Posts Tagged ‘The Twilight Zone’

I know, I know: a lot of old movies and TV shows recently, but what are the options? Still, you have to try and find a way to stay hopeful about the future, even now, even ridiculous as the notion feels. So – a new movie, which basically means a streamer. Or perhaps not so much a stream as a Big River, if you know what I mean – this company’s production arm recently enjoyed the world’s global #1 movie, in the form of Woody Allen’s latest offering (and if you weren’t sure of just how much things were still in upheaval, this sentence should make it entirely clear to you), but let’s consider something with slightly better prospects of actually being any good.

Of course, the brand new movie I have chosen as a change from all the archive material opens as a finely-observed pastiche of TV show from sixty or so years ago: Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night opens with a set of credits and a terse voice-over which position it as an episode of a fictitious anthology SF series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or Dusky Realm. This initially seems like a rather odd choice, as we proceed directly into a lengthy sequence entirely unlike anything Fifties TV would ever have produced: long, long takes and rattling dialogue, the viewer left to try and get some sense of what is going on.

We are in New Mexico, at some point at the back end of the Fifties, and it’s the night of the first basketball game of the season. Pretty much everyone in the small town of Cayuga is at the school to watch the match, and the sense of a community is well evoked: everyone seems to know everyone else, the same old tall tales passing from person to person almost as a ritual of belonging. Not planning on watching the game are local DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), whose friendship has an easy closeness that suggests the possibility of something more, somewhere down the line. The opening has a gentle sense of nostalgia which makes it endearing, and there’s a nice moment where Fay discusses various predictions about the future that she’s heard – cars with electronic drivers and transport by vacuum-tube railway Everett can believe in, but the idea of a phone in your pocket you can use to take photos with? Come off it.

Before the movie gets too cute, the two part company and another bravura sequence ensues, with Fay manning the town switchboard and beginning to get odd calls from some of her fellow citizens: suddenly you can imagine perfectly how a scenario like this might have worked as a Twilight Zone episode, making a virtue of the restricted setting and cast. The camera stays fixed on Fay in a single, very long take as she hears about strange noises showing up on phone lines and panicked suggestions that not all is as it should be in Cayuga’s airspace. Everett agrees to broadcast the strange sounds and makes an appeal for help from anyone who can identify it – and someone duly calls in, claiming he was part of a top-secret US military project concerned with strange metal objects and the same peculiar transmissions. Gradually the situation becomes a little clearer, with the same message coming from everyone Fay and Everett talk to: there’s something in the sky…

So, yes, this is essentially a UFO movie, a subgenre which invariably gets lumped in with actual SF, simply because adherents of the extraterrestrial hypothesis will have you believe that UFOs are spacecraft. (Personally I think that if UFOs are indeed the stuff of science fiction, then the science in question has a good chance of turning out to be either anthropology or psychology.) But this kind of elision has been going on for decades and is largely immaterial to whether or not The Vast of Night is actually any good. Well, I think it is.

This is, fairly obviously, quite a low budget movie (though the film industry being as it is, the ‘low budget’ is a sum of money I could probably live on quite happily for the rest of my life), but this kind of film is where an up-and-coming writer-director gets to do his stuff. Patterson proceeds to demonstrate his ablity with great assurance. Possibly the film is a little mannered – there are a lot of long takes of different kinds, including one in which the camera zooms around town, into and around a building, up a flight of stairs and then out through a window, while the TV show gimmick is briefly alluded and he’s also fond of actors soliloquising over a black screen – but the overall effect is still more than enough to be impressive. As a calling card, this should do the trick; it may also help the careers of McCormick and Horowitz (who carry the movie quite adeptly), too.

Whether the film actually needed the Twilight Zone framing gimmick is another question; I can imagine it working just as well without it, and it’s not as if it actually resembles the show that closely. Some bits do; others clearly don’t. In the end I suppose it is justified, because The Vast of Night isn’t just an act of pastiche with some virtuoso direction incorporated into it. My integrity as a critic (shut up at the back) prevents me from going into too much detail as to how the story pans out, but it did seem to me there is a thought-through metaphor in this film. The protagonists may be WASP-y teenagers, but the characters who have encountered the aliens and the government before and share their stories are not: one is a black man, apparently chosen for dangerous duty because he was considered expendable; another is a woman who was a single mother at the time. The voices in the movie speaking of ominous, little-understood, largely invisible forces are those of the dispossessed and disregarded, the underclass of a supposedly classless nation.

Anyone watching The Vast of Night expecting the usual action-adventure sci-fi triviality is likely to be disappointed, but this is an impressive movie, thought-through, well-made, and likely to provoke conversations amongst those who have seen it. I can’t imagine Rod Serling ever writing anything quite like it, but I think he would have been proud to put it alongside the better episodes of his show. Well worth watching.

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It is, I am reliably informed, just about Christmas, and therefore possibly a good time to do something different. Now, as regular visitors will be aware, I do spend most of my time hereabouts talking about new films and (most commonly) genre movies from the past, interspersed with occasional musings about musty old cult TV series from the sixties and seventies. But for once, let us go boldly into new territory and take a look at a brand spanking new theatrical production, which recently had its world premiere in London (based on a musty old cult TV series from the sixties – you shouldn’t overdo the novelty thing).

Yes, it is a stage version of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. I suppose it is just possible that you may be reading this and not aware of exactly what The Twilight Zone is, or was: it was an anthology TV show that ran for five seasons from 1959, primarily consisting of fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories, mainly from the pens of Serling himself (92 episodes), Richard Matheson (16 episodes) and Charles Beaumont (about 20 episodes – there is a degree of ghostwriting involved). Although it obviously predated Star Trek by a good half-decade, the intention of Serling matches that of Gene Roddenberry with striking closeness – Serling wanted to write about serious contemporary and philosophical issues, but the network were skittish, and his solution was to disguise his subject matter in the trappings of fantasy.

The question, of course, is why do a stage version of The Twilight Zone now, in 2017, and in Britain? The show itself is the most quintessential piece of post-war Americana imaginable. The answer, I suspect, is simply that The Twilight Zone has come to permeate popular culture to a degree where everyone is on some level familiar with it, even if they’re not aware of that fact – everyone recognises the doo-de-doo-doo-doo-de-doo-doo theme tune, not to mention Serling’s own inimitable style of narration. And the most famous of its stories have almost become folklore, thanks to endless parodies, homages, and remakes.

In a sense this is almost a problem, because so many of the original stories’ ingenious twist endings are now their best-known features. I suspect one of the reasons why the various attempts to revive The Twilight Zone never really took off (there was a revival in the eighties, another in the early noughties, and another new version, to be overseen by Jordan Peele – presumably on the strength of Get Out – was announced earlier this month) is that every single new episode was compared to the greatest triumphs of the Serling version, as opposed to the mid-table episodes, of which there are a fair few.

I’ve no idea how many of the audience at the Almeida in Islington were familiar with the TV show, but it was a good turnout, with many people bringing their kids from the look of things. Will this result in a spike in DVD sales of the TV show in north London? I’ve no idea.

So, you may be wondering: how do you adapt 156 episodes of black and white 1960s TV into a two-hour stage show? Adaptorial duties have been done by Anne Washburn, who has wisely chosen to pick eight or so of the original scripts and rework them for the stage, with a cast of about a dozen playing various roles.

Things get going with a truncated version of Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, setting a rather drolly comic tone which persists for most of the first half, at least. This rolls on into similarly cut-down retellings of Nightmare as a Child, Little Girl Lost, Perchance to Dream, and a not just cut-down but seemingly cut-up take on And When the Sky was Opened. The results are impressionistic more than anything else, giving a vague sense of the original stories and the unsettlingly unpredictable world in which the series specialised.

There’s more of the same in the second half, although it seemed to me the tone darkens as the play continues: with two of the stories concluded, their places are taken by versions of The Long¬†Morrow and The Shelter, along with – I assume, not having reached the episodes in question yet in my own viewing of the TV series – uncredited elements from either The Dummy or Caesar and Me. There’s also an oblique gag based on To Serve Man (not sure how many people got that), and the central conceit of Eye of the Beholder is also incorporated as a kind of silent ballet, threaded through the production.


It is, as I say, more of an impressionistic homage to the look and style of The Twilight Zone, for whatever that’s worth. One of the great strengths of the show was Serling’s willingness to completely change the tone of the series from episode to episode – a really quite dark drama like Back There is followed by an absurd comedy, The Whole Truth, for instance¬†– and one result of Washburn’s cut-up approach is that everything ends up feeling tonally quite similar. Naturally, this means the dramatic stories suffer more than the comedic ones, although the heart of the second half is a lengthy excerpt from The Shelter, in which the fault-lines of ethnicity and religion running through American society are ripped open by a crisis. You can see just why a writer in 2017 would zero in on this particular script (written in 1961) as still having something to say.

Mostly, though, this is a knowing version of The Twilight Zone intended to generate laughs rather than anxiety – the insertion of a musical number (stormingly performed by Lizzy Connolly) into Perchance to Dream just emphasises this. There’s also much fun had with the presence, or absence, of Rod Serling as narrator: as the show progresses, various characters find themselves possessed by the spirit of Serling, addressing the audience in that teeth-gritted manner, unable to stop themselves from producing cigarettes, seemingly out of thin air. There’s a similar gag concerning the title of the series, which people are endlessly stopped from saying, although the famous Marius Constant theme music is deployed less effectively than I would have expected.

In the end it is an engaging couple of hours, although perhaps lacking somewhat in heft and seriousness compared to the TV show at its best. My suspicion is that anyone more than passingly familiar with the original episodes will find it a little frivolous; others will probably enjoy themselves but wonder exactly what the fuss is about when it comes to the TV show. I would say it was a tribute to or parody of The Twilight Zone more than an actual adaptation, but an inventive, entertaining, and well-mounted one.

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