Television Review: 'Nightcrawlers' (1985)
An episode of the 80s Twilight Zone reboot, Nightcrawlers deserves its own stand-alone review.
Nightcrawlers (1985), directed by William Friedkin. Starring Scott Paulin, James Whitmore Jr. and Robert Swann.
Based on a short story of the same title by horror great Robert McCammon, Nightcrawlers may be the most intense television episode ever produced for prime-time, network television — even though it’s only about twenty minutes long. Directed by William Friedkin (yes, THAT Friedkin), it’s a masterclass in suspense, atmosphere, and terror. To Friedkin’s credit, he doesn’t stint on the action just because it’s television — he brings big-screen direction techniques and care to the small screen and it shows in every frame.
The story starts out with Wells, a state trooper (played by James Whitmore, Jr.), arriving at a roadside diner in rural Nevada in a fierce rainstorm. Inside the diner are Bob the cook (Robert Swan) and a waitress, played by Exene Cervenka. Wells tells Bob that he’s investigating a horrific massacre that occurred at a motel down the road in Elko. Four people were slaughtered in a torrential barrage of bullets and flames that decimated the motel and torched cars in the parking lot.
Later, a family of travelers take refuge in the diner from the storm. Wells advises them to stay until he can escort them to a motel because it's too dangerous to continue on their trip. Then, a motorist named Price arrives at the diner in a tire-screeching fury. Wells immediately suspects him. He looks nervous and shifty.
Price orders coffee but really wants a beer. Bob tells him the diner doesn’t serve beer, but suddenly a can appears in Price’s hand, then disappears. Bob and Wells think they’re seeing things.
As Price talks, he reveals that he’s a Vietnam vet who belonged to an army unit called the Nightcrawlers. He says that everyone in his unit was massacred one night in the jungle, and it was his fault. He explains that he has a recurring nightmare in which the members of the Nightcrawlers try to kill him in revenge.
Wells continues to interrogate the erratic-acting Price and the vet confesses that he was sprayed with a chemical that enables him to materialize things out of thin air. As proof, he makes a sizzling steak appear on Bob’s grill.
Eventually, Wells and Price fight and the trooper knocks out the veteran. As Price lays on the diner floor unconscious, he dreams the Nightcrawlers into existence and they start attacking the diner with a hail of bullets, helicopters and flamethrowers. The attack is around five minutes of intense action and firepower in which Wells is killed, the family is chased and terrorized by the Nightcrawlers, and Bob is wounded. The episode ends in a classic, macabre Twilight Zone twist.
Apparently, no expense was spared in filming this episode. The attack sequence is very realistic and complex for television, and the score is provided by Huey Lewis, The Grateful Dead and Merl Saunders. Cinematography by Bradford May is top notch.
This short story is better than 95 percent of the horror dreck being released currently. It could be expanded to a feature film and released today, with Price updated to an Afghanistan or Iraq vet, and it would be great in the hands of the right director.
You can watch the whole thing at the YouTube link above. The 80s TZ is also available as a set on disc, but outside of YouTube, it's otherwise is hard to find.