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Nightmares & Dreamscapes: “Battleground,” “Crouch End” (review)

Why is it that as often as translating the writings of Stephen King to the screen (big or small) results in the most godawful mess, I can’t help but by psyched by another attempt? There’s a terrifying mystery right there that could possible fuel one of King’s domestically scaled horror stories: Must. Watch. Stephen. King. Crap. Resistance. Futile.

So it is that I’ve been looking forward to TNT’s miniseries adaptation of the gaggle of King short stories that appeared in the book Nightmares & Dreamscapes. The first installment debuts tonight on TNT at 9pm Eastern, with the second following immediately at 10pm, and you know what? They’re not crap.

TNT will air episode one, “Battleground,” without commercial interruption, but that doesn’t mean that the network chopped up King’s story to fit into a 45-minute TV slot and then decided to let it run straight through to be followed by 15 minutes of ads. Nope, this is a one-hour minimovie that is as stylish and innovative and ambitious as any theatrical indie. Directed by Muppet alum Brian Henson and adapted by horror writer Richard Christian Matheson — in other words, by guys who know how to do weird fantasy — this is a real nightmare that’s smack in that borderland between dreaming and wakefulness, between black humor and just plain blackness.

William Hurt (Syriana), in one of his more provocative roles, is John Renshaw, who is not a particularly nice guy for reasons I won’t reveal, in case you haven’t read the story. And one night he finds his sleek and elegant sky-high urban apartment invaded by an unexpected army of, um, beings. Remember that episode of The Twilight Zone with the old farm lady fighting off the astronauts? It’s something like that. But all these Nightmares & Dreamscapes are gonna be like The Twilight Zone. What makes this one really rather special is the fact that while it’s not silent — there’s music and sound effects and all — there’s not a single word of dialog spoken in the whole hour (roars of pain and frustration don’t count). It makes the episode thrillingly visual in a way that TV rarely is, and introduces layers of meanings that no amount of chatter ever could. Like this: Early on, there’s a scene in which someone takes what he clearly believes he’s got coming with a kind of resigned dismay even as we can’t imagine what he might have done to deserve this. And it contrasts with later scenes, in which Renshaw, who clearly does deserve all the shit he’s taking, howls with rage at the attack he’s suffering — he, at least, doesn’t think his actions have warranted such indignities. It makes for a fascinating kind of character study that buoys all the fantastical action and makes “Battleground” eminently rewatchable.

The same cannot quite be said for “Crouch End,” the far more conventional, far more Twilight Zoneish second episode. Still, even if this one is fun of a sillier brand, it is still fun. American newlyweds Lonnie (Eion Bailey) and Doris (Claire Forlani: Antitrust) are abroad in Britain on their honeymoon when they venture — against the advice of the ooky, spooky locals — into the titular London borough. It’s a modern version of “dinna go on tha moors!” but do they listen? They do not indeed. Are they warned off by the Addams-family-style wrought-iron sign announcing the entrance to the neighborhood? Of course not. And then they get even lost-er in Crouch End, and Lonnie wouldn’t even ask for directions (he’s a guy, you know) even if there was someone around. You’ll guess pretty much where it’s going from pretty much the get-go, but there’s werewolves on motorcycles, and how cool is that?

‘Nightmares & Dreamscapes’ continues with two episodes per night for each of the next three Wednesdays. Stay tuned for my sneak previews of each episode.

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MPAA: rated TV-14DLV

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