Gav recently mentioned he'd not seen much of the Twilight Zone, so in a effort to introduce him to one of my favourite TV shows, I republish this old list of my 20 favourite episodes. Since it was first published, I've seen much more of the series, and the biggest omission personally since then was Maple Street, that wonderful tale of paranoia.
That said, the following twenty are all worthwhile watches I recommend.
Now over to Me from 2 and a half years ago:
TWILIGHT ZONE TOP TWENTY
(first published January 2010)
20 The Grave
WHICH ONE? – Lee Marvin is dared to go to the grave of his dead rival at midnight.
20 The Grave
WHICH ONE? – Lee Marvin is dared to go to the grave of his dead rival at midnight.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – On paper, this should be a run of the mill “revenge from beyond the grave” affair. What raises it is a top notch performance from Marvin in the lead role, as well as good supporting performances from Strother Martin (as in “What we have here is failure to communicate” Strother Martin) and Stafford Repp, about half a decade before he became famous for playing Chief O’ Hara in the Adam West Batman series. This episode is dripping with atmosphere, from the incidental music to the wonderful direction, all building up to the moment when the rest in the pub go looking for Marvin. It’s High Noon going nightmarishly wrong.
19 I Am the Night – Color me Black
WHICH ONE? – The one where the townsfolk want to execute an innocent man, and the night never lifts.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – Moraltastic. Rod Serling was never one to skip the moralising in his show, and this one has one of the most unsettling suggestive endings. The idea of the dark night-time just never relinquishing its hold on the world, and how paranoid it drives everyone, was a novel idea. The whole thing is about absolute, unrelenting hatred whole towns can produce towards innocents. One of the darkest (pun intended) and bleakest shows the Twilight Zone ever did.
18 What’s in the Box
WHICH ONE? – The one where the man sees the TV act out the future murder of his wife by his own hand.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – It’s bloody creepy, that’s why. The twist at the end, though predictable, is made utterly terrifying just through the look one character gives to the camera with the last shot. That, and the idea of turning on the TV, and seeing your room on the TV, and you murdering your wife, is quite the nasty one too.
17 The Purple Testament
WHICH ONE? – The one where the soldier sees a purple mark on the faces of those about to die in war time.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – Rod Serling loved going back to the war stories of the Second World War, probably because in them he found great ammunition for his humanist avocations. The idea of a death harbinger is creepy enough; there are enough legends about them. Set it in the war and have someone see a mark over the faces of those about to die in it, and it increases the tempo. Serling liked war as much as he liked Nazis. This one has a great hook, and builds to an admittedly slightly predictable finish, but for what’s on the screen, it’s pretty good.
16 Eye of the Beholder
WHICH ONE? – The one where the disfigured girl covered up in bandages is undergoing one last operation to make her look normal.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – In a recent poll, this topped a list by fans. It has one of the great twists of all Twilight Zone episodes. It has some of the best direction seen on the show. It has an astounding performance by William D. Gordon. It focuses on Serling’s great loves of humanism and how we perceive others. A must see episode. So what if I have fifteen episodes ranked above it? I love nearly the entire damn show.
15 Printers Devil
WHICH ONE? – Burgess Meredith is the Devil, making sensational horrific new stories in a local newspaper come true.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – It has Burgess Meredith in it, for godssakes! Do you need any other reason? There’s a great moment in this where he puts a cigar in his mouth and suddenly his voice transforms into his later voice for The Penguin! This is pretty much a Meredith showcase, and all of those particular Twilight Zones are great. In this one he plays the best Devil to appear on the show, and finally getting a shot at being the bad guy, he plays with subtle menace and expert form. If it wasn’t for another Twilight Zone episode where the guy absolutely outshines this performance, this episode would be higher. (But you’ll find out which in a bit!) Crosses the line between humour, obsession and tension easily. One of the best hour long Twilight Zones.
14 You Drive
WHICH ONE? – Man commits hit and run on a wee boy who dies. The car is not happy.
WHY’s IT GREAT? – This one just beat out A Thing about Machines. They both have similar plots, but while the other was mostly about revenge in a Beyond the Door by Phillip K Dick way, this one is about justice, and works that bit stronger. I love the idea of a car bringing its owner to justice for vehicular manslaughter.
13 Nothing in the Dark
WHICH ONE? - Old woman lives barricaded in her house, terrified that Mr Death will come to her if she opens the door.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – Great little story. Only about three actors in it. Just when you think it’s going to be one of those “BOO!” episodes, it turns out to be quite heart-warming. People tend to think of the Twilight Zone as this horror show. While it had its delves into horror on many occasions, that was only part of its remit. Other stories, like this one, looked into the supernatural event not as a cause for alarm, but for affirmation, and this is one of the best. Not all supernatural entities are going to harm you after all.
12 Shadow Play
WHICH ONE? – Dennis Weaver, sentenced to execution, tries to warn everyone they are a figment of his dreams and if they kill him, everyone dies.
WHY’S IT GREAT? – This one is like a bomb. Ticking down to annihilation for all. Everything is paced and tense to go along with this. Is it a dream, or is Dennis Weaver’s character insane? We don’t find out till the very end, but the build up to that is one of the best Twilight Zone moments. Especially as Weaver keeps pointing out who everyone was in his dream the previous night!
11 Escape Clause
WHICH ONE? – Man makes pact with the Devil for immortality.
WHY’S IT GREAT? – Walter Bedeker is an arse. He really is. One of the least likeable protagonists of all Twilight Zone episodes. Nothing he does is likeable. So really, it’s great to see someone that horrid cut down to size.
10 Perchance to Dream
WHICH ONE? – Man goes to Psychiatrist to tell him how he can’t sleep for fear of this terrible nightmare that is stalking him.
WHY’S IT GREAT? – One of the scariest Twilight Zone episodes. The dreams sequences are unsettling. The build up to the twist before the twist is unbelievable. The slow sinking paranoia of the main character is macabre.
9 A Stop at Willoughby
WHICH ONE? – A man keeps walking up on the train when it stops at a town called Willoughby, a place on no map with no train station on the line.
WHY IT’s GREAT? – It’s a great mystery, with a great twist. The wife claims that “It’s just [her] luck to be married to someone whose greatest ambition in life is to be Huckleberry Finn!” And I don’t really see a problem with that ambition. A jovial atmosphere makes the solution all the more a kick in the guts. Rod Serling claimed this was his favourite episode of the first series. Probably for the kick in the guts.
8 It’s a Good Life
WHICH ONE? – Billy Mumy is the little boy who puts people in the cornfield.
WHY IT’S GREAT?
It’s a good thing I’ve done here. It really is.
7 Five Characters in Search of an Exit
WHICH ONE? – Five people wake up at the bottom of a large cylindrical prison and try to get out.
WHY IT’s GREAT – A brigadier, a clown, a tramp, a ballerina and a bagpiper wake to find themselves at the bottom of a giant cylindrical prison. Amnesiac. No idea who each other are. Try to get out of the prison. They find that if each other stand on the other’s shoulders, one can get over the top. So they try it out. Only to soon wish they hadn’t bothered...
6 Death’s-Head Revisited
WHICH ONE? – The Nazi travels back to the Death Camp to relive his glories, and meets a few old friends...
WHY’s IT GREAT? – Who doesn’t like seeing Nazi’s get held to account for their crimes? Captain Lutze must have been a challenging role for Oscar Beregi Jr to play, as a Hungarian who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but he rises to the challenge and produces a spellbinding performance in one of the few leading roles in his great but sadly shortened career. (Like so many talented actors to appear on the show, Beregi Jr fell afoul of the Curse of the Twilight Zone, dying from a heart attack in his 50s!) “This is not hatred. This is retribution. This is not revenge. This is justice.” Shivers.
5 The Howling Man
WHICH ONE? – The one where the man arrives at a Monastery in the middle of a storm, only to find the monks have captured the Devil!
WHY’S IT GREAT? – John Carradine. The main idea of the story, can you trap the Devil to save the world? The main performances. The setting. The soundtrack of howling wind and rain to go with howling man. The howling of a man begging for mercy trapped in a cell, who may or may not be the Devil. The freaky appearances of the Monks. Listverse recently called this the best Twilight Zone ever made.
4 The Thirty-Fathom Grave
WHICH ONE? – A modern battleship finds a lost WW2 Sub stuck at the bottom of the Atlantic, but there’s noise coming from it...
WHY IT’S GREAT? – I love stories which you get feed clues here and there about what’s actually going on, and just when you think you’ve understood it, it hits you with a realisation so sudden and horrific, you’re just left staring at the TV or computer crying “Oh good lord!”. This is one of the hour long Twilight Zones, which makes the punch in the gut all the more horrible. None of the characters, bar one, are harmed physically by the ordeal, though one suspects it may stay in their minds for a while. From the build up of the madness in a crew member, and the Captain trying to convince the man – a close friend – to take some time to relax, this show grips. Then comes the tapping, thirty fathoms down at the bottom of the Atlantic. An old forgotten Submarine that sunk with all aboard, to meet Davy Jones. And something down there is making noise. If this was you or me or anyone else, we’d bolt 100 miles the other way and get ashore ASAP. But this isn’t us. This is the Twilight Zone, and this is the Navy, and they decide the best thing to do is to go down and investigate...
3 Long Distance Call
WHICH ONE? – Gran dies, and then starts to contact her grandson on a toy phone.
WHY’S IT GREAT? – Billy Mumy is in this one too, as a nice innocent little boy, just showing how good he was at acting. I was sold this story as a nice heart-warming story. So we watched it, and at the end, myself and Mandy just turned to each other and went, “Well, the lights are staying on tonight.” It was fucking terrifying. And I don’t get spooked by TV all that easily. The gran dies, but tells her little grandson that she’ll keep in touch. Then she starts to phone him up on an old toy phone she bought him for his birthday. And the mum hears her mother-in-law’s dead voice on the toy phone! Then the boy starts trying to kill himself under the suggestion of his gran, who wants her little boy to join him because she’s lonely on the other side. There’s nothing heart-warming about that! Who wrote this one? Chuck Beaumont right at the very end of his life, which gives the show an even creepier subtext. Well, that makes me feel even better! Apart from the scares and the absolutely horrible plot, this is a bloody good episode full of great direction, acting and following a fantastic script. But if you’re looking for heart-warming, you’ll be in for a rude awakening.
2 One More Pallbearer
WHICH ONE? – Jealous millionaire brings down three old adversaries to a bunker before a Nuclear War, and tells them he will save their lives if only they apologise to him.
WHY IT’s GREAT? – Joe Wiseman died last October (2009). He was a great actor. Who? Dr No! First ever Bond villain. He’s the lead in this, as the millionaire who holds a grudge, and brings three old adversaries over on the brink of Armageddon. The solution he has is quite simple. Nuclear war is about to break out. Wiseman will save the lives of his three adversaries if they will apologise for their wrongdoings towards him. Only problem is, they refuse to. Now, where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? Wiseman’s character is about to have severe trouble doing this. Brilliant story. Blistering performance.
1 The Obsolete Man
WHICH ONE? – Burgess Meredith is on trial for the crime of being Obsolete. The evidence? He reads. The sentence? Execution, in a manner of his choosing.
WHY IT’S GREAT? – Remember how I said one Burgess Meredith story was yet to come? Well, it tops everything. He gives one of his best performances here, absolutely towering over everyone in a display of sheer acting virtuosity. If this was a film, it’d have been Oscar worthy. It’s a great story this, the most horrible of Serling’s totalitarian regimes. It’s a great script. The other actors do good jobs. But Meredith is so alive, so vociferously raging against the light, so on top of his game. After seeing something like several thousand TV show episodes, hundreds of plays and shitloads of movies, this one of my favourite acting performances. And a performance this good, coupled with a script so scathingly brilliant and direction so crisp, shows exactly why The Twilight Zone is second only to the good Doctor in terms of my favourite TV shows.