Sunday, January 29, 2012
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"
"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)