“For those of you who haven’t met me, you might call me the undernourished Alfred Hitchcock. The great British craftsman and I do share something in common: an interest in the oddball, a predilection toward the bizarre. And this place is nothing if not bizarre, by virtue of the paintings you see hanging around me.”
When I mention the name Rod Serling, I’ll bet that The Twilight Zone is the first thing that pops into your head. And why not? It would be very hard, indeed, to argue against the impact that The Twilight Zone has had on television. To say that the series was a milestone in that medium would be an understatement of the worst kind. When Rod Serling brought his landmark series to CBS in October of 1959, television was still very new. No one was quite sure what the future held for that magical box. For five years Rod Serling would enter our living rooms with the most bizarre tales we’d ever seen. But no matter how exotic and strange the stories might appear on the surface, Serling always brought our own humanity into vividly sharp focus before it was over. When the series had run its course, we didn’t hear much from Serling for over a decade. He continued writing, of course. His screenplay for the 1968 Planet Of The Apes would lead to record-breaking at the box office, but Serling’s home was always that magical box, and it didn’t take long for him to find his way back.
“You’re most welcome in the particular museum. There’s no admission. No requirements of membership. Only a strong and abiding belief in the dark at the top of the stairs or things that go bump in the night. This is The Night Gallery.”
Serling developed an idea for another television anthology series. This one would lean more toward the horror genre but still touch upon many of the same themes he broke ground with earlier. He called it The Wax Museum. The idea is that he would introduce the stories through the wax figures in this ethereal museum and use the theme to create a unifying theme for the stories. He shopped it around but had trouble finding any takers. He was pretty much about to give up on the idea when he joined with Jack Laird. Laird had cut his television teeth as an executive producer on the early 1960’s medical drama Ben Casey, starring Vince Edwards as the young heartthrob doctor. He later produced several Bob Hope television specials, and he was the one who saw the potential in Serling’s idea. But he tweaked it a bit so that instead of rather costly wax figures, the stories could be introduced with paintings, and so instead of a wax museum we would be invited into a Night Gallery. Serling agreed to the changes and took his place as writer and host of the new show. It wouldn’t quite be another Twilight Zone experience for him, however. He had to give producing control to Laird, who made him submit his stories and often rejected or changed them. Serling would no longer be the guy in charge. He’d just be the front man, and while the collaboration brought some classic television, the show never lived up to the hype or expectations that The Twilight Zone would create. Night Gallery would always live in the shadow of The Twilight Zone, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand. Now Kino has brought the shows back and with, like many of Serling’s own tales, a bit of a twist.
You see, The Night Gallery didn’t last as long as The Twilight Zone. It ran for two full seasons and a very short 6-episode first season. That left a total of only 52 episodes, well short of the 75-100 required for syndication. There was money to be made, but it came at a huge cost for anyone who was a fan of the series and hoped to catch them again in reruns. The original episodes ran an hour in length. For syndication that was cut to a half hour, so now there were over 100 episodes. The problem was how they made the stories fit the new format. During its prime run, the hour featured anywhere from 2-3 stories. They, of course, varied in time from just a handful of minutes to over 40 minutes each. To create the half-hour episodes, stories had to be broken up and teamed with different stories than originally appeared. That wasn’t so bad. What hurt was they still had to both chop episodes and fill others. The chopped episodes often removed important information that now completely changed the story. The additions were even worse. Using the Irwin Allen school of production, Universal took clips from unrelated films and other properties and started to fill short episodes with material that often made no sense at all. These discs include a feature that gives you the breakdown of some of the worst of these decisions. Early video releases gave these re-edited episodes, so it’s been quite a while since anyone has really seen the show exactly as it aired starting in 1969. Kino has recreated these original episodes, and that alone makes this collection a must-have for your video library.
Because of Serling’s rather frightening but sterling reputation, the series brought the best actors of the day to these stories. The guest list for this second season alone reads like a who’s who of 1970 film and television stars. Just to mention a few: Vincent Price, Bill Bixby, Ray Milland, Bernie Koppel, Leslie Nielsen, Michael Constantine, Joseph Campanella, E.G. Marshall, Desi Arnaz, Jr. , Randolph Mantooth, James B. Sikking, James Farentino, Batman (Adam West) and Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), Arte Johnson, Patrick O’Neal, Wally Cox, Pat Boone, Rudy Vallee, Larry “Frank Burns” Linville, Orson Welles, David McCallum, David and John Carradine, Fritz Weaver, Susan Strasberg, Patty Duke, Cesar Romero, Carl Reiner, Lindsay Wagner, Bob Crane, John Astin, Forrest Tucker, Jo Ann Worley, Alex Cord, Cornelius (Rodney McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), Rene Auberjonois, Ross Martin, Edward G. Robinson, Zsa Gabor, Yaphet Kotto, Tim Matheson, Brock Peters, Werner Klemperer, Elsa Lanchester, Pernell Roberts, Joe Flynn, Cameron Mitchell, Harry Morgan, Norman Lloyd, Randy Quaid, Jill Ireland, Julie Adams, Buddy Ebsen, Jack Albertson, Geraldine Page, Joel Gray, John Saxon, Mark Hamill, Barbara “Black Sunday” Steele, Richard Thomas, Lana Wood, Cloris Leachman, Cesar Romero, and the producer Jack Laird himself.
Serling didn’t have the same kind of power, but he fought for several things on the show. He always loved giving young directors their first shot. Here Steven Spielberg is practically a teen just out of film school when he directs an episode for the series. Jack Laird directed the largest number of the shows, and Rod Serling contributed the largest share of the stories. Writers also featured Twilight Zone standout Richard Mathison. John Astin from The Addams Family directed a few episodes, and his famous wife Patty Duke starred in one while pregnant with future Hobbit Sean Astin. Many directors also shared their talents on the original Star Trek like John Meredyth Lucas and Leonard Nimoy.
There are some standout stories in the second season:
Tell David is one of the show’s best future prediction episodes. It deals with a character, David, played by Fantastic Journey’s Jared Martin as a genius inventor. One of his inventions is the ability to map out driving directions from a computer screen. You just tell it where you want to go and it gives you a route on a displayed map. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could do that today? One of the more famous episodes is The Caterpillar. Steven Macy is played by Laurence Harvey. He’s contracted to help a British couple on their research in a remote tropical location. He falls in love with the wife, played by Joanna Pettet, and plots to kill the husband, played by Tom Helmore, with an earwig. The local variety get into one’s ear and dig into the brain causing agony, madness, and finally death. Unfortunately, the earwig ends up in his own brain, and Harvey’s performance of the agony is pretty remarkable. There’s a typical Serling twist, and it has stood the test of time as well as any of these episodes has. The Different Ones calls back to Serling’s Eye Of The Beholder with almost the same story but with a happier ending. The Messiah On Mott Street is one of those moving stories that completely lost its heart with syndicated cuts. Edward G. Robinson in one of his final roles plays a sick grandfather who tries to teach his grandson about miracles which come in the form of Homicide: Life On The Streets’ Yaphet Kotto with a young Ricky Powell playing the grandson with enough faith to seek out the Messiah. Finally, Sins Of The Father includes the most dramatic performance I’ve ever seen out of Richard Thomas, who plays a boy taught to be a sin eater during the Dark Ages. Barbara Steele was coaxed out of retirement to play in this one. Most of the episodes are pretty low-budget, but this one spends a few extra dimes to create one of the more atmospheric episodes of the series.
The collection features the first time the second season is available on Blu-ray. You get all 22 episodes in their original broadcast forms. Extras include the feature on the syndication changes, bonus unaired pieces, and an audio commentary on pretty much each episode. Many episodes have multiple commentaries, enough to keep you busy enough until the third and final season gets the same treatment. If that’s not enough to keep you busy, just remember: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times: go easy on the vermouth!”