Ed. note– A belated Happy New Year from the staff at Death Ensemble. I didn’t actually spend New Year’s Day watching episodes of Rod Serling’s brilliant series The Twilight Zone, but I’m sure many of you did. SyFy does the series a great service by running marathons of the show on many major holidays. Perhaps the greatest service is exploring some of those episodes that aren’t the ones we may call to mind first. I took some time to give proper credit to five of these episodes from Season 1 below. Look out for the same for Season 2 to follow.– P.F.
In thinking about Rod Serling’s masterful series The Twilight Zone, it’s easy for one’s mind to go straight to the famous stand-out episodes: “Time Enough at Last,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “To Serve Man.” While each of these is well worth every accolade it gets, there are other episodes that fly under the radar of the heavy hitters, though they are just as praiseworthy. I suppose I owe X Chris in drawing my attention to these episodes. A few years back, we decided to do Zone marathons every so often; but instead of watching those we could quote word-for-word, we took detours into those less lauded episodes.
Having taken today off because of back problems, I spent some time with Season 1, and watched quite a few of these episodes. In honor of Serling and the fine work he established with the Zone, below I give my critiques on a few that deserve better than they usually get. If you have any appreciation for tales of the weird, strange and ultimately frightening, give these a look.
Nan is on a cross-country drive from New York to California, when she has a flat tire. But the deflated wheel is the least of her problems, as she first encounters a hitch-hiker. Leaving him on the side of the road, she’s unnerved by his chilling smile and macabre mannerisms. As she continues her trip, she encounters the man again and again. No matter which route she takes, no matter how fast she drives, he’s always in front of her, thumb out, drawing her in, to what she does not know. As she continues her trip, she falls prey to fear and justified paranoia, especially since it seems nobody but she can see the hitch-hiker. When she discovers not only his identity, but his purpose, she’s stunned into numbness, in another Zone twist.
I taught Lucille Fletcher’s radio play of the same name to an eight grade class once, and it was a ball discussing with the kids who they thought the title character could be and why he kept showing up. In adapting the play for his script, Serling changed the narrator’s gender but kept most of the rest the same. Both works draw on the fear of being drawn to an inescapable destiny, and not an enjoyable one. Serling gave the character a running inner monologue (more effective here than in “Mirror Image”) which indicates her frail state of mind and her increasing paranoia. Inger Stevens is serviceable in selling all this; but it’s the omnipresent hitch-hiker, with his economy of words and creepy look about him, that has always stuck with me, especially his last line.
Millicent awaits a bus to take her to her new job in Buffalo, when the crotchety ticket agent insists she’s asked about the bus’ arrival time twice in the last half-hour. Thing is, this is Millicent’s first time asking. She’s leery about her bag’s disappearance, which the agent admonishes her over by informing her she’s already checked it. Heading into the ladies’ room, Millicent discovers the attendant she’s just now meeting has already seen her. Imagine her shock when she looks in the mirror to find herself standing in her place, and also sitting on a bench in the lobby. Another traveler, Paul, tries to rationalize all this for her, but there’s no convincing her that the other woman is a doppelganger, out to replace her; especially when the other Millicent is sitting in her seat on the departing bus. Fearing she’s cracked up, Paul tries to remedy things with the authorities, only to find himself at the mercy of another Serling twist.
“Mirror Image” harps on the primal fear of losing our identity. Too often pieces of us are stripped away, the ultimate fear being there will be nothing left when we’ve finally succumbed. In this case, that loss comes quite literally in the form of Millicent being replaced by an exact duplicate. As I’m a huge fan of Don Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, this concept has always scared the Hell out of me (Interesting trivia: Siegel’s film stars Zone guest star Kevin McCarthy; Siegel directed two lesser Zone episodes in Season 5). As with many Zone protagonists, Millicent questions her own sanity; fortunately for us, the ending answers for us whether she’s sane.
As with the lead in “The Hitch-Hiker,” Serling’s protagonist is female, and has inner monologues. They’re moderately effective here, but Millicent’s reactions to other characters does a far better job of selling her frustration and anxiety. As Millicent, Vera Miles is solid, portraying just about how I would expect a person to react under such a ludicrous situation. Serling’s treatment of her at the end seems harsh, and maybe sexist in a “she’s just a frail-minded female” sign of the times. But his final twist balances things out, suggesting nobody—male or female—is safe in the Zone.
“The After Hours”
A simple shopping trip for Marsha turns into a nightmare when a purchase she makes on the ninth floor of a department store eventually leads her to discover there is no ninth floor. She soon discovers that her saleslady was a mannequin. Fainting, she wakes up in a dark, deserted floor of the store, where she soon discovers some terrifying answers to her confusion, and to who she truly is.
With “The After Hours” Serling is once again playing with identity, and loss of it. Marsha is caught up in a confusing reality where things are not what they seem, and the answers that lie beneath are frightening. The desolate, darkened floor is a great set, gloomy and full of shadows. And mannequins, which have been put to such great use in horror because, in a certain light, they’re creepy. Anne Francis gives a strong central performance as Marsha, at turns puzzled, frightened and frustrated. She makes the after hours, for Marsha and for us, a scary place.
“Long Live Walter Jameson”
Professor Walter Jameson gives a stirring lecture on the Civil War burning of Atlanta, reading from the journal of Officer Skelton. His colleague of 12 years Professor Sam Kittridge is impressed with the lecture, and how Walter discusses the historical event as if he were there himself. That night over dinner, Sam produces a picture from the period of Skelton, who looks exactly like Walter Jameson. Could they be one and the same? And if so, how?
Man’s most primal fear, the one that makes horror work in the first place, is fear of death. But ask yourself this: What is the price for immortality? “Long Live Walter Jameson” tackles that question head on. As Walter, my old favorite Kevin McCarthy gives a subdued performance indicating a world weariness, an exhaustion that states that living forever is a fate worse than death. Watching friends and family die as a man continues to live on sounds altogether unpleasant. A subplot about Walter’s engagement to Sam’s daughter brings about an ending brought on by one of mankind’s other primal emotions, jealousy. There are some great special effects at the episode’s end, but it’s McCarthy’s superior acting talent that makes the episode so engaging, and so terrifying.
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”
On an ordinary day in everyman America, strange things start to happen on Maple Street. When a meteor flies overhead, cars start and die on their own, house lights flicker, all the electricity dies. Pete Van Horn goes to investigate, leaving the others to try to decipher what’s causing this. When neighborhood kid Tommy leaks his over-imaginative, comic book driven mind out to the street’s citizens about aliens taking over, and how they’ve likely planted one or more human looking agents on their street, things get ugly. Loudmouth Charlie is quick to turn blame on several neighbors, until eventually the finger is pointed right back at him. Tragedy strikes as the mob mentality takes over, turning the street into total chaos. A great Zone twist comes right at the end.
“Monsters” is scary not because of monsters or aliens, but because it addresses what happens when rational thinking people succumb to the mob mentality. These people have been neighbors for years, and they’re ready to kill each other over some flickering electricity. But the loss of juice is just the catalyst for their own primitive fears of the unknown to rise to the surface and bury civilization. Interestingly, the citizens of Maple Street refuse to listen to Steve Brand, the only one not willing to judge the others so quickly. Even his wife doubts him at one point, revealing his nighttime play with a ham radio to the crowd. Claude Atkins is powerful as the everyman voice of reason, the regular guy who refuses to give in to primal fear and hatred. And for people of my generation who remember Jack Weston for his role in DIRTY DANCING, he’s spectacular as the petty, narrow minded Charlie.
There are also hints of the time’s prevalent fear of Communists in our picturesque American backyards; throughout the Zone’s five-year run, Serling was always brilliant in portraying real-life, every day concerns through science fiction, making them more palatable and less preachy. The idea of being replaced, though minor, harkens to Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS once again, put to better use here than anywhere else in Serling’s bizarre universe. And of course, once we give in to the mob, we’ve forfeited our identity and lost all traces of ourselves.
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” scares me most of all the Zones. Not because of monsters, but the monsters within us who at a second’s notice are always capable—and often all too willing—to shed our individuality and jump straight into the mindless, violent herd.