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September 20-26, 2006

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Cult Leader

'TZ' Marathon II

By Steve Palopoli


LAST WEEK, I covered some of the great episodes from the '80s version of Twilight Zone, per my recent TZII DVD marathon. Here are some other odds and end after rewatching the entire '80s series:

10 Good Episodes—But Not Necessarily As Good As You Remember

1. Shadow Man: The story of a 13-year-old boy with something under his bed, it was first broadcast when I was also 13, and it scared the bejesus out of me. In fact, 20 years later I could remember it scene for scene, despite having only seen it once. So why's it on the list of episodes that aren't as good as you remember, rather than in the top 10? Well, when I bought the DVD, I showed this episode to several friends, who were singularly unimpressed. I quickly realized why: the twist ending, which is the whole point in this relatively short story, is telegraphed from the very first appearance of the Shadow Man, and then repeatedly after that. Now, when I was 13 I wasn't sophisticated enough to pick up on the clues, but as an adult it is a painfully obvious flaw. This still remains a personal favorite of mine, and if I can get myself back into that 13-year-old mindset when I watch it, it's still spooky (the effects are some of the best and most seamless of the series). I also still consider it among the top five things Joe Dante has directed in his entire career. If only the acting held up better and writer Rockne S. O'Bannon had injected a little more subtlety into the plot.

2. Nightcrawlers: A stark and sober episode directed by William Friedkin, this is often cited as a fan favorite. Not surprising, since it's one of the series' more visceral stories. But the truth hurts: underneath the literal assault of this story about a roadhouse where a Vietnam vet's memories come to life, there's not much point, nor are there any surprises. As a meditation on war, it's anything but meditative, and other than the cliché that war sucks, it doesn't have anything to say. As an exercise in style over substance, though, it's impressive.

3. Dead Run: I remember liking it a lot on its first run, but this episode is pretty cheesy. It's kind of a cool idea, but it's so out there that it has to work extra hard to suspend our disbelief, even for a few minutes. Unlike "A Matter of Minutes," which has an equally bizarre premise, this one fails to do that. The acting isn't great, and the end will either strike you as noble or lame. The message comes off a little heavy-handed, as well. Still, it's amazing it was even made, and it has its moments.

4. Examination Day: A lot of people remember the twist to this one. What annoys me about it is not so much that you can guess exactly what the twist is going to be—I certainly didn't—but that it's so obvious that there's going to be a twist, and whatever it is, it's not going to be good. Even figuring that out, which you will in the first three minutes, kind of ruins it, since it makes you realize the rah-rah cheeriness which the actors affect is a façade. I don't envy TZ writers; the shell game of keeping a surprise ending a surprise gets exponentially difficult when you're writing for a show that's famous for its twists. Otherwise, a solid and thought-provoking episode.

5. The Cold Equations: Great story by Alan Brennert. Unfortunately, this is one of TZ's biggest directorial bungles. It's a tough piece in that it takes place entirely in a cramped space (in this case, a small spaceship). But compare the magic that Wes Craven worked with the similarly limited-seating "Dealer's Choice" to this, which comes off stilted and talky. Worth it for the philosophical underpinnings, no doubt. But the sci-fi genre can be deadly when it's done on the cheap and by the seat of the pants.

6. A Saucer of Loneliness: Another great story, this time adapted from Theodore Sturgeon. I try not to criticize special effects with this series, but this one looks so hokey it really messes with your suspension of disbelief.

7. To See The Invisible Man: This one is well-remembered, too, but the original and intriguing premise is brought down a couple of notches by a melodramatic tone that just doesn't seem right for the story. So many of these science-fiction-type concepts depend on a subtlety and finesse that establishes the realism. This is just too hammy.

8. The Star: A rare ep where the effects outshine the story. This episode great, and has an interesting opening, but falls flat. Some fans of Arthur C. Clarke say it's because the tone of the ending was changed to be far more upbeat than his original short story. That's probably it, though writer Alan Brennert makes a reasonable case for his right to alter the ending on the DVD commentary. Maybe either way it would have been gimmicky, but it seems like the original ending would have come off less pat and left you with more to consider.

9. Cold Reading: Another one I loved when I was a kid. Viewed 20 years later, it's a typically flawed attempt at TZ comedy. But I like the ending, and one thing I appreciate more now is Lawrence Poindexter's performance as a larger-than-life radio producer. He's actually doing a pretty good Orson Welles impression, right down to the voice. Kevin Scannell is extremely funny as the announcer.

10. Gramma: Including "Gramma" on this list will raise some hackles since it was adapted by Harlan Ellison from a story by Stephen King and includes ideas borrowed from H.P. Lovecraft. Supposedly this is a great examination of the fear of old age that lurks in most of us when we're kids. I can imagine kids being scared by this story, but the effects are so lame, it just doesn't hold up. The Ellison commentary on the DVD is far better than the actual episode.

10 Quirky Surprises—Better Than You Might Remember

1. Tooth and Consequences: This episode is definitely not for everyone. Directed by the famously maverick-for-maverick's-sake Robert Downey Sr., it's very, very strange, there's no two ways about it. But if you like your comedy pitch black, it doesn't get much darker than this. In fact, the more I watch this episode, the more I think it's a masterpiece, a morbid TZ version of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

2. The Hellgramite Method: Several of the third-season episodes suffered from low-ball production values and the cutting of corners at every opportunity. This is the only one that actually benefits from the shabby treatment. Somehow it just adds to sleazy feeling that oozes from the characters and story. This alcoholism morality play is a shocking little horror show; if more people had seen it (like the rest of the third season, it only ran in the syndication package) it would be one of those that inspire the question "Remember that one Twilight Zone where...?"

3. Acts of Terror: Some people will think the dog thing is dorky, I thought it was a clever metaphor. Domestic-violence stories are tough to pull off, but putting the name "Twilight Zone" on your show obliges you to take some swipes at social injustice. This one lived up to the name.

4. Something In the Walls: Even people who only caught the series on late-night syndication re-runs often remember this one. Everybody, I'd venture to guess, can relate to the premise of seeing shapes in the patterns of their room. That's why despite the cheese-ass effects, this is still freakin' scary.

5. A Day in Beaumont: This episode seems to annoy a lot of people. I think it's really funny. Never, I'd be willing to bet, has so many references to cult sci-fi been packed into one TV episode (there are so many that Phil DeGuere even forgets to mention one while cataloging them on the DVD commentary—the "Orson" is for Orson Welles and his "War of the Worlds" broadcast). Plus, what a great ending! Seriously, that is probably the last twist on the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" theme that hadn't been thought of yet. It's cool enough to have been a legitimate ending for a serious sci-fi film, and yet here it is in a little throwaway TZ episode.

6. The Little People of Killany Woods: Kind of a lame episode, but everybody should see it once just for the twist at the end, which mixes two genres that I guarantee you never came near each other before or since. It's refreshing in a way to come across something so undeniably original and yet, well, unnecessary. It reminds you writers really did get a unique opportunity on this show to push the limits—and that it could be fun when they went over the edge.

7. Rendezvous in a Dark Place: I call a story like this the "Twilight Zone Opposite Day Special." That is, the premise is just some common assumption reversed. Everybody fears death? OK, do a story about someone who can't wait to die. That's the set up here, and a remarkable performance from Janet Leigh as the woman who wants desperately to kick it makes this a touching and effective episode.

8. Quarantine: A good idea awkwardly executed. This one never seems to come up in conversation, but the twist is interesting and the moral questions raised here are worth thinking about.

9. The Curious Case of Edgar Witherspoon: "Cute" doesn't usually play well on TZ. But this one is cute and smart, and Harry Morgan (Col. Potter from MASH) is a hoot. A classic Twilight Zone set-up draws you in (what the hell is with that guy and what is that thing he's building?), toys with your curiosity (is he crazy or not?) and then sprints to the twist. You'll probably beat it there, but it's a fun workout.

10. A Message From Charity: I don't know how I feel about this one, really. It's a little bit goofy, but it's nice if you've been watching a lot of the darker episodes—the charming naivete takes the edge off. Plus, stories about the Salem witch hunts don't have to try very hard to be cool.

10 Total Wrecks

1. The Elevator: Easily the worst episode of the series. And supposedly written by Ray Bradbury! Is it possible that it wasn't "the" Ray Bradbury, but some total hack who happened to have the same name? Sounds crazy until you actually watch this thing. Better yet, let me tell you what happens so you don't have to: two kids go into their father's lab, where he has been researching a growth serum. They look around a lot. There is a giant spider in the elevator. That's it! Is this some kind of cutting-edge anti-art? Maybe—it does have an anti-plot and an anti-twist. Plus it's all the more painful because you assume for several minutes of its short running time that everything is leading up a point. Nope.

2. Teacher's Aide: Remember when Rod Serling bought the French film of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" to fill out a season for the original Twilight Zone? I can't help but wonder if the '80s producers bought an After School Special, added a demon, and broadcast it as this episode. Maybe the demon was already in the After School Special; that'd be pretty cool. My question is: what is this episode trying to say? Violence in our nation's public schools is caused by the Satanic mind-control influence of gargoyles? Duh! Is this the worst supernatural metaphor ever used on Twilight Zone? Duh!

3. Act Break: Play guy wishes he could write plays with William Shakespeare. He gets his wish! Think that's going to turn out well? Of course not, but they could have come up with something snazzy for the twist. Instead (spoiler warning) he has to write the Bard's plays for him! ... Oh, sorry, I fell asleep there.

4. The Uncle Devil Show: Some people like this episode; to me, it violates TZ's unspoken agreement with the viewer to hold itself to a higher standard. This episode is loud, obnoxious and ultimately pointless. The writer and director undoubtedly thought they were commenting on how television culture is loud, obnoxious and pointless, but like they say in Spinal Tap, there's a fine line between clever and stupid. This one jumps it right away and doesn't look back.

5. The Leprechaun Artist: Like Twilight Zone was suddenly turned into a sitcom for one episode. People, it's bad.

6. Devil's Alphabet: Filler of the most pointless kind.

7. There Was An Old Woman: A public service announcement about the importance of libraries would have been more entertaining than this. Actually, this is a public service announcement about the importance of libraries.

8. The Burning Man: This is the '80s TZ equivalent to the Night Gallery episode "Big Surprise." They're pretty similar in their set-up and delivery, but "Big Surprise" delivers a real punch in the end—John Carradine still freaks me out in that one, actually. This has kind of a spooky set-up (I guess), but the payoff goes on too long to keep you guessing. It leaves you asking "What's the point?"

9. The Last Defender of Camelot: Speaking of Night Gallery, this was directed by Jeannot Schwarcz, who directed several fine episodes for that show. I'm impressed that the TZ producers asked him to do something for them; I can even understand why they chose an episode like this—he was always good with costume drama. But I can't fathom why they didn't realize this script needed some serious work.

10. Personal Demons: It's not that I feel bad for me, having to watch this crappy episode with its embarrassingly obvious metaphors for the trials of the writer. It's Jawas I'm worried about. They were pretty kick-ass in the original Star Wars. Then I had to watch these lame Jawa-rip-off creatures run around in this stupid episode. Now when I see the real thing, the thrill is gone. Couldn't they have made them look like Ewoks? Everybody already hates Ewoks.


Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite '80s 'TZ' ep here.


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