“Welcome to a Private Showing”: Night Gallery Debuts
“Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way — not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.
“Our initial offering: a small gothic item in blacks and grays. A piece of the past known as the family crypt. This one we call simply The Cemetery. Offered to you now, six feet of earth and all that it contains. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Night Gallery.”
And with those words, Rod Serling gave TV viewers their first glimpse of a unique art display — designed not to be edifying, but to be eerie.
The date was November 8, 1969. Gone were the time-traveling tales and mind-bending sci-fi of The Twilight Zone. Man had finally reached the moon … and found a bunch of rocks. It was the season of high-profile assassinations and campus riots. Vietnam was in full swing.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that, as the host of a made-for-TV movie called “Night Gallery,” Serling served up a three-course meal of poetic come-uppance. Goodbye, reveries. Hello, revenge.
Yes, The Twilight Zone had some scary moments. Who can forget the faces of the doctors and nurses in “Eye of the Beholder“? Or the tiny tyrants of “The Dummy” and “Living Doll”? But you were more likely to take a bittersweet trip to Mars — or the past. Even when little Tina tumbled off her bed and through an errant dimensional hole in “Little Girl Lost,” things ended happily.
Not so in “Night Gallery,” which starts off with “The Cemetery.” Here we have Roddy McDowell playing the part of a black-sheep nephew who’s all too happy to speed up his wealthy uncle’s demise so he can inherit all his belongings. He has second thoughts after his uncle is buried nearby in the family plot, then seems reluctant to stay planted.
Up next: “Eyes” (Steven Spielberg’s maiden directorial effort). Joan Crawford is a blind dowager so determined to see that she pays a down-and-out loser to donate his sight — so that, with the help of a cutting-edge surgical procedure, she can see for a few hours.
She gets her sight. Needless to say, she gets a bit more.
Then it’s off to South America, where we trace the “Escape Route” of a Nazi war criminal (played by Richard Kiley, star of the live TV version of Serling’s first big success, 1955’s “Patterns”). The authorities are constantly on his heels. His only relief comes via the local art museum, where he vividly imagines himself in a small fishing boat on a peaceful lake.
Will he get away? Yes, but not the way he expects.
The Twilight Zone will always be Serling’s crowning achievement. “Night Gallery” may stand in its shadow, but for those who enjoy a good chill, it’s certainly worth a tour.
*The Night Gallery pilot movie is on the first disc of the Season 1 DVD. It’s available through Netflix. (Unfortunately, it’s not streaming yet.) The series that followed is available on Hulu. For a list of some of the best episodes, go here.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!