Rod Serling’s brainchild, The Twilight Zone was created as an outlet for the fantasy and sci-fi stories he had tired of seeing butchered by the inconsiderate powers-that-were of American Network television in the late 50s. After penning virtually all of the first series’ 36 episodes – including the peerless Time Enough At Last, which I have professed my love for on this site before – he would later recruit some of the finest fantasy writers of the time to contribute to later runs.
Amongst them was one Richard Matheson, who well before writing the Shatner-starring Nightmare At 20,000 Feet for the show’s fifth season, later re-scripted as the fourth instalment of the famously disastrous 1983 movie, had already penned the novels I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man (later filmed with an ‘Incredible’ prefix) and Stir Of Echoes. Serling’s format, and Matheson’s stories, when melded together, oozed class in their time: they were tight, focused, cool and creepy – unfortunately little of that carries over into Lost Classics.
Discovered by Serling’s widow subsequent to his death, the stories alluded to by this DVD’s title were scripts written by Serling at the time of the original show, but never used – polished up by Matheson for this 1994 TV special, presented by none other than James Earl Jones. Specifically, they are The Theatre – tale of a woman who begins to see scenes from her own life inserted into the Cary Grant flick, His Girl Friday – and The Dead We Are, a post civil-war tale of a community who have benefited from one man’s knowledge of tissue regeneration. The two make for a lopsided affair, both in terms of content and length – one being a typically short Twilight Zone 30 minute episode length, the other being a much longer, sprawling effort; in fact they reek of being exactly what they are, two totally disparate tales pulled together to create two hours of cash-in TV.
The great thing about the ‘Zone was leanness of its tales; pure beef, very little fat – many were exemplary short stories that used Serling’s pro- and epilogues to keep meandering to a minimum. Whilst The Theatre conforms to this template, The Dead We Are is blatantly 30 minutes too long – and as much as I like Jack Palance (who co-stars), believe me I do – he’s not quite enough to carry this, and it all gets a little too ponderous for my liking. Oh, and sorry, Patrick Bergin has never been a great draw for me, and here his performance is bloated and contrived.
Gary Cole and Amy Irving emerge better from the first story – once I’d gotten over my initial disappointment it starred the guy from Midnight Caller and not the little dude from Different Strokes – and the Hitchcockian tale in which they feature is by far the stronger script. Unfortunately, the look and style of the presentation is dated – and not in the cool way that the original series in – just in the kind of ‘made for TV’ naff way that a Zalman King Red Shoe Diary is, or that naff 90s cable TV soft porn that you sometimes get on Channel 5. Okay, it’s a little better than that, but you get the vibe. The historical look of the second story is, in fact, stronger – but the direction is pedestrian, at best, and little tension or menace is created visually (short of putting some scary rural types in front of the camera saying “don’t go to that Island, sir”).
Another thing that’s disappointing in the cheapness of this DVD: no extras, simply a menu and the two episodes, that’s yer lot. A bit disappointing; and considering the history of the show and the status of its writer you’d have thought they could’ve summoned up a supporting documentary from somewhere. But, no, like the show itself, it all has a bit of a cobbled together feel.
Rod Serling is class, no doubt. Matheson’s form is not too shabby either. As such, this DVD is not a complete waste of time, it simply lacks the focus, or the cutting edge of the best that either can produce. Like many ‘undiscovered gems’, these two stories are not nearly as shiny as the producers would like you to believe, for dedicated fans of Serling and The Twilight Zone, they’ll provide an interesting diversion and nothing more. For those looking to dive into his work for the first time, it will be pretty disappointing, and I’d heartily recommend they tracks down his 1959 series of the show and gorge themselves on much more hearty fodder.