The original 1959-1964 television show The Twilight Zone (dee DEE dee dee, dee DEE dee dee) was a seminal speculative drama series that defined, refined, or inspired many of the later ideas used in many different genres of entertainment. Just think, you probably sang along in your mind or out loud to my above parentheses while reading this. Bonus points if you did it as Morgan Freeman.
That said, here are five of my favorite episodes, in no particular order, of the show and why. Feel free to reply likewise in the comments about your favorite or most remembered.
#5 “The Invaders”
This episode begins at night in a drab shack that is way out in the middle of nowhere, deep in a forest. The only light comes from candles and the fire in the stove. A woman in an old dress is cooking over a stove and doing other household chores when she hears noises in her house. She has obviously been alone for years, as we can tell from the fact that she doesn’t bother to speak, so this is a surprise. We begin to get worried for her as the episode progresses, as she hears more and more obvious noises coming from the attic.
Finally, we see that the noises are coming from one or more tiny spacemen, who move clumsily in suits that make them look like the Michelin Man. As soon as she sees them, it becomes the story of them chasing after her, and firing their tiny weapons at her, which raise painful blisters, and then use other weapons they find to try and attack her. Eventually, her size advantage allows her to gain the upper hand. She kills both of them and smashes their flying saucer, which ends up being from the U.S. Air Force, as their final distress call about avoiding the planet of giants are the only words spoken in the episode. Except for Rod Serling’s narration, of course.
It’s one of my favorites is the silence and loneliness because of the setting and the action of the episode, and the fact that the decidedly unglamorous protagonist was played by Agnes Moorhead, who I knew as Endora on Bewitched. She was a stage, movie, and radio actress, known for her voice and her glamorous outfits and crazy makeup, but there was none of that in this show, just a great performance. She had to be convinced to do the role, because she did not think she could do the situation justice by only making noises. But it’s considered an iconic episode of the series.
#4 “Deaths-Head Revisited”
Ranking as one of the creepiest episodes in the entire series, this must have been even creepier at the time, when memories were still very fresh of the Holocaust. This is the story of a former commandant of the Dachau concentration camp, who has come for a visit. He reveals himself early in the show as a particularly unpleasant person, but he claims to be from South America, the rumored hiding place of many formers Nazis. It’s only a thin story, however, and he’s not particularly convincing while he tells it. He then goes to the camp, and he walks around reveling in his fond memories of the place, caressing the remaining buildings lovingly.
Suddenly, a gaunt man appears, dressed in a camp uniform. They recognize each other, and their conversation gets ever more specific about the crimes that happened there until finally, the former Nazi remembers that he had tortured the man to death as the allies neared the camp to liberate it. It’s revealed that the ghosts of those murdered there are going to put him on trial. He tries to bully his way out of it, but nobody can bully a ghost. So, he’s found guilty and sentenced to endure the pain and suffering of his many victims. This drives him insane, and he’s reduced to a blubbering mess on the ground and taken away to the asylum to endure the rest of his life.
I like this one because it’s creepy, and it gives the Nazi what he deserves. It doesn’t leave you feeling good afterwards, just somewhat satisfied about the ending. Interestingly, both of the main actors in the piece were members of famous Yiddish European acting families who had escaped to America in part to avoid the Nazis and had each lost many family members in the Holocaust.
#3 “Stopover in a Quiet Town”
After drinking too much at a party, a young couple awaken in a strange bed, in an unfamiliar house. They’re still dressed in the clothes they wore to the party, but they don’t remember how they got there. He was too drunk to drive, so his wife was behind the wheel and she vaguely remembers a shadow falling over them. He mentions that she was drinking quite a bit as well. They soon realize that everything in the town is fake. the telephone in the house isn’t attached to anything; the drawers and cupboards in the kitchen are only a façade; the refrigerator is full of prop food; even the trees are fake. The town is deserted, and she begins to wonder if they’re dead. They keep hearing a child laughing, but they cannot see anybody.
Finally, they find a train that they can take to escape, after having found that all the cars are also fake. They board the train and it leaves the station, but it makes a big loop, and they arrive back at the same station. Soon after, they find out that it’s actually a child’s playset, and they’re now the newest toys, after she picks them up in her hand and looks at them with a joyful expression and then sets them back down when her mom tells her to take good care of her pets; her father went all the way to Earth to get them.
This one is great because it’s a taut story, and it’s amazingly period accurate. They’re dressed for the kind of mid-sixties advertising executive and his wife type of cocktail party that you see in pictures of that time, and then the picking of the less drunken person to drive home drunk as a matter of course, were just fascinating.
#2 “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
This is a unique episode for the show, having been made as a French version of an Ambrose Bierce short story that Rod Serling saw at a film festival and immediately approached the creators to buy the film for a one-time airing on the show. It won an academy award for best short film, and the Palme D’or at Cannes. It was also the last episode made for the show.
The story centers around a Confederate soldier who’s being hanged at the end of the Civil War. He escapes, however, when the rope breaks as the trap door falls open on the gallows. He narrowly escapes the executioners and the spectators. He finally makes it within sight of his house, his wife awaiting him with open arms. As he runs towards her, in a long scene of many interspersed cuts, he almost reaches her when we suddenly cut back to him on the gallows as he’s hung. It turns out the entire thing was his split-second daydream as he fell to his death.
The production of the film was very well done, and the awards were well deserved.
#1 “The Hitch-Hiker”
A young woman is getting a tire blowout fixed on her car during a trip. She’s driving across the country, and she starts to see a shabby man on the side of the road hitchhiking as she travels. No matter how fast she drives the man is always up ahead, hitching a ride. He stares at her as she passes, again and again. It begins to worry her, and she begins to panic. Most of the story is told through her internal monologues as she realizes that no cars have passed her, and there’s no way the man can have gotten ahead.
She picks up a sailor who is trying to get back from leave who has to get back to San Diego just to have someone in the car with her. But the man on the side of the road keeps appearing, and the sailor begins to realize there’s something wrong happening. After she tries to run the shabby man down with her car, the sailor freaks out and tries to get out of the car. As a last ditch attempt, she tries to seduce him just to get him to stay, but the evident desperation just convinces him that she’s crazy, and he runs away. She decides to call her mother just to hear a friendly voice, but a nurse answers, and tells her that her mother is sedated because she’s grieving her daughter who died in a car accident after her tire blew out.
A calmness comes over her, as she understands that the man is actually here for her death, and his last words to her are, “Going my way?”
This episode solidifies for me what the idea behind the Twilight Zone was about: the possibility of the surreal intruding on reality, and the twist of the fantastic the can underlie the veneer that we stand on. Plus, it’s well written and well-acted.
What are your favorite Twilight Zone episodes? Tell us in the comments!