It’s hard to watch Night Gallery and avoid comparing it to The Twilight Zone, not just because TV pioneer Rod Serling created both, but because of the marked difference in quality and in Serling’s level of involvement. Twilight Zone, even in the lesser episodes, always contained kernels of wonder or brilliance, and always a terrific opening monologue by a sharp looking and debonair Serling, who introduced every story, no matter how silly, with the loquacity of a Dickens narrator. In the openings for Night Gallery, a more careworn and disheveled Serling appears noticeably less enthused, dispassionately introducing the segments with rather vague synopses and referring to the artworks in the gallery as objets d’art but pronouncing it “objects dart”.
It comes as no surprise that Rod Serling had less affection for this venture than his original program, over which he had almost full creative control. That lack of executive power ended up tainting his vision somewhat, and nowhere is this more evident than in Night Gallery’s second season. Here, producer Jack Laird introduced the short, comedic “blackout” segments that would punctuate the longer, more serious shorts, a move that Serling detested. They diminish the gravity of the show’s legitimately frightening and sometimes poignant storytelling. Occasionally, though, they create moments of unintentional eeriness. One such segment entitled “The Merciful” (Episode 2) does a bait and switch joke where an elderly woman enclosing her husband behind a brick wall, à la “The Cask of Amontillado,” through a shift in camera perspective, turns out to be walling herself up so as to spare her husband from seeing her die. It’s a throwaway bit of gallows humor that ends up being an effective and disturbing vignette.
Aside from this, the shortest of the segments really don’t merit engagement and would have been better off not being included. And yet, they’re there, solidified forever in TV history. Most of them, unsurprisingly, were written by Jack Laird and directed by either he or Gene Kearney, a recurring collaborator on the series. The best segments, also unsurprisingly, were written by Rod Serling. The season premier begins with Serling-penned “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes”, directed by John Badham, most known for Saturday Night Fever and Short Circuit, and starring a very young Clint Howard. Despite the talent behind it, “The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes” is rather weak, only memorable for the ending which, in a most Twilight Zone-esque fashion, builds irony into the events preceding it. The boy predicts world peace and an end to suffering, and then a nuclear war breaks out. There will be peace and no suffering, but only when humans have wiped themselves out.
Badham directs two more episodes in the season, both written by Serling: the sillier but far more entertaining “Green Fingers” (Episode 15), a Creepshow type segment that features character actor and B-movie legend Cameron Mitchell as an unscrupulous real estate tycoon who pays the price for trying to run a magical gardener (Elsa Lanchester) out of her house, and “Camera Obscura” (Episode 12), the best of the three. Rene Auberjonois plays a callous moneylender in the 1920s who, upon visiting a mysterious client with a camera obscura machine, gets transported into his own private hell for misers.
Aside from Badham, Serling’s best collaborations are with Jeannot Szwarc, a prolific TV director with an obvious cinematic flair. The first of their collaborations, “Death in the Family”
(Episode 2), stands as the season’s first quality short. E.G. Marshall plays a reclusive and lonely mortician who unexpectedly finds himself harboring a wounded fugitive played by Desi Arnaz Jr. When the fugitive hides down in the basement, he discovers Marshall has created his own family out of preserved corpses. Another standout, “Midnight Never Ends” (Episode 7), has a fascinating conceit where a woman and a hitchhiker are trapped in a time loop, but experience it only as a kind of strange deja vu. An eerie sense of what comes next plagues them and the people they encounter. They never come to learn that they’re characters in a story being continually rewritten by a frustrated author. Finally, “The Waiting Room” (Episode 18) feels the most like a Twilight Zone episode, featuring a group of bandits in an 1800s western saloon which also exists in a time loop, dooming them to repeat their violent deaths at the stroke of each hour on the clock. A classic Sartrean premise beloved by Serling.
Of course, a few episodes manage to be notable without the involvement of Serling or regular directors like Szwarc. “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay” (Episode 3), written by Alvin Sapinsley and directed by William Hale, has some great occult imagery. When a college professor meets his wife’s aunt, he suspects her of being a witch. Despite the effects being dated, or maybe due to that fact, an unsettling quality pervades this short perhaps more than intended. Less dependent on effects and more poignant than frightening, “The Dark Boy” (Episode 10), written by Halstead Wells and directed by John Astin (yes, of The Addams Family), tells the story of a schoolteacher newly arrived at an insular farming community in the mid-1800s who encounters the ghost of a little boy. It feels like it could have been a Halloween special for Little House on the Prairie. Another single location short, “The Tune in Dan’s Café” (Episode 15) has co-directors Gerald Sanford and Garrie Bateson creating some of the most interesting filmic sequences for the entire season, using disjointed flashbacks, close up photography, and slow-motion to depict the doomed relationship between a bank robber and his lover, crystallized by a haunted jukebox that repeats the same country song that played during the culmination of their deadly affair.
As choppy as Night Gallery can be, there’s always added interest because of the guest stars, many of whom had more glamorous careers in the Golden Era and moved to more television appearances later on, some of whom would go on to be prolific TV actors. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (Episode 5) based on a popular short story by poet laureate and Pulitzer winner Conrad Aiken, benefits greatly from narration by Orson Welles. The story, which concerns a perpetually distracted young boy dissolving into a wintry fantasy and disengaging from reality, may be one of the most well-remembered segments on the show. The excellent Edward G. Robinson stars alongside Yaphet Kotto, of Alien fame, in the heartwarming “The Messiah On Mott Street” (Episode 13), another Serling-penned short that would have fit well in The Twilight Zone. Finally, a pre-Waltons Richard Thomas gives a delirious performance in “Sins of the Fathers” (Episode 21) as the son of a “Sin Eater”, a man in a plague-ridden medieval village who “consumes” the sins of dead men.
While The Twilight Zone was Rod Serling’s baby, Night Gallery can be considered a dark horse. Flawed, sometimes messy, but capable of greatness. An obvious affection exists for it, as best exemplified by the amount of attention received by TV scholars and other creators. Every disc of this release contains a slew of commentaries, sometimes more than one per episode. A particular draw may be the fact that Guillermo del Toro does several of them. He happens to be the best commentator of all the historians, experts, writers, and directors. He possesses impressive knowledge of actors and general film history as it relates to the episodes and combines this with wonderful analytical insight and warm recollections of the show from his childhood. It not only builds greatly on the experience of watching the show but makes for some fascinating indirect illustration of the influences in del Toro’s work.
In addition to all of these commentaries, Kino’s release contains featurettes of actors’ recollections of working on the show, the actual paintings in the gallery with artist Tom Wright, and a ton of old TV spots. Since the only other format the show comes in is Universal’s featureless DVD release, Kino has given us a definitive version. | Nic Champion