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Eerie, Indiana 1.8 – Heart on a Chain

Okay, sure, I could have actually illustrated this post with a photo from the actual plot of the story. “Heart on a Chain” is an old urban legend retold with an Eerie twist. Marshall and a buddy, Devon, both fall for the new girl in town. Her name’s Melanie, and she needs a heart transplant, and in a grisly turn of events, it’s Devon’s heart that she gets after he’s killed showing off on his skateboard.

The little love triangle is sweet and funny while it lasts, and Marshall’s family has too much fun at his expense when they realise he’s got a crush on somebody. That burnin’ love gets so hard to bear that when Marshall bumps into that guy from his paper route who looks like Elvis, sitting at the World o’ Stuff’s counter eating his weight in peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, he asks him for advice. The guy who looks like Elvis suggests that Marshall buy her a Cadillac…

“Heart on a Chain” was written by the show’s co-creator José Rivera and was the fourth story to be directed by Joe Dante, who had a ball with some quiet blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gags. There’s a tip of the hat to the original 1958 version of The Fly at one point, and a delightful little silhouette in the background of the local cemetery, which, to be fair, really does undercut the drama of the scene a little bit. But the most impressive thing about everybody’s work on this episode is that they sold the doomed romance so well that our son, probably for the first time ever, didn’t grimace and groan when anybody on screen smooches.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.5 – The Broken Record

The fifth episode of Eerie, Indiana was preempted by NBC at the last minute across most of the country. It was there in the newspapers that morning – you can check October 13, 1991 yourself at all sorts of sites – but I think that the football game ran late and it was skipped.

Conventional wisdom has it that the episode wasn’t screened for more than two years, when it showed up on a repeat run on the Disney Channel, which then led some well-meaning fans to call it the program’s nineteenth and final episode, which then led the good people at Fabulous Films, who put out the DVD, to stick it on the third disk instead of where it belonged. But conventional wisdom isn’t always accurate. There were video traders in 1992 who had copies of this episode. The big name blowhard trader that I mentioned back in this post? He had a copy. He claimed that it did air on one or two of the NBC affiliate stations, which is where the VHS copies that made the rounds came from.

Well, I’d never seen it before tonight, anyway. “The Broken Record,” written by the show’s co-creator José Rivera, was inspired by the Satanic panic of the eighties and the mad parental fear that heavy metal records had subliminal messages in them. As it turns out, the Pitbull Surfers – who are two weeks away from playing an allegedly history-making show in Indianapolis – do have a subliminal backwards message in their LP, but it’s not at all what the stressed-out dad in this adventure thinks it is. Tom Everett, who’s made a career of playing high-ranking government officials and military officers, plays the high-strung father in this episode, and I was struck by how unlike Mark Metcalf in the Twisted Sister videos he was.

Our son enjoyed some rather obnoxiously loud belly laughs over things that he found funnier than anybody else did, especially an accident on Main Street involving a stolen milk truck. He was also guffawing over bits that made me chuckle, without understanding what was actually funny about them. There’s a classic running gag about Simon being so out of tune with Eerie’s rock-loving teens that he’s singing Carpenters songs while they’re headbanging. You be yourself, Simon. Thurston Moore says the Carpenters are all right, and he’d know.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.2 – The Retainer

Last time, I was having so much fun talking about the experience of Eerie, Indiana that I didn’t have room to mention the cast. The show focuses on Marshall Teller and his buddy Simon. Marshall is played by Omri Katz, who audiences had seen growing up as JR Ewing’s grandson in Dallas. Simon is played by Justin Shenkarow, who would later work for several seasons on the cult hit Picket Fences and is still quite active today as a voice artist in cartoons and games. Their characters are part of a silly and proud line of children who know more than the grownups about creepy goings-on, and their investigations in Eerie would do the Goonies and the vampire hunters in The Lost Boys proud.

The thankless roles of Marshall’s clueless family go to Mary-Margaret Humes, Francis Guinan, and Julie Condra as big sister Syndi. They’re joined in this afternoon’s episode by Vincent Schiavelli, that guy with the beard who was always playing mobsters, as an orthodontist, and Patrick LaBrecque, who was only in the business for a few years, as a kid with a retainer that picks up the brainwave patterns of dogs.

“The Retainer” has the feel of an episode that was written before everybody working on the show really nailed down what they wanted to do with it. It’s considerably more grisly than any other episode – while not stated, it’s strongly implied that the city’s dogs actually maul two people to death – and the whimsy doesn’t have the feel of black comedy, just oddly bolted-on Saturday morning humor. Our son enjoyed it nevertheless, in part because our kid likes dogs a whole lot, and perhaps in part because a scene where the kid with the retainer and Marshall – listening in by way of a Walkman – overhear some dogs singing “Dem Bones” was a lot like a similar singing scene in a classic episode of The Goodies.

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Eerie, Indiana 1.1 – Forever Ware

One thing was always true in the television world of the eighties and nineties: CBS ruled Sunday evenings, which led the other networks to come up with some unusual and interesting attempts to dislodge Grandma and Grandad’s control of the TV during 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote. One of my favorite oddball examples: the fall of 1991, when NBC put a pair of very mismatched half-hour programs together in the 7 pm slot: The Adventures of Mark and Brian, an arguably ahead-of-its-time reality show starring a pair of Los Angeles deejays, and the absurdly cool Eerie, Indiana.

Created by José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, and with lots of creative contributions from Joe Dante (who directed five episodes), Eerie, Indiana is kind of an anti-Wonder Years, or a far less horrifying Twin Peaks. It’s set in a town which is – allegedly – the statistically most normal place in America, but that’s only because our thirteen year-old hero, Marshall Teller, has discovered that it’s actually the center of weirdness for the entire planet. It’s where Elvis has retired and Bigfoot eats out of garbage cans, and where, as we learn in this terrific pilot, five housewives lock themselves in vacuum-sealed plastic every night for decades to keep from aging.

I didn’t think anything of the skippable Mark & Brian at the time, and NBC’s idea to match a pair of half-hour shows may have been sparked by Sunday football games running late. If a 4 pm game went into overtime, they could just shelve the 7 pm show and start the 7:30 show on time. But I rarely ran late getting back to my dorm to catch Eerie, Indiana. That was the stupid year I spent almost every weekend in Atlanta because of some blasted female, but my Sunday departure time, depending on how many other people I’d given lifts needed rides back to Athens, was set to ensure I’d be back in time for this show.

(Not that many people in the dorm were keen to see what I was making a fuss about. People of undergraduate age aren’t exactly known for wanting anything like a less horrifying, kid-friendly version of something like Twin Peaks!)

The region 1 release of Eerie, Indiana was only available for a short while, but Fabulous’s Region 2 edition is still in print. The picture quality isn’t what I remember from its run on NBC – surely they didn’t shoot this on 16mm? – but then again, this was a show that I mostly watched live and didn’t keep to rewatch. There’s one exception that I’m really, really looking forward to seeing again.

As for the kid-friendly factor, I’m really pleased that our kid enjoyed the heck out of this. The mild frights and fun cinematography, with camera decisions that evoke the look and feel of black-and-white horror and sci-fi in a cute suburban cul-de-sac, are just perfect for seven year-olds. I just love the way the camera tells you that a happy woman who wears the same clothes that were in vogue when Jackie Kennedy was in the White House is a threat and menace.

Our son was babbling about Forever Ware with real excitement, saying that the inanimate plastic containers were a great and weird villain. He was disappointed when I told him that there’s only one season of this show – no, the lame spinoff on Fox Kids seven years later doesn’t count – because the ratings were terrible and nobody watched it. “That’s too bad,” he said. “Everybody should have watched this show, because it’s a great show!”

Ah, but everybody who did watch it… there weren’t many of us, but we’ll always enjoy returning to Eerie.

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