Five for Frightening: 5 Essential “TWILIGHT ZONE” Episodes!Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Fangoria Staff
Although the world can be a scary place at times, Rod Serling turned to genre storytelling to help make better sense of it all with THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Whether it be tales of philosophical horror or a chance to view different perspectives via high concept spectacle, THE TWILIGHT ZONE means a lot of different things to different people, with few ever sharing an absolute favorite among the show’s five-season run. So for this week’s Five for Frightening, FANGORIA asked five unique voices in the horror community about their essential TWILIGHT ZONE episode…
Jerry Smith (Senior West Coast Correspondent, FANGORIA; Writer/Director – LOVE IS DEAD)
Season 3, Episode 37: “The Changing of the Guard”
This episode, rounding out the third season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, has been and will always be an important one to me for a variety of reasons. As an outsider in my youth, I didn’t have many friends, and I the ones I did have were always found within the pages of Stephen King and Clive Barker novels. During fourth grade, I was sent to the principal’s office for bringing a backpack of King novels to class and distributing them to various classmates. I guess one parent wasn’t impressed when their daughter brought a paperback of THE TOMMYKNOCKERS home instead of THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA.
In my sixth grade class, two years later, I was given the best thing an impressionable and curious child be given: a teacher who looked beyond the weird drawings and odd stories I’d create, and would do her absolute best to instill in me that dreams are not only okay, but encouraged. Mrs. Snapp was a teacher who took guff from nobody, yet was so into teaching and being a true teacher, I could tell that if she saw one of her students years down the road in a bad situation, she’d take care of business.
How this all has to do with “The Changing of the Guard” and my reason for picking said episode is simple. The episode sees Dr. Loomis himself, Donald Pleasence, as an aging teacher who feels like he hasn’t reached any of his students, though he’s tried, year after year, with no seeming results. One afternoon, he’s called into the Headmaster’s office and just when Pleasence’s character is under the assumption that he’ll be back, ready to teach and hopefully reach a student, he’s instead given dismissal papers, letting him go from a job he’s carried his entire adult life and with the urge to stay at home and retire.
Later on in the evening, he grabs a pistol and decides to kill himself, due to his assumption that, throughout his entire life, he’s never reached a single soul. While outside, he hears the school bells ringing and enters his class to find a group of boys whom he had taught throughout his career. Each boy is deceased, whether in Iwo Jima, from scientific radiation or a multitude of other reasons, and all of whom tell the teacher that it was because of his words and lessons that they all learned bravery, courage and honor.
Humbled by this, he heads home, and accepts his retirement, knowing that though he might not be responsible for their actions and bravery, but his lessons helped shaped each man. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking story of the effects that our teachers and educators have on us all.
Michael Varrati (Screenwriter – TALES OF POE)
Season 5, Episode 25: “The Masks”
To pick an individual episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE as a stand-out or favorite is no small task. Serling and Co. literally redefined the zeitgeist on a weekly basis, and many of the show’s beats are ingrained in our pop culture knowledge. Like most fans, I’m prone to ZONE-induced hyperbole, declaring every other episode to be “the best” or “my fave.” However, as with most things, I’ve never quite forgotten my first.
Now, whether Ida Lupino’s “The Masks” was actually my first episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is debatable, but it’s most assuredly the one that brought the show to my awareness. This is due largely in part to the impression the episode left on my mother, who had seen it as a young girl and was left shaken by its garish ending. On occasion, she would recount her own version of the story (usually when I was picking out a Halloween mask), leaving me both delighted and terrified in equal measure.
A quintessential tale of just desserts, “The Masks” utilizes TWILIGHT ZONE’s morality tale structure, but serves it with a heaping helping of gallows humor. When a dying patriarch calls his greedy family home to visit him on his deathbed, he requests his guests don gruesome masks before he reveals who will inherit his fortune. However, when it’s discovered that there’s more to the horrifying visages than meets the eye, it seems as though the patriarch may have the final triumph over his family’s avarice. Set during Carnival, “The Masks” echoes Poe’s THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO, utilizing the celebratory setting as the stage for the ultimate act of revenge. Deftly directed by Lupino, “The Masks” dips even further into the realm of horror than the show usually treads, but it ultimately works for the episode’s conceit. Truly one of the greatest “punishment fits the crime” twists, the episode’s outcome will have you cheering for the dying patriarch’s victory, all the while cringing at the grisly fate of his family.
Furthermore, to say that “The Masks” feels like an early blue-print for models later adapted by EC Comics/TALES FROM THE CRYPT/CREEPSHIW would not be too far off the mark. The episode delights in its punishments, and the characters are portrayed as so comically vile, you just know they’re going to get what’s coming to them. Atmospheric and Gothically whimsical, Ida Lupino’s direction shines, making “The Masks” a truly stand-out episode in a whole series of stand-outs. Also, I would be remiss to not give a further hat tip to Lupino, who was the only woman to ever direct an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Although gender bias is still very problematic in the film industry today, Lupino was proving way back in 1964 that horror wasn’t just a boys club and that the world could use more ferocious female filmmakers. A masterful episode from a truly iconic filmmaker, “The Masks” is the ideal viewing choice while getting dressed for your Halloween party this year. Just don’t be surprised if your costume is a little bit harder to take off at the end of the night.
Dick Grunert (Writer/Director – THE TRAP, Writer – HOUSECALL)
Season 2, Episode 15: “The Invaders”
One of my fondest memories growing up is watching reruns of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. One of our local stations in Milwaukee would run TWILIGHT ZONE and THE OUTER LIMITS every Saturday afternoon. I’d kill time playing with my toys, anxiously awaiting that two hour block of classic sci-fi television.
I especially loved THE TWILIGHT ZONE. There was something about Rod Serling’s series that really captured my imagination. My favorite episode was “The Invaders,” written by the brilliant Richard Matheson and starring Agnes Moorehead as a mute woman living all by herself in a dilapidated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. A miniature flying saucer crash lands in her house, and she spends the entire episode battling the tiny spacemen. There’s virtually no dialogue, and the story plays out like a demented silent film, elevated by Moorehead’s grunt-filled performance and the spooky score composed by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith.
And then, when you get to the end, Matheson and Serling pull the rug out from under you! This is where I learned what a twist ending was, and it’s something I try to do in all of my short films. I even thanked Rod Serling in the end credits of my short THE TRAP.
I still stop and watch THE TWILIGHT ZONE when I stumble on an episode while flipping channels or when Syfy is having one of their marathons. But I will never forget those Saturday afternoons back when I was a kid living in Wisconsin, where for a short while every weekend, I’d be transported to another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind…
Josh Millican (CryptTV, Horror Journalist)
Season 5, Episode 3: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
Fear is a funny thing. As a horror fan, I delight in the artificially-induced jolts of fear I get from a great genre flick. And as someone who has seen literally thousands of these films, I’d say I’ve got a pretty good handle on my fear reflex; it’s pretty hard to shock or startle this hardcore gorehound right here. But real fear, intense and irrational fear, is no laughing matter. It’s a metaphorical monster of epic proportions, a beast we must battle again and again for our entire lives.
For me, fear of flying has been a supreme anxiety. While I understood the science and logistics of airplane flight, in theory, my brain seems to stick on the idea that a 20 ton machine has no business floating aloft for hours on end. And it’s not just the act of flying that terrified me out, it was the idea that I may actually succumb to my fears, freak-out mid-flight, thereby bringing my levels of personal horror to excruciating new depths.
I first saw “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” as part of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, originally released in 1983. I was only 10 at the time, so this was my first real introduction to the series. And while I delighted in the horror and thrills of the first 3 episodes in the anthology film, the final act, featuring John Lithgow, made my blood run cold. It was like looking into a mirror at my future self: A grown man, still afraid to fly. What made the episode especially harrowing for me, was watching Lithgow’s nervous flyer succumb to his fears, making a total fool of himself. I found myself asking, “Could enduring that kind of public humiliation actually be worse than dying in a crash?”
My young mind was struggling to understand that common adage: There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. It’s an ideology I still struggle with to this day. And as for “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” that jump scare when Lithgow opens the window to reveal a sinister creature on the wing still ranks as one of the best ever.
Truth is, I was disappointed when I eventually saw the William Shatner version in THE TWILIGHT ZONE (Episode 123), but by then, I was such a big fan of the original series that I still loved it. And just in case you’re wondering, I’ve managed to overcome my fear of flying—thanks to my good friends Valium and alcohol!
Jovy Skol (Horror Journalist)
Season 3, Episode 33: “The Dummy”
I’m a real sucker for psychological terror. You know what I mean: the kind of horror that’s a clear reflection of our characters’ psyche, sometimes a test as to what’s actually real. What the director chooses to display on screen isn’t a coincidence and general audiences these days who can’t keep their eyes away from their smartphones are missing out on the cues they want us to see.
In “The Dummy,” Abner Biberman presents us a short story about Jerry Etherson, a ventriloquist who takes to the bottle and is convinced his dummy, Willie, has somehow taken over him. His personal struggles overshadow career potential and Jerry tries different ways to get rid of Willie, but his success seems dependent on the dummy and we watch a desperate man descend to the bottom. While a horror story wrapped around a man’s psyche is nothing new, there’s always a fresh take waiting to be told and while Jerry’s story isn’t terrifying, it feels so real as the struggle to succeed is a theme we are familiar with. After all, every dummy looks the same.