Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween 2011...

I had grand plans for a TZ costume this year. Last year's Doctor Bernardi (from "Eye of the Beholder") turned out great, so I wanted to top it. Long story short --- I was gonna be a freakin' Kanamit. Platform boots, bulbous headpiece, the whole thing. My unfortunate procrastinative tendencies sabotaged me, however, and the costume never materialized. So... I'll probably just throw on the surgical scrubs and stethoscope from last year's costume, maybe splatter it with blood, and call it good.

Next year, though... mark my words. I'll be a Kanamit if it kills me.

Meanwhile, enjoy this great pumpkin from our old friend Kyler. Happy Halloween, fellow Zoneheads.... let's keep it scary out there.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

TZ Promo: “The Grave" (10/27/1961)

Season 3, Episode 7 (#72 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3656

After the horrible “The Mirror,” Twilight Zone fans were happily treated to a solid month of excellent episodes. 50 years ago tonight, viewers were offered a good old fashioned ghost story, the first time the series ever offered such a tale. It’s hard to believe it took this long, especially for a show so steeped in the supernatural. We’ve certainly encountered our share of dead folks over the past 71 episodes, but I’m hesitant to label any of them as true ghosts. Tonight, we meet our first true Twilight Zone ghost.

“The Grave” is the second of three third season episodes both written and directed by Montgomery Pittman. The setting is the Old West, but not the brightly lit Old West depicted in the countless western shows that ruled the airwaves in the early 60’s. Here it’s dark and cold, swept by a constant wind, relentlessly ominous. Perfect for a ghost story, wouldn’t you say?

Pinto Sykes is a notorious outlaw and general ne’er-do-well who has successfully evaded bounty hunter Connie Miller (a brooding Lee Marvin), who may or may not be intentionally dragging his feet in the chase due to cowardice. The townsmen, tired of waiting for Miller to do the deed, surround Sykes in the street and gun him down. On his deathbed, Sykes promises that, if Miller ever comes near his grave, he’ll “reach up and grab him.” Miller arrives after Sykes expires, and finds his honor in serious question. To redeem himself, he must visit Sykes’ newly-dug grave.

James Best co-stars as a jittery guitar-strumming local whom Connie bullies. Best, who will also appear in the upcoming “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank,” as well as season four’s wonderful “Jess-Belle,” is best known as Roscoe P. Coltrane, one of Boss Hogg’s bumbling deputies, on TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard. It’s really too bad…. in his three TZ outings, Best displays a talent far above such teledrivel.

The production number (173-3656) indicates that this episode was actually produced during the show’s second season, but held back until the third (the same is true of “Nothing in the Dark,” which we’ll get to in January). In his The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, Martin Grams Jr. reports that “The Grave” was originally intended to open the third season, but was pushed back to coincide with Halloween (interestingly, the episode chosen to replace it as the third season opener, “Two” was also written and directed by Montgomery Pittman). The opening shot of act one does not feature the usual season three title cards (episode title, writer, director): we simply open on a long shot of Lee Marvin riding up to the saloon on his horse (the title shot at the top of this entry is from the episode’s end credits; the only place the episode title was ever seen during season two).

Next week: Anthony Fremont is just an innocent little boy… right?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

TZ Promo: "The Mirror" (10/20/1961)

Season 3, Episode 6 (#71 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4819

Two weeks ago, I rhapsodized about the joys of discovering new favorite TZ episodes, formerly ignored gems that I find myself loving now that I’m revisiting them. Tonight we celebrate the 50th anniversary of an episode that, despite viewing it through more mature eyes... well, I just can’t bring myself to give a shit about.

That overwhelming sense of ennui you feel.... I feel it too, General.

Written by Rod Serling and directed by Don Medford, “The Mirror” concerns Ramos Clemente, a peasant in an unnamed Central American country who leads a rebellion against the incumbent dictatorship and seizes power. In addition to the new spoils of leadership, Clemente inherits a magic mirror that reveals the faces of those plotting to kill him. Predictably, he goes batshit crazy with paranoia and starts killing everyone around him. Spoiler alert: he finally sees his own reflection and kills himself.

Peter Falk has his Orpheus moment.

Aside from the thin plot and predictable outcome, there’s something absolutely malevolent going on here. The final line, uttered by a priest, seems to imply that there’s some important lesson to learn here, something along the lines of “your worst enemy is always yourself.” So if this supernatural mirror’s purpose is to impart that nugget of wisdom, then why the hell do so many innocent people have to die in the process? In the throes of all-consuming fear, Clemente is having citizens executed ‘round the clock. If he is indeed evil (and we have no reason to think he was, prior to taking power), then why doesn't the mirror simply show him his own reflection at the outset? This is one seriously evil mirror, or one seriously misguided writer (yes, Rod, I’m talking to you); either way, “The Mirror” leaves a seriously bad taste in my mouth. Season one’s “Time Enough at Last” also gave me serious pause, but at least that episode had some good qualities (set design, etc). This so-called effort has nothing of value to offer.

The normally-loveable Peter Falk plays Clemente like a third-rate Fidel Castro cartoon caricature. It’s not pleasant to watch… not that a great performance would’ve saved this dreck. Season 3 will unfortunately have several low points… this is the first of them.

Next week: Just in time for Halloween, a genuinely scary episode featuring… Roscoe P. Coltrane?????

Thursday, October 13, 2011

TZ Promo: "A Game of Pool" (10/13/1961)

Season 3, Episode 5 (#70 overall)
Cayuga Production #4815

50 years ago tonight, a little David took on a big Goliath. The weapon of choice wasn’t a slingshot, however. It was a pool cue.

“A Game of Pool,” written by George Clayton Johnson and directed by Buzz Kulik, tells the tale of a skilled but relatively unknown pool player named Jesse Cardiff, who longs to be the best at the game. He’s streetwise and cocky, a bit full of himself, hungry for fame and glory. Late one night, alone in a pool hall, he loudly challenges deceased pool great Fats Brown to a game. Jesse’s just shooting off his mouth, of course, and you can’t really challenge the dead… but this is The Twilight Zone. Fats Brown materializes before his eyes, and the game is on.

The game itself is a tense, well-staged roller coaster, infused with great character moments (Jesse describes all the life pleasures he’s eschewed in order to focus on the game; Fats, meanwhile, names off all the life pleasures he valued over the game; it’s a nice juxtaposition of priorities). When Jesse takes that final life-or-death shot, it’s one of those wonderful edge-of-your-seat moments. You like Jesse, and you want him to win despite his obvious hubris issue, but since it’s The Twilight Zone, a happy ending isn’t always guaranteed (I’m looking at you, “Time Enough at Last”) . Further, happy endings aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be (that’s you, “A Nice Place to Visit”). There, that’s as close to a spoiler as you’re gonna get outta me this week.

It’s no surprise that Klugman shines here; in his youth, he excelled in this type of “downtrodden-but-scrappy” role. What IS a surprise is the nice-guy-tinged-with-menace performance turned in by Jonathan Winters as Fats Brown (yes, THAT Jonathan Winters, the guy who played the giant baby on TV’s Mork & Mindy). You might expect some goofy cheese, but this Winters portrait is the real deal: terse and serious, not to mention downright scary when he first appears. The two actors play off one another beautifully. This is a perfect episode, perfectly executed, and it’s right at home in my top ten favorites list.


“A Game of Pool” was remade during the 80’s Twilight Zone revival series on CBS. This time, Johnson’s original ending was used, in which the outcome is reversed from what we see in the original episode. The remake features Esai Morales and Maury Chaykin in the Klugman and Winters roles, and is actually fairly effective (as far as remakes go).

Curiously, Johnson himself directed his own production a couple of years ago, also utilizing his original ending (I saw it here, but I'm not sure the link still works). I hate to say it, but it’s a wasted effort. Here are my thoughts, originally posted over at The Twilight Zone Café on 10/27/2009:

“I watched it today. Unfortunately, it doesn't touch the original (for that matter, the 80s remake is superior too) IMHO. I didn't care much for the actor playing Jesse (he seems a bit old for the part, and he tends to rush through critical sections of dialogue early on), but the actor playing Fats (well, Duke here) is suitably ominous. I can't decide if I like the underscore or not... it seems too modern for the material. And the pool sound effects don't mesh well with the soundtrack. I think my single biggest complaint, though, is the complete lack of actual pool footage! Film is a VISUAL medium. We need to see the damned balls, especially when a specific shot is referenced in the dialogue. All in all, it just seems unnecessary to me. Between the original and 80's versions, both endings are covered. What's the point?”

So... there ya go. Don't let my low opinion stop you from checking it out.

“A Game of Pool” was also performed live right here in Portland back in 1995 (retitled “The Pool Player” for some unknown reason) as part of Tales from The Twilight Zone, a stage adaption of three episodes. As I recall, the players simply described the shots as they took them, which I guess worked well enough (I don’t remember if they used sound effects or not). If I found myself mounting a stage production of this particular episode (hey, never say never), I’d have my actors fake the shots and employ a simple laptop/projector setup (we use ‘em here at work for training purposes) to display pre-filmed footage of each shot. I guess that would make it a multimedia show of sorts. Cool.

Next week: Columbo + Castro = Crappy episode. Ugh.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

TZ car CD (October 2011)

I’ve mentioned a couple of times lately that I keep a homemade Twilight Zone soundtrack CD in my car at all times. I redo it a few times per year, changing the lineup each time. I just finished the latest incarnation yesterday, so I thought I’d share the contents. I’ll probably post the tracks for future revisions as they occur.

01. The Lonely (selections) (Bernard Herrmann) (08:36)
  • Twilight Zone theme (first revision)
  • Intro
  • The Waiting
  • Alicia
  • Eleven Months
  • The Stars
  • Finale
02. The Big Tall Wish (Jerry Goldsmith) (11:56)

03. The Outer Space Suite: Prelude (Bernard Herrmann) (3:55)
04. The Outer Space Suite: Space Drift (Bernard Herrmann) (3:18)
05. The Outer Space Suite: Time Suspense (Bernard Herrmann) (4:27)
06. The Outer Space Suite: Starlight (Bernard Herrmann) (2:55)
07. The Outer Space Suite: Moonscape (Bernard Herrmann) (2:30)
08. The Outer Space Suite: Tycho (Bernard Herrmann) (2:03)

09. Two (Leonard Rosenman) (12:13)

10. The Passersby (Fred Steiner) (13:02)

11. Walking Distance (Bernard Herrmann) (12:32)

12. Where Is Everybody? (Finale; edit)/End Title Theme (Bernard Herrmann) (01:42)

Herrmann's Outer Space Suite is one of several he composed for the CBS Music Library, which provided the stock music for all TZ episodes lacking an original score. Several of the Outer Space cues were used quite extensively on the show.

*Sigh* That reminds me... I've gotta start working on my epic (okay, maybe not quite epic) spotlight of the show's musical identity. I meant to do it over the summer, but... well, you know, I got sidetracked. I need to at least spotlight Bernard Herrmann soon, before the end of the year (he turned 100 in June).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

TZ Promo: "The Passersby" (10/06/1961)

Season 3, Episode 4 (#69 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4817

I first discovered The Twilight Zone in middle school, at the tender of age of 13, and by the age of 21, I’d seen every single episode at least once. Some episodes I’ve seen dozens of times over the two decades since, but there are others that I haven’t seen in 20 years or more. When I started this 5-year celebration of the series’ 50th anniversary, one of the things that excited me was the prospect of seeing those lesser-viewed episodes with older eyes. Perhaps I’d discover a gem that I’d foolishly shunned in my youth. This possibility, frankly, excited me more than simply rewatching episodes that I already knew by heart.

It’s happened. I've discovered that hidden gem.

I saw “The Passersby” once and only once, back in high school when I home-videotaped most of the series. In my teenage estimation, the episode was boring and slow. Worse, the “surprise” ending was obvious from the beginning. I chalked it up as one of Serling’s missteps, certainly not as offensive as “Mr. Bevis” or “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” but a stinker nonetheless. I might have never watched it again, were I not endeavoring to watch every episode on its 50th birthday.

I’m not a religious man, but thank god this wasn’t the case. “The Passersby” is truly remarkable, and the next time I revise my favorites list, it will most definitely be added.

Written by Rod Serling and directed by Elliot Silverstein, “The Passersby” takes place in the aftermath of The Civil War. A woman, Lavinia Godwin, sits on the porch of her house, which is in an advanced state of disrepair. She watches an endless stream of soldiers from both sides of the conflict lumber past in a smoky haze. One of them stops and asks for water. They talk. He plays his battered guitar.

A few other men stop by, including Lavinia's lost (and presumed killed) husband. Each interaction contributes to a dawning realization that all of them are in fact dead. Lavinia refuses to believe it, despite the mounting evidence. The stream of bodies dries up, save for one final passerby: Abraham Lincoln himself, newly assassinated, who stops to comfort her.

I normally eschew this level of spoilery, but the truth is pretty apparent from the opening moments. The soldiers, bathed in fog, are clearly the walking dead, and we're given several clues that support this truth. It does seem to take the main players a long time to deduce the obvious, but personally, I don’t think the ultimate truth is the point of the story. What we’re seeing is a meditation on the mind’s hesitation to accept a fundamental shift in the very nature of its existence. Wouldn't we need a lot of convincing, were this happening to us? We see this reluctance to let go of earthly reality at the core of the brilliant and visceral 1990 film Jacob's Ladder (a favorite of mine). Here in the Zone, season one’s “The Hitch-hiker” explored this same concept, as will the upcoming “Nothing in the Dark," but neither achieves the haunting grandeur of “The Passersby.” You can't argue with the episode's production design, either.... it's just damned gorgeous to look at.

Marc Scott Zicree, in his Twilight Zone Companion, dismisses “The Passersby” as “one of the weakest episodes of the first three seasons.” What a numbskull.

"The Passersby" features what must be the most beautiful closing shot in the entire series. Lavinia races down the fog-shrouded road to catch up with her deceased husband. Lincoln slowly follows. No more casualties of The Civil War shall pass here. Absolutely breathtaking.


“The Passersby” features one of the greatest original scores ever composed for The Twilight Zone. Fred Steiner’s music (heavy on the violins and harp) is beautiful and somber, mournful but ultimately hopeful. It rises slowly, almost liquidly (is that a word? It should be), growing in intensity like waves on a restless sea. It perfectly underlines the languid pace of the episode and, on its own, divorced from the visuals, is a moving and haunting listening experience.

Steiner's score has been made available many times. It was first released on vinyl in 1985 by Varese Sarabande (The Twilight Zone: The Original Television Scores, Volume 5). Varese Sarabande only released CD versions of their five LPs in Japan; in the US, they released two “Best of” CD compilations in 1990 (“The Passersby” was included on the second volume), which are both out of print. The score appeared on domestic CD again as part of Silva’s Twilight Zone 40th Anniversary boxed set in 1999, which is now out of print. I just checked iTunes, and it's not there. So the only way to get it is to buy either the Season 3 Definitive Edition DVD or the more recent blu-ray edition (both from Image Entertainment), both of which feature the score isolated on alternate music-only tracks. I happen to own all of the above items, so I’m planning on listening to the score tonight before I watch the episode… on vinyl, in a darkened room. Maybe with a glass of wine, or perhaps scotch.

A few weeks back, I mentioned that I keep a CD-R of favorite TZ music in my car at all times, and that I frequently revise it. I've been doing this for several years, and “The Passersby” has never once been rotated out.


The 2001 film The Others (starring Nicole Kidman) seems to be a semi-remake of this episode (though it takes place in the aftermath of WWII, not the Civil War). It's a great film (it was recently released on blu-ray... I need to pick it up). The 2002-2003 UPN Twilight Zone revival spawned a semi-remake called “Homecoming,” which moved the action into the present, during the War in Iraq (I can’t comment on it, since I’ve never seen it, but what I have seen of the UPN series leaves me less than optimistic).

16 minutes and 10 seconds into the episode, a fly lands on James Gregory’s right suspender strap and nonchalantly crawls down his torso. I guess the little guy died in The Civil War too. I'm imagining a prequel story in which the fly is Gregory's ersatz Jiminy Cricket, keeping him on the straight and narrow while he navigates his way through the horrors of war.... hey, it couldn't be worse than George Lucas's ill-conceived prequels, right?

This is the kind of stuff you can’t get with VHS or DVD, folks. Only the pristine clarity of high definition can reveal delightful little details like this. Invest in the blu-rays. C'mon, take the damn plunge already. I’m gonna keep harping on you till you do.

Next week: TZ veteran Jack Klugman challenges Jonathan Winters to a deadly game of… pool?