[Trigger warning: suicide theme discussed.] Charles Beaumont and William Idelson give us Long Distance Call; a dark story that starts off so nicely. Billy Mumy makes his first Twilight Zone appearance as Billy, a little boy who loves his grandma. She adores him too. At first glance, it’s a familiar story of a grandparent who spoils their grandchild and is adored in return. I lived that life myself with my mother’s father. That man was a wonder and I know how much we meant to each other. Before he died, I got to tell him I loved him and I’ll never forget his reply; it meant the world to me. And I was no kid at that point either; I was around 20 when that happened. He had been sick and I had a funeral to go to already; I worried that I might not be back in time to speak to him. Thankfully he was and we spoke, though he wasn’t particularly talkative in those last days. Then 2 days after we spoke, he was gone, but we said what we needed to. I have no regrets barring that maybe I hadn’t said it enough (although I’m fairly sure he always knew!) Similarly, I think my nephew knew how much my dad adored him. My dad passed when my nephew was 6 but they had a very special bond too. It’s the right of all grandparents and one I hope my own in-laws have with all of their grandchildren. It’s a beautiful thing and worthy of many great stories.
Alas, this is The Twilight Zone. When Billy’s grandmother gives him a toy phone so they can talk to each other forever, the rest of the episode is telegraphed to anyone who has a clue about how this series works. We know this will give Billy the opportunity to talk to his deceased grandmother, and there’s something wonderful in that. I wish I could talk to my grandfather again. But Beaumont and Idelson turn something lovely into something sinister. The first hint is when Billy’s grandmother tells her son Chris that she doesn’t have a son; he was taken from her by “a woman”, seeming to indicate that Chris’s wife stole him away from her. While on some level that’s true: getting married does change the dynamic a child has with his or her parents, it’s also the natural thing! Parent should want that for their children. She goes on to say that Billy is her son now. When she died, my first thought was that she was going to find a way to have Billy hurt his mom, but surprisingly it’s far worse than that. Billy tries to commit suicide to be with his grandmother again after she “tells him” to do it. When he throws himself into a pool, things look bad for little Billy, so Chris goes out on a limb and picks up the toy phone and asks his mom for a miracle, and Billy survives. I guarantee, with all the love my grandfather had for me, he would never try to coax me into that! (I say this as if it were even possible, but in relation to the story, we have to suspend disbelief sometimes!)
I wonder if Serling would have joined the dots on his own had this not been written by another writer. Serling often brings us to the edge, but doesn’t connect certain plot points but the closing narration does credit to this episode. There’s a question of whether or not this was really a supernatural event, a weird set of circumstances or simple faith but whatever the reason, we get a happy ending for Billy and his family; the second one in two weeks. It’s weirdly tinted with a sense of melancholy for me, however. I wonder how many grandparents would be so selfish. I would hope that each of the grandparents of my life would want to be that selfish, wanting to be with those they loved in life, but I think they all would fight that selfish urge. So that’s the biggest failing of this episode: Billy’s grandmother ends up being a monster – not because she wanted Billy with her forever, but because she tried to make it happen. Well, at least if it was the supernatural event and not pure chance.
Long Distance Call has a happy ending and yet it has all the elements of an actual horror story. That includes coning home to find a babysitter with a strange man in the house complaining about their child… did that sort of thing really happen? Regardless, it’s a strong episode and we are gifted with a group of people who we can actually relate to; they are a mostly sympathetic bunch. It’s just a shame that grandma didn’t leave her selfishness checked at the door of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Wow, The Twilight Zone really wasn’t afraid to cover the big topics. Long Distance Call is a drama centred on death, the afterlife and a suicide attempt, but before we even get to that it shows us the cruel manipulation of a child’s affections. Grandma Bayles is a monster.
Is that too strong an opinion? I don’t think so. She doesn’t just mollycoddle her grandson to a revolting degree (“oh, my angel”), she is possessive of a child who is far from being hers to possess (“my wonderful little boy”). A child doesn’t “belong” to anyone, but certainly not to his grandmother, when he already has two loving parents. The waters are muddied just a little because Billy doesn’t seem to have much affection for his mother, turning away from her at one point and instinctively clinging onto his father, but it could just as easily be the result of being poisoned against her, as an indication of a failing in her maternal role.
Grandma Bayles is also horribly selfish and undermining of Billy’s parents. Just look how she interrupts him opening the presents from his parents, saying “Billy, don’t you want to see what Grandma got you?” OK, you might argue she doesn’t have much time left at that point, but I would argue that she has always been like this, in all likelihood. You can see it in the relationship dynamics in that family, and her final words say it all:
“My son was taken away from me by a woman. This is my son now: Billy, my son.”
Yes, it’s the age-old story of a mother who put her own happiness above that of her son, feeling threatened by her daughter-in-law. She has then done what some grandparents very sadly do, and taken her feelings of insecurity a stage further, by using a grandchild as a pawn in her nasty little fight against the woman whom she thinks replaced her in her son’s affections, in her twisted world. So no, I don’t think describing her as a monster is too extreme. Anyone who messes with a child’s head in this way is behaving monstrously, and my advice as a parent would be this, for those facing similar problems (and they do happen in real life): nip it in the bud at the first signs. Give one warning, and then remove the canker from your life and that of your child, if you can. And fully expect your spouse to support you, or face the fact that you have married somebody who doesn’t put your welfare and that of you child first either.
I have focussed a lot on the pre-death part of the episode, and that’s because the rest of it is very predictable and follows all the obvious plot beats once the premise has been established. It’s nonetheless an effective little horror story, with Billy talking to his dead Grandma on the phone, eventually proved to be actually happening rather than just a product of his imagination, when his mother hears the old crone’s voice coming down the line as well. This would be a bit twisted anyway, but it takes a really sinister turn when it becomes clear that she’s asking Billy to come and stay with her, and we know what that must mean for him.
The trigger for his suicide is muddled by either the writer or the director or both, because Billy reacts as if his mother broke the telephone, which hits the floor off-camera, but later his father goes up to his room to find the toy undamaged on the floor. The reason for this is presumably because nobody could think of a way to resolve a non-sequitur within the story: the writer needed the phone to be broken in order to drive Billy to commit suicide (he couldn’t speak to Grandma any more and was desperate to be with her), but the writer also needed the phone to be working so Billy’s dad could plead with the evil old hag for the life of his son. Faced with that problem, I suppose everyone just decided to hope nobody would notice, but it does undermine the logic of what happens, with the telephone required by the story to be simultaneously broken and not broken. A brief moment of the father screwing it back together or something of that nature might have been an easy fix for the problem.
We get a happy ending of sorts, with Billy returning to the land of the living, but this is still a very disturbing episode to watch, and any drama that tackles the horror of child suicide is into very brave and worrying territory. We are left to wonder about the work that will be needed to rebuild the emotional links between parents and child, but there is clearly a lot of love there, and where there’s love there’s always hope for building a better future. RP
If you are affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, help is only a mouse click away. For readers in the UK, a good place to start is https://www.samaritans.org. In the US, there is a National Suicide Prevention hotline, that can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A Hundred Yards Over the Rim
This TZ episode is a trial to sit though indeed. Certainly when it can feel more likely that the spirit of your grandmother with whom you had a very special bond would actually somehow help to protect you from such self-destructive behaviour. Because intuitively I feel like I can verify that much in my case. For those reasons this TZ is pure horror to me and yet with a very important message on the difference between the right way to show love and possessiveness. I admire Bill Mumy’s very young bravery when taking on such a project.
Thank you both for your reviews.
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