Finding Fright in the Fifth
It’s a Halloween staple that ranks right up there with spooking trick-or-treaters, carving pumpkins and wearing outlandish costumes: watching a scary-movie marathon.
But in an age of digital streaming and high-quality DVDs and Blu-rays, why limit yourself to movies? Why not program a few chills right from the fifth dimension?
True, The Twilight Zone is generally considered a science-fiction series (although I think it’s so unique that it defies easy classification). And yes, the stories dreamed up by Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and other TZ writers were usually designed more to intrigue and edify than to disorient or frighten viewers.
But every now and then, the series gave us some old-fashioned scary moments that might cause even your favorite vampire to glance over his shoulder. So here, in the spirit of October 31st, are 13 Twilight Zones that may make you think twice about turning out the light (click any title to go to the Hulu link and watch it):
Season 5, Episode 6 – November 1, 1963
Some tips for those who find themselves near Talky Tina: If she says she hates you, don’t laugh at her. If she threatens you, don’t mock her. Erich Streator (a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas) did, only to discover that Tina is very serious about protecting her young owner. DEADLY serious. Beaumont (aided by an uncredited Jerry Sohl) gives us a creepy tale that does to dolls what Hitchcock did to birds.
Season 3, Episode 33 – May 4, 1962
You can’t blame ventriloquist Jerry Etherson for wanting to switch to a new dummy. The old one, Willie, has a mind of his own. Seems he wants top billing. And when Jerry locks Willie in an old trunk one night, he finds out how far Willie is willing to go in order to get it. No “message” from Serling this time out … other than the fact that it’s fun to be scared. Good luck shaking Willie’s maniacal laugh (courtesy of star Cliff Robertson).
Season 5, Episode 19 – February 7, 1964
For most of us, a phone ringing in the middle of the night is annoying. For Elva Keene, however, it’s terrifying, especially after she discovers who’s on the other end of the line. Director Jacques Tourneur, famed for his work on the low-budget chiller “The Cat People”, gives this Matheson story a suitably eerie look, while Gladys Cooper steals our hearts (again) in her third and final TZ appearance.
Season 1, Episode 9 — November 27, 1959
Many people enjoy fast rides at an amusement park. Not Edward Hall (Richard Conte). A heart patient, he knows such thrills can kill him. So when an exotic dancer named Maya (Suzanne Lloyd) invades his all-too-vivid nightmares and tries to lure him onto the roller coaster, it becomes a life-and-death showdown. Beaumont’s first TZ is a roller-coaster ride of its own, filled with haunting images and an inexorable sense of dread that may creep into your own dreams.
Season 1, Episode 16 — January 22, 1960
We all know you should think twice before picking up a hitch-hiker. But what if you keep seeing him again and again? Nan Adams (Inger Stevens, in the first of two TZs) plays a woman on a cross-country car trip who tries desperately to dodge a strange man who keeps asking her a simple question: “Going … my way?” Serling’s script keeps turning the screws and ratcheting up the tension in expert fashion.
Season 1, Episode 34 — June 10, 1960
Hey, it’s just a woman in a department store. Why be scared? Except it’s after closing, and she’s alone. And as she walks warily down darkened hallways laced with shadows, someone is calling her name. Marsha White (Anne Francis, in the first of two TZs) is about to uncover a startling secret about her identity, but not before giving us a serious case of goosebumps. Serling’s clever script raises thought-provoking questions about the perception of reality.
Season 5, Episode 3 — October 11, 1963
Yes, the famous “gremlin on the wing” story. But if that’s all you remember about this landmark episode, give it another look. William Shatner (in the second of two TZs) turns in a terrific performance as a man facing a terrible dilemma: say nothing and see the plane crash, or warn everyone and risk being thrown back in the asylum. The script by Matheson and the direction by Richard Donner (“Superman”, “Lethal Weapon”) bring this high-flying drama in for a perfect landing.
Season 3, Episode 7 — October 27, 1961
If someone bet you that you weren’t brave enough to go to a cemetery at night and stick a knife in a fresh grave, would you do it? Bounty hunter Conny Miller (Lee Marvin, in the first of two TZs) considers that easy money. So when the residents of an Old West town question his courage, he accepts the challenge. Too bad he didn’t know what writer/director Montgomery Pittman had in store for him up among the tilted tombstones of this entertaining campfire story.
Season 4, Episode 13 — April 4, 1963
It’s nice to see a man devoted to his work. But when that work involves caring for wax figures of famous murderers, such devotion can be troubling. Just ask Martin Senescu (Martin Balsam of “Psycho” fame, in the second of two TZs). He’s so upset when the museum that owns the figures closes that he offers to house them in his basement. He’ll do anything to protect them … even cover for them when a new rash of homicides begins. Beaumont and director John Brahm imbue this story with a memorably suspenseful edge.
Season 5, Episode 21 — February 21, 1964
Being chased by a crazed killer in the dead of night is a time-worn horror trope. Being chased by a mad-eyed woman riding a black horse in the middle of the day? That’s no day at the beach either, as Anne Henderson (Diana Hyland) learns when she goes out for her daily ride. Why does this woman chase her? And what’s Anne’s connection to her elopement 25 years earlier? Matheson takes up his pen again to give us an unexpected tale of warning, regret and second chances.
Season 5, Episode 35 — May 29, 1964
A high-society writer and a helpful state trooper find themselves holed up in the proverbial cabin in the woods as an extra-terrestrial invasion gets underway. Director Ted Post (“Hang ‘Em High”, “Magnum Force”) does a nice job pacing this Serling meditation on the nature of fear. The conclusion may leave you wishing that time travel was possible merely to import more convincing special effects, but the first two-thirds (filled, as usual, with Serling’s catchy dialogue) show why the unknown will always create more dread than anything that we can actually see.
Season 2, Episode 15 — January 27, 1961
Sure, this Zone classic focuses squarely on alien visitors. But anyone who has watched the woman at the center of this tale (Agnes Moorehead, in a silent performance that speaks volumes) battle those visitors knows it’s basically a short horror movie. Director Douglas Heyes drapes almost every scene in shadow, leaving us wondering just where her two tiny but lethal-minded visitors are, and why they have such hostile intent. Famous for its twist ending, this Matheson story knows how to leave you wondering what lurks around every corner.
Season 2, Episode 17 — February 10, 1961
A patient leaves her hospital room at night, goes to the basement, and stops at the morgue … only to see a nurse walk out, look at her and say, “Room for one more, honey.” Her doctor insists her daily nocturnal wanderings are just a nightmare, but Liz Powell (Barbara Nichols) believes it’s really happening. But why? Is it just a symptom of the nervous breakdown that landed her in the hospital in the first place, or something more sinister? Serling adapts a famous ghost story guaranteed to give you goosebumps.
“We dismiss our terror by finding safety in false knowledge,” says a character in Serling’s follow-up series Night Gallery, “when instead we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” Or to this baker’s dozen of spooky Twilight Zones. Hope they help put a shiver or two in your Halloween!
Photos courtesy of my “Gal Friday,” artist Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook orPinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 10/25/2013, in Twilight Zone and tagged Agnes Moorehead, Anne Francis, Charles Beaumont, Nightmare at 20000 Feet, Perchance to Dream, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, The Invaders, Twilight Zone, William Shatner. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.