Blog Archives

After the Zone-a-thon II

Henry Bemis and his all-too-breakable eyeglasses? Check. Talky Tina? She was there. Agnes Moorehead, battling two tiny aliens who crash-land on her roof? Front and center. A gremlin on an airplane wing? He flew in just for the occasion.

Yes, the roster of fifth-dimension All-Stars was long at the Syfy channel’s annual two-day Twilight Zone marathon this New Year’s. From the tension-filled houses on Maple Street to the lush cornfields of Peaksville, Ohio, hardly anyone missed the festivities.

But although the schedule was packed with fan favorites, a few gems were conspicuously absent. We all would have been better served if replacements for clunkers such as “What’s in the Box” and “Caesar and Me” had been pulled from the following list:

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Season 1, Episode 21 – February 26, 1960

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Parallel planes. Disappearing doppelgängers. It’s a metaphysical mind-trip of the first order, one that definitely deserved a spot on Syfy’s schedule. I’m blaming Vera Miles’s wily twin for making this classic vanish from the marathon. Read the rest of this entry

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A Series for Storytellers

Recently I was contacted by a reporter working on an article about the latest release of The Twilight Zone on DVD. We talked about many aspects of the show, but the first thing he asked was why I thought it continues to have such lasting appeal.

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It’s a fair question. I mean, it’s been 50 years! TV shows come and go by the truckload. In an age of digital streaming and CGI wonders, what accounts for the popularity of some black-and-white series that premiered back when Dwight Eisenhower was president?

There are many ingredients you can point to: the acting, the photography, the twist endings. And quite rightly; TZ was a first-class affair from top to bottom. Read the rest of this entry

Finding Fright in the Fifth Dimension: Some TZs That Are Perfect for Halloween

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?

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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):

LIVING DOLL

Season 5, Episode 6 — November 1, 1963

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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. Read the rest of this entry

The Lost Art of Aging Not-So-Gracefully

Say you want to age 2,000 years in two minutes. What’s the best way to do it?

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There are two different ways:

1) Take the approach used by the title character in The Twilight Zone’s” Long Live Walter Jameson”. Find an alchemist, pay him to experiment on you, and wake up to discover that you are, in fact, immortal. Then survive without an accident for two millennia. Sure, it takes a degree of luck normally reserved for mega-jackpot winners, but it’s possible.

2) Use the relatively simple make-up technique that William Tuttle used on actor Kevin McCarthy to create the illusion that Mr. Jameson was beginning to turn to dust before our eyes. Read the rest of this entry

Spotlight on Season 4: “Miniature”

Because many of the hour-long Twilight Zone episodes lack the snap of their half-hour counterparts, they’re often unfairly dismissed. As I’ve pointed out before, though, several of them are quite entertaining. And a few contain some of the finest writing in the series.

One particularly touching moment occurs at the end of Charles Beaumont’s “Miniature.” (As usual: spoilers ahead). Charley Parkes, played by a young Robert Duvall, is convinced that the characters he glimpses inside a large, ornate dollhouse at a local museum are real. He is particularly drawn to Alice, a beautiful woman in Victorian attire.

At one point, he’s arrested for trying to break into the dollhouse after witnessing Alice fend off the advances of an unwanted suitor. In an effort to cure Charley, his family has him committed to a rest home. A psychiatrist named Dr. Wallman patiently tries to persuade him that it’s all in his head.

Charley improves — or so it seems — and is released. But it turns out he was faking. He returns to the dollhouse, sees Alice in tears, and says: Read the rest of this entry

TZ: The Best of Season 4

“Ours is the perfect half-hour show. If we went to an hour, we’d have to fleshen our stories, soap opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”

That was Rod Serling speaking, a couple years before The Twilight Zone spent one season as, yes, an hour-long show.

Why? Primarily because Twilight Zone was briefly off the air following Season 3, then brought back as a mid-season replacement — and the show it was replacing was 60 minutes. Besides, if the show was a hit at 30 minutes, why not expand it to 60 and give the audience twice as much show?

It soon became clear why: Fantasy stories, especially ones that depended on a twist ending, were more ideally suited to the half-hour format. In 30 minutes, they could get in, set up an intriguing premise, and then deliver the payoff. But when you double that length, the effect is ruined. The longer the expected payoff was delayed, the more the suspense and tension was dissipated.

Take “The Thirty-Fathom Grave,” for example. It’s a story about a modern Navy ship discovering a sunken World War II submarine — and hearing a mysterious tapping sound coming from inside. For the sake of those who haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say that the story, despite the usual quality touches you’d expect on a TZ, is simply too padded. Several other Season 4 episodes were also stretched out a bit too long. Read the rest of this entry

The Writing Man

In the field of science fiction and fantasy, few writers cast a larger shadow than that of Charles Beaumont. Only Rod Serling himself penned more episodes of The Twilight Zone, and Beaumont created many other memorable tales in books, short stories and movies.

How memorable? Had he not died so young, “he would be equal to me,” Ray Bradbury says. “People would know him all over the world.”

Charles Beaumont and Robin Hughes on the set of "The Howling Man".

Charles Beaumont and Robin Hughes on the set of “The Howling Man”.

I learned that, and many other things, from “Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone’s Magic Man,” a feature-length documentary by Jason Brock. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the unique mind behind such Zone classics as “Long Live Walter Jameson,” “The Howling Man,” “Perchance to Dream” and “Shadow Play,” I encourage you to check it out.

The film is packed with stories and remembrances, told by those who knew Beaumont best: Bradbury, Richard Matheson, John Tomerlin, William Nolan, Harlan Ellison and many others, including Beaumont’s son Christopher. They explain how his wild flights of imagination and tenacious spirit helped reshape their corner of the fiction world in profound ways. Read the rest of this entry

A “Dream” Come True

It’s not uncommon for writers to be unhappy with how their work is depicted on screen. So many things can go wrong — a bad actor, ham-fisted directing, a skimpy budget — that it’s a marvel, really, when things go right. The norm, unfortunately, is for something to go wrong.

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That certainly wasn’t the case when “Perchance to Dream” was filmed for season 1 of The Twilight Zone. Charles Beaumont’s first Zone script (the first non-Serling story of the series, in fact) is a bizarre, imaginative ride. Here’s what the author wrote shortly after production of the episode, which was based on one of his short stories:

Serling told me to dramatize it, but to make no changes. He advised me to forget everything I had learned about television taboos. They didn’t exist on Twilight Zone. I should do the script the way I saw it. Believing the instruction to be well-meant, but hardly to be taken seriously, I nonetheless did write the script precisely as I saw it.

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To my amazement, it was happily accepted. Nothing was changed. Not one line. Not one word. Not even the wild technical directions, which called for an impressionistic amusement park, a roller coaster ride and a car crash. Read the rest of this entry

“Perchance to Dream”

Some episodes of The Twilight Zone give us chills. Some make us think. And some manage to do both. Case in point: Charles Beaumont’s “Perchance to Dream.”

Beaumont specialized in blurring the line between reality and fantasy, and this, his first Zone script, is no exception. Serling would resort to such story-telling devices to teach us a lesson. Beaumont just wanted to scare the pants off us.

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The story of Edward Hall, and his fixed belief that if he falls asleep he’ll never wake up, is well-known even to casual Zone fans. The flights of his overactive imagination are fascinating. His unsettling trip to a bizarre carnival, and his ill-fated attempts to evade the seductive ways of Maya the Cat Woman, make this one of the most visually striking episodes in the entire Zone canon.

Beyond the surface question of reality versus dream lies another, less-explored theme: the allure of danger. When Hall is explaining his problem to the psychiatrist, we see he’s a man unable to control his attraction to activities that, he insists, will kill him. Read the rest of this entry