Tag Archives: Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone, a tree and the Incredibles: TV and movies

With S3 of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the bloom is definitely off the rose with way more flops than in previous seasons. E.g., Cavender is Coming, The Shelter, The Passerby, Still Valley, Dead Man’s Shoes, Four o’Clock and Showdown With Rance McGrew. Some are preachy and heavy-handed, some are unfunny comedies, some just fill a half-hour of TV and accomplish nothing more.

That said, the season also had some terrific episodes. Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson give solid performances as post-WW III survivors in Two, which opens the season. Donald Pleasance gives a moving performance as an aging teacher in the final S3 episode, Changing of the Guard. In between we have It’s a Good Life, the anti-Nazi drama Death’s Head Revisited, Five Characters in Search of an Exit and Person or Persons Unknown. It’s worth sitting through the mediocre to get to the good stuff. I’m not sure I’ll feel that way about S4, the notoriously unsuccessful switch to hour-long episodes (I think mediocre-to-bad episodes are the majority) but I won’t turn back before I finish the whole run (are you impressed at my heroism?).

CHARISMA (1999) is a confusing Korean thriller in which a cop is put on mandatory leave after a botched hostage crisis, travels to a small village and winds up obsessing over a mysterious tree in the arae. I’d assume my utter lack of interest in this (I checked out after about 40 minutes) was due to a culture gap if I hadn’t watched and enjoyed so many Korean films for the time-travel book.

THE INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) picks up immediately where the first film wrapped up, as the family’s battle against Undermind creates so much wreckage it looks like superheroes will stay on everyone’s shit list. A billionaire superhero comes up with a solution, using Elastigirl to fight crime on camera so that viewers will see how much good they do; Mr. Incredible, being overly prone to collateral damage, has to become the stay-at-home parent. But a villain named Screenslaver has a plot that may destroy the family for good … This was a lot of fun, and I give them credit for showing Mr. Incredible as a competent parent rather than a complete inability to handle the kids. Jack-Jack isn’t as cute as they think, but overall this makes me hope for Incredibles 3 some day. “Let’s not go testing the ‘insurance will pay for everything’ idea all at once, okay?”

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The First Law of Evil Magic

Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic (which I’ve blogged about before) is that “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” Lately I’ve been wondering if that works the opposite way: does the ability to make the conflict unsolvable require the reader to understand magic? Like a horror story where the magic is all evil, and all on the bad guys’ side?

I’m inclined to say yes. It doesn’t have to be hard magic (Sanderson’s term for a system of magic with clearly defined rules) but it does have to have internal logic. Though neither readers nor the protagonist may understand the logic until the protagonist gets it in the neck.

For example there was an episode of an anthology series on VH-1 some years ago in which the devil (Roger Daltrey) traps the protagonist into playing a magic guitar. The strings cut his fingers, the blood forms the notes but if he survives to the end of the song he gets to keep the guitar. Only when he reaches the end, it’s some musical symbol that says “go back to the beginning and repeat.” He’s doomed.

That story was definitely soft magic. We have no idea what rules bind Lucifer, other than being obligated to honor the letter of whatever pact he makes (a staple of any “deal with the devil” story). If the protagonist won and Satan killed him anyway, that would make sort-of sense (he’s the Devil, after all) but dramatically it falls flat.

Or consider a movie from 2009, Drag Me To Hell. Protagonist refuses an old woman a loan; woman places curse on protagonist that threatens to destroy her life. We eventually learn some of the rules by which the curse can be broken because that gives the protagonist her endgame: follow the rules, save herself. It doesn’t work but providing the rules provides the suspense.

For a story where magic has no rules, there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life. Billy Mumy (above) plays a little kid with the reality warping power of the Infinity Gauntlet. He wishes it, it happens. Why no, a small child having that power doesn’t end well for anyone around him, how did you guess?

We get no explanation how Mumy got his power or how it works. But for the purpose of this story, that’s okay. We know going on that he has absolute power, so again, we have a clear understanding of the rules.

Victoria Feistner’s excellent Melanie in the Underworld in Love, Time, Space, Magic (the anthology with my short story Leave the World to Darkness) seems like an exception. It involves an Orpheus-like quest to free someone from the netherworld, but even though Melanie follows the rules, she loses. That works because the story ultimately isn’t about freeing her lover, it’s about accepting that he’s gone and dealing with the loss. All of which is foreshadowed early in the story so it doesn’t come out of the blue.

So I guess Sanderson’s law applies here too.

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Rogue Christmas spirits, forgettable Christmas films and more!

KARROLL’S CHRISTMAS (2004) is a fun Christmas Carol riff; Alex Karroll is a disgruntled greeting-card writer who hates Christmas ever since his ex-girlfriend shot down his proposal (in public, no less), only half aware of how badly he’s slipping into bitter depression despite having a new and better girlfriend. When Bob Marley’s ghost shows up (it seems Jacob spent some time in Jamaica as a young man; Bob’s a descendant), it turns out they’ve mistaken Karroll for his even meaner neighbor, Wallace Shawn, so he finds himself dragged into Shawn’s past life instead of his own. Of course the spirit of goodwill wins out, but not before some fun; in its own way as subversive of the conventions as Scrooged. “Your use of the word ‘lunatic’ is very offensive to me and to, well, lunatics.”

Having watched CHASING CHRISTMAS (2004) for Now and Then We Time Travel, I knew it would make a good double bill for the first film; Jack (Tom Arnold) is the Christmas hater this time, due to catching his wife cheating on him during their daughter’s Christmas pageant; unfortunately after Christmas Past (Leslie Jordan) drags Jack back into his childhood, Past snaps, feeling centuries of guilt-tripping people has been completely futile, and strands Arnold in 1965. And if Jack can’t get back to the present before Christmas Day, he’ won’t exist any longer … A fun one, as I thought the first time I watched it.  “I am not some mean old man — I hate Christmas for a reason and no amount of memory is ever going to change that.”

I also caught EVE’S CHRISTMAS (2004) for the book, but I had no memory of that when I decided to stream it. Nor did the first thirty minutes jog my memory as unlucky-in-love Eve gets transported back to right before the wedding to her hometown sweetheart that never happened when she left for a Big Apple job (leaving your home town and not marrying your childhood sweetheart are terrible, terrible, terrible mistake in rom-coms like this). Once I realized I’d seen it, I stopped (trust me, I wasn’t missing anything).

I can’t say THE SANTA CHRONICLES (2018) did any better for me. This made-for-Netflix programmer has two kids attempt to catch Santa result in Mr. Claus losing the hat that gives him his magic powers. Can kids and Santa recover the hat in time to save Christmas? Despite Kurt Russell as a somewhat grump Father Christmas (constantly annoyed that no matter how much he works out, people expect him to be plus-size), this wasn’t worth finishing either.

While I’d planned to rewatch 12 Dates of Christmas it appears I gave that one away with many of the other time-travel DVDs. So instead I went with the old reliable WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) in which entertainers Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby put on a show to save their former CO’s Vermont Inn, and possibly snag dancers Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney for themselves. As familiar as an old shoe by now, but there’s no denying the charm of the performances (particularly Kaye and Vera Allen in “Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”) and the gorgeous Technicolor look. I also found myself thinking of ways it could have gone horribly wrong, like if they’d done the minstrel-show number in actual blackface. “‘Wow’ is somewhere between ‘ouch’ and ‘boing!’”

Another perennial is TWILIGHT ZONE: The Night of the Meek with Art Carney as a burned-out, drunken department-store Santa who gets to play the role for real when he finds a bag that allows him to give everyone the present of their dreams (hmm, where do you suppose it came from? Why, that’s right!). Rewatching, I was struck by the episode’s generosity of spirit; the officious department store-owner is precisely the kind of character who usually gets coal in his stocking in some fashion, but here even he gets a merry Christmas. “Just once, I’d like to see the meek inherit the Earth.”

MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1962) stars the short-sighted cartoon character voiced by Jim Backus as a Broadway star, here performing in an musical adaptation of Dickens. This squeezes in a substantial amount of plot for under an hour, though dropping some details such as Scrooge’s family. Well done, with good songs, though I’m curious what millennials would make of the stylized, simplified style of animation UPA uses here (it was considered quite groundbreaking back in the day). “A hand for each hand was the way it was planned/Why won’t my fingers reach?/A million grains of sand in the world/Why such a lonely beach?”

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Twilight Zone aesthetics: shabby chic? (#SFWApro)

I just finished rewatching the second season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and it holds up just as well as the first (all rights to image remain with current holder).

There are some real turkeys, such as the Three Wishes story “Man in the Bottle” and the recycled urban legend “Twenty Two.” But the good ones far outnumber them.

“Shadow Play,” in which Dennis Weaver tries to convince the court sentencing him to death that the whole thing is Weaver’s dream.

Agnes Moorehead is a farmwife who has to battle “The Invaders” in what’s effectively a one-woman show.

“Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room” is close to a one-man show, as a petty hood has an unexpected conversation with the man in the mirror.

“The Odyssey of Flight 33,” in which the cockpit crew of a passenger jet realize they’ve slipped through time.

And “The Trouble With Templeton” in which Serling shows that despite his fondness for nostalgic stories about people trying to recapture the past, he knows nostalgia can be a trap too.

As I mentioned reviewing the first season, Serling has a fascination with losers, the lonely, the down-and-out. Giving them a second chance, or sometimes taking away their last chance (as in the first season’s “The Big Tall Wish.”). Watching S2, I wonder if the set design doesn’t reflect this.

It’s common for characters on TV who have next to no money to still have huge, attractive apartments. Not in The Twilight Zone. Here cheap rooms look like cheap rooms, flophouses look floppy, a decayed boarding house looks rundown. Struggling small-town diners look small and struggling. It’s most noticeable in “Penny for Your Thoughts,” in which Ace, a compulsive gambler, discovers his best friend Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen) has TK, which he doesn’t use for anything but little everyday tasks. Ace badgers Jimbo into using his powers to cheat at the craps table and they have a brief shot at the big time before Ace ends up broke but wiser.

The thing is, even when they go to a casino to play, it doesn’t look at all glamorous. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall motel/casino somewhere in Nevada, a big step up for Ace but still small time. And it looks it. Ace never even gets close to glamor.

The cheap look wasn’t budget or a lack of vision. The series has no trouble portraying a nice, middle-class lifestyle as in the prosecutor’s house in “Shadow Play.” So was it a conscious decision to drive home that these stories are about the down-and-outers of the world?

Or is it that with everything in color, these just look even shabbier than they originally were? Or maybe this was the norm for 1950s TV, before things got glossy, and it’s just that Twilight Zone is the only 1950s stuff I watch regularly?

I don’t have an answer but I do find it an interesting question.

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Lest we be gravediggers

“The Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes—all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”—Rod Serling, Twilight Zone: Death’s Head Revisited.

Unfortunately we’re already seeing conservatives lining up to shovel those graves by explaining that Nazis and white supremacists aren’t the only issue in Charlottesville. No, the liberals and Black Lives Matter and identity politics, they’re at fault at least as much or even more. Because it’s not like when Martin Luther King was fighting against racism — according to the Wall Street Journal that fight is overthe fault of the left. Now when nonwhite people talk about racism or oppression, it’s just identity politics. And that just inspires extremists on the right, so really it’s the left’s fault (just like we’re responsible for Trump). Erick Erickson just argues flat out that this violence is for pissing off right-wingers.

And of course the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer is celebrating the deaths.

Plus the creeps I linked to this morning.

None of this surprises me. Right-wingers talk very big about getting tough with terrorists, but only when those terrorists are some unrelated, unloved group such as Muslims. I’ve written several columns on right-wing terrorism and violence over the years and invariably trigger outcries of “No, no, it’s a lie, why don’t you mention all the other terrorists?” But even when I mention black militant terrorism, radical leftist terrorism, the Unabomber, etc., they still find my facts politically incorrect (by conservative-PC standards).

Since this morning, Trump has finally denounced white supremacists, which is better than sticking with Both Sides at Fault but … I don’t believe he’s sincere. Whether he’s feeling political pressure or doesn’t like the negative attention (like the Trump Tower protest) I do not know, but I doubt he’s had one of those magic “pivots” to decency. Though if I’m wrong and he’s finally seen some sort of light, I’ll be happy to apologize.

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No-one deserves to die like that! (#SFWApro)

the-twilight-zoneSo I was watching an episode of The Twilight Zone last month and it got me thinking about endings (all rights to image reside with current holder).

The second-season episode A Thing About Machines deals with Finchley, an unpleasant, snide malcontent (Richard Haydn) who hates modern technology and doesn’t like people much anyway (he seems to be some kind of wit or critic professionally). Machines, it turns out, hate him and the way he mistreats them too. At the climax the machines in Finchley’s house rise up (the shaver slithering down the stairs is a neat moment) and drive him out; Finchley’s car chases him and he escapes into a swimming pool where he dies of a heart attack.

Coming right after the outstanding Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room, it’s disappointing, though it would be poor regardless of when it aired. The problem for me is simple: from what I saw, Finchley didn’t deserve to die. Oh, he’s not likable—he seems to be an unpleasantly mean-spirited dude–but not liking machines or even using them so harshly they break hardly seems like a hanging offense.

That’s not a fatal flaw in itself. Twilight Zone does lots of stories where the protagonist doesn’t deserve what happens: the victims of the parallel-world counterparts in Mirror Image, Roddy McDowell’s good-hearted astronaut in People Are Alike All Over. My short story Others Must Fail is all about bad things happening to good people. But the thing is (and the point of this post), when the show (or anywhere else) offers up an odious, unpleasant person coming to a bad end, it’s hard not to see the message as “they had it coming.” It’s possible to write about a horrible person who doesn’t deserve their fate — as Willa Cather put it, even the wicked suffer more than they deserve — but it’s not my default assumption. So instead I assume that the story structure is disproportionate, just as I didn’t think Ida Lupino in The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine deserved her miraculous happy ending.

To use another example, Fritz Leiber’s short story Belsen Express concerns a shallow, middle-class American in the 1950s who hates thinking of unpleasant things like the Holocaust. Sure, it was awful, and a lot of Jews died and stuff, but it’s not his concern—why can’t he stay in his nice coccoon of peaceful cluelessness? But it’s not to be: the echoes of the Holocaust penetrate his daily life until he drops dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, just as if he’d been one of the Jews sentenced to die. It’s very well executed (despite being, according to Leiber, his most rejected story), but rereading it a few years ago, I was discomfited by the death sentence inflicted on the guy. It’s obvious he didn’t do much for the Jews of Europe, but he’s also not someone who was actually there and closing his eyes to what his own country was doing. I felt that a wake-up call would have been more appropriate than a slow, unpleasant death. Leiber, obviously felt differently, and other readers may have too. But I still think that in writing this kind of supernatural vengeance, it’s better if the punishment fits the crime.

EDIT: In response to a comment, let me clarify. I’m fine with tragic stories and bad things happening to good characters. The problem with A Thing About Machines is that the protagonist is apparently supposed to deserve his fate, and I don’t think he does.


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Ghostbusters in the Twilight Zone: Films and TV watched (#SFWApro)

0004565435-ew-1420ghostbusttersGHOSTBUSTERS (2016) is the all-woman remake starring Kristen Wig and Melissa McCarthy as former ghost-hunting best friends who broke up when Wig turned to serious physics instead. Now they reunite alongside mad scientist Kate McKinnon and Big Apple history buff Leslie Jones to stop disgruntled janitor Neil Casey from unleashing Hell on Earth. Extremely funny (TYG liked it and she’s not a fan of the original) with a cast include Mayor Andy Garcia (“Do not compare me to the mayor in Jaws!”), university dean Charles Dance, Annie Potts as a snide hotel clerk, Dan Ackroyd as a cabbie (“I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”), Bill Murray as a James Randi-type and Chris Hemsworth as the women’s brain-dead receptionist (there are also cameos for Slimer and Stay-Pufft). I highly recommend this one (all rights to image with current holders). “When the Fourth Cataclysm comes, laborers such as yourself will be the last ones led to the butchery.”

TYG then dredged out my copy of GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) to see if she’d enjoy it more than when she watched it years ago — nope, but I had fun watching Bill Murray do psychic research, Sigourney Weaver finding evil in her fridge, Rick Moranis attempting to make friends and Ernie Hudson promising to believe anything for a paycheck (his character was originally much more competent, but the role was rewritten when plans for a name black star fell through). “What my associate says is right—this man has no dick!”

ROWS (2015) is a horror film in which the protagonist’s efforts to deliver an eviction notice to a spooky old woman in a supposedly haunted house lead to what are either precognitive flashes, hallucinations or time jumps back and forth. One that I might add to the appendix in the proofing stage (lord knows I’ve picked ones with flimsier qualifications); in its own right, a chaotic mess. “Why did you stab that man?”

Rewatching the first season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the most striking thing is Rod Serling’s fondness for ordinary guys and out-of-luck losers, from drunken ex-gunfighter Mr. Denton to Jack Klugman’s depressed musician in “A Passage for Trumpet” to the burned-out businessman in “A Stop at Willoughby.” (a fondness which didn’t stop Serling from going tragic, as in “The Big Tall Wish.”). It’s also noteworthy that despite the affection in many scripts, Serling was perfectly aware how horrible we could be, most particularly in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Plus of course, despite occasional flops such as “Mr. Bevis,” the stories are mostly excellent. Still worth watching after all these years. “No, it’s not what you need—but it’s exactly what I need.”

DEFIANCE‘s second season (I reviewed the first here) has the city now under control of the Earth Republic, despite which things go on much as before, with various romances at cross-purposes, crime on the streets and the Daytak family entangled in various personal dramas. Still not A-list for me, but still worth watching. “You killed my parents and I loved you for it.”


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Writing eucatastrophe

JRR Tolkien defined a eucatastrophe as the miraculous happy ending he thought fantasy required—“a sudden and miraculous grace, never counted on to recur.” A triumph that makes the heart catch in the throat, that gains power not because it denies defeat and despair, but because it comes in spite of them.
This is tricky to write (I’d also argue it isn’t essential to fantasy, but that’s another topic). If you don’t set it up in advance, it comes off as deus ex machina. If you do set it off in advance, readers may see it coming. Watching the first season of The Twilight Zone on Netflix last week (I’ve been streaming it, episode by episode), I found two textbook examples of how to do it—and how to not do it.
In Mr. Denton on Doomsday, Dan Duryea plans a drunken ex-gunfighter, a man who crawled into a bottle after killing too many people who tried to make a name for themselves by out-shooting him. As local bully Martin Landau knocks him to the ground, a shabby old peddler pulls up into town … and a gun materializes by Duryea’s side. His hand falls on the gun, he gets to his feet and the gun fires itself, blasting Landau’s gun out of his hand (from the point of view of the characters, it looks like Duryea snatched up a gun and recovered his fast-draw skills). He regains his self-respect, stops drinking—and then learns Doug McClure is riding into town to challenge him. It’s all going to happen again.
The peddler, Professor Fate, offers a solution: A potion that will make Duryea the fastest gun alive for just ten seconds after he drinks—enough to guarantee a win. Desperate, Duryea accepts; McClure rides into town, Duryea down the vial—and sees McClure doing the same. Next second, both men (or rather, their guns) shoot, both crippling each other’s hands: Usable for everyday stuff, but they’ll never have the motor skills for a fast draw. Duryea gets to hang up his guns, and so does McClure.
It works because even though it’s obvious Fate is up to something—the ending’s no deus ex machina—it’s never clear what (I expected a much nastier twist). And also because Duryea plays a good guy in a no-win situation, someone who needs a eucatastrophe.
Not so Ida Lupino in the next episode, The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine. A Hollywood star in the 1930s, she’s become a recluse, sitting in her mansion, watching her old movies (back when you had to rent 16-mm copies and run them on a home projector), dreaming of her glory years a quarter-century gone (the resemblance to Sunset Boulevard is not coincidental, I’m sure). Unable to deal with growing old and no longer getting great romantic leads (supporting parts are not for her) she finally walks into the movie screen by the power of her longing, there to meet all her old co-stars (or rather the characters they played) and dwell in glamor, unaging, ever more.
It’s a good concept: Robert Bloch did well with it in The Movie People. And it fits Rod Serling’s fondness for stories of people recovering their lost past. But it doesn’t work. Partly because it comes out of the blue—until we see Lupino onscreen at the end, it’s a straight drama.
And partly it’s because I can’t see any reasons she gets a eucatastrophe. In other Serling stories in this vein, the characters are regaining a lost love (Static), tragically losing everything (Night Gallery: They’re Tearing Down Tim Reilly’s Bar) or suffering the hell of sitting around a nursing home waiting for death (Kick the Can). Lupino’s problem is simply that she doesn’t like being in her fifties. When her former romantic lead shows up—now a fiftysomething manager of a supermarket chain—she throws him out because he’s not the heartthrob she remembers.
She’s not miserable because her life sucks. Her life sucks because she’s miserable. Like the brooding protagonist of another episode, The Trouble With Templeton, she needs a eucatastrophe that adjusts her attitude, not her life.
And that’s how to make a eucatastrophe ending fail.


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