Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Zone

Okay, let's get into it. Here are my top ten (links are to Wikipedia pages, which have spoilers):

"The Four of Us Are Dying" Not especially scary (as the Zone goes) but this one has incredible mood and atmosphere (in a heavily abstracted film noir kind of style) and, like all first season episodes, has the plangent Bernard Herriman score rather than the better-known four-note-motif that came later. (You all know composer Bernard Herriman: his first movie score was Citizen Kane and his last movie score was Taxi Driver. Beat that!)

"The Hitch-Hiker" Totally terrifying. Reminiscent of the opening half-hour of Psycho (in more ways than one). Unusual in that the protagonist narrates. "Going my way?"

"Mirror Image" This one is my favorite example of a phenomenon that makes the Zone immune to modern updates (in my opinion): With the black-and-white photography, the cheap sets, and the "slice-of-life" depiction of early 'Sixties life, Zone episodes are weird and creepy before anything happens -- just the act of setting the scene (and creating what contemporary viewers experience as humdrum normalcy) can fill us modern viewers with dread. Here, it's a lonely upstate New York bus station in the small hours of the night.

"The After Hours" See above remarks viz. 1960s normalcy. This time it's a department store after closing time, and an elevator that goes to a floor that isn't there...

"The Howling Man" Fucking terrifying, and possibly my favorite. Executed in a shamelessly baroque, Gothic style with frequent drunken tilted-camera angles and a protagonist/narrator who's totally insane (or is he?)

"Twenty-Two" This one's marred by its use of videotape (rather than film) which was a cost-cutting measure that crippled some Zone episodes, giving them an unfortunate "soap opera" vibe (which doesn't do much to blunt the power of the idea).

"The Grave" This one's got a wonderfully evocative "Ambrose Bierce" tonality that I totally dig. It's that dusty, windy, moonlit Old West that only exists on film, shot on indoor sets. Lee Marvin has to prove his courage, and probably wishes he didn't.

"The Midnight Sun" An unusually well-crafted episode, despite its limited scenario. I love this one because its closing moments (and Serling's narration) highlight the conceptual brilliance of the series itself.

"The Dummy" A truly terrifying shocker, which stars Cliff Robertson (and is one of two Zones featuring the same spectacularly creepy "ventriloquist's dummy" prop).

"Stopover in a Quiet Town" A little bit more whimsical, but, again, the closing twist and ending narration bring it home like nobody's business.

Honorable Mention: "Printer's Devil" One of the few Season 4, hour-long episodes that works (the show was unable to function properly in this longer format, in my opinion). Burgess Meredith makes my favorite of his many appearances.

I tried to focus on episodes I had a particular fondness for (or terror of). Of course I also love the following "gold standard" classics:

"Third from the Sun"
"The Eye of the Beholder"
"The Invaders"
"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"
"It's a Good Life"
"To Serve Man"
"Living Doll" (which is how we got here in the first place)


50PageMcGee said...

there's a great radio drama performance of Orson Welles doing the Hitch-hiker.

you can download the ep here, but it's also available as a podcast on iTunes.

JPX said...

The most amazing thing about this post? I was going to email you to do a top 10 TZ episodes post but I got busy over the weekend and forgot about it.

My parents have such a fondness for Twilight Zone that I gave them all the episodes on DVD a few years ago. They have a house in Vermont and we love to watch episodes up there at night, it's the perfect ambiance. I need to think about my favorite episodes. My parents' favorite is "A Stop at Willoughby". They have taken to calling their VT house "Willoughby".

JPX said...

There are very few bad episodes, although the hour long ones didn't really work as you note. The worst episode is the Carol Burnett one with the experimental laugh track. Shudder. I like everything on your list. I need to go through an episode guide to remind myself about the other episodes. When I was a teenager I used to carry around The Twilight Zone companion. Back then it was difficult to find TZ in syndication and it was maddening to me to read about episodes I had never seen. I still can't say for certain that I've seen them all.

50PageMcGee said...

worst one? i've gotta go with The Bard

shakespeare crapping out fortune cookie excerpts of some of his most famous lines. it's an hour-long, but it doesn't fail because it's an hour-long. it fails because it sucks.

Jordan said...

I'm such a contrarian, I guess, because I kind of dig "The Bard" (just because it's so unabashedly ridiculous and yet they totally go for it). Isn't that the one where Burt Reynolds is doing a send-up of Brando?

And I'm also a contrarian because I don't like "A Stop at Willoughby." I just find it really boring, mainly because I'm such a city boy and the concept of actually living in a place like Willoughby isn't particularly attractive to me.

Sorry, guys.

Landshark said...

from JPX: "When I was a teenager I used to carry around The Twilight Zone companion."

Fucking love that.

Great thread idea--in college some friends and I got into a nightly ritual of Jeapordy at 11:00 and then the Zone at 11:30 every night.

Jordan, your description of the the creepy normalcy "before anything happens" totally nails the Zone for me. I'm going to steal that.