Amazing Stories “Life on Death Row” (part 2 of 2)
After the break, Hector is bringing the warden into the infirmary, excitedly describing what Swayze just did. And the warden is played by an actor who is, by far, the biggest name associated with this episode: James T. Callahan. Who is James T. Callahan, you ask? For four seasons, Callahan masterfully played the role of grandfather Walter Powell on the watershed Scott Baio series Charles in Charge. Now there’s a guy who deserves his own theme month.
Hector tells the warden about how he’s had “shrapnel” is his leg for years, and somehow, one touch from Swayze fixed it. And after going back and watching the earlier scenes, I can confirm that Hector’s character did indeed walk with a limp, but it was barely noticeable.
The warden is skeptical, so Hector goes over to another prisoner in the infirmary, a guy with crippling arthritis. The guy even shows off his cramped-up fingers to prove that, yes, he does have arthritis. Hector wants Swayze to come over and heal the guy, but an angry Swayze refuses to “put on a show” for the warden, and he just wants to go back to his cell and wait for his “time” tomorrow.
Hector says Swayze needs to do this, if for no other reason than to help his fellow prisoner. Arthritis Guy then proceeds to put on a big melodramatic suffering act, begging Swayze for help. So Patrick relents, and grabs the guy’s hands, and another light show happens, and a golden glow fills the room.
To no one’s surprise, Arthritis Guy is healed. He maniacally and repeatedly screams, “I got new haaands!” while making gestures that suggest he’s thrilled to get back to playing the clarinet soon.
And now, Patrick’s back in his cell, and Hector is sitting on his bunk. Swayze wonders why a death row inmate like himself, of all people, would get this kind of power. Hector says maybe he wasn’t destined to heal the world. Maybe he only got this power to heal the people here… on death row. Because it’s just plain cruel to execute a guy with bad arthritis.
Swayze gets called to the warden’s office, where sunlight dramatically flows in through the blinds. The warden says he’s a firm believer in capital punishment, but given the circumstances, he’ll do everything in his power to save Swayze. Failing that, he’ll at least get him an autographed picture of the inimitable Mr. Willie Aames.
But the warden’s motives are not so pure and selfless. He opens a side door, and in walks his wife and cherubic little daughter. The warden explains that his daughter has been blind since she was two years old.
An overload of cuteness follows, with Swayze bonding with the little blind girl. The warden again promises to do everything he can to save him, so Swayze obliges by touching the girl’s face, and the room fills with that same golden glow. I’ll have to assume he restores her eyesight, because we’re thankfully spared a maudlin scene of the girl suddenly being able to see again. And if I recall correctly, there was a similar plot point in The Green Mile, only there it was the warden’s wife being magically healed.
And now Swayze is being led through the cell block, and all the other inmates have their arms outstretched through the cell bars, and he’s touching all their hands, and much bug zapper light show action happens. And now, there’s a whole line of prisoners waiting to enter a room and see Swayze, and that same golden glow is coming from inside the room. Wow. There are more prisoners with crippling ailments than I thought. Or, it’s entirely possible Swayze’s healing power also works on hangnails, ingrown toenails, and is excellent at removing warts.
And now, it’s the night Swayze is set to be executed. A clock shows it’s 15 minutes to midnight. The warden is on the phone, begging and pleading with the governor to stay the execution. He mentions that he has statements from witnesses who can attest to Swayze’s magical healing powers. Well, if he does, it’s pretty dumb for him to wait until 15 minutes before the execution to bring them up. I mean, I know he was busy all day with his daughter, taking her to a real zoo instead of his usual routine of walking her around the backyard and telling her there’s a lion in front of her, but geez, man. Priorities.
Over in Swayze’s cell, a priest who looks like John Oates is administering the last rites. Hector’s here and he assures Swayze that he did a lot of good today. And then the warden enters, and he breaks the bad news. Apparently, the governor refused to stop the execution. The warden offers no explanation other than, “I’m sorry,” probably because this is a really stupid plot development, and there’s no good reason the governor wouldn’t at least grant a temporary stay.
Okay, sure, if the governor was confronted with a lot of anecdotes from people claiming Swayze healed them, with no real proof, then he’d be more than justified in paying no attention. But every time Swayze touches somebody, lights flash, and a part of that person’s body glows. It’s pretty hard to deny that at least something extraordinary is going on here that requires further investigation.
Also, why wouldn’t somebody at the prison just alert the media? All it would take is one well-placed call to the local TV station. If a prison warden was claiming that a prisoner could supernaturally heal people, I’m fairly certain that WBFE-TV in Random Texas Podunk could be bothered to send over a camera crew to record his amazing feats. But obviously, this episode needs all the dramatic punch it can muster, and so we get a governor who flatly refuses to do anything.
Swayze winces at the news, and he’s really bummed out. He says, “Suddenly, I’m not so interested in being alone.” I can appreciate the sentiment, but I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.
And now, Swayze is led down that green mile (actually, it’s sort of a dull gray). He sits in the electric chair, and a guard puts a black hood over his face, and straps the electrodes around his head. Hector is among the observers outside the glass, and he watches grimly. This being a family show, they don’t actually let us see Swayze get fried. All we see is the warden giving the signal for guards to flip a series of switches, and the lights flicker a bit, and Hector looks pained.
And now, Hector is rolling Patrick’s sheet-covered corpse on a stretcher down the corridor. Is it possible that he’s going to pass through Swayze’s ghost without realizing it? Also, why would Hector be left alone to dispose of the body? Maybe it’s common practice in typical executions to entrust the body to some random guard, but this really isn’t a typical execution, as we’ll see in a moment.
Hector has tears in his eyes as he talks out loud to Swayze’s corpse, saying he’s sorry it turned out this way. And then he lays a hand on Swayze’s body, and guess what? There’s a flash of light, accompanied by bug zapper noises. Hector whips off the sheet to reveal… well, it’s Swayze, still dead. However, he doesn’t look the slightest bit burnt.
Then some random handyman wanders through the corridor, and Hector calls him over, noticing that he was one of the guys healed earlier today by Swayze. He tells the handyman to touch Swayze, causing another little light show.
Hector quickly wheels Swayze off to the cell block, and the guard at the gate refuses to buzz him in. This would be the same guard who had his coffee drugged, which somehow led to all the cell doors spontaneously opening, and yet he still has a job. He continues to play the hard-ass, so Hector forcefully says, “For once in your life, just do something right!” No one can resist that famous Elizondo charisma, so he buzzes them in.
Hector wheels Swayze’s body down the cell block, and yells at all the prisoners to touch him. Now the inmates are all gathered around Swayze, and feeling up on Swayze. Though, I’m pretty sure this happened at least once while he was still alive, too.
There’s a long shot of all the prisoners standing in a huddle, with a golden glow emanating from the center of the crowd. Which is about the only halfway memorable shot in the whole episode.
The camera focuses in on Swayze’s face, and he opens his eyes. Actually, it’s really a crossfade from a shot of him with his eyes closed, to a shot of him with his eyes open. What the hell?
A reanimated Swayze sits up, and there’s a moment here, and you’ll blink if you miss it, but Patrick knocks over one of the side railings of the stretcher, and one of the actors playing the prisoners reflexively reaches out to catch it. This clearly wasn’t planned, and it was left in the final edit, so there’s more evidence that this episode was put together pretty quickly.
Just then, the warden runs up, wanting to know what the hell’s going on. He sees Swayze has returned from the dead, and he looks about ready to shit himself. “My God,” he gasps. “What on earth do we do now?” All the prisoners turn to him, like he just mentioned his broker is E.F. Hutton.
Of course, it’s pretty simple what they do now. If an execution doesn’t take the first time, I’m sure the standard procedure is to have a do-over and execute the prisoner again. Also, I think the implication here is that when all the prisoners touched him, they returned some of Swayze’s healing power, curing him of being dead. So, I think the obvious thing to do would be to execute him again, and then make sure nobody he healed comes anywhere near his body afterwards. Easy, right?
Instead, after the warden says this line, the camera pulls back and… fade out. That’s the whole thing. Implying, I guess, that there’s no way they can possibly execute Swayze, so they’re fucked. The end.
This episode had a few interesting moments, but for the most part, it bears a lot of signs of being quickly slapped together. The ending in particular stinks of “holy crap, the money ran out, so let’s just pretend this scene is creepy in a Twilight Zone sort of way, and call it a day.”
And as far as Swayze’s performance goes, well, it’s a Swayze performance, and you get pretty much what you’d expect from a Patrick Swayze performance. He tried, oh lord did he try, but he couldn’t do much to salvage this dreary story.
Several years after the series ended, selected episodes of Amazing Stories were released on VHS, and “Life on Death Row” was one of them. Given the lackluster nature of the episode, I’m pretty sure it was only included to cash in on Swayze’s newfound fame thanks to Dirty Dancing and Ghost.
And here’s the description of the episode from the back of the VHS box: “Patrick Swayze stars as a hardened criminal whose attitude is radically changed when he acquires the power.” I didn’t add any emphasis there, that’s how the videotape has it written. But then again, the back of the box also refers to Amazing Stories as a “popular series”, so it’s clear whoever wrote this was on heavy drugs.
In 2006, Amazing Stories was released to DVD, but only the first season so far. Season two is still in limbo, so apparently, season one didn’t sell very well. And when a prematurely canceled 1980s sci-fi/fantasy series can’t generate a cult following, you know it’s bad.