Archive for The Twilight Zone

It is a dimension as vast as space…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by dcairns

And When the Sky Was Opened is one of The Twilight Zone’s great Air Force Angst stories. Other include the supreme The Last Flight with Kenneth Haigh (making a surprise jaunt stateside) and the similar but inferior King Nine Will Not Return with Bob Cummings (AKA the Butcher of Strasbourg). I was initially unsure what caused this harping on the aerial theme, other than the appeal of pitting a rational, manly, courageous authority figure against irrational forces he’s not remotely equipped to comprehend. It’s a good writing tip and I offer it to you for nothing: if you come up with an interesting dramatic situation, go looking for the worst person to put in it. But not the obvious worst person — something subtler.

But this episode hints at the spark that may have ignited Rod Serling’s fascination with this motif, for Leonard Rosenman’s score practically quotes Allan Gray’s sinister arpeggio from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, another movie in which an airman must face off against mysterious and all-powerful universal forces, a story which similarly can be viewed as an account of supernatural interference or mental derangement.

Tip-top Zone helmer Douglas Heyes directs deftly, and his star is Rod Taylor, who enters his buddy’s hospital room at the start with an all-of-a-sudden move, as if hoping to catch the universe out. Then he hunts around while talking to his buddy, as if looking for clues. (Many dramatic scenes could be improved if at least one of the actors would prowl around in search of evidence.) What he’s looking for his confirmation of the existence of his best friend, who was on an experimental space flight (X20!) that crashed, was recovered safely along with Rod and his other pal, but has since disappeared. And he hasn’t just disappeared from the present tense, but from the past too. Like he was never there. Rod Taylor, it transpires, is the only one who can remember him existing at all.

What’s particularly frightening about this one, a Richard Matheson story adapted by Rod Serling, asides from Taylor and the other mens’ powerful performances, which make the whole situation credible and even moving, is the weakness of any explanation offered. In a flashback, Carrington (Charles Aidman), feeling that he’s vanishing (sort of like Michael J. Fox fading away in BACK TO THE FUTURE, but using no special effects, only acting) speculates that the plane shouldn’t have made it, that the fliers ought to be dead, and the universe is correcting its mistake. But that doesn’t fit the facts: the fliers are not being rewritten as dead, they’re being rewritten out of the timeline altogether. It seems like some kind of punishment for trespassing beyond the outer atmosphere, but nobody hints at this. The story sits there, smugly, staring at us and giving away nothing.

Part of what makes this superior to King Nine is that the focus is more on what will happen next rather than the meaning behind what’s just happened. Viewers experienced in the uncanny tale may quickly suspect that this one is never going to be explained — and it’ll be all the scarier for that. There just hasn’t been any set-up which could be repurposed to make an answer to the puzzle. Outer space is really a red herring. Instead of unravelling a mystery, Rod gets ravelled in one — it becomes clear that the universe IS correcting a mistake, sort of, and Rod is part of it. The episode begins with a shot of the space-plane under a tarp, but ends, after all three astronauts have been vanished, with a shot of the tarp lying flat on the ground, like the aftermath of a magician’s trick.

This covers similar terrain to Jean-Claude Carriere’s magnificent short film THE NAIL CLIPPERS — where a man checks into a hotel, unpacks, and loses his nail clippers. Then the overnight bag they were in. Then his suitcase. Then his wife. Then himself. The logic of a nightmare — also, a magic trick familiar to writers, who often erase unwanted characters, not only from the present tense, but from the past. “He’s been yanked off,” mourns Rod, using an actorly image instead — the vaudevillian tugged from the stage by a slyly approaching shepherd’s crook. The comic never does notice the crook until it’s around his neck.

Neither will any of us.

“Once upon a time there was a man named Harrington. A man named Forbes. A man named Gart. They used to exist, but don’t any longer. Someone, or something, took them somewhere. At least, they are no longer a part of the memory of man. And as to the X-20, supposed to be housed here in this hangar, this too does not exist. And if any of you have any questions concerning an aircraft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them, and only in… the twilight zone.”

 

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It is the middle ground between light and shadow…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , on March 31, 2017 by dcairns

I was duty-bound to writer about this one, wasn’t I?

In this season 2 Twilight Zone episode, Charles Beaumont pens and Dennis Weaver stars. It’s a tale of a recurring dream — Weaver is electrocuted nightly — we never see his waking life. The episode isn’t quite clear if it wants us to worry about the execution, Weaver’s perpetual oneiric torment, or the threat to the dream-characters — he warns them that if he’s executed, they’ll cease to exist. This splitting of our concerns is an imperfection, and possibly a real problem, but it works out OK since Weaver is so compelling and the unusual direct cutting back and forth between characters builds tension, and the whole waiting for execution scenario is pretty surefire as a dramatic device.

Weaver insists that irl he has no experience of trials and death-houses, so his imagination is constructing this world out of movie clichés, and so it would appear — Weaver gives an intense, perfervid performance as you’d expect from him, and everybody else is basically from Central Casting. This leads to the episode’s best stuff… Weaver, talking to the priest, speculates about where his memory has produced this priest’s face from. Then he remembers it, and tells the priest a story about a real priest who died when he was ten. And he tells this story happily, because he’s pleased he remembered it — he’d been struggling to place the man. This is all very uncomfortable for the priest.

Then, out of the blue, he tells the D.A. a weird tale about the steak his wife is cooking. We’ve already seen this meat in a shock cut from Weaver describing his execution to the oven tray being pulled out with a harsh metallic grating sound, the steak sizzling like a condemned man. If the DA goes home, “It’ll be something different!” insists Weaver. The D.A. heads back to the kitchen and finds a big, juicy joint where the steak once sizzled. WHY? No real explanation, but a great moment of phildickian uncanny.

The nice directorial touches are courtesy of John Brahm, Teutonic noir specialist, who throws in a very novel split-screen effect to show the long walk to the chair as Weaver describes it, and whose opening shot includes a dramatic pull-back with a theatrical lighting change so that Weaver starts out isolated in darkness before the world emerges around him. Niiice.

Inevitably, the meat-induced reprieve comes too late, so Weaver fries, and is then launched back into scene 1 — a DEAD OF NIGHT style strange loop, with no interval of waking reality at all. As a final pay-off, the scene plays out as before, but with the faces all jumbled up — Weaver’s cell neighbour is now the judge, the priest is now a juror, etc. A real dream feel.

Good grim episode, with no lightening of the mood whatsoever, and a central character going through an irrational hellish punishment. Just what we want from this show.

“We know that a dream can be real. But whoever thought that reality could be a dream? We exist, of course, but… but how? In what way? As we believe, as flesh and blood human beings? Or are we simply parts of someone’s feverish, complicated nightmare? Think about it. And then ask yourself, do you live here, in this country, in this world, or do you live instead in the twilight zone?”

And to cap the whole thing off in a horrifying kind of way, Rod Serling appears with the instrument of his own doom ~

Beyond that which is known to man…

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by dcairns

The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet is one I felt I knew really well, except I don’t know that I’d ever watched it all — I’d seen clips and I’d seen George Miller’s reworking of it in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, but had I actually watched the whole thing?

Putting the two versions side by side is instructive — for once, two versions of the same story make radically different choices and both are successful. Or maybe that’s NOT instructive, maybe that sets up a false idea that you can do whatever you like in TV/movies, it’s all good. It clearly ISN’T all good, but these two episodes are.

Leaving aside the contrast in directorial technique between the hyperkinetic Miller and the more sober Richard Donner (plus whoever replaced him after he was fired for falling behind schedule), it’s fascinating how different the main character is in each story, even though Richard Matheson scripted both.

In both versions, a passenger on a plane sees a demonic figure on the wing of a plane, tampering with the engine, and can’t get anyone else to believe him.

In the original, the hero is fresh from a six-month stay in a sanatorium after a nervous breakdown that struck during a plane flight. Now his wife is taking him home.

In the Miller film version, the lead character an apparently stable and sober professor, but he’s travelling alone.

The first version benefits from the suspicion that our man may be losing his marbles all over again — how else to explain the fact that nobody else ever sees the “gremlin” (styled by make-up maestro William Tuttle very much along the lines of his DR LAO yeti)? I don’t know how many 1963 audiences thought that way, though — after all, WE see the creature. The hero’s past instability is probably more a device to make us sympathetic, and to account for his wife not believing him.

(One thing where the remake is measurably superior is the creature, created, if I read the credits aright, by Craig Reardon and Michael McCracken. By not being in a kind of furry romper suit, it’s allowed to look properly WET, which adds lustre and ick to its rubbery visage. Maybe the artist’s personality always comes through in monsters: Tuttle beasts always have a tragic look, whereas Reardon’s look… naughty?)

In the remake, the hero starts stable but rapidly and amusingly unravels, and the fact that he’s alone means he can only turn to strangers for support.

Man 1 is William Shatner, man 2 is John Lithgow. One thing that works is that both are sort of cast against type — Shatner being less associated with neurotic parts, Lithgow never being cast as ordinary Joes. A more obvious and less interesting approach would be to time-travel Lithgow back to ’63 and rejuvenate Shatner in ’83.

Shatner’s leading man attributes really work in his favour, since he LOOKS manly and self-reliant. Shatner really conveys his humiliation at having shown weakness. Of course, he gets his manhood back by firing a gun in the end, which seems quite 1963. The remake takes a more ironic view of everything, and though the gun is instrumental in stopping the gremlin, it takes the time to grab our hero’s face and wag a finger at him (while Jerry Goldsmith’s score riffs on Danse Macabre).

But though the Donner-Shatner episode may be less progressive, what bowled me over is its sheer effectiveness — right from the start I felt strong tension, the combination of my own slight fear of flying, the excitement of the building storm, Shatner’s nervy, sweaty perf. The casual sauntering gait of the ludicrous shaggy beast on the left wing of the jet is amusing but just right, somehow — the important quality is not a convincing mime of clinging on in spite of the impossible air currents, but a sense that the nameless thingy feels it has a perfect right to be there.

(The wing man is played by Burt Lancaster’s former wingman, in THE CRIMSON PIRATE and THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, diminutive acrobat Nick Cravat, who didn’t really need a full mask…)

Having creeped us out with the slow approach, the gremlin is then well-placed — after a prolonged, hammy but genuinely tense build-up by Shatner, steeling himself endlessly — to make a shock appearance in close-up, nose pressed against the glass. And he has the kind of nose that always looks as if it’s pressed against glass anyway.

The wrap-up is more satisfying (and benign) in the TV version, and really, after being put through the ringer like that, we deserve a happy ending, don’t we?

On a related note ~