AMAD Special Tribute: PHANTASM’s Don Coscarelli on bizarre sci-fi horror flick THE TWONKY (1953)!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s Special Tribute A Movie A Day entry, the fifth of six total, this time from Don Coscarelli, who not only one of my favorite filmmakers, but one of my favorite people. He’s famous for his PHANTASM films as well as the ‘80s gem BEASTMASTER and, more recently, the great indie horror comedy BUBBA HO-TEP. He enthusiastically responded to contributing an entry into this special run of AMADs. Now, he’s bending the rules a bit. He is reviewing a film he has already seen, but hasn’t seen since childhood. I personally think it’s a fascinating angle for a review, looking back past nostalgia and viewing a film through adult eyes, without the forgiving fog of memory. The movie he chose was THE TWONKY, a film not readily available on (legal) DVD about a killer… well, you’ll see. Here’s Don!
The scariest movie I ever saw?
I was in third grade.
I saw it on TV. I tuned in late so I didn’t even know the name of the movie and that made the experience even more creepy. The star, Hans Conried, was the familiar host of a show of silent comedy shorts called “Fractured Flickers’. He was all over TV playing comic characters every day in shows from “Gilligan’s Island” to “I Love Lucy.” That’s what lulled me into watching this movie. I was expecting an average kid-level comedy, with a familiar star, but what I got instead was weird and strange and scary.
All these decades later I have never seen this movie again…anywhere. Not on TV, cable or DVD. It just disappeared. For years I thought I might have completely imagined the movie myself, that it wasn’t real.
My memory is that the movie was about this college professor who finds strange things going on with his television set. The television set even had a name… “The Twonky.” At first it appeared to be just a regular TV set. The thing was, this Twonky had a mind of its own… it talked, it even walked on these spindly wooden legs. My dim recollection is that it might have even been an alien in the form of a television set. The Twonky took over this poor sap’s life. Imagine a relentless, walking, talking TV set out to get you.
Well, ImdB informed me that it was, indeed, a real movie. Made in 1953 and directed by Arch Oboler. As far as I could tell it never had been released on VHS or DVD.
So now, thanks to Quint, and a bootlegger on ebay, I must sit in a dark room, face my fears and revisit The Twonky as an adult. Here goes…
OK, I survived.
What a trip! Not exactly as I remembered…and the effects aren’t scary from a modern adult point of view… but wow, “The Twonky” is one downright weirdass movie!
The director and screenwriter, Arch Oboler, was a celebrated writer for radio and was notorious for his hit horror radio show in the 30’s called “Lights Out.” Oboler’s most memorable script for that radio show was a science fiction horror piece called “Chicken Heart”, about a tiny piece of a chicken’s heart, kept alive by scientists in a petri dish which begins growing and growing until it consumes the world. That radio show inspired a very funny stand-up comedy routine by Bill Cosby which you can listen to here.
Before The Twonky, Oboler directed the first 3D color movie, “Bwana Devil.” So the guy definitely had some genre cred.
Based on a short story by novelist Henry Kuttner, “The Twonky” tells the story of Cary West (a rather subdued Hans Conried) as a married, college professor whose life is invaded by an out-of-control television set with a personality of its own. During a lonely weekend, with his wife out of town, West discovers her new purchase, a brand new television set. He has no clue that this set is much more than your average television and very strange things are in store. This bizarre television set is given its name by West’s football coach friend, Coach Trout (played by Billy Lynn) who says, “A Twonky is something you do not know what it is.”
The Twonky begins to manifest itself by shooting a laser beam out of its screen and lighting West’s cigarettes.
Then the Twonky begins to follow West around his house, shadowing his every move. The walking effect has a bizarre quality which is always preceded by a creepy clunking sound. Pretty soon the Twonky’s laser beam is doing West’s chores and loading his dishwasher. The Twonky is capable of self-defense and manages to zap the school football team when they come to West’s aid and try to destroy it.
“I have no complaints.”
The revelation of the Twonky’s mind control effect is when things really take a turn to the weird. It zaps the TV repairman and the Coach with its laser, and they are immediately transformed into zombies, chanting a mantra over and over of “I have no complaints.” The same thing happens to the local police when they try to intervene. The Twonky even manages to zap the dress right off a sultry bill collector and she flees the house naked. West finds himself more and more isolated as anyone who tries to help him is lobotomized by the Twonky’s laser.
A Time Traveling Alien
While West is totally flummoxed by his television, the Coach is the one who somehow comes to understand that the Twonky is in fact a time-traveling, shape-shifting alien from the future. Leave it to the Coach, before his brain is fried, to speculate on the origin of the Twonky as he profoundly states, “In the world of the future where this Twonky comes from, every house, every family has a Twonky of its own to carry out the dictates of the super state. There is one place in every home to regulate every thought according to the dictates of the super state.”
Pretty heavy stuff for a third grader. No wonder this movie freaked me out!
Well suffice to say that poor Professor West will struggle mightily for the rest of the film to evade his nemesis, the Twonky. And who prevails, Twonky or Conried? Well, you’ll have to dig up your own bootleg copy to find out.
I do find it amazing that when this film was made in 1953, television broadcasting was in its infancy and yet these filmmakers put forth some profound themes that are still relevant today. The concept that television could be ubiquitous, have a mesmerizing effect, that it could take over our lives, is more relevant now with 500 channels of 24 hour digital cable and with TV performers like Oprah and Simon Cowell attaining God-like worship. In addition, some of Oboler’s science fiction themes would later be taken to heart by a cadre of later generation filmmakers including Cameron, Kubrick and even yours truly.
The Twonky was made on a very low budget, probably only a couple thousand more than “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” so it needs to be appreciated from that perspective. It was released by the independent distributor United Artists and promptly bombed. Yet the movie still has an impact, and it certainly did on me when I was in third grade. It’s interesting to think that kids, more than the rest of us, have an ability to accept and see past cheesy sets and effects and yet still grasp the key themes and feel the genuinely uneasy moments the rest of us might dismiss.
Well thanks Quint for the opportunity to revisit this strange experience from my past. I have to get going now. I’ve got some TV to watch.
Thanks, Don! That image of the TV set walking up the stairs freaks my shit out. But then again, TVs are always scary. Look at POLTERGEIST and VIDEODROME if you don’t believe me.
One more AMAD Tribute left and I think you guys will all be happy with who the guest reviewer is and the quality of their work. See you early, early Saturday morning with that!
Previous A Movie A Day Tributes:
Edgar Wright discusses 1971's VIRGIN WITCH
Rian Johnson discusses 1971’s A NEW LEAF
Randy Cook on 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF
Aziz Ansari on 1988’s MAC AND ME
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Jan. 16, 2009, 4:28 a.m. CST
Jan. 16, 2009, 4:31 a.m. CST
Jan. 16, 2009, 4:44 a.m. CST
by Boba Fat
All hail the Twonky! Al hail the Twonky!All hail the Twonky! Al hail the Twonky!...you get the idea. Quint, the idea of a column where reviewers re-visit a film that has had had an impact on them, but that they haven't seen for a long time, is a fucking great idea! Get on it! What are you waiting for? It's not like you've got anything else to do ;)
Jan. 16, 2009, 5:11 a.m. CST
until you see the sequel, Tw2nky.
Jan. 16, 2009, 5:14 a.m. CST
Quint,brother, I'm loving the guest reviewers a great addition to AMAD
Jan. 16, 2009, 5:21 a.m. CST
i remember my dad having a double bootleg VHS of The Twonky with The Maze in 3D. the most goofy movies ever, in the best way.
Jan. 16, 2009, 5:25 a.m. CST
are on the same site is a bizarre thing indeed...maybe Herc is the Twonky!
Jan. 16, 2009, 5:34 a.m. CST
by The Amazing G
I'm gonna see if I can find a torrent of this
Jan. 16, 2009, 6:07 a.m. CST
I'm thinking WSBK Channel 56 Saturday Monster Movies has to be the where. Gotta go seek it out. Konky Vs Twonky. Mystery word of the Day Vs Magic Beam. Damn I wish that Phantasm Re-Whatever it was happend. Angus, Reggie, and Don are A.O.K in my book!
Jan. 16, 2009, 6:13 a.m. CST
A title that the reviewer knew. It's fun to go at something new and unknown, but what then about those movies you know are gold or worthy of watching that maybe most of the world might not know of.<P> For me the ultimate you gotta see it cause it's crap but it's crap you have to see. Time Walker (1982) Holyshit this film is so bad it's good!
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:22 a.m. CST
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:26 a.m. CST
a user name in Talkbacks? Seriously Don, you are disqualified for having already seen the movie. Now go back, find another and give us a new column:) And Quint, I don't know how, but try to find a way to keep this thing going. I have to believe that you must have friends in the film industry lining up to contribute. Thanks for the last six months of good stuff. Most days, its the only reason I visit this site.
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:29 a.m. CST
Wouldn' this have been filmed around the time of the newly dubbed 'Red Menace'- the state is god and all that? And what were the years so many writers were black listed for being communists?
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:30 a.m. CST
In people's houses? Guess it's already here with internet, computers, and the ability to order a pizza now through Tivo, no reason to ever leave the couch, "I have no complaints"
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:51 a.m. CST
by Shut the Fuck up Donny
"I have no complaints," is really quite fucking brilliant. Hell, you could even make an argument that this film attacks organized religion. <p> I wonder if John Carpenter saw this before he made "They Live," as that also contains some themes of subduing the masses through ignorance and immersion in basic pleasures...
Jan. 16, 2009, 8:05 a.m. CST
by Nasty In The Pasty
Jan. 16, 2009, 8:48 a.m. CST
The AMAD column is the only reason I check the site daily. Please find a way to keep the spirit of it alive.
Jan. 16, 2009, 9:01 a.m. CST
by Barrymore Yorke
You know it's true. I've always loved this story, which was actually a collaboration between Henry Kuttner and CL Moore. It's very reminiscent of Philip K Dick -- and interestingly, it was published right around the time Phil's career as a writer began.
Jan. 16, 2009, 9:24 a.m. CST
"Twonky" - Hilarious. Don is right about kids being able to view a movie's theme better than an adult and to look past what might be "wrong" with a movie. I recently watched The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad with my friends' seven year old daughter and she loved it. I wondered if she would question the special effects at all, but no, her entire focus was on the storyline of the movie and battles between the monsters. It was great fun. It make me wonder what her take on something more intellectual but as simple to understand might be, such as TWONKY.
Jan. 16, 2009, 9:30 a.m. CST
by Quake II
Met him a couple years ago at a Bubba Ho Tep screening. Sweet guy that seems to love what he does. Now give a Don a budget and let him make a big commercial (action, horror, superhero?) film. He has the eye, the talent and the imagination to kick ass...More so that Sam Raimi IMO. This movie looks fun btw. Cheesy Mid Century fun.
Jan. 16, 2009, 9:37 a.m. CST
Man, I used to watch that all the time as a kid. I'll have to investigate the DVD release. Thanks Don!
Jan. 16, 2009, 9:38 a.m. CST
by Anna Valerious
In some way, that description reminds me of an episode of "Doctor Who" where he and Rose mistakenly land in 1953 (They were aiming for 6 years later to see Elvis) where an evil alien called "The Wire" is planning to turn people into slaves during the televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. However, this alien steals people's faces, turning them into faceless zombies while we see their faces trapped in TV sets. And instead of a TV with a life of its own, it takes the form of a TV show hostess. (Maureen Lippman, who some might remember from the newer version of "Oklahoma!") Of course, there's a happy ending, as the Doctor saves the day and the alien is defeated. Hmm, maybe this film inspired the writer...
Jan. 16, 2009, 9:49 a.m. CST
the screens physically represent a singular eye, and also a face...and the content can entertain, subdue, or control. it's like a cyclops and a medusa all in one.
Jan. 16, 2009, 10:19 a.m. CST
Jan. 16, 2009, 10:22 a.m. CST
with plans to dominate all humanity. Sounds eerily like the T-1000 and up class of Terminators. Interesting how all the really great ideas in sci-fi happened half a century ago.
Jan. 16, 2009, 10:52 a.m. CST
Is it me, or is that a great tag line for a viral marketing campaign...some kind of horror movie maybe? Sort of a "Why so serious?" take.
Jan. 16, 2009, 11:09 a.m. CST
...from the golden age of Science Fiction. I thought it was a Hugo winner, but it's not in the collection that I have. Now I can't remember where I read it. Never knew they made it into a movie...
Jan. 16, 2009, 11:40 a.m. CST
by Mr Nicholas
Jan. 16, 2009, 11:55 a.m. CST
by The Reluctant Austinite
Seriously. I've seen it, and the shots of that freaky TV walking around the house and zapping people are burned into my subconscious. I ordered us a copy of this flick at Wild & Woolly Video in Louisville, KY. If any readers live in the area, I hope you'll give it a rental. It's a very unique film.
Jan. 16, 2009, 12:04 p.m. CST
the Hollywood conveyor belt would force an action-comedy angle on it, a la Stay Tuned (1992) or Click and wind up at Sony or Disney, probably starring Adam Sandler as well. It would make 90 million in the box office and be filling up the used DVD bin at your local video store the very next day. What it would take is a stylishly independent producer/director collaboration to truly remake the film with the essence of the original. Someone the likes of oh, I don't know, Don Coscarelli maybe?
Jan. 16, 2009, 12:05 p.m. CST
yeah so im my twenties. i saw that film on the telly when i was a kid, and it fucking freaked me out. I revisited that movie a year ago, saw it on the internetz tubes. Still eery, however i thought it was hilarious when the black guy cops a feel on that underage "blind" girl. Fucking awesome movie either way, stephen king + 90's productions was pure ecstasy. YO DON, keep us updated with ho-tep part deux asap man.
Jan. 16, 2009, 12:46 p.m. CST
This movie sounds terrific! It's has to be somewhere, damn it!
Jan. 16, 2009, 1:10 p.m. CST
As I kept reading this review, I was thinking "no way this is real, it's a hoax like Orson Welle's Moonraker". But I guess this IS real... Why didn't the main character just leave the house? A slow walking small TV set with legs would certainly freak me out as a kid, specially while shooting lasers at people! MIND BLOWING SHIT!
Jan. 16, 2009, 2:20 p.m. CST
Anybody who would own a bootleg of this movie must be pretty psyched to be able to say "Don Coscarelli bought my Twonky!"
Jan. 16, 2009, 2:29 p.m. CST
Jan. 16, 2009, 2:53 p.m. CST
PLEASE LET THE LAST AMAD BE STALLONE REVIEWING...well anything really
Jan. 16, 2009, 2:58 p.m. CST
...something like 'Gremlins', 'Fright Night' or even 'The Frighteners'. Which means something that starts like a funny and pretty light movie, but the more the movie moves forward, the more intense and darker it gets.<br> I could even imagine to cast someone like Adam Sandler. (not necessarily him, but someone like him, who is associated with harmless comedy, but also did some serious acting a few times), just to make it more shocking for the audience when "that comedy dude" is suddenly screaming and struggling for his life and sanity.<br>
Jan. 16, 2009, 3:12 p.m. CST
A movie I have never, ever, EVER heard of that sounds so damn intriguing that I have to go find it and see it. I think I will have to go to Vidiots and see if they have a bootleg.
Jan. 16, 2009, 3:13 p.m. CST
Not because I am dying to hear them review a film, but I am curious if there is a movie out there they haven't seen already.
Jan. 16, 2009, 3:48 p.m. CST
by The Reluctant Austinite
The bit where it lights Hans Conried's cigerette is a psychotronic moment in time. God Damn, I miss working at Wild & Woolly, where I was laid off after 6 years due to this shitty economy. One of the problems with being a cult film fanatic/ manager/ buyer is that not only are you usually months ahead of the general audience, you are also curious and fascinated by the most obscure films on the planet and the general rental audience doesn't give a shit. They just want the big hits. I got really excited when our copy of "The Twonky" came in, but I don't think it ever rented once during my employment there. You can repeat that story a hundred times for a hundred other obscure gems. I always used my own money to order that stuff so the owner didn't have to take the hit, but I still got laid off as soon as the recession hit. Sadly, I loved that job and was actually very good at it. Thankfully, some of my great staff is still there and they can point you towards "The Twonky"!
Jan. 16, 2009, 5:05 p.m. CST
...some Hostess Twonkies!
Jan. 16, 2009, 6:11 p.m. CST
Damn, I read about this awesomely freaky movie on AICN and then proceed to my other favorite site online, which has NEVER failed me on the weird and obscure, and find, yes, a live torrent for this thing. The Twonky is now in the process of joining my vast film collection. <p> I love you so, Internets!
Jan. 16, 2009, 6:29 p.m. CST
You know when your a kid and you see something that fucks with you but you can never recall where it came from and haven't seen it since? <p> Maybe someone can help me out. When I was a wee child, I saw a kung-fu war movie on tv that scarred me for life. I don't remember anything about it, only this: <p> Upon the battlements, they had this contraption that looked a bit catapult-y but instead of flinging things, it had a metal helmet with spikes in it. They would fling it out over onto the attackers, it would land on their heads and rip them off with much gouting blood and shrieking. <p> Any guesses?
Jan. 16, 2009, 6:31 p.m. CST
I seem to remember Shogun with Richard Chamberlin being big at the time....
Jan. 16, 2009, 6:43 p.m. CST
by The Reluctant Austinite
That sounds like "Master of the Flying Guillotine," which was a sequel to "The One Armed Boxer." I wish I had my Wild & Woolly kung-fu expert here to confirm this. The flying guillotine-type device is used in several period kung-fu films and perhaps someone else here can help out.
Jan. 16, 2009, 7 p.m. CST
by The Reluctant Austinite
Benny Chan's "Kung Fu Master" (1994) depending on how long ago you were a kid. That miniseries uses a flying guilotine device more like the one you describe in battle. So does the recent "Seven Swords," but I'm sure that's not it. Shaw Bros also made "The Flying Guilotine," "The Flying Guilotine 2" and "The Vengeful Beauty" which all made use of the device. I recommend going to YouTube and trying to find trailers for these titles and see if any of them look familiar.
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:13 p.m. CST
Read and enjoyed the Lewis Padgett short years ago, and never had a clue it was made into a movie. Keep the obscurities coming. On a side note, just makes you think of all the incredible fiction from this era that went (goes) unadapted, stuff like Jack Vance's The Miracle Workers, or anything by Cordwainer Smith -- Scanners Live in Vain would be awesome -- or Fritz Leiber (aside from fucking Conjure Wife over and over again, remake-happy twats).
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:22 p.m. CST
by Anna Valerious
zom-bot: That reminds me of the Simpsons activity book, how they describe Maggie's friend the TV set. Der: You know, Sandler DOES have a horror film company called "Scary Madison"...
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:43 p.m. CST
No, this was when I was in grade like five or something - 1979 or 1980. <p> Just checked IMDB - Shogun premired in 1980 - would like to confirm though. At the time, it was major event television, like Roots or The Thorn Birds. It was like parents gathering the kids around the television, watching things that, yes; SCARRED THEM FOR LIFE. <p> We seriously don't have shit like that anymore. It's all on cable now. People forget - and execs - that regular tv used to be badass.
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:44 p.m. CST
by Catbarf the 12th
on late-night TV (after I stealthily snuck into the living room to watch it on very very low volume after being forbidden to stay up that late) and, me being a kid and all, it had the same brain explosion effect on me that you describe "The Twonky" as having on you. I haven't been the same since, and I simply *can't thank you enough*, sir! "BOYYYY!!!"
Jan. 16, 2009, 7:49 p.m. CST
"The song was inspired by an episode in which Iggy Pop, during a drug-fuelled period at Bowie’s LA home, hallucinated and believed that the television set was swallowing his girlfriend." Fantastic choice, Don! Love the review!
Jan. 16, 2009, 11:01 p.m. CST
by Catbarf the 12th
The Twonky has a philosophy... and that is what makes it dangerous!
Jan. 16, 2009, 11:29 p.m. CST
by Media Messiah
Or computers...or radio...they are all walking talking tubes out to get you!!!
Jan. 16, 2009, 11:41 p.m. CST
Thank you so much, Don, for writing this review.
Jan. 17, 2009, 1:52 a.m. CST
have to try to use "twonky" in a everyday sentence, preferably to someone who has no idea what it means.
Jan. 17, 2009, 2:45 a.m. CST
"You twonky motherfucker..." <p> And so forth...
Jan. 17, 2009, 4:56 a.m. CST
Hec Doc Pazuzu have you a linky to that live torrent? btjunkie throws up nowt. Failing that can anyone else find it. I think I had the same experience as Don watching Phantasm as a lad, and now years later I've got got the sphere perched on my DVD shelf.
Jan. 17, 2009, 5:35 a.m. CST
I don't want to get in trouble for posting links like that here. Look me up in The Zone and I'll hook you up.
Jan. 17, 2009, 8:18 a.m. CST
Never heard of that, but I like the idea of it. :)
Jan. 17, 2009, 8:48 a.m. CST
by Catbarf the 12th
I wonder if Cronenberg saw this as a kid.
Jan. 17, 2009, 11:14 a.m. CST
by Crimson Dynamo
called Alien Creatures, and it had a large B&W still from the Twonky in it - I've been intrigued by this movie ever since
Jan. 18, 2009, 9:59 p.m. CST
by Yotz Von Frelnik
That was the first Bill Cosby album I ever got, back in 1976 or '77. "Wonderfulness" the album was called, and my friend brought it to school to share. I had to run out and get my own. Wow, I didn't know it was based on a real scary radio play.
Jan. 18, 2009, 10:06 p.m. CST
by Its a LION
Reminds me of Phantasm 2.
Jan. 19, 2009, 2:44 p.m. CST
by El Borak
i saw a weird fucking movie that gave me nightmares. it would be on cable and i would watch a little at a time until i was too scared and turned it off. turns out it was in spanish and 3-d which was why it was so strange and i didn't understand it. it translates to "the treasure of the four crowns".
Jan. 19, 2009, 9:31 p.m. CST
And yes, I was really curious about it too with the image of the TV bowing to Hans Conried! and that weird name..."The Twonky" So is there a torrent of it out there?
Thanks for this fantastic series, Quint.
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