WARNING: This post contains spoilers. Actually, it will completely ruin the pilot episode of ‘Night Gallery’ for you. That said, you should have watched it before, it is forty three years old, after all.
‘Night Gallery’ is an unusual programme, perhaps because it is so amazingly varied in quality and tone, to the extent that even the stories are different lengths. A portmanteau loosely based around the paintings in a rather creepy exhibition, the series veers between the essential and the inconsequential, the brilliant and the disastrous, the deadly doomy and the cringingly facetious. The slightly out of kilter feel enhances the experience rather than detracts from it, helping the audience overlook the fact that there are some real duds amongst the stories, especially the ones played for laughs.
Creator, writer and host Rod Serling, saddled with a somewhat cumbersome toupee, seems shifty and ill at ease as he does his short but grandiloquent introductions, as if the crepuscular ambience of the gallery space is getting to him a bit or, more likely, because he knows that, although his name is above the title, this isn’t exactly his finest hour, despite the cracking theme tune.
Whereas ‘The Twilight Zone’ dealt in mystery and whimsy and the offbeat and uncanny, ‘Night Gallery’ specialises in dread and death, greed and murder. The earlier show also occasionally offered its protagonists a chance of redemption, a second chance, but there are no generally no such reprieves in ‘Night Gallery’: everybody gets fucked, forever.
Setting the stall out early, the pilot feature tells three grim, downbeat tales of genuine horror. In the first, degenerate hipster waistrel Roddy McDowall murders his rich Uncle in order to inherit his fortune, only to be haunted by a painting which seems to show his Uncle preparing to return from the grave to take his revenge*.
After McDowall dies falling down the stairs in a state of hysteria, it becomes apparent that it has all been a scam by the long-suffering Butler (his name is Porterfoy, a name that McDowall pronounces as if it has four syllables) who, as part of the small print of the will, is left with the house and the fortune – and the painting, which now shows McDowall rising from the grave…
The second story in the pilot episode is called ‘Eyes’, and it's one of the bleakest, blackest twenty five minutes in television history. Oh, and it has great, wobbly synth music.
Somewhat flashily directed by Steven Spielberg, the story is about blind millionairess Joan Crawford, who pays deadbeat gambler Tom Bosley nine thousand dollars for his eyes (for his eyes!), even though it will only give her 11-12 hours of sight (this is the hardest part to take). Bosley owes money (nine grand – so he won’t even make a profit!) to some heavy people, and seemingly has no choice, even though he says ‘I’ll lay you five to one that twenty four hours after you make me blind I’m gonna wanna cut my throat, and I'll lay even money I’ll do it’. After the operation, we never hear of him again.
To Crawford, Bosley’s eyes (and his very existence) are disposable items, like one a day contact lenses. She cannot hope for an operation to permanently restore her sight, so, instead, she will mutilate a man for half a day’s worth of second hand vision. She’s a monster, but she's loaded – and Bosley needs the money - more, it seems, than he needs the rest of his life.
Later, once Crawford has her new, temporary eyes, she sits impatiently in her penthouse and waits for the time when she can remove the bandages. She has surrounded herself with things that she wants to look at, a visual scrapbook that she wants to take back with her once the darkness descends again.
Here it all gets a bit silly, however, as her unveiling coincides with a city wide power cut, so she spends most of her eye time blundering around in the dark, sure that the operation has gone wrong.
When the sun starts to come up, Crawford realises she can see after all, so rushes to the window to watch the new day dawn. Staring directly at the sun immediately frazzles her optic nerves, of course, so she smashes the window in frustration then promptly falls out of it, silly cow. It's a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of cutting someone else's eyes out for their own gratification, i.e. don't do it.
The third story is equally cheery, featuring a scarred Nazi war criminal living in Venezuela. He has survived the War and, so far, escaped retribution for his many terrible crimes, but his life is one of sweat and fear and disgust. He exists, no more.
His only respite is going to the local museum and standing for hours in front of an impressionistic landscape painting featuring a half-seen fisherman and wishing that he could live in the peaceful but enigmatic scene.
When the Nazi hunters finally catch up with him, he runs to the gallery and wills himself into what he thinks is 'his' painting. Amazingly, it works, except that the curators have had a bit of a move around, and the picture he has been absorbed into is a crucifixion, which now bears his anguished, agonised, moustachioed face - FOR ALL ETERNITY.
It is perhaps redolent of the mood of the American public of the time that they loved the doom and gloom and nihilism and damnation they were offered and demanded more, and we’ll come back to the subsequent three series at a later date. In the meantime, however, as the usually loquacious Rod rather curtly says at the end of the show…
* 'The Graveyard' has a few components from M.R James' 'The Mezzotint' in it but, if you're going to write ghost stories, ripping off James is par for the course.