Thursday, January 27, 2011

TZ Promo: "The Invaders" (1/27/1961)

“The Invaders”
Season Two, Episode 15 (#51 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3646

She’s a quiet, simple woman alone in a shabby cabin in the middle of nowhere. She never utters a word. Perhaps she’s mute. Or perhaps she has no language. We don’t know her name or her backstory. We do know that something has landed on her roof, something from… out there.

50 years ago tonight, one of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone was first broadcast. “The Invaders” stars Agnes Moorehead (probably best remembered as Endora from TV’s Bewitched) as the nameless woman described above (in Richard Matheson’s script, she’s identified only as “The Woman”). This one is something of a polarizing affair… you either love it or you hate it. I have to admit, I’ve historically fallen into the latter category. Time, however, has softened my view of it to a degree, largely because I’ve grown to love --- hell, adore --- the miniature creatures that terrorize Ms. Moorehead.

They look like wind-up toy robots. We’ll discover that they’re something else entirely by the end.

What’s wrong with the episode? The pacing, mostly. This thing drags. Big time. Boiled down to its essentials, the story reads something like this:

Spaceship lands on roof. Woman gradually makes her way up to the roof. Woman gets spooked by tiny occupants of spaceship and flees. Invaders follow her down, shoot lasers at her and slice her with her own knife. Woman finally fights back, kills one of them, chases the other back up to the roof, where she deals a fatal blow with an axe (believe it or not, I didn't spoil the patented TZ twist at the end).

This could have happened in five minutes (in fact, it might have been more effective as a five-minute segment on Serling’s later series Night Gallery. This is the only time you will ever hear me say something like that, as I’m not a fan of that series at all). As it stands, we spend an entire 25 minutes watching this thing unfold as slowly as possible. It’s tedious.

What’s right with this episode? First and foremost, Agnes Moorehead is (well, was) a treasure of both the silver and small screens (she played Orson Welles’ mother in Citizen Kane, along with countless other memorable roles, before settling comfortably into the witches’ garb as urban enchantress Elizabeth Montgomery’s mother on Bewitched; Montgomery, by the way, will appear in season three’s “Two”). Her performance here is often labeled “tour de force,” and it’s absolutely deserved. She’s captivating to watch, essentially miming (and occasionally grunting or screaming) her way through fear, panic, rage, and exhaustion.

Second, the cinematography here is among the series’ best. There’s no electricity in The Woman’s cabin… it’s all lamplight. Shadows abound. It’s deep and dark, and it looks gorgeous (I’m really looking forward to watching it tonight on blu-ray).

Third, Jerry Goldsmith’s original score. It starts off creepy and escalates. “The Invaders” is really more horror than science fiction, and Goldsmith’s music is undeniably scary. You'll find it in the usual places: on vinyl from Varese Sarabande (volume 1), on CD from Silva, and as an isolated music track on both DVD and blu-ray from Image Entertainment.

Fourth, we get yet another nod to Forbidden Planet, this time in the form of the United Planets C-57D Space Cruiser prop (we’ve already seen it in “Third From the Sun” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” and we’ll see it again in “Death Ship”). I love All Things Forbidden Planet, so I never get tired of these prop re-uses. I'm happy to report that Ms. Moorehead didn’t really destroy the actual prop (a rough version was specially built for this episode).

A closer shot would reveal the spoiler.

I’d love a toy version to put on my TZ shelf, but the only option I’ve found is a model kit from Polar Lights. I’m worthless when it comes to building models, and this thing has 105 individual parts (!), so it's really not an option for me at all. *Sigh* Maybe someday...

Fifth… well, damn it, the Invaders themselves are awesome. The Invader is one of the most recognizable characters in the entire series, and it pulls off the near-impossible feat of being goofy as hell and highly cool at the same time. Sideshow Collectibles released a 1:1 scale action figure several years back which is literally a dead ringer for the real thing (well, you know what I mean). I bought one for my friend Bill Huelbig as a Christmas gift, and he still has it proudly displayed in his New Jersey apartment. I really wish I’d had the foresight to buy one for myself too…. Every time I see one pop on eBay, it usually sells for a couple hundred bucks. Too rich for my blood.

Bill's Invader.

Happily, Bif Bang Pow! has helped fill the gap in my life with two distinct bobbleheads (one black and white, and one color), plus they’ve got a 6” inch action figure coming later this year.

And as I've mentioned in the past (in my notorious "Invaders" thong spotlight), my next tattoo will be The Invader. My love for this little guy borders on the irrational.

So it seems my only gripe against this episode is that it’s a bit boring. I think, after writing this entry, I may actually like it much more than I ever realized. I can’t wait to revisit it again tonight.

Haven’t had your fill of actors in their pre-Bewitched days? Next week, Dick York (the original Darrin Stephens) stars as a mild-mannered bank clerk who accidentally gives himself telepathic powers. It’s better than it sounds. Flip a coin and tune in.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

TZ Promo: “The Whole Truth” (1/20/1961)

“The Whole Truth”
Season Two, Episode 14 (#50 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3666

Fifty years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone reached something of a milestone: the series aired its 50th episode. In all fairness, it wasn’t that impressive: TV series frequently made it to the 50 mark back then, since networks were much slower to cancel new shows. I’m sure the episode wasn’t touted as anything special… which, unfortunately, is fitting. “The Whole Truth” is not a shining jewel in the TZ crown; in fact, I’d rate it in the bottom 10 of the entire 156-episode run, alongside such hideous specimens as “Mr. Bevis,” “A Most Unusual Camera,” and “Mr. Dingle, the Strong.” Yeah, it’s that bad. Plus it’s one of those unfortunate videotaped episodes. Crappy script AND crappy production value? This one didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.

It’s another of Serling’s ill-advised attempts at comedy, which almost invariably stink to high heaven. There are exceptions, of course: “Night of the Meek” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” are both delightfully fun, and make me smile every time I see them. “The Whole truth,” sadly, just plain sucks. Viewing it is tantamount to larceny: you end up robbed of 25 minutes that you’ll never get back.

Jack Carson stars as Harvey Hunnicut, a low-end used-car salesman who wouldn’t know truth if it bit him on the ass. He comes into possession of a cursed car that makes him --- the de facto owner --- tell the truth. Used car salesman forced to tell the truth? Hilarity ensues. Oh wait, no it doesn’t. It’s tedious, poorly-written and not even the faintest bit interesting. By the end, when Hunnicut manages to unload the car on a prominent political figure (and free himself of the truth-telling curse)… well, to quote Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear: “Man, I just don’t give a damn.” And neither will you, suffering viewer. I hate to say skip it, since every Twilight Zone fan should see every single episode at least once, but… well, view with caution. And really low expectations. Get it over with, and move on. Next week's episode is better, I promise.

James Shelton directs. Now, before we go after him with torches and pitchforks, I should note that he'll go on to direct season three's "It's A Good Life," an absolute classic in every right. I guess we can forgive him for this awkward, ugly misstep. Betcha ten bucks he left it off his resume.

Next week: A simple woman, alone in a remote cabin. Something lands on the roof. It ain't Santa.

Monday, January 17, 2011

TZ Spotlight: 2010 Christmas Card (Andrew Ramage)

I've spotlighted a few Twilight Zone greeting cards in the past, from both Hallmark and American Greetings. This time around, however, I'm pleased to present something much more limited. In fact, it's damned near unobtainable unless you happen to be a friend of fellow TZ fan/collector Andrew Ramage (which, I'm happy to report, I am). The following showed up in mailbox a couple weeks before Christmas last month, and I was floored.


Andrew used Vistaprint to create the card, and it's really a first rate job. The publicity still of a rather downcast Art Carney from "The Night of the Meek" is utilized beautifully. I can't deny that I feel strongly compelled to create my own TZ-themed Christmas card next time the holidays come 'round.... stay tuned.

Mr. Ramage, pictured here with H.M. Wynant, star of season two's "The Howling Man," at the 2006 Twilight Zone convention in New Jersey.

Thanks, Andrew! Hope your Christmas was merry, and keep an eye on your mailbox next December...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Tweet Zone: Big announcement from Bif Bang Pow!

As I trudged through another day at the office today, the following Tweet popped up on my phone:

"Bif Bang Pow! is proud to be expanding our The Twilight Zone offerings. Our expanded line initially includes coasters, lunchboxes, journals, magnets, mugs, prop replicas, shot glasses and steins. We'll have some of these prototypes to show at New York Toy Fair in February, 2011, along with new action figures and bobble heads!"

Wow! Okay, I'm gonna need another TZ shelf. Maybe two. Shot glasses and steins???? Coasters??? A dedicated fan could open a Twilight Zone-themed bar... Hmmm...

In all honesty, I kind of expected Bif Bang Pow!'s efforts to start tapering off this year. I dunno, it's been a dry spell these last several months, and I guess the pessimist in me was assuming the worst. Needless to say, I'm happy to have been proven wrong.

As always, I'll post new info as I get it... the info that I'm permitted to share, that is.

TZ Promo: “Back There” (1/13/1961)

“Back There”
Season Two, Episode 13 (#49 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3648

♪ The professor and Mary Ann ♪.... oh wait, wrong theme song. Ahem. 50 years ago tonight, the man best remembered as the Professor on Gilligan's Island found himself in the past, and compelled to change history.

Russell Johnson stars as Peter Corrigan in Rod Serling's "Back There," directed by David Orrick McDearmon. The plot is really easy to encapsulate. Guy finds himself inexplicably in the past, tries to prevent Lincoln's assassination, instead gets c-blocked by John Wilkes Booth. Fail.

"Back There" has all the makings of a good episode... however, two things stand in its way: first, there's not much in the way of actual tension. The Twilight Zone requires the viewer to suspend its disbelief... up to a point. Some things are just too much to ask. We know Corrigan won't be able to stop Lincoln's assassination, so the whole affair is ultimately pointless. Second, as much as I like Russell Johnson (he was great in season one's "Execution"), he totally overacts here.

The best thing about the episode is Jerry Goldsmith's haunting, harpsichord-tinged score. The more recognizable cues will be reused later, to great effect, in season three's "To Serve Man" and season four's "Death Ship." The score was first released on Varese Sarabande’s The Twilight Zone: The Original Television Scores, Volume 3 LP (and CD in Japan), and later appeared on Silva’s The Twilight Zone 40th Anniversary Collection. It’s also presented in isolated form (on an alternate audio track) on Image Entertainment’s The Twilight Zone, Season 2: The Definitive Edition DVD, and on the recently-released blu-ray edition as well.

* The Professor, incidentally, did have a name... it was Roy Hinkley. How many of you knew that?

Next week: another videotaped episode. Unfortunately, it's the worst of the bunch. It stinks like a cheap used car.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

TZ Promo: "Dust" (1/06/1961)

Season Two, Episode 12 (#48 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3653

In a remote desert town in the Old West, a young Hispanic man is set to hang for accidentally killing a child. He waits in his cell, staring helplessly out the window as his gallows are readied. A grimy peddler named Sykes skulks around, offering to sell a pouch of magic dust that just might turn things around for all concerned.

Sounds like some twisted western noir but, despite its title, the episode fails to kick up much “Dust” at all. Everything seems lethargic, as if the entire thing was left out in the sun too long. Director Douglas Heyes, responsible for some of the series’ most innovative and visually exciting episodes (“The Howling Man” and “The Eye of the Beholder,” for example), took this approach intentionally to illustrate that the entire town has, in a way, become like the dust that covers it. Okay, fine, but it doesn’t make for an interesting episode. The script by Serling is good enough, but the problem here is the execution (no pun intended).

It also doesn’t help that the supernatural element is so vague as to be almost nonexistent. Really, there’s no evidence that there’s any “magic” going on at all. I’m all for subtlety, but here it just makes me yawn. The main players are all familiar TZ faces: Thomas Gomez (“Escape Clause”), John Larch (“Perchance to Dream”), and Vladimir Sokoloff (“The Gift”). The cast does its best, but ultimately the episode is a bit tedious to watch. However, like every other filmed episode, it looks spectacular in high definition on blu-ray, so it’s not a total loss.

Probably the best thing the episode has to offer is a brooding acoustic guitar score by Jerry Goldsmith, who composed many of the series’ most memorable scores (“The Invaders,” “Back There,” and a personal favorite of mine, “The Big Tall Wish”). His score for “Dust” was first released on vinyl in the 80's by Varese Sarabande (The Twilight Zone: The Original Television Scores, Volume 5; all 5 vinyl volumes were subsequently released on CD in Japan only). The score later appeared on CD in the US as part of Silva’s Twilight Zone 40th Anniversary Collection boxed set. And of course, it’s also available from Image Entertainment on both the Season 2 Definitive Edition DVD and its newly-released blu-ray counterpart, playing alongside the episode on an alternate music-only track.

Ultimately, "Dust" isn't necessarily bad, but it'll never make my favorites list. In a season filled with some of the series' finest offerings, it's average at best. Anyway, it celebrates its 50th birthday tonight.

Next week: Russell Johnson returns to The Twilight Zone for another time travel tale. He’ll find himself transported to a fateful night in April 1865, where a very special guest is attending a play at the Ford Theater. Get yourself a ticket and tune in.

Monday, January 3, 2011

RIP Anne Francis (9/16/1930 - 1/02/2011)

The Twilight Zone is filled with women. Unfortunately, many of them are drab and forgettable. There are a few shimmering gems that shine through, however... Suzanne Lloyd, extolled in previous entries, and of course Inger Stevens and Julie Newmar (come to think of it, Gail Kobe was pretty tasty too). But for me, one beauty stands above all others as the preeminent Twilight Zone babe. Her name is Anne Francis. And yesterday, tragically, she passed away.

Publicity shot for Forbidden Planet. God, she was gorgeous.

We've already seen her in the unforgettable "The After Hours" from season 1, and we'll see her again in a much richer, nuanced performance in season 4's "Jess-Belle," but she's probably best known as the naive young beauty who distracts Leslie Nielsen's entire crew in Forbidden Planet, a film with many TZ connections. Come to think of it, Nielsen just passed away in November.

Ms. Francis in 2002, at the first Twilight Zone Convention in Hollywood.

I'm sad to say I never got her autograph. I know my friend Andrew Ramage did... in fact, he had the distinct privilege of actually being friends with her. My condolences go out to him, and to her family.