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The Twilight Zone (Episode #58): “Long Distance Call” (airdate 3/31/61)
The Plot: A young boy starts receiving calls from his dead grandmother, and if that’s not weird enough it’s on a toy phone. Did I mention the grandmother is dead?
The Goods: Grandma Bayles (Lili Darvas) is visiting with her son’s family to celebrate her grandson Billy’s birthday, and she knows it will most likely be her last such party. She gives Billy (Billy Mumy) a toy phone as a gift and tells him he can use it to talk with her even when she’s no longer around. Creepy? Perhaps. But combine that with the old woman’s dark and dour clothing, advanced age, and morbid attitude, and this woman really needs to die already.
Which she does a few minutes later.
The family mourns the loss of their matriarch but little Billy stays fairly chipper, and his parents soon discover why. It seems he’s having secret conversations with the dead woman on the toy phone. Apparently grandma is lonely too and looking for company. Billy asks his parents (Philip Abbott, Patricia Smith) if he can go stay with her, and while the boy is oblivious to what exactly that would entail his parents find it a bit worrisome. Especially when Billy goes running out into traffic. And jumping into a pool when he can’t swim.
This episode is one of the handful that CBS had shot on video to save money, and that visual cheapness is as off-putting as usual. But that minor annoyance slowly fades to the background as the deceptively simple story gives way to some surprisingly dark undertones. In short, grandma is dead, lonely and presumably in heaven or purgatory (or whatever was suitable for 1960s television audiences to comprehend), and she’s asking a child to kill himself so he can come keep her company and massage her gnarled old feet.
Of course the script by Charles Beaumont and Bill Idelson never states this conceit directly, but it’s pretty clear. Not only is the episode playing with the possible death of a child, which is edgy and ground breaking enough, but by implication it also means the grandmother is a tad dark herself. Not only is she trying to convince a child to kill himself… she’s doing so at the expense of her son’s happiness.
Her son, Billy’s father, explains at one point to his wife how he was an only child and the only source of close contact his mother had for a long time. Billy, he explains, has taken over that role. He explains it as if that makes the events even remotely understandable.
And that’s where the dated nature of the show begins to hurt the episode. As fantastic as The Twilight Zone and other shows of the early sixties were they weren’t known for a lot of nuance and/or depth. A more recent TV show would probably explore grandma’s actions beyond her supposedly understandable motivations and into the area of consequences. Sure, she’s lonely, but she’s asking a child to die for her. And that’s just nuts.
As Billy hovers at the edge of death his father makes an impassioned plea to the dead woman to release her hold on him. It’s a parent’s desperate bid for their child’s well being, something the grandmother failed to consider for her own child, and while it’s effective it just feels strangely absent any kind of awareness as to what this cold bitch is trying to do. But again, that’s a modern day interpretation from someone whose own grandmother was a cold bitch…
What do you think?
The Trivia: This episode was the first of three to star young Billy Mumy, and he also had a small role in the 1983 feature film.
On the Next Episode: The leader of a wagon train working its way West in 1847 goes looking for water but finds a pathway to the future instead.
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.