“Still Valley” (season 3, episode 11; originally aired 11/24/1961)
In which it’s the devil
There are a lot of Twilight Zone episodes that are basically just one idea, and then the running time simply involves playing around with that idea in as many ways as possible. It’s one of the reasons the hour-long episodes of the show weren’t as successful as the half-hour episodes: When you have double the time to fill with basic variations on one idea, the variations start to feel tired that much more quickly. I’m not trying to pass judgment here. There are some episodes that boil down to just one idea, and they’re among the very best the series ever produced. I covered one of them—“It’s A Good Life”—just a couple of weeks ago. But there are also episodes with just the one idea that are rather weak, like that one about gamblin’ fever from back in season one. Really, The Twilight Zone had a higher batting average when it came to these ideas than a lot of other anthology shows. But it also had its share of poor-to-mediocre episodes, based on ideas that couldn’t really be sustained.
“Still Valley” isn’t bad—it’s too well-acted for that—but it’s decidedly mediocre, because the idea at its center doesn’t offer enough to play with. An entire valley full of Union soldiers frozen in place is a striking image, but once our hero, Paradine, has wandered past all of them and tried to wake them up a few times, you sort of get the idea. The Twilight Zone turned into outright fantasy fairly rarely (though both episodes I’m covering this week rely on magic to get their point across), and it’s always bizarre to see things like spellbooks and witch doctors slide their way into the series’ otherwise highly rational view of the universe. So when the old coot—a witchman by the name of Teague—shows up to tell Paradine exactly what’s going on, the whole thing hits a groove that’s largely pleasant but also fairly predictable.
Predictability isn’t a bad thing in a story, but “Still Valley” has trouble overcoming it. I think this is because everything that happens seems to take around double the amount of time it would need. The script here is by Rod Serling, from a short story by Manly Wade Wellman, and it struggles to overcome the lack of story. Paradine wanders around the frozen Union troops, as mentioned, but he also spends what feel like ages arguing with his fellow Confederate soldier in the scene that sets up the story, then even longer arguing with Teague about whether or not Teague is actually magic (when you’d assume that he’d be a bit more credulous, given what he’s just seen). Then Teague freezes him, and that takes ages. Then, Paradine is given the book, and that takes its sweet time, too, though the bit where he decides not to use magic, ultimately, feels curiously rushed, perhaps because it’s the crux of the episode and it goes by in about two minutes. “Still Valley” is like 20 minutes of exposition, then four minutes of actual story. It’s not an elegant balance.
I’m not being entirely fair here. Paradine has every good reason not to believe what Teague says, regardless of what he’s seen, because few of us would believe an old man who wandered up with a book handily marked “WITCHCRAFT” and become convinced he was telling us the truth about his secret powers. It’s not Paradine’s fault he doesn’t know he’s on The Twilight Zone. I’ve never read the short story this is based on, but I’d wager that this is a flaw of the story as well, because urban and historical fantasies are full of characters who stumble upon weirdness and then proceed to try to find logical explanations while somebody stands off to the side and says, “Uh, magic?” We, in the audience, are genre-savvy, or at least Twilight Zone-savvy. It’s not fair to expect the characters to be as well.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways around this problem. I’d wager the townspeople of “It’s A Good Life” initially didn’t buy that Anthony Fremont was a tiny monster, but by the time that episode begins—to say nothing of the story it’s based on—they’re all very much on board and, what’s more, terrified about it. The temptation in stories like this is to start with a normal person who stumbles into an extraordinary situation, and while that can work, it can also become an exercise in frustration, in the character denying things the audience knows to be true. (If you’d ever like to see another example of this, feel free to join me over in my other Saturday haunt, The X-Files, where Gillian Anderson turned this into an art.) In general, I prefer the “dropping the audience into a situation that’s already going on” approach, and when that’s simply not possible, as it probably isn’t in “Still Valley,” well, then it’s best to abbreviate the story as much as possible. For instance: It sure seems to take Teague a while to freeze his new friend. Had he done this more quickly, we might have had more time for the climax.
Regardless of what you think of the rest of the episode—and I do think the frozen soldiers are striking enough to carry much of this on their own—the climax is rushed and muddled. It’s strange to think that Paradine might not have realized that to do black magic and call on the Devil for his assistance would involve rejecting God. Similarly, it’s hard to buy that this so suddenly strikes Paradine as horrible. I don’t necessarily need him to be a deeply religious man or anything, but the rejection of God is treated as such a self-evidently awful thing, and I’m not sure the episode earns this. I may be bringing my own biases to bear here, since these are, uh, Confederate soldiers, fighting to uphold the right of people to own slaves, and, really, I’d like to think that if God exists, slavery’s an institution he’d have no part of. So there’s an opportunity for sly social commentary here—the only way these men could win would be with the help of Satan himself—but it mostly gets lost and muddled, but for Serling’s closing narration that places this group at Gettysburg, with no spellbook to help them. It’s a nice little moment to end on, but it all feels like this story is built on cultural assumptions that might have used a bit more teasing out.
That “Still Valley” works at all is testament to how well cast it is. As Paradine, Gary Merrill is a great center for the episode, almost making the closing “twist” work through a haunted look in his eyes. (If I never quite bought Paradine as written would have such trouble renouncing God, I sure bought that he would as acted.) The great Vaughn Taylor, who starred in many an episode of this show, is even better as Teague, really getting into the personality of a man who’s been using magic all these years and hasn’t quite considered the consequences until they came rushing up to meet him. The smaller parts are all cast perfectly as well, and the enormous batch of extras that stands frozen in place (I assume) manages to make something that could have been silly seem singularly eerie.
“Still Valley” has its moments, ultimately, and it’s pitched in a genre that I usually enjoy, somewhere between Civil War tale and old Southern folktale. (It’s easy to imagine a version of this story by Flannery O’Connor that would have been simply amazing.) But it’s logy where it needs to be efficient and too efficient where it could use a little loginess, and that ends up making it enjoyable but not exactly essential. I’m often pleasantly surprised by Twilight Zone episodes that haven’t gone into the unofficial canon of the show’s great episodes, but “Still Valley” wastes too much time on something empty.
What a twist!: To do magic, Paradine would have to renounce God. He burns the spellbook. A few days later, he and his fellow soldiers do battle at Gettysburg.
- I’d been wondering why there were so many Civil War-themed episodes of the show at this point in its run, until I considered that these were airing exactly a century after the conflict. It makes me wonder if we’re about to get a rash of World War I-themed episodes in a few years. Probably not, huh? Too bad. It might have been fun to see the Big Bang Theory guys engage in a little trench warfare.
- I like how much stock Teague puts in being the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son, but then he figures that Paradine can do magic because he just has that look about him.
- I’m not entirely sure on why Paradine can freeze a small platoon (or whatever it is he accomplishes), but to do more than that, he has to renounce God and ally himself with Satan. It feels a little arbitrary. Happy Easter, everybody!
“The Jungle” (season 3, episode 12; originally aired 12/1/1961)
In which Africa comes to the big city
Speaking of weird cultural assumptions…
I really feel like as a good, forward-thinking, progressive kinda dude, I should probably give “The Jungle” a lower grade than I’m going to. The whole thing is driven by something roughly akin to white panic, to a terrible fear of black people from Africa and what secret magical rituals they might be capable of. Worse, there are moments in the early going that feel like something out of Avatar, where our noble white hero argues on behalf of the natives, trying to get the unfeeling other white men to realize that what they have is special and how close they are to nature and blah, blah, blah. It’s an insulting series of stereotypes, and the show does itself no favors when the only black guy who appears in it is dressed in full tribal regalia and standing in the window of a party supplies and costumes store. Yes, I’m aware it was a different time. Yes, I’m aware that the episode isn’t actively advancing most of these stereotypes. But it’s very much steeped in them, and I found myself giggling at it every so often, so very 1961 was it.
But I can’t knock very many points off this episode, if any at all, because it succeeds at something The Twilight Zone only fitfully succeeded at: It’s incredibly fucking scary. I don’t often get worked up watching this show, but this one got under my skin. It made me tense and uneasy and certain that something bad was about to happen, and though it, too, was headed to a place where I knew it had to end up—in this case, our protagonist is eaten by a lion—it happened in such an interesting and unexpected way that I didn’t really mind that I ended up exactly where I knew I would as soon as everybody was laughing about the idea of lions in the city?! For its entire run, “The Jungle” is a white panic story that could stand to carry with it much less of the idea that Africa is full of savages who can practice terrible black magicks. At the same time, though, “The Jungle” is a really effective white panic story. It forces the audience to burrow down into the protagonist’s head and identify with him at least a little bit. And it manages its biggest scares almost entirely via sound effects, which is no mean feat.
To be honest, the first half of this episode is pretty silly. It opens with Alan and Doris Richards in their apartment, expositing about their recent trip to Africa, which apparently involved Doris receiving any number of good luck and protection charms from a witch doctor. Alan tosses them into the fire, and she gets upset, fearing that something awful will happen. Ha, ha! says Alan, more or less. There’s nothing to worry about, because who’s going to worry about those old superstitions. At which point, he proceeds to his board meeting and tells the other members they’ll be marked for death if they proceed with their dam project, because the witch doctors told him so. I think what this is going for is the idea that superstitions can be so strong that the suggestion of death by someone said to be in touch with the universe can touch off said death simply through some weird facet of psychology. In practice, it comes off as Alan actually being sort of scared of what the witch doctors might do. This is all followed by a scene where he drinks with a friend, the aforementioned scene where both laugh about a lion getting into the city (because Alan has revealed his protective lion tooth charm). It’s, again, silly, and it’s all based in the aforementioned stereotypes.
But from there, “The Jungle” turns downright eerie, playing off just how terrifying a public place can be in the middle of the night, something that mixes nicely with the barely restrained panic inherent to the episode into something that’s tense and involving. Alan’s car won’t start, and he can’t find anyone to help him jump it, since it’s after 3 in the morning. He tries to make a phone call, but the payphone doesn’t work. (Later, it rings, and when he answers, all he can hear are animal noises.) He gets a cab, but the cabbie dies while waiting at a traffic light. A bum asks him for some money, and when he tries to pay the bum to accompany him through the park, the bum simply disappears. These are all very effective at establishing the claustrophobic nightmare that is his walk home, and the sound mix keeps dropping in monkeys’ hoots, lions’ growls, and the beat of tribal drums. The wind rushes through the trees, and Alan picks up his pace a little bit, trying to not be undone by the beliefs he earlier derided as for the weak-minded. But, man, it’s early in the morning, and his imagination—or is it his imagination?—is intent on playing tricks on him.
From fairly early on, it’s obvious we’re in a story that’s meant to suggest those who are superstitious and paranoid are right to be so. That’s a staple of this genre and this show, and it’s a story that’s hard to do well, particularly in a milieu where it’s been done a bunch of times before. Where “The Jungle” succeeds is in the way it keeps twisting the knife. Alan doesn’t just have to walk home; he has to walk home through an empty park guarded by lion statues. He doesn’t just get eaten by a lion; he gets eaten by a lion that’s invaded his supposedly safe apartment and already dispatched his wife. He’s not just walking home; he’s walking home at 3 in the morning through rain-slicked, empty streets, where his only companions end up either dead or vanished. The whole back half of this episode is an incredibly effective exercise in making choices that will produce maximum tension, and writer Charles Beaumont (who adapted from his short story) is to be commended.
Two other men make this episode what it is. As Alan, consummate ‘50s and ‘60s guest star John Dehner (who starred in two other Zones) is pleasingly no-nonsense, exactly the sort of guy you want to see taken down a peg or two, but he keeps the character human and understandable enough that viewers can feel his fear, too, when he has to make his long, late-night walk. And where William Claxton’s direction is non-fussy in the episode’s first half (though excellent at laying out the characters relationships within their individual spaces—watch how he uses the apartment space in that opening scene to lay out with supreme exactitude the marriage between Alan and Doris), the second half of the episode really allows him to pile on the nightmare fuel. The Twilight Zone made great use of shadow, and Claxton turns that up to the hilt in this episode, constantly using the frame to let danger creep in around the edges or keep the audience from seeing what might pounce from just offscreen. And when the lion arrives, Claxton is careful to let the cat have its big moment.
Look: This is all driven by stuff that’s at best borderline repulsive and outright offensive at worst. But it also seems at least vaguely aware of this fact, and when it comes down to it, the so-thought jungle savages ultimately have the upper hand, which is still sort of offensive but at least has put more thought into it than a lot of other stories of the period might have. But “The Jungle” ultimately overcomes those problematic elements because it’s an episode that taps into a fear we all have, no matter where we are or at what time. Hell, I just spent the last week in the middle of nowhere, on the farm I grew up on, and I could still feel it when I went outside after midnight, even as I knew it was impossible: It’s late. It’s dark. It’s well past when you should be in bed. And somebody, somewhere, is watching. And they’re going to get you.
What a twist: Alan makes it to his apartment mostly unscathed, only to find the lion he’s been dreading in his bedroom.
- Both of these episodes closed their first acts with weird zooms in—on a hand in “Still Valley” and on the lion’s tooth charm here—complete with over-the-top musical cues that made me laugh. Is that a thing that’s been happening this season? I honestly can’t recall.
- At first, I wondered why Alan didn’t just shut the door after he saw the lion (not that it would particularly stop a rampaging lion), but I liked the way that Dehner plays this with almost a sense of relief. Ah. Here’s the lion. Just like he knew it would come.
- It might be fun to see a sequel to this episode where the curse stalks the other board members. Or it might just be filled with even more racially motivated stereotypes!
Next week: Zack hangs out with Buster Keaton in “Once Upon A Time,” then watches one of the most oblique Christmas episodes ever made, “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit.”