Thursday, March 20, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Masks" (3/20/1964)





Season 5, Episode 25 (145 overall)
Originally aired 3/20/1964
Cayuga Production # 2601


Jason Foster’s doctor has informed him that he could shuffle off his mortal coil at any moment; that he truly is at death’s proverbial door. But he’s not quite ready to go yet: he has a final score to settle and, fifty years ago tonight, he did just that.

Mardi Gras festivities boom and swell outside as Foster’s daughter Emily and her husband Wilfred, along with their children Paula and Wilfred Jr., hover around the mansion like vultures as they impatiently wait for the old man to kick off and leave them his riches. Foster has every intention of doing just that; however, he has one small prerequisite: they must each wear masks to celebrate Fat Tuesday. Foster has commissioned a set of special masks, crafted by a local Cajun, which are said to "possess magical properties."


Wilfred (avarice), Emily (self-pity), Jason (death), Wilfred Jr. (cruelty) and Paula (vanity).
Each mask is a caricature depicting their deepest, darkest flaws: Wilfred is a money-hungry douchebag, Emily is a fragile crybaby, Paula is a vain and self-absorbed bitch, and Wilfred Jr. is a semi-retarded bully. Foster, meanwhile, will wear a skull mask, since he is very near death. The masks must be worn until midnight; if any of them remove their mask prior to then, they’ll automatically forfeit their inheritance. 

The hours drag by, and the four vultures grow increasingly uncomfortable in the masks. Foster gives them a final dressing down before he dies as midnight strikes. The newly-wealthy heirs remove their masks… and are horrified to discover that the exaggerated features of the masks have impressed themselves permanently onto their faces.

“The Masks” is one of Rod Serling’s better fifth season efforts. It’s a bit talky, but within tolerable limits (as opposed to, say, “The Long Morrow,” in which his trademarked “purple prose” runs rampant). It feels like a classic revenge tale straight out of E.C.’s Vault of Horror comic series (in fact, there are many TZ episodes that seem uncomfortably similar to tales first published in E.C.’s various horror and sci-fi comics; at some point I’ll be posting a special report on this topic, probably this summer), in which nasty people get a nasty, unexpected comeuppance.

We’re clearly supposed to side with Foster; however, I don’t think he’s any better than the family members whom he so clearly loathes. Listen to how he addresses them! He’s snide, condescending, vicious and downright cruel. He’s no hero, particularly since he opts to disfigure them rather than, say, leave his money to charity instead of rewarding their misbehavior(s) with his fortune. I’d say he’s the real villain here.



The New Orleans Mardi Gras setting is only briefly glimpsed in a couple of stock shots at the start of act two; I would've liked to have seen a bit more. And why not show us the Cajun who made the masks, maybe just a quick scene of him delivering the masks to the butler, before Foster’s exchange with his doctor in the prologue? I guess what I was looking for is a bit more voodoo, a bit more mystery, a more pronounced and ominous shadow hanging over the proceedings. 


The real star here, of course, is the quintet of masks that the cast wears throughout the episode’s second act, all designed by William Tuttle (who gave us many of the series' greatest makeup triumphs, including "Eye of the Beholder," "The After-Hours" and "Steel"). Unfortunately, the actual makeup jobs on the actors’ faces after their unmasking are disappointingly indistinct. Their distorted features aren’t exaggerated nearly enough; their new faces should be just as sharply detailed as the masks, not sixth-generation dupes of them.


In the director’s chair for “The Masks’ is film noir siren Ida Lupino, who starred in season one’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.” Lupino also co-starred in 1951’s On Dangerous Ground, the cast of which also included Frank Ferguson (whom we saw two weeks ago in “Queen of the Nile”; incidentally, frequent TZ contributor Bernard Herrmann provided the score for that film). Her many directing credits include nine episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, three episodes of The Fugitive, and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents


FANTASTIC PLASTIC








In 2010, the character of Jason Foster (wearing his skull mask) was immortalized in plastic by Bif Bang Pow! in their first wave of Twilight Zone action figures. It’s happily one of their better efforts (except for the lack of a wheelchair, which would’ve been awesome); my review can be found here. The line appears to have all but dried up; however, most of the figures can still be purchased at Entertainment Earth.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE

This week’s cast only features a couple of TZ veterans; however, they’re all connected by their work for Alfred Hitchcock.

According to the IMDB, Jason Foster is Robert Keith’s last credited role (apparently he took that death mask a little too seriously). It’s his only TZ appearance, but he worked for Hitch twice (“Ten O’clock Tiger” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and “Final Escape” on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). You may have also seen him on The Fugitive, playing Richard Kimble’s father in “Home Is the Hunted.”


We last saw Virginia Gregg (here playing Emily Harper) as Ossie Stone, mother of the tortured Jess-Belle, in the season four episode of the same name. She worked fairly extensively for Hitchcock, including four stints on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Don’t Come Back Alive,” “Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid,” “And So Died Riabouchinska,” and “Nightmare in 4-D”), three on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“A Home Away from Home,” “Thou Still Unravished Bride,” and “Consider Her ways”: that last one features an original musical score by the aforementioned Bernard Herrmann) and, perhaps most significantly, provided the voice of Norma Bates in his 1960 horror classic Psycho (also scored by Herrmann). Gregg reprised her voice role in that film’s second and third sequels.


The obnoxiously gregarious Wilfred Harper is played by Milton Selzer, who also played the head alien in season three’s “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby.” He briefly appeared in Hitch’s 1963 Marnie (also scored by Herrmann, incidentally).



Paula Harper is played by Brooke Hayward in her only TZ appearance; she also appeared in “The Cadaver” on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, a series on which Willis Bouchey (here playing Foster’s doctor) appeared three times (“I Saw the Whole Thing,” “The Paragon,” and “One of the Family”).



“The Masks” is comprised of five unpleasant people hating on one another almost continuously for half an hour. It could’ve been fun, like Serling’s earlier “Uncle Simon,” but here all the meanness just isn’t enjoyable. It’s still a pretty well-crafted horror story, but ultimately its Tuttle’s masks that really save the day. Hey Bif Bang Pow!, if you're reading this, how about selling full-sized replicas of the masks? They'd make amazing Mardis Gras accessories... hell, they'd look stunning just hanging on a wall.



Next week:
It’s “Dust” all over again, but darker. Like, literally.



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"there are many TZ episodes that seem uncomfortably similar to tales first published in E.C.’s various horror and sci-fi comics"

Yes, I recall a horror comic in which the final panel shows a guy trying to remove a horrid mask from his face, and you can see that the room is filled with removed copies of the same mask. I can't recall exactly which comic, nor can I recall if the comic came first, or the TZ episode came first.

In defense of Serling--and other writers--certain themes tend to spring up in the ether and appear, independently, from various places. It just seems that the time for a certain story arises, and some writers will produce variants of the tale. The same happens, periodically, in the historical development of inventions.

And let's not even get into the problem songwriters face in the unconscious plagiarism of things they might have seen 20 years ago and which have totally removed themselves from conscious memory.

Lurker111

Anonymous said...

One other point to make: If Ida Lupino had married Don Ho, she'd be Ida Ho.

(From _Laugh-In_)

Lurker111