I understand that the big water-cooler show these days is HBO’s The Last of Us, about a horrible plague that sweeps the globe, turning everyone into giant mushrooms. I’m really looking forward to watching that one – never in a million years!!!!!!!!!! I don’t like gore, I don’t like gross-out imagery and, for some reason, I have a strong aversion to stories about plagues. Go figure!
I bring this up because the horror contained in The Last of Us is nothing new. The real monsters are the healthy humans, a trope we all saw in The Walking Dead (well, you all saw it maybe; I like zombies about as much as I like mutant fungi) and in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. And the mushroom monsters? Well, they’ve been around forever, too, going back at least to 1907 and William Hope Hodgson’s terrifying short story, “The Voice in the Night.” This was adapted in 1963 by Japanese filmmaker Ishiro Honda into Matango, aka Attack of the Mushroom People, a very bleak and gross horror movie that was nearly banned because the people turning into mushrooms looked like A-bomb victims.
I bring all this up because this week our teacher Elliot Lavine had monsters on the brain and even gave us as an extra a fun episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called “Special Delivery,” based on the Ray Bradbury short story, “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!” It’s a very Twilight Zone-type episode, although I would say the acting is much broader here, and it avoids the body horror of the above examples while still managing to deliver some great “Body-Snatcher” chills. The climactic moment where the son thrusts a mushroom sandwich at his father and growls menacingly, “You’re hungry, Dad . . . you’re HUNGRY!!” is quite nice.
The three episodes we were assigned this week are all classic monster episodes. Two of them are from the somewhat derided final season of TZ, proving that there was still great stuff to be had in the old series yet. And while in one of them, the real monster turns out to be – yes – the human being . . . well, that is sadly a tale as old as time.
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“The Dummy” (written by Rod Serling, based on an unpublished story by Lee Polk; original broadcast 5/4/62)
The idea of a malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy is nothing new. The best sequence in the 1945 British thriller Dead of Night involves Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, whose dummy Hugo threatens to leave him and work with an American ventriloquist. Is Hugo really alive or just a manifestation of Frere’s madness? That’s like asking if Mrs. Bates truly exists in Psycho; indeed, the ending of both tales is pretty much the same.
Twelve years later, Alfred Hitchcock Presents played an entirely different trick: “The Glass Eye” tells the story of a lonely Victorian spinster (Jessica Tandy) who falls in love with a ventriloquist who appears in a traveling variety show. She buys tickets to every one of his performances and sits raptly staring at the dashing form of Tom Conway. Finally, she gets up the nerve to write Max Collodi a letter professing her devotion to his work, and he, in turn, invites her to visit him. Perhaps the twist here is not that unexpected, but what I love about it is that it is also in no way supernatural.
With “The Dummy” Rod Serling wants to have it both ways, and I can’t help thinking that this choice lessens the overall effectiveness of the episode. Still, whether you want to look at this as a character study in madness or as a horror story about a monster residing in a “brash stick of kindling,” it is well directed by Abner Biberman who would go on to direct several more episodes. Cliff Robertson taps beautifully into the myth of the impersonator who identifies too strongly with his alter ego, and the teleplay explores the damage done to an actor’s ego when he gives his creation all the best lines (a problem exacerbated by too much drink).
Both Robertson and the dummy are filmed to perfection by George T. Clemens, and up till the final moment it would be easy to explain all the horrors that unfold as figments of Jerry Etherson’s disturbed mind. But then we get the final shot, and I have to admit I’m torn. It is definitely one of the great final shots in the Zone canon: the ventriloquist and his dummy appear before an ecstatic New York audience, and we see that they have switched places!! That ending reminds us that this is definitely The Twilight Zone with its supernatural twists. At the very least, however, when Jerry confronts Georgie, the dummy explains that Jerry himself has made Georgie what he is today.
No demons, no magicians, just the incredible will of a totally damaged mind. That’s pretty cool!
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“Living Doll” (idea by Charles Beaumont – who received sole credit! – but written by Jerry Sohl; original broadcast 11/1/63)
This might be the first episode of TZ that I ever saw. Mattel made the doll “Chatty Cathy” from 1959 – 1965 (covering the entire run of the Zone), and my girl cousins had it. A few months after this episode aired, my baby brother received as a birthday present one Chester O’Chimp, which gave boys the opportunity to pull the string and talk to their toys. (Through Chester, I managed to learn a pretty good irish accent!)
The plot, as I dimly remembered it, was that a horrible stepfather (Telly Savales) behaves badly to his adorable little girl’s new doll, “Talky Tina,” and the doll behaves right back! What I did not remember was that there was a basis for the man’s hatred: he had discovered that he and his wife could not have children of their own. This doesn’t excuse his monstrous behavior toward mother, daughter or doll, and Savales embraces the man’s savage anger so thoroughly that we feel no sympathy for him.
It doesn’t help his case that “Tina” is voiced by June Foray, who played the lead character in my favorite cartoon show of all time, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. She makes the doll come to life with charming malevolence. So what if the direction by Richard Sarafian is just okay: the whole half hour is a ghoulish masterpiece thanks to that doll and to an eerie, tinkly score by Bernard Herrmann.
That’s all I have to say about this one. Now study this video and practice your Irish accent:
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“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story; original broadcast 10/11/63)
It doesn’t take a minute of watching this episode to know that William Shatner was born to play Bob Wilson, recently recovered from “a teensy weensy breakdown,” who is flying home from the sanitarium with his wife Ruth (Christine White) to re-enter his life, probably as an ad executive (they all have breakdowns in the TZ) and family man. It’s unfortunate that 1) Bob’s nervous breakdown occurred on his last plane ride; 2) the current flight is riding through a turbulent storm; and 3) there’s a gremlin on the wing, ripping up the plane’s wiring.
This was the first of six episodes of the series directed by Richard Donner, who would go on to premiere some of the great film franchises of the era, including Superman, Lethal Weapon and The Omen. Here he is at his best, bestowing upon us twenty-five minutes of sustained, claustrophobic suspense. Oh, maybe the gremlin (Nick Cravat) is a little too fuzzy and roly-poly to be truly scary – Richard Matheson had pictured something out of the nightmare-scape of Jacques Tourneur and was disappointed in the final look – but do we need that? The make-up on the gremlin in the TZ movie is better, but George Miller’s direction there is too frantic, and John Lithgow plays the main character like a hysterical nut. The first gremlin works just fine under Donner’s direction, especially that wonderful early moment when Bob stares at the closed curtain before his window and you just know the gremlin is right behind the glass!!!!
As in “Nick of Time,” the early episode he appeared in and that we discussed, Shatner is saddled with some mental problems and a loving wife. Here, though, the wife cannot be the support he needs because she does not believe in her husband enough to accept that there is a gremlin on the wing. (To be fair, who of us would?) However, there is no ambivalence – as there is in “The Dummy” – as to whether Bob is seeing things. No, there is a $&@&# gremlin tearing the works out of that plane, and we are firmly on Bob’s side, screaming at our the other characters on our TV screens: “Look, dammit! No, LOOK when he TELLS you to look!!!”
The episode builds to a perfect and terrifying climax and then does exactly what we would wish: it gives us a happy ending as Bob is carried off to yet another sanitarium, looking relaxed for the first time since we’ve met him, and as the camera pans across the wing to show the damage wrought by a monster, Serling uses his final words to reassure us:
“The Flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as . . . The Twilight Zone.”
A classic through and through!
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As I mentioned above, Elliot gave us an extra from Alfred Hitchcock Presents that was great fun but definitely inferior to a typical TZ episode. I thought I’d pick another monster piece to share with you this week, but all the really great scary episodes that are left have been scattered as assignments over our final three weeks of class.
Thus, I decided to offer two monsters for the price of one – a favorite episode of mine, not because it’s great but because it’s a lot of fun. Plus, as some of you may know, I am primarily a blogger of mysteries, a genre in which Rod Serling never really traded at any point in his career. But one second season episode comes as close as Serling ever got to creating a “whodunnit,” complete with a closed circle of suspects and a surprise twist at the end.
“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (5/26/61) is something of a companion piece to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” in that Rod Serling is offering a wholly different take on the theme of alien invasion. Two state troopers have driven to a snowy wood after a report came in of an unidentified flying object coming down somewhere in the forest. The cops find evidence that the meteor or – whatever – has landed in a pond; more disturbing than that are the footprints which emerge from the pond and form tracks leading to a nearby diner.
This time around, it struck me as odd that a diner exists in the depth of a lonely wood – but there it is, with a bus standing in front signaling that a bunch of travellers have stopped for a meal. The troopers greet Haley, the affable owner of the diner whom they know well and discover that the bus driver disgorged six passengers to hang out while they try to ascertain if the old bridge up ahead is safe to cross. And yet . . . . . there are seven passengers in the diner!!!
It’s a regular closed circle, but the idea that the driver or one of these typical Americans – the old married couple, the newlyweds, the testy businessman, the sultry professional dancer, or the crazy old coot – could be a Martian. Well, that coot, played by Jack Elam, does look suspicious, with his bug eyes and his wicked sense of humor. Classic mystery fans are bound to give Elam a pass as the culprit, though, since we know a red herring when we see one.
To add to the suspense, the hidden Martian begins to play with the group, causing the jukebox and the lights to switch on and off. And while the circuits are popping and sugar containers are exploding, the troopers are at a loss over how to spot an alien in their midst.
According to Marc Zicree, the idea came to Serling as early as 1958, and it was pretty much the scenario we get here – except that Serling’s first idea was to make the Martian be a stray dog belonging to the diner’s owner. Perhaps that would have been too cute because Serling wisely sticks to the ways of the mystery genre, revealing the identity of the monster just a couple of minutes before the end. And then, in a nod to Agatha Christie, Serling provides a final twist that reverses everything.
No spoilers here – if you haven’t seen it yet, you really must!
Next week, a new set of horrors that hit closer to home: a missing child, a cheating husband – and the only episode of Twilight Zone to give me real nightmares . . .
6 thoughts on “THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 7: Here Be Monsters”
A great collection of episodes here Brad – and like you, I’m not really a horror fan, especially the grossout variety (though I love Carpenter’s THE THING, SOCIETY, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Cronenberg’s THE FLY, so there are a few exceptions). When it comes to The Dummy, I think the episode is a standout but I know what you mean about having different ways to go in approach. I think William Goldman’s MAGIC (book and film) is incredibly creepy without bring supernatural. I do wish that we had a bit more of a backstory for the Shatner character in NIGHTMARE but it’s the only flaw. Serling’s humourous TZ episodes often fall flat but not all of them – and I love MARTIAN.
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We get more of Shatner’s backstory than I remembered, and I tend to think that it’s just enough to keep the episode taut! Too many episodes fall down a bit by having a long conversation during the first half of the episode.
I have never heard of the film SOCIETY, but if it says icky as the others, no, thank you! (Except for WEREWOLF – I have enjoyed that one many times!)
Well, I guess I wanted more of a reason for the story to be about Shatner without necessarily the heavy hand of irony, let’s put it that way 😁 SOCIETY is a very funny satire and manages to not be too icky (to me) by having horrible things done to people but never actually spilling a drop of blood. And of course I love early Argento whodunits (BIRD WITH TGE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and DEEP RED so I’m probably slightly more horror-tolerant than I think I am … but usually, the Val Lewton style is the approach I prefer!)
I’m a board with all of this except that the ventriloquist story is the best sequence of DEAD OF NIGHT. I find both the Haunted Mirror story and the linking story much more effective— the ventriloquist is just the most famous.
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Recalling an interview in which Richard Matheson said that the gremlin would have been more effective if, instead of wearing a furry suit and a rubber mask, he simply wore dark clothes and went unshaven for a few days …
Nick Cravat, who played the gremlin, was an acrobat by training; he got into movies when his boyhood friend and performing partner, Burt Lancaster, had him cast in his early swashbuckler movies.
Cravat was very short, usually had a beard, and rarely if ever spoke on-camera; for the Zone, if he’d simply shaved his beard, grew a few days worth of stubble, dressed like a derelict, and just mugged for the camera in the window scene, he just might have been genuinely scary enough to pull it off (maybe a little dark makeup for effect …).
Of course, all these years on, I guess we’ll never really know – will we?
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Ventriloquist’s dummies are just so inherently creepy. There’s a pretty decent such story in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called And So Died Riabouchinska.