Thursday 22 February 2024

The Twilight Zone - The After Hours

Of the many and varied horror, science fiction and mystery anthology series that were such a feature of American television in the late 50s and early 60s The Twilight Zone is probably the one with the most glowing reputation. I have always had slightly mixed feelings about this series. There are many episodes that I love unreservedly and at its best it had a unique atmosphere that was profoundly unsettling rather than overtly scary.

On the other hand it could at times be a bit sentimental, and rather preachy. It’s the episodes written by Rod Serling with which I mostly have issues. Serling was definitely prone to sentimentalism and he could be very preachy. At his worst the preachiness could be clumsy. He did write some great episodes, but he wrote quite a few that I find difficult to enjoy.

Having said all that, my all-time favourite episode was in fact written by Rod Serling - The After Hours.

This is episode 34 of the first season of The Twilight Zone. It originally went to air on June 10, 1960. It was directed by Douglas Heyes (arguably The Twilight Zone’s ace director).

It’s a tricky episode to discuss, because I really don’t want to spoil any of the twists.

It starts innocently enough. Marsha White (Anne Francis) has gone to a department store to buy a gift for her mother. She’s looking for a gold thimble. She is advised to go to the ninth floor. Which she does. That’s something that will later be disturbing and perplexing for both Marsha and the store staff.

She finds the thimble but later finds, to her intense disappointment, that it is damaged. Naturally she complains and for some reason which she cannot fathom this causes great consternation to the staff. Then she has a shock. She is advised to lie down and rest. She has a sleep and when she wakes up things start to get really strange.

Marsha finds herself in a very frightening situation and it’s the kind of situation which would lend itself to a horror plot. But there’s no actual horror here. No gore. No bloodshed. No violence. No monsters. Nothing except a gradually increasing atmosphere of strangeness and disorientation. To the extent that it is horror, it is very subtle existential horror.

This is more akin to the literary genre of weird fiction than to horror. The temptation would have been there to give the story a horror story ending but Serling cleverly resists this temptation. This is The Twilight Zone and Serling here achieves exactly the feel that he had in mind when he created the series.

One of the great strengths of this episode is that this time Serling has no real axe to grind. He’s simply trying to make us feel uneasy. And he succeeds admirably.

Douglas Heyes as usual does a fine job as director. The visuals are impressive and a bit creepy. There aren’t any special effects as such. Everything is achieved through fine directing and good production design. 

And some very special props.

Anne Francis is excellent, playing Marsha as a woman who is bewildered and disoriented rather than hysterical. The supporting cast is very good, but this episode belongs to Anne Francis. There are some lovely nuances to her performance. You don’t fully appreciate just how good her acting is until you get to the end of the story, and then you realise what her performance has been leading up to. And according to director Douglas Heyes most of the really clever touches were her own ideas. Anne Francis was a very fine actress but I don’t think she was ever better than this.

The After Hours is a great example of what is now a lost art - short-form television drama. The half-hour television episode or standalone television drama was a very distinctive form and while it has its weaknesses it had very considerable strengths as well. It required discipline, focus and economy. Information that the viewer required (information about what sort of people the characters are, what kind of place it is that forms the setting of the story) had to be conveyed with extreme economy. 

Which meant that the sets, the set dressing, the lighting, the costumes and the makeup had to be carefully thought out because most of that vital information was going to be conveyed through an immediate visual impression. There just wasn’t time for detailed explanations. 

And the actors and actresses had to give the viewer an instantaneous impression of the characters they played, with no time for them to tell their life stories.

In The After Hours Serling and Douglas Heyes give us a master-class in this lost art. There’s not a single wasted shot, or a single unnecessary line of dialogue.

The After Hours is beautifully shot, and by 1960 television standards it’s visually very very impressive.

I’ve seen The After Hours at least three times now and I think I like it even more with each viewing. Very highly recommended.

I've also reviewed some other Twilight Zone episodes here and also here.

No comments:

Post a Comment