The first episode of Rod Serling’s post-Twilight Zone cult favorite (and for some, punching bag) perhaps best incorporated the show’s unifying “hall of portraits” motif into its actual narrative. As many forever haunted children recall (both from its original run and subsequent reruns on cable), every week Serling’s show, which originally aired from 1970-73, began with a plummet through a shadowy, animated cavern of paintings, one of which Our Gentleman of Eternal Clenched Jaw would single out as representative of the episode we were about to watch. Serling didn’t write every episode of Night Gallery, but many of those other tales were adapted from such horror stalwarts as Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, and Algernon Blackwood. Of course, Serling’s O’Henry-Gone-Grim installments were always the most welcome, and for my money the best showcases for his trademark dark irony were the three episodes that began the series, lumped together then and now (on DVD) as the pilot “movie.”
Each of the proceeding episodes in the pilot are more than worth a shout-out: Steven Spielberg’s “Eyes,” with Joan Crawford as a blind rich bitch who temporarily regains her site during a blackout, centers on one of the most delicious and cruel twists of Serling’s career, and “The Escape Route,” in which Richard Kiley’s German war criminal in South America wishes himself into a museum painting to elude Nazi hunters, only to find that it’s the…wrong….painting, screwed me up so badly as a child that I don’t even want to go near it at the moment. So I’ve chosen to focus on the more traditionally Halloween-y opener, a chilling bit of supernatural fear-stoking that I’ve never been able to truly shake. Even with an enjoyably fey Roddy McDowell as a selfish dandy and Ossie Davis as a bitter butler, “The Cemetery” elicits more shivers than chuckles, an impressive feat.
This first episode of Night Gallery is essentially a back-from-the-dead revenge narrative, except that all of the supernatural interference takes place on one painted canvas. After greedy Roddy purposely hurries his sick, rich uncle’s death so that he can claim his fortune and move into his mansion, he finds himself beset by the old man’s angry spirit, or at least the image of him, rising from the graveyard next to the house in the likeness of the mansion hanging on the wall next to the main-hall staircase. Yet the painting doesn’t move before his eyes; rather it alters slightly every time Roddy takes a peek at it, the risen ghost getting closer and closer to the front door, until…there’s a knock…
The fears here are elemental, and the tactics effectively subtle: recalling everything from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” Serling’s “The Cemetery” was not merely the beginning of Serling’s masterful final act but an elegantly composed work of short horror (more of those to come here at Reverse Shot this week). Even if it ultimately builds to one of the writer’s less convincing twists, this is one of TV’s all-time creepiest half-hours.