There’s a moment early in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) when a car driver (Albert Brooks) and a hitchhiker (Dan Ackroyd) are discussing which TZ television episode was the scariest. It’s a great intro to the movie, and it ends with Ackroyd saying to Brooks, “Do you want to see something really scary?” He then turns away from the camera, and when he turns back . . .
See, for me, the scariest part of that moment is when Ackroyd turns away. The possibilities of what he will reveal when he turns around are endless, and our fertile imaginations supply the most horrifying possibilities fresh from the depths of our own troubled psyches. What Ackroyd reveals isn’t anywhere near as scary as what we conjure up in our heads.
That’s how I like being scared. It’s also the reason I can’t go to horror movies anymore. Nowadays filmmakers like to gross you out more than they want to scare you. What reveals itself after turning away in a modern horror movie is often far worse than anything I could drum up in my own mind. And I simply don’t want to see those images. Ever.
The TV show The Twilight Zone only freaked me out once as a kid. That episode is coming up at the end of our class, and this overgrown child is already dreading watching that one again. (I tend to avoid it.) When we get to it, you might dismiss me as a wuss, but I guarantee that episode created some horrible real life nightmares for me.
Most of the time when he wanted to scare us – and not every TZ episode was scary, contrary to some folks’ misguided memories – Rod Serling could do it with great writing and suggestive imagery that created so much suspense that he didn’t really have to show the actual horror at all. Frankly, on a budget of $70,000 per episode and a three-day shooting schedule, TZ didn’t have the time for fantastic FX, and since it was basically a family show, Serling never let it get too gruesome. And yet, he managed to scare you nonetheless.
For tonight’s class, Elliot assigned us three stone cold classics, all of them adapted by Serling from other sources. Two of them have twist endings that it’s hard to imagine came as much of a surprise to anyone, but they’re both beautifully made, and one of them is genuinely creepy. The third is one of the scariest, bleakest episodes of the entire run, mostly for what it doesn’t show you.
And now, if you’re braaaave enough . . . let’s proceed.
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“The Hitch-Hiker” (written by Rod Serling, based on the radio play “The Hitch-Hiker” by Lucille Fletcher; original broadcast 1/22/60)
It took us a few weeks, but we finally have a Twilight Zone episode about a woman, and what better source of inspiration than Lucille Fletcher, whose play “Sorry, Wrong Number” (a different kind of story than this, and a better one) added lustre to Agnes Moorehead’s star on radio and then did the same for Barbara Stanwyck at the movies. This is the first and only radio play to be made into an episode of TZ; unfortunately, the “woman in jeopardy” in the radio version was played by . . . Orson Welles! Serling, who sources say wrote his adaptation in six hours, changed the gender, and so we have Inger Stevens, a favorite of mine from the old TV show The Farmer’s Daughter, who plays the lead:
“Her name is Nan Adams. She’s twenty-seven years old. Her occupation: buyer at a New York department store, at present on vacation, driving cross country to Los Angeles, California from Manhattan . . . Minor incident on Highway 11 in Pennsylvania, perhaps to be filed away under accident you walk away from.”
No such luck for Nan. The man from the service station who fixes her tire wonders how she could have possibly survived the skidding of her car across the highway. And if you don’t know what that means, then you’re in for a big surprise. For the rest of us, it’s all a matter of waiting to see when Nan will catch wise to her situation, and it’s bound to be sooner rather than later because as soon as she gets back into her car, she sees the hitchhiker. And soon she will see the same woebegone man on every highway she travels toward California, thumbing for a ride and smiling forlornly at her.
Frankly, I don’t think knowing the twist undermines the suspense of this episode one bit. There are some wonderful little jump scares throughout, mostly involving the hitch-hiker himself, that perfectly capture Nan’s growing hysteria, as does Stevens’ performance. There’s one cool moment, when the Man himself simply slides into the frame, that gives a good shudder.
Frankly, there are no set rules about how ghost stories operate, so it doesn’t do much good wondering how the service station guy and the waiter and the soldier can see and interact with Nan. Maybe her mind’s inability to accept her fate wills her into . . . oh, never mind! It’s a cleverly done episode, made all the more frightful by how George T. Clemons’ camera follows Nan’s fateful journey down actual American highways.
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“It’s a Good Life” (written by Rod Serling, based on the short story of the same name by Jerome Bixby; original broadcast 11/3/61)
“It’s a Good Life’s” greatness lies in its simplicity – look no further than the bloated remake in The Twilight Zone Movie, sadly penned by no less than Richard Matheson, to see how right the TV episode gets it. Rod Serling delivers one of his longest prologues, explaining how one day the entire world disappeared, except for the small town of Peaksville, Ohio. The cause of this isolation – and of the breakdown of all machinery, the disappearance of animals, and the cancellation of singing (!) is Anthony Freemont, a six-year-old boy played by Billy Mumy, who had appeared the previous season in the delicate ghost story episode, “The Long-Distance Call.”
What would happen if anyone were given the extraordinary power to rearrange the world in their image? Ursula LeGuin explored this beautifully in The Lathe of Heaven (1971). In that novel, the world is fantastically altered every time a man dreams. Since our dreams often unmask our deepest impulses, it’s not that different from the wishes of a child.
Unfortunately for the world – but luckily for us – Anthony is a disturbed child. At least, he is a typical boy made monstrous by both his power and the fear of those who surround him. The idea presented early on is that Anthony doesn’t take kindly to criticism or discipline. Those who confront him are subjected to horrible punishments and then “sent into the cornfield. As a result, the citizens of Peaksville, including Anthony’s parents, wax hysterically over the boy, calling every monstrous act he commits “a good thing.” It’s a trying existence, especially because Anthony can read minds if he chooses and so everyone has to think lovely thoughts all the time!
This awful world is displayed simply, with little in the way of special effects. In fact, it’s what we don’t see that works best: the sounds of animals in distress (Anthony doesn’t like dogs and he prefers that the creatures on his family’s farm be monsters). In fact, if Serling is inserting any social commentary here, it’s that kids are being exposed to TV fare that is way too violent, and it can have an effect on them.
The only special effect is a silly one: one of Anthony TV nights, where he makes everyone watch violent cartoons, doubles as a surprise birthday party for a neighbor, Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), who breaks down when he can’t listen to his Perry Como record, drinks heavily and embarks on a suicidal rant against Anthony. The boy responds by turning Dan into a giant jack-in-the-box. It’s creepy in its childlike lunacy, and fortunately most of it is shown in shadow.
The episode succeeds because of Mumy’s unaffected performance and large, scary eyes and especially due to the fine work of the actors surrounding him. Their terror of this little boy is palpable, and once in a while their masks slip. In an early moment, Anthony’s mom (Cloris Leachman) tells the delivery boy about the time her son created a nasty little beast with long teeth who tried to bite him. The look that passes between her and the young man – of a mother wishing for her son’s death – is devastating. So is Dan Hollis’ rant against the boy, which is basically his plea that while he sacrifices himself, someone needs to creep up behind the monster and club him to death. So is Anthony’s dad, whose rage is lit when Anthony makes it snow, ensuring that most of the crops will die.
The movie adaptation added a character: an elementary school teacher who confronts Anthony and finds a balance between praise and discipline that gives the story a new, happy ending. That version posits a world where children want authority figures and guidance and discipline instead of the instant gratification of every horrid wish they’ve ever wished.
Clearly, the original TV show was mirroring real life!
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“To Serve Man” (written by Rod Serling, based on the short story of the same name by Damon Knight; original broadcast 3/2/62)
This is one of the classics: a race of aliens called the
Canniba-, er, Kanamits arrives on Earth promising to end war and hunger for all humankind. They carry a book called “To Serve Man.” It turns out to be a cookbook. The Kanamits clearly have a sense of humor. Other than that, it would seem there’s not much to write about this episode. Except . . .
Our teacher Elliot provided us with the original story by Damon Knight, and, frankly, it’s a lot better than Serling’s adaptation. In the story, the Kanamits look like hairy pigs, which is funnier in an ironic way than the nine-foot-tall giant (Richard Kiel) that looms over the earthlings. I get it: in 1962, it would have been hard to accomplish the make-up without looking ridiculous.
What’s touched on in the story but left out of the episode is a reference to the Kanamits as missionaries. There’s a lot to say about the motivations of missionaries! And how much richer that conversation would have been here, as we barely skim the surface over whether the Kanamits are angels or “Greeks bearing gifts.” In his introduction, Serling calls the aliens “a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy,” a suggestion that maybe he could have gone there. And yet . . . these were the days when we were taught that Columbus was a hero.
One final point: in The Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Zicree recounts Knight’s reaction to the episode, which he generally liked (“it made me famous in Milford, Pennsylvania”) but which contained an obvious flaw regarding the book. In the story, Knight spends time showing how similarly the language of the Kanamits worked to human language; this had the effect of paving the way for the double meaning of the book’s title. As it stands in the story, the only way the twist works is if the Kanamit language is essentially English, with a different character substituting for each letter but with each word having the same multiple meanings.
As I’ve said, it doesn’t always pay to think too hard about some of these . . .
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Every anthology series is going to be a mixed bag: there will be episodes we don’t much care for – for me, it’s most of the shows featuring robots – and those we love, even if we know they’re not among the best. Elliot offered us a bonus episode, one of his favorites because it is filmed with something of a film noir sensibility. “A Nice Place to Visit” does have that look about it, plus a wonderful performance by Sebastian Cabot as Mr. Pip, an otherworldly being dressed in white, who greets two-bit hoodlum Rocky Valentine (Larry Blyden) when the latter is gunned down by the police while running away from a heist.
Charles Beaumont’s story amounts to little more than a joke, with a punchline you can see coming as soon as Cabot shows up. What can you expect when a pretty worthless human being is offered an afterlife where his every wish comes true. Given that this is The Twilight Zone, where every strange device leads to a moral ending, you’re just waiting for Mr. Pip to sprout a nice pair of white horns. (Fun fact: a few years later, Blyden would play a devilish figure himself onstage as the Snake in the Garden of Eden in the Broadway musical The Apple Tree.)
I thought I would share one of my favorite “not-so-great” episodes with you. This one is oozing with sentiment, so I would never expect Elliot to show it in class. A few weeks back, I talked about an often-used trope where a person so miserable in his present life would find a way back to the past. We saw this play out to perfection in “Walking Distance” and cave in to fantasy in “A Stop in Willoughby.” Many times TZ would set this plot idea around an artist. In both “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” and “A World of Difference, a movie star (played by Ida Lupino and Howard Duff, respectively) was allowed to retreat into their own private Willoughby and escape a world that either hated them or had dismissed them. In “A World of His Own,” a playwright (Keenan Wynn) has the power to bring his fantasies to life by simply writing about them, and if they go “bad,” he simply tears them up and starts over.
I think my favorite of these episodes is from Season Two. “The Trouble with Templeton” is the only episode written by E. Jack Neuman, a prolific writer and producer who, under the name “Jack Dawson” wrote the scripts for one of my favorite radio shows, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. The episode concerns Booth Templeton (Brian Aherne) a veteran performer on the Broadway stage. Unlike Lupino’s character, Templeton is still very much a star, about to begin his thirty-first starring role in a new play. He lives in a beautiful home outside of New York and has married a much younger wife. The trouble with Templeton is that he has lost his mojo: his wife cheats on him flagrantly, but he figures that it’s more than he deserves for marrying her. And when he arrives at his first rehearsal, he is disrespected by the producer and brutally chastised by the new “wonderkind” director.
What happens next is typical Twilight Zone: Booth flees the theatre and finds himself outside the stage door where an enthusiastic crowd is applauding him. Time has turned back over thirty years, to 1927, and Booth is appearing in his first great hit. Immediately, his thoughts turn to Laura (Pippa Scott), his first wife and his only true love, who was tragically taken from him only a few years after this. He gets a message from the stage door guard that Laura is waiting for him at a nearby speakeasy (we’re still in Prohibition), and he rushes to meet her.
In all these stories, the main variance is how the past treats the leading character. Often they are allowed to stay, while in “Walking Distance” the hero’s father gently pushes him back to his present life. For Booth, the past quickly becomes a nightmare. Laura turns out to be a vapid flapper girl eager to have a good time, and when Booth begs her to go away with him, she lashes out at his “old man” behavior. Even his best friend, the play’s director, laughs at him, and a heartbroken Templeton flees the speakeasy and rushes back to the theatre, a broken man who has returned to the present, now without even his beloved memories to sustain him.
But . . . and here’s the part I love: Booth tries to regain his composure before returning to rehearsal, and he finds in his pocket a script called “What to Do When Booth Comes Back.” As he reads the scene he just witnessed in the past, he realizes that his wife and friends were all acting out a scene for his benefit. They didn’t want him to settle for a return to the past; rather, he needed to reassert himself and seize the present day. He walks calmly onto the stage and demands respect from his producer and director. (The producer balks, but he’s just the money man! The director is immediately impressed and changes his tune.)
I know, it’s corny as hell. But every time I see that moment where Booth flees the speakeasy and the entire crowd stops laughing and stares after him, knowing they’ve hurt him by playing the most difficult roles of their (after)lives, I get a delicious chill. And that’s . . . The Twilight Zone.
3 thoughts on “THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART FOUR: Classic Chills”
Such wonderful choices – love HITCHIKER (I have not checked but apparently Herrmann re-used his score from the radio version, which is a nice touch as his wife wrote it after all). I think I saw the TZ movie before seeing any of the TV shows, so have a real soft spot for the Joe Dante version of “It’s a Good Life” though I agree we can seriously debate the “happy” ending. I actually think “Nice Place to Visit” is the absolute worst season 1 episode of TZ (even worse than “Mr Bevis” which at least was designed as a sitcom pilot and is deliberately simple to set up a show). Also, I would argue that there are plenty of more Noir-looking ones, like “Passage for Trumpet” for instance (another favourite). Apparently the shooting of “To Serve Man”) went very badly and had to be partly re-written and re-shot months later. And of course the Kanamint aren’t cannibals as they don’t eat each other (well, what they do when they’re at home is their business of course 🤣)
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PS Just to say that TROUBLE WITH TEMPLETON is another great favourite of mine. I love that last shot of the revellers from the 20s as the lights go down. I think it’s a perfect little episode
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THE HITCH-HIKER was a great episode and one of my faves! The ending is so eerie once Nan Adams, played by Inger Stevens, gets off the phone and heads to her car, we the viewers hear her inward monologue then as she slides into her car seat she adjusts the rearview mirror and we see the hitch-hiker’s face up close in that mirror. That scene still gives me chills each and every time I watch it. Twilight Zone is such a wonderful classic series and any other incarnation after it just pales in comparison, especially the recent series.
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