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“THE TWILIGHT ZONE: ESSENTIAL EPISODES” (DVD Review)

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As we’ve articulated many times on this site and in the pages of FANGORIA magazine, we adore THE TWILIGHT ZONE. And really, what right-minded scholar of horror and dark fantasy doesn’t? This writer has often said, with conviction, that Rod Serling’s immortal and groundbreaking television series can be appreciated much like sex from a teenage boy’s point of view: even bad TZ episodes are awesome and welcome TZ episodes.

Now that said, no one can argue that some installments of the CBS show (which ran five seasons from 1959-1964) are superior to others, nor that do the finest offerings tend to lie in the first two seasons, when Serling’s pen and vision were at their sharpest and bravest. But the show is still very subjective and the task of whittling down the episode list to a “Best of” selection is a daunting one.

Yet that’s just what RLJ Entertainment has done with their 55th Anniversary, double DVD “Essential Episodes” collection. RLJ have been releasing bare bones versions of Image Entertainment’s denser TZ box sets for the past year and like those budget editions, the “Essential Episodes” set is a redundant purchase for completists.

If you’re like this writer though, having multiple copies of the series on hand is a good thing and chronologically plotted choices offered here are indeed essential. Some may gripe that key episodes like season one’s “The Lonely” and season two’s “Night of the Meek” deserve to be here—and oddly, not a single one of season four’s occasionally brilliant hour-long episodes (like the Dennis Hopper vehicle “He’s Alive”) is present—but while you can’t please ‘em all, the 17 listed here do exemplify the best of Serling and his stable of storied storytellers, which of course include the late Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont.

Here’s a brief look at what episodes are packaged within.

tze_twilight_zone_ee_hic_{93ac7cef-05cc-e311-8c44-020045490004}WALKING DISTANCE (Season One)

Gig Young stars in Serling’s nostalgic, melancholy and deeply personal fantasy about a disillusioned man walking into the town of his birth, only to discover the world he knew is mysteriously intact and unchanged. Gentle, sad and lyrical, this is Serling at his most poetic.

TIME ENOUGH AT LAST (Season One)

In the first of many TZ roles, Burgess Meredith appears as a bookworm who only wants to be left alone to read. After a nuclear attack, he gets his wish, albeit laced with a cruel twist. Serling waxes ironic in this disturbing and uncharacteristically mean classic.

THE HITCH-HIKER (Season One)

Pre-dating Herk Hervey’s beloved 1962 chiller CARNIVAL OF SOULS is this unrelenting nightmare in which a woman’s cross country trip is plagued by the appearance of a spectral traveler, ever-hoping to hitch a ride.

THE MONSTERS ARE DUE ON MAPLE STREET (Season One)

A slow-burning master class in post-McCarthy era paranoia, Claude Akins is fantastic as a suburbanite trying to keep his terrified neighbors from turning on each other when a UFO’s appearance causes a town-wide blackout. Vicious and potent allegorical science fiction and a masterpiece of the genre.

A STOP AT WILLOUGHBY (Season One)

Kin to WALKING DISTANCE, this gentle fantasy once more sees a working man pushed past the point of stress, drifting into the fanciful, sweet and permanently-summer town of Willoughby when he nods off on the train ride home. Part of Serling’s power as a writer was his oft-employed subtext about escaping the madness of society and living in a simpler, kinder world, even if such a world exists only in dreams.

THE AFTER HOURS (Season One)

The mother of all scary ZONEs, this chiller sees the gorgeous Anne Francis lost in a department store and taken to the mysterious 9th floor, where she’s waited on by a raven-haired, marble cheeked woman who knows a bit too much about her. Turns out the 9th floor doesn’t exist. Neither does the woman, not in the flesh and blood sense anyway. This is Serling as simple spinner of suspenseful horror and what a creeper THE AFTER HOURS is, full of surrealism, atmosphere and absurdity.

THE HOWLING MAN (Season Two)

Beaumont wrote this nightmarish story about a man who encounters The Devil locked in an old monastery. Missing Serling’s humanity and allegory, Beaumont’s pulpy THE HOWLING MAN is one of the darkest TZ episodes and one of the few in the second season not written by Rod. Bleak, disorienting and unrelentingly frightening.

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (Season Two)

Dystopian chiller that combines Orwellian warnings with Serling’s on-point musings about our culture of vanity. Ingeniously staged and driven by dialogue, we never see the wrapped female patient’s face, nor do we see the visage of her doctors…until the shattering conclusion, that is.

NICK OF TIME (Season Two)

A pre-Kirk William Shatner has a momentary lapse of reason when he becomes obsessed with a “Mystic Seer”: a devil-headed dime-store fortune teller machine screwed into the table of a greasy-spoon diner. When the vague, trite, paper-fed fortunes start to eerily mirror his own fate, he promptly loses his mind. With obsessive echoes of season one’s Serling penned “The Fever,” this Matheson story is a good one made extra memorable by the bobble-headed “Mystic Seer” prop itself.

THE INVADERS (Season Two)

Agnes Moorehead plays a mute peasant woman whose rural abode is besieged by an army of little space robots with knives. Intense siege horror made amusing by the wind-up toy “villains” and whose fright factor is sealed by Moorehead’s disheveled turn. Written by Matheson, it foreshadows his later story “Prey”, famously adapted as the third segment of Dan Curtis’ Karen Black classic TRILOGY OF TERROR.

THE OBSOLETE MAN (Season Three)

Meredith returns to the Zone as another bookish man, this time labeled a criminal in a totalitarian society where he is deemed “obsolete” and sentenced to death. When magistrate Fritz Weaver grants Meredeith the choice to choose his method of death, he in turn seals his own fate. Brainy script, meticulously performed by the two leads and shot like the scariest expressionist film you’ve ever seen, this one provokes intellectual and visceral chills.

IT’S A GOOD LIFE (Season Three)

Series vet (and future LOST IN SPACE star) Bill Mumy is iconic as little Anthony, the baddest of bad seeds whose all-encompassing psychic powers, combined with his naturally self-obsessed juvenile state, hold his family and his entire town (what’s left of it) in a state of heightened terror. When people say or think things that displease him, they end up turned into toys, exiled to hellish cornfields or worse. Remade by Joe Dante as a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon in 1982’s TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, this episode is a slice of shock without subtext, save for its in-joke to parents held hostage by bratty kids everywhere…

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THE MIDNIGHT SUN (Season Three)

Tennessee Williams meets Serling in this sweaty gem, in which society melts accordingly when Earth is thrown of its axis and begins to drift into the sun. The twist will freeze your blood, as will the climactic, rapid-cut ending with melted paintings, boiling orbs and screaming faces.

TO SERVE MAN (Season Three)

Richard Kiel (MOONRAKER) is a “Kanamit”, nine-foot tall aliens with king-sized craniums who come to earth armed only with books titled “To Serve Man,” and an agenda to feed the world and eliminate war. They do so, but once the US government cracks their literary code, their galactic tome – and their mission – takes on a far less benevolent hue. Goofy and unforgettable chiller with chilling music cues that would later be recycled in 1977’s KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS!

NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET (Season Five)

Shatner and Matheson team again for this wild episode, perhaps the most famous in the TZ cannon and a highlight of the hit-or-miss fifth and final season. In it, Shat has a nervous breakdown (again) aboard a jumbo jet when he insists he sees a fuzzy gremlin ripping apart the wing. Another expertly orchestrated nightmare that was—like “It’s a Good Life”—remade for TZ: THE MOVIE, that one starring John Lithgow and directed by George Miller (MAD MAX).

LIVING DOLL (Season Five)

This endlessly quotable TZ favorite sees Telly Savalas at his skuzzy best. The KOJACK star plays a brute of a man who treats his wife and step-daughter like trash, while battling wits with the little girl’s chatty and lethal doll, “Talking Tina”…

THE MASKS (Season Five)

The collection ends on a high note with this cruel, dark morality piece. A rich, dying patriarch insists his parasitic family don special masks on the eve of Mardis Gras, which also happens to coincide with his own demise. “The Masks” is terrifying and surreal, with the actors interacting for half the show wearing grotesque visages and a doozy of a finale. By this time, a disillusioned, almost burnt-out Serling was less interested in exemplifying humanity than he was with three-act horror and “The Masks” is the writer channeling “EC comics.” And that ain’t a bad thing!

The “Essential Episodes” collection is available now at most major retailers and online outlets for a very reasonable price. Even if you – like me – own every TZ release in every format, it’s still a nifty set to have on hand, especially if you bring new TZ converts into the fold and want to educate them on what makes the show so great.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
  • FLAVIO_FAGUNDES_FERREIRA

    it s so cool….good times dont back no more….

  • yendor1152

    Love your review, Chris! I’m old enough to have seen all of these first-run. The one I remember most particularly is “Eye of the Beholder,” because I was in the second grade and had a friend stay over that night. He was scared by the show, but not me! The only one that truly frightened me was the waxworks episode with Martin Balsam, especially the Jack the Ripper figure. I know they were played by real actors, but he looked so real/fake, it unnerved me. Still does!

  • thesphynx

    This selection is grossly incomplete without one of the four Jack Klugman episodes. The eminently rewatchable “A Game of Pool” (tense, suspenseful, and so well-written that even the alternate proposed ending would have worked magnificently) should have been included in place of the one-joke-wonder “To Serve Man”.

  • GCapriccio

    Teen-aged boy sex!

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