Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Lost Classics ★★★½

The original Twilight Zone television series of the 1960s has become one of the most enduring of cult television shows. However, its success has always relied upon the involvement of its two main writers Rod Serling and Richard Matheson. Attempts to revive the show on television in the latter 1980s following an anthology movie earlier in the decade proved not to capture the same hold, despite the show’s new theme by the counter culture band The Grateful Dead. Although the new version of the show offered some intriguing stories and expanded the Serling format it soon lapsed into relative obscurity, a footnote on the original.

Nevertheless, the attempt to prolong the legacy of the original series continued with the 1994 release of a made for television movie The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling’s Lost Classics. This tele-movie was promoted as featuring two newly discovered scripts by Serling and Matheson and promised to be a delight for completists. The two episodes combined to create a feature-length program, introduced rather hurriedly by James Earl Jones, that can perhaps be considered a delayed coda to the series as it makes a point of beginning with the original black and white title sequence.

The first episode of this two-part feature entitled “The Theatre” is based on a story by Serling but is actually scripted by Matheson. In it, Amy Irving stars as a supposedly indecisive woman prone to procrastination. When her boyfriend is unprepared for a date, she goes to a revival cinema alone, intending to see the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday. However, she sees on the screen a brief recap of her events that day. She thinks it is a ploy by her boyfriend but when he is oblivious she returns the next night and sees another vision of her life, but this time continuing after she has left the theatre. The film/vision proves prophetic and she returns yet again, this time horrified when she sees what may be her own death. She emerges from the theatre terrified.

This episode seems rather familiar in premise and sadly under-explored in execution. It starts out as an intriguing exploration of a woman whose procrastination leads to her fascination with seeing her own life pass her by in yet another form. Thus the episode explores the sense of dislocation, of seeing one’s own life unfold but eventually becoming afraid of being able to control it. Indeed for a time it seems as if she may see her own future rush ahead of her and leave her behind as a mere spectator, increasingly drawn to a cinema showing her a life that she should be leading. This would have been material truly suited to the irony of the original series, but it seems as if this subtext was jettisoned. Despite this promising start, the episode descends into a familiar version of the horror of predestination and its payoff is truly disappointing.

Far better is the second episode entitled “Where the Dead Are” and is actually scripted by Serling. Patrick Bergin plays a surgeon in Boston circa 1868 (shortly after the close of the Civil War, a source of tormented memories for him) who performs surgery on a drunk. The drunk dies, but Bergin discovers a major head wound that should have killed the man long ago. He becomes obsessed with discovering why this man did not die, remembering earlier research about a doctor who experimented with regenerative tissue. He tracks down this doctor (Jack Palance) living on an island populated by people obviously hiding a secret. He is warned away, continuing his investigation until Palance finally reveals the truly horrifying nature of the island. Bergin then realizes that his own life is in tremendous jeopardy because of what he now knows.

Serling is at his bleak best in this surprisingly effective episode. It takes the themes of arrogant pride and medical curiosity to monstrous lengths in its depiction of people who are obsessed with conquering death. Far from enhancing life, what this desire finally reveals is a true blight on the human condition and the episode is ultimately a bleak hymn to mortality. It is a morbid and despairing vision of the horror of the desire for immortality and the absolute inevitability of a (most probably horrible) death. Although pride is the most monstrous sin, the experience has some hope in that it may offer Bergin a lesson in humility amidst the horror he uncovers. There is ultimately little joy in life in this nightmarish vision. Indeed, it begs some comparison to the apocalyptic works of director George A. Romero and is especially close to a little seen 1980s horror film Dead and Buried (now released on region 4) although ultimately not as effective as that curious and compelling work.