The Twilight Zone: “The Grave”/“It's A Good Life”
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The Twilight Zone: “The Grave”/“It's A Good Life”

“The Grave” (season 3, episode 7; originally aired 10/27/1961)

In which the dead get their revenge

(Available on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, and CBS.com.)

The story behind “The Grave” is an old one. Indeed, I first encountered it in one of the volumes in Alvin Schwartz’s awesome (and iconic for ‘80s/‘90s kids) Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark. The basic thrust of it is that there’s this spooky old grave that scares everybody, and a group of people dare a certain someone who claims to be brave to go up to the grave at midnight. To prove they’ve been there, they’re to stick a knife in the dirt, and everyone will go and take a look in the morning. In the process of stabbing the knife into the ground, the brave (but actually terrified) individual realizes they can’t get free and is convinced that the specter of whomever occupies the grave has them around the ankle. Come morning, the others discover the corpse of the person—who died of a heart attack—and realize that he or she pinned the knife through an article of their clothing. If only they’d taken the time to think rationally, things might have been okay. (In Scary Stories, the victim is a teenager, which makes the whole “heart attack” thing a bit less plausible.)

As an urban legend, it’s not bad, though the twist ending is sort of dumb. Even as a kid, I was vaguely disappointed in it, particularly when I considered how hard it would be to accidentally pin your own clothing to the ground with a knife. Most urban legends are meant to be cautionary tales in one way or another, and the lesson this one purports to teach—don’t freak out, basically—isn’t a bad one for kids and teenagers to learn. But I can’t say that I’ve found the story all that scary, perhaps because I didn’t grow up in a place with moody, overgrown cemeteries. It’s fine for what it is, but it’s sort of surprising to see such a basic tale turn up on The Twilight Zone, is all I’m saying.

That said, “The Grave” does a fairly good job of giving this story a Zone-y twist. If you’ve heard the story before, you know what’s coming, but the episode gets into the major plausibility issue with the original story to suggest that, hey, maybe the dead kid really did get the best of the man who’d been called to town to kill him. This twists the original story enough to make this slightly more enjoyable than a straightforward retelling would have been (though there are still some significant issues with this presentation of the story), but it’s still hinging on a bunch of tough guys being scared of a ghost. It could be tough to swallow, but the leader of these tough guys is Lee Marvin, and if Lee Marvin’s scared of a ghost, well, maybe everybody at home should be too.

Marvin is by far the best thing about this episode. As Conny Miller, the hired gun who was brought into town to deal with outlaw Pinto Sykes, Marvin is his usual gruff, take-no-bullshit self. He was called in to deal with this outlaw, and now that he learns everybody else already did it, he’s angry that he won’t get his purse. Once everybody else starts talking about the dying man’s curse on those who killed him, well, Conny isn’t going to have any of it, but a good ghost story is a good ghost story, and he’s soon starting to believe almost in spite of himself. Marvin handles this transition with aplomb, and it’s the only reason this thing works at all. It’s still slightly unbelievable that this guy cracks under the pressure when his coat gets pinned to the grave, but at least we’ve got the “maybe there really was a ghost there!” aspect working here, thanks to the demonstration of how the wind wouldn’t just naturally blow someone’s coat across Pinto’s grave.

If there’s another reason “The Grave” works, it’s thanks to the eerie atmosphere of the thing. At first, the omnipresent wind on the soundtrack seems like a choice that’s just there to make things seem spookier than they actually are, but by the time the final twist rolls around, it’s as if the wind has become an embodiment of Pinto himself. Similarly, this was an episode made at a time when TV was really good at making Westerns, and the elements of TV Westerns and other period fare that peek through here are pretty great. This is another episode that’s built to take place almost entirely on one set—the saloon—but it’s a good set, and it makes the one-act play feel of the episode work better than it has in other more confined Zones. There’s no way this episode works without that Western town set that opens the episode, and that’s similarly effective, though the graveyard set is perhaps too obviously on a soundstage. (This reaction of mine could have something to do with watching a lot of Route 66, a rough contemporary of this show, where everything was shot on location.)

What keeps “The Grave” from being an all-time classic—aside from the ubiquitousness of its basic story, which, really, the episode can’t help—is simply that it pokes along too slowly. Any given episode of this show that’s confined to one location and by and large just waiting around for the twist ending runs into issues of inevitability. Here, the fact that Conny is obviously going to go up to that cemetery at some point is so obvious that the episode can never overcome it, even if you don’t know the story this is based on. Moving Conny from a point where he’s not scared to a point where he is just takes so long that the middle section of the episode feels logy and lackluster.

The major issue with the episode, however, comes from Elen Willard’s performance as Ione, Pinto’s weird sister. There’s an attempt to show here how the townspeople have deprived this family by gunning down this man—no matter how justified they were—but it’s all undone by Willard’s campy, theatrical performance that goes over-the-top, then doesn’t bother stopping. She cackles like a madwoman and delivers many of her lines with an affectless gaze and just generally makes everything seem like she’s auditioning to play the witch in a children’s theater version of a fairy tale. Considering how important Ione is to the episode’s heart and the episode’s twist ending—she’s the one who suggests that maybe Pinto really was behind Conny’s death—this robs the episode of much of the power it could have had. It’s rare for a Twilight Zone episode to be let down by a guest casting choice, especially in an episode with Lee Marvin, but damned if it doesn’t happen here. “The Grave” has its moments, but it’s ultimately a lesser example of what the show could do.

What a twist!: Conny dies of a heart attack when someone grasps at him from beyond the grave. It turns out he just pinned his own coat to the ground with the knife… or maybe Pinto’s ghost made sure the coat was there to be pinned.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • Rod Serling’s entrance in this episode—from a rickety side building on the Western town set—might be one of my favorites in the series. He was just hanging out in there. Don’t mind him. I also like how he comments on how this is what happens after the story would usually end.
  • This episode was written by Montgomery Pittman, who is responsible for two other Zone scripts, including “Two,” which Zack covered a few weeks ago. He died a year after broadcast of this episode from cancer.
  • Making Willard’s casting all the more curious is the fact that the other guys in the bar are pretty uniformly excellent in terms of acting. Sure, they’re all a little broad, but not so broad that they bring down everything around them.

“It’s A Good Life” (season 3, episode 8; originally aired 11/3/1961)

In which it’s good that you did that!

(Available on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus.)

Have you ever read the gospels that didn’t make the Bible? I suppose that’s a stupid question, since of course you haven’t. I haven’t, but I’ve read summaries of them. One of my favorite things about those gospels is that they cover the bits of Jesus’ life that didn’t make it into the four gospels that made the Bible, basically everything between six and 30, when he was just a kid growing up, trying to cope with also being the Son of God. Now, granted, a lot of these read like Bible fan fiction, but there’s also an interesting nugget in the middle of all of the other stuff: What would a child—a regular child—who had all the powers of God do to those who disappointed him? There’s a story where Jesus is angry at a playmate, and he strikes the playmate dead. It’s maybe not what we want out of a potential savior, but it’s incredibly recognizable as what someone might do as a kid who’s angry at some other kid. We all remember being that child, that collection of emotions that feel fit to boil over, that walking ball of rage.

“It’s A Good Life” is one of those famous Twilight Zone episodes, one of those episodes where it’s hard to find much to say that hasn’t already been said. Things like the idea of being wished out into the cornfield or the creepy child who holds immense power have been so thoroughly digested by our popular culture that it’s hard to believe there was ever time when, say, Serling’s opening narration about the monster who’s isolated Peaksville, Ohio, from the world could have shocked. But it’s clearly meant to! When we transition from all of the horrible things the monster has done to the first image we get of said monster—a 6-year-old boy named Anthony Fremont—it’s played as the episode’s big twist. Here is the face of evil. It is a child. What do you do?

What makes “It’s A Good Life” so great is that it recognizes that this twist isn’t much of one. For as much as we mythologize childhood innocence, the truth is that almost all kids are capricious little shits, prone to sticking their fingers in psychological wounds and wriggling them around. The job of a parent, then, is to funnel all of those normal emotions into a direction that will be more socially acceptable, to turn a child who doesn’t feel empathy for others into someone who will function in a system that’s often predicated on everybody doing their best to work together as a unit. But parents have this leverage over their children not just because they brought their children into the world but also because they’re bigger and stronger than their children and because they provide everything their children need to survive. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and when it works at its best, the child transitions to adulthood just as the parents are able to let go. At that point, hopefully the child knows enough to make it on their own.

“It’s A Good Life” removes all of the advantages the parents have and places them in the hands of the child. And even today, even after I’ve seen this episode at least 10 times, it remains terrifying. Just the simple unbalancing of the parent/child relationship gives the episode a tremendous kick. But then, “It’s A Good Life” goes even further. See, little Anthony hasn’t just imprisoned his parents and aunt in this living nightmare. He’s imprisoned a whole town, and because he doesn’t really understand how the world works and because no one else dares tell him he’s a bad boy, he’s almost certainly condemned everyone in it to death. Supplies are running out. The crops will soon die. And there’s nothing that can be done, because Anthony’s whims must be indulged.

As written by Serling and played by the young Billy Mumy, Anthony is a perfectly terrifying creation. Nobody’s quite sure what he’s going to turn against next, because he’s a kid, and kids turn on stuff out of nowhere all of the time. He doesn’t like singing, so, boy, everybody better make sure not to sing around him. He wants it to snow, so it snows. The only television shows he wants to watch involve dinosaurs fighting, and he makes everybody else watch along with him. When somebody slips up around them, he either turns them into an invalid—like Aunt Amy—or sends them out into the cornfield (a phrase that never gets explained and is all the better for it). What’s brilliant about this is that little Anthony isn’t all that far off from a young child, holding his parents hostage in a constant battle of the wills dominated by tantrums and wearied adults saying, “For God’s sake, will you just eat your meal?” Anthony is the id of every little kid out there, writ large. And like all those other kids, his emotions and moods change on a dime. Woe to those who are anywhere near when he gets angry.

Another great thing about “It’s A Good Life” is that it has the courage to not really have a story. It lays out a premise in the early going, then mostly just shows us how that premise plays out. The people of Peaksville are terrified of this little boy, and we get to watch a typical day in their lives, doing their best to make Anthony think nothing is wrong, until one man cracks under the pressure. A lesser episode would have tried to string a story in here somewhere, would have had Dan Hollis’ entreaties to bash Anthony over the head result in something successful—or at least something that could have given way to an ironic twist. Instead, Dan is transformed into a hideous jack-in-the-box creation, and everybody has to tell Anthony he did a good thing. And yet Anthony’s father’s outburst about the snow—quickly covered up—indicates that this point will come for everyone in Peaksville, sooner or later. Until then, though, they’ll force smiles and think only happy thoughts and try not to think too much about the monster in their midst. But they will lose.

See, Anthony Fremont is a potent symbol of childhood, of a point when what every single one of us wanted was more important than the needs of other people that might have gotten in our way. But what makes the episode work beyond even that is that we’re all imprisoned by our own Anthony Fremonts, the things in our lives that simply won’t take no for an answer and demand to get what they want, right now. It might be a mental or physical illness. It might be a corrupt and unjust political leader or party. It might just be a damaging relationship or friendship you can’t escape. “It’s A Good Life” is ultimately about what you do when you face evil, when you face someone who simply refuses to think about anybody outside of themselves and has a tendency to hijack the moment to make it all about them. But it’s also a story about how, eventually, we’re all worn down, backed into a corner by something and no longer willing to beg for mercy. The scary thing about Anthony Fremont isn’t that he exists or that he perfectly depicts childhood intransigence or even all of the political and social readings you could lay over him. The scary thing about Anthony Fremont is that you will never stand up to him. The scary thing about Anthony Fremont is that he always wins.

What a twist!: The monster Serling describes in the opening moments? It’s a little boy. Uh oh.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • God, that birthday party scene is a classic. The way that it so believably turns from everybody going along with whatever Anthony wants to Dan finally just having had enough of it is so perfectly built. It escalates at exactly the right pace, in marked contrast to “The Grave.”
  • Aunt Amy goes for the fireplace poker when Dan is making his plea, but she ultimately doesn’t do anything. I always wonder if anyone ever did try to kill Anthony and what happened in that moment.
  • This might be the most referenced episode of the show. It’s turned up on everything from The Simpsons to a Michael Jackson episode.
  • Yes, that’s Cloris Leachman as Mrs. Fremont. If you want to hear her stories about the making of the episode, well, you can find them in this Random Roles interview we did with her.
  • This episode is adapted from a short story by Jerome Bixby, which is also worth a read. I think the TV episode captures the horror of the situation more effectively, but that’s probably just because I encountered it first.

Next week: Zack heads back to World War II for “Deaths-Head Revisited,” then finds out what happens when Earth meets “The Midnight Sun.”

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