Underrated Twilight Zone Episodes: “The Chaser”
Defending your favorite Twilight Zone episodes? Easy. Criticizing ones you don’t like? Piece of cake. Explaining why you sort of like one that’s unpopular? That’s a bit more challenging.
I’ll bet you have at least one episode you like almost in spite of itself. Sure, you’re aware that it’s not a list-topper, but something about it appeals to you anyway.
Several episodes fall into that category for me. Case in point: “The Chaser”. That’s right, the one about the love potion.
The only Season 1 episode not written by a member of that great TZ triumvirate — Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson — it focuses on the fate of a man named Roger. He’s madly in love with a beautiful young lady named Leila. Unfortunately for Roger, she barely gives him the time of day. She’s also tired of his unsolicited phone calls and flower deliveries.
But since this occurs in the fifth dimension, Roger opts for a supernatural solution. He visits an eccentric professor named Daemon (an obvious play on “demon”) who dabbles in, as he puts it, “ointments, salves, powders, sovereign remedies, nectars, lotus blossoms, toxins, tonics, anti-toxins, decoctions, concoctions, and potions.”
Despite the professor’s repeated warnings, Roger (played by George Grizzard) gets the love potion. And once under its spell, Leila does a complete 180-degree turn. She’s totally besotted with Roger now, much to his delight.
But this state of affairs doesn’t last long. Oh, Leila (played by Patricia Barry) remains love-struck. But after a while, Roger is ready to climb the walls. It isn’t long before he’s back at the professor’s residence, where he obtains a very different and much more expensive potion. The professor calls it his “glove cleaner”, but it’s clear they’re talking about poison.
And then … but wait, no. You might not have seen it yet. If so, consider checking it out, then coming back.
For some fans, the fact that “The Chaser” is one of TZ’s comedic outings is enough to sink it. I get that, believe me. Episodes like “Cavender is Coming”, “Mr. Bevis” and “Once Upon a Time” are pretty low on my list, too.
It’s not that I think every Zone has to be serious. I just prefer ones with a lighter touch when it comes to humor, such as “A Penny for Your Thoughts” and “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”. “The Chaser” falls into that category for me.
There are no pratfalls or wacky sound effects. Its humor is more natural, less forced. It’s more of a tongue-in-cheek than an elbow-in-the-ribs affair.
Besides, its message slots into the Serling-verse perfectly. Could there be a more enduring Twilight Zone lesson than “be careful what you wish for”? Roger learns that in spades.
But it’s the character of Professor Daemon that really makes the episode work for me. Played by veteran character actor John McIntyre — the sheriff in “Psycho” — the professor exudes a wry, seen-it-all air that plays perfectly against Grizzard’s earnest portrayal of Roger. (Grizzard and Barry would both return in TZ’s Season 4, in “In His Image” and “I Dream of Genie”, respectively.)
Daemon: “You’re ambitious, is that it? You want success, money and mileage, the world at your feet.”
Roger: “No, that’s not it at all.”
Daemon: “Power! You want power.”
Roger: “No, you don’t understand. All I want is Leila.”
Roger: “Yeah. If I have Leila, I can do all the rest myself.”
Daemon: “Leila. I might have known. All he wants is Leila. I offer him practically anything, and all he wants is Leila.”
Despite his disdain, however, the professor has a solution: a love potion. Unlike many other items that he offers (like the $1,000 “glove cleaner”), the love potions are only $1 – “my cheapest item. And they’re over-priced at that.”
But will it work? Daemon assures him:
I promise you she’ll never leave your side. When she isn’t telling you she loves you, she’ll be gazing at you lovingly. She won’t even eat before you do, and nothing will be too much for you to ask of her. She’ll worship you. She’ll beg for kisses, and weep for joy at your touch. And if in passing time you should perhaps look at another girl, or, even do a little more than look, she’ll feel hurt. But she’ll forgive you, and love you just the same. Frankly, you’d get the same shake from a cocker spaniel.
The little spin of derision that McIntyre gives that last line is perfect.
Roger: “It won’t hurt her?”
Daemon: “If anybody gets hurt, it’ll be you, but I don’t expect you to believe me.”
He doesn’t, and soon Leila is acting so attentively adoring that he can’t believe it. Soon enough, though, he’s feeling smothered by her constant attention, and back to Daemon he goes:
Roger: “Professor, you don’t know what it’s like. All the time: love, love, love!”
Daemon: “I do know what it’s like. How do you think I came to invent the glove cleaner?”
And when Roger finally coughs up the $1,000 and leaves, bottle clutched tightly in hand, we finally learn the story behind the episode’s title. The professor chuckles and says: “Always the same way. First the stimulant … then the chaser.”
The episode also features some nice visual touches, courtesy of director Douglas Heyes. When the story here (a script by Robert Presnell, Jr., based on a story by John Collier) was presented on a different series back in 1951, it was very simple: just a conversation between the two men, one of which was seated at a desk.
Heyes, though, the director behind such Zone classics as “The After-Hours” and “Eye of the Beholder”, tried to make it a little livelier. He came up with those marvelous bookcases in the professor’s study. Henry Bemis would have been in heaven here. There are books from floor to ceiling on every wall. And to make them pop a bit more, Heyes had the production crew take out the back panels, put in white gauze, and light them from behind. The result looks like a bibliophile’s paradise.
Then there’s the final shot of the episode, when we see Daemon blow a smoke ring that becomes heart-shaped before it vanishes. Even Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree, no real fan of the episode, admitted this “is not without its charm”, even though the optical trick that did it amounts to “a clever bit of camera magic in an episode with little magic itself.”
I disagree. “The Chaser” isn’t in my top 25, mind you, but it’s a fun episode, full of quips and a whimsical tone that makes it slot in perfectly between “A Stop at Willoughby” and “A Passage for Trumpet”.
Sure, I may not have a lot of company. But the professor would understand. Told at one point by Roger, “I don’t think you’re making any sense at all,” he replies simply, “My boy, that’s all I make. Which is why I’m such a lonely man.”
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!