Monday, June 3, 2019

Summertime in The Twilight Zone

The first day of summer may be over two weeks away but the needle has already crept north of ninety where I’m writing from, which got me thinking about episodes of The Twilight Zone best suited for the hottest time of the year. The show may be remembered for its shadowy, expressionistic camerawork and moody atmosphere but many of the best episodes play out in bright sunlight and on warm summer nights. The show didn’t always need a creepy hospital, smoky nightclub, or isolated monastery to turn reality upside down. It could happen to a young woman traveling across country by car, a stressed-out businessman revisiting his hometown, a couple on a detoured honeymoon, players of a nostalgic children’s game, witnesses of something strange passing overhead on an idyllic summer day, or those suffering the hottest day ever recorded.  

So, crank up the air conditioning, grab your favorite iced beverage, and take a trip through that dimension where the summers are always strange and the sunlight provides no protection from the unexpected. Here are some essential summertime Twilight Zone episodes to help you beat the heat.


“Where Is Everybody?” S1, E1 (October 2, 1959)

Starring: Earl Holliman
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Stevens

Rod Serling's pitch-perfect pilot episode plays out on a bright, sunny day in a typical American small town. The trouble for the amnesiac Mike Ferris (Earl Holliman) is that the town is completely empty of people. More unnerving is that Ferris finds evidence of the inhabitants (food cooking, a phone ringing, a cigar smoldering in an ashtray) but always seems to be a minute late to find anybody. In one of the more heartbreaking scenes from the series, Ferris believes he sees a young woman sitting in a pickup truck, but sunlight glinting off the windshield briefly shields Ferris from the truth. The woman is a store mannequin. As Ferris descends further into panic, we follow him into the night (a narrative device we will see used again) where he discovers the full, devastating truth of his predicament.

 Rod Serling displayed from the outset that the sunny side of an American town can elicit as much terror and disorientation as the gloomier sets from the series. Holliman's performance is one of the finest the series has to offer (he virtually carries the episode) and the camerawork of Joseph LaShelle (his only work on the series) set a high standard for television cinematography which was carried forward on the series by George T. Clemens and rarely matched outside The Twilight Zone.

Looking for more like "Where Is Everybody?" It pairs nicely with Earl Hamner's fifth season episode "Stopover in a Quiet Town," another sunny nightmare with one of the more memorable twist endings on the series.  

Read our full review of "Where Is Everybody?"

“Walking Distance” S1, E5 (Oct 30, 1959) 

Starring: Gig Young, Frank Overton
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Stevens

This is Rod Serling's masterpiece on the series, a heartbreaking (and heartwarming) meditation on the past, on regret, and on how we sometimes find what we need by looking ahead instead of behind. Using the backdrop of a memorable boyhood summer, Serling tells of burned out advertising executive Martin Sloan (Gig Young) who yearns for the idyllic days of his boyhood but finds out that long ago summer no longer belongs to him.

Graced with moving performances from Gig Young and Frank Overton (as Martin Sloan's sympathetic father), "Walking Distance" also features a beautiful musical score from Bernard Herrmann, wonderful direction from Robert Stevens, and some of Rod Serling finest and most memorable writing.

The series returned time and again to the theme of the immutable nature of the past in such episodes as "Back There," "The Trouble with Templeton," and "No Time Like the Past."

Read our full review of "Walking Distance."  

“The Hitch-Hiker” S1, E16 (Jan 22, 1960) 

Starring: Inger Stevens
Writer: Rod Serling (adapting Lucille Fletcher)
Director: Alvin Ganzer

A beautiful young woman experiences clear, sunny weather on her drive across the country toward Los Angeles, California. But along the way her car gets a flat tire and sends her on the road to terror as she is haunted by the repeated presence of a shabby hitchhiker. Rod Serling's faithful adaptation of Lucille Fletcher's famous radio play changed only one major component, the gender of the protagonist, and that has made all the difference. Portraying the doom-haunted Nan Adams is Inger Stevens, a vibrant, sunny actress whose demeanor concealed a terrible personal darkness. Her performance is one of startling range and aching tragedy.

Like in "Where Is Everybody?" the coming of night signals the height of terror and the beginning of the end. The final sequence near a lonely roadside phone booth is one of the more masterful endings of the series, perfectly scored with stock music, intimately filmed by director Alvin Ganzer, and featuring the tragic inner thoughts of the character. The episode feels like a dramatization of the famous poem by Emily Dickinson which begins: "Because I could not stop for Death - He kindly stopped for me-."

The first season featured three Rod Serling-penned episodes exploring the supernatural persecution of lonely young women. Along with "The Hitch-Hiker," the trilogy is completed with "Mirror Image" and "The After Hours."

Read our full review of "The Hitch-Hiker."  

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” S1, E22 (March 4, 1960) 

Starring: Claude Akins, Jack Weston
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Ronald Winston

You can practically smell the fresh-mown grass and feel the stickiness of melting ice cream in Rod Serling's classic of paranoia which infects the residents of an idyllic suburban street one sunny summer day. This tale of madness rapidly descending upon a neighborhood after strange sounds in the sky are followed by the failure of electrical and mechanical devices has repeatedly served as an allegory for our increasingly paranoid times. Serling's script still resonates today and its ability to shock and provoke has not diminished.

The episode also puts to good use the narrative device of a descent into night being a descent into madness. As the sun sets upon Maple Street the residents resort to increasingly violent and chaotic behavior which ultimately seals their collective fates. The episode boasts a talented ensemble cast but the standout performances are Claude Atkins as Steve Brand, playing against type as the voice of reason whose calls for rationality are drowned out by the roaring mob, and Jack Weston as Charlie Farnsworth, the instigator who discovers too late the consuming fire his words and actions have stoked.

Serling frequently returned to the themes of mass paranoia and prejudice in such episodes as "The Shelter," "I Am the Night - Color Me Black," and his adaptation of Henry Slesar’s "The Old Man in the Cave."

Read our full review of "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street."

“Nick of Time” S2, E43 (Nov 18, 1960) 

Starring: William Shatner, Patricia Breslin
Writer: Richard Matheson
Director: Richard L. Bare

One of the cleverest and most surprising scripts of the series is Richard Matheson's "Nick of Time," about newlyweds Don and Pat Carter (William Shatner and Patricia Breslin) whose cross country honeymoon road trip is detoured by car trouble. When a novelty fortune-telling napkin dispenser captures Don's obsessive and superstitious nature, the couple descends into the depths of fear and suspicion only deep paranoia can create.

The genius of the episode is also a hallmark of Matheson's best fiction. This ambiguously supernatural tale unfolds in the most mundane of settings and circumstances, on a bright summer day in a small town diner in Nowhere, USA (Ridgeview, OH). Matheson ultimately gives us a hopeful tale of escape from the invisible imprisonment of fear but then shocks the audience with a truly unforgettable coda to this fascinating and disturbing tale.

Matheson was a master at the domestic horror tale, as evidenced in another tense episode, "Little Girl Lost."

Read our full review of "Nick of Time" here.

“The Midnight Sun” S3, E75 (Nov 17, 1961) 

Starring: Lois Nettleton, Betty Garde  
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Anton Leader

The Earth’s orbital pattern has altered and the planet is moving steadily toward the sun, causing surface temperatures to reach scorching levels which will ultimately make survival impossible for every person on the planet. This quintessential summer episode explores the hottest day in human history through the eyes of an artist, Norma Smith (Lois Nettleton), and her neighbor Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde), the last remaining tenants in an apartment building who band together to try and combat the rising temperatures outside and the heat-mad humans who stalk the city streets.

Rod Serling’s masterwork of human survival gets better with each subsequent viewing. It is a taut tale of ecological disaster and the ultimate urban nightmare, strengthened by excellent acting (particularly Nettleton’s understated performance), writing, direction, and some innovative special effects, such as using a hot plate to melt paint from a canvas. The feeling of heat is palpable in the episode and when tempers rise along with the temperature it leads to some intense moments of physical and emotional violence. Topping it off is one of Serling’s more devastating twist endings.

The series produced a number of excellent stories of human struggle in the face of global devastation, including Montgomery Pittman’s “Two” and Rod Serling’s unforgettable adaptation of Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life.”

Read our full review of "The Midnight Sun.”

“Kick the Can” S3, E86 (Feb 9, 1962) 

Starring: Ernest Truex, Russell Collins
Writer: George Clayton Johnson
Director: Lamont Johnson

This bittersweet tale of nostalgia for the innocent past juxtaposes the aged residents of Sunnyvale Rest with the children who play on the lawn of the rest home. It is a tale of longing for that endless summer where you’ll never grow up and always be free to shout and play. An impulsive game of kick-the-can bridges the years of the old and the young with a special magic which leaves some residents of Sunnyvale in that endless summer and fills others with the bitter regret of no longer believing in childish magic.

George Clayton Johnson’s moving fantasy is an allegory for the idea that youth is only a thought or an action, not an age or a number. Its controversial ending is only further evidence that The Twilight Zone is not an area of easy answers and convenient solutions but a shadowy realm where magical gifts can also have unintended consequences.

The series provided several episodes about the irresistible pull of the past, including Charles Beaumont’s moving episode “Static” and Richard Matheson’s disturbing tale “Young Man’s Fancy.”  

Read our full review of "Kick the Can" here.

Note that none of these episodes originally aired in a summer month. 

Did I miss your favorite summertime Twilight Zone episode? Maybe it's the zany robot baseball of "The Mighty Casey" or the grueling trek across the desert with the crew of "The Rip Van Winkle Caper." Let me know in the comments.  

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