"Long Distance Call" is the 22nd episode of the second season of The Twilight Zone, and was first broadcast in March of 1961. It starred Phillip Abbot and Patricia Smith as husband and wife Chris and Sylvia Bayles, Lili Darvas as Chris' mother, and a young Bill Mumy as their son Billy. This was one of Mumy's first acting roles, and he would return to the Twilight Zone most famously in season 3's "It's a Good Life". Like five other episodes in Season 2, this episode was shot on videotape, although for some reason, it didn't seem to be as apparent in this episode as in the others.
At the end of each Twilight Zone episode there is a teaser for the next episode, which often gives the viewer a pretty good idea of what to expect. The trailer for this episode promised a story about a telephone with special powers and a "young boy's faith", which seemed to suggest a sentimental, feel-good episode.
I was a bit surprised.
Chris and Sylvia Bayles live together with Chris' mother, who has a terminal health condition, and their young son Billy. The grandmother dotes on her grandson, and on his birthday buys him a toy telephone, as well as giving a speech about how having a grandson has given her a renewed sense of purpose through her short life. She then has what appears to be a heart attack. On her deathbed, she disowns her son, saying he was stolen from her by his wife, and says that her grandson is her real son. She then dies. And immediately afterwards, little Billy starts spending all his time talking on the phone. He then starts taking risks, wanting to "rejoin" his grandmother.
After my complaints about the series becoming too formulaic, there has been several good episodes in a row. This episode was certainly a good one, with psychological drama and suspense. Apart from the matter of the haunted telephone, the real horror potential in this episode comes from the grandmother who is so possessive that she is urging her own grandson to commit suicide to rejoin her. Unfortunately, the 25 minute format of the show doesn't allow all of the psychological ramifications to be explored: it would have been interesting to watch more of the family dynamics of the grandmother's control of her family. This is one of the Twilight Zone episodes that I can imagine being the basis for an entire movie. This is also one of the few Twilight Zone episodes where I feel the content standards of early 1960's television held the story back. Usually I like that the Twilight Zone can communicate horror and suspense without recourse to explicit violence, but I can imagine that some of the suggested Freudian themes of the story could have been enhanced by allowing harsher language or violence. But in any case, this is one of the better tales of psychological horror from the Twilight Zone, as well as a great debut by Bill Mumy.