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31 October 1957 (USA)  »

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'Elementals' by Benet: stark minimalist drama
4 March 2007 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

'Matinee Theatre' was one of the many, many anthology series which aired on U.S. television in the 1950s. Unlike most of the rest, 'Matinee Theatre' was transmitted in the afternoons (hence its title) rather than the more popular evening hours, and consequently this show never ranked very high in the Hooperatings. Another factor weighing against it was the fact that this series had a much smaller production budget than 'Playhouse 90' and the other prestigious anthology series. The story editors at 'Matinee Theatre' appear to have had a penchant for dramatising Gothic and horror stories, but -- lacking any significant budget -- were unable to do them justice. I've seen kinescopes of several 'Matinee Theatre' episodes; these tend to be slow, moody and claustrophobic, filmed by a static camera on a solitary set with insufficient lighting.

This review is specifically for the 'Matinee Theatre' episode 'Elementals', based on Stephen Vincent Benet's short story of that name, originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1922. 'Elementals' is an excellent choice for a low-budget production; I'm surprised that this TV episode appears to be the only time it was ever dramatised.

Handsome young Sherwood Latimer (Tom Tryon, excellent performance) is a college professor, engaged to pretty Katherine (Mala Powers, attractive but no actress). They consider themselves deeply in love, but lack the funds to marry. Latimer encounters wealthy aesthete John Slake (bizarrely played by Conrad Nagel). Slake has his own unique theories about mankind: namely, that civilisation is mere window-dressing, and that humans really haven't evolved so much beyond the beasts. He offers money to the young lovers, providing they consent to submit to a psychological experiment, through which Slake (interesting name!) hopes to prove his theories. Latimer is game but unwilling to endanger Katherine, so he rejects the offer.

The next thing the young lovers know, they've been abducted. They find themselves imprisoned in a posh apartment: they have books, music, running water, plumbing (for 'other needs'), comfortable furniture. But one item is missing: food. Also, they have no physical contact: a wall of shatter-proof sound-proof glass bisects the apartment, with Latimer on one side and Katherine on the other. They can see each other, but cannot hear each other's words, nor can they touch.

With no other choice, they spend a week in this prison, fully aware that the unseen Slake is studying them. Gradually, hunger outweighs every other mental process. They are, indeed, being reduced to an animal state.

And then, suddenly, a plate of food appears in the centre of the apartment. The glass barrier has been removed. What's Slake's game?

Tom Tryon is now better known for his best-selling horror novel 'The Other' than for his acting career. He was actually quite talented, although hampered by movie-star looks that were just a bit too good to be true. He gives an excellent performance here, as an intellectual desperately trying to retain his humanity while slowly starving. Less impressive here is Conrad Nagel, a second-level star of silent films whose heyday was long past before he took this job. I recommend 'Matinee Theatre' to anyone who can get past the dauntingly low production values.


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