Season 2, Episode 5: “The Phantom Farmhouse” / “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”
Original airdate: Oct. 20, 1971
Programming note: Jessica bowed out this week. We assume it’s because she lost herself in a world of sunny beaches and oceanfront tranquillity.
Nirajan: Wrapping up our spooky roundtable for this month with two intriguing stories that have been quite a delight, in my opinion. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, the NBC follow-up to The Twilight Zone, shares a similar format with its predecessor, featuring Serling as the host who introduces tales of the eerie and the fantastical.
In this round, we have one story depicting werewolves causing terror near a sanatorium and another tale centred around a boy gradually retreating into a world of snow.
For me, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is the most fascinating of the two. “The Phantom Farmhouse” feels a bit too tidy and uneventful.
Even though David McCallum (known as Ducky from NCIS!!) and Linda Marsh both exude an oddly captivating presence as a couple, despite their limited screen time, the segment lacks the engaging elements that I was hoping for.
It even features stereotypical, superstitious European “peasants” nearby, insisting that McCallum’s character carries a pure silver crucifix for protection. There’s not much horror to be found here, aside from McCallum’s confrontation with the wolves.
On the other hand, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is utterly mesmerizing. Orson Welles’ melodic narration certainly plays a part, but what makes this short story truly captivating is the multitude of avenues it presents.
Is Paul losing his hearing, as I initially thought? No. Is he falling under the influence of some kind of demon? No. Instead, he’s gradually withdrawing from the natural world. But why? Is it a response to the corruption he perceives?
Snow symbolizes purity and cleanliness, so is he retreating to a world that embodies those qualities? Does this drive him to declare that he hates his mother? What are your thoughts on this?
Janavi: In my perspective, it seems that what Paul is seeking is not merely cleanliness and purity but rather tranquillity and peace. His first encounter with the snow is when it muffles the loud footsteps of the mailman, and later, he envisions it as a soothing force that dampens all the surrounding noise.
I believe he’s retreating from a hostile and noisy world that he struggles to comprehend. However, the narration complicates this interpretation, as the snow appears to possess an actual voice akin to some meteorological Tyler Durden.
It may exude tranquillity, but Welles’s voice lends it a seductive, icy predator-like quality. And what about the scene where he returns home and glimpses himself in the window above? Could that symbolize his separation from his former life? It’s a mind-boggling thought.
The straightforward explanation is that Paul is undergoing a genuine mental breakdown, potentially associated with schizophrenia, with the snow and the voice representing the onset of hallucinations and a detachment from reality.
But I find it more captivating to contemplate that he’s retreating from a world filled with mocking classmates, overbearing teachers, and clueless parents, which overwhelms him with hostility.
Furthermore, I found “Silent Snow” to be genuinely, intensely creepy, more so than anything we’ve watched thus far.
The tight, intrusive camera angles and the non-linear editing contributed to an overall atmosphere that felt detached and off-kilter, almost reminiscent of a scene from a David Lynch film.
To add to the unsettling ambience, the exquisite narration—presumably derived from the short story (which I’ve never read)—is transformed into something truly extraordinary by Welles.
(On a side note, “The Phantom Farmhouse” was simply dreadful. It reminded me of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where they hilariously dissected The Touch of Satan, another turgid, oh-so-’70s horror tale.)
Abishek: David Carradine’s character in “The Phantom Farmhouse” seems well-acquainted with where the fish resides, Janavi.
Initially, I had anticipated that “Farmhouse” might evolve into a peculiar psychological exploration.
The outset, featuring a diverse group of people perched asymmetrically, led me to believe we might uncover that they were all manifestations of a singular person’s psyche, a notion that added an initial touch of surrealism to the story.
The leisurely pacing, deliberate performances, and unexplained eerie elements, like Gideon smashing the guitar or the old woman’s stained hands, contributed to this initial surreal atmosphere.
However, the narrative eventually settled into a conventional werewolf story, with the pacing becoming more pedestrian than engaging, and I found myself merely waiting for it to conclude.
One potentially thought-provoking aspect of the tale revolves around gender politics. It’s challenging to determine whether the show is offering a commentary or simply reflecting a certain mindset, but there is an undeniable strain of misogyny present.
First, McCallum’s protagonist, Joel, expresses his fondness for temptress and lycanthrope Mildred, citing her “gentle” and “shy” nature, which he contrasts with the behavior of other “girls these days” (a reference to the sexual revolution, naturally).
Individually, this might be viewed as a reflection of Joel’s regressive beliefs. However, what transpires next amplifies the issue.
Betty, a young woman in his therapy group, meets a gruesome fate at the hands of wolves after being delivered to them by Carradine’s Gideon, who is portrayed as a “warlock” in their service.
Gideon locates human meals and serves them to Mildred and her kin, essentially acting as the Silver Surfer to Mildred’s Galactus.
What’s striking is the matter-of-fact conversation where he calmly confesses these deeds to Joel, a dialogue devoid of any traces of grief, anger, horror, or remorse on the part of either character.
Gideon clarifies that his dislike for Betty stemmed from her being “a snoop” and “too virtuous.” He even suggests that he had a sexual encounter with her before this aversion took hold.
Betty may have been tolerable as a sexual partner, but she made him feel inadequate, which led to her elimination, carried out by the character clearly portrayed as virginal, Mildred.
What adds an unsettling layer to this is that Betty meets her demise in the same meadow where, just a few scenes earlier, the bodies of slaughtered sheep were discovered. The connection between the woman and the sacrificial animals is undeniably evident.
Once again, it’s unclear if “The Phantom Farmhouse” attempts to comment on the sexual insecurities eroding these archetypal representations of supposedly enlightened masculinity from the 1970s—Joel, the refined intellectual, and Gideon, the sensitive, guitar-strumming bohemian.
If it is, it transforms into a more compelling piece of horror parable, albeit one that could have been executed more effectively. If it isn’t attempting this commentary, then it remains as distasteful as it is uninteresting.
Kriti: These are certainly an interesting pair of stories, and I’m glad we discussed them together, even if there’s a clear disparity in quality between the two.
I hadn’t seen this series before (making it four for four this month), but it undeniably shares several qualities with The Twilight Zone, particularly that unsettling disconnection where even the most seemingly ordinary moments feel slightly askew as if the characters are not perceiving the same reality as regular people.
As has been mentioned in previous discussions of anthology dramas, Serling is the quintessential host for this type of content, and the alien quality of the gallery in the opening introduction effectively transports the viewer into a different state of mind. (I’m also thrilled that I finally understand the reference from The Simpsons made way back in “Treehouse of Horror IV.”)
Regarding the stories themselves, “The Phantom Farmhouse” unquestionably stands out as a weak instalment.
It’s always a delight to witness David Carradine’s presence in any role, and I particularly relished his disconnected portrayal as a recovering addict who may or may not be in communion with otherworldly forces, often prone to disrupting conversations by smashing his guitar or interjecting with a spontaneous offer to play croquet.
However, aside from Carradine’s performance, the episode lacks a solid foundation. The relationship between Joel and Mildred felt contrived to me, the narrative proceeded sluggishly, and the ultimate resolution failed to satisfy me because it didn’t draw me into the fates of either Joel or the three werewolves.
Abishek, I do acknowledge the point you’ve raised concerning the potential gender commentary within the piece, and it’s evident that they may have had loftier aspirations, but it comes across as clumsily executed.
Perhaps part of the issue stems from the fact that they adapted a Seabury Quinn story from 1923, which required updating the context by several decades.
I haven’t read the original story, so I can’t say for certain, but the writing in this adaptation appears to overshoot the mark to the extent that the intended message either falls flat or is completely missed.
As for “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” I’ve had the opportunity to read the original story (available here courtesy of the Virginia Quarterly Review), and both the story and the episode genuinely elicit terror.
Much like “Breakdown,” this narrative delves deeply into the internal, but while Joseph Cotten’s character was vehemently battling the confines of his own mind, Paul progressively retreats further into his own psyche.
Nirajan and Janavi, you both presented your theories on why he does so, and the story’s ambiguity only makes it more enthralling and horrifying, as any of the interpretations could be accurate.
There are no clear indications of him being bullied or abused, whether at home or at school—he simply desires to depart without offering an explanation, seeking a place where things are quieter and more serene.
However, it turns out not to be quite as peaceful as he envisioned, does it? Welles’s authoritative narration significantly contributes to establishing the mood (thankfully refraining from interjecting with something like “Every July, peas grow there” during the discussion of snow and ice).
As the story nears its conclusion, it increasingly appears that the snow isn’t aiding him in escaping; instead, it appears to be laying a claim on him. The snow transforms from being his sanctuary or confidant into something far more ancient and nearly malevolent.
It seems to desire to bury him until all traces of individuality are obliterated, leaving behind only the white drifts and the unbroken hiss. It ominously proclaims, “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story… we will take the place of everything.”