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Night Gallery gets a bad rap. It was an uneven horror anthology series, sure, but it was never out and out BAD. It just had the unenviable position of being Rod Serling’s follow-up to the Twilight Zone, and the Twilight Zone is one hell of an act to follow.

If you go into the show expecting something as cerebral or even a tenth as clever as Serling’s more beloved masterpiece, you’ve no outcome but to leave disappointed. If you give it a fair shake, though, I think you’ll find it’s a show with it’s own unique tone that, for better or worse, distinguishes it from it’s more respected older sibling.

Night Gallery (Universal Studios)

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The setup is pretty standard. Each episode is introduced by Serling as he takes us on a tour through the Night Gallery. Every weird and macabre painting the gallery has on display tells an equally weird and macabre story. Some involve the supernatural, science fiction or just cruel irony, but most of the time it’s some kind of monster.

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Produced by Jack Laird, Night Gallery saw Serling sort of take a back seat in the creative process. They notoriously butted heads, with Serling eventually settling into his role as “just a writer and host” for the series (gradually dialing back the number of scripts he submitted) while Laird steered the ship in the creative direction he preferred. I don’t think this was necessarily a terrible thing, mind you. If the show was just “The Twilight Zone in color and with gaudy ’70s furniture” then I think it might have actually fared far worse in the long run. Laird’s penchant for humor and variety show techniques is what made Night Gallery its own thing, even if the approach stifled Serling.

The gimmick of Night Gallery, at least through it’s first two seasons, was that each hour-long episode featured two or three segments of varying length and tone. There’d be a long story that was the primary draw and it was usually the tale that was most horror-centric. Surrounding it would be one or two “black-out sketches”; short comedy routines, usually starring celebrities, that would end on a bad pun or a droll gag.

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I both love and hate these sketches. They’re what make Night Gallery stand out, but the whole ‘Laugh In” shtick also makes for tonal whiplash with the darker A story they often bookend. And the jokes are almost always corny stuff straight out of the Groovie Goolies. Vampires going to blood banks to “make a withdrawal”, or Mr. Hyde complaining that Igor put too much vermouth in the potion… that sort of shit.

But then when season 3 came along and switched to a half-hour format, dropping the sketch comedy bits for the sake of time… I found myself strangely missing them. It was like watching Beavis & Butt-Head without the music video segments; an element that was intrinsically part of the show’s DNA was now conspicuously absent.

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Nevertheless, the wraparound sequences featuring Serling introducing and eulogizing each story were still there, and his eerie frankness added the touch of class the series needed. But his gloomy intros often exaggerated the tonal disconnect, with him delivering a harsh summary of a complex morality play only to lead into a 5-minute bit where John Astin and Phyllis Diller argue over their marriage in a netherworld funeral parlor.

Likewise, the surrealist paintings by Thomas J. Wright would often promise more than the story would deliver. In interviews, Wright has admitted to creating the paintings with only the vaguest of impressions about the content of the story they’d be attached to. “Someone dies in a hospital”, “Something to do with the moon”, “There’s a witch in this one maybe”. It’s very impressionistic, but as with Serling’s doom-laden soliloquies, they were more often than not paired with goofy camp segments starring Adam West as Dr. Jekyll or Leslie Neilson as the Phantom of the Opera.

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Then there are the stories written by Rod Serling, which believe it or not, aren’t always the best episodes of the series. That’s not to say that they aren’t GOOD teleplays or anything, many of them are brilliant, but several of them aren’t even remotely horror related (which is a bad fit for a horror anthology series).

Take “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” as a prime example. Serling considered this to be one of the best teleplays he ever wrote, and you can see why when you watch it. It’s a heart-crushing story about nostalgia, wasted potential and the inevitability of change. However, the only slight supernatural undertone to the story is the main character witnessing specters of his youth at an abandoned bar and desperately trying to relive those moments. There’s nothing scary or horror-oriented about the story. It’s moving, it’s wonderful… it’s in the wrong show.

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The same can be said for Serling’s episode “The Messiah on Mott Street”. What a great story; you’ve got Edward G. Robinson as a dying grandfather trying to overcome the shadow of Death because he fears leaving his impoverished grandson all alone. The grandson, meanwhile, is hopeful that “the messiah” will come and set things right, but the only one who shows him any warmth is a stranger (Yaphet Kotto). It is fantastically acted, touching even with its saccharine conclusion, and absolutely, positively… in the wrong show.

But if it sounds like I’m hating on Night Gallery, then please don’t come to that conclusion. Yeah, a lot of Serling’s scripts were essentially rehashes of older Twilight Zone episodes, and most plots relied on scary monsters over mind-blowing twist endings, but that’s actually part of its charm. Even if formulas were familiar, the scripting and execution were often so tense and well-acted that you didn’t mind. And as for the scary monsters, the effects on them were so damn good (most of the time) that their visuals stuck with you well past childhood.

Here are some of my favorites, selected in no particular order of preference:

“Eyes”

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This one is from the original TV movie that acted as a pilot for the full series. It’s the most famous of the three stories in that film, partly because it’s the best, and partly because it was directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

In “Eyes”, a blind millionaire played by Joan Crawford blackmails a surgeon into giving her an eye transplant from a poor schlub desperate to pay off his gambling debts (Tom Bosley, sounding like an old Jewish mother, or maybe just sounding like Tom Bosley). It will only give her sight for a few minutes, but she’s willing to do whatever it takes for the momentary thrill. Of course, it doesn’t go the way she plans.

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This is one of those stories that feels most like a leftover Twilight Zone script, building toward the ironic twist instead of the “scary monster” format. And the twist is good! It’s especially satisfying, considering how utterly loathsome Crawford’s character is (she lays the cruelty and selfishness on thick).

Spielberg’s direction might not be too eye-popping by today’s standards, but you can see the originality of his approach that makes the episode so memorable. I love the way the whole world goes black, save for Crawford, including all the props. How she blunders around in a dark universe trying to feel objects that the audience can’t see is weird and helpfully interpretive to a sense that doesn’t normally participate in TV viewing (touch).

“The Doll”

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Now this is the quintessential “scary monster” Night Gallery episode. It’s the type Serling regarded with derision in later interviews, which is odd, because he wrote this one (albeit adapted from a story by Algernon Blackwood).

In “The Doll”, a wealthy British Army Officer returns from India to find that his niece has been given a very ugly, frightening doll (which she just loves for some reason). The doll is cursed, sent to her by the brother of a man the Officer killed, and capable of moving all on its own. The doll has poisoned teeth and one bite will mean the Officer’s certain doom, but the doll cannot be stopped.

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Egad, this one scared me shitless when I was little. There were a lot of scripts in this series that Serling essentially recycled or reworked from Twilight Zone episodes. Some were more gratuitous self-plagiarism jobs than others, and “The Doll” is a slightly new take on his old Talky Tina episode. But lack of originality be damned, the episode is effective strictly for the creepy doll (which unlike Tina, never speaks out loud).

It’s proof that anthology horror stories that rely on a premise as thin as “scary monsters” can be just as effective as cerebral tales leading toward big twists.

“Big Surprise”

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And on the flip side, here’s one that builds to a twist that’s utterly horrifying.

Written by Richard Matheson (the other half of the Twilight Zone‘s success), a group of school children are told by an old farmer (John Carradine) to go to a certain spot in a lonely field and start digging until they find a “big surprise”. As the hours wane on, the exhausted children begin to give up until only one boy is left to dig for the surprise. And he gets it.

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I kind of hate suggesting “twist” episodes as my favorites because you can’t talk about them in-depth. If you have seen the episode then you likely think I’m being silly for trying not to spoil a 46 year-old television series. If you HAVEN’T seen the episode then you’re likely already two minutes into a Google search, endeavoring to spoil the twist for yourself, anyway. So why the fuck do I bother?

Anyhow, there’s a vagueness to the ending that makes it all the more chilling, leaving you wondering if there is or isn’t a supernatural angle to the “big surprise” and precisely what the intention of the “big surprise” is. Matheson was a national treasure.

“Pickman’s Model”

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Something of a shoe-in for a show with Night Gallery‘s format; this is considered one of the better H.P. Lovecraft adaptations out there (at least by those who are willing to make compromises with Lovecraft’s work).

In case you haven’t read the short story, Richard Upton Pickman has a habit of painting hideous ghouls for a living. His girlfriend wants to learn more about her secretive lover, but when she follows him to his studio, she finds exactly where he’s getting his portrait “models”.

The script (adapted by Alvin Sapinsley) makes the aforementioned compromises with precision, respecting Lovecraft’s original story while appeasing the mainstream expectations of romance and action. Turning Pickman’s friend from the original story into his lover for the adaptation wound up altering very little on a fundamental level, so I’d honestly rank this as one the few Lovecraft adaptations worth searching out.

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I suppose where the episode falters is when it decides to reveal the ghoul at the very end. Throughout the episode, the beast is hidden by shadow; the suggestion of its monstrosity being enough to satisfy your curiosity. When the ghoul shows up in a furry, clumsy rubber suit and starts wrestling with Pickman in his studio… the terror wears off rather quickly.

That said, it’s still pretty great all the way up until the end. Jack Laird, or at least the story editor for the show, seemed to have a great love of the old pulp era weird fiction authors and many episodes are adapted from tales by Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Donald Wandrei, August Derleth and others. Still more episodes simply pay tribute to them, even in comedy sketches (such as “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture”, which is a marathon of Cthulhu Mythos references dropped in rapid succession by a clueless member of academia).

“The Return of the Sorcerer”

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On that note, here’s an adaptation of one of Mythos scribe Clark Ashton Smith’s most famous stories.

In this tale, Bill Bixby is hired by Vincent Price to translate some ancient and obscene documents. As Bixby comes to find out, Price is actually a sorcerer who dismembered his more powerful brother. Of course, dismembering a sorcerer doesn’t mean you’ve killed him, as the parts begin to appear all over the dark mansion in an attempt to reassemble themselves.

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In the case of “Return of the Sorcerer”, it’s an episode highlighted primarily by its cast. The adaptation of Smith’s story is pretty fair, but then it was a simple yarn to begin with (one of his best known, but not necessarily one of his best written). Bixby is, of course, an expert at playing the hapless innocent trapped in a bad situation, while Price is, of course, an expert at playing cruel and malevolent warlocks.

So naturally, they carry the story with an intuitive ease that speaks to their individual strengths as actors. The macabre plot about a dismembered wizard trying to pull himself together to get revenge ties it all up in a neat package. And I dug the set design for the Satanic ritual at the conclusion; some old school Anton LaVey stuff.

“The Caterpillar”

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This is possibly the most famous episode of the series and usually makes these sorts of lists. Even if you’re tired of hearing about it, there’s a reason it always gets brought up in Night Gallery discussions. It’s just that good.

In this Rod Serling exercise of implied horror, a sneaky scumbag in Borneo tries to eliminate a wealthy gentleman and steal his wife. His method of murder is particularly gruesome, as he hires an executioner to slip a caterpillar into the man’s ear as he sleeps with the hope that the bug will eat through his brain. Unfortunately, the executioner gets the rooms wrong.

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You never see the damn caterpillar. Not once. Instead, all the disgusting, agonizing torment is described to you in detail, either through choice adjectives or hideous screaming. So this is still a “scary monster” episode, but one that never has to show you even a trace of the monster to be effective.

What’s even better is that there’s a sort of double-twist to the story. The bad guy getting the caterpillar in his ear by mistake is only the first one. You might be able to guess the second.

Honorable Mentions:

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  • “There Aren’t Anymore MacBanes” (for that spooky phantom animal thing with the glowing red eyes)
  • “The Miracle at Camafeo” (a brutal twist to someone who really deserves it)
  • “Camera Obscura” (some nice optical effects in the weird dimension Rene Auberjonois gets trapped in)
  • “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay” (predictable monster tale, but the multiplying old hag at the finale is creepy as fuck)
  • “The Cemetery” (from the TV movie, a meh ending but preceded by great performances from Roddy MacDowall and Ossie Davis)
  • “The Class of ’99” (a thoughtful tale by Serling about race relations, independent thought and academia in the “distant” future, also with Vincent Price)
  • “Cool Air” (a decent adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story with a surprisingly gory ending for a 1970s broadcast)

Check out some of my other anthology horror TV reviews: Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series

  • Brian Thomas

    Also recommended, “Sins of the Father”. No monster as such, but with a real gut punch of an ending. Nice work by Richard Thomas and Geraldine Page. Also with a rare TV appearance by the legendary Barbara Steele and episode direction that recalls the style of Mario Bava.

    • Mark Pellegrini

      That was an excellent one, yes. While it had that “tele-play” feel to it, the performances were superb. Great twist ending, too, that while otherwise telegraphed didn’t lose any of its potency thanks to the delivery.