by Bill Breedlove
Time has not been kind to NIGHT GALLERY. Then again, no one has really been kind to NIGHT GALLERY. People dissed it back when it was original, Stephen King dissed it pretty good in DANSE MACARBE, heck, even Rod Serling dissed it, and he created it, hosted it and wrote a bunch of the episodes! If famous for anything at this point, it is for its pilot being recognized as containing Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut (in a completely ridiculous episode starring a hammy Joan Crawford as a really mean rich lady who gets a “highly experimental” eye surgery to restore her sight. Of course, since she is such an unpleasant person, the EXACT moment she removes her bandages, there is the most convenient Complete-and-Total-Solar-Eclipse since A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT, and, well, it’s not pretty.).
In fact, the Spielberg episode is not really memorable at all, and is crushed like a grape by the episode entitled “The Cemetery” which features Roddy McDowall as a hip, swinging ladies man (!) who is stifled in his endeavors for a life of leisure by his crotchety old uncle, on whom poor Roddy is financially dependent. He lives in crotchety old uncle’s stuffy mansion, right down the road from the derelict graveyard, and his crotchety old uncle’s butler (Ossie Davis!) pretty much doesn’t dust anything except for the really creepy painting of the crotchety old uncle’s mansion and aforementioned graveyard. Well, if you said crotchety old uncle makes the transition from mansion to graveyard fairly quickly, you’d be correct. Roddy doesn’t get much chance to indulge in his inheritance, though, as the creepy painting begins to change, first showing the earth being moved from a fresh grave (guess who’s freshly-dug grave???) and then a dark figure climbing up out of the grave and gradually—each time Roddy encounters the painting—moving inexorably closer to the house. Only marginally ruined by a ill-advised “double-twist” ending, this is a pretty freaky thing to be on prime time TV, especially in 1969.
(If that premise—a picture subtly changing as a menacing figure advances slowly but surely—it’s probably not because you were thinking of M.R. James’ great story “The Mezzotint,” but rather one of the several Stephen King riffs on this theme—both “The Sun Dog” (haunted Polaroid!) and, even more similarly, “The Road Virus Heads North.” Hmmm, and after writing unkindly about NIGHT GALLERY to boot! Shame on you, Stephen King!!!)
Anyway, the point of all that bothersome “by way of background” is to reiterate that NIGHT GALLERY rarely gets any good press, especially compared to THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which is constantly being lauded. (Although, to his credit, Mr. King does point out some of the shortcomings of the vaunted TZ in his commentary in DANSE MACABRE). Now, don’t get me wrong—I am not bashing THE TWILIGHT ZONE (at least not in any great detail). The comparisons between TZ and NG are not entirely fair, and, I think to a large extent influenced by casting rose-colored (or, more accurately, B&W-tinted) glasses on THE TWILIGHT ZONE because it was from that “golden age” of TV. Although both series had Rod Serling scripts and Rod Serling intros (perhaps the greatest “narrator” voice ever), it still is like comparing apples and oranges.
THE TWILIGT ZONE was more social commentary coated in “fantastical” tropes and NIGHT GALLERY was pretty much horror with occasional social commentary thrown in (usually in Rod Serling-penned episodes). Of course, TV was a different animal in the 1970s than it was in the 1950s and early 60s. But, the comparison-contrast is another argument for another time. Here’s what’s really important:
NIGHT GALLERY scared the everlovin’ shit out of me.
Certainly, not every episode, not even close. But now, even to this day, just hearing that theme music while watching an episode on Hulu, still has an almost Pavlovian effect on me—I’m back being a scared little kid in his Chicago Bear footie pajamas, staying up late to watch the show on late night reruns. (I don’t think I actually recall ever watching an episode of NIGHT GALLERY on it’s initial run—it’s possible, but I don’t think so. I do have a fuzzy memory of the Gary Collins goofy psychic show THE SIXTH SENSE, which alternated with NIGHT GALLERY, and knowing whenever I saw that dude, the evening’s show was gonna be a stiff, but, again, I think that was on rerun. Sorry, Gary.)
Since we have referenced Stephen King’s beatdown of NIGHT GALLERY a couple of times, I am going to offer my amateur analysis of why he found it so lacking—he was just a bit too old. If he watched the original run of the shows, that was 1970-1973. Mr. King would have been in his early-mid 20s, which may be a bit out of the sweet spot demographic. (Plus, at that time, wasn’t he working several different jobs and writing on the side? If he did have any time to watch TV, he was probably tired and grumpy, which could explain even more…)
However, as a little kid, I was the perfect audience.
It’s easy now, in the 21st century, to go back and find a lot that stinks about NIGHT GALLERY—the cheap costumes, the poor acting, the obviousness of every episode being shot on Universal’s backlot (my favorite example of this occurs in the episode “Lagoda’s Heads,” –written by Robert Bloch(!), based on an August Derleth short story—when a paunchy Patrick McGee and an extremely young Tim Matheson (complete with hilarious fake 70s porn star ‘stache) go trouping through the “jungles of deepest Africa” which are quite obviously the sunny hills of Southern California, which is bad enough, but then they have keep playing the same canned “elephants trumpeting” clip every 30 seconds or so.), and the bottom-basement special effects—but at the same time, it is also somewhat astonishing the level of horror fiction they were adapting for TV. Many, many famous horror tales—“The Ring with the Red Velvet Ropes,” “The Devil is Not Mocked,” and on and on, plus selections from authors like Basil Copper, Richard Matheson, and H.P. Lovecraft.
H.P. Lovecraft. Think about it for a minute. Someone was actually doing serious adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft stories ON PRIME TIME TELEVISION! It wasn’t THE TWILIGHT ZONE, it wasn’t THE OUTER LIMITS, it wasn’t even Boris Karloff’s THRILLER.
It was NIGHT GALLERY. That alone should count for something.
In fact, one of the more surreal moments one can enjoy is viewing one of the lesser “knock off” episodes, entitled “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture.” The episode itself is an extended set up to a not very funny punchline. But, it features an earnest Carl Reiner (channeling his best Peter Straub impersonation), and—without a doubt, the most amazing chalkboard ever seen on network television:
Not only does the chalkboard feature most of Lovecraft’s beloved Old Ones, but Reiner reads aloud from a certain text and—don’t groan, but appreciate the inside joke—refuses to heed the warnings of one of his students: a “Mr. Derleth.” Again, THIS WAS ON PRIME TIME NETWORK TELEVISION.
“Mannix in a shroud,” indeed.
Over the course of the 90-plus episodes, there were plenty of fillers—“Junior” perhaps being the most crappy—but there were also moments of stark raving terror. Or, more to the point, moments where someone watching had to shake his or her head and say, “How the hell did that get on TV?” Essentially, a “WTF moment” before “WTF” had been coined.
So, (as Mr. Serling would say), “presented for your enjoyment” are the top ten just plain WTF moments from NIGHT GALLERY. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you don’t want to know the “twists” or surprises in some of these episodes, then stop reading now, go purchase the DVDs here or watch the episodes for free on Hulu here.
(**In order to view Hulu videos, you may be required to watch one or more short commercials.**)
OK? All caught up? Then here we go:
10. The Air Conditioning Fails in “Cool-Air.”
The first of numerous H.P. Lovecraft stories adapted for NIGHT GALLERY, this is a fairly well-known story. Actually, plot-wise it bears a marked resemblance to one of the famous episodes, “Pickman’s Model” which was also based on a HPL short story. In both of them, an innocent woman befriends an odd fellow who is very courtly, but also adamant that his certain “rules” be obeyed. Such as “don’t try and find out where I live UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.” Of course, the innocent lass tracks down the eccentric chap to his rooms, with the predictable disastrous results. In the case of “Cool-Air” there is, of course, a reason the mysterious Dr. Munoz keeps his flat at the uncomfortable (for his lady friend) temperature of 56F, utilizing a rudimentary air-conditioning system. Again, remember that it helps to be watching this not knowing what is coming—meaning not having read the source material. After a power outage during an exceptionally inconvenient heat wave, as well as vain deliveries from the iceman, our hapless heroine (played by Barbara Rush) breaks into Dr. Munoz’ now-warm (and one would imagine, rather malodorous) flat and discovers, in a shock cut this:
I mean, WTF is that? Talk about a nasty surprise. That’s pretty graphic for 1970s TV, and coming from a quiet story with no action prior, it’s pretty horrific. I still remember the jolt when that flashed on the screen. Then, when “Cool Air” would be come on again, I would run and hide at the end, to try and avoid that particular shot. Yes, I was a gutless sissy.
9. “Brenda” turns out to be a love story.
“Brenda” is one of the oddest episodes of NIGHT GALLERY ever aired. (which, thinking about it, is saying something). Based on the short story by Margaret St. Clair (who was a pretty interesting lady—her Wikipedia bio lists some of her interests as “witchcraft, nudism and feminism.” Even more importantly, she also wrote the exceptionally nasty short story “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles,” which anyone who is familiar with ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S terrifying MONSTER MUSEUM anthology—which is basically an entire book of “WTF are these stories doing in a supposed kid’s book?—will remember for not only the story’s creepiness, but the completely freaky accompanying illustration), “Brenda” is about a completely unpleasant little girl (the actress admittedly looks a little long in the tooth to be portraying a “little girl”) who lives on a island and has no friends. Exactly zero friends. This is one of several NIGHT GALLERY stories that play on childrens’ feelings of loneliness and the fear of being left alone, either by parents or friends (another one, THE BIG SURPRISE, approaches this from a somewhat different angle, as we will see shortly).
Being friendless, Brenda has plenty of time to wander aimlessly about the island, and encounter the “monster” of the story. Actually, it’s not much of a monster—but that’s the point. The creature is kind of like a giant, hulking moss man, who sort of shuffles around. At first she is terrified of the monster, and it sort of pursues her in a very slow and roundabout way, but she is easily able to escape it. And, after a fashion, she forms a sort of bond with the thing, talking to it and actually wanting to befriend it. This further touches on so many childhood issues—fear of being friendless and alone, as mentioned before; finding a “stray” and befriending it, only to ultimately lose the stray due to childhood helplessness. Any kid who has ever found a sick animal and brought it home only to have the entire episode end badly (especially after becoming attached to said animal in distress) would certainly empathize. The adults of the island, upon discovering the creature shambling around, attempt to kill it with rifles, to no avail. So, they end up burying it under a large pile of rocks in a pit. At this point, you might be expecting either a) the creature to escape and kick some major monster ass; or b) Brenda to help her friend escape to kick some major monster ass. You would be a) wrong and b) wrong. Instead, Brenda comes to the pile of rocks representing the monster, and promises to love it forever, and come back next year and let it out, and, once again, love it forever.
(NOTE: JUMP TO 48 mins to see scene)
WTF is that? It might sound boring and hokey here, but it you watch the entire episode, it is actually quite devastating. On the “weepy factor scale” it’s certainly no OLD YELLER (or even BRIAN’S SONG, for that matter), but it does pack an undeniable punch. Much kudos to the actress who plays Brenda—Laurie Prange—for not trying to make the character a typical sympathetic “misunderstood” kid. She really is a rather unpleasant little girl, which only makes the relationship (imaginary or not) she develops with the creature that much more wrenching. Pretty heady stuff for a “monster show.”
8) Oh, THAT’S the “OTHER WAY OUT.”
In case you didn’t know, NIGHT GALLERY got a huge dose of “Fuck You” from the network—NBC—for virtually its entire run. For the first season, NG was a one-hour show that alternated with three other shows, each one showing an episode one week, then another show the next week and so forth. Meaning, if you were hoping to see a NIGHT GALLERY episode, you had to wait four weeks between telecasts. Way to build an audience there! When people somehow actually still remembered to watch the show, NBC decided to order a second season. Most of the good stuff on NG comes from this second season, when NG actually came on every week instead of once a frigging month. (Although, to be fair, this is also when there was the most filler—the vampire coming to the blood bank to “apply for a loan,” Death removing his skull as part of doffing his hat when a woman enters the elevator, and other side-splitting time wasters—appeared). After the second, uninterrupted season, the geniuses at NBC, apparently appalled that nothing had been done to fuck with NIGHT GALLERY in a whole year, decided to change the format in season 3 to half-hour episodes. (Or perhaps they were really pissed about the unfunny PHANTOM OF THE OPERA spoof with Leslie Nielsen). In any event, NG switched format again, this time to mainly showcasing one longer tale that took up the entire 30 minute running time.
By this time, as well, it was apparent Rod Serling was getting pretty frosted with all the interference from the network. Because he famously didn’t have the control of NIGHT GALLERY that he had enjoyed with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, he sorta checked out, limiting most of his enthusiasm for lobbing grenades at NBC in the press about the direction of the show. At this point, it seemed like NBC was only paying Serling to rent his name to plaster on the opening credits and to introduce the paintings in the greatest example of unhappy narration until Harrison Ford has to make up a bunch of totally nonsensical shit at the end of BLADE RUNNER.
And, you had to know season three was going to suck even if you didn’t listen to the theme music (more on that in the next paragraph), because someone took the brilliant idea of having a narrator (who was NOT Rod Serling) intro the evening’s “guest stars” and having their images (moving images from the episodes) come up into an empty painting frame. This is about as silly as it sounds, and was put to much more appropriate use a few years later when ABC introduced the “guest stars” each week on THE LOVE BOAT in a similar manner, except they were enclosed inside a giant Captain’s Wheel.
Perhaps worst of all, for season three they inexplicably changed from composer Gil Melie’s iconic theme to a new, almost-unbearable-to-listen-to one by Eddie Sauter that sounds like a herd of hungry feral cats running around in an orchestra’s instrument room, along with a mildly retarded child blowing fitfully into one of those plastic “recorder” flutes they let everyone rail on in grade school. Christ almighty. (NOTE: All themes can be heard at the official Night Gallery web site)
However, the 3rd season did have a few pretty decent episodes, and one of those was “The Other Way Out.” The reason “The Other Way Out” works so well is that it is essentially an exercise in suspense, drawn out to the very last moment of the 30 minutes allotted. The set up is simplicity itself: Ross Martin (Artemis Gordon from WILD, WILD WEST!!!) plays Bradley Meredith, a cad responsible for the death of a young woman—the evocatively named “Marilou Doubleday”—a “Go Go Dancer” he had apparently been having an affair with and who was slain one month previously. Meredith returns from a coincidental vacation with his wife that started right after the girl’s body was discovered, and immediately begins receiving cryptic notes in childish block printing that indicate that whomever is sending them knows of Meredith’s guilt. He is directed to bring a bunch of money to a secluded location at 11pm or suffer the consequences. (only 12 miles from San Bernardino!). He brings a gun and comes upon an isolated farmhouse and a kennel of wildly barking dogs. (Although they show snarling German Sheperds leaping at the gate of the kennel, the “dogs barking” track they keep looping sounds like toy poodles) Meredith meets a highly eccentric old man, who is none other than Burl Ives, very very far away from his animated-snowman singing “Silver and Gold” days here. The old man tells Meredith that when “Sonny” gets back, he is gonna be real mad at Meredith for murdering his sister. Of course, Meredith had brought a gun, but Pops Ives has his hillbilly shotgun (they are, after all, “12 miles form San Bernardino”) and, anyway, Meredith uses all his bullets trying to escape back to his car, even though the dogs have been released. He shoots many of the dogs at point blank range, but the barking loop never changes and Meredith runs back to the house, now begging for mercy. Ives tells him that Sonny isn’t the type for mercy, and so on, causing Meredith to panic, at which point the old man tells him, there is another way out. Meredith searches and finds a secret compartment behind the fireplace, and proceeds along the dusty corridors, all the while the disembodied dulcet tones of Burl Ives keep warning him what Sonny is gonna do when he gets back, which should be “any minute now.”
Whipped into a fever pitch, Meredith stumbles across a trap door and opens it, revealing a rope ladder leading into the darkness. Deciding to take his chances in the dark and finding the “other way out” he begins descending the rope ladder, only to have it collapse and dump him to the floor of what is not an escape tunnel, but a small empty room, with the opening impossibly high overhead, which really doesn’t matter since he apparently broke his leg in the fall.
The reason I am describing this episode in such a detailed fashion is to attempt to pass along a sense of the suspense building. Ives comes along and pulls up the remains of the ladder, and then announces that “Sonny” has arrived…and, in twist #1, Sonny turns out to be a little boy with a really bad 70s bowl haircut. Meredith can only laugh at this, but it gets worse. Ives merrily informs their unhappy guest that he promised to take Sonny to Disneyland, and then maybe some fly fishing, so they will be gone probably a month or so, and Ives is a man of his word, so he has to take Sonny. Meredith calls him a liar, saying Ives told him there was another way out, but there wasn’t. Ives replies that his word is always good—and Twist #2, throws down one lone bullet for Meredith’s gun—“the other way out.”
WTF kind of ending is that? The double-twist! The audience is still trying to get their heads around that the kid is in fact the fearsomely advertised Sonny, and then this—it’s almost not fair. Never having read the source story by Kurt van Elting, still have to say that’s a pretty nasty conclusion. One of those stories where you’re left thinking about what if it were you in that miserable hole in the ground? How long would you hold out? How hungry and thirsty would you get? How many days and nights in complete darkness, just screaming your throat raw for no one to hear—while that rotten kid and his sly old grandpa are riding “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”. WTF!
7) Something REALLY fishy happens in “Lindeman’s Catch.”
Here is yet another NIGHT GALLERY episode that examines what happens when an unloved, lonely individual comes up with something—or someone—not from this world. (It’s uncanny how often this theme seems to pop up in NG). This time, instead of a loner teen girl like in “Brenda” we get a crusty old sea captain who is none too popular on the docks (and, apparently, at the one dockside bar where all the other fishermen hang out). Lindeman is content to drink alone and be as crusty as a crusty sea captain can be when he is played by Stu Whitman.
Then, since this is NIGHT GALLERY, he captures something interesting in his net: a mermaid.
This development doesn’t sit well with the other fishermen—they think it’s a bad sign and want him to throw her back to where she belongs. But, as the doctor helpfully explains, Lindeman has finally found someone—something—he can care about, maybe even love.
To make matters worse, said mermaid is slowly dying, apparently really not able to acclimate to the world out of the sea. Again, his cronies strongly urge Lindeman to just throw the poor thing back, but he is too stubborn to do so. After pleading with the doctor who says there is nothing the medical profession can do for her, Lindeman is desperate.
Oh, and I forgot to mention Suggs. He is apparently the seaside town’s village idiot/vagrant/bum. At the beginning of the episode, he is laying out cards to tell fortunes in the saloon, but since he is apparently dealing out a mean game of Solitare with a standard issue 52 card deck, it’s pretty easy to see why some of the hard-case sailors might be a bit dubious about his skills in, as he puts it, “the soothsayer’s arts.” But, he is tolerated by the other patrons. When Lindeman comes in, however, Suggs offers to use the cards to tell his future, or to look upon the fisherman’s palm, or read his tealeaves, or even avail him a “magic potion” from his stash of ancient bottles. Lindeman throws the cards—and poor Suggs’ face—into the spittoon, showing both what a mean old douche he is, and setting up the third act, when Suggs reappears to offer him a “guaranteed” cure: “by seven bells, she will walk on two legs.” You can tell that Capt. Lindeman is really desperate, since he is now entrusting everything to the one guy he used to beat up and stick his face in a spittoon. You can just imagine how this is going to end.
Well, next morning at 7, Linedman practically leaps into the hold of his ship to check on the mermaid, and as he slowly rolls the blanket up, we’re treated to the longest, lovingest shot of shapely female gams outside of a Nair commercial. Lindeman runs out in joy to exclaim to the rather skeptical other fishermen (all three of them) that a miracle has occurred, and when they clearly don’t believe him, he calls her up to walk out on the deck and show everyone she is human now. Bad move, that.
For, technically, Suggs’ magic potion has indeed worked as advertised—she is indeed walking on two legs.” Alas, she still is half fish, and thus it is revealed in a truly “WTF moment”:
(NOTE: JUMP to 20:15 for fish face)
Thanks, NIGHT GALLERY for the free nightmare.
6. Jewelry turns deadly in “A Feast of Blood.”
Again, we have an example of the uncanny ability of NIGHT GALLERY to mine some shred of total creepiness out of the sum of less-than-perfect parts. A very beautiful young woman (the exquisite-early-1970s Sondra Locke) is encouraged by her dotty mother to accept the ardent attentions of the somewhat slimy Henry Malloy, even though they both know she is really in love with the (unseen) John. As Sondra sums up perfectly: “Horrible Henry—small and soft and repulsive as a slug. There’s something not quite right about him.” File that under the “Truer Words Never Spoken” category.
Nonetheless, she allows her mother to force her into another “date” with Henry, in advance of which he has sent a dozen red roses and a small jewelry box as presents. The mother can scarcely contain her glee as she vicariously enjoys all this expensive attention, and opens the box, revealing perhaps the single creepiest piece of jewelry ever seen.
(Although, I have to provide credit where credit is due: among the many things I learned in watching NIGHT GALLERY, one was the existence of a piece of jewelry called a “broach,” a fact I took full advantage of with all of my mom’s friends, who undoubtedly found it amusing that a grade-schooler would cavalierly compliment them on their “fine broach” when calling on my mom.)
This “broach” appears to be some type of hedgehog complete with actual hair, an exceptionally long proboscis and HUGE red eyes. Since it seems fair to assume Sondra is not a Goth club kid, there is no way—ever—she would favor such a piece of jewelry, but, if she put it in her drawer, I guess we wouldn’t have much of a story, so off we go, with little Mr. Spooky Hedgehog pinned to the lapel of Sondra’s coat with a nice stickpin and chain ensemble.
Anyway, Henry, who, as played by Norman Lloyd, indeed does quite adequately fit Sondra’s description to the letter and exudes a sort of low-rent George Sanders oiliness, does take her out to dinner, where it is revealed that she doesn’t care for him and plans to “take her chances with John.” Henry does not seem perturbed in the slightest with this potentially devastating news, asking her instead about how she likes her new broach. He dutifully explains how the broach is a representation of a half-mouse/half bat creature (of course) that, if he just removes the chain and stickpin holding it on the lapel of her coat, will still cling to the coat with its “prehensile feet” (wacky science alert!).
By now, anyone who had read Richard Matheson’s short story “Prey” would be pointing out the huge enormous alarm bells going off all over the place—one does not remove chains and stickpins from creepy figures unless one wants to dramatically shorten one’s lifespan. Even though it would still be a few years until “Prey” was forever immortalized in “Trilogy of Terror,” everyone sitting at home in the audience is nodding their heads together, thinking “this can’t be good.”
Sondra and Henry leave the restaurant and he relieves the chauffeur of his duties to drive her home himself (for some reason this episode is set in an England of indeterminate age—people dress and act like present day, but also there are some characters who appear to have wandered in out of Dickens novel). They have one last final argument—hilariously, he calls her a “peacock”—and then he pounces on her with one of those close-mouthed-rub—faces 1970s kisses, at which point she screams to get out of his car—even though, as Henry notes, she is 3 miles from home with only the dark woods to walk through. Hmmmmm.
What’s really interesting about this so far, is that really neither of the characters are sympathetic in the slightest. Sondra’s character is the very definition of haughtiness, and Henry is every bit the “repulsive slug” as advertised. As an audience, we’re sort of confused as to who we should be rooting for at this point. Although, since Sondra presently has the creepy broach clinging with its “prehensile feet” to her coat and is about to commence a long walk through the dark woods, I think it’s fairly safe to assume we know she is moments away from collecting her paycheck and going on to a future with Clint.
Indeed, as she walks through the woods, one of the cleverest use of film tricks is used to increase the menace. First we get a long shot of her walking toward the camera with the broach halfway up her lapel. Next is a shot from behind, showing her walking in the dark woods. We cut back to the perspective of the first shot, and now the broach has moved a few inches up her lapel. That is the kind of bargain-basement ingenuity that I adore. This is repeated a few more times, until the broach has climbed as close to her neck as it can and still be on the coat. So, it’s time for part two: on the next cutaway, it is revealed the broach has grown from the size of a small mouse to a rat. And, then it keeps on growing.
Watching Sondra Locke wrestle with the final, football-sized creature is extremely amusing, but that levity is quickly ended by the next shot, showing the creature hungrily advancing on the camera, with its horribly huge eyes reflecting the moonlight as it gets closer and closer…
(JUMP TO 46:35)
WTF is that? Even with the two comedy-relief dimwits and the subsequent cheesedog ending with Henry at a bar giving the broach to another haughty beauty, the frightening spell of the bejeweled Hedgehog (not a Ron Jeremy reference) lingers.
5) NIGHT GALLERY goes all-in with “Pickman’s Model”
Even though “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” garnered the awards nominations and is frequently cited as the pinnacle of NIGHT GALLERY’s run, in retrospect the real centerpiece of the show’s run was an episode adapted from a famous H.P. Lovecraft short story, “Pickman’s Model.”
In a way, this makes perfect sense—Lovecraft’s story is, after all, about a tortured artist who paints the most horrible canvases of unspeakable creatures—frequently featuring the unspeakable creatures carrying off human women. For a show set in a creepy art gallery, this couldn’t be more perfect. Someone at the network must’ve felt the same way, since they decided to blow the budget on this one in creating the monster.
How do I know this? I remember way back when this episode first was set to air, the venerable publication TV GUIDE did a two page photo spread on the creature. Two pages in TV GUIDE! You can guess how often TV GUIDE featured anything remotely “monster-related,” so I was speechless with delight. I even saved the copy of TV GUIDE in stash of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND trove of important periodicals I needed to keep (sadly, all long since departed).
And, to NIGHT GALLERY’s credit—they really tried to do a good job on the entire episode. They got a “real” actor—Bradford Dillman—to portray the tortured Pickman, and they let the story unfurl at the perfect pace. It strikes the perfect balance of gradually building menace with the payoff at the end. The painting for this episode might arguably be the best of all the NIGHT GALLERY creations, and the other Pickman paintings are pretty awesome as well. It is also the only episode (aside from the three pilot episodes) where the painting is actually featured in the story.
I can remember being HIGHLY satisfied with this episode when I first viewed it (including the great ending). However, watching it now, many years on, I have to confess that the weakest part now may in fact be the creature itself.
As explained, these creatures are some sort of hybrid, with elements of man and…rats (hence the tail—although lacking the “prehensile feet” from the Killer Broach episode). Whatever their genealogy, the mask created is appropriately scary, with the red and yellow eyes. However, the decision of selecting a small-in-stature stuntman to play the creature means that everyone—even the damsel in distress—towers over him in their scenes together. As a result, the supposedly terrifying creature comes across as a sort of an unfortunate cross between one of the flying monkeys from THE WIZARD OF OZ and one of the Sleestaks from LAND OF THE LOST.
Especially considering how truly monstrous the paintings in this episode are, the final creature is a letdown. But, still, for what one was seeing on network TV, it’s pretty memorable. Plus, again, another prime-time H.P. Lovecraft story. I mean, how many years has it been now since a H.P. Lovecraft credited work has appeared on prime-time network TV. Indeed.
(JUMP TO 21:51 for monster)
4. All Hail “A Fear of Spiders”
This may be the single most well-written NIGHT GALLERY episode. In fact, (with one HUGE squeaking exception), this may be the best NIGHT GALLERY episode period. All the pieces are in place: the two leads are “Justice,” played by Patrick (CHAMBER OF HORRORS) O’Neill, who, along with Jack Cassidy, had the coolest “middle-aged guy” vibe going back in the 70s and “Elizabeth” portrayed by the unbelievably awesome Kim Stanley (who was more famous as a Broadway than film actress, but she was the narrative voice of Scout in the film version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD; the director is none other than John Astin, moonlighting from portraying Gomez on THE ADDAMS FAMILY; the great, exceptionally disturbing painting (see above); and a can’t miss story—I mean, what could be creepier than not just spiders, but multiple, GROWING spiders?
And, for the most part, this actually works really well. Well, at least up until the Big Disaster. (which we’ll get to).
O’Neill is a “gourmet critic” who is working on one of his columns as the episode begins. Between his fancily-augmented typewriter, elaborate telephone, splashily decorated apartment (especially when contrasted with Elizabeth’s) and fussy air of fastidiousness, it seems like he was meant to be seen as fabulously gay in a 1970s context. Perhaps that is one reason he constantly spurs the increasingly strident advances of his upstairs neighbor, Elizabeth. (He alludes to asking her out to dinner a few times out of simply “being neighborly”).
He dismisses her no less than five times in the opening scene, each time a little more mean than before, finishing with the snippy “Elizabeth, take a pill, count sheep or fix yourself a club sandwich!” In an episode rich with easily the best dialogue of the series, she delivers this from the other side of the door, which he has just unceremoniously shut in her face:
“I dearly pray that someday—someday—you’ll need someone, you’ll be helpless and need someone and love and affection…I hope so.”
Considering that she is dressed in a long black skirt and black shawl and choker that practically screams “I’M AN EFFING WITCH!!!” you know this isn’t going to end well for Justice.
Sure enough, soon he notices a dripping faucet in his kitchen, and, upon going to fix it notices a small spider crawling in the sink. He distastefully washes it down the drain. (Since this apparently was in the pre-PETA days, it seems that several spiders gave their lives in the service of this dramatic production—there are at least three spiders washed down the sink, including a hapless tarantula, so animal lovers beware.)
Hearing the sink dripping again, Justice goes back and now the spider is not only back in the sink, but it is significantly larger. This progresses as you would expect, up until the WTF moment that keeps this episode from being a perfect classic. Justice, fleeing the spiders in the kitchen, opens his bedroom door… is confronted by this:
(at the 10:40 mark)
Okay, if you’re done laughing, go back and watch it again so you can laugh some more and get it out of your system. Predating the rug-covered Volkswagen in THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION by a few years, this still might be the least-convincing giant spider in cinematic history—especially when combined with the inexplicable “cheeping” or squeaking sound. WTF.
However, that shouldn’t detract from the overall elegance of this episode. As has been pointed out several times previously, many of the best NIGHT GALLERY episodes—“Brenda,” “Lindeman’s Catch,” even, to a certain extent, “A Feast of Blood” are primarily about loneliness—specially the affect that has on the characters and what lengths they will go to achieve some kind of connection. What’s so clever about this episode is that it’s obvious aim—to start out with Elizabeth as the pitiful,—and, let’s be honest—unattractive sad sack begging for attention (or, at least a little human compassion)from the more attractive Justice and then have the shoe be on the other foot at the end. But, it’s in the dialogue that this is so expertly realized.
Early in the episode, Justice is being dismissive to Elizabeth, which prompts this exchange:
Elizabeth: “Why are you so cruel?”
Justice: “I’m not cruel, Elizabeth, I’m refreshingly blunt.”
And then, later when he is begging her to shelter him, since his apartment has suddenly become Spiderville USA:
Justice: “Now, you’re the one who is being cruel.”
Elizabeth: “No, not cruel, just refreshingly blunt.”
Even better, at one point, she tells Justice “You don’t understand women” which is a variation on the famous, devastating last line of THE WINSLOW BOY (and I bet I am the only person ever to compare a NIGHT GALLERY episode about giant squeaking spiders to a Terence Rattigan play), and it is used to similar devastating effect here. However, it is Elizabeth’s anguished declaration that sums up the message of this (and, again, many of NIGHT GALLERY’s best episodes) tale:
“I dearly pray that someday—someday—you’ll need someone, you’ll be helpless and need someone and love and affection…I hope so.”
3) The Big Surprise
From one of the most nuanced messages (yes, “nuanced, even though hidden with a large helping of giant spiderness) in an episode, to an episode that has every bit of subtlety and nuance cheerfully removed, we proceed to “The Big Surprise.” Written by Richard Matheson, based on one of his short stories, this is yet another perfect example of the kind of no-frills nightmare installation he perfected and practiced for 50 some years.
By the way, did I mention he is one of my idols and I got to meet and hang out with him (and his awesomely cool son, RC)in Burbank a few years ago? Oh, look:
(NOTE: Picture credited to Nanci Kalanta. Thanks, Nanci!)
OK, now that I feel like Sports Illustrated’s Peter King posting photos of himself eating lunch with Roger Goodell, we can continue.
There’s not really much to say about “Surprise.” It’s a very simple tale—a bunch of kids decide that there is treasure buried in a creepy farmer’s field, because the farmer (played by—who else?—John Carradine) tells one of the kids if he digs there he will “get a big surprise.” You think this is gonna end happily? Even the painting manages to be horrifying while at the same time evoking Tabonga in "FROM HELL IT CAME".
And so, like many Richard Matheson tales, this one proceeds in about the straightest line one can draw from start to finish. Part of what makes his stories so elemental is that, in their brutal simplicity, they carry the weight of timeless fairy tales—the ones where the kids get eaten in the woods, and grandmother eats Little Red Riding Hood just because.
What is so astonishing is that, if we use our own common sense, we know that “The Big Surprise” is ridiculous, that everything about this scenario (including the “big surprise”) makes no sense at all. And, yet, we are helplessly glued to our sofas as the kids dig and dig and keep digging and the sun dips lower in the sky and the crows caw and caw and then the rest of the kids give up to go home and have dinner, leaving one boy, all alone, with the darkening sky and the wind blowing the leaves and the dead tress look like skeletal fingers and the crows cawing and then his shovel strikes something…(whole episode begins at 28 minute mark, “big surprise” at 38 minutes)
WTF??? Who puts this kind of thing on TV where any kid can stumble along it? Thanks—again—Mr. Matheson for the lost sleep.
2. Thankfully, “There Aren’t Any More MacBanes” or Joel Grey Illustrates the Challenges of Responsible Pet Ownership
In many ways, I feel like this episode is very similar to “A Fear of Spiders” in the following:
a) Great Cast: Joel Grey, Howard Duff, and Mark Hamill(!), as “Francis the delivery boy”
b) Great writing, teleplay by Alvin T. Sapinsley, based on a short story by Stephen Hall
c) Creepy painting (look at the magician/warlock’s face)
d) Totally crappy special effect that almost—but not quite—ruin the whole thing.
“MacBanes” is probably the story I remember most from NIGHT GALLERY, at least the kernel of it. As with many of the NIGHT GALLERY great episodes, it can be summarized fairly succinctly: Young member of the MacBane clan is at college studying what his “rich old uncle”—his only living relative—considers “pointless drivel.” Uncle tells him to study something more practical or he is “cut off forever” from the family fortune. Something that has eyes like the taillights of an old Chevy Impala and growls/grunts like a cross between a rabid gorilla in heat and a cranky mountain lion does in the rich uncle. Then the real fun starts.
Young MacBane, played by an exceptionally energetic (and very young himself) Joel Grey, realizes that he has, using the diaries of a long-dead ancestor, conjured up a demon that has been at the service of the MacBane family for centuries. Gradually, MacBane’s closest friends get the headlight/growling treatment, until only his best friend remains. That friend, Elle, barely escapes when the creature comes for him at his apartment building and emergency stairway. So, he goes to MacBane who is holed up in the family mansion, and, apparently completely insane. It is here that MacBane relates the story of the family’s personal demon, and how it comes “scratching at the door like a dog” every night and how—even though it does the murderous bidding (in fact, that’s all it can do—murder) of the MacBane who summoned it, it also is “hatred and jealously incarnate” and seeks to similarly kill all those closest to that MacBane. (You’d think that the ancestor MacBane would have helpfully gone back and put this troublesome information at the beginning of his accursed diary, to possibly prevent his as-yet-unborn ancestors from calling up the wretched thing in the first place).
Alas, MacBane the youngest states that the written declaration of his ancestor—the wonderfully named Jedidah—to attempt to destroy the creature, along with the subsequent abrupt end of diary entries indicates that the thing killed even its master. So, there pretty much is no way to stop it, and did I mention that it happens to “come about this time every night, scratching at the door like a dog?”
Up ‘til now, this has been an exceptionally riveting bit of television. They wisely (VERY wisely, as we are about to see) have kept the creature off screen for the entire episode, except for the red-light eyes, the mad growling and, in the penultimate attack on Elle, some most unfortunate rubber “monster gloves.” Still, the combination of the build-up and Joel Grey’s outstanding performance—he seems as if he really believes all this hocus pocus—we are right there, on the edge of our seats, when the demon breaks down the door.
And that’s where they lose the ballgame in the bottom of the ninth.
The monstrous demon turns out to be a lady who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West, who holds her rubber monster hands up over her head while they put a red filter on the camera lens and (inexplicably) play the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN “I’m-using-my-bionic-powers” sound effects (ching-ching-ching-ching, na-na-na-na.) Disappointing demon arrives at about the 49:00 mark
To put it mildly, WTF?
1) The Doll
Ok, just look at this:
I shouldn’t even have to write anything else. Just that photo might be the most classic WTF of all time. What were they thinking putting something like that on network TV during prime time? Or, for that matter, AT ANY FREAKING TIME?
Without about doubt, this is the most disturbing NIGHT GALLERY episode EVER. If you disagree or are unsure LOOK AT THE FREAKING PICTURE AGAIN.
I’ll be honest with you—I’ve been putting off writing this part of the column because I didn’t want to look at that damn picture again. That rotten doll has given me more nightmares than just about anything.
In fact, this whole stinking episode is one giant, sustained WTF.
In this instance, the painting may be the least terrifying component of the episode. It is based, of course, on one of Algernon’s most famous stories, “The Doll” but is heavily modified and a new ending is tacked on also. However, the basic ideas from the story remain the same. Let’s break down some of them and examine why this is so horrifying for children:
1) The episode is about a killer doll. Most, if not all children, at some point believe their toys are, in fact, alive. It’s natural, just about every kid does it. So, let’s add the idea that your toys might indeed be alive, and also that they might want to kill. Sleep well.
2) By biting. Yes, that toy you have sleeping on your bed or on the chair may in fact have a huge set of choppers and want to tear into your flesh in the dark. Sleep well.
3) Oh, and that bite is poisonous. Even if the doll doesn’t rip your throat out, even if it just nips you on the finger, you’re a goner. Sleep well.
4) Oh, the doll also talks and tears apart the other toys—with its teeth. Ok, at what point did we pass “nightmare overkill” and enter into the realm of “you’re going to need therapy”?
5) Just in case you forgot, here it is again:
If you don’t think this is off-the-charts majorly messed up, plumb crazy fucked up industrial strength wrong and terrifying, then we live in different universes.
There’s plenty more to this episode: Henry Silva playing a Hindu assassin (Henry Silva was kind of the Anthony Quinn of TV and low budget movies in the 1970s and 80s—he could play just about any ethnicity, but I don’t believe he ever before (or ever again) wore a turban. And, don’t forget the sneaky twist ending. Even the sneaky twist ending gives me the willies, so I ‘m not even going to discuss it further.
That doll is the single most frightening thing ever on a network TV show. Look again at that photo, and then compare it to the famous Zuni Fetish Doll from TRILOGY OF TERROR. No contest. How about those creepy elves from DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK? Not even close. I’d like to track down Jewel Blanch—the actress who portrayed the little girl in the episode—and see if carrying around that disgusting doll onset made her spend a few years in therapy.
(THE DOLL can be found at the 31:35 mark)
Anyway, there you have it. If you have any NIGHT GALLERY WTF moments you think I may have missed, please add them in the comments selection. If you want to watch “The Doll” (and, remember, it’s not the episode entitled “The Doll of Death”), then bless your heart.
(NOTE: More info and history of Night Gallery can be found here. And all episodes can be found on Hulu.com)