The premiere of Jordan Peele’s modern take on Rod Serling’s classic anthology series has put The Twilight Zone back on everybody’s minds.
The two reboots of The Twilight Zone that predate Peele’s current version don’t have as sterling of a reputation as their predecessor, but the ‘80s Twilight Zone remains a fascinating anomaly because some pivotal horror directors like William Friedkin, Joe Dante, and Tommy Lee Wallace all helm installments. Wes Craven even leads the pack and directs a whopping seven episodes, and George R.R. Martin penned five episodes!
The series debuted on CBS in 1985 and ran for two seasons before being canceled due to lackluster ratings. A third season was commissioned with a new creative team, though it was solely for syndication purposes.
Since The Twilight Zone from the ’80s can be a treasure trove of unseen content from some of the most prolific directors from the horror genre, here’s a guide to the top 15 episodes by the revival’s biggest directors.
“The Shadow Man”
Directed by Joe Dante; Written by Rockne S. O’Bannon
What’s so great about this story is that it presents itself like a cautionary fable or an innocent monster in the closet tale. It’s no surprise when it turns out that the Shadow Man that lives under the boy’s bed is real, but what does come as a shock is when he decides to weaponize his new Boogeyman best friend.
The design on the Shadow Man is simple, yet effective, with its blacked-out negative film look. Furthermore, the simple rules of this monster that get repeated ad infinitum, “I am the Shadow Man and I’ll never harm the person under whose bed I live,” yet those basic rules become the protagonist’s very undoing, too. This feels like a heightened episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Goosebumps in the best way possible, and all of the kid actors feel authentic. The twist here is also fantastic and it’s a great example of when less can be more with horror.
Directed by Wes Craven; Written by Rockne S. O’Bannon
“Wordplay” features a bonkers concept where a salesman goes crazy after everyone else in the world starts speaking English in a jumbled order. People say things like, “She’s gonna be here in five minutes and I can’t think of any place to dinosaur.” “Anniversaries” become “throw rugs,” “dogs” are now “encyclopedias.” It’s also smart that this dilemma is prompted by a salesman who is overwhelmed by the names of all of the complicated new products that he has to learn. The story takes that stress and then extends it to the entire human language.
The episode’s premise comes in slowly and subtly, where it seems like people just have mental slip-ups, but then “Wordplay” moves into overdrive. The salesman slowly gets frustrated as he thinks everyone is just using stupid new slang at first. It’s also just fantastic to watch this guy flip out and say “dinosaur” about a dozen times in ten seconds. Eventually his “regular” sentences don’t get through to anyone and he can’t accomplish anything. It’s particularly grueling when he prays to God and worries if this Higher Power can even understand what he’s saying. The episode’s ending is so damn good and pretty much turns into a variation on Dogtooth. This problem doesn’t get solved, but rather he’s just forced to adapt to it. At the same time, it’s also an uplifting conclusion because it shows the perseverance of man and how he wants to fit in here rather than just give up.
“Dead Woman’s Shoes”
Directed by Peter Medak; Based on the Story by Charles Beaumont; Teleplay by Lynn Barker
Peter Medak may not be as well known as Craven or Friedkin, but he’s the director responsible for The Changeling, two episodes of Hannibal, and what’s arguably the best episode of Tales From the Crypt, “The New Arrival.” Medak does an impressive job with this update/remake to the original series’ episode, “Dead Man’s Shoes,” but this arguably does an even better job with the story. It goes further with the idea as the killer now has a much more personal connection in the end. The story basically plays with the idea that a pair of fancy shoes can make someone look super attractive whenever they wear them. It’s a quirky idea and a creative spin on the whole “walk a mile in another person’s shoes” adage.
Helen Mirren is front and center in “Dead Woman’s Shoes” and she destroys it. There is also some exceptional camerawork that lingers on the titular shoes before we understand how important they are and it keeps the owner’s face a mystery. Towards the end, the reflection in a mirror projects her old self. It’s a smart, effective little moment. This actually turns into a rather compelling murder mystery and revenge story the deeper it goes on. It’s exactly the kind of redemption tale that The Twilight Zone is all about. Even better, the shoes are just abandoned at the end because they’re too dangerous, yet their danger lives on! All of this also makes for a great companion piece to Medak’s film, The Ruling Class.
Directed by Wes Craven; Based on the Short Story by Harlan Ellison; Teleplay by Alan Brennert
Curiously, a lot of Wes Craven’s Twilight Zone entries are about duality and sometimes even literal doppelgangers in more than one occasion, but “Shatterday” is certainly the most striking example. The story approaches the concept from a unique perspective that almost functions like a dark riff on “The Prince and the Pauper.” As the two versions of the same man switch lives, they begin to understand the human condition, how important decisions are, and a successful man gets completely destroyed and reduced to trash. It examines the process of how a man can become a shadow and when the self splits in half, but it does so in a literal manner. The bleak ending makes a strong statement since it’s the first installment of the ‘80s Twilight Zone.
Bruce Willis does exceptional work in the episode as both takes on Nubbins, and it’s from a time in his career where he actually cares about his performance. Craven makes this all feel deliciously ‘80s, especially with the pan flute-happy soundtrack. The effect when one of the Nubbins becomes more of a “Shadow” is also a subtle, but helpful and creepy touch.
“The Road Less Traveled”
Directed by Wes Craven; Written by George R. R. Martin
“The Road Less Traveled” features a powerhouse of talent; Craven directs a script courtesy of George R. R. Martin, who wrote five episodes of the series. The story functions as a creative commentary on guilt towards the Vietnam War. It’s another entry that attempts to deconstruct the idea of the monster in the closet, but this digs much deeper. This isn’t a story where the vulnerable girl is in danger, but instead it’s the dad who is plagued with trauma. His lies about the war cause a grizzled war vet version of himself to show up as the “monster,” which turns this into a haunting little story.
The father’s double is a smart, frightening way to personify his guilt. He’s plagued with war flashbacks that he never actually had. The best part of “The Road Less Traveled” is that it doesn’t vilify this other, but rather it tries to show him compassion and improve his life. In the process it looks at how war itself is powerful enough to completely change someone. It’s a particularly beautiful ending, even if the special effects are especially cheesy.
“A Little Peace and Quiet”
Directed by Wes Craven; Written by James Crocker
Time freezing stories are plentiful throughout The Twilight Zone. This one features an overstressed mom with too much on her plate who can stop and resume time with the help of a necklace. One of the strongest elements about this entry is how it begins to seed the topic of nuclear fallout so that when it dominates the final act it doesn’t feel like a sudden development. Rather brilliantly, the protagonist gets caught in a situation where she’s frozen time to avoid the bomb that’s about to drop, but it forces her to stay frozen because if she does resume things she’ll doom the world. It’s an ending of isolation that’s arguably even more tragic than “Time Enough At Last” because it removes her from her family and teases the idea of life, even though it’s not really there.
The best thing about this story, and the area where Craven’s talents are the most on display, are the moments where time is frozen and people are caught in these twisted tableaus. This is most effective in the episode’s final scene where a nation in panic and the crowded streets of an evacuation are frozen in various stages of dread. It’s a chilling image to go out on.
Directed by Peter Medak; Based on the Short Story by Richard Matheson; Teleplay by Richard Matheson
“Button, Button” is vintage Twilight Zone at its finest and it even pulls from a Richard Matheson story for its inspiration. This is the classic “push this button to get one million dollars, but someone will die” parable. If you’ve seen the movie The Box, then you know this classic story, but this does feel like a grunge-y, angry ‘80s version of Matheson’s idea. The characters in “Button, Button” that are taxed with this difficult decision are like low class Coen Brothers miscreants.
Medak effectively creates mounting tension and anxiety throughout the episode. Details like how the mysterious salesman is often filled in with shadows and looms over his subjects’ personal space go far. This is the best kind of morality play and quickly this “simple” decision tears apart a marriage. “Button, Button” approaches the topic from all of the reasonable angles, but this story isn’t about how to solve the problem, it’s about the human condition and guilt.
“Dreams for Sale”
Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace; Written by Joe Gannon
Horror director Tommy Lee Wallace was a protégé of John Carpenter. Wallace edited both Halloween and The Fog for Carpenter, but would go on to direct Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Fright Night Part 2, and the It miniseries! Wallace directed a handful of Twilight Zone entries, but “Dreams for Sale” is his most moving contribution. The story presents a married couple blissfully at a picnic, but as this slice of heaven goes on, it turns out that this is just a constructed fantasy that’s beamed to their brains while they’re stuck in a much harsher reality.
Wallace knows how to overexpose the story and have reality distort and break every so often to hint at the twist that’s to come. The first half is primarily in the fantasy and the second half has the protagonist wake up only to be perplexed by the reality that she’s actually in. “Dreams for Sale” is also only ten minutes long and incredibly poignant and haunting in that time. There are clear parallels between this story and the original series’ “Next Stop, Willoughby,” or Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” but also, you know, The Matrix. It uses fantasy as a literal escapism from reality.
Directed by Peter Medak; Written by Rockne S. O’Bannon
“Personal Demons” is astounding for its audacity alone. This is essentially a therapy exercise for writer Rockne S. O’Bannon or the kind of thing that you’d get dared to write, but never actually follow through on. These conditions don’t necessarily make for a great installment of The Twilight Zone, but it’s such a bold, fascinating experiment that it’s hard to deny. The story features a surrogate for writer, O’Bannon, who’s also a TV writer named O’Bannon, who suffers from writer block that’s basically personified by a brood of distracting demons. Eventually O’Bannon breaks this curse by writing about the demons, which is presumably the actual script for the episode that you just watched. This is an extremely high concept, but at 12 minutes, it’s worth the risk. A full half hour of this would be too much, but “Personal Demons” stands out for its bizarre “real life” quality.
Directed by William Friedkin; Based on the Short Story by Robert R. McCammon; Teleplay by Philip DeGuere
In “Nightcrawlers,” Friedkin presents a story that’s set entirely in a diner, which makes for the perfect moody, claustrophobic setting for a story. “Nightcrawlers” confines a bunch of strangers together, but then chooses to play this story against war trauma when a mysterious drifter comes in and begins to recount his torturous time in combat. “Nightcrawlers” feels like a piece of theater in so many respects and it’s full of painful, eloquent monologues about life and death. It feels like Friedkin taps into some of the same manic energy that he’ll bring to the table decades later in Bug. “Nightcrawlers” goes to the same dark, paranoid places that are full of flying flop sweat, but this story also adds a supernatural touch and a pitch-black ending that doesn’t hold back.
“Her Pilgrim Soul”
Directed by Wes Craven; Written by Alan Brennert
Set in a high tech science lab in the future, “Her Pilgrim Soul” contains what is by far the best set design and effects out of any of Craven’s Twilight Zone offerings. This is also the longest of Craven’s contributions and I’m not exactly sure if this needs to be nearly a full-hour, but it’s fair to say that the more that you see of hologram Nola Granville’s life, the more the story connects.
This installment focuses on the communication between a hologram and two skeptical scientists, which results in a quirky, human look at holograms that works. “Her Pilgrim Soul” posits that a soul has been reincarnated in a computer and whether such a thing is even plausible. This hologram also grows at the rate of ten years a day, so the scientists see her go through many phases of life. “Her Pilgrim Soul” provides an unusual take on childrearing and life, especially when it takes one scientist away from his wife and he becomes obsessed with this hologram. The episode also gains points for how it’s a surprisingly positive story where this hologram fixes the scientist’s marriage. Love prevails, poetry is recited, and there’s a happily ever after.
Directed by Wes Craven; Written by James Crocker
“Chameleon” is a black-and-white morality play that riffs on America’s paranoia over space and science fiction during the 1950s. It’s a meditation on faith and identity that feels reminiscent of The Thing or Annihilation and there’s a legitimate mystery here that’s hard to predict.
Astronauts become confounded over the appearance of a camera box that can apparently teleport, trap, or disintegrate people. This item cannot be understood and it turns into an issue of faith versus science. When Brady, the missing astronaut, returns from the camera box, NASA insists that he’s different or that something about him has changed. The episode chronicles NASA’s efforts to get to the bottom of this and determine what’s this “chameleon’s” goal. Matters gets even weirder when Brady starts to morph into different people and then, eventually, a nuclear bomb that’s set to explode in two minutes.
Directed by Peter Medak; Written by Edward Redlich
“Private Channel” is certainly sillier than the other entries on this list, but at a tight 10 minutes it’s easy to get on board with its caustic storytelling. When an airplane goes through a lightning storm, an idiot’s Walkman gains the ability to hear other people’s thoughts. In turn, this weirdness leads to this troubled moron overhear that someone onboard wants to blow up the plane. With its concise runtime, “Private Channel” cuts right to the chase and chooses to reason with the terrorist as the means of resolution. The lead character flips the premise on the enemy, and after the terrorist hears the frightened thoughts of all of the passengers, he stops. This installment may be pretty pat and dumb in its performances and presentation (“Jambo!”), but it feels like a classic Twilight Zone.
Directed by Wes Craven; Written by Donald Todd
“Dealer’s Choice” isn’t as revolutionary as Craven’s other installments, but it gains some points for how it revolves around a literal deal with the devil and that in this situation, it’s the dealing of cards. It’s also commendable that “Dealer’s Choice” is a bottle episode that contains all of its action to the poker game that goes on with the Devil. It helps boil down this idea and makes the premise feel even more intimate. As the episode plays out, the gang of elderly gentlemen fears that the Devil is there to claim one of their souls, but they just don’t know which of them is the unlucky individual. This generates a lot of suspense, but it’s an idea that’s been done before, and to better effect, at that. That being said, the cast is a delight here and it’s a Twilight Zone entry that features a surprisingly upbeat ending where evil doesn’t prevail.
Directed by Atom Egoyan; Written by J. Michael Straczynski
One of Canada’s greatest directorial exports, Atom Egoyan (Chloe, Where the Truth Lies, The Sweet Hereafter), crafts a successful enough installment that’s basically Stargate before there was Stargate. It also doesn’t hurt that sci-fi wunderkind J. Michael Straczynski pens this one.
A man of science gets teleported to another Earth-type place and wrestles with if he’s better off staying there in harmony, or if his loyalty to the job is more important and if he should return home. There aren’t too many surprises through this one and it perhaps spends a little too much time assessing the risks before the teleporter is even used, but it still raises some rich ideas that still get explored to this day.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.