TV Terror Guide: Dying Room Only (1973)


Air Date: Sept. 18, 1973 (ABC)

Production Companies: Lorimar Productions

Running Time: 74 min.

Available on: Warner Archive (DVD)

Written by: Richard Matheson

Based on his short story of the same name

Directed by: Philip Leacock

Cast: Cloris Leachman, Ross Martin, Ned Beatty, Dana Elcar, Louise Latham, Dabney Coleman, Ron Feinberg

Warning! This review contains spoilers!

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If not for its disappointing letdown of an ending, Dying Room Only (1973) would undoubtedly be one of the best 1970s TV movies I’ve watched during the series so far. It’s The Twilight Zone feel for 99% of the running time is not surprising considered it was written by Richard Matheson, but I wonder if the short story on which it’s based ends the same way.

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Of course, part of this could be personal taste. I’d prefer there to be a supernatural explanation or even an ambiguous ending. I’m oddly wired to understand the unknown better than I am the fact-based. With the former, my imagination can run wild, and I can speculate… there’s no wrong answer. With the latter, my logic seeks answers for every detail… it has to make sense.

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So, honestly, I just didn’t understand the ending. What were the bad guys plotting and why? What is it exactly they intended to do?” What did they hope to gain by doing it? If the story explained, I missed it. Therefore, I was left thinking, “Darn, there’s nothing spooky going on at all. It was all fully grounded in reality.

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“It” is the disappearance of Bob Mitchell (Dabney Coleman) at a desolate roadside café as he and his wife, Jean (Cloris Leachman) belatedly return home to Los Angeles from a vacation detour in which they took pictures for their daughter. They’re constantly arguing, and you tend to believe the Sheriff (Dana Elcar) that he must have just ran off and left her.

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By the way, Dana Elcar played Sheriff Patterson #1 on Dark Shadows from 1966-1967. Since the sheriff in Dying Room Only isn’t named, what are the chances it’s the same guy? Maybe he tired of investigating the supernatural in Maine and relocated to Arizona to get away from it all. Then, wouldn’t you know, he has another disappearance on his hands!

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Back to Bob and Jean… You don’t really believe that he ran out on her, though, because just before they pulled into the parking lot, they agreed that it was a nice vacation, and they shouldn’t spend their last day at each other’s throats. Plus, their car is still in the parking lot when he disappears. Plus, Jean just knows “there’s something very wrong here.”

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Her intuition is right. The proprietor, Jim Cutler (Ross Martin), and his one customer, Tom King (Ned Beatty) are about as shady as they come. They’ll hardly talk to her and they play dumb when she returns from the ladies’ room and Bob is gone. The woman at the front desk of the adjacent motel, Vi (Louise Latham), isn’t any more helpful.

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After finally getting Cutler to open the men’s (excuse me, Gents) room door, he’s not in a stall or lying on the floor… it’s like he vanished into thin air. But there is a mysterious door in the bathroom that supposedly leads to a shed on the other side. Cutler would have to “wade through trash and junk” to open the door for her.

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The atmosphere is scary, the mood is tense, and the suspense is palpable. There’s a threat lurking somewhere, and we empathize with Jean’s desperation. Why, this needs a big, exciting explanation, don’t you think? It’s sad that we don’t get it. I’m still going to rate Dying Room Only very high, though. One sour note does not ruin the symphony.

Dying Room Only is available on DVD from Warner Archive. Visit the TV Terror Guide: 70's TV Movies playlist at ClassicHorrors.Club TV on YouTube to watch other great movies from this series...

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