Every episode of the original 1959-1964 The Twilight Zone is streaming on Netflix; realizing this gave me one of those moments of thinking, “wow, we have so much culture available to us at the click of a button”… even though often we end up watching American Idol anyway.
A couple months ago I got the whole family to watch “Walking Distance,” apparently J.J. Abrams’ favorite all-time episode, an exceedingly melancholy one that the girls found a bit too slow and sad, I think.
Last night, inspired by the obituaries of writer Richard Matheson (who also wrote numerous sci-fi classics including I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man (on which The Incredible Shrinking Man [and Woman] were based), I decided to call up a couple of his classic episodes.
First we watched his famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring a handsome, young, non-jowly William Shatner. Shatner plays a man, Bob Wilson, whose wife has fetched him from a post-breakdown stay in a mental hospital. His previous breakdown occurred on a plane, so this plane-ride back home is tense; the episode begins with their boarding the plane and trying to settle in for the ride. There are of course some amusing circa-1960 air travel details, e.g. she scolds him for lighting up during takeoff; you have to wait until airborne to smoke in the cabin.
The story is simple: Bob looks out the window and sees a strange creature, a Sasquatch/ Yeti, furry ape humanoid-type, prowling around on the wing.
Is he seeing things? Or could there be something to this seeming hallucination? There’s not much more to it. As is often true on the show, the special effects and costumes are somewhat risible; the “gremlin” (as Bob refers to him, seeming to be thinking of WW2 aviator lore) looks to be covered in a fuzzy plush rug, and it’s hilarious when he gets very obviously lifted up by a wire and zips off backwards into the air (with a hint of a wave, or am I imagining that?). According to Wikipedia, Matheson himself complained that the creature was basically “a surly teddy bear.” And yet… the effect is quite uncanny and disconcerting. The scariest moment is when, having pulled back the curtain, Bob wincingly forces himself to draw it open again to check, to find the creature’s face pressed right up to the window/ our t.v. screen.
I kind of leaped and grabbed both Celie and Iris, who didn’t react as strongly as I did (they did find it scary, though). As you can see, the gremlin is pretty definitely racialized, with exaggerated lips and nose and a bit of a cliché “witch doctor” appearance, especially in this closeup.
I won’t give away the ending; the show concludes with a typically overwrought voice-over spelling out the final irony & twist: “For, happily, tangible manifestation is, very often, left as evidence of trespass– even from so intangible a quarter – as – the Twilight Zone.”
Next we watched another celebrated Matheson episode, “The Invaders,” featuring a superb, mostly silent (aside from some moans and other wordless vocalizations) Agnes Moorehead as an old lady who lives alone in a cabin, without electricity or power, in the middle of nowhere. She’s preparing an inexplicably enormous pot of soup (I was sure this would have to play some role in the plot, following the Chekhov dictum– the pot seemed too over-sized not to serve a purpose, but it did not) when she hears a strange crash and a series of electronic beeps from her roof. She climbs up with her lantern and finds a little spaceship — resembling a kid’s paper mache art project– from which a couple tiny silver wind-up toy spacemen come toddling out. The rest of the episode features her battle with the “invaders,” armed only with an enormous wooden spoon (!– guess you need that to handle that amount of soup), a hatchet, and a blanket that she uses effectively at one point to catch up one of the guys and smash it to pieces on a table.
The big final irony/twist/reveal on this one is kind of silly, yet sort of thought-provoking in that Twilight Zone way. (It has a Planet of the Apes element to it.) But what makes the episode is Moorehead’s over-the-top, hyper-expressive, silent-film-style performance. (And the great black and white cinematography.)
Iris declared as we began that she has never in her life had any nightmare or bad dream inspired by a movie or t.v. show- haven’t had a chance yet to ask if this broke her streak.
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