Friday, January 4, 2008

Twilight Zone: Vol. 1

Through the miracle of Netflix I've begun working my way through the entirety of Rod Serling's classic The Twilight Zone. I started with Vol. 2, since that disc had certain classic episodes I really wanted to revisit, but I'm going to talk about vol. 1 here. There are three episodes on the disc: "The Invaders," "Nothing in the Dark" and "Night of the Meek."

I first saw "The Invaders," a 1962 episode written by the great Richard Matheson, when I was 12 or so. I remembered it being effectively creepy with the miniature alien invaders firing some sort of microwave beams at the old women making her skin blister, and rewatching it did evoke a degree of suspense. But as science fiction it is awful in the first degree. The Wife figured out the "big twist" at the end about a third of the way in once she twigged to the fact that the woman under duress hadn't said a single word, and Monkey Girl, who's exposure to the more surreal side of genre is limited to The Bridge to Terabithia, generally found it terribly funny.

"Nothing in the Dark," a 1962 episode penned by George Clayton Johnson, on the other hand, was more effective overall as a gentle, philosophical examination of death. Mostly a character study of an old woman so afraid of dying she's locked herself away from the things she loves to hide in a crumbling tenement, the piece is enjoyable even though the classic twist is obvious from the get-go. Monkey Girl seemed impressed enough by it, in that she was uncharacteristically silent afterward. The moral: Dying isn't so bad if Death looks a whole lot like a young Robert Redford.

"Night of the Meek" is a Christmas-themed episode from 1960, one written by Rod Serling himself. The great Art Carney plays a skid-row alcoholic who takes the job of playing a department store Santa. There is a liquor-fueled Incident in which he rants about the well-off looking down upon the poor and starving during the holidays as they shop for expensive gifts which gets him fired, naturally enough. It's only a short stumble down a dark alley before he finds a magic sack of garbage that produces presents galore, and before you can sing "Jingle Bells" he's playing Santa for real on skid row. The episode oozes sentiment from every pore, enough to make Frank Capra cringe, but that's balanced by Carney's excellent performance (watch and you'll know where Christopher Lloyd got the inspiration for the Doc Brown character in the Back to the Future films) and the graphic hopelessness and alcoholism in the first half of the piece. It's quite unexpected, really, setting up the viewers' expectations for a bleak resolution, when the exact opposite is in store. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the creators of the Tim Allen "Santa Clause" franchise of films hadn't drawn inspiration from this episode. There are more than a few parallels between the two works, although there isn't a 1:1 correlation. The fact that both Carney's and Allen's characters, who've lost touch with the "holiday spirit" come around when they literally become Santa Claus is fairly striking--particularly Carney's final scene, which echoes almost the entirety of the Allen film. But also the fact that both are locked away by establishment figures who refuse to believe the heroes' newfound status tells me that there's a connection at some level.

They sure don't make 'em like this anymore.

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