Saturday, July 13, 2013

Tales of Terror From the Twilight Zone


The Twilight Zone's Tales of Terror
Exploring the darkest regions of the show.

by Jordan Prejean

Generally considered a science fiction program, The Twilight Zone also borrowed from and greatly contributed to the long standing tradition of the short horror tale. Though a number of Twilight Zone episodes are science fiction (tales which deal in scientific speculation, generally in the form of technological or sociological innovations or deviations, as it effects society, culture, and/or politics), roughly a third of the show's output is devoted to the tale of terror, many of which are wrapped in the trappings of traditional science fiction but are nevertheless designed to horrify or psychologically disturb the viewer.

Among the four dozen episodes that contain a definite horrific slant, The Twilight Zone produced a handful of horror masterpieces that would go on to exert a profound influence on an entire generation of writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians, an influence which can still be felt today as variations and parodies of popular episodes continue to crop up.

The Twilight Zone was not always the original exponent of many of these variations. In many cases, the opposite is true. The creators behind the The Twilight Zone's most memorable episodes were capable of great originality in concept even as they borrowed, sometimes liberally, from previous works and, in the case of the show's small group of principle writers, from the works of each other. In many instances, the genius for invention on the show was in the inversion of formulaic plotlines and cliche elements to produce surprising and frightening works that have endured for over fifty years.

The majority of credit for the success of the show belongs to executive producer, chief writer, and host Rod Serling, who managed to assemble a bevy of exemplary creative talent as well as ensure an environment in which that talent could thrive without the hindrance of constant interference or censorship from network executives. Some of The Twilight Zone's finest horror episodes were written by Serling himself but an equal number of the now-classic horror episodes were written by two writers, Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, who were publishing short horror stories and, in Matheson's case, horror novels for a full decade prior to the airing of The Twilight Zone's pilot episode.

Matheson produced his classic and often reprinted first story, "Born of Man and Woman," a science fictionesque domestic monster story, for the Summer, 1950 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, while Beaumont debuted with "The Devil, You Say?" (filmed as one of the The Twilight Zone's many forays into the "deal with the devil" trope as season four's "Printer's Devil," starring Burgess Meredith) in the January, 1951 issue of Amazing Stories.
These two writers took divergent approaches to composing their teleplays for The Twilight Zone. Matheson initially resisted the idea of adapting his own previously published short stories, though he did sell two ("Third From the Sun" and "Disappearing Act," this latter being among his finest horror stories, though it was given a large dose of science fiction when adapted for the screen) to Rod Serling's Cayuga Productions prior to his own involvement as a writer for the show. Matheson instead opted to create original teleplays for production, not adapting his own stories until the final three seasons, when he produced classics such as "Death Ship" and "Night Call."

Charles Beaumont was well within his comfort zone adapting his own previously published work, often using the opportunity to modify or expand the ideas and events presented in the published version of the story. Many of both Matheson's and Beaumont's short stories that were not adapted for The Twilight Zone would have nevertheless made excellent episodes, some horror and some lighter fantasy, such as the excellent and touching Beaumont story "The Vanishing American," and Matheson's chilling tale of time travel terror, "Return." Two of the stories which were slated for production before being chopped from the creative block during the disastrous fifth season by the show's final producer, the lamentable William Froug, were Beaumont's "Gentlemen, Be Seated" (the script of which is included in the Roger Anker edited volume, The Twilight Zone Scripts of Charles Beaumont, Volume One), and Matheson's "The Doll." More than twenty years later, Matheson's script was dramatized on Steven Spielberg's anthology of fantasy stories Amazing Stories and would bring an Emmy Award to its star John Lithgow.

Perhaps the most interesting script cut from production, and one of interest to us when examining the horror episodes of The Twilight Zone, was writer Arch Oboler's "What the Devil!," described by Marc Scott Zicree in his The Twilight Zone Companion as: "about a couple of murderers who are chased along a highway by a dynamite truck driven by Satan." That sounds as though, if staged properly, it could have been an intense and unforgettable episode. Oboler is best known as the producer and writer during the best years of the Wyllis Cooper created horror radio program Lights Out.

Jerry Sohl, the ghostwriter behind the fine horror episodes "The New Exhibit" and "Living Doll," both of which were credited solely to Charles Beaumont (the latter of whom was farming out writing assignments he could no longer handle because of overwork and drastically increasing health problems characterized by Alzheimer's-like symptoms), also found two of his original scripts cut by producer Froug, "Who Am I?" and "Pattern for Doomsday."

It is also lamentable that Rod Serling, a great writer by any measure, would become so strongly tied to the horror genre, a genre he admittedly loved and was widely read in but had no desire to be exclusively associated with, after the demise of The Twilight Zone, reduced to lending his name as editor of anthologies of horror stories such as Rod Serling's Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves (1963) and coming full circle as host and sometimes writer on the uneven horror anthology Night Gallery, where Serling had virtually zero creative control under the overbearing thumb of talented but misguided producer and sometimes writer Jack Laird. Though Night Gallery produced some fine episodes of horror and the macabre, many by Serling and often adapted from the work of top horror writers, Serling seems to have found himself wading knee deep in what he perceived to be schlock horror less than a decade after producing extremely fine, and Emmy Award winning, work for The Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, this late stage of his career appears to have worked negatively on Serling's sense of self worth and caused him to question his undeniable value as a writer. The irony should not be lost on the reader that Serling's macabre work on The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery is undoubtedly the reason the writer's reputation has endured.

Serling, Matheson, and Beaumont created a handful of enduring masterpieces of the macabre as showcases for the fine productions on The Twilight Zone, creating new and enduring concepts as well as playing off the works of past masters. If, in Serling's case, the calls of plagiarism came often and from loud (Ray Bradbury) voices, I believe the fine line between homage and unauthorized reproduction was crossed only three times during the show's run (though the calls came far more often than that), and two of those times were from the pen of Serling. I tend to give Serling the benefit of the doubt in terms of an oversight when it came to crediting the proper sources since the man went out of his way to protect the interest of the writers on the show and bought widely among the then current crop of horror and science fiction writers for production on the show. At the very least, Serling most likely mistook a previously read story, among the hundreds he was no doubt reading in an attempt to find material for the show, as one of his own original ideas.

Serling's two inarguable instances of trespass were season one's "Nightmare as a Child" (an unauthorized adaptation of Truman Capote's award winning short story "Miriam") and season two's "The Silence" (an uncredited production of Anton Chekhov's short story "The Bet"), neither of which are we concerned with in this examination of The Twilight Zone's episodes of horror as both "Nightmare as a Child" and "The Silence" are tales of mystery and psychological suspense.

Robert Redford and Gladys Cooper
in Season Three's "Nothing in the Dark"
An episode which hits closer to home to the theme at hand is season three's "Nothing in the Dark," one of the finest and most popular productions of the show's entire run. It is a darkly atmospheric supernatural fantasy which ends on an uplifting note. The fact is that the episode is an uncredited adaptation by writer George Clayton Johnson (one of the show's finest writers) of Ray Bradbury's story "Death and the Maiden," originally published in the March, 1960 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The fact that Johnson was an understudy of Bradbury no doubt reinforces the idea that Johnson borrowed from the great master's work, intentionally or not, and the instance most likely also further soured Bradbury's opinion of the show as a whole.

Bradbury initially found himself on the ground floor of the show's production when he suggested several writers to a visiting Rod Serling, all of whom Bradbury believed fit the style Serling was trying to achieve with the show, only to have Serling later reject several of Bradbury's own submitted teleplays. Bradbury grew to believe, rightly or wrongly, that his work was being stolen from him and produced uncredited for the show. It was not the first time Bradbury had been unceremoniously stolen from if one remembers William Gaines and Al Feldstein from E.C. Comics producing uncredited, and therefore uncompensated, comic adaptations ("A Strange Undertaking" from Haunt of Fear #6, "Home to Stay" from Weird Fantasy #13, and "What the Dog Dragged In" from Vault of Horror #22) of Bradbury stories. Bradbury was able to strike a fruitful working relationship with Gaines and Feldstein to get the credit and compensation he deserved, not to mention some exceedingly fine comic adaptations of his work (later collected in two paperback volumes by Ballantine Books as "The Autumn People" (horror stories) and "Tomorrow Midnight" (science fiction stories)) but was never able to achieve the same kind of working relationship with Serling and The Twilight Zone, managing only to have a single teleplay produced, the very pedestrian season three episode, "I Sing the Body Electric," adapted from the short story of the same name.

Though we won't find any vampires (though we do have a couple of immortals), werewolves (unless you consider the Howling Man), or shambling zombies (unless you follow the end of a down telephone line) in The Twilight Zone, the traditional horror tale is well represented with more than a few deals with the Devil and some very fine, and frightening, ghost stories.

When it comes to the horror story, one of the major literary achievements of Serling, Matheson, Beaumont, and their contemporaries, including Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, and many of their pulp writing contemporaries, was the removal of the horror story from the Gothic, often European, trappings common to the literature of the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries and to place the horrors in the realistic and recognizable settings of postwar America without ever losing the Gothic sensibilities. From this literary innovation sprung new monsters to replace the old reliable specters of the literature's past. But even these new monsters had their antecedents in the visionary writers of the century before, from the European tradition of psychological horror including Franz Kafka and E.T.A. Hoffmann, to the terrifying entities of supernatural terror to be found in the great ghost story writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including M.R. James, E.F. Benson, and A.M. Burrage.

Let's take a trip through the five seasons of The Twilight Zone and I'll point out the signposts which will show us how some of the finest and not so finest horror episodes of the show originated.

Season One



Richard Conte in Charles Beaumont's
"Perchance to Dream"
The first standout horror episode in The Twilight Zone's first season is Charles Beaumont's "Perchance to Dream." Beaumont's story was initially published in the October, 1958 issue of Playboy and neatly encompasses all that Beaumont, as a writer, is concerned with in the majority of his contributions to the show and to the literature of horror. Though Beaumont was not adverse to producing the story of purely physical horror, nearly every episode he penned has a strong element of a deviation in either reality or a character's perception of reality, often blurring the line between both. Beaumont was especially concerned with self perception, identity, dreams, and the supernatural intruding into the ordinary and manifesting itself as a narrow influence upon a singular individual. Many of Beaumont's episodes concern one or two characters caught up in a terrifying supernatural situation set in a reality filled with characters who remain unconvinced that said supernatural element(s) even exists.

It is difficult to tell whether Beaumont's tortured protagonists are created by the environment or create the environment themselves. You would be equally hard pressed to find a Beaumont episode which does feature a psychologist, or psychiatrist, as a supporting character. It seems as though every one of Beaumont's protagonist wind up at some point in the shrink's chair during the episode.

"Perchance to Dream" is a fine, sharp shocker with the frantic pace of a nightmare, accented by exceptional camera work from George Clemens under the direction of Robert Florey, a French director with a strong streak of German Expressionism, and with a signature Beaumont ending. His endings were not so much the pure twist ending, a specialty of his colleague Matheson, as they were the logical and direct ending points of a winding and twisting course. Beaumont's episodes lend themselves to re-viewing so often because even though the ending may be expected, it is because of the fine construction of suspense that when we are finally dropped from safety by the narrative, it is with devastating force. Beaumont would revisit, alter, and build upon the themes presented in "Perchance to Dream" with other work on The Twilight Zone, but this first episode remains one of his signature scripts and certainly one of the finest episodes of the first season.

Rod Serling checks in next with a couple of interesting episodes. "Judgment Night" combines the mystery of a classic ghostly fable, the legend of the Flying Dutchman, or, if you prefer, the real life mystery of the Marie Celeste, with the type of political and social commentary which was a Serling trademark. In this case it is an anti-fascist revenge fantasy concerning the dread fate of a Nazi U-Boat commander.

"And When the Sky was Opened" is adapted by Serling from a Richard Matheson story, "Disappearing Act," first published in the March, 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Serling retains only the barest of plot essentials and the episode is, for all purposes, an altogether different story from its source. While Serling's story concerns astronauts returning from a launch with the stigma of some cosmic horror upon them, Matheson's story, one of the finest in his entire output of short fiction, is much simpler in design, as it is composed entirely of journal entries from a man who discovers that all the elements, physical and otherwise, which make up his life are slowly and inexorably disappearing. It is interesting to note that Serling felt it necessary to buy and credit Matheson for the barest of a story thread but did not see fit to do the same when producing the second season episode "A Thing About Machines," an episode which closely resembles Matheson's short story "Mad House," from the January-February, 1953 issue of Fantastic.

Serling's great triumph of adaptation in the first season is undoubtedly "The Hitch-Hiker," an episode that is essentially flawless, with a strong script, an excellent lead performance from actress Inger Stevens, fine direction, a creepy and palpable atmosphere, and an ability to be watched many times with the same level of enjoyment. It is justifiably one of the most popular and recognizable episodes in the show's entire run. The reasons for the high quality of the episode is mostly due to the fact that Serling bought one of the most popular radio thrillers of all time. Writer Lucille Fletcher's "The Hitch Hiker" was heard several times on the radio, in encore performances over multiple programs, most famously on Suspense and starring Orson Welles. The acquisition of the script was also something of a coup for Serling and producer Buck Houghton as Alfred Hitchcock was previously unable to secure the rights for an adaptation on his own television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

After "The Hitch-Hiker," we have Charles Beaumont's disturbing and highly original shocker, "Elegy," again adapted from his previously published short story, which originally appeared in the February, 1953 issue of Imagination. This episode displays all the trappings of science fiction but is purely a horror story. It is less of a psychological thriller in Beaumont's usual manner and more of a physical terror tale with a unnerving atmosphere, highlighted by barely contained silence and stillness, and with a nasty surprise ending. It concerns three astronauts who find themselves on a planet which functions as a very unique cemetery overseen by a very peculiar caretaker.

Also in the first season is Rod Serling's excellent tale of doppelganger terror, "Mirror Image," with an excellent lead performance from Vera Miles, a dread heavy atmosphere, and a disorienting and disturbing ending. This one follows in the footsteps of a long tradition of stories of a terrible double from Edgar Allan Poe's "William Wilson" (1839) to Robert Louis Stevenson's "Markheim" (1885), though since both of these latter stories concern doubles which expose their counterpart's evil nature, Serling's story of malevolent doppelgangers attempting to subvert their more benign counterparts may have more in common with Stevenson's marginal doppelganger story, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The modern Gothic atmosphere of "Mirror Image" gives the episode its strength, as a nearly empty bus station on a rain drenched night is the perfect setting for Serling's ominous tale. Both Richard Matheson (with "Spur of the Moment," from season five) and Charles Beaumont (with "In His Image," from season four) would produce variations on the doppelganger theme for The Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling's "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" is notable here for its theme of "the monster among us," which Serling would revisit with "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" and, to a certain extent, in "The Shelter." Two of these episodes have endings involving that classic character of formula science fiction, the alien, but they are more in line with a classic parable of the horror and mystery story genres, seen in numerous treatments ranging from Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) to John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (1938) and even in recent psychological horror movies such as Identity (2003) or Devil (2010). Its most famous treatment, however, may be Agatha Christie's classic mystery And Then There Were None, a work which has been imitated within the mystery genre to the point of outright parody.

Richard Matheson's Kafkaesque nightmare, "A World of Difference," concerns a theme more akin to that of the stories of Charles Beaumont, the loss of personal identity as related to the perception of others. Though Matheson was not as much a cerebral writer as was Beaumont, he pulls the trick off nicely and the episode is generally very effective, marred only by a lackluster lead performance from Howard Duff. Beaumont would explore a similar notion in a different way with the later episode, "Person or Persons Unknown."

Another macabre masterpiece from Beaumont in the first season is "Long Live Walter Jameson," starring genre favorite Kevin McCarthy (of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) fame, and also from Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983)) as an immortal man whose secret is betrayed to a colleague by a Civil War photograph and whose past catches up with him in a deadly way. The episode is notable for the excellent, and monstrous, special effects which show the rapid aging process of the immortal Walter Jameson.

"A Nice Place to Visit" is Beaumont's thirty minute darkly humorous joke which only lives for its punch line. It therefore doesn't lend itself to repeat viewings but is still a chilling little twist of a tale. It is yet another Devil story, preceded, in terms of similar theme, by the terrible pseudo-comedy, "Escape Clause."

"The Chaser," also marginally a deal with the devil story, is The Twilight Zone's only foray into writer John Collier's exceptional fictional output, though some would claim that Rod Serling's "The After Hours" is an uncredited adaptation of Collier's "Evening Primrose," a claim which is simply ludicrous. As for "The Chaser," Serling turned a very slight, subtle horror story into a darkly comedic treatment of the theme, not entirely successfully. Collier was treated better, and more often, on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, of which "Wet Saturday" and "De Mortuis" are exceptional examples of the author's work being finely adapted to the small screen.

"The After Hours," by Rod Serling, is one of the scariest and certainly one of the finest episodes ever produced for the show. Anne Francis gives a strong and emotional lead performance, and the empty department store after closing hours, complete with a hidden top floor (a'la Jack Finney's "The Third Level" (1950)) is exceptionally creepy. It is somewhat of a ghost story if not in plot then certainly in atmosphere, construction, and effect. As for the calls of plagiarism which dogged Serling about this episode in connection with John Collier's "Evening Primrose," the two stories have only in common the shared setting of a department store after closing time, nothing more. They mine their theme and produce their thrills in completely different ways. The episode also features one of Serling's finest outgoing narrations, a disturbing monologue on the uncertain nature of the ordinary strangers we pass by every day on the street. All in all, it's a finely wrought and expertly produced episode that is fondly remembered by fans of the show as one of the scariest ever aired.

An interesting note before we move on to the second season is that arguably the two most frightening episodes of the first season, "The Hitch-Hiker" and "The After Hours," are very similar in several ways, as they both concern a lone character trapped in a threatening supernatural situation concentrated in one setting (a car, a department store). But the most important similarity is that they are both anchored by fine performances from female leads who nearly have to carry the entire episode themselves. One could also throw "Mirror Image" in as well to make a fascinating trilogy of related Rod Serling episodes.

Season Two
The second season begins with Rod Serling's poor attempt at turning W.W. Jacobs' seminal short horror story "The Monkey's Paw" into a Twilight Zone episode with "The Man in the Bottle." Jacobs' story was first published in the author's 1902 collection, The Lady on the Barge, and has been endlessly imitated since unto the point of entering into the cultural consciousness as a piece of folklore. Serling's story of struggling shop owners who find a genie's lamp (instead of a monkey's paw) which seems at first to bring salvation only to bring misfortune instead has little to recommend it other than a menacing performance by Joseph Ruskin as the genie and that the episode illustrates the show's occasional reliance on the classics of horror fiction to produce episodes.

"A Thing About Machines" came next and, as discussed before, is really a Rod Serling rehash of Richard Matheson's short story "Mad House," the difference being that Matheson's main character manages to illicit pity whereas Serling's does not. The episode is an example of the relatively modern horror trope of machines which grow sentience and attack the living, a theme most thoroughly explored by bestselling writer Stephen King, who wrote an entire novel on the subject, Christine (1983), as well as several works of short fiction dealing with the issue, "The Mangler" (1972), "Trucks" (1973), from which King directed a feature film adaptation, and "Mile 81" (2011) among others.

Charles Beaumont turns the "deal with the devil" theme on its head with what is surely his masterpiece, "The Howling Man." It is the writer's signature episode and unquestionably one of the finest productions of the show's entire output. It is the most traditionally Gothic of all the Twilight Zone episodes, taking place as it does in an isolated eastern European abbey and concerning an eternal and elementary battle between faith and reason, good and evil. The concept is entirely unique and was skillfully adapted from Beaumont's short story (which originally appeared in November, 1959 issue of Rogue magazine) by director Douglas Heyes and photographer George T. Clemens. The episode is so steeped in the Gothic that while watching it, it often feels more like the Universal Studios monster movies from the '30s and '40s than it does an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Though certainly a science fiction episode, Rod Serling's masterful "Eye of the Beholder" is notable in this discussion for its unforgettable, grotesque makeup design from Academy Award winning makeup artist William Tuttle, the man behind nearly all of the show's memorable makeup designs.

Another marginal entry in the "deal with the devil" school of horror is Richard Matheson's "Nick of Time," which concerns itself, like Beaumont's "The Howling Man," with faith and reason but under the lens of a modern couple fighting the ingrained superstitions of an old world. Matheson seems to be deliberately eschewing all of the Gothic trappings of Beaumont's earlier episode while still keeping those themes, and the dread atmosphere, in the forefront of the episode's conflict. The result is a thought provoking exercise in the subtle and suggested dangers which lurk just below the surface of our ordinary, everyday lives.

Rod Serling's "A Most Unusual Camera" is a more comedy minded rehash of "The Monkey's Paw."




Agnes Moorehead in Richard Matheson's
"The Invaders"

One of the most fondly remembered episodes of The Twilight Zone is Richard Matheson's "The Invaders," the story of an old woman fighting off an invasive force of tiny monsters which turn out to be an exploratory squad of astronauts from Earth. The episode is anchored by a strong, and nearly silent, performance by Agnes Moorehead, an actress who made her career with her distinctive voice, especially on radio. The theme would be revisited by Matheson in print and onscreen with his short story, "Prey," about a woman who buys a Zuni fetish doll as a gift only to inadvertently release a malevolent spirit within the doll and winds up fighting for her life. The story was published in the April, 1969 issue of Playboy and filmed as the third and final portion of the anthology film based on Matheson's fiction, Trilogy of Terror (1975), adapted by Matheson himself.
Rod Serling would find inspiration a number of times in the classic British ghost story writers but he was also undoubtedly influenced by the Ealing Studios 1945 anthology horror film Dead of Night. The film, which is arguably one of the most influential of all British horror films, is related to The Twilight Zone in more ways than one. It is a film whose producers also fail to acknowledge obvious source material. It has been a constant irritation that the film only officially acknowledges two writers for source material, H.G. Wells and E.F. Benson, yet egregiously forget to credit the obvious sources of A.M. Burrage and Gerald Kersh, even though, at this point, it is common knowledge among horror movie fans of the film's debt to the latter writers.

Dead of Night is composed of four stories connected with a fifth bridging story. In America this type of film is known as an anthology film and in Britain it is somewhat known as a portmanteau film, so named by Amicus Films producer Milton Subotsky, who created several films of this type, most notably Tales From the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror 91973), each of which adapted stories from the E.C. Comics horror titles from the 1950s. Among the four primary stories from Dead of Night, Serling would borrow heavily from two, "The Hearse Driver," adapted from a story by E.F. Benson titled "The Bus-Conductor" (1906), for the Zone episode "Twenty Two," and "The Ventriloquist Dummy," adapted, uncredited, from a story by Gerald Kersh titled "The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy" (1939), also published under the title, "The Whisper," for the Zone episode, "The Dummy."

An interesting note about Serling's adaptation of E.F. Benson's "The Bus-Conductor," as it was adapted for Dead of Night, to construct The Twilight Zone episode "Twenty-Two," is an error in proper citation when crediting the source for the show. It is credited as based on an anecdote in Bennett Cerf's volume Famous Ghost Stories (1944). The E.F. Benson story included in Cerf's volume is in fact not "The Bus-Conductor" but rather "The Man Who Went Too Far" (1904).

Serling changes very little when adapting his own version of the story besides the gender of the main character from male to female. The episode isn't half bad but it does have the misfortune to be chosen as one of the videotaped episodes of The Twilight Zone and is therefore void of any real film aesthetic. It is, however, done better in Dead of Night than it is on The Twilight Zone, and is, like Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," one of those fiction stories so many times retold and adapted that it has entered the cultural consciousness as folklore and is sometimes forgotten to have been conceived by a single writer of fiction.

To clear the air about the proper sources for Dead of Night, H.G. Wells is properly credited, for "The Inexperienced Ghost," as is E.F. Benson, for "The Bus-Conductor." The source list should also include A.M. Burrage for his story "Smee," adapted as the portion of the film titled "The Christmas Party," and Gerald Kersh for his story "The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy," adapted as the portion titled "The Ventriloquist Dummy." We will return to Dead of Night and this latter story when discussing Rod Serling's terrifying ventriloquist dummy episode, "The Dummy."

"Long Distance Call," from writers Charles Beaumont and William Idelson, is a subtle but eerily menacing ghost story in which a dead grandmother attempts to steer her very young, living grandson to cause his own death by communicating with him on a toy telephone. As reported by author Marc Scott Zicree in The Twilight Zone Companion, the idea came from Idelson watching his own mother talking to his, Idelson's, son on a toy telephone. The script was originally submitted by Richard Matheson with Idelson's name as the only byline and was rejected by Cayuga Productions. When Charles Beaumont took the opportunity to rewrite the script with Idelson, producer Buck Houghton bought it for the show. It is chilling and effective and would have benefitted greatly, like "Twenty-Two," from being filmed as opposed to videotaped.

Charles Beaumont was back to form for "Shadow Play," a story greatly related to the previous episode, "Perchance to Dream." Though uncredited, even by Beaumont himself, the episode is based on Beaumont's story "Traumerei," originally published in February, 1956 issue of Infinity Science Fiction. The episode deals strongly with dreams, reality, psychology, and the nature of fear and its effects on the physical body. It is, in essence, a reversal of the situation in "Perchance to Dream." In that first episode, a man cannot allow himself to fall asleep as a sequential nightmare will conclude in his death, whereas "Shadow Play" involves a man trapped in a recurring nightmare in which he dies every time by way of execution. The episode does leave some questions unanswered, however, as we are never privy to the main character's waking state and therefore have no concept of the parameters of his dreaming state; i.e. is he ever awake or is he trapped in a sleeping state? Nevertheless, the episode is brilliantly directed by John Brahm, a German director whose glory days were spent churning out masterpieces of Gothic suspense like The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945) before moving into television in the 1950s, and features a manic performance from Dennis Weaver, who was equally unforgettable being chased by a killer truck in the Steven Spielberg film Duel (1971), based on the 1971 novella by Richard Matheson, first published in the April issue of Playboy from that year. The episode is a personal favorite for its atmosphere and general weirdness of concept.

Three episodes which are either science fiction or pure suspense but are worth briefly mentioning are "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" and "The Shelter," the latter from the third season, for their connection to the "monster among us" school of horror, though "The Shelter" may better be described as "the monster within us" school of horror, and "The Obsolete Man" for its connection to Kafkaesque horror, seen in episodes such as Matheson's "A World of Difference" and nearly all of the psychological thrillers from Beaumont.

Season Three
One of the darkest fantasies produced on The Twilight Zone was "It's a Good Life," adapted by Rod Serling from Jerome Bixby's short story, "It's a Good Life," from Star Science Fiction Stories no. 2, edited by Frederick Pohl and published in 1953. The story is so unique that Serling filmed a special type of introduction for the episode. Though Bixby's short story of a young boy with the powers of God is disturbing enough, it is more rendered more effective when played out as a drama. To see the faces of the actors twist in misery while wearing forced smiles, the see the awkward and torturous action play out on screen, lends the story a degree of verisimilitude nearly impossible to replicate on the printed page. The effectiveness of the episode belongs to the actors, not least of which was Bill Mumy as little Anthony. Some of the effects demonstrated in the original story had to be scrapped for obvious reasons, but the lone image which remained, that of a character's head placed on a spring as a grisly jack-in-the-box, is unforgettable. The episode is justifiably one of the most famous, effective, and fondly remembered from the show. A dreadful sequel was filmed for the third incarnation of The Twilight Zone, the UPN version from the early 2000s, in which Bill Mumy reprised his role as Anthony. In the episode, a semblance of the world has been restored until the appearance of similar powers manifest in Anthony's young daughter.

Serling's "Death-head Revisited" is a finely constructed episode, and an equally impressive technical achievement with a reconstruction of Dachau at its center, and falls in line with the previous ghostly revenge fantasy, "Judgment Night." Oscar Beregi plays a Nazi commander who, having escaped postwar capture, revisits Dachau where he is confronted by the angry ghosts of the men he killed there years before. Though Beregi's performance, and an equally strong performance from Jospeh Schildkraut as the main ghost, carry the episode forward, it is hindered by one glaring error. Why does Beregi's character not run fleeing from the scene immediately when confronted by the ghosts of the men he killed in the past and whom he knows are long dead? Instead, he calmly converses with the dead men as though it is completely logical that they should still be captive within the confines of Dachau years after the war. Besides this fatal flaw, the episode is quite entertaining and atmospheric, not to mention the pleasure one derives from watching an absolute villain get his due.

Charles Beaumont's "The Jungle" is, in a way, his version of Matheson's "Nick of Time" with the marked difference that the supernatural, or superstitious, element is implicitly real and very malevolent. John Dehner plays an engineer returned home to New York from an intrusive building project in Africa. The project has been cursed by the subjugated Africans citizens and Dehner's character begins to feel the very real effects of the dangerous African landscape imposing itself upon the world of the big city, ending in a terrifying and unforgettable scene of suggested carnage. Beaumont's original story appeared in the December, 1954 issue of If, and, of course, the word jungle has two different meanings for the matter, referencing both the jungle of Africa and the jungle of the city. One major, and wise, change that Beaumont made to his story when adapting it for The Twilight Zone was to set it in modern day (1961) rather than the futuristic setting of the original story. It would not have had the same resonance had it been a futuristic science fiction episode.

"The Jungle" greatly reminds me of the urban horror stories of Fritz Leiber, especially those done in the '40s and three in particular, "Smoke Ghost" (1941), "The Hound" (1942), and "The Girl With the Hungry Eyes" (1949). Beaumont was a great fan of Leiber's work, having adapted that author's seminal novel Conjure Wife (1952), with Richard Matheson, into the film Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), also known as Night of the Eagle. "The Jungle" seems an obvious homage to Leiber's style of urban horror. What Lieber was trying to do in the '40s, in magazines such as Unknown and Weird Tales, was to take each of the common horror archetypes, the ghost, the werewolf, and the vampire, respectively, and place them in a modern, urban context. "The Jungle" could almost be the voodoo treatment of the theme and would fit in nicely with what Leiber was attempting to do. If you enjoy "The Jungle," check out the three Leiber stories mentioned above, they are genuinely frightening and have aged very little in the intervening years.

"To Serve Man," Rod Serling's adaptation of Damon Knight's satirical science fiction story, originally published in the November, 1950 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, is worth mentioning because of the grotesque nature of the plot and the unforgettable, and very famous, resolution. The appearance of the Kanamits in the Zone episode, famously portrayed by tall man Richard Kiel, were a toned down version of the horrible aliens in Knight's story, who appeared as squat, pig-faced beings.

"Person or Persons Unknown," from Charles Beaumont, is his version of the theme explored by Matheson in "A World of Difference," and concerns a man who seems to have lost his identity even in the memories of those he knows and has associated with every day of his life. Again, a psychologist plays a strong role in the episode as the main character is briefly incarcerated in a mental health hospital. The ending of the episode is completely original and unexpected, flawed only by the fact that it may be a bit too subtle and, since it relies entirely upon the juxtaposition of appearances, not jarring enough.


Cliff Robertson and his friend Willie
in Rod Serling's "The Dummy"

For "The Dummy," Rod Serling took an idea, nearly whole cloth, from Gerald Kersh, as mentioned above, and that author's short story, "The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy." Serling was undoubtedly influenced more by the film Dead of Night and the treatment of Kersh's story there, and it's likely that Serling was entirely unaware that Gerald Kersh was the true originator of the tale. Though "The Ventriloquist Dummy" portion of Dead of Night is the most frightening and definitive treatment of the theme ever committed to film, Serling's "The Dummy" has quite a lot to recommend it, mostly because it so strongly resembles the film version's story structure and also matches it for intensity. Cliff Robertson, in "The Dummy," easily matches Michael Redgrave's manic performance in Dead of Night. The camera work is frantic and the design  and rudimentary animation of Willie, the ventriloquist dummy, is terrifying. Where Serling really hits the ball out of the park is in the ending, a grotesque gag of visual horror unequaled by any other episode of the show. It still has the ability, even after multiple viewings, of unnerving the viewer, and, besides, who can ever get enough of a finely executed tale of ventriloquist dummy terror? The theme has been explored endlessly in the years since, in various media, and The Twilight Zone revisited the theme in season five with the absolutely dreadful episode, "Caesar and Me."

Season Four
It is the common opinion among fans of The Twilight Zone that the hour long format was not suitable for the subject matter and that the majority of the hour long episodes in the fourth season are over-long, dreadful, and dull. Still, there were some fine episodes produced, the fantasy "Miniature," from Charles Beaumont, and the psychic thriller, "Mute," from Richard Matheson among them. When it comes to the tale of terror, the fourth season produced some striking results.

Charles Beaumont adapted his short story of the same name into the strange and disorienting doppelganger episode, "In His Image." The story originally appeared in the author's collection Yonder (1958). Beaumont opens the story with a truly shocking scene of murder and proceeds to give the doppelganger theme a unique, and science fictional, twist explored through the lens of a psychological thriller. Though it features murder and a conflict of the self, the episode is truly concerned with identity, reality, memory, and the existential plight of an individual's altered perception. As thought provoking as the episode is, it functions perfectly well as a finely tuned terror tale of mounting suspense.

The only truly effective episode penned by an overworked Rod Serling during The Twilight Zone's fourth season is "He's Alive," about a modern, young neo-Nazi under the influence of the specter of Adolf Hitler. Though the figure of Hitler is kept in shadow in a failed attempt to render surprise at the episode's climax, the episode is still chilling and effective in the unique way Serling has of giving dark social matters an immediacy and relevance. The zealous performance by a young Dennis Hopper is worth the price of admission alone. This episode can also be marginally tied in together with Serling's "Judgment Night," "Deaths-head Revisited," and "The Mirror," the latter being a third season psychological thriller in which Peter Falk portrays a thinly veiled Fidel Castro who is consumed by his own paranoia.


Richard Matheson's "Death Ship"

Richard Matheson's "Death Ship" is probably the finest episode of the fourth season. It was adapted by the author from his own short story, originally published in the March, 1953 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine. It is one part ghost story and one part tale of psychological torment. Matheson expanded his own story considerably for the episode, adding in touching scenes of the characters being reunited in familiar places with deceased loved ones, and turned the old reliable twist of "the character(s) is really dead" on its head. It is no secret that the characters are really dead. This is all but implicitly given to the viewer less than a third of the way into the episode. What drives the episode on is the fantastic acting from Jack Klugman and Ross Martin and the claustrophobic, dread heavy atmosphere of a spaceship which is, in essence, a stand-in for a haunted house. The ending of the episode finds us back at the beginning and this repeating and unresolved nature is all the more chilling because of the dramatic irony in which the viewer knows what the characters do not. Truly chilling and unforgettable.

"Printer's Devil," as briefly discussed much earlier in the article, is Charles Beaumont's mostly cliche rendering of a deal with the devil story, anchored by a fine, menacing performance from Burgess Meredith. It is an adaptation of Beaumont's first professional story sale, "The Devil, You Say?"

"The New Exhibit" is a decently entertaining episode of horror. Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre, singled it out as one of the truly horrific episode of The Twilight Zone (overlooking quite a number of others, I might add). It reminds me greatly of A.M. Burrage's tale of waxwork terror, "The Waxwork" (1931), about an eager journalist who spends a night alone in a wax museum only to discover that one of the displays, that of a famous French murderer, is very lifelike indeed. The story was published under the byline of Ex-Private X in the author's 1931 collection Someone in the Room. Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, also wrote a similar story, "Waxworks," published in the January, 1939 issue of Weird Tales. "The New Exhibit" is notable more so because it marks the beginning of the ghostwriting of the Charles Beaumont credited episodes. Beaumont began farming out his story ideas to his writer friends, in the case of "The New Exhibit" this was Jerry Sohl, because of a combination of overwork and badly deteriorating health. The story was plotted by Beaumont and Sohl, and scripted by Sohl. Sohl would return to do the same duty on the classic chiller from the fifth season, "Living Doll."

Solely, Beaumont wrote "Passage on the Lady Anne," based on his short story "Song for a Lady," originally published in his collection Night Ride and Other Journeys (1960). The story concerns a young couple whose marriage is rapidly coming apart and who inadvertently gain passage on a ship bringing a group of aged lovers to their deaths. Though the episode is not designed to terrify, it does have a strong current of the macabre and a heavy Gothic atmosphere that is more than enough to include it in a discussion of The Twilight Zone's darker fare.

Season Five
The fifth season of the show was undoubtedly the most uneven, most of it due to the fact that the show's final producer, William Froug, dismissed nearly all of the show's principle staff, including writers, directors, and various crew members, to bring in his own hand picked creators. The result was a disastrous decline in quality and a sad demise for an exemplary show. Before Froug managed to destroy the show, however, a handful of quality horror episodes were produced under producer Bert Granet.

Included among these are arguably the two most famous episodes of the show, Richard Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," and Charles Beaumont's and Jerry Sohl's "Living Doll."


Christine White, William Shatner and
Nick Cravat as the Gremlin in Richard
Matheson's classic "Nightmare at 20,000
Feet"

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is not as finely produced an episode as some of the show's earlier classics but what elevates it above the pack is its originality of concept and William Shatner's unforgettable lead performance. Matheson adapted his own short story, originally published in the anthology Alone by Night (1962), and took his inspiration from the reports of WWII pilots of gremlins causing destruction to their aircraft during the war. Matheson applied the idea to a modern and realistic setting and put the supernatural load fully onto a mentally unstable main character. Makeup artist William Tuttle's creature design is not very frightening but it is iconic and unique, and was an impromptu combination of Tuttle's style and what could be had from the costume department. In any case, it may be the most recognizable creature from the show. The suspense is nearly unbearable and the ending is somewhat ambiguous, with a wonderful breaking of the fourth wall in the bargain. Matheson does add a spouse for his main character where there was no spouse in the original story and it does not add much in the way of dramatic conflict. Shatner was more than capable of carrying the episode by himself and the intrusion of another character, and an actress who was not up to the task at hand, only serves as an annoyance in an otherwise riveting episode.

"Living Doll" is a chilling episode in the now-classic tradition of the malevolent child's toy, harkening back to Beaumont's and Idelson's episode "Long Distance Call" and classic ghost stories such as M.R. James' "The Haunted Doll's House" (1923). The episode may also have been inspired by the first issue of a popular pre-code horror comic, Prize Comics' Black Magic (seen below), from the studio of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. The killer doll theme, somewhat related to the theme of the malevolent ventriloquist dummy, has been endlessly played upon by generations of writers and film makers, culminating in the Child's Play (1988-2004) series of horror films and its various knockoffs. The episode also has much in common with Ray Bradbury's classic and often reprinted horror story, "The Small Assassin" (Dime Mystery Magazine, 1946), and with Richard Matheson's earlier episode "The Invaders," and his story "Prey." Jerry Sohl, who wrote the script for "Living Doll" in a single day, set the template for nearly every trope of the subgenre (the inability to physically destroy the doll, the accidental death of a character(s), the unique perception of the situation by a single character, etc.) and we continue to see the episode imitated to this day.

"You Drive," writer Earl Hamner's blithe morality tale, is mentioned here only in its connection to the horror subgenre of the malevolent machine. It features Edward Andrews as man who has committed a hit and run only to have his car gain life and stalk him until he turns himself in to the authorities.

The ghostly episode, "Night Call," from Richard Matheson, adapted from his short story "Long Distance Call," from the author's collection Shock (1961), concerns an old woman who is receiving muffled calls from what turns out to be a telephone line which has broken off and fallen down in a cemetery. Matheson greatly changes the tone of the story when adapting it for The Twilight Zone, as the original story is purely a horror story with a jolting ending and the show is a suspenseful yet heartbreaking supernatural drama. At the request of Matheson, the episode was directed by Jacques Tourneur, famed French director of the classic film noir, Out of the Past (1947), as well as horror classics for Val Lewton including Cat People (1942), based on Algernon Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries" (1908), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), loosely based on Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), and The Leopard Man (1943), based on the Cornell Woolrich novel Black Alibi (1942). Tourneur also directed the horror classic Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon) (1957) based on the M.R. James story, "Casting the Runes" (1911) and the Richard Matheson-scripted horror comedy The Comedy of Terrors (1963). He lends his dark, expressionistic, film noir style to the episode and, along with the strong lead performance by Gladys Cooper, elevates it to the top rank of fifth season episodes.

The final Twilight Zone episode credited to Charles Beaumont was "Queen of the Nile." The episode was plotted by Beaumont and Jerry Sohl and scripted by Sohl but credited only to Beaumont. It is mostly a rehash of the excellent "Long Live Walter Jameson" from the show's first season with the only major difference being the inherent evil of the immortal character in the case of "Queen of the Nile." The idea originated not with Beaumont but with Sohl, who pondered the nature of the scarab and its symbolic meaning to the ancient Egyptians, as evidenced in the scarab ring worn by the main character, and decided to compose a script about an immortal woman who consumes the life force of others to prolong her own unnatural life. The episode is average at best but is an interesting comparison point against the much superior earlier Beaumont effort.


Rod Serling's brilliant Season Five
episode "The Masks"

The last great Twilight Zone episode is also one of the most satisfying horror efforts the show has to offer. "The Masks" manages to bridge nearly every horror type into a sharp, economical, and highly effective script from Rod Serling. For his setting he chose New Orleans, perhaps the most European and Gothic of the major American cities, and manages to produce a story that examines the nature of evil within the self as personified by wonderfully grotesque mask and makeup designs from William Tuttle. Even with the ending being apparent before it arrives, "The Masks" is a triumph of acting, atmosphere, writing, and directing. There is very little physical action in the story and Serling's dialogue drives the entire play. When the inevitable ending does arrive, Tuttle's excellent makeup effects provide the shock needed in the absence of surprise. Though Serling never actually shows us the Mardi Gras revelry of New Orleans, the atmosphere is still palpable and the viewer's imagination fills in any gaps in what is actually shown. The episode has a very satisfying fable-like quality without being a direct adaptation of any one piece of folklore. "The Masks" is also one of the most famous segments of the show and always elicits a pleasurable response from anyone fascinated by the macabre. It is important to note that the director, London-born actress Ida Lupino, is the only woman to direct an episode of the show and the only person to both star in an episode ("The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine") and direct one. Lupino, who had a very Gothic style as a director, also helmed nine episodes of Thriller and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The final horror episode of The Twilight Zone is a strange number from writer Earl Hamner with a nasty twist in the tale titled "Stopover in a Quiet Town." It reminds me greatly of the show's pilot episode, "Where is Everybody?" with a no less implausible but much more chilling of a solution. Though the episode has decent acting and direction, it is in the final twist that its power to disturb lies and it therefore does not lend itself very well to repeat viewings. However, viewed only once, it is nearly impossible to forget.

That completes our trip through the dark side of The Twilight Zone. It's brought us everything from classic ghost stories to modern tales of urban terror and everything in between. For the record, the following is a list of those episodes not mentioned in the article that are marginally horror and may provide the viewer with the same amount of thrills as the out-and-out screamers. No judgment is here made on the quality of the individual episodes.

Season One
"The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine"
"The Four of Us Are Dying"
"The Fever"
"The Purple Testament"
"People Are Alike All Over"

Season Two
None

Season Three
"The Arrival"
"The Grave"
"Still Valley"
"One More Pallbearer"
"The Little People"
"Four O'Clock"
"Young Man's Fancy"


Season Four
"The Thirty-Fathom Grave"

Season Five
"The Last Night of a Jockey"
"The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross"
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"*

*This was not originally produced for The Twilight Zone but was a broadcast of an Academy Award Winning French film under the guise of an episode of the show.


Friday, July 5, 2013

"A Most Unusual Camera"

Chester Dietrich (Fred Clark) and his wife Paula (Jean Carson) try and decide what to do with their  unusual camera.
"A Most Unusual Camera"
Season Two, Episode 46
Original Air Date: December 16, 1960

Cast:
Chester Dietrich: Fred Clark
Paula Dietrich: Jean Carson
Woodward: Adam Williams
Pierre the Waiter: Marcel Hillaire

 Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: John Rich
Producer: Buck Houghton
Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:

            "In this $28 a day hotel suite live three human being who have larceny firmly from their toes to where they part their hair. Amongst the loot of one evening's caper is this camera, which they soon discover has the most unique properties. It takes pictures of the future. Stick around for the development next week, on The Twilight Zone."

 Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
            "A most unimposing addition to the flotsam and jetsam that it came with, hardly worth mentioning really because a camera's a camera, some expensive, some purchasable at five-and-dime stores. But this camera, this one's unusual, because in just a moment we'll watch it inject itself in the destinies of three people. It happens to be a fact that the pictures that it takes can only be developed in The Twilight Zone."

 Summary:
            Chester Dietrich and his wife Paula are small time thieves that have just knocked over a curio shop, coming away with nothing more than a bunch of cheap junk erroneously reported in the local newspaper as priceless valuables. There is one item, however, that soon grabs their attention, an antique camera with markings in an unfamiliar language. Though appearing to be nothing more than a gimmick device, it is soon revealed that the camera has the uncanny ability to reveal events in the very near future.
            One picture shows Paula's brother, Woodward, when it seems impossible that he could be anywhere nearby as he is currently serving a prison sentence. Yet, five minutes later, Woodward appears in the hotel room doorway, having broken out of prison and tracked down the couple. 
            Once Chester figures out the unusual ability of the camera, he initially wants to offer it to the pubic to be put to good use. Paula and Woodward are against this idea, wanting instead to devise a way to make the camera pay off. It is not until Woodward turns the television to a channel broadcasting horse racing that Chester hits upon the idea of using the camera to make a killing at the racetrack, quickly dumping his idea of using the camera for the good of all people.
            The three crooks head to the racetrack in time to catch the final six races for the day with the foolproof idea of taking a picture of the winner's board before the race begins, thus revealing the completed winner's board using the camera's future revealing pictures. They bet high and win large on all six races and return to their hotel room loaded with cash.
            Pierre, the hotel's french waiter, arrives at their room to deliver champagne and is curious about the camera. He picks it up and translates the unfamiliar language written on the camera, presumably French, as: "ten to an owner." Realizing what this means, they rush Pierre from the room and scramble to remember how many pictures they've already taken and arrive at the answer of eight, two before the races and six at the track.
            There is a disagreement over what the do with the final two pictures, culminating in Chester and Woodward getting into a physical confrontation over the camera and accidentally taking a picture. When it develops, it shows Paula screaming. Chester, convinced that Paula is screaming because Woodward is trying to hurt him, and Woodward, convinced that Paula is screaming because Chester is trying to hurt him, get into a fight. As Chester pulls a knife, the two men move toward the open high-rise window in a struggle and go tumbling out and down to their deaths in the courtyard below. Paula screams (as first revealed in the picture) and is initially broken up about the death of her husband and her brother until she sees all the cash that is left behind. She quickly changes her tune, takes a picture of their dead bodies "simply for posterity," and then proceeds to gather up the loot.
            It's not hers for long, however, as Pierre shows up soon after to clean her out, having found out for himself that Paula and her cohorts are wanted by the police, who will be even more interested once the bodies of Chester and Woodward are discovered below. Pierre takes a look at the final picture and tells Paula that there are more than two bodies shown in the picture. Paula rushes to the window to see, trips on an electrical cord, and goes diving out of the window to her death. Pierre walks to the window and again looks at the picture, counting not two or three but four bodies. He, too, falls from the window, though his fall is kept off screen. The unusual camera, dropped by Pierre before he fell, lies on the floor and awaits its next owner. 

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:

            "Object known as a camera, vintage uncertain, origin unknown. But for the greedy, the avaricious, the fleet of foot, who can run a four minute mile so long as they're chasing a fast buck, it makes believe that it's an ally, but it isn't at all. It's a beckoning come-on for a quick walk around the block, in the Twilight Zone." 

Commentary:
            It would be easy to label Rod Serling's "A Most Unusual Camera" as another "filler" episode dictated by Serling's contractual obligation to write the vast majority of the Twilight Zone's output, and in a way it is another one of Serling's quickly thrown together episodes, in no way comparable to the writer's greatest work on the show, hanging as it does on an well worn plot device, strung along on two cheap sets, with cliche characters working a shallow theme using overworked dialogue. It would be a mistake, however, to lump "A Most Unusual Camera" in with Serling's more consciously dramatic efforts because of the talky script and twisty nature of the plot, when it is clearly more along the lines of Serling's over-the-top comedies, putting it in the same camp with such clunkers as "Mr. Dingle, the Strong," "Hocus Pocus and Frisby," and "The Mind and the Matter."
            "A Most Unusal Camera" is better than those episodes listed above and multiple viewings reveal it to be a minor success among the dreaded failures that are the Twilight Zone's attempts at broad comedy. It is surely one of the most heavily syndicated shows and apparently still enjoyed by a vast majority of the show's fans. The episode's success lies not in Serling's flimsy, yet witty, script but in the performances of the four principle actors. More on them in a moment.
            When looking at the broadcast positioning of "A Most Unusual Camera," it is interesting to note that it was not pushed back toward the end of the second season but instead kept very close in broadcast time to an episode it resembles in more ways than one, "The Man in the Bottle." Both episodes are, in their respective ways, indebted to W.W. Jacobs' seminal weird short story, "The Monkey's Paw," and each concerns a curio shop, the want or need of money, a struggling couple, and, most importantly, a device, a genie's lamp and an antique camera, which seems at first to provide salvation for its owners only to turn their hopes and wishes blackly back upon them. The major difference in the two episodes, and the reason why "A Most Unusual Camera" is a minor success and "The Man in the Bottle" is an epic failure, is that Serling got the tone completely wrong the first time, attempting to make "The Man in the Bottle" into a serious chiller when it only succeeds in coming off as unintentionally funny. With "A Most Unusual Camera," Serling realized the comedic potential not only of his script but of the principle actors and director John Rich, all of whom spent most, if not all, of their careers producing comedy for film and television.
            Another interesting trend to note is the number of Zone episodes which play upon a single object or device, enchanted or otherwise, affecting the characters or the situations the characters find themselves in. These episodes range from some of the best of the show to some of the absolute worst and the range and variety of the objects is notable, from a lost WWII fighter plane in "King Nine Will Not Return,"  a time machine in "Execution," a fortune telling napkin dispenser in "Nick of Time," a voice recorder in "A World of His Own,"  a coin in "A Penny for Your Thoughts," a tin can in "Kick the Can," lucky charms in "The Jungle," a strange book in "To Serve Man," mannequins in "The After Hours," a doll's house in "Miniature," a crashed spacecraft in "Death Ship," Mardi Gras masks in "The Masks," a child's toy doll in "Living Doll," a child's toy telephone in "Long Distance Call," an antique radio in "Static," wax figures in "The New Exhibit," a photograph in "Long Live Walter Jameson," and bandages in "Eye of the Beholder,"  to name some of the more successful episodes. Some of the show's worst episodes, including "Dust," "A Thing About Machines," "The Bewitchin' Pool," "A Kind of Stopwatch," "The Man in the Bottle," "What's in the Box?," "The Encounter," "The Brain Center at Whipples," "Queen of the Nile," and "Uncle Simon," also revolve around objects.
            Fred Clark (1914-1968) perfected the character type of the ill tempered grouch and plays it to perfection in "A Most Unusual Camera," allowing for the broader type comedy displayed by Jean Carson and Adam Williams to shine through. Though Clark found roles in dozens of films, it is for his comedic roles on television that he is well remembered. He found work on such staples of small screen comedy as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, and I Dream of Jeannie. He also starred alongside Vincent Price in 1965's cult film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
            Jean Carson appears to have made an entire career out of playing the somewhat sinister, somewhat ditsy blonde with a raspy voice, riding the persona to an enviable, if unvaried, career, much of it spent in comedy and mostly on television programs of the '50s and '60s, such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Betty Hutton Show, and Gomer Pyle, USMC.  Carson also found her way onto some fondly remembered drama and suspense programs, such as Burke's Law, Perry Mason, The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Lock Up, and The Untouchables. Her genre credits include an episode of Inner Sanctum and a supporting role in the 1958 science fiction potboiler, I Married a Monster From Outer Space.  
            Adam Williams (1922-2006) appeared in another episode of the Zone, as the spooked sailor that hitches a ride with Nan Adams' (actress Inger Stevens) ghost in season one's excellent "The Hitch-Hiker." As a character actor, WIlliams had a long and varied career, finding roles all over the board, from comedies to action to westerns to film noir to straight drama, suspense, and a healthy portion of genre work which includes roles on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Science Fiction Theater, and a supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller North by Northwest.
            Marcel Hillaire (1908-1988), born Erwin Hiller in Germany, also fashioned an entire career out of a useful persona. In Hillaire's case it was that of the Frenchman, often in a role as a servant, finding roles on a varied number of programs such as Mission Impossible, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Get Smart, and Lost in Space.  Hillaire's genre credits include Thriller, Kraft Suspense Theater, and a second episode of the Zone, season four's "The New Exhibit."
            Director John Rich (1925-2012) mined a long career as a television director, being at the helm for plenty of westerns and dramas early in his career before finding his niche in comedies of the '60s and '70s on such programs as Mister Ed, Gilligan's Island, All in the Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hogan's Heroes, and The Brady Bunch. Rich also directed another Zone episode that has much in common with "A Most Unusual Camera," season five's "A Kind of Stopwatch."
            "A Most Unusual Camera" is certainly not a shining moment in even as hit-or-miss a season as season two but it does have its charms, most of which derives from watching the excellent chemistry between the actors in a fast paced comedy that is short on originality but long on wit. It is apparent that the actors, director John Rich, and Rod Serling are well aware of the ludicrous nature of the plot and wisely play it for laughs and avoid another troublesome and embarrassing episode. It is not surprising in the least to learn that episodes like "A Most Unusual Camera" and others of a similar bent ("Time Enough at Last" and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" come immediately to mind) have, for the most part, established the show's cultural identity among those viewers that do not watch it avidly. That is to say that despite the complex nature of many of the show's episodes, the most enjoyable and rewarding episodes for many viewers are those episodes that pretend to be nothing more than simple, diverting entertainment. These episodes are clever, often funny, and always end on a twist. As entertainment, it is a fine half hour's time spent, and "A Most Unusual Camera" is no exception. 

Grade: C

Notes:
--Adam Williams also starred in season one's "The Hitch-Hiker."
--Marcel Hillaire also starred in season four's "The New Exhibit."
--John Rich also directed season five's "A Kind of Stopwatch."
--"A Most Unusual Camera" was produced as a Twilight Zone radio drama, starring Mike Starr.

--Jordan Prejean


Up Next: It's Christmas in the Zone as a down on his luck department store Santa finds some Yuletide magic. We hope to see you back here next time in the Vortex for "Night of the Meek."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Twilight Zone 4th of July Marathon



It's time again for the Syfy Channel's annual Independence Day Twilight Zone marathon. If you've spent any time with us here in the Vortex, chances are you'll be catching some or all of the program in between the fireworks and barbeque. Below you will find a program schedule complete with our grade for each episode. We've covered several of the episodes in our ongoing episode guide so click on the yellow highlighted episode titles to jump to individual episode pages for heaping portions of information and commentary.

First, the news: Entertainment Weekly unveiled their 100 greatest TV shows in this week's issue, which was devoted to listing their picks for the 100 greatest movies, TV shows, music albums, novels, and plays. The Twilight Zone checked in at a respectable #13 with this write up: "Rod Serling's anthology series of supernatural tales blew the minds of a generation, and provided the inspiration for countless variations on its sci-fi tropes."

Also: Today marks the 130th birthday of Franz Kafka, an author whose influence on The Twilight Zone was profound, especially in episodes such as "The Obsolete Man," "Shadow Play," "A World of Difference," and many more. Nearly every quality Zone episode feels like it could have come from Kafka so if you're a fan of the show you'll certainly like his fiction. If you've never read him it's time to do so and if you have it's time to revisit his work. Enjoy the marathon, everyone!

Syfy Channel's Twilight Zone Marathon:
Check out the Syfy Channel's Twilight Zone page here
 
All times Eastern. Note: If you're only able to catch a little of the marathon, catch it somewhere in the 2:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. block. It's all killer and no filler.

8:00 a.m.- "Walking Distance" (A)

8:30 a.m.- "The Shelter" (C)
9:00 a.m.- "The Old Man in the Cave" (C)
9:30 a.m.- "People Are Alike All Over"  (C)
10:00 a.m.- "Probe 7 Over and Out" (D)
10:30 a.m.- "A Kind of Stopwatch" (D)
11:00 a.m.- "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (B)
11:30 a.m.- "A Game of Pool" (A)
12:00 p.m.- "A Most Unusual Camera" (C)
12:30 p.m.- "Stopover in a Quiet Town" (B)
1:00 p.m.- "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You" (B)
1:30 p.m.- "I Sing the Body Electric" (C)
2:00 p.m.- "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" (A)
2:30 p.m.- "Nick of Time"  (A)
3:00 p.m.- "Kick the Can" (A)
3:30 p.m.- "Where is Everybody?"  (B)
4:00 p.m.- "It's a Good Life" (A)
4:30 p.m.- "The Hitch-Hiker" (A)
5:00 p.m.- "Third From the Sun"  (B)
5:30 p.m.- "The Invaders" (A)
6:00 p.m.- "The Masks" (A)
6:30 p.m.- "Living Doll" (A)
7:00 p.m.- "The Obsolete Man" (B)
7:30 p.m.- "Time Enough at Last" (B)
8:00 p.m.- "A Stop at Willoughby"  (C)
8:30 p.m.- "Eye of the Beholder"  (A)
9:00 p.m.- "To Serve Man" (B)
9:30 p.m.- "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (B)
10:00 p.m.- "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" (B)
10:30 p.m.- "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" (B)
11:00 p.m.- "The Howling Man"  (A)
11:30 p.m.- "The Odyssey of Flight 33" (C)
12:00 a.m.- "The Midnight Sun" (C)
12:30 a.m.- "The Bewitchin' Pool" (F)
1:00 a.m.- "The Dummy" (A)
1:30 a.m.- "Dead Man's Shoes" (C)
2:00 a.m.- "Night of the Meek" (C)
2:30 a.m.- "Night Call" (B)
3:00 a.m.- "A Penny for Your Thoughts" (B)
3:30 a.m.- "Long Distance Call" (C)

4:00 a.m.- "Little Girl Lost" (C)
4:30 a.m.- "The After Hours"  (A)
5:00 a.m.- "The Little People" (D)
5:30 a.m.- "Caesar and Me" (F)

--Jordan Prejean