Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. We’re going to look at Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and more specifically, the Ray Bradbury-penned episode, “Special Delivery.”
The 1950s can be considered the golden age of television anthology series, particularly for the science fiction, horror, and mystery genres. One can hardly think of that era of television without conjuring images of Twilight Zone episodes, or perhaps The Outer Limits. However, with the focus on those two, primarily Twilight Zone, gems like Alfred Hitchcock Presents sadly get left in the dust bin.
Let’s take a quick look at the series as a whole, shall we?
The series, which premiered in 1955 and lasted for ten seasons until 1965, is nothing to sneeze at. Between ’62 and ’65, episodes were stretched into hour-long presentations and the series was renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Boasting an impressive number of episodes (361 in total), some of the finest actors and writers of the era spent time lingering around the series. Many took repeated tours of duty! Big names, from Bette Davis to William Shatner, Vincent Price, Robert Redford, even Peter Lorre, starred in various episodes over the decade’s long run. Famous authors the likes of Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont, and (potentially most interestingly) famed children’s author Roald Dahl contributed to the writing team. The director’s chair for the series was graced by such greats as Hitchcock himself, Robert Altman, Stuart Rosenberg, and even a very young William Friedkin, long before he made a little film called The Exorcist.
But we’re not here to discuss the finer points of the series, despite the fact that said finer points should be discussed. There’s a lot to unpack, and over the course of several articles on various episodes, I’d very much like to do so. But for now, I’ve picked one to focus out attention on.
“Special Delivery” aired on November 29th, 1959, and was the tenth episode in the fifth season. Written by literary powerhouse Ray Bradbury, the story concerns itself with a young boy named Tom who sends away for mushroom spores after seeing an ad for them in the back pages of Mechanical Inventions magazine. Why not? Every other little boy in the neighborhood did! Problem is, the mushrooms turn out to be sentient life forms from outer space, utilizing human bodies through the process of consumption.
I know this might sound like familiar territory (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, anyone?), but the way in which the subject matter is handled throughout the episode feels fresh at all times. Is it possible that Bradbury could have drawn inspiration from Jack Finney’s serialized novel The Body Snatchers? Sure it is. But as we will shortly explore, “Special Delivery” stands up on its own two feet, yet also bares a striking resemblance to certain subject matter in another immensely famous horror film of great consequence.
But I’ll get to all that.
Over time things gather. You start working with wood, you don’t notice the shavings. One day you look at the floor…saw dust. Dust collects, and one day, you know something.
I can’t heap enough praise on Bradbury’s writing. That statement rides outside of the confines of this episode as well, but the manner in which the story is constructed is simply remarkable. The above placed quote, damn near poetry by 1950s dialogue standards, takes place between two middle aged men: main character Bill and his neighbor Roger. In the grand scheme of the episode, such talk proves to be of sincere consequence—a harbinger of what is to come later, what with the alien invasion bubbling up in these two’s respective basements. They wax philosophical on what could be happening right under their noses. What evil could be invading the places they call home, unseen and unrestricted, proliferating quite literally in shadows. It is here that the story sets itself apart from other fare of the era. There’s truths buried between the lines of Bill and Roger’s conversation. Ideas that hold great amounts of water even now, all this time later. That is what makes this a brilliantly written scene. It’s a true slice of suburban horror which would prevail, take root, and grow over the next several decades.
Now, let’s talk about that a little. Much like the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street“, this story concerns itself very much with the disturbance of middle class suburban life. Where as “Monsters” contemplates the fragile binds that tie neighbor to neighbor, “Special Delivery” takes a far more insidious route, cutting straight to the hearts of the show’s viewership: children.
How could creatures from outer space invade us without us noticing?
The evil children-boom of the late ’60s and ’70s and ’80s lineage can be traced back to pieces such as this one. There was nothing more horrifying in the good old days than children turning on their parents. In this episode, the concept of danger growing in the American household, behind the youthful, happy smiles of the neighborhood boys, proves to be the pivotal twist. The mushrooms (the alien lifeforms parading around as garden-variety mushrooms, to be clear) have been brought into the home under the most mundane of courses. Even in my youth of the mid-90s, ordering things in the mail out of the back of comic books was a fairly common practice. I can only imagine such purchases were made ad nauseam and thoughtlessly during the time period in which this episode aired.
What’s interesting to me is the fact that Bradbury used such a commonplace thing as mail-order packages as the source of contact. The invasion strategy. This sort of creative ingenuity, coaxing out anxieties from the audience and drumming up fear of the ordinary, set the tone for the future works of horror masters such as Stephen King, John Carpenter, and David Cronenberg. There’s nothing alarming about growing some mushrooms in the basement. It should be the most droll thing in the universe (and for this writer’s money, mushrooms are gross as hell). But taking such a simple thing and frothing it out towards the chilling ending of the episode is nothing short of remarkable.
Similarities between “Special Delivery” and George A. Romero’s classic Night Of The Living Dead should simply not be overlooked. To be clear, this episode is by no means a “zombie” or ghoul story. However, the basic premise does busy itself with the concept of people’s bodies not being their own anymore. There’s a need for proliferation of a spore, a continuance of life. It’s implied that people are no longer in control of themselves after consuming the mushrooms, that they become something of an other. But all of that aside, the strings I see that pull this episode and NOTLD together lie in the basement.
As mentioned earlier, the concept of children rising up to destroy their parents (or trying to) would eventually become something of a trope, but even when Romero’s 1968 masterpiece came out, the entire basement scene with Karen and her parents sent shockwaves of revulsion out amongst the general public. Romero used that scene as symbolic imagery of the deteriorating condition the nuclear family was facing at that time. “Special Delivery”, while a little lighter than NOTLD’s basement business, seems to point towards much the same. The final moments of the episode, before Mr. Hitchcock returns for his customarily humorous closing monologue, are nothing short of masterful in ratcheting up the horror. It goes towards a place visually that other series of the era didn’t dare.
All right, let’s unpack the episode’s ending.
“Special Delivery” ends with a frightful bang. Our dutiful dad Bill is lured into the basement by his son, Tom. Once down there, Bill finds that ol’ Tommy-boy has become someone, some thing, that he wasn’t before. He’s consumed the mushrooms, giving them his body as their vessel to commit…well, who knows what! The image we’re left with—Bill being seemingly unable to resist taking a bit of the mushroom sandwich Tom demands him to eat from—feels ruthless. There’s a meanness to the scene, to the interaction between father and son, that, as far as I know, might have been the first time something like it was seen on national television. The falling of the father figure, the rising up of the corrupted son. What a slam to the palatial status quo of the time!
You’re hungry, aren’t you? You’re hungry! You’re hungry!
There are many things, production wise, about this ending that smacked of importance to me. For one, the lighting and in-camera effect used for Tom’s eyes are stunning. As the episode hummed along, I felt secure in the notion that this would more or less play out like something from the aforementioned Twilight Zone, but I was wrong. Again, it’s more Romero than Serling. Shadows murk up the scene, beautifully cast, not only on Tom, but creating almost a focal point on Bill as he descends the steps. When Tom eventually begins drawing from the shadows slowly, his pupils dance with light in the darkness in a way that’s both unsettling and…I have to be honest, f*cking awesome.
There isn’t a ton of information out there about this or really any other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Nothing substantial in the way of behind the scenes trivia or anything like that. That said, this effect with Tom’s pupils instantly reminded me of three things: Church in Pet Sematary, Mike Ryerson in Salem’s Lot, and (perhaps most famously) the Replicants from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Turns out, the effect achieved in the former was easily pulled off, as cat’s eyes naturally do that with light in-camera. One has to be deliberate with how they’d light the cat, but it’s relatively simple. With people, however, this is not such an easy task.
But I needed to know how it was done! I’m sure you want to know, too. It’s unsettling as hell and really just puts a macabre cap on a truly wonderful piece of vintage television.
Though there isn’t any confirmation that the method I’m about to discuss was used to create the effect in “Special Delivery”, my research lead me to this YouTube tutorial on how to get the effect in-camera, without the use of SFX. It seems likely to me that, given the era, the technique shown in the tutorial is quite possibly how it was achieved. Two way mirror or glass at a forty five degree angle, concealed light (also forty five degree angle), line that all up with your talent’s eyes and voila! You have the “Special Delivery”/Blade Runner/Salem’s Lot/Pet Sematary pupils! As they used to say on NBC, The More You Know…
Speaking of NBC, all seven seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as the three seasons of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, are available to stream for free through their new platform, Peacock.
This concludes our time, you and I. Going back in and watching this series is something of a revelation. It’s my belief that amongst the weeds (and there are some weeds, let’s be clear), there are gems such as “Special Delivery” lurking in the dense swath of episodes. This episode is worthy of our attention as a landmark in fine writing and storytelling, setting the precedent for the depth of material we’ve come to enjoy in modern times.
I know I’ll be watching more, looking for other showstoppers like this one. Won’t you join me?
As Hitchcock used to say, “Until next time, good night.”