Welcome to Scared in Segments, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
While there are countless horror anthology movies, there aren’t enough sci-fi ones. In fact, there are very few. The shortage was glaring when looking for any film that would fit Nightmare on Film Street’s No One Can Hear You Scream theme. Fortunately, there is one man you can always count on when researching anything science fiction.
Author Ray Bradbury’s intellectual stockpile has long been adapted for both film (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) and television (The Ray Bradbury Theater). And, as luck would have it, his 1951 collection The Illustrated Man was turned into a feature-length film, albeit without his input. The original omnibus is comprised of eighteen short stories, but only three were adapted for the 1969 movie, not including the prologue.
Director Jack Smight (Airport 1975) and writer Howard B. Kreitsek are clearly motivated by the book. However, they made big changes that left Bradbury fans with the most mixed of feelings. The film timidly crosses the threshold from sci-fi to horror, but there is, without a doubt, something disturbing about The Illustrated Man.
THE FRAMING STORY — “THE ILLUSTRATED MAN“
A traveler named Willie (Robert Drivas, God Told Me To) is en route to California when he meets a strange, ornery man named Carl (Rod Steiger, The Amityville Horror). In time, Carl reveals that his entire body is covered in intricate tattoos, no, skin illustrations. He detests anyone who refers to them as “tattoos.” Carl has made it his mission in life to track down the woman who inked his body. The more Willie looks at the illustrations, though, the more he sees things that are hard to explain, much less understand. Carl then passes the time by telling his company the worrisome stories behind three alluring images on his body.
The Illustrated Man spends an extraordinary amount of time devoted to characterizing its host of sorts. Carl is not some thinly written narrator. On the contrary, he’s a flesh and blood person whose role is integral to the whole film. The audience spends more time getting to know him than they do the characters in the three segments to come. Willie represents viewers who are wary of this incensed man whose origin and motives are dangerously unknown. In spite of his reasonable fear, Willie can’t escape Carl‘s gravity.
Unlike the book, the film includes several flashbacks that explain how Carl met Felicia (Claire Bloom, The Haunting), the enigmatic woman responsible for his illustrations. Steiger and Bloom are magnetic when they share scenes. They and Drivas take on multiple parts as they each play various other roles in the three stories. No matter what, though, everyone’s conviction is unmistakable. Steiger is especially versatile with his overworked depictions of passion—he’s irate and teasing with Willie, whereas he’s doting and vulnerable with Felicia. That’s not to say Carl isn’t seducing his listener; there is a decided undercurrent to these men’s ephemeral affair.
In the end, the horrifying result of staring directly into the illustrations is too much for Willie to bear. The matter between the men isn’t tied up neatly, yet Felicia‘s ominous warning about the future is now plain as day.
STORY 1 — “THE VELDT“
In a futuristic society where everything is automated, parents Carl and Felicia are concerned about their young children, Johnny (Tim Weldon) and Anna (Christine Matchett). The two kids have turned their virtual reality room, or nursery, into an African veldt filled with lions and vultures. After they broach the problem with their family therapist Will (Drivas), the parents disable the nursery. Unfortunately, doing such a thing will only create more problems.
Adorned with all white, sterile furnishings, the family’s visionary domicile is striking. That antiseptic quality to the home echoes the parents’ fears. The colorful, ‘imaginary’ world concocted by the children is too much for their mother and father, but, at the same time, they worry all this modern technology has spoiled their little ones. The parents crave a return to simplicity in spite of the fact that science has made everything in their life programmable and without error. As for Johnny and Anna, their creating a veldt and filling it with communities of animals — the lions hunt in groups and the vultures collectively feed — speaks to their desire for family togetherness.
Here, a family is ultimately torn apart by an aversion to compromise and ‘unplugging.’ In the next tale, a group of men find themselves dreading the inescapable rain.
STORY 2 — “THE LONG RAIN“
Astronauts stranded on dreary Venus must endure ceaseless rain as they search for sanctuary—a functioning sun dome with a built-in, artificial light source. Along the way, the men fall, one by one, as they can no longer stand the rain.
“The Long Rain” looks and feels the most interplanetary of the three stories. It’s a somber affair, too, as the rain operates like a foreboding force. As with “The Veldt,” the scenery here is remarkable. More so, even. The special effects — namely the rapidly growing organic mass that consumes one of the characters — are imposing and deserving of a rewind. That being said, that may be all that’s worth seeing here. Bleakness aside, the drama is not all that compelling.
STORY 3 — “THE LAST NIGHT OF THE WORLD“
Adults everywhere have experienced the same vision of the world coming to an end. In an effort to spare the children the agony, parents agree to euthanize their kids.
Howard B. Kreitsek took liberties with his retelling of Bradbury’s “The Last Night of the World.” It’s absolutely funereal. Meanwhile, the original was hardly as despondent in spite of having the same basic setup. It’s arguable the short story, if adapted faithfully, would not have left much of an impact on viewers, but there are better ways to get around that. The punchline at the end is practically lifted from The Twilight Zone—and not in a good way. To make matters worse, this is the least flattering-looking of all the segments. Very little effort was put into this one and it shows, regretfully.
Critics and audiences have not been kind to this movie over the years. Ray Bradbury himself was no admirer. Yet, as with so many other films of yesteryear, there has a been a small turnaround for Smight’s divisive and stylish refitting of Bradbury’s stories. Elements from the source material are vaguely recognizable; there is too much truncating. Rod Steiger can be accused of overacting, but his and his costars’ performances are mainly solid. This is merely a case of recognizing the many errors of an inspired film, then judging it on its own terms and merits. By no means is this one wholly successful. Far from it. In any case, The Illustrated Man is one alienating anthology you have to see for yourself in order to draw an honest opinion.