I hope it's kosher to say that a certain television show is one of your favorites-ever even if you've only seen a handful of its episodes, because Amazing Stories is one of my favorite television shows ever.
The series debuted amidst much fanfare on ABC in 1985, being one of the many shows that had some vague Stephen Spielberg stamp on it. (He created it.) Inspired by The Twilight Zone and other strange-skewed "one-off" programs of yesteryear, each episode was a standalone mini-movie, more in the motif of "generally bizarre" than outright horror or science fiction. Nearly every episode was directed by or starred someone famous, and at least to my then-young eyes, the ambiance surrounding Amazing Stories made it feel like a really, really big and important show.
I was surprised to find out much later that the series was far from a runaway success; it only lasted two seasons, and arguments could be made that it only lasted that long because so much had already been invested in it. This wasn't a show that NBC could easily cancel and collect their losses, even if it wasn't thrilling as many millions as it needed to. Still, while it wasn't a major success in terms of ratings, creatively, it was a major success. Yeah, some of the stuff feels way dated with over twenty years worth of reflection, but that's to be expected. In its time, Amazing Stories was fresh, fringe and edgy -- and considering the often spooky, macabre and downright strange topics it covered, even the small amount of episodes I saw as a child made a lifelong impression.
Probably the most famous episode is Family Dog, an animated Tim Burton story about what the title suggests, which ultimately spun into its own series, however short-lived. Another of my favorites is Mirror, Mirror, a horror tale about an author who is haunted by the sight of an attacking demon whenever he sees his reflection. That one still legitimately creeps me out, but as a child, it was reason enough to avoid mirrors entirely for months. I was tempted to review the aforementioned, but if I'm going to pay tribute to Amazing Stories, there's only one episode I could possibly pick with a straight face. More on that in a minute.
The stills shown above are from the show's opening credits sequence, a masterful montage similar to The Twilight Zone's intro, but with a wider range of goofy shit that made the series seem impossibly thorough. With everything from storytelling Native Americans to sword-wielding knights to spaceships in the opening credits, all playing under the best theme song ever, it was tough for anyone to believe that this wasn't going to be their kind of show.
The Sci-Fi Channel has been running select reruns as of late, and that's given me the opportunity to see many more episodes than I ever did as a kid. Now that I have, I understand why the show wasn't so lasting: A lot of the episodes were pretty boring. But not the one we're going to look at today, oh no. Nope, this episode inspires me to refer to something as "boss" for the first time in my life. This episode is motherfucking BOSS.
"Go To The Head Of The Class" (hereby referred to as GTTHOTC) was a major highlight for the series, airing during the second and final season after more tune-in ads than anyone could stand. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Christopher Lloyd (who was running on a majorly full tank thanks to a certain DeLorean), NBC promoted the holy hell out of this before it aired. Less an episode of a show and more a major television movie under a show's banner, GTTHOTC was a huge production that obviously enjoyed a much bigger budget than its sibling episodes. Only a black comedy in retrospect, I can't begin to describe how much it fascinated and terrified me as a child. So much so that despite only having seen it once in 1986, its imagery and quotes were burned into my brain with pinpoint accuracy for almost two decades. When I took the plunge and bought the way-too-expensive out-of-print VHS release a few months back, I couldn't believe how much of it I remembered. This isn't a testament to how great I am at having a memory, but to the episode. Here's why...
I was in elementary school when GTTHOTC aired on that long ago Sunday night, and it wasted no time in making me absolutely terrified of high school. A lot of shows did that. You forget what it's like to not have experienced all the things everyone you know has now experienced, and within that, think back to how frightening it was to see all the depictions of high school life on television. Social inadequacies, hardcore bullies, having to do things you were sure to fail at in gym class -- high school seemed more like a four year punishment than a rite of passage. GTTHOTC's contribution to my fear of the future came by way of Professor Beanes, a sadistic, kid-hating English teacher played with utmost joy by Christopher Lloyd. It may very well be my favorite role of his, and we're talking about the guy who played Doc, Uncle Fester and Professor Plum. This could've been a "nothing episode" with a lesser actor. With Lloyd, GTTHOTC is one of the most impactful hours of television I've ever seen.
Beanes, a perverse teacher who screams overly-moral lessons about sex and other aspects of teen life under the guise of Shakespeare dissertations, is as nonstop in his attack of the high school psyche as he is brutal. Though the episode ultimately takes a trip towards fantasy that's impossible to relate to in a real life way, the thought of having a teacher anything like Professor Beanes scared the shit out of me. Example: After Beanes identifies one student as a gum-chewer, his punishment involves swallowing an old piece of used gum Beanes plucks from underneath the student's desk. Fortunately for the gum-chewer, there are other students in Beanes's class more on his permanent radar.
Scott Coffey and Mary Stuart Masterson are the episode's other stars, playing Peter Brand and Cynthia Simpson. Cynthia is a bad girl with Peter wrapped around her finger, and considering the amount of awkward teen love and schoolyard gibberish proliferating GTTHOTC, it's easy to see that this episode was intended to extend Amazing Stories to a hipper demographic. Coffey and Masterson were nearly newcomers at this point, but as much as Beanes made me afraid of the day 9th grade began, I couldn't help watching Peter and Cynthia and kind of looking forward to being old enough to have some rebellious chick in fishnets convince me to rob graves and kill my English teacher. Peter also had an enviable bedroom filled with funky phones, death metal posters and all of the other cool stuff I couldn't wait to be a part of.
After catching "Mr. Brand" arriving late to class, Beanes gleefully warns that our hero is but one tardy away from being "right where he wants him...in detention!" AHHHH SCARY BEANES STOP SAYING THINGS WITH YOUR SCARY BEANESY VOICE. After droning on and on about how Lady MacBeth controlled her husband with the lure of sex (a theme further conveyed by Peter and Cynthia's burgeoning relationship), he begins returning the students' latest essays, almost universally graded "F" because Beanes is a fuckwad. When he gets up to the featured kids, Beanes briefly relishes the moment before laying down the gauntlet: Peter and Cynthia's papers are exactly the same, and there's nothing Professor Beanes hates more than a plagiarist.
Body language indicates to us that Cynthia was the copycat, but sex-starved Peter takes the fall. Whether Beanes knew the truth or not is irrelevant, because he'd been salivating at the chance to screw with Peter's head, even if he's only guilty of letting the class's sole hot chick look over his work. Skipping the usual round of smaller punishments like swallowing used gum, Beanes sends Peter to the head of the class to take part in the most infamous event at school: "Meet the Misters."
Maybe it was the music, but Peter having to "Meet the Misters" used to make me tremble. The "Misters" refer to Mr. Randall, Mr. Webster, Mr. Funk and other boys who've had giant, heavy reference books named after them. Forced to kneel and balance the only-remotely-noticeable prop books on each hand, we're not totally sure what the repercussions of dropping said books are, but they can't be good. Twenty years of flunking school has taught me that no teacher could actually get away with this, but as a grade schooler with only a few professors under his belt, I'm guessing my homework assignments were proofread a dozen times the night I saw GTTHOTC.
School's out, and Cynthia consoles Peter, who takes his Beans-related frustrations out by throwing sticks through random windows. Complete with glass-crashing sound effects that hit like, .000003 seconds after Peter throws the stick. I remember being all "no way" about that, but then, as a kid, any opportunity to know you're right about an onscreen goof is a welcome one. Whenever I caught Raphael's voice coming out of Donatello's mouth, I went down the trophy shop and had them make me a tall one.
I don't doubt that much of it was lost on me back then, but Cynthia is pretty much defining the term "cocktease" here. Because she's prone to things that don't quite fall under the umbrella of "innocent," she suggests that they get back at Beanes by using one of the spells found by playing the new Blood Sausage vinyl backwards. Sure enough, when Peter rigs his record player and plays the album in reverse, a voice that was as close as you could get to Vincent Price without actually paying Vincent Price taught all one needed to know to royally fuck with someone. In this case, Cynthia suggests that they use a spell to give Beanes a never-ending battle with the hiccups.
Some of the ingredients were found at home, but the big ones required Peter and Cynthia to visit ...the cemetery. Set design in GTTHOTC was absolutely excellent, so much so that I'm this close to forgiving the fact that over 1/3rd of the entire episode consists of the kids rounding up spell ingredients at the cemetery. This place just looked cool. Constant lightning and thunder, spooky trees, eerie winds and at least one drunk hobo that the kids mistake for a ghoul. When Peter starts to rethink their plans, Cynthia plunges at him tongue-first, resulting in Scott Coffey spearheading the movement to create an Emmy category for the most goofy-looking onscreen kissy face. With the backdrop of ghastly graves and unknown terrors, this sizeable chunk of the episode moreover serves to establish Peter's role of a subservient clod, overlooking Cynthia's hair to be willed by her foxy legs.
So yeah, the hiccup spell. Aside from the typical gamut of black magic ingredients (bat wings and the like), the spell calls for the fingertip of one of the victim's blood relatives. That's why they're there -- to chop up a corpse in the Beanes family tomb. After enough suspense and build to make anyone realize that they were trying really hard to make this an hour-long episode (thirty minutes was the Amazing Stories norm), Peter snips the hand off of one of Beanes's dead relatives and throws it into the spell pot, which explodes into green flames that still look cool to me, however outdated the effects may be. That may have been a run-on sentence. I admit that the cemetery-portion of the episode is the portion most likely to be fast-forwarded upon subsequent viewings, but for the end result of kickass green fire, it's all worth it.
The kids weren't expecting such major theatrics to cap off their spellbinding, and are thusly freaked out and ready to forget the night forever. In a rare moment of concern, Cynthia suggests that they just go home and see if the spell worked at school tomorrow. Peter refuses to have gone through all that without knowing about the payoff, so the two creep into the "House of Beanes" to check on things. Early evidence of hiccups is revealed to just be Beanes's ribbiting pet frog, and when they find what was supposed to just be a hiccupping teacher, they find Professor Beanes, stone cold dead on the floor. Oops.
It's too late to turn back; they've already gotten their fingerprints all over Beanes and his house. After discussing what method of execution they'll face when a judge orders the death penalty, Peter remembers another spell on that Blood Sausage album -- a convenient resurrection spell! Dealing with Beanes's constant abuse is a better fate than being charged with murder, so they put everything they've got into bringing him back to life, for better or for worse.
The spell (which by considering the fact that it only required stuff found in Beanes's house must've been far less complicated than the hiccups spell, go figure) is put into action, but they accidentally rip the required picture of Beanes in half, right at the neck. They don't assume this to be a deal-breaker, and just dump both halves of the picture into the makeshift pot of occult equipment. Beans takes a while to show signs of life, but when he does, GTTHOTC transforms from just an episode of an old show I remember to something worthy of me making a second trip to the trophy shop. A lot of people remember this episode, and it's not because of the kid who had to swallow gum, or Mary Stuart Masterson, or the drunk hobo in the cemetery. People remember Go To The Head Of The Class because Christopher Lloyd spent the final trimester of it carrying around his head.
Because of the snafu regarding the ripped picture of Beanes, he comes back to life with his head separated -- but still animated -- from the rest of his body. The combination of being resurrected and being resurrected in two pieces took its toll on ol' Beanes, who has now progressed from being smugly sadistic to outright insane, cackling and screaming while still keeping his death threats firmly rooted in the realm of "detention" and "meeting the misters." This was so, so, so great. With special effects that were certainly impressive for a 1986 TV show, Detached Head Beanes was brought to life by saeveral methods -- static head dummies, animated head dummies, clever camera tricks that cut Lloyd off at the neck, rigged sets...they had it all, and while there's more than a few points where Beanes's head looks more like a crudely-iced cake shaped like Beanes's head, this was otherwise top drawer stuff.
It's here that Beanes really puts the finishing touches on his trademark cry of "Mr. Braaaaaaand," screaming that out at least a hundred times in the few minutes the producers could afford to give to such high priced scenes. (This is probably why the cemetery scene lasted 6,000 years -- it was a heck of a lot cheaper than having to make Christopher Lloyd appear to be carrying his own head.) Still, there's enough of this to make the scene stand tall against all of television's finest moments, and it wasn't all just a case of Lloyd shoving his head through a hole in a rigged mattress.
Keeping the mood light with a bunch of slapstick junk, Beanes chases the kids around the house while yelling at his Frankenstein's Monster-esque body for constantly screwing up. (It has no head, so it can't see where it's going.) The shots that expose the special effects the most are also the creepiest, with hidden wires controlling the head prop's vague eye movements. In a rare twist for this sort of "horror movie" scene, the monster spends as much time talking as it does stalking. Beanes doesn't just hunt down Peter and Cynthia -- he hunts them down while using more words than this review consists of. It's great. You don't just get Beanes throwing his head through doggy doors; you get Beanes's head yapping about homework as it's being thrown through doggy doors.
It's a pivotal scene, really. The kids block off entry to the kitchen, so Beanes's body throws Beanes's head through the doggy door. The fact that I can type that makes this an awesome episode by default. Our heroes are understandably appalled, but before they can escape, Beanes bites Peter in the jeans and won't let go. With a tribute to the show's creator in mind, Peter finally kicks the head off into the night sky and "through the moon," a la E.T. on a bike. This is actually a much more impressive "moon throw" than the one in E.T., for a few reasons:
1) It's not a kid, an alien and a bicycle. It's a prop Christopher Lloyd head. 2) The E.T. version of this scene was not accompanied by a 20-second sound effect of Christopher Lloyd screaming. 3) E.T. and Elliot weren't caught by Christopher Lloyd's headless body.
The scene feels like it's taking forever but really only lasts a few minutes. Cynthia eventually hitches a ride on the back of a bus and leaves Peter to fend for himself, leading to a great scene where Beanes-holding-Beanes chases Mr. Braaaaaand down the stormy streets. This include a gratuitous scene where the effects team pat themselves on the back by having Beanes's body -- while holding the talking head -- carefully step over a knocked-down garbage can. It's so out of place. The scene is all about this wild, speedy chase, and then out of nowhere, Beanes spends half a minute negotiating himself around a garbage pail. It's sooo obvious that someone behind the scenes just wanted to prove that they could pull something like that off, but I'm not going to complain too much if the end result was an additional thirty seconds of Christopher Lloyd dribbling his face.
The chase ends with Peter crawling through his bedroom window, following by Beanes's head, thrown with pinpoint aim by a body that previously could not figure out how to work a door handle. Beanes makes a few more disturbing threats before Peter passes out, transitioning into a daytime scene that has us wondering if it was all just a dream sequence.
Surely, that'd be the safe way to go. Just chalk all of this up to some kid being stressed out over a hard teacher, and that's that -- no real climax necessary. But would GTTHOTC have amassed the minor cult following it has with such a typical copout ending? Fuck no.
Peter zips to school, half-convinced that everything was just a bad dream, and that Professor Beanes would be alive and well, even if still a total shitface. He arrives at class (late as usual) to find Cynthia both dressed more appropriately than usual and serving the dreaded "Meet the Misters" sentence. But, maybe she'd just forgotten to do her homework or something. Surely, if English class was going on like normal, there's no way last night's events actually happened. Right?
In the final minute, Beanes confronts Mr. Brand about being late to class, giving him his third tardy slip and a ticket to detention. Peter doesn't care -- he's just glad that Beanes is alive, and says as much to the professor. Professor Beanes appreciates the concern, but admits that he does have...
A SORE THROAT!!!
It would've been great to fade the episode out on that shot, but instead they gave Scott Coffey a solid fifteen seconds to make his best "I'M SCARED OF WHAT I SEE" face. Oh well, my apples are your oranges.
Like I said earlier, prior to buying the video a while back, I'd only seen this episode once. It stuck with me like the plague, preoccupying me with dread and intrigue to the point where I can't focus enough to not write cliches like "like the plague." I've done some serious Googling on this episode, and it's the same situation for a lot of now-adults who just happened to surf to NBC on that terrible Sunday night. That Go To The Head Of The Class doesn't have a bigger following only tells me that not enough people saw it, a problem that will be easily remedied once the episode hits DVD.
The first season of Amazing Storiesarrives on DVD this July, containing Mirror, Mirror and a lot of other great episodes...but not this one. You'll have to wait for the second season for that, assuming enough people buy the first season to convince them to put out the second season, and if I say "season" one more time I give you full permission to destroy me. Whether it's due to rights or coincidence, I've not once seen Go To The Head Of The Class rerun on Sci-Fi. (Nor any of my other big time favorites.) If you can't wait for the DVD release, a quick search indicates that most tape dealers have slashed their prices on old Amazing Stories videocassette releases, no doubt predicting that the upcoming DVDs will ruin the high prices the tapes once fetched. I can only do so much with a review I had to write really quickly in-between the several seven hour power naps I try to catch every weekend, but this one is totally worth hunting down. Trust me, Mr. Brand.