Still Eerie After All These Years
An eon or so ago, I read a short story by H.P. Lovecraft or another writer of his eerie ilk that had something to do with a flask of dangerous chemicals that lay stoppered and forgotten on the windowsill of an obscure English apothecary. Many years passed, and through some malign influence the chemicals transmuted into something alive and unspeakably evil that patiently awaited the doomed human being foolish enough to remove its stopper.
Not too long after I read this juicy and ludicrous story, I first encountered Rod Serling’s classic 1970s television series, Night Gallery. With few exceptions, I hadn’t seen any of the episodes since then, so the question I asked myself, as I opened the cellophane wrap on the DVD box set that collects nearly all of Season Two’s episodes and braced myself for the horrors that lay within, was how exactly the show, or rather my ability to be terrified by it, had transmogrified over the course of time.
Would I, in short, find it to be unspeakably evil?
I could only hope.
There was one episode in particular that I still remember from my childhood, the story of a demented surgeon who gives a stranger refuge from a storm, doses him with drugged wine, and in the morning calmly informs him that “I took the liberty of removing your legs.”
Upon my second viewing, this half-remembered nightmare was as terrifying as ever, and even weirder – it takes place on a bare-bones set that looks like it cost $1.49 to construct and doesn’t even attempt to replicate reality, and yet is strangely beautiful, and the demented surgeon is played by the cheery old vaudevillian Rudy Vallee. The line, as it turns out, is actually, “I took the liberty of amputating your feet,” but in every other respect, this Misery-like episode lived up to my disturbed memories of it.
Just as he did in his Twilight Zone, a series that was far more tonally consistent – nearly every episode, as others have noted, seemed to be a mind-bender about how reality isn’t as it seems – Rod Serling introduces each of Night Gallery’s episodes. He, and the slightly amateurish paintings that symbolize each episode, are the unifying elements here, but unlike The Twilight Zone, the episodes themselves are so oddly eclectic that the story selection can sometimes seem stranger than the tales themselves.
Some of the episodes here, though nominally on the topic of, say, werewolves, are gentle pastoral fantasies, and others are dusty Victorian Phantom-of-the-Operaesque horrors. Still others – by far the worst – are putatively funny sight gags, like the brief bit about the skeleton who, admonished by some men in an elevator to remove his hat in the presence of a lady, instead removes his head. That is so rude.
And then there’s the bloody boring business about the vampire making a withdrawal from, rather than a deposit to, a blood bank, bwahahahaha, blah, blah, blah. And way, way, way at the other end of the scale, an adaptation of a famous short story, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by the much-honored American poet, Conrad Aiken, is so solemn and respectful that it melts away even as you watch it.
But the ever-intense Serling, who wrote and adapted some of the episodes herein, still managed to put together an intelligent and memorable season. “Dr. Stringfellow’s Rejuvenator” is a bleak meditation on faith, charlatanism, and racism, and the face of the suffering father whose daughter is dying of some awful disease that Dr. Stringfellow’s useless tonic most assuredly will not cure will stay with you for a long time after the episode ends.
“The Caterpillar” and “A Question of Fear”, the latter a genuinely clever haunted-house story containing a horrifying line of dialogue (“You will be a very brave worm”) also are nightmarish, and there are at least a dozen other worthwhile episodes scattered among the head-scratchers.
Almost as entertaining as the stories themselves are the glimpses we get of semi-forgotten stars such as Patty Duke, here playing a loathsome character that gets her comeuppance thanks to a diary that foretells the future; and the gorgeous Joanna Pettet; and the oily Victor Buono; and the pre-Kung FuDavid Carradine, and Barbara Rush, David Morse, Vincent Price, Laurence Harvey and many others, including a few more-obscure actors that will have you running to your IMDB or All Movie Guide to figure out where you’ve seen them before.
This box set also contains audio commentaries on selected episodes and extras including a documentary on the series and some of NBC’s original series promos. According to a notation on the box, one episode, Witches’ Feast, is missing entirely from this box set because the original footage has disappeared. I prefer to believe that the film can is perched on a windowsill in some long-shuttered editing suite at NBC, waiting to be opened by some evil programming executive who deserves whatever doom awaits.