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Airplane Gremlins and Demonic Children: Five Great Works of Television Written by Richard Matheson

Airplane Gremlins and Demonic Children: Five Great Works of Television Written by Richard Matheson

Writer Richard Matheson, who passed away on June 23rd at the age of 87, was a major figure in speculative fiction on the page and on the screen. His 1954 novel “I Am Legend” has been adapted to film three times, as “The Last Man on Earth” (1964), “The Omega Man” (1971)” and “I Am Legend” (2007), while other books and short stories of his provided the inspirations for “What Dreams May Come,” “Stir of Echoes,” “The Box” and “The Legend of Hell House.” He also wrote screenplays, though it’s the small screen that may have been the best fit for bringing his writing to life, as he penned famous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” as well as an acclaimed early career Steven Spielberg television movie and two more TV features that would lead to the “Night Stalker” series. Here’s a look at five highlights from Matheson’s work on the small screen.

“The Twilight Zone”: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963)

Matheson wrote 14 episodes of Rod Serling’s classic anthology series, including “Steel,” based on the short story that was later adapted into 2011’s “Real Steel”; “Little Girl Lost,” in which a couple discover their young daughter has gotten trapped in another dimension; and “Nick of Time,” in which a husband and wife get drawn in by a fortune telling machine at a cafe. But his iconic addition to the show is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner, who starred in “Nick of Time” and who he’d work with again, plays an airplane passenger just released from a mental institution who sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane and tries to alert his fellow passengers and the crew, who all think he’s crazy. His panic grows as he sees the gremlin sabotaging the plane — a great parallel of the paranormal with a visceral fear of flying. The segment would later be remade in the 1983 “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” with John Lithgow in the Shatner role.

“Star Trek”: “The Enemy Within” (1966)

The only episode of “Star Trek” written by Matheson also happens to be one of the original series’ better-known early installments: “The Enemy Within,” in which a malfunction with the transporter leads Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to be split into good and evil versions of himself (the bad side sporting eyeliner, whereas in a later episode Leonard Nimoy would signify his wickedness with a goatee when a similar situation arose in “Mirror, Mirror”). What’s interesting about Matheson’s take on the “evil twin” trope is that “evil” Kirk also has the forceful decision-making ability that allows the complete captain to do his job — the “good” side, by itself, is ineffectual.

Duel” (1971)

Initially produced as an ABC Movie of the Week, though it was later beefed up to 90 minutes and given a theatrical release, “Duel” is looked at by many as Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut — a thriller about a salesman (Dennis Weaver) whose run-in with a malevolent trucker on a two-lane highway in the California desert escalates into a battle of life and death. The leanness of Matheson’s teleplay, adapted from one of his own short stories, allows Spielberg’s masterful staging of the road scenes to shine as they go from mundane encounters to frightening ones, but also provides a haunting foundation narrative, with the driver’s remaining unseen adding an extra edge to the fundamentally simple set-up.

“The Stranger Within” (1974)

This ABC TV movie directed by Lee Philips features “I Dream of Jeannie” star Barbara Eden as Ann Collins, an expectant mother whose gestating child starts to seem a little ominously unusual — not the least because her husband (George Grizzard) got a vasectomy a few years before. While the narrative, adapted by Matheson from one of his own short stories, plays on themes similar to “Rosemary’s Baby,” it takes more of a sci-fi approach — and Ann’s knowledge even before the oddness begins that the pregnancy may endanger her health combines with her increasingly erratic behavior, troubled marriage and physical reactions to create an effectively warped pregnancy nightmare.

“Dead of Night” (1977)

This horror anthology movie directed by Dan Curtis was made for NBC and, like most installments in this subgenre, is a mixed bag — but the final segment, “Bobby,” written by Matheson, scarred many a childhood. Joan Hackett plays a woman alone in her house while her husband (heard only on the phone) is away for work, and whose grief for her drowned son (Lee Montgomery) leads her to dabble in black magic to get him back. Before you can say “Monkey’s Paw,” the boy is back, but he’s not the same — and the intensely creepy visit (“How many doors are in the house?”) builds to a climax that’s frightening in the way that only unexpectedly good lo-fi jolts can be.

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