The Zones & Limits of classic horror TV


By Cole Williams

Designer of The Journal

I wanted to write a column dealing with horror fiction on TV.

Then I realized that 500 words weren’t enough to deal with “The Twilight Zone,” “Thriller,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Tales From the Dark Side” or “The Outer Limits,” not to mention many other excellent miniseries and made-for-TV horror/ sci-fi movies.

I decided to write about the two TV series that scared the wolf bait out of me as a nipper.

“The Twilight Zone,” created by award-winning writer Rod Serling, premiered in 1959. Each episode in the anthology featured its own characters and plots. The stories featured elements of science fiction and/or horror and/or the supernatural. There was often a surprise ending and a moral to the stories. Humor played a part in many of them.

The series featured some of the earliest work of up-and-coming actors like Robert Redford, Julie Newmar, William Shatner, Cloris Leachman, Peter Falk, Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson.

In one of the more well-known episodes, “Time Enough at Last,” Burgess Meredith plays a bookworm bank clerk who wants nothing more in the world but enough time to read. His wife and his boss are constantly interrupting his reading sessions. One day, while filing some papers in the bank’s vault, the nuclear holocaust happens. Our man is protected by the lead walls of the vault, leaving him the sole survivor. He’s delighted that there’s no one left to keep him from his books. Then the unspeakable happens.

In “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” William Shatner plays Bob Wilson, who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. While on a commercial flight, Wilson thinks he sees a humanoid creature cavorting on the plane’s wing. He becomes increasingly agitated until he makes a desperate move. The role was later reprised by John Lithgow, who did a bang-up job. However, for my money it’s more fun to watch the unflappable Captain Kirk break down and completely freak out.

One of my favorite episodes stars Baton Rouge native Donna Douglas, who later gained fame as Elly Mae Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In “Eye of the Beholder,” Douglas plays a woman who has undergone several plastic surgeries to fix her face, described as a “pitifully twisted lump of flesh.” Written by Serling, this teleplay boasts one of the most diabolically clever and super creepy surprise endings of all time. Move over, M. Knight Shyamalan.

After five seasons and 156 episodes, Serling’s “door to the imagination” closed in 1964. There were two reboots of the series, but for me there’s nothing like the original.

Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison once wrote that “imitation is the sincerest form of television.” In 1963 ABC launched its own horror fantasy series “The Outer Limits.” Ellison would write two of its most notable episodes.

“The Outer Limits” differed from its predecessor in both tone and content. It featured almost no humor and the plots were more subtle. It also leaned more heavily on science fiction than the supernatural in its storylines.

Like Serling’s creation before it, “The Outer Limits” employed a stable full of actors who would later become household names. David McCallum, Robert Culp, Sally Kellerman, Eddie Albert, Vera Miles, Martin Landau and Martin Sheen are just a few of the now well-known players involved in the show.

“Twilight Zone” alumnus William Shatner appeared in “The Outer Limits” along with Leonard Nimoy, who had a small role in an episode of “Zone.” The two would later join forces with writer/producer Gene Roddenberry to create what would become arguably the most successful science fiction franchise to date.

Actors weren’t the only things Roddenberry appropriated from the series. A couple of the monsters created for “The Outer Limits” appeared in “Star Trek.” Likewise, the sparkly visual effect that appears each time a character is transported to or from The Starship Enterprise was also created for “The Outer Limits.”

Back to Harlan Ellison. The two episodes he wrote for “The Outer Limits” are “Soldier” and “Demon With a Glass Hand.” The plot of the first deals with a soldier from the future who saves a family he meets in the present from another future grunt sent to kill them. In the second episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” the “demon” is actually a robot sent from the future to save humankind from self-annihilation. Sound familiar?

Ellison contended that the Writer/Director of the 1984 feature film “The Terminator,” James Cameron, was more than merely “inspired” by these two teleplays and sued Orion Pictures. Over Cameron’s objections, Ellison settled for an undisclosed sum of money and a mention in the film’s closing credits.

“The Outer Limits” reached its outer limits in 1965 when it was trounced in the ratings by “The Jackie Gleason Show.” And away it went.

Finally, both “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” pushed the envelope of what was possible in the new medium of television. Although the writing was uneven and the special effects can seem hokey to us in this age of computer-generated images, both shows cast a long shadow on the landscape of American popular culture. Cable TV channels often offer marathons one or both of these shows around this time of year. If you’ve never seen them before you might want to give ‘em a watch.

Happy Halloween.

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