.E.I.R.D. World is soaked with the same blue-hued Expressionist lighting as Malone’s first essential text, Creature (1985), and the whole film drips with his jeweller’s eye for creepy, strange, and atmospheric detail. Angular in its framing yet fluid in its endless procession of gliding camera movements, Malone paints his obsessions across W.E.I.R.D. World’s 4×3 canvas with his patented dreamy élan, lingering on steampunk-designed robo-men (cf. Parasomnia); James Whale-tinged tech-gubbins and scientific apparatus (cf. House on Haunted Hill); and sleek, shadowy nightmare vistas (cf. FearDotCom). Again, how guest directors would have managed to stamp their aesthetic mark on further instalments of W.E.I.R.D. World when it teems with such a uniquely Malonean sheen is an enticing question to ponder.
“It boggles my mind that Bill Malone isn’t more well known,” said Katz when I asked him about W.E.I.R.D. World recently. “What happened was, Joel Silver had approached Fox and they suggested doing W.E.I.R.D. World as a backdoor pilot. A deal was made and a budget was decided on — but no one shared that with us. We didn’t know that a number already existed. We wrote it, went to shoot it, and I got a call from our production manager to say there was a budget already agreed and it wasn’t even close to what we had in mind. We’d budgeted it at $1.8million but, in the end, we had about half of that to spend and we learned that the day we started prep. We had to cut the hell out of the script but, to be honest, the guy who made a difference in terms of cost was Bill. Bill said if we could shoot most of it on Steadicam, we can do it kind of guerilla fashion. And through that we got close enough to where we needed to be. We kind of shoehorned our way through it.”
“That said, looking back, I’m grateful W.E.I.R.D. World didn’t go to series. We were all weary from it, frankly; the experience sucked the life from us. We had union trouble too, so when Joel came to the set he was not happy. He was extra-special Tasmanian Devil-like, as he pinballed around the trailers screaming and shouting.”