Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Twilight Zone: 10 Best Episodes


There’s a Signpost Up Ahead

By Steve Herte

Few television shows about the strange and the macabre were as successful or as memorable as The Twilight Zone. Just play the opening theme and people recall their most chilling episode. It took some doing, but I’ve managed to list the 10 that I would rate the highest, those that stayed in my head and were worthy of several viewings. There’s no particular order or ranking because, to me, they are all equally good for one reason or another. See what you think.

Time Enough at Last – (Nov. 20, 1959 - Season 1)

With an hour-and-a-half commute I get a lot of reading done and I enjoy it. I can identify with Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis in that circumstance. The difference is, I read for relaxation and pleasure (and sometimes out of compulsion). For Henry, reading is a passion, a lifestyle, to the exclusion of everything else.

Frankly, if I were married to an unrelenting harpy who constantly reminded me of my worthlessness and complete dependency on her, I don’t think I would be as tractable as Henry (especially when Helen – Jacqueline deWitt – crossed out all the words in a book of poetry and then proceeded to tear out the pages). Hopefully, I wouldn’t have married her in the first place. In a way though, she’s a tongue-in-cheek character. We hear her call “Hen-Ree!” before we meet her. Radiophiles remember that call from the Henry Aldrich comedy series and Warner cartoon fans will have heard it as well in Book Revue.

Mr. Carsville (Vaughn Taylor), Henry’s boss, is definitely not a motivator. He reinforces Henry’s wife opinion that reading is trivial. The only thing important to him is the job – not necessarily the customer. Unfortunately, even his customers are too busy (or just not interested) to hear anything Henry says. But for Henry, it’s a living.

As the story unfolds in this episode it’s perfectly obvious that nobody cares, or wants to know about reading. It’s no wonder that Henry wishes to be left alone.

This tale was told during America’s Cold War with Russia, when both countries were building stockpiles of nuclear weapons. No one knew when some crazy person would “push the button” and global annihilation would surely follow. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and how terrified I was, knowing how easily the end could come. But scientific accuracy doesn’t apply in Time Enough at Last. 

Henry steals off to the bank vault to read when the (supposedly) atom bomb is dropped (we only hear one explosion).

He exits the vault and, strangely enough, though some damage has been done to his bank building, he’s able to climb the stairs and get to the street level. One has to assume that all the people have been vaporized because there are no bodies lying around. The air is miraculously breathable and the food is edible – not a trace of radiation anywhere (this was way before the concept of a neutron bomb).

Still, Meredith does a stellar performance as he weighs the pros and cons. There’s nobody to bother or harass him, but, there’s also nobody to talk to or share in his love of the printed page. Just as the loneliness gets oppressive enough that he considers suicide he discovers the only other building standing, the library.

But inaccuracies aside, The Twilight Zone twist is what makes this episode memorable. When Henry reaches for something, his glasses fall off his head and break. “It’s not fair! It’s just not fair!” You can’t always get what you want and be careful what you wish for could be lessons taught here.

The Eye of The Beholder – (Nov. 11, 1960 - Season 2)

Patient 307, Janet Tyler (Maxine Stuart in the beginning, Donna Douglas after the bandages are removed) is born “horribly disfigured” and checks into a hospital to have her looks corrected to be socially acceptable. Her head is totally swathed in bandages. She can’t tell if it’s day or night. This is her 11th (and final – by law, no more funding will be provided after this) attempt at the “injections.” “When I was a little girl, people turned away when they looked at me…Who makes all the rules? The state is not God!” she laments.

As the bandages are removed, in three dramatic stages, we see the “Leader” is making a speech on television – echoing conspicuously a Hitler tirade – praising “our glorious conformity.” But the operation fails and she’s exiled forever to be with beautiful people like herself. The story pokes at prejudice and segregation for any reason.

The artistry in this episode is in the camera angles. The Doctor (William D. Gordon), Nurse (Jennifer Howard), and other cast members are shot either from the neck down, or in shadow, or from the back. The audience never sees their faces until the end. That’s The Twilight Zone twist.

To Serve Man – (Mar. 2, 1962 - Season 3)

The nine-foot tall Kanamits arrive on Earth and one (Richard Kiel) presents a book (the title is that of the episode) to the United Nations. The Kanamits are bald, bulbous-headed and dressed in floor-length one-piece tunics with a weird collar off-set to one side. They speak only mentally and look bored or dull-witted. The best minds on Earth, Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) and his assistant Patty (Susan Cummings) attempt the translation of the strange symbols.

After passing the lie detector tests (to determine that they are not here to invade or exterminate mankind), the aliens give Earth cures for hunger (a nitrate that makes soil super-productive), war (a protective shield impervious to bombs) and a nuclear power source to supply energy to entire countries. At one point, we hear the line spoken to the military, “I guess that puts us out of business.” But the Earthmen fail to ask the right questions.

People are delighted and eternally grateful, and are eager to visit the aliens’ planet. No one is suspicious except Mr. Chambers. After he’s weighed on an old-fashioned standing scale (even for 1962) under the decidedly hungry watchful eye of a Kanamit (he’s grinning like a wolf) and about to board the spaceship, Chambers hears Patty’s revelation that To Serve Man is a cookbook. It’s as hilarious as it is horrific.

I noticed one strange inaccuracy as I re-viewed and still enjoyed this episode. The story begins and ends with Michael Chambers in a small room on the alien saucer. One of the Kanamits brings a tray of food. My question is why would an intelligent race of people who know they are nine feet tall construct a spaceship with doorways they have to duck under to pass through?

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – (Oct. 11, 1963 - Season 5)

This is one of William Shatner’s best performances. After having been treated for a nervous breakdown and being a fearful flyer (I can identify with that), Bob Wilson (Shatner) boards a plane for home with his wife Julia (Christine White). It doesn’t help calm him when he’s seated by the “auxiliary exit.” Added to that is a violent thunderstorm the entire flight.

Bob’s the only one who sees the “Gremlin” (actually Nick Cravat in a bad gorilla suit wearing a mask from Eye of the Beholder) attacking the engine on the wing his window faces. No one believes him because the creature conveniently flies out of view when anyone else looks. Seriously, I laugh now, but when this episode aired I was terrified.

The suspense mounts until Bob notices a gun in a holster draped carelessly over the arm of a seat in the rear of the plane. (Really?) It’s also almost funny how Shatner nonchalantly (even for him) pretends to drop something so that no one will see him swipe the gun.

Mind you, this plane is not a jet. It’s propeller driven. Still the scene where he pops open the door and is nearly sucked out by the depressurization is exciting as he struggles to shoot the gremlin.

On a gurney being loaded into an ambulance at the end Bob says, “No one will know but me.” Just as the audience wonders whether it was a mirage or whether he saved the day, the camera pans back in a classic Twilight Zone twist to reveal the torn cowling on the plane’s engine. Beautiful.

The Midnight Sun – (Nov. 17, 1961 - Season 3)

Things are heating up as it is discovered that the Earth is slowly getting closer to the sun. Norma (Lois Nettleton) is an artist who is good friends with her landlady, Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde), but even she cannot stand to see anymore paintings featuring the sun. Obligingly, Norma paints a refreshing waterfall. Psychologically, I guess this helps.

Mr. Shuster (Jason Wingreen) and his wife (Juney Ellis) are the last tenants to leave the building for the temporary relief of moving to Canada. Really? Getting off the Earth would be my priority, if it were possible.

Tempers are flaring and social mores break down with the increasing Fahrenheit when an intruder (Tom Reese) forces his way into the apartment, drinks the last of their water and makes threatening gestures, but later breaks down in shame and embarrassment at what he’s become.

This episode has the definitive convoluted ending. Norma awakens from her fever dream and it’s snowing outside. The Earth has actually broken out of its orbit and is heading away from the sun.

I thought the acting in this chapter was especially well done. I was nearly sweating just watching it.

The Invaders – (Jan. 27, 1961 - Season 2)

A tour-de-force performance by Agnes Moorehead as an old woman living alone in a simple farm house in the countryside, no electricity, no neighbors, and no telephone. Suddenly a crash is heard in her attic. It’s a flying saucer and she finds herself beset by toy-like aliens who appear all over her house and fire weapons at her and stab her in the foot with one of her own kitchen knives.

Wordlessly, she gasps, grunts, and groans her way through the episode fighting off her tormentors and ultimately destroying the saucer with an ax. The last thing we, the audience, hear is a distress call (and the only words in the episode) from an American spaceship to mission control about a “race of giants!” 

We are the aliens in this one. It’s an elegant turn-around on who’s invading who, reminding me of a story recently on the news about an new Earth-like planet discovered several light-years away. The news reporter suggested it as a “new home?” Not if Agnes Moorehead is already living there.

The Howling Man – (Nov. 4, 1960 - Season 2)

David Ellington (H.M. Wynant) is on a walking trip in Central Europe and lost, seeks shelter from a violent storm (which conveniently stops for the dialogue and then resumes) at a monastery and he hears a strange howling (much like a dog’s) behind a locked door (Robin Hughes). Brother Jerome (John Carradine) tries to get David to leave, but when David collapses on the floor, he agrees to let him stay for the night.

The inmate convinces David that the monks, especially Brother Jerome are mad and that they imprisoned him for kissing a girl after beating him. Even after Brother Jerome reveals that his prisoner is the Devil himself. David is totally taken in by the howling man and opens the door.

The frightening metamorphosis occurs and once again the Devil is set loose upon the world. It’s now David’s task to recapture him, and he does, until a woman whom he strictly warns about opening the door lifts the bar sealing it anyway. The best line in this episode is from Brother Jerome, “No MAN has ever been imprisoned in the hermitage.” He’s referring of course to the Devil as not being a mere man.

Nowadays, we tend to dismiss the Devil, I guess because he’s not in fashion. Or we dress up in his “costume” at Halloween because it’s a jazzy way to wear red. This episode reveals him as not in the least jazzy, not in the least fashionable and never to be trusted.

A Stop at Willoughby – (May 6, 1960 - Season 1)

James Daly is Gart Williams, a harried man in a job where his boss, Mr. Misrell (Howard Smith), is constantly on his back urging him to “Push, push, push!” His work-a-day life makes him long for a simpler time. It’s November in Connecticut and on his train home (possibly the Metro-North?), he falls asleep and has realistic dreams of Willoughby, a peaceful, small town in a warm July of 1888. He wakes up disappointed back in his seat on his train as the snow is falling outside.

His wife Janie (Patricia Donahue) berates him about it, “You were born too late…I married a man whose big dream is to be Huck Finn!” All Gart wants is a job where he can be himself and not some drone endlessly being pushed and unrecognized. After a second dream (always occurring near Stamford) and return to Willoughby and a subsequent near nervous breakdown at the office, he’s determined to get off the train in Willoughby the next time he stops there.

He accomplishes this and everyone he meets is pleasant, as is the weather in Willoughby, and he’s perfectly happy to be there. But the reality (The Twilight Zone twist) is he’s not in Willoughby. He’s in a snowstorm in Connecticut and freezes to death outside. To add to the sad irony, he’s picked up by the Willoughby & Sons Funeral Home.

I enjoyed this episode because I can relate to someone who would really rather be somewhere pleasant than in a stressful situation. I’ve experienced this many times in my life and was caught more than once daydreaming in school. I identified with Gart, but I wouldn’t want to share his fate.

A Most Unusual Camera – (Dec. 16, 1960 - Season 2)

Chester and Paula Dietrich (Fred Clark and Jean Carson) are two-bit criminals who robbed a curio shop. To their amazement, among the stolen loot is a strange box camera that acts like a Polaroid camera with instant photos. Though they cannot figure out how to put film in it nor open it to do so, and cannot read the French writing on the outside, Chester takes a picture of Paula posing by the window.

Nothing happens for a little while and they figure the camera’s broken when “bing!” the picture pops out. It’s a perfect photo of Paula except that she’s wearing a fur coat. Chester figures it’s one of those carnival things, but when Paula discovers a fur coat in a suitcase from their stash and strikes the same pose by the window, Chester starts to wonder.

Paula pooh-poohs him and takes his picture. But the photo is of her brother Woodward (Adam Williams) coming through the door. Five minutes later, Woodward arrives (newly escaped from jail). Chester thinks it’s voodoo or some demonic thing. None of these three characters are the sharpest crayon in the box, but they figure out that the camera takes pictures of events that will happen five minutes in the future. They decide to take the camera to the racetrack and photograph the winners’ board. Knowing the horse that will win the last six races gets them a huge sum of cash.

They think they’re on Easy Street until Pierre, the hotel waiter (Marcel Hillaire), translates the French for them when he comes up and notices the camera, “Dix à la propriétaire - ten to an owner.” Chester does some quick calculations (which isn’t easy for him) of how many pictures they’ve taken and how many are left and concludes that they have to conserve the last two. Woodward and he argue and in the tussle a picture is taken of Paula screaming.

The two men continue to fight and both fall out the open window. Paula screams. But it doesn’t take her too long before she realizes that all the money is now hers. Her grief is short and she takes the final photo of the two men on the ground below. Cue the nasty Pierre, who takes the cash threatening to call the police. He also notes that there are more than two bodies in the photo.

Paula goes to look, trips and falls out herself. Standing by the window, Pierre counts bodies in the picture, “One, two, three, four?” and, shocked, falls out the window as well. The camera lands on the floor.

This episode has more of a comedic side to it than a moralistic one. Sure, crime doesn’t pay (obviously) but the characters are so bizarrely played that one can laugh at their mishaps. My favorite line is from Chester, “What has humanity ever done for us?”

Living Doll – (Nov. 1, 1963 - Season 5)

Telly Savalas is Erich Streator, stepfather to Christie (Tracy Stratford) and husband to Annabelle (Mary LaRoche). The girls come home with a new doll for Chrissie, a “Talking Tina” doll. “She doesn’t need another doll!” says he. At first, all Tina (voiced by June Foray, famed for the voice of Witch Hazel in Warner Brothers cartoons) says is, “My name is Talking Tina and I love you very much!”

But out of sight and earshot of the wife and child she changes her tune and ranges from “…and I don’t think I like you.” to “I’m beginning to hate you.” to “I’m going to kill you.” Eric tries to dispose of the doll in the garbage and she quotes Daffy Duck, “You wouldn’t dare.” (Chuck Jones, Drip-Along Daffy, 1951)

But when Tina calls him on the phone, it’s the last straw. He tries to cut her head off with a power saw (and fails), puts her head in a vice (she giggles), and tries to burn her with a blow torch (which repeatedly gets blown out – another Daffy Duck reference: Holiday for Drumsticks, 1949). He gives up.

Then one night. Eric hears something and gets out of bed to investigate. As he starts to descend the stairs, Tina is lying on the second step; he trips and falls to the bottom. Annabelle hears the noise and is horrified, not just by his (we assume) fatal fall (though you can see, he’s still breathing), but by the doll’s last line, “My name is Talking Tina and you’d better be nice to me.”

Eric is not really the evil stepfather so much as the inadequate husband. He repeatedly accuses Annabelle and Chrissie of being in league against him because he and Annabelle can’t have any children of their own. Savalas is used to playing a tough guy but nobody wins against a savvy doll (remember Chuckie?).

I found this episode to be one of the creepier ones and worthy, as such, of being one of my favorites.

You may have your own “top 10.” It’s not easy to whittle them down to that amount. Try it, you’ll see. There are so many to choose from, but these are mine. The memories are bittersweet for all the actors who are not with us anymore as well as the marvelous Rod Serling, who passed 40 years ago, and script writers Richard Matheson (2013) and Charles Beaumont (1967) who brought the stories to us and made the unbelievable believable.

What better way to end a top 10 favorite compilation than with a quote from Rod Serling: There is nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.”

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