6WH: Wes Craven’s Twilight Zone

These days, we tend to look askance at reboots and remakes, but it’s not like it’s a new thing. In the mid-80s, CBS revived the beloved 50s/60s classic Twilight Zone television series, and looking back on it now, they managed to assemble a pretty impressive amount of talent at the time, including: Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Greg Bear, Arthur C. Clarke, Joe Haldeman, Robert McCammon, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, John Milius, Joe Dante, William Friedkin, George R.R. Martin, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, heck, even the Grateful Dead performed the new theme song. To kick the series off, they tapped Wes Craven, hot off the success of Nightmare on Elm Street. Craven would go on to direct seven segments of the show (mostly in the first season), most of which I have not seen, so I thought it would be a fitting tribute. Each show has two or three segments, so here’s some assorted thoughts on each segment:

  • Shatterday (S01E01) – The opening salvo of the new series was this character piece starring Bruce Willis in a dueling role, directed by Craven and written by Harlan Ellison (which was a big deal, given how dismissive Ellison always was about TV). It features one of the pure Twilight Zone ideas. Willis accidentally dials his own phone number, but is then surprised when… another, better version of him answers the phone. Some back-and-forth cat-and-also-cat follows, Willis doing an admirable job in both main roles. It’s an introspective piece, and a bit of a departure for Craven (in fact, all of these episodes are a bit of a departure for Craven; I’m guessing he relished the opportunity to work in the spooky but bloodless realm after mastering the raw, bloody slasher or hillbilly horror sub-genres). The ending is a bit anticlimactic, but it works well enough. A good opening to the series.
  • A Little Peace and Quiet (S01E01) – This second segment in the episode doesn’t quite boast as much starpower, but it’s Craven branching out again, this time looking at a frazzled housewife with the worst family evar (she’s played by Melinda Dillon, who you may remember as the mother in A Christmas Story). They all scream at each other and her and Craven does a good job playing up the unbearable nature of her situation. All she wants is a little peace and quiet, and whilst gardening, she finds a box with a nice looking necklace on it. Later in the day, while her family is once again acting crappy, she gets fed up and screams “Shut up!” and everything freezes (er, sorta, it’s clearly a bunch of actors just trying to stand still, but it works well enough). It turns out she’s able to press pause on the world, then resume it whenever she wants. This comes in handy at a busy grocery story and in a few other situations, then the hammer drops with the ending. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a pretty dark one, fitting for the Twilight Zone. A fitting end to the series opener…
  • Wordplay (S01E02) – I should probably stop referring to these premises as very Twilight Zoney, huh? In this one a salesman (played by Robert Klein) starts to hear people substituting words for other words. For instance, suddenly people are referring to lunch as “Dinosaur”. At first, it’s only a couple isolated words, but by the end of the episode people are talking full on in this new style (which is weird because it’s not quite gibberish… words are generally the same, they just mean different things). The ending is perfectly bittersweet, and Klein really sells it well. It’s interesting to contrast a segment like this with, say, Tales from the Crypt, which almost always ends with comeuppance or darkness. The Twilight Zone can make that work when it wants, but it can also make a story like this one, with an almost uplifting ending and everything.
  • Chameleon (S01E02) – Ah, well, I guess this one is less Twilight Zoney than your typical episode, so there’s that. A shapeshifting alien returns with some astronauts on a shuttle mission and starts absorbing some humans. It’s an interesting segment, though it doesn’t really do a whole lot. Some mysterious stuff happens, and then it ends. I would have expected to like this one more than I did, but hey, they can’t all be brilliant pieces of work, I guess.
  • Dealer’s Choice (S01E08) – Now this is the stuff! Craven directs a Murderers’ Row of character actors playing cards. Included are Morgan Freeman (you know him), M. Emmet Walsh, Dan Hedaya (a little Blood Simple reunion with those two, not to mention a gazillion other movies each), Garrett Morris (of SNL fame), and Barney Martin (probably best known as Seinfeld’s dad). Four friends and a strange newcomer who’s having a streak of luck. In fact, his hands always hinge on having a three of a kind… three sixes each time. Yes, our intrepid heroes are playing cards with the Devil, who’s very sorry he had to put on a ruse about filling in for a regular, but he just wanted to get a few hands of cards in before moving on to his next job. Oh and one of the other players is that job. A final, double or nothing bet is made over a hand of cards… dealer’s choice!

    Morgan Freeman is surprised

    This is a darkly humorous segment, perhaps my favorite so far, and it tickles one of my soft spots. I love it when larger-than-life evil is personified as a blue collar dude just doing his job, and the segment wrings a lot of humor out of this inherently goofy premise. I like the idea of the Devil really just doing his job, not being all that into it, and welcoming the opportunity to let the puny humans win one every now and again. It turns out that the Devil is actually a pretty good sport, not to mention a good loser. In fact, the Devil comes off as the most likeable character of them all.

  • Her Pilgrim Soul (S01E12) – Two scientists working on a holographic system suddenly find the spirit of a woman displaying without having been programmed to appear. What follows is surprisingly tender, another example of The Twilight Zone’s ability to shift gears and go with a different tone. It is perhaps overlong, and the surprises not quite as snappy as your typical segment, but yet, they are more emotionally resonant. (Also, while not directed by Craven, definitely watch the other se segment in this episode, “I of Newton”, one of my all time favorites and one that obviously made an impression when I saw it as a youngster way back when…)
  • The Road Less Traveled (S02E07) – A Vietnam draft dodger begins to see visions of an alternate history where he did go to war. Interesting exploration of guilt, written by George R.R. Martin (who would go on to work on some other stuff you may have heard of), and it resolves itself well, once again finding a tone not normally reserved for such stories. Not the best episode, but still an effective one.

This was a pretty good run for Craven, and as mentioned above, allowed him to branch out and try something other than gruesome slashers or Swamp Things. He would go on to work on a few other shows, but nothing of quite this caliber. I’m glad I made the effort to watch these episodes though, and will almost certainly be posting about some other episodes in the coming weeks of Halloween! RIP Wes Craven, you will be missed.

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