The Twonky

twonkyThe key to watching any weird/old/unfamiliar thing is to force yourself to watch it for fifteen minutes, uninterrupted. No bathroom breaks, no checking the internet, no talking with friends. If after fifteen minutes you haven’t settled into its rhythms and slowed your mind down/sped it up to the pace the storytelling requires, you’re probably going to get zilch out of it.

Sometimes watching old movies is hard. Watching an old movie that doesn’t even have the rhythms of a movie, that has terrible and silly special effects, and some grade Z performances, is even harder. And old, cheap movies rarely come as off-putting and initially grating as The Twonky. Even the opening music tells you this isn’t for you, modern viewer. The oboe and clarinet reed about how wacky the adventure to come is. 60s Dennis the Menace-style tedium.

But fifteen minutes in, the film showed me some things I had not expected. By the end, the tonal shifts, the weird music and the episodic structure were all obvious defects, but it was also weird as all get-out, with atypical characters, and twists in the storytelling and plot which surprised me.

The film stars Hans Conried (whom I had not heard of, but apparently he was prolific; he did the voice of Thorin in the Rankin and Bass Hobbit) as a college professor whose wife leaves to visit her family for the first time in years. He’ll be alone, so she buys a television to keep him company (I happen to like all the assumptions that go into this dynamic – that the two are so attuned to one another, so bonded as a pair, that the wife has to give him a palliative to shut his brain off from the loneliness. It’s romantic.) The TV is a giant piece of furniture – a small screen, but heavy, with legs like a table.

Bored Hans pulls out a cigarette, and we see for the first time that the TV is not a normal TV. From its screen it fires a beam and lights Hans’s cigarette. This unnerves him, so he switches to a pipe, which it lights. In the worst performance ever put on film, the delivery man comes back and says he needs COD for the TV. The TV promptly spits out copies of whatever Hans had in his wallet.

The strangeness continues. The only person Hans can convince to take him seriously is the intellectual football coach, who affirms they have to study the strange TV scientifically. Through their semi-drunken experiments the coach and professor determine that the Twonky (a name the coach gives it) is a bodyguard, a pleasure provider…but also a censor. When the Professor tries to put on some Mozart, the Twonky blasts the record off the player, and replaces it with dreadful, blaring martial music, to which the Twonky dances.

Sometimes the Twonky is like an overeager puppy. When the Professor plays solitaire, it bounces up and down next to him, until it just can’t stand it anymore and zaps the cards, making a play the professor had overlooked. But when he tries to write his lecture on the freedom of expression and art, the ideas blast out of his mind.

The coach has a hypothesis: the Twonky is a shape-shifting time traveler, the agent of a totalitarian superstate.  A mechanical Soma, the Twonky encourages indolence and vice, but no ideas or learning. The Professor’s ever-more desperate struggles to rid himself of the thing become more than a fight over a confusing nuisance, but a battle for self-determination and free will.

The Twonky is undeniably silly. It is written and directed by veteran radio show producer Arch Oboler. He was one of the giants of the medium, but the film shows his limitations. It is told in episodes, is only mostly coherent, and has a few performances that are out and out terrible – actor making dumb faces and doing radio voices. Throughout most of the film music is overused, punctuating jokes and forming a braying, enervating bed in which the action uncomfortably sits.

It is not a good movie, by any appropriate measure. But it is kinda great in the way it shoehorns some real ideas into its antics. It may be just my distaste for anything modern talking, and I do not need my movies to have a moral spelled out in neon, but I like it when even a silly entertainment is about something, anything, and not just about itself.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email