If you think of Rod Serling, then you’ll probably think of The Twilight Zone, his extraordinary TV series that ran for five seasons (not counting revivals and movies), and provided some of the finest TV that you’ll ever see. It was a consistently great show that often used the science fiction format to discuss issues that simply couldn’t have been covered on US TV at the time. Somewhat less well remembered is a similar show that he was involved in at the start of the 1970s.
Night Gallery was an ostensibly similar series of individual short stories, often with a twist in the tale, but while The Twilight Zone was primarily perceived as a science fiction series, Night Gallery was ostensibly more horror themed, and this is, perhaps, one reason why the series has never quite had the reputation of its predecessor – science fiction magazines and historians have always tended to be more dismissive of something that was based around the ‘rival’ genre. In truth, to place either series in one genre over the other is rather simplistic – many Twilight Zone episodes, including some of the very best, were pure horror, while Night Gallery certainly dabbles in sci-fi from time to time.
But petty genre rivalries aside, it must be conceded that Night Gallery is a less interesting series than Serling’s earlier work. Partly, it’s because of when it was made – USTV was not at a creative peak in the early 1970s – but mostly it’s down to an inconsistency, both in style and quality. While not the flop it is often made out to be – it lasted three seasons, after all – Night Gallery underwent various stylistic shifts over its run that didn’t help the show, and watching all three seasons back to back, you see a gradual decline in quality, as Serling’s influence was increasingly diminished and the show ran out of ideas. However, once you accept that the show is not going to reach the dizzying heights of The Twilight Zone consistently, there is still much to admire.
Night Gallery kicked off with a 1969 TV movie, which features three stories. The middle one, Eyes, is the most famous, simply because it saw the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg, and features Joan Crawford as a spiteful, rich blind woman who buys the eyes of another in order to experience a few hours of sight. However, a rather better story is The Cemetery, with Roddy McDowall as a murderous heir who gets a visitation from the grave; and closer Escape Route is, sadly, a rather lacklustre story of a Nazi war criminal coming face to face with his past that ends the film on a bit of a damp squib and perhaps sets the scene for the inconsistency that would finally damn the show. Each story is introduced on-screen by Serling, who plays the curator of a black museum, where the paintings have a dark story behind them – notably, in this pilot, the paintings play a part in the actual stories, but in the subsequent series, they were little more than an introductory image.
The first series, shown in 1970, was part of a ‘wheel’ series, with episodes rotating with three other shows, and so only has six episodes. In an hour-long slot, each show featured two or three stories. This is perhaps the series closest in style to The Twilight Zone (though in colour of course), particularly in Serling-scripted stories like Make Me Laugh (also directed by Spielberg) in which a failed comedian makes a desperate – and, of course, doomed – deal with a miracle worker, Little Black Bag (Burgess Meredith is a former doctor turned bum who finds a medical bag from the future), and Clean Kills and Other Trophies (a hunter forces his pacifist son to shoot a deer, and pays the price) These episodes have the same sense of social commentary, whimsy and cynicism that could be found in the best Twilight Zone shows. The best of them is They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar, which has no actual fantasy elements at all, yet might be the highlight of the entire series – a bleak look at the passing of time, the hopelessness of trying to keep up with the young as age takes over, and the desire to return to a simpler life. It’s a theme that Serling – who wrote this episode – had explored several times in The Twilight Zone, but never as poignantly as he does here.
Other episodes mix the dark humorous – in The Housekeeper, Larry Hagman tries to transfer the soul of a kindly housekeeper into the body of his beautiful but shrewish wife, in Room With a View, nurse Diane Keaton is manipulated into committing murder for a wealthy invalid – with the eerie – The House is a soft focus ghost story, Certain Shadows on the Wall is a bleak and brilliant story of revenge and The Doll a dark tale of colonial revenge, featuring possibly the creepiest living doll in horror history. This latter story was adapted from an Algernon Blackwood story, and literary adaptations would be something that would continue throughout the series.
Season two saw the show move to a stand-alone slot, giving it a full 22 episode run. Serling had rather less involvement as writer this time around, and the quality becomes more variable. There are other changes too – in between the two stories that made up each episode were inserted little horror comedy skits, often written by producer Jack Laird, with whom Serling would continually clash. While sometimes amusing (though mostly terrible), these did little to help the flow of the show, especially with the darker stories. This interference seems to sum up the problems with Night Gallery – Serling’s vision constantly interfered with by the uncultured Laird, who would chop and change his screenplays and increasingly treat him as little more than a figurehead for the series – a shocking come down for a man who’d had complete creative control over his previous series. Yet if we are to ignore the internal politics of the production and simply watch the product almost fifty years on, we can see that there is still a lot to enjoy in the tales on offer here.
Serling’s Class of 99 is pure science fiction (and pure Twilight Zone, you might say), with a graduating class being given rather extreme tasks by Vincent Price, while his A Death in the Family is a haunting tale of loneliness and necrophile obsessions. The Flip-Side of Satan sees a ruthless DJ literally stuck in the radio station from Hell, while The Academy (again by Serling) sees Pat Boone, of all people, visiting a military academy for wayward boys, where it turns out that no one ever graduates. A Question of Fear sees a straight-faced Leslie Nielsen as a mercenary who accepts a bet to stay in a haunted house, only to find that there are rather more mortal things to fear, while Sins of the Fathers explores the rarely filmed world of the Sin Eater. The Caterpillar is a dark tale of murder in Borneo, with a twitchy Laurence Harvey as the man who finds his cunning plans backfiring, and You Can’t Get Help Like That Anymore is another classic Serling Twilight Zone story with domestic robots rebelling against their cruel owners.
There are a couple of odd, rather experimental pieces – Marmalade Wine, based on the story by Joan Aiken, is deliberately theatrical and surreal, while Silent Snow, Secret Snow is a visual fantasy narrated by Orson Welles. And there are interesting pieces based on short stories by Richard Matheson (Big Surprise), August Derleth (House with Ghost; Dark Boy) and H.P. Lovecraft (Pickman’s Model; Cool Air).
Not everything is good – opener The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes, featuring a young Ron Howard, is a plodding science fiction story, Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay is a lacklustre witchcraft tale and The Phantom Farmhouse is a dull shape shifter story that even David Carradine and David McCallum can‘t liven up. But for a season with so many stories featured, this is probably a lot better than it should be – at least 38 of the stories are pretty solid, which actually compares favourably with The Twilight Zone, and is a much better batting average than most subsequent anthology shows.
Season Three unfortunately saw a notable quality drop. The format changed again, with the show is reduced to a thirty minute time slot featuring a single story, and there is little memorable to find in them.
Season opener Return of the Sorcerer, based on a Clark Ashton Smith story, is a Corman-Poe inspired bit of fluff with Vincent Price hamming it up as a black magician and Bill Bixby as his new librarian, but despite the cast and a certain quirky humour, it fails to really work. Many of the subsequent stories feel more like trimmed down Movie of the Week instalments, lacking any real bite. Only a few are at all memorable: Serling’s Rare Objects, with Mickey Rooney as a gangster offered a way out of his tiring and dangerous life, The Other Way Out (murderer Ross Martin is trapped in a house by sinister Burl Ives), Finnegan’s Flight (prisoner Burgess Meredith dreams of escape, aided by hypnotist Cameron Mitchell) and Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut Death on a Barge – featuring Lesley Ann Warren as a beautiful vampire – are the only stand outs amongst the sixteen episodes. It’s not that the rest are all awful, but there is little of the quality of the earlier seasons here. It all feels rather tired, despite returning directors like John Badham and Jeannot Schwarz, both on their way to bigger things (other renowned directors to work on the series included Don Taylor, Daniel Haller, Boris Sagal and Gomez Addams himself, John Astin – who also starred in a couple of stories).
But the weak final season aside, Night Gallery really deserves a better reputation than it has. Of course, it was following in some pretty impressive footsteps, but the best of this show is certainly equal to the best of The Twilight Zone. Often butchered for US TV syndication and barely seen at all in the UK, the uncut episodes actually reveal a series that has aged rather well. Fans of Serling’s work, 1970s horror and cult TV will find much to enjoy in this much underrated series.