I am surprised how little I could find about the creation of Amazing Stories on the internet. It wasn’t the most popular television series, running for two years, from 1985 to 1987, and doesn’t often come into conversations about 1980s pop culture. Having rewatched many of the episodes now, it feels like an imperfect but completely perfect encapsulation of how the Spielbergian 1980s felt. I noticed that story credits often go to the filmmaker, who was a co-creator, producer, and sometimes directed episodes. You can feel his influence on American films at the time, with each episode centered on a sense of wonder and often humor. Unlike the later Tales from the Crypt, which had its own stable of 1980s directors in producer roles, the stories here are very in line with E.T. or The Goonies’ tone.
Ghost Train (Season 1, Episode 1)
Written by Steven Spielberg, Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and Frank Deese\
Directed by Steven Spielberg
When people think of Amazing Stories, this is often one of two episodes that come to find first, at least for me. Opa (Roberts Blossom) is brought to his adult son’s new home in the middle of a field. Astroturf has been laid, a two-story idyllic house has been built, complete with a swing set in the backyard. But something is certainly wrong, the house has been built in the path of a tragic train accident. Opa was a little boy waiting for the train to come, putting his ear to the track to hear how close it was. But he fell asleep, and when the engineer couldn’t wake Opa with the whistle, he pulled the brakes too late, and everyone on board died. Opa is convinced the train is coming back and enlists his grandson (Lukas Haas) to help him prepare because that train is going straight through the house.
This is as perfect a start to Amazing Stories as you could get. The story plays right into Spielberg’s strong suits. You have a child who is a believer in the magical tale his grandfather weaves. There’s a tearful goodbye at the end that evokes an even greater sense of wonder. At moments, we have light peril, knowing that the episode’s whole tone is directing us towards a happy ending. I think the finale is deeply satisfying, and you can see how this works best as a 25-minute television episode rather than an hour and a half long movie.
I do think the full display of Spielberg’s strengths in film is limited by the television medium. The aspect ratio is 4:3, which feels boxy and small if you were to look at something like E.T. The lighting is blander, and the colors don’t pop. However, he does find moments for exciting camera angles. There’s a struggle between Opa and the doctor brought in to sedate him, told through shadows on the wall that is definitely a beautiful touch. The music is made by John Williams, and it does sound like he’s borrowing some melodies from previous scores, but it works well enough that I enjoyed it.
Mummy Daddy (Season 1, Episode 4)
Written by Steven Spielberg, Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and Earl Pomerantz
Directed by William Dear
This episode begins with a little metafiction and continues along that path. A movie is being filmed in the bayou based on a local legend. Decades ago, a carnival came through that had a real mummy, and it apparently came to life and wreaked havoc on the community. The actor playing the mummy in the film, Harold, thinks the story is total crap but is interrupted by a phone call that his pregnant wife has gone into labor at a nearby hospital. Without waiting to have his costume, makeup, and speech inhibiting mouthpiece, Harold hops into the car and heads off to be with her. He runs low on gas and spooks a gas station attendant, and then draws the attention of some backwoods fellas. A town meeting is held believing the mummy from those stories has returned, and a mob sets out to hunt him down. Harold escapes into the woods and runs across a house containing the real mummy, and hijinks ensue.
The whole episode came from a story told in Hollywood about Boris Karloff. Karloff was in the middle of filming Son of Frankenstein when he received news his wife was in labor. Without removing the Monster’s elaborate makeup, Karloff hopped in his car to go be there as his child was born. The humor of what it must have been like for passersby inspired how chaotic things become in the story, with people believing they see a real horror come to life.
I was deeply impressed by actor Tom Harrison who plays Harold. He is a wonderful physical comedian, and even with his speech inhibited, he can communicate enough that the audience can get a great sense of the man behind all the makeup. The cast is peppered with familiar character actors like Bronson Pinchot, Brion James, Tracey Walker, and Larry Hankin. The music also has a ring of familiarity as it was composed by Danny Elfman and bears all the hallmarks of his work.
The Mission (Season 1, Episode 5)
Written by Steven Spielberg, Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and Menno Meyjes
Directed by Steven Spielberg
This is arguably the best episode of Amazing Stories ever made, and I would guess people familiar with the show think of this one first. Spielberg returns to direct, and this time around, he’s found a way to adapt his style to television so that it meshes much better. This is completely magical realism, and I love how there is no attempt to use exposition to explain the miracle that happens. It’s just a wondrous thing that happens, and we accept it. All of the story is in line with the stories Spielberg tells.
Set during World War II, an Air Force squadron is being sent on their 24th mission into German territory. Jonathan (Casey Siemaszko) is the turret gunner station in the swiveling pod beneath the plane, and he’s also a sort of good luck charm. The Captain (Kevin Costner) is leading the mission and his crew, including Static (Kiefer Sutherland), a radio operator who is close friends with Jonathan. After encountering enemy fighters, Jonathan is trapped in the turret, and the landing gear has been destroyed. This means when the planet inevitably has to emergency land, Jonathan will be killed. The crew goes through a series of plans to help their buddy, but nothing seems to work. In the time leading up to the landing, Jonathan begins sketching something, and that’s when the magic happens.
Everything about this episode exemplifies the best of Amazing Stories. It’s cheesy but endearing. Stories build in tension, but we get a happy ending even if it defies reason. In fact, the whole story is about the idea that if we believe, we can make amazing things happen. It’s all pretty childish, but Amazing Stories is kind of a perfect show for older kids to inspire that kind of magical thinking that isn’t really harmful. The Mission is like pure Spielberg distilled down to 46 minutes.