Friday, February 25, 2011

Prole, Issue 1 (2010)

Prole, Poetry and Prose, Issue 1, 2010
Cover by Mark Hampson

Prole website


I can't recall how I first came across Prole, but I noticed it just after the publication of its inaugural issue. Wishing to support I quickly purchased it, and watched it sitting languidly on my shelf until last week when I nabbed it, startling it from its bookish reveries, and quickly devoured the first story.

Prole is based in the UK, with an address in Abergele, which is in Northern Wales and not too far south from Liverpool. I know nothing about the publication nor about the editors who seem to prefer the shadows over the limelight, but I like their writers' guidelines, the attitude displayed, and the very attractive issues they have thus far produced (we are up to issue three now, so I'm being a little dated here, but I suppose that has become my trend).

The stories in the first issue are nicely varied and include both originals with some recent reprints. The first half is much stronger than the latter, and while I am pleased the editors have brought "Flower as Big as the Sky" to a wider audience, I am surprised with their choice to reprint "Stone and Wind."

"Shoes" by Dave Barrett. A busboy tells the story of El Sombrero regular drinker Gus Meyerson and his foot fetish. When Gus comes into some money (loads of it, the other patrons suspect) he begins to purchase shoes for Sombrero's staff members. This is a story not about greed but about what we see in those around us, or more specifically, what we choose to see. In the eyes of his entourage Gus never becomes more than a pathetic old man with a fetish and an inheritance, telling more about the viewer than the viewed. 6/10

"Flower as Big as the Sky" by Matt Dennison. (Previously published in GUD, issue 3, Autumn 2008) A boy and his parents wonder what Mr. Jones next door is building in his backyard. Why he dug that hole and what that odd contraption is that he's erecting beside it. A truly wonderful story about the magic of youth, the power of one's imagination, of trust and of pride. The heights of pre-pubescent emotions rage out of control, with some steady, straightforward writing. There is nothing grand about the prose, and the characters we've seen before, yet they are so well delineated and so pleasurable to read that it makes us welcome them into our mind's eye. 8/10

"Book Covers" by Rebecca Hotchen. This is a sketch rather than a story, and not the only one printed (or re-printed) in this issue. Here we find ourselves visiting a dusty bookshop owned and operated by a misanthropic Mister Evans, and learn about those around him who are judgemental toward his ill nature while dismissive of their own. The piece relies almost wholly on description to display its theme, that of the "covers" we wear in polite and civilized society to hide the true uncaring beasts that we naturally are. The story is well written, using a number of literary tropes, including pathetic fallacy, allusion, alliteration, contrast, and so on. There are so many devices that the story could replace a senior high school English textbook. And really, this is where the problem lies, for its technique weakens its theme.

Here be spoilers: The personification of fire and wind removes weight from the idea that the bystanders are responsible for Mister Evans's perishing. The bystander, just as the reader, is inundated with images of two great "beasts" battling amid the destruction of the book shop: "The howl of the wind merged in symphony with the low roar of the fire." (37) These two creatures, personified elements, are surely phenomenal foes, and no human can even think of silencing such a symphony. Yes, the bystanders could have and should have called for help, but these beasts cannot be tamed and the force of shock in the midst of such a spectacle is understandable. To a certain extent this exonerates the bystanders, and hence puts a dent into the intended thematic thump. Aside from this, nonetheless an enjoyable read. 6/10

"Clocks without Hands" by Stephen Ross. An old man's anecdote in the form of a letter. This is prose that implies rather than states, and it works because of its direct implications built into solid, concrete descriptions of the people the man encounters daily on the bus. I don't wish to discuss this at length for fear of sullying anyone's own impressions; the thing is, this is a great story and I was glued to the page from the start. It's best to know as little as possible and let the story affect you on its own. 7/10

"Stone and Wind" by Carl T. Abt. (Previously published in The Denny Stall, May 2008)
A woman is sculpting a "child of stone" that she has named Crazy Horse. The weakest of the stories in the issue, I did not like prose: it was dull and trying hard to impress. The narrator was not terribly interesting and I just did not care. 4/10

"He Had to Go" by Bruce J. Berger. A man searches for solace following the death of his wife. Fairly well written and at times touching, I must admit I was bored through the mid-sections. I tried to re-read it a few days later, thinking it was just my mood at the first reading, but couldn't do it. I did like the dream sequence (it contains a hilarious line that I won't give away) and the ending too was good. 5/10

"Scarred" by Kevin Brown. (Previously published in Conclave, Issue 1, 2008) The final story is essentially a piece of flash fiction. Well written, but... 5/10

The non-fiction selected is cosmopolitan in setting, but each deals with an aspect of human nature's response to some form of duress. Less like essays and more like anecdotal memoirs, they read easily, but while they each leave an impression, they do not give much food for thought.

"Fanfare for a Soldier" by Randy Lowen (previously published online at Unlikely Stories) is a letter from a veteran to the son of a veteran friend. Told in a visual, story-like style, it is more than a character sketch as it deals with the consequences of first-hand battle. "Baghdad, Tuesday Morning" by Stephen Williams is a powerful sketch of a seemingly random shooting. "Rage Against the Machines" by Mary Whitsell is a humorous yet even scary look at the trappings of modern teaching conveniences, while her "Double Standard" is another amusing tale of a teacher's woes, and while it reads well, it ends too suddenly. It also borders a little too closely to ranting; just as the teacher has woes which the students are unaware of, I'm sure the students' have their own trouble.

The poetry I leave to reviewing hands more capable than mine.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Night Gallery Season One

(I won't be posting many screen shots here, and while I did intend to post the various painting used in each show, I decided this was not good form since they are already on display at the excellent NightGallery.net.)

The first season of Night Gallery is quite good, with some great segments, overall great casting and some fine writing by Serling and others. Some Serling episodes reflect his earlier teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and while some are a little dated or overdone in their concept, others shine with themes as timeless as life ("They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"). Shorter segments are often the weaker ones, produced as filler. In general I was pleased that the show managed a fairly broad level of ideas and of genres, though not quite to the capacity of TZ (of course, TZ had far more episodes produced each season, so had a batter chance at achieving variety).

The Dead Man/The Housekeeper (episode 1: 16 December 1970)

"The Dead Man." Directed by Douglas Hayes. Written by Hayes from the short story by Fritz Leiiber. Starring Carl Betz, Jeff Corey, Louise Sorel and Michael Blodgett.

The first season opening segment was directed by prolific writer and television director Douglas Hayes, (director of nine episodes of the original The Twilight Zone, including some of its best, such as "Eye of the Beholder," "The Howling Man" and "And When the Sky Was Opened"). Hayes does a terrific job with this excellent short; a fascinating idea well executed from start to finish. Successful doctor and researcher Max Redford (Betz) has been focusing on a single patient, John Michael Fearing (Blodgett), who has the unusual ability to physically manifest the symptoms of any known illness. The plot is delivered with economy, a solid progression of events beginning with a visit from old friend Dr. Miles Talmadge (Corey), a great moment when Redford reveals to Talmadge the unusual ability of the young, vibrant Fearing. Young and vibrant, however, is at the core of the central tension, as it is clear to all concerned that Fearing and Redford's wife, Velia (Sorel), are deeply involved. Each subsequent scene is brief, and as events unfold we are led to the inevitable conclusion, which is truly visually quite wondrous in its ghastliness.

The performances are all top notch, as each character must work through a variety of emotional displays. This is especially effective when eventual soap star Louise Sorel's latter horrified grief is in striking contrast to her early, unabashed happiness. Veteran Jeff Corey is great as the rational though sympathetic Talmadge, and Carl Betz does well in delivering the role of the man caught between pride and jealousy for his subject. The writing is also on the mark, with not a word wasted, and the cinematography is, for television, quite creative. The comfortable and gorgeous home is nicely lit, just as the cemetery is nicely dreary. When Talmadge arrives at the house for the second time, the camera lens warps the border of the frame while the camera itself is positioned above the steps as Velia ascends, and then at a low perspective when the men watch her. This adds a thick, watery sense to illustrate that the Redford world has been submerged. 8/10

"The Housekeeper." Directed by John Meredyth Lucas. Written by Matthew Howard (a pseudonym for Hayes). Starring Larry Hagman, Jeanette Nolan, Suzy Parker and an assortment of confused animals, including a frog.

Cedric Acton has hired a new housekeeper, having searched for the greatest, homeliest hag he could find, one with a great heart. Acton's own heart is enmeshed in greed, as he hopes through some black magic he can accomplish an act of personality transfer, and move old hag Miss Wattle's personality into his horrible wife's beautiful body.

The strongest element in this segment is Howard's script, as it is playful and suspenseful all at once, from the opening dialogue between Miss Wattle and the placement agent, to Acton's incessant ramblings about the unfairness of things in this world. Larry Hagman as Acton delivers a hungry, groaning performance, a man filled with repressed desires for wealth and other things (likely his wife has not been attending to his needs), while Jeanette Nolan is superb as the aptly-named Miss Wattle, the innocent, conservative, gullible woman who is not too aware of the implications of Acton's scheme. The two play wonderfully well off each other, and the episode is a whole lot of silly fun. 7/10

Room with a View/The Little Black Bag/The Nature of the Enemy (episode 2: 23 December 1970).

"Room with a View." Directed by Jerrold Freedman. Written by Hal Dresner from his short story. Starring Joseph Wiseman, Diane Keaton and Angel Tompkins.

Bedridden and wealthy Jacob Bauman is being cared for by the simple yet charming nurse Frances Nevins, who is engaged to the handsome, womanizing chauffeur. This handsome chauffeur appears to be interested in Bauman's less than faithful, and much younger, wife. An observant man, Bauman uses the convenient view from his window as well as not-so-idle gossip to deduce the goings-on at his estate, and manages to cleverly tie everything together in a way to... but I won't reveal any more details. This is a brief segment that is well written with a great performance by Montreal actor Joseph Wiseman as the sweet curmudgeon Bauman. Wiseman is best known as James Bond's nemesis Dr. No, but has appeared in a number of fine films, including William Wyler's Detective Story and Ted Kotcheff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, as well as on the original The Twilight Zone and two episodes of Tales of Tomorrow. The young nurse is played by a truly adorable Diane Keaton. 7/10

"The Little Black Bag." Directed by Jeannot Szwarc. Written by Rod Serling from a short story by C.M. Kornbluth. Starring Burgess Meredith and Chill Wills.

Far in the future a stuttering man in white explains over the futuristic telephone that a medical bag has accidentally been sent back in time to the barbaric year of 1971. Hopefully the bag is more advanced than these future communications systems: in 1970 the standard future gadgets as they appeared on TV and in film were generally massive (remember the reporter's camera near the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey?). The communication device here emits perpetual bursts of static and the stuttering, inept-looking phone operator has to keep begging his pardon and repeating himself do little more than convincing the audience of 2011 that the future is more primitive than the present. At least technologically.

The medical bag and its contents fall into the hands of two vagrants, former doctor William Fall and his brand new acquaintance Heppelwhite. Fall soon discover that the instruments are quite unique and can truly benefit modern society. He is evidently so stricken by this that Fall is suddenly cold sober and desiring to save the world, though with a healthy dose of ambition, while Heppelwhite thinks only of the bag's profitability. The segment's central tension of helping others vs. helping oneself is common in the Serling repertoire, and as usual the world is not saved yet the bad do get punished. Burgess Meredith (familiar to Serling fans from four episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the classics "Time Enough at Last" and "The Obsolete Man") is great as Dr. Fall, but stealing the show is Chill Wills, who proves he is as neat as his name as the neatly-named Heppelwhite. 7/10

"The Nature of the Enemy." Directed by Allan Reisner. Original screenplay by Rod Serling. Starring Joseph Campanella.

At Houston the control centre is tense as staff watch an astronaut on screen wander the moon in hopes of figuring out the fate of the previous expedition. Another short segment, this one is tense for a while, but ends quite ludicrously and the play exists as little more than filler for the hour. 4/10

The House/Certain Shadows on the Wall (episode 3: 30 December 1970)

"The House." Directed by John Astin. Written by Rod Serling from a story by Andre Maurois. Starring Joanna Pettet and Paul Richards.

Sanitarium patient Elaine Latimer tells her doctor of a recurring dream in which she is driving (in her red Chevrolet convertible) and comes across a lovely, isolated house. She pulls over, knocks on the door but no one answers, so she gets back into her car and drives away. It's only as she is rolling away does she notice that the door is opening. It turns out that we are listening in on Elaine's final psychiatric session, and as she drives away (in her red Chevrolet convertible) through the lovely countryside, she comes across the house of her dreams, which she soon learns is haunted.

"The House" has a nice dreamy quality to it. The dream sequences play out in slow motion, with Elaine dressed in flowing materials, while the music too is truly dreamlike. It's a decent episode though a little predictable. I did nonetheless receive a genuine chill when Elaine says "I have met the ghost," and the camera proceeds to pan to our right, when I expected to see it. But no, false panning. Which is the main problem with this episode: amateurish camerawork. There are some odd zoom-ins that are distracting and on the cusp of comical. There is also an obvious goof when near the end we are driving in the car heading toward the isolated house and suddenly on the left of the screen we see a couple of people strolling toward us. Members of the crew, perhaps, or friends of the ghost?

The segment was directed by longtime television actor John Astin, who has appeared in three Night Gallery episodes, as well as the original The Twilight Zone episode "A Hundred Yards over the Rim." He has also directed three segments of NG and some other fairly minor TV productions. As Elaine, the beautiful Joanna Pettet does a fine job and is always nice to look at. 6/10

"Certain Shadows on the Wall." Directed by Jeff Corey. Written by Rod Serling from a story by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Starring Agnes Moorehead, Louis Hayward, Grayson Hall and Rachel Roberts.

Dr. Stephen Brigham has been tending to his sickly sister Emma, reading to her from the works of Charles Dickens (appropriately including Bleak House) ever since they were young. Staying over at Emma's majestic house along with their two other sisters, the cold Ann and the younger, sensitive Rebecca, the good doctor is tired of Dickens and his own poverty, hoping that Emma will finally leave him in peace by resting in peace. When she does finally die, Emma's shadow mysteriously appears on the wall in the sitting room downstairs.

What a fine episode this is. A fantastic quartet of actors, a great short story source well adapted by Serling, and some fine visuals along with an attractive set make for a tense chiller. Sure we'll know what'll happen, but who cares as the process of arriving there is so pleasurable. Louis Hayward is in fine form in one of his final roles, the poweful-looking Grayson Hall (nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the Tennessee Williams adapted The Night of the Iguana) is excellent as the cool-hearted Ann, while Rachel Roberts (three-time BAFTA winner and nominated for an Oscar for This Sporting Life) is great as the youngest sibling Rebecca, who finishes the episode nicely at the piano, uttering the last line. Yet it is Agnes Moorehead, four-time Oscar nominee, appearing fairly briefly as the sickly Emma who nearly steals the show, with her agonizing suffering and death-blue lips. Just wonderful. 8/10

Make Them Laugh/Clean Kills and Other Trophies (episode 4: 6 January 1971)

"Make Them Laugh." Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Rod Serling. Starring Godfrey Cambridge, Tom Bosley and Jackie Vernon.

With his career dwindling and his routine pathetic, stand-up comic Jackie Slayter makes a desperate wish from an imperfect genie that he can make people laugh. As expected, people begin to laugh uproariously at the simplest things he says, and despite his new-found fame, he is soon tired of this unique ability. This story is similar to many that Serling penned for The Twilight Zone, such as the effective "The Big Tall Wish," and he doesn't bring anything fresh to the idea. Godfrey Cambridge as Slater and Tom Bosley as his agent do fine (though neither remarkable), but as the genie I found Jackie Vernon's expressionless acting and undecided accent quite weak. 5/10

"Clean Kills and Other Trophies." Directed by Walter Doniger. Written by Rod Serling and starring Raymond Massy, Barry Brown and Herbert Jefferson, jr.

Wealthy poacher Colonel Archie Dittman will only allow pacifist son Archie Dittman, Jr. to become full heir to his estate if he kills an animal. A familiar "he gets what he deserves" and "do unto others" script is predictable, and while Raymond Massy (former Dr. Kildare in his first of two appearances in Night Gallery) as Sr. is good, the tragic Barry Brown as Jr. is on the weak side. 5/10

Pamela's Voice/The Lone Survivor/The Doll (episode 5: 13 January 1971)

"Pamela's Voice." Directed by Richard Benedict. Written by Rod Serling and starring Phyllis Diller and John Aston.

A short filler piece which could work if it were better directed and not written so stiffly. Serling's standard wordy script doesn't work with this simple gimmicky sketch, and I can't blame the actors for this though I am tempted. Aston (director of the segment "The House") and Diller aren't great, though on the surface they are appropriate, especially the annoying Diller. Script aside, I just did not care for the characters, their circumstances nor anything, really, and while the ending did take me by surprise I was more please simply that the little play was over. 4/10

"The Lone Survivor." Directed by Gene Levitt. Written by Rod Serling and starring John Colicos.

A ship comes across a life raft where no raft should be, and the crew discover that the single man aboard has been floating around since the sinking of the ship he was on: The USS Titanic. The concept is interesting, John Colicos as the Survivor, Torin Thatcher as the Captain and Hedley Mattingly as the Doctor all do a good job, while the set and atmosphere are well done. The opening is too stretched, especially with the audience figuring out the Titanic twist before being told, and the better climax comes at the mid-point, leaving the ending predictable. There are a couple of truly creepy moments near the finish, though. 6/10

"The Doll." Directed by Rudi Dorn. Written by Rod Serling based on the short story by Algernon Blackwood, and starring John Williams, Henry Silva and the most frightening little doll ever put together.

Colonel Hymber Masters returns from the colonies to look in on his ward, the lonely Monica. The girl is so lonely, in fact, that she has taken an unnatural liking to a doll that the Colonel had recently sent her. But wait, the Colonel did not send her any doll, and one look at the thing would freak anyone out. This is on two truly great Night Gallery segments of the first season. It is well put together, an eighteen or so minute-long episode with brief scenes that work nicely toward its conclusion. The Colonel is brilliantly played by the great John Williams, who truly looks the part, and his entourage, with Henry Silva as the avenging Indian, are all fine. Only the little girl is, well, a little odd, which makes a good mortal contrast to the doll, except her hair is nicer. So nice, in fact, you'd think the household employed a full-time hairdresser. The cinematography is spooky, with dim lighting and a cozy little fire, the set is atmospheric, Serling's script is economically precise, and really, the episode has no faults. The single thing that supersedes all the episode elements is the unique effectiveness of that doll.

Moreover, it has a great finish. 9/10

They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar/The last Laurel (episode 6: 20 January 1971)

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar." Directed by Don Taylor. Written by Rod Serling and starring William Windom, Diane Baker, John Randolph and Bert Convy.

This is the other great first season segment of Night Gallery. Sales Director Randy Lane is in a slump. He is struggling at work, struggling at being a widower, struggling with the bottle, and, to top things off, they're tearing down Tim Riley's bar. Riley's is a place that recalls a better time in Lane's life. He'd just returned home from war when everyone he cared about threw a party for him there, and shortly afterward began what was a promising career in his current place of employment, and a promising marriage. Now these are all just memories, and Lane is clinging onto them for dear life, wishing he could return to the Riley's of the past.

This is a powerful and touching episode with a wonderful performance by William Windom as Randy Lane (Windom appeared twice on The Twilight Zone, including as the Major in "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"), and some good support from the others, particularly Diane Baker as his loyal and caring secretary Lynn Alcott. The script, story, plot progressions are great, and rather than a focus on the fantastical we experience the potential wonders of reality. This episode is similar to one that Serling penned for TZ, "The Trouble with Templeton," about a nostalgic actor who revisits the ghosts of his past in a club he used to frequent. The idea of wanting to escape to a simpler period in one's life, a moment idealized during a period of struggle, is personal and timeless, and in Serling's adept hands is consistently thought provoking. The script and its execution are indeed excellent. 9/10

"The Last Laurel." Directed by Daryl Duke. Adapted by Rod Serling from the short story "The Horsehair Truck" by Davis Grubb. Starring Jack Cassidy and Martine Beswick.

A paralyzed athlete is convinced his wife is having an affair with his doctor, and has learned some handy astral projections that will allow him to leave his body and commit vengeance. Predictable and generally quite bad. The effects are silly, and, well, Riley's bar would would still have been great at a full hour, greater without this sad little story to follow at its heels. 4/10


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Robert Dunbar, The Pines (2008)

Dunbar, Robert. The Pines. NY: Leisure Press, November 2008. (reissue, originally published in 1989)


The Pines at Goodreads.
The Pines at IBList.

Overall rating:     7/10


Robert Dunbar is an interesting person. He has written for various media, from theatre and television to print forms by way of articles, short fiction and novels. He conducts fun interviews, helped establish the publishing house Uninvited Books, rants intelligently about the modern state of horror, and uses the Goodreads site for both marketing and accessibility. In fact, while most authors shamelessly promote themselves on GR (I ignore the countless "friend" requests from authors whose pages I've never visited and whose areas I have no interest in), Dunbar has managed to illicit some great conversation by starting up a group not about himself (solely) but about "Literary Horror" (mainly) and I would recommend anyone interested to pay the forum a visit. Moreover, Dunbar remains accessible to readers by responding to posts either intelligently or with humour, or just to show that he does read what people spend the time to write.

It is through GR sometime last year that I became aware of Dunbar, and decided to give his first novel a try. Driving through Massachusetts last October I stopped at Annie's Book Stop in Framingham and found the 2008 Leisure Books reissue of The Pines in excellent condition for half the cover price. I was elated (with some other nice discoveries in the anthology department) and finally got around to reading it.

The Pines is a novel about the Jersey Devil (popularized through an X-Files episode co-starring Gregory Sierra) and the Pine Barrens. A very well-written and engaging novel, The Pines is best read not for its horror but for its array of strong characters. I found myself more engaged with the character relations than with the Jersey Devil folktale, totally immersed in the tense ambulance scenes of the beginning, and with the tenser ambulance employee interactions throughout. I was even a little disappointed when many of those characters disappeared half-way through the novel, when the Jersey Devil and our protagonists abducted the narrative.

This is not to say that the story itself wasn't interesting or enjoyable. The complex narrative, chaotic sequencing and the suffocating setting made for a strong read. My only problems were with the pacing, which was at times inconsistent, and the novel's lead character, Athena Lee Monroe. The pacing switched quickly from tense inter-character relations to quieter moments of reflection. Quiet moments of reflection are generally great, but the moments here are at times stretched into decades. Moreover, introspection from the novel's lead is not always convincing. Athena is an interesting character, but she is too distant to be engaging as a lead. She is cold and withdrawn and Dunbar sets himself a challenge by bringing the reader into the world of someone who wants nothing to do with the outside world, particularly not with a reader far removed from her own. I found myself frustrated with her, annoyed at her, and yes, even at times bored with her. She was great when seen through the eyes of others, whether it be Doris or Steve, or even through objective narrative, perhaps through the point of view of a tree, but her internal dialoguing was never as captivating as any external or internal element of any of the other characters. The others were just better reading material, particularly Doris and the riotous Pamela who would annoy me no end in real life, but was a real pleasure on the page. Overall I would have been happier with a slightly shorter version, but apparently the original edition was so poorly edited for length that it was at times nonsensical. Like many of my own reviews, I suppose.

What is most effective in the novel as a whole is the idea of monsters and monstrosity. We are faced with a legion of candidates pining for the definition of "monster," from a folktale creature to rabid dogs, from "backwards" pineys who drink bathtub gin and neglect their malformed in-bred children to more "civilized" contenders who resent their own offspring. We have a once big city cop who drowns his guilt by blatantly drinking on duty, his partner who is openly unfaithful to his wife, a recently freed convict who threatens his sister-in-law and son for possession of their home, and a lead character who seems to resent her only child. With a cast comprising of characters such as these, and more, we wonder who is the true devil in New Jersey.

Most devilish, however, are the unfortunate typos in the Leisure edition. Examples such as "Come out her" (71) are understandable, but odd and amusing are the sentences "He made a stabbing motion at Marl's yes" (152) and "Now are all you see Vietnamese and Cambodians" (176). Not a typo, but I was surprised that such a tightly written novel could resort to abstract heavy-handed lines like "A tiny scraping noise. A wordless whisper that could exist only in a nightmare" (305).

Despite my two grievances, The Pines is well worth a read, and I will search second-hand shops for its 2007 sequel The Shore (Leisure Books). Dunbar has two other books available, both receiving positive buzz; the collection Martyrs and Monsters (Delirium Books, 2008) and his latest novel Willy (Uninvited Books, 2011) which has a stunning cover. (Yes, yes, "one-eyed Willy" comes to mind.)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Night Gallery: The Pilot (1969)

For a review of Season One episodes, please visit this page.

[Article edited for formatting & a couple of typos fixed: 23 March 2012.]
Rod Serling was one of the most influential people in television, and his influence continues to work today. He has had a profound effect ranging from innovative series ideas, great script writing, a rugged style of narrating, and an energetic outspokenness about the influence of advertisers on art, and of the constant meddling of industry.

After a successful beginning that brought about well received screenplays for many television programs, such as Lux Video Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One, as well as additional success spanning five seasons with The Twilight Zone, Serling found himself struggling through most of the latter part of his career. Post TZ had Serling narrating documentaries on UFOs and monsters and for the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, writing short story adaptations of his own original TZ screenplays, appearing as host of the game show The Match Game, and saw his screenplay adaptation of Pierre Boullle's Monkey Planet (later, Planet of the Apes) completely re-written. Yet despite these struggles he never let up on what he believed to be art in television, and fought actively against the commercialization of quality products, something he did during the three season course of Night Gallery.

In the late sixties Serling was offered the opportunity to revamp the status he held during the popular years of The Twilight Zone. Soon after The Twilight Zone was cancelled, Serling tried to peddle a related anthology idea with the title Rod Serling's Wax Museum. The idea was that in each episode he would introduce a waxed figure of the protagonist of that evening's teleplay. He wrote a treatment to an anthology movie containing three separate episodes, with one major actor to play the lead character of each segment. Two of the three scenarios, "Eyes" and "Escape Route," would become prose stories first, which would be included in Serling's own collection, The Season to Be Wary (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967). Never comfortable at prose, the collection was a commercial flop, but Serling continued to envision them as teleplays. A few years later this idea was eventually produced as Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

Night Gallery featured several sketches of varying length, with each episode containing two or three independent segments, while some episodes of season two featured four, when brief comedy sketches were interwoven to make up for shorter segments (an idea that Serling, rightfully, opposed). Though Serling tried hard to sell the series since 1964, he became involved as the main writer, penning many originals and adapting various stories from established writers such as Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Fritz Leiber, Algernon Blackwood and August Derleth. Moreover, Serling introduced each sketch. Each script revolved around a certain painting that hung in the dimly lit "Night Gallery" that Serling stepped onto at the beginning of the hour. While each painting was simply a loose representation of some kind, in the pilot each painting actually played a part in the segment it represented. These gorgeous works, evoking different styles, were all made by uncredited artist Jaroslav Gebr (paintings from the series were all done by Tom Wright).

The show faced many obstacles, including being slotted into odd time slots that eventually killed it, though it was rated highly by both critics and viewers, and consistently garnered a greater audience than the shows it was pitted against. The most prevalent tensions, however, existed between Serling and the production team. Unlike the creative control Serling had over most aspects of The Twilight Zone, he was not involved in the production of Night Gallery, and when the show ended after three (two and a half, really) seasons, Mr. Serling disowned it. Sadly, he died of a coronary two years later at the age of 50, though with his experiences on Night Gallery it is fair to speculate that this would have been his final foray into the TV anthology.

The pilot for Rod Serling's Night Gallery first aired on November 8th, 1969. The show itself began its run just before Christmas on 16 December 1970, and the final episode appeared in the summer of 1973.

For further information I would recommend Joe Engel's intriguing 1989 biography Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone; it is not terribly academic but gives a good general overview of Serling himself and of his career. There have been a number of other works published on Serling, mainly in relation to The Twilight Zone, though aside from Scott Zicree's excellent The Twilight Zone Companion, I have not read any others. There is also a good looking tome dedicated to a Night Gallery titled Rod Serling's The Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour, by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998. (When I can afford additional books I will add it my collection.) This too I have not yet read, but I have just sold a story and will us the cheque to order a copy. (Possibly I will discover that everything I have just typed here is utter fantasy.)

"The Cemetery." Directed by Boris Sagal. Starring Roddy McDowell and Ozzie Davis. 8/10

The forgotten black sheep nephew of a wealthy painter re-emerges in time for his uncle's death to claim his inheritance. Actually, his timing is less than coincidental as he actually helped his uncle's demise come around a little earlier. Oddly though, the painting on the stairwell, the one of the cemetery by the house, appears after the funeral to contain an additional grave. This grave is soon filled with a casket, and the casket is soon opened to reveal the uncle's figure. Moreover, as in M. R. James's 1904 classic "The Mezzotint," with each moment the figure appears to be closing in on the front door of the house.

A strong opening and overall segment due particularly to Roddy McDowell's wonderful, energetic performance as the southern nephew Jeremy Evans. Davis is strong as well as stiff family retainer Osmond Portifoy. Serling's dialog is excellent and well delivered by all, with some great, colourful moments, such as Jeremy looking at the painting of the cemetery wondering why his uncle painted it, and adding that he should be in it. The plot is great with a masterful finish, and the direction by Boris Sagal (lifetime TV director best known for The Omega Man and the miniseries Masada and Rich Man, Poor Man) does well in highlighting both the cast and the story. Add a terrific set with the gorgeous house and its surroundings, great paintings and decor as well as music, and "The Cemetery" is an excellent piece of film.


"Eyes." Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Joan Crawford, Barry Sullivan and Tom Bosley. 8/10

The wealthy, powerful and incredibly belligerent Miss Claudia Menlo is both an art lover and blind. With her money and influence she takes the steps necessary to have an experimental operation on her eyes that will give her sight for a number of hours. However, as it is a form of transplant, her desperate donor will lose his own sight.

Steven Spielberg's first directorial assignment is also Joan Crawford's final performance. I can imagine the young, precise rookie trying to work with the masterful veteran, stumbling and mumbling around her. Through various interviews Spielberg admitted to his insecurities around Crawford, and emphasized that she was always professional with him, treating him with respect and calling him "Mr. Spielberg" rather than "Steven." Difficulties in production had to do with Serling's wordy screenplay, and Crawford had difficulty with the verbosity of the dialogue. Spielberg had to eventually place cue cards around the set for Crawford in order to meet the tight shooting deadline. McDowell and Davis, on the other hand, both revelled in their own "The Cemetery" lines, so that it might have been a case of dynamics between Crawford and her co-stars. Either that or the fact that Crawford was so hopelessly drunk that she remained locked inside her trailer through much of the shoot.

For his camera work, Spielberg wanted to challenge the conventions of dull, television filming by using wider lenses and placing the camera at more unusual spots, even filming Crawford through the glitzy glass pieces of the chandelier. He may have been mocked then, but his work, along with those of the other directors, makes Night Gallery a memorable and still watchable TV movie to this day.

Whatever did happen behind the cameras, what we have is a great final product, with some original directorial touches, good camera work and, as expected, excellent acting. Crawford is wonderful as the imperious Claudia Menlo, as is Barry Sullivan as the kind yet once corrupt doctor. Yet it is the recently belated Tom Bosley's performance as the hapless and desperate Sidney Resnick that takes this drama to a higher level. Resnick has no choice in what he's getting involved in, and at first doesn't even know what he'll be giving up, but is so mired at the bottom of life's gutter that he is desperate for any chance of clawing his way to ground level. "Will I still be able to cry?" he asks the doctor. "As much as you want."

(Serling had initially envisioned The Twilight Zone regular Jack Klugman in this role, and as pleased as I am with Bosley, Klugman would also likely have been brilliant.)

Well written with a suspenseful plot and great finish that tells us no matter who those mortal gods are that can play with the fates of the desperate and destitute, there is a greater power that can level us all to ground-level, whether it be chance, fate, or a simple case of coincidence.


"Escape Route." Directed by Barry Shear. Starring Richard Kiley, Norma Crane and Sam Jaffe. 8/10

Nazi criminal Joseph Strobe is hiding out South America. In a perpetual sweat, he is being haunted by his past, as well as by men wanting to bring him to justice. He finds himself unexpectedly at a museum where the painting of a fisherman in a canoe in a peaceful river affects him so much that he believes he can will himself into the scene.

A difficult task to find some form of sympathy for a Nazi criminal, yet it is nearly achieved and the filmmakers must remind us of his evil doings by having him do something horribly evil. The ending is excellent, perhaps the most predictable of the three, but is effective nonetheless. The performances from the three main actors are strong. Richard Kiley as Strober is genuinely afraid and desperate (Kiley had appeared in Serling's much lauded 1955 television play Patterns), Norma Crane as the prostitute neighbour is terrific in her open hatred for the former Nazi, while Sam Jaffe is sympathetic and looks exquisite as concentration camp survivor Bleum.

The directing, camera work and organization really help to pull this one off. There is a paranoid chase scene in which Strober believes he is being pursued, steps onto a bus and finds himself at the museum. The chase scene is exquisitely edited, with some fine odd camera angles, glaring car lights and fantastic music all to bring the viewer into the heated mind of this criminal. The little subliminal images of Citizen Strober as Nazi officer are a good touch. The wall-to-wall conversation between Strober and Gretchen is involved, giving so much to take in visually from a scene that, if cut in the standard conversation form, showing one speaker at a time, may have come out flat. TV director Barry Shear does excellent work all around.

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