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"Nightmares & Dreamscapes: Battleground"

There's no doubt about why the producers of TNT's "Nightmares & Dreamscapes" series opted to set the tone with "Battleground," based on Stephen King's short story from "Night Shift." Everything about it works. In fact, it's an improvement over King's story in several key respects. In short, the episode is everything the horrid "Crouch End," based on a more recent story from the titular King collection, is not.

First, there's a fascinating genealogy to "Battleground." King's original story is an obvious homage to Richard Matheson's classic "Prey," which was filmed for television in the '70s as "Amelia," the final installment in the anthology television film "Trilogy of Terror," starring Karen Black. Not only is the story's debt to the Matheson tale paid off in full with a couple of shots of the Zuni fetish doll from "Amelia," but the episode was scripted by none other than Matheson's son, Richard Christian Matheson, a fine novelist and short story writer in his own right.

The clincher? There's not a lick of dialogue in the entire thing—unless you count grunts of agony and growls of anger. Like a blind man whose other senses are forced to compensate, the all-but-mute "Battleground" relies to an uncanny degree on the pitch-perfect use of music, acting, writing, and photography to pull off its terrifying agenda. That it does exactly that is in no small measure owing to a phenomenal performance by William Hurt, who plays a hit man beleaguered by a battalion of little green army men (and the miniature helicopters, tanks, and rocket launchers they operate). In the episode's early moments, Hurt's eyes are filled to the brim with murder. By the end, they're clouded with dread and, eventually, resignation to his fate. In between, we watch the transformation of a man in serious trouble.

It's clear that this recipe could have come to a laughable end. But there's nothing funny about the perils that beset Hurt's character. Dazzling special effects are used in just the right proportion to give the whole thing an added sense of believability. Tension ramps up at an even pace and leads to a very satisfying resolution. Again, there just isn't anything to complain about. "Battleground" is television at its best. The bar is high, and I know it wasn't cleared by the only other episode in the series that I've seen, so my judging eye remains atwitter until it can discern a mostly pleasing trend in the quality of the other King adaptions in the lineup. Still, "Battleground" is an encouraging sign of what may lie ahead.—Pete Mesling

Posted by Pete on August 18, 2006 5:02 PM
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