Sunday, February 26, 2012

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: Season One - Blu-ray (CBS 1959-60) Image Entertainment

"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow. Between science and superstition. And it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call, The Twilight Zone."
- Rod Serling
In the late 1950s the business of making movies was in dire straits. Emasculated by the government (who forced the studios to divest themselves of their 'top heavy' star system) and trumped by the onslaught of television (then viewed by the movie moguls as 'that little black box' that would 'never amount to anything') the film industry in totem began its sad, and excruciatingly slow, decline.
Many of the stars that had built careers at a single studio for 20 or even 50 years, now found themselves unemployed - and seemingly unemployable as freelancers. In hindsight, the movies' loss was television's gain. While the movies desperately continued to search for the next 'big name' to hang on a marquee TV was content to exploit the cast offs from the silver screen. One of the small screen recipients that benefited immensely from this mass exodus was Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Each week audiences could tune in to see such stellar talents as Charles Bronson, Burgess Meredith, Jack Warden, Richard Conte, Rod Taylor and Jack Klugman in bizarre tales of the supernatural. Better still, Serling's half hour serial was photographed on the old MGM back lots in Culver City - a superior landscape of architecture and props that gave The Twilight Zone its ultra-gloss high production values.
Serling, who began his career from the ground up, eventually transitioned from radio to teleplays and then this, his first independently produced TV series. The Twilight Zone features intelligently written stories (mostly by Serling) expertly played. Regrettably, The Twilight Zone was not to last. Frequently in trouble with the censors and his sponsors, Serling found creative ways of inserting his own morality and social critiques into each story line. But the show never found its audience. Regrettably so, The Twilight Zone was never a smash hit, despite some initial enthusiasm and praise from the critics. It was cancelled three times during its initial run on CBS, only to be resurrected again by a new sponsor in the eleventh hour each time.
However, time does strange things to real 'reel' art. Hence, even from our contemporary perspective The Twilight Zone remains a masterpiece. More importantly, it has entered our collective consciousness to become synonymous with the macabre and the unexplained. Even those who have never seen an episode know the mere mention of the show's title and can probably hum a few bars of its iconic opening music. Serling, who wrote 92 of the original 156 episodes, eventually tired of his weekly battles to get his pure vision across. In 1964, The Twilight Zone went off the air for good. Yet, it left an indelible mark on audiences. Throughout the 1970s, it was frequently revived on CBS in syndication as late night fodder following the eleven o'clock news.
And now CBS Home Entertainment bows The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray. The results are beyond what anybody - even Serling - might have imagined. The show's debut episode, 'Where Is Everybody?' features Earl Hoffman as a man who finds himself in a seemingly normal mid-western town completely void of people. 'One For The Angels', has Ed Wynn as a failed salesman who cheats death...but at what cost? 'Mr. Denton on Doomsday' stars film noir favorite, Dan Duryea as a drunk in the old west who reclaims his former life as a gunslinger, thanks to a mysterious traveling salesman's magic elixir. 'The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine' stars Ida Lupino as a faded film star locked in her screening room and refusing to accept that her career is over.
The aforementioned episodes are all beautifully told within the confines of a half hour time slot. And yet they seem to lack something, perhaps that dark and sinister quality that would eventually come to exemplify the series later on. 'Walking Distance' marks the true beginning of that something more diabolical lurking beyond the shadows with Gig Young as a harried executive who returns to his hometown only to discover that he has stepped back in time. 'Time Enough At Last' showcases Burgess Meredith as a far sighted, henpecked bookworm who finds that a world without people is impossible to live in after he has broken his glasses. 'Perchance to Dream' has Richard Conte as a man terrified to go to sleep because he believes a woman in his dreams is out to kill him. 'Judgment Night' is the story of a German passenger aboard a British cruiser, who is devoured by his anxieties after WWII breaks out. 'And When The Sky Opened' has Rod Taylor as a Colonel in the space program who, after returning from his first mission, hallucinates a crew aboard his one man rocket.
'What You Need' is the first of Serling's 'urban decay' stories with a two bit thug hoping to cash in on a salesman's uncanny ability to sell customers things they will need in the future. 'The Four of Us Is Dying' is truly remarkable; about a shape shifter who meets his demise on a lonely city street after assuming the wrong identity. 'Third from the Sun' is the story of two NASA scientists who steal a spaceship to escape nuclear winter on earth. 'I Shot An Arrow into the Air' pits three astronauts against one another for survival after their ship crash lands on a foreboding landscape.
'The Hitch Hiker' is another chilling standout, with Inger Stevens as a woman travelling across country, who keeps seeing the same hobo thumbing for a ride on the side of the road. 'The Fever' is about an ultra-conservative boor who is ruined by his gambling addiction. 'The Last Flight' is a shocker, as Kenneth Hugh lands his WWI biplane in the present day, having lost 50 years in the blink of an eye. 'The Purple Testament' tells the story of a WWII soldier who has the uncanny ability to identify those who will die in the next battle simply by looking into a soldier's face.
'Elegy' is perhaps the most disturbing episode from Season One. It tells the story of three astronauts who crash land on a planet remarkably like earth, except that all of the inhabitants appear to have been embalmed. 'Mirror Image' features Vera Miles as a woman who increasingly fears that a replica of herself is trying to take over her life. 'The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street' examines man made hysteria, after a quiet street turns chaotic with rumours that aliens have already landed to colonize the earth. 'A World of Difference' takes the old adage of 'art imitating life' a bit too seriously when a man suddenly has doubts whether the life he's been living is real or perhaps imagined. 'Long Live Walter Jameson' stars Kevin McCarthy as a history professor who has actually lived all of the events he lectures on. Paranoia runs amuck when Roddy McDowell plays an astronaut on Mars where he discovers inhabitants very similar to us in 'People Are Alike All Over'. In 'Execution' a man escapes being put to death in the present but cannot cheat fate quite so easily.
In 'The Big Tall Wish' a washed up prizefighter gets a boost from a little boy who believes in magic. In 'Nightmare as a Child' a woman is forced to relive her mother's murder as seen through the eyes of a precocious 11 year old. 'A Stop At Willoughby' is one of the series' most iconic episodes with James Daly as a man who manages to stave off a nervous breakdown by dreaming of an idyllic hometown. 'The Chaser' turns a man's lust upside down when the love potion he uses to seduce his intended goes awry. 'A Passage for Trumpet' gives a band player who committed suicide a second chance to make his mark on the world.
'Mr. Bevis' is a quid pro quo between a dorky wallflower and his guardian angel who forces him to make a terrible sacrifice to gain the success he desires. 'The After Hours' has Anne Francis as a woman who discovers her department store salesgirl is really a mannequin. 'The Mighty Casey' resurrects a baseball team's hope of winning the championship by employing a humanoid robot to pitch. The final episode in Season One is 'A World of His Own' featuring Keenan Wynn as a playwright who can make things and people appear or disappear, simply by describing them. Say what you will about my all too brief descriptions of these episodes. Suffice it to say, The Twilight Zone is never dull! On a weekly budget that today wouldn't even pay for a twenty second commercial spot, Rod Serling manages to pull off the impossible, creating weird and engrossing alter universes to the one we all currently reside in.
The main reason for the series' enduring success is that Serling doesn't rely on gimmicky (and expensive) special effects to sell his oddities. Like all great storytellers, he knows that the simple approach is usually the best. As such, these episodes heavily rely on the actors to generate necessary chills, harrowing uncertainty and unnerving paranoia. Serling's 'twist' endings have since been overdone as overkill on many a TV series hoping to cash in on The Twilight Zone's success. In fact, Serling even tried to match The Twilight Zone's taste for the macabre a few years later with another serial - Night Gallery. Yet none of the pretenders that have come since have rivaled or surpassed these episodes for their bold originality. Most cannot even compare.
Image Entertainment (in conjunction with CBS Home Video) have outdone themselves on The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray. The exemplary mastering efforts have yielded a superior B&W image with rich textures and fine details never before seen. Skin, fabric, grass, trees, etc. - the image pops with superior clarity. The gray scale has been impeccably balanced. Blacks are velvety deep and solid. Whites are pristine. Age related artifacts have been cleaned up. Film grain is very natural in appearance. The audio has also been remastered for maximum clarity in stereo. CBS has also preserved the original mono audio tracks for purists.
When Image opted several years ago to release the entire series as a box set, they included a litany of extra features. We get all of those on this Blu-ray incarnation, plus rare and exclusive bonus audio commentaries and interviews with many of the actors and producers who worked on the series, plus historians like Gary Gerani and Steven C. Smith. In all, 19 new commentary tracks supplement these discs. There's also 18 radio dramas and 34 isolated musical scores from such legendary composers as Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann, as well as promos for each show hosted by Serling, plus footage from the Emmy Awards. Bottom line: Image/CBS (usually known for its cost cutting rather than its extravagance on home video) has outdone themselves on The Twilight Zone Season One. This 5 disc set belongs on everyone's list of 'must own' titles. Buy it today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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