Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"It's a cookbook! It's a COOKBOOK!!!"

In the previous post on Night of the Living Dead the subject arose in the comment section as to whether or not injecting social commentary or allegory into horror was a good thing. I'm not sure if there was a consensus or not, but I do not one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy/horror shows of all time, The Twilight Zone, injecting allegory and social commentary into at least 50 percent of all episodes that ever aired. And I loved it anyway.

Rod Serling wrote what he thought would be the pilot episode for The Twilight Zone in 1957 and sold it to CBS Studios. It was titled The Time Element and told the story of a man who keeps waking up in Honolulu on the morning of December 7th, 1941. He tries to warn everyone but it never works. CBS didn't like it and shelved it. A year later it was discovered by producer Bert Granet who put it on his show, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (too many "houses" in that title) and it was a hit. A year after that, The Twilight Zone began in earnest.

Some years ago there was an excellent American Masters episode on Rod Serling, shot in black and white, and bookended by Twilight Zone motifs in which Serling is rushed to the hospital on that fateful day of June 28, 1975, when his four pack a day smoking habit finally did him in. It revealed that Serling started The Twilight Zone because he was tired of every political or social statement he injected into his dramas being censored out. He knew if he made the same points with monsters, aliens and time travellers, no one would care enough at the network to censor them. He was right.

The funny thing is, most people's favorite episodes, including mine, having nothing whatsoever to do with social commentary, and everything to do with extremely cool twist endings. For instance, in that American Masters episode they break down Eye of the Beholder, the famous episode (aren't they all) where a woman is having her bandages removed after plastic surgery. No one, not even the doctors and nurses, is seen until the bandages come off. Now, after this happens, and she is revealed to look "normal" to us, and the hospital staff bizarre pig-face people, she runs down the hall and we see monitors with a pig-man version of Hitler yelling and screaming about conformity. American Masters goes on about how the episode is an indictment of conformity and Fascism and makes a bold statement and blah, blah, blah. No disrespect to Serling or The Twilight Zone but does anyone care? I sure don't. I just want to see those pig-doctors at the end. And condemning Fascism in a post World War II universe isn't exactly going out on a ledge or anything.

So The Twilight Zone never appealed to me as a Great Educator on all that was right and wrong in the world. But as a fan of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, it appealed to me greatly. Surprisingly, given the fact that most all of the episodes have a twist ending, they're still enjoyable to watch the second or third time around. There's usually a marathon every year on the Sci-Fi Channel and all the seasons are readily available on DVD. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Boris Karloff's Thriller, but that's another story. I'll leave you with some of my favorite episodes:

Time Enough at Last: That would be the one in my banner up above. Burgess Meredith survives a nuclear explosion and with everyone dead can now spend all his time reading. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

The Man in the Bottle: A pawnbroker gets free wishes from a Genie. Nothing ever goes wrong with wishes from Genie. Ever.

The Howling Man: A man hiking across Europe takes shelter in a monastery where a man is imprisoned. The man tells the hiker that the monks are crazy. The monks tell him he's the Devil. Nah, couldn't be.

The Invaders: Agnes Moorehead taking on little doll size aliens at her farmhouse. They are aliens right?

The Odyssey of Flight 33: A plane keeps going through time portals taking in and out of history. Will it ever get back home?

The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank: A man rises from his coffin at his funeral. Did a demon take control of his corpse? Nah, he was probably just sleeping.

To Serve Man: Uh, the title of this post.

Little Girl Lost: Poltergeist doesn't exist without this episode.

The Little People: Astronauts land on a planet of tiny little people and one of them decides to become their "God." I can't imagine anything going wrong with that plan.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: How could I not include this one?

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: Originally produced as a short film it was sold to and used by The Twilight Zone.

Stopover in a Quiet Town: A hungover couple wake up in a strange town. And they're the only ones there. I'm sure there's just a picnic going on somewhere that they're missing.

And there are loads more because I love so many of them. Now if only Boris Karloff's Thriller would get released on DVD I'd be happy. Momentarily at least.