Rod Serling is a name many associate with The Twilight Zone. A classic anthology series that dives into the psychological aspect of human kind through science fiction. It made a lasting impact that spans generation after generation with timeless messages and the ability to sneak pass taboo subjects one would never suspect to see. After Twilight Zone‘s run, Serling was itching for another series that would act as an extended successor to his famed sci-fi series. The result was something spine-tingling, but also mismatched and tied with a campy ribbon.
Night Gallery was a compromise between network and producer control to the point it feels similar to the famed Twilight Zone, but different. Here, the tone of the stories go for more dark fantasy targeting the supernatural and occult. Unfortunately, it never became the series Serling hoped for considering the clashes between the show’s intended psychological tone and Producer Jack Laird wanting to go in a different, lighter direction. There is still enjoyment to be had as a third of the scripts were written by Serling himself and some segments are worth checking out. While none had the timeless feel or haunting flavor of the Zone, Night Gallery offered a good bulk of variety.
Each episode, with the exception of season 3, are an hour-long and each segment varies in length. Some range between 10 to 20 minutes long while wrapped around with 2 to 5 minute comic “blackout” sketches. With the advent of DVD, we have the ability to jump around the see these segments on their own or perform a mini-marathon of the ones we are more curious in.
For those who want a better idea of what Serling’s true vision of the show could have been, it’s best to turn to the full-length TV movie which served as a pilot. The feature length episode harvested three stories which echoed a lot of Serling’s trademarks from the ghoulish concept to the haunting twist ending. The general consensus is that only the first two segments are good, while the last one is really weak. To which I say, they are very right.
The first one titled “The Cemetery” stars Roddy McDowall as a greedy relative that subtly murders his uncle for the estate. However, a certain painting of the house shows a cemetery nearby. Every time the relative passes by, the image keeps changing. Sometimes, it shows a coffin rising up from the grave while other times it shows a corpse walking to the house. The performances in this one are really good as McDowall starts to question his own sanity and it builds to a great double twist.
A good start is followed-up with “Eyes” which has Joan Crawford as a shrewd millionaire that is blind and longs to see again. She goes as far to blackmail a doctor to perform an illegal procedure to restore her sight. Not a strong segment, but Joan’s performance as the heartless lady and a lot of the technical work makes this one stand out. Many fans remember it more for being the debut of Steven Spielberg’s directing career. Every shot is just pure eye-candy and handled very well from the lighting and even the build-up when the woman’s sight is restored. And what she gets in the end is so well-deserved, that it must be seen to be believed.
Lastly, “The Escape Route” is probably the weakest one to conclude on. A Nazi fugitive is on the run to escape from his brutal past. He engages in some paintings which are used as a literal open window. Somehow, he has the ability to enter one without any given explanation. His sights are set on a painting that allows him to boat down a calm river, but he ends up on a different path. It’s a very paper thing concept that doesn’t go anywhere and it feels underwhelming compared to the previous segments. Nothing is established about this “transportation” power and there’s not much to support it either.
While the TV movie has its share of moments, the series itself is worth a nice binge watch as well. With the clash of different tones, some stories work and others don’t. Sometimes they offer a good shock while others feel like a watered down Charles Addams cartoon. Each one still offer a nice range of variety and some replay value here and there. To give a rough idea of the different macabre Night Gallery has to offer, here is a short list of the episodes I personally recommend seeing:
The Dead Man – A hypnotist has the ability to make a young man look sick with a simple trick. He attempts to use a certain incantation to make it look like he’s dead, but is unable to bring him out of the trance. It also doesn’t help there is an affair going on between the hypnotist and his partner’s girlfriend hinting a possible revenge, until you learn the magic man might not have used the right cue…
Little Black Bag – Burgess Meredith plays a drunk hobo that used to work as a doctor, but is slumming the streets with his money hungry friend (Chill Wills). They come across a black bag from the future that has medical equipment far more advanced than anything in the modern era. The doctor wants to use it for good while his friend prefers to exploit the advance medical kit for fast cash. It’s a great argument over what is best for the greater good and what’s best for your own needs.
Certain Shadows on the Wall – A brother is haunted by the shadow of his dead sibling who is cast upon the wall. Every time he tries to paint it over, it remains unchanged. A nice twist on the “Tell-Tale Heart” story with some great build up.
They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar – Clocking in at over 40 mins, this is the longest Night Gallery segment, but also the most sentimental of the bunch. Written by Rod Serling, a plastic sales director endures his twenty fifth anniversary of employment with sorrow. Meanwhile, a local bar, he used to attend, is being torn down as ghosts start to form every time the guy passes by. It serves as an open window to what this guy’s life was like as he wishes to revisit the past and do things different. Themes like this have been explored in “better” Twilight Zone episodes like “Walking Distance.” However, this is an exception for the bittersweet ending and some great character moments between our protagonist and the modern world he is not accustomed to.
The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes – A young Clint Howard plays a boy who has a own TV show where he gets to correctly predict the future. His powers are unlimited as he can address things from upcoming natural disasters to missing people being discovered. But what happens when you get an apocalyptic vision and don’t know how to address it to the world? As far as child acting goes, Clint does a great job playing the charming, yet innocent feel of his character. He knows how dangerous his powers can be and is left with the hard choice of know how to deliver the worst of bad news knowing how consequential it will be.
Phantom of What Opera? – One of the shorter segments that’s worth seeing just for Leslie Nielsen’s performance as the Phantom of the Opera. His appearance in the series pre-dates his first comedic performance in Airplane! so you can see it first here. Not much else to say except its a short but funny recommendation.
The Flip Side of Satan – Arte Johnson takes on a one man performance as a disk jockey assigned to a station in the middle of nowhere. He’s given records to play that contain organ music and strange sounds without any indication of who the listeners are. It’s hinted he had an affair with his agent’s wife and contains an ego so inflated to the point he hangs onto his radio legacy dearly. But as it turns out, there’s something stranger afoot when the radio station won’t let him leave…
Silent Snow, Secret Snow – Narrated by Orson Wells, this is one of the most unique adaptations of Conrad Akin’s story about a kid’s fight to keep his imagination alive. He can’t focus in school and feels distant from his family every day. All he can think about is snow and daydreams it constantly. Not one of the easiest stories to adapt, but they nail it perfectly here.
A Question of Fear – Leslie Nelisen takes on a serious role as a man who claims he’s cured of fear. This is taken into a bet where he has to spend the night in a haunted house and faces all sorts of strange events. I won’t say anything else about this one, except that for everything that happens, there is a logical reasoning to its occurance. The double twist at the end will really leave you speechless.
Brenda – One of the most bizarre “Beauty and the Beast” stories about a quirky girl that befriends a monster. The creature looks like a shaggy Snuffleupagus crossed with Swamp Thing, but we feel some kind of a connection between these two. On first watch, I was bewildered by the off tone delivery. After much thought, I’ve come to see it as a nice metaphor for growing up and entering adulthood. It’s not a good segment by any means and it can get weird, but it ends on a charming note that’s enough to recommend.
Hell’s Bells – A short but amusing segment were John Astin (original Gomez Addams) plays a hippie who gets in a car crash and is sent to Hell. While in the waiting room, he anticipates the usual fire and brimstone, but is in for a shock to learn not everyone’s view of the dark place is really the same…
Pickman’s Model – A great adaptation of the H.P Lovecraft story where an artist creates ghoulish paintings of a monster in each of them. A student of his art class grows fond of his macabre style and tries to know him better. This one is notable for the Emmy-nominated special effects as the creature seen here is actually made from the same molds as those used for the Creature from the Black Lagoon costume. A true hair-raiser about the dangerous value of life imitating art.
Cool Air – Another perfect adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft classic. A scientist has found the secret to extend life beyond death, but has a certain problem. The man has a certain condition where he has to be contained in a room that needs to be below 50 degrees freezing. A woman takes fancy of him, despite the cold temperature, and you really feel the chemistry between these two. It makes this segment’s ending all the more tragic when you see the most gruesome reveal on why he’s encased himself from the world outside. It’s beautifully shot, brilliantly acted and concludes in a very bone-chilling manner. My absolute favorite of the series.
The Sins of the Fathers – In one of the most unsettling of the Night Gallery stories, a bunch of peasants in the Middle Ages seeks for someone to be a “sin-eater” for their funeral. Basically, they make a huge feast, in representation of the dead one’s sins, and said “sin-eater” has to consume all the food in front of the dead corpse. It all boils down to a hungry teenager who is unsure how to act it out, seeing he is new to the “business.” And personally, I will just leave it at that. The overall experience of watching this one is really uncomfortable knowing how much famine and plague existed during this time period. And yet, everyone sacrifices what tasty goods they have for this one ritual they entrust their belief in. There’s also a gut wrenching twist at the end which I dare won’t give away that adds to the lesson there are some fates worse than death we are bound to in life. Surprisingly, the cast and crew go out of their way to create such a shocker, even right down to using a lot of money for the sets and costumes. In the end, it’s well worth it. Only recommended for those with a literal strong stomach.
The Caterpillar – A British man wants to escape his boring life, but finds it more dull than before while staying in a Southeast Asian country. He schemes to get a neighbor he lives with murdered, so the “widow” he lusts can be his. Arrangements are made to get a killer earwig placed in his rival’s ear, but unfortunately, the deadly insect ends up with the wrong person. I won’t say who gets the thing, but this segment is a true testament that what scares us are the things we don’t see. There is never an image of what this “caterpillar” looks like, but a great description and tons of gruesome make up work convince us how much pain the victim is going through. This one will make you think twice about the bed bugs at night.
All in all, Night Gallery is imperfect at times. But when it knows to deliver, it really can. What really depends on a good series is a great writing team and creative ideas. I can’t say everything about this anthology series was A+ material, but it knows when to be entertaining. Give this series a watch and judge for yourself.