The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “Nightmare as a Child”

April 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

CM Capture 14See also the four preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone, season one.

I’ll admit it: “Nightmare as a Child” (available for viewing on YouTube, at least for now) freaked me out.  It struck me as easily the most effective piece of horror in the first season.

Now, part of this is intentional and related to the good work of the principals: Serling, the director Alvin Ganzer (also the director of the also-effective “The Hitch-Hiker”), the stars Janice Rule and Terry Burnham.  The Freudian bent of Serling’s episodes for women in the first season reaches its culmination here, in a wonderful scenario: a woman meets a young girl outside her door.  She invites the strange girl in, and it’s slowly revealed that the girl is her younger self, visiting her to help her remember an important but traumatic memory that could now save her life.

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Older Helen “meets” younger Helen.

But it’s especially creepy partly because of two unintentional elements of the episode.

1) Terry Burnham, the astounding child actor who portrays Helen Foley’s childhood self, sounds an awful lot like the voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  The two also share a similar matter-of-fact delivery.  The monologue that young Helen (aka Markie) delivers to her older self, as the younger self “remembers” for her the violence of the night that she has repressed, delivered in the voice of a Peanuts character, is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever heard — the twisted flip-side of Linus’s “meaning of Christmas” monologue.  (It starts at 19:00.)

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“I’m you, Helen.”

The monologue, by the way, starts with a truly remarkable piece of business.  Markie begins to confront Helen with the truth, asking, “You still don’t understand, do you?” Helen responds, “Understand what?” and we see Markie mouth these words along with Helen, over her shoulder, quite deliberately.  It gives you chills.  It’s a stroke of genius.  And yet, it’s conceivable that this was a mistake — a very young actor mouthing the lines of the other actor — that was retained by the director.  Was in the script, or was it an intentional or serendipitous ad lib?

CM Capture 9crop2) The villain of the tale, one Peter Selden (played by the wonderfully named Shepperd Strudwick), bears a striking resemblance to Ray Wise, aka Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks.  The particulars of the episode make this especially uncanny, as we’ll see later.

LelandPalmerFWWMThe best thing about the episode is Terry Burnham.  Her dark eyes contrasted with blonde hair, her knowing playfulness varying with solemnity, her sense throughtout of being somehow both more and less than she seems, are the keys to the episode’s power.  It’s an incredible performance for a child, and obviously that has much to do with the adults creating the episode.  However, part of the episode’s core meaning is the amazing power of perception and retention held by children.  Burnham’s performance not only reveals that, it embodies it.

We have here, again, a variation on the theme of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing another self, another reality.  We also have here, again, a woman finding herself supplanted, to a degree, by a doppelganger.  Markie, the younger self, is in control throughout the episode.  It disturbs and disorients Helen.

Girls, the control that they could (or were not allowed to) exert, the intelligence that they could (or were not encouraged to) display, and the ways in which they would become women, were certainly on Serling’s mind.  He had two daughters growing up throughout the filming of the Twilight Zone.  This would come up again in the final woman-focused episode of the first season, “The After Hours.”

And so Helen has forgotten the most important event of her childhood, and Markie goes about carefully leading her to this realization, having worked an invitation for a cup of hot chocolate from what we initially believe to be a total stranger.

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The subtext of the episode throughout, of a woman not trusting her own self, her own childhood, and her own instincts, is brought to a head with the arrival of the wolfish Peter at her door, asking, “Do you remember me?”  One gets a sense throughout the episode of Helen being a kind of non-person, the kind of thing a fellow non-person, Markie, sees when she looks in the mirror.  The twenty or so years since her childhood trauma have revolved entirely around forgetting said trauma and building routine upon routine to fill the day.  She does not think of the past.  She does not even recognize herself as a child.  She lives alone, she teaches school, and she invites strange children in to have hot chocolate.

Peter shows her a photo of herself as a child, and things get exceptionally uncomfortable.  “You were an exceptionally beautiful child,” he says.  “And you look so like your mother.”  Helen enters a kind of fugue state, and relives the memory of the night that her mother was killed.  The superimposition of the childhood memory on Helen’s body, reclined on the couch as if in psychoanalysis, may be a visual cliche, but its power may explain why this particular effect became a cliche.

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We have here, you may have noticed, a subtext (just barely sub) of sexual abuse, as close as any television program in 1960 could dare to come to addressing the issue, endemic in American society then as now.  I do not know if David Lynch or his compatriots working on Twin Peaks saw or were influenced by “Nightmare as a Child,” but the moment below certainly made me think it a strong possibility.

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Peter’s words right before this? “I want to be the first, I want to be the very first.”  He’s ostensibly talking about “imparting some information,” and the murder of Helen’s mother was ostensibly over Peter’s embezzlement.  But could viewers even in 1960 have missed the meaning here?  Especially given the remarkably ugly tone in Peter’s voice when he delivers these lines?

Twin Peaks, in some ways, can be seen as a story of a town desperate to return to 1960 or thereabouts, precisely because it was a time when awful things like sexual abuse within families was not spoken of.  Its very existence could be denied.  Hence the bobbysoxers, the beatnik jazz, the “darn good pie.”  The truly terrible, pollyanna ending of “Nightmare as a Child” was essential to television in 1960; I remain glad that, however messy it got in its second season, Twin Peaks did not have that.

The Twilight Zone‘s Women in Trouble: “The Hitch-Hiker”

March 19, 2013 § 3 Comments

CM Capture 14See also the two preceding posts in this series on the five female-protagonist episodes of The Twilight Zone season one.

The backstory of “The Hitch-Hiker” (viewable online at Vimeo): it begins as a short story by Lucille Fletcher, who then adapted it as a radio play in the early 1940s (available for your listening pleasure here).  Serling, nearly twenty years later, adapts it for TZ.  The major difference? Serling made the main character a woman.  The role was made famous by Orson Welles on the radio, and it was also a man in the original short story.  (As a weird aside: the famous radio thriller series in which the radio play appeared, Suspense, featured music by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the TZ theme and so many other thriller scores.  And Herrmann was Fletcher’s husband for ten years.)

Serling opens by telling us that Nan Adams is driving cross-country on vacation.  She’s a buyer for a department store.  She has a flat tire.  SPOILER ALERT (though I mean, come on, it’s fifty years old): she’s already dead, though she doesn’t know it yet.  As the mechanic fixing her tire says, in a great dual meaning, she “must be on the side of the angels.”  As she drives away, she spots for the first time a mysterious hitchhiker who she’ll see all across the country, begging a ride just from her.

Nan, the independent working woman driving across country for nothing more than fun, is given no backstory, no man she’s chasing down or fleeing from, no tortured or angelic past.  She shares her name with one of Serling’s daughters, and maybe this has something to do with the refreshing absence of the typical moralistic or misogynistic structure of a story of a woman alone on the road.  Nan’s internal monologue, in the voiceover of actress Inger Stevens, carries the episode along, as it would in a radio play.  However, this is accompanied by abundant shots from within the car of America flying by — unusual at a time when so many driving scenes were done in studios with stock footage playing in the background — and Nan’s face registering her anxiety about the hitch-hiker’s reappearances.

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The episode, overall, has a wonderful lightness and gentleness, especially within the parameters of the “thriller.”  Nan describes her sense of “disquiet” (not even fear) and the hitchhiker himself as “vague”; it’s not a bad term for the feel of the episode.  The director, Alvin Ganzer, and Serling knew that they had a fine, natural actress in Stevens, and Ganzer uses a great deal of natural light, also unusual for the period; this, too, adds to the vague or hard-to-define tone of the episode.  There are a number of terrific closeups of Steven’s face that exhibit the kind of subtlety that was never the trademark of TZ overall, ranging from perplexity to an occasional, unexpected, eerie calm and peace.

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The episode is almost perfectly divided between sunlight (natural light!) and darkness.  The turn to darkness is accompanied by a return of flickering lights — neon, this time, but still reminiscent of the strobe of the projector in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.”

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Not a great capture, but check the video: there’s a neon light blinking across the shot.

Nan, out of gas after midnight, runs through the dark to a gas station.  It’s closed, of course, and the proprietor is in no mood to get out of bed and pump.  At this point Nan is startled by a sailor: after he’s grabbed her shoulder and she’s recovered a bit from the shock, he asks, “Lady?”

She delivers the following reply: “Yes.  That’s what I am.  I’m a lady.”

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The blend of relief, simple recognition, despair, and desire here is breathtaking.

Desperate, she begs the sailor to ride along with her, and he accepts, persuading the station owner to sell them some gas.  While the sailor makes some mild comments about her looks and, after she veers wildly in an attempt to hit the hitchhiker, she tries to get him to stay with intimations that she wanted him to “take her out,” the encounter is of a piece with the gentle, humane tone of the entire episode: there’s the threat of sexual violence that comes with the fictional presentation of any encounter between a woman and a stranger at night, but in the end, it’s the sailor that flees, scared off by Nan’s intensity and confusion.

Nan learns, via cross-country call in a phone booth by the flickering neon light, that her mother has had a breakdown due to Nan’s death.  So yes: women going mad, women dying who dare to live and travel unaccompanied.  But that’s not what one takes away from a viewing.  This was such a popular story at the time that many viewers would have known that it originally featured a man.  And the ending makes clear that Nan’s death is not a punishment; it’s just the way of us all, a fact that must be accepted eventually.

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The final appearance of the hitchhiker is in Nan’s rear-view mirror.  Mirrors will come up again in the next post.  Here, the counterpoint of Nan’s look of exhausted acceptance and the hitchhiker’s wry smile is exquisite.  Stevens’s performance in this episode is likely my favorite of the entire first season, especially that look into the rear-view mirror.

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“I believe you’re going… my way?”

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