For the fifth and final season of ‘The Twilight Zone’ the format reverted to the original half hour. The series showed no signs of deterioration, continuing to put out excellent stories each week. Unlike many television shows these days, that tend to carry on well past their use-by date, ‘The Twilight Zone’ ended still on a high note. Again I have selected five stories I particularly liked.
To a modern audience of horror film, creepy sentient dolls are hardly unusual. Chucky and his ilk are very much a part of the modern horror genre. In 1963, audiences had less experience with this idea, so the introduction of the cute but creepy titular doll was definitely enough to give anyone the shivers. The late Telly Savalas plays a neurotic, bullying man who has recently married, but struggles to relate to his new wife’s daughter from her previous marriage, Christie. His behaviour towards Christie and her mother crosses the line into emotional abuse, so when his wife buys her daughter an expensive talking doll he is very angry, believing this to be a waste of ‘his’ money. When Talky Tina is wound up she spouts ‘my name is Talky Tina and I love you very much’, in a cute, high-pitched voice. Christie is delighted. Her step-dad, Erich, is nauseated. When he picks up the doll while the others are out of the room, he is shocked when he winds it up to have it say ‘my name is Talky Tina and I don’t like you’. Things only go downhill from there, and I am sure I don’t have to explain where things end for Erich.
One of my favourite aspects of this episode is that, unlike Chucky, Annabel etc, Tina is never seen walking. The only independent movement the audience sees is her head swivelling. Her words always start with ‘my name is Talky Tina’ but it’s after that where things get sinister. Telly Savalas does a beautiful job of a man becoming more and more agitated and paranoid as the situation escalated. Tina never says anything while the others are in the room, and his wife (whose name is Annabel, curiously), thinks he is having a breakdown. Savalas’ depiction of a mean-spirited man who ultimately pays a heavy price for bullying a little girl is fantastic, and is instrumental on making this episode. His interactions with the doll are completely convincing. His anger, jealousy and fear and right on point. It is hard to feel sorry for him. The director, Richard Sarafian, created a suspenseful, scary story without any of the special effects of more recent forays into this field. I think this would be a good episode for young film makers to illustrate what you can accomplish with a shoe string budget, and what can be suggested with sound and shadows.
‘The Old Man in the Cave’
In a post apocalyptic world, the survivors in a small town are reliant for advice on ‘the old man in the cave’, who their leader consults on the everyday issues of their survival. They have found a stash of canned food, but soon Goldsmith their leader returns from the cave to say that the tins are contaminated with radiation and cannot be eaten. Some of the people are rebellious about this, but soon remembering that there was disaster when they sowed fields the old man told them were not good their crops were ruined. This situation is overturned when soldiers enter their town, claiming to be part of a government effort to restore order. They bully and threaten Goldsmith into showing them the cave, where they discover the ‘old man’ is actually a computer. After whipping up the survivors into an angry mob that destroys the computer, the soldiers and survivors feast on the tinned food, only to all be dead by morning, all but Goldsmith, who surveys the dead bodies before leaving the town.
There are quite a few layers here. Faith in a mystic has ensured their survival. When they find out that their faith is in something quite scientific, they are perversely angered by this. There should be no contradiction here, quite the reverse, but the people are more comfortable with the mysterious ‘old man’ than they are with a computer calculation. James Coburn as the leader of the soldiers excels in his role as a bully and thug. He knows that he has to break Goldsmith’s authority in order to gain control himself, and goes to all means necessary to do so. His failure to understand the computer calculations are likely to be correct ensures his own death as well as everyone else. Goldsmith doubts his official story, and is probably right. He does not come across as a soldier. Goldsmith, played in a beautifully understated way by John Anderson, rejects the story and the authority of the men with guns. He explains that the people are doing fine on their own (which they are), and they do not need anyone else. He is fully aware that the armed men do not have good intentions. Even after a war, the last survivors fight for scraps, and essentially suicide. Sadly, it is fully believable that disaster does not breed cooperation, but instead increases selfishness and violence. This is a psychologically true and compelling story.
(Spoiler alert).‘The Twilight Zone’ excelled in stories where people are given a kind of apt justice that doesn’t tend to happen in real life. In this story, a dying man is visited by his relatives, who are all unpleasant and there simply to inherit his wealth. The location is New Orleans and it is Mardi Gras time, so when he tells them he has masks for them to wear for Mardi Gras, they are compelled to put them on so as to inherit his money. Each mask reflects the person’s personality, cowardice, greed, narcissism and cruelty. He himself dons a skull mask to represent death. He dies at midnight, and the family are finally free to take their masks off, only to find that their faces now look like the masks.
Fun fact – this episode was directed by Ida Lupino, the only person in the original ‘Twilight Zone’ to act in one episode (“The Sixteen Millimetre Shrine” from Season 1) and direct another. She is also the only woman to direct an original Twilight Zone episode. Her direction here is beautifully done.
We all see ourselves as good people, and we present that face to the world. We all have aspects of our personalities that are not so good, that we want to keep hidden, that we are ashamed of. We all wear masks. What if we were unable to keep these parts of ourselves hidden? What if they were branded on our faces for everyone to see, exposing us to censure and disgust from those around us? The bulk of the story occurs in a single room, there is very little movement or action. This episode is all about the dialogue. The dying man is doling out what he sees as justice, on the relatives who should have been a comfort to him in his last days but instead hovered like vultures to take his wealth, desperate for him to die. I could question the justice of this – the old man himself doesn’t seem like a very pleasant person, and certainly his actions are extreme. Maybe his daughter and her family were only reflecting him? Whether or not we agree with his actions, the concept is one I still find very interesting.
“I am the night – colour me black”
In this story a man is going to be hanged for murder. However, it soon eventuates that things are not so clear cut. The victim was a known bigot and troublemaker. The condemned man is a known advocate for the black community (he is white). Evidence that the altercation was self-defence has been ignored, and there was perjured testimony during the trial. The white people of the town are almost feral in their demands for his blood. It seems less about any liking of the victim and more about the dislike of the killer, based on his stand against the accepted racism which is rife in the community. Like the previous story I described, no one wants to believe that they are wrong. So they demonize the one who shows them up. There are those who understand that it is a wrongful conviction, but they are too afraid to rock the boat and disturb the status quo. But something odd is happening – even though the clock says it is morning, it is still dark. As people gather at the gallows it is still dark. A black preacher comes to see the condemned man, and thanks him for his kindness, but even he says the man should be condemned because he is not repentant of his actions. So the man is executed.
It is an obvious metaphor, perhaps, but still effective. The episode ends with a radio announcement stating that odd patches of darkness have appeared elsewhere in the world, and each time somewhere where hate is happening. The darkness becomes even darker after the execution, as the injustice has only deepened the hate. It is effectively filmed, with the hate-filled mob screaming abuse, the condemned man bitter, the ones who realise it is wrong ashamed and guilty. The camera closes in on faces, then pans back to take in the group effect of hatred. It’s a disturbing episode, and one that still resonates today. Hate is still rife everywhere. A quick trip through the internet shows that. Rod Serling’s final words for the episode sums it up well:
A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.
A cold war episode, this concerns a man wanting to defect, being hunted by an assassin tasked with stopping him. Martin Landau stars as the would-be defector, who is visited in a hotel room by the assassin, who drugs him. When he wakes up he is still in his hotel room, but there is a taped recording of the other man telling him that there is a bomb in his room. If he tries to leave or turns off the light he will be killed. If he can find and disarm the bomb in a three hour period he will be free to go. So the victim goes through the room but cannot find the device. In the meantime the assassin, watching from a room across the street, tells his assistant that the device is in the phone, but will not be triggered until the man picks up an incoming call. After three hours the man has not found the device, and the assassin calls him. He is about to answer when he hesitates. The assassin calls again. Realising what is happening, and judging that his failure to answer the phone has caused a distraction, he bolts from the room, narrowly missing bullets fired by the assassin’s assistant. When the assassin and his assistant enter the room to clean up, the phone rings, and the assistant thoughtlessly answers it …
This episode is novel because there is absolutely nothing supernatural or fantastical about it at all. It is a straightforward narrative based in the real world. Martin Landau plays the defector, and the section of the story devoted to his searching of the room is gripping due to his performance, especially when he yells out to be shot because it would be quicker than this torture. The assassin’s fancy ideas about doing his job are a little cliché, however. In real life most assassins just take their target out, without any fancy traps or elaborate staging. His actions set up a tense narrative, but don’t bear too close inspection. So it is a thriller-style story, and enjoyable due to the suspense and acting. It also has a typical ‘Twilight Zone’ karma when the defector decides to phone the room from a phone at the airport. Great stuff.
This is the last installment in my ‘Twilight Zone’ series. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you have never watched the show, I hope I have given you some interest in giving it a go. Also I would like to hear your comments about the show, which episodes were your favourites, and why.