THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 5: Stretching the Boundaries of Imagination

When I was in eighth grade, I had this wonderful English teacher who loved to make us write stories. I want to say for the record that the tales I produced – none of which I can remember – were wholly original, but they were clearly influenced by The Twilight Zone. Fortunately, my teacher enjoyed my stories; in fact, he wrote in his comments that I was a master of irony! With Rod Serling as your inspiration, what else could you expect? The thing is, my tales were heavy on plot and always aimed for the twist. (Irony is a plot device, after all.) I can’t say that anything I wrote burst with style or mood or tone, those qualities that can give a story – or a film – its richness, even when the plot is skimpy. 

I bring this up because this week, our instructor, Elliot Lavine, did not assign any episodes of TZ that are the hallmark of plot. This time, the mood wows you and the twists are skimpy. In at least three of the four tales I’ll cover below, the protagonists seem to be good men, so there is no sense of justice to what unfolds. And weird awful things do happen to good people all the time (in Twilight Zone, they’re especially weird!) But without justice or, at least, some sort of explanation, these tales unsettle us – as a good episode of TZ should do – but they also leave us hanging, which you can react to as a matter of personal taste.

As a lover of story, I can’t say any of these come close to being favorites of mine. But I’ve spent the last couple of years studying film noir with Elliot. We’ve walked down some mean streets that make little sense but look great and leave you reeling in the end. And a couple of this week’s Twilight Zone episodes offer weighty evidence that sometimes style does triumph over substance.

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 “Perchance to Dream” (written by Charles Beaumont, based on his short story of the same name; original broadcast 11/27/59)

Edward Hall, a very disturbed man (played by a very twitchy Richard Conte) arrives at the office of a psychiatrist (John Larch) and collapses on the doctor’s couch. Edward recites a litany of problems: he has a rheumatic heart, an overactive imagination, and a tendency to dream in serial form!! And now we can add another problem: the poor guy hasn’t slept in four days because lately, his dreams have taken the shape of nightmares, set in an amusement park where Maya the Cat Lady (Suzanne Lloyd) seems to be attempting to both thrill and kill Edward. Not for the first time this week did I think of Nightmare Alley, the unsettling 1947 horror noir starring Tyrone Power. The episode also gives off similar vibes to 1962’s Carnival of Souls. (Elliot provided this as an extra to accompany “The Hitchhiker.”)

The plot contains a coincidence which is awful: the psychiatrist’s receptionist looks just like Maya (perhaps . . . except Edward did not react to her when he arrived). But the final twist is more worthy of an episode of TZ. Ultimately, the story is beside the point, being merely a tale on which to hang a gripping visual experience. The director is Robert Florey, whose long career encompassed much experimentation, and while his horror credits were few, they included the development of the original Frankenstein (before Florey was removed and James Whale took over), and two films starring Peter Lorre that frankly scared the crap out of me as a kid: The Face Behind the Mask (1941) and The Beast With Five Fingers (1946).

Here, Florey takes on some of the inner demons that plagued the writer, Charles Beaumont, who shares with his protagonist an overactive imagination, a tendency to dream in serial form, and a fear of roller coasters. (In The Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Zicree tells a great story about a fully-grown Beaumont entering a carnival funhouse and convincing himself and a friend that they were being stalked by a killer.) Zucree praises Conte’s performance throughout – and he is the embodiment of a nervous wreck – but the first section of the episode, a talky conversation between doctor and patient that piles on the exposition to get us to where we need to go, got on my nerves. 

The second half – Edward’s dream – is utterly nerve-wracking, filmed in noirish style by George T. Clemens in such a way that, visually at least, it truly resembles a nightmare. The oblique angles, the hideous monsters popping up in the fun house, that terrifying ride on the roller coaster, all scored by Van Cleave’s shrill music and punctuated by Maya’s equally disturbing laughter – elevate this rather pedestrian story to a truly wild ride.  

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 “The Four of Us Are Dying” (written by Rod Serling, based on an unpublished short story by George Clayton Johnson; original broadcast 1/1/60)

This might be the best of this week’s bunch! From the first strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s jazz score, you know you are in for something special. Arch Hammer (Harry Townes) is a two-bit punk on the make. He comes into the big city – directed by John Brahm as a stylized fever dream – in order to score some dough and a dame. Since this is The Twilight Zone, Hammer is blessed with a singular gift: through sheer concentration, he can transform his face so that he looks like whoever he wants to be. (I won’t make cracks about how he also changes his hairstyle, body type and voice – hey, it’s a fantasy!) 

“The Four of Us” plays like four films noirs in one. Arch is clearly a loser, and he seems drawn to playing losers and victims. He turns into Johnny Foster (played by Ross Martin), a trumpet player who was killed in an accident, in order to seduce Johnny’s girlfriend, singer Maggie (the great Beverly Garland), to run off with him. Then he impersonates Virgil Sterig (played by Phillip Pine), a murdered gangster, so that he can steal back money from the mob boss who ordered the hit on him. Then, in order to escape the mobster’s goons, Hammer transforms into prizefighter Andy Marshak (played by Don Gordon). The ruse works, but unfortunately Hammer-as-Marshak runs into his father (Peter Brocco), who holds a big grudge against his no-good son. 

There’s an air of impending doom in the story, the setting, and the score that never lets up. It’s all highly stylized, including the setting, which seems like a never-ending hodgepodge of night club lights and alleyways, and the dialogue, as when Hammer-as-Foster has a reunion with his shocked girlfriend:

Maggie:  Johnny! Johnny, are you a ghost?

Foster:  Sure, a ghost. I just came down to check the mourners, read the obituaries. How’d they feel about the deceased, huh? What kind of tears?

Maggie:  You came to the right place, Johnny. I have a roomful of buckets.        

Arch realizes that with Maggie he might make a grab for true happiness, but he cannot let well enough alone. Twilight Zone works best when it offers a cautionary tale, and it works here, even if the conceit of Hammer’s magic comes out of nowhere. Once again, I’m reminded of Nightmare Alley: even when Stanton Carlisle catches a break, he spoils it, and when he makes a grab for power, he still ends up the chump because, basically, he’s stupid. That Serling accomplishes something similar in only 25 minutes is pretty damn good indeed.

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 “Shadow Play” (written by Charles Beaumont; original broadcast 5/5/61)

We’re back in Dreamland again, only this one is shot differently and twists about in a whole different way to “Perchance to Dream.” The episode opens with Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver) on trial for murder. The jury enters and delivers a guilty verdict. The judge sentences Grant to death. And he just – laughs! It turns out he has been convicted like this many times before because Adam Grant is stuck in a dream that loops back into itself again and again and again. Every night he dies trying to convince all those around him that they are a part of his dream and that, unless he can somehow stop this endless nightmare, they will die with him. 

I want to say first and foremost that Weaver gives a hell of a performance as Grant, and the rest of the cast is very good, too. But the conceit behind this one threatens to cave in on itself. Certainly, Twilight Zone has had people stuck in dreams before, and it will do so again. But this time, it’s almost like “Shadow Play” is also serving as a commentary on television legal dramas, like Perry Mason or The Defenders, in which a whole case sacrifices realism to fit into an hour-long slot. Here we have less than twenty-five minutes in which to make it all happen; thus, the sentencing does indeed immediately follow the verdict, which Grant points out never happens in real life. 

We find a group of stock prisoners filling Death Row who would fit right at home in any Poverty Row prison movie: the tough guy, the one who has cracked, even a guy who plays a woeful harmonica. In a twist, Grant insists they are all characters he has picked up from watching movies or people he has come across in his life who struck him in a similar way.  And yet, these faces change roles in each new incarnation of the dream, which belies that very point, although it does have a dreamlike nonsense about it.

Beaumont’s screenplay isn’t just about the doomed prisoner; it also follows the characters in his dream, who worry that Grant’s insistence that they aren’t real, that they’ll disappear when they throw the switch and execute him, is true. When the D.A. (Harry Townes, who played Arch Hammer in “Perchance to Dream”) arrives at the jail to confront Grant about his delusion, he is appalled when Grant lip synchs every line that comes out of the lawyer’s mouth. But then Grant turns the steak cooking in the D.A’s oven into a roast, which makes no sense except in dreams! Okay, then, he has proved his point . . . but where does that leave everybody? 

Doo doo doo doo . . . doo doo doo doo . . . 

Ultimately, the episode raises questions about logic that it chooses not to answer, like if Grant is having the same dream every night, why isn’t there a daytime? And if he’s on a constant loop, like the one in Groundhog Day, is it because he’s actually guilty of murder and is being punished? Or is the punishment because he has watched too many bad movies? I have to say that sometimes – as in episodes like this one – the “solution” that he’s simply stuck in The Twilight Zone fails to satisfy. 

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For our bonus episode, Elliot left noir behind and gave us Twilight Zone in more standard mode. Rod Serling based his script for “And When the Sky Was Opened” (12/11/59) on the short story “Disappearing Act” by Richard Matheson, but even the author himself noted that the adaptation is almost unrecognizable. The plot concerns three astronauts (Rod Taylor, Charles Aidman, and Jim Hutton) who return from a mission in space and then disappear one by one. What’s more, once they vanish, nobody can remember them except the next astronaut to disappear. 

I’m borrowing a lot from Marc Zicree here because he voiced so well my own interest and admitted frustration with this story.  Ultimately, we must resign ourselves to the fact that Serling is not going to give us any explanation for this anomaly. They didn’t die in space, or they would still be remembered. Did something . . . strange happen up there? Slowly, something sucks the memory of each astronaut – and then of the entire mission – out of the collective human consciousness. What that something is . . . we will never know.

Remember, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, wouldn’t get there until April 1961. Before that, many TZ episodes would explore the wonder – and the fear – of space exploration and what lies beyond. Spacemen would be captured and displayed in zoos or stuffed for posterity or marry a robot – one team would crash land on a desert planet that turned out to be . . . Las Vegas!!

Ultimately, according to Zucree, Rod Serling was not interested in providing a payoff. “And When the Sky Was Opened” is about fear, and what occurs when the unexplainable happens to us. It’s a beautifully acted episode and well-directed by Douglas Heyes, who would go on to do seven more episodes, including the already covered “The Howling Man” and two of the series’ very best, “Eye of the Beholder” and “The Invaders.” (Both of these will be covered in class.) And even though, as I told you at the start, I’m a story guy and I like some answers to my questions, I agree that here, for once, the correct choice is to leave us wondering. 

It’s much more unsettling that way. 

12 thoughts on “THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 5: Stretching the Boundaries of Imagination

  1. Thanks again for a fun post. Not particularly familiar with these four episodes but I’m going to comment nonetheless. Why not? Nothing incisive. Just being chatty.
    (First off, who was the English teacher?) Perchance To Dream – I find this whole category of plot theme, although really disturbing, intriguing. I have vivid dreams and nightmares all the time. Carnival of Souls is a fave film – creepy, sad, gentle, unnerving all at once. And I’m also reminded of Ursula LeGuin’s short novel Lathe of Heaven. The what’s dream, what’s reality thing. (And no, The Matrix doesn’t have to enter into this conversation.)
    OK – The Four of Us Are Dying. Thank you for using the phrase “two-bit punk on the make.” That brightens my day. And agreed that Beverly Garland was THE BEST. Truly twisted dream scenario. Love it.
    Shadow Play – another interesting dream/plot variation . But now I have “Guillermo! The dodo made a doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo” stuck in my head. Damn you.
    And rather than continue on with my pointless rambling, I’ll just say that “And When the Sky Was Opened” reminds me of how much I like the first Quatermass movie. What the hell happened on that spaceship?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The English teacher was young and Japanese, but I can’t remember his name. My seventh grade English teacher was Mrs. Giles, nee Brimley, who wore black a lot, and loved to read us stories by Roald Dahl. Between that and The Twilight Zone, I had irony coming out of my ears!


  2. My feeling about Serling and Twilight Zone has always been that the touchstones of his scripts was a sense of nostalgia for the oast that was known contrasted with a fear of loss of control over present and future. Hence so many tales of alienation and isolation. Which, for a guy who we now know was incredibly insecure about his own work and who suffered with PTSD from his wartime experiences, makes s lot of sense. His adaptations of the Matheson and Johnson certainly bear this out but the “rubber face” story certainly works better as a plot. For a long time I got I SHOT AN ARROW and KING NINE mixed up with that great William Shatner TV Movie, SOLE SURVIVOR – ever seen it? Had a huge impact on me as a kid.


  3. I see PERCHANCE TO DREAM very differently than you do, and it’s indeed one of my very favorite episodes (if not my single most favorite episode). I don’t see the resemblance of the receptionist to Maya as anything of an awful coincidence, but rather a direct matter of cause-and-effect. Remember, everything that occurs after Edward Hall’s momentary closing of his eyes until his death is his dream (including his memory of his past dreams within this dream). Thus, I e always seen it that Hall took his momentary glance of the receptionist, and used it to illustrate his memory. In other words, Hall’s subconscious is pulling a Lathe of Heaven, or rather doing subconsciously what Verbal Kint did consciously with the items in Rabin’s office.

    I also find the earlier parts of this episode (Hall’s conversation with Dr. Rathmann— which again turns out to be part of his dream) fascinating and anything but dull. It’s talky, true —like a good play it consists of nothing but people talking— but to me very interesting talk that inspires the imagination (much like the painting of the ship that the mind will animate). Indeed, if there’s anything about the episode that doesn’t fully work for me, it is certain aspects of the latter half, the nightmare stuff that sometimes seems a bit cheesy. Fortunately, it’s about memories that take place in a cheesy milieu, so that’s not much of a problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. On the other hand, while everything you say about THE FOUR OF US ARE DYING is probably true, I’ve probably seen it half a dozen times and still confuse details of with those in THE SELF-IMPROVEMENT OF SALVATORE ROSS.


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