“The Invaders” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 1/27/1961)
In which the invasion is coming from inside the house.
A few weeks ago, there was a rat trapped in my wall. Not much came of it—animal control came, and they got it out—but there was something unsettling about it all the same. I’d be sitting in my office, typing away at something, and then there would be a desperate scratching, the sound of something that wasn’t where it was supposed to be and was trying to get out. At first, I felt a kind of pity for it, whatever it was. To be trapped like that, to be unable to make it out, that seemed like the worst possible way to die. But then it started to curdle toward something more like fear. Intellectually, I knew the animal wouldn’t be able to claw through the wall and burst into my office. But as I sat there, late at night, listening to it try, I couldn’t help but feel my blood grow just a few degrees colder. There was an alien in my house, and it wanted to get at me.
“The Invaders” is one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, partially because it’s so different from any other episode and partially because it takes that experience and turns it into a legitimate horror movie premise. A woman, played by Agnes Moorehead, is alone in her remote cabin—no electricity or other modern amenities—cooking up a stew. There’s a loud crash from the roof, and when she climbs up there, she sees a spaceship (the classic flying saucer) sitting there. As she watches, a ramp lowers, and two spacemen, who look like robots, really, exit, teetering toward her in the manner of wind-up toys. She shoves one through the hole she just climbed up, then closes herself back in the house. And then they start to come after her.
“The Invaders” is best known today for a handful of things. For one thing, it’s almost completely dialogue-free (outside of a message the aliens send home at the end). For another, it’s got one of the most famous twist endings in the series’ history, when the camera pans around and reveals that the ship the woman has finally destroyed hails from Earth. (We may have guessed this when the occupants frantically hailed home and started speaking in English.) Finally, it’s known for Moorehead’s performance, which is done only via guttural moans and shrieks, as well as some pretty impressive pantomime. Moorehead’s performance almost completely lacks vanity, and it’s a wonder to behold. She thrashes around on the floor in pain. She lets drool drip from her lips in her one extreme close-up. She acts more like some strange creature than a human being.
And, of course, she is a strange creature. This is another in the long line of Twilight Zone episodes that ended with the message, “Perhaps it is we who are the true monsters.” But unlike many other episodes of this sort, “The Invaders” doesn’t really suffer when you know the twist is coming. The rest of the episode stands up to the scrutiny because writer Richard Matheson and director Douglas Heyes (to say nothing of composer Jerry Goldsmith) ratchet up the tension so expertly. At first, we’re just watching a woman cooking stew, and then we start to hear strange noises, and then we see the little men, and then they’re trying to kill her. Regardless of how unadorned and offputting Moorehead’s performance can seem or how goofy the special effects are, this episode gets down at that primal, lizard brain level. There’s someone inside your house, and he’s coming to kill you.
Matheson’s script is, of course, genius, carefully escalating the story until it’s all-out war between the woman and the two invaders. The amount of stuff he’s able to do without dialogue is impressive, and Moorehead seems to get every little emotion and moment he wants her to convey. But I’m even more impressed with Heyes’ work here. The camera movements are fluid and perfect, and every time we need to see some sort of new revelation, Heyes waits exactly the right number of beats before we get to see whatever it is the woman is seeing. Twilight Zone is big on point-of-view, and while this episode isn’t shot in first-person or anything, it is in a very tight third-person, where our perspective is severely limited to the woman and what she experiences. No matter what he’s trying to do here, Heyes nails it, even seemingly silly ideas like the little spaceman waving around a giant knife and somehow sticking the woman in the foot with it. The central idea here—frontier woman fights off an alien invasion—is remarkably silly, but both Matheson and Heyes take advantage of every trick in the book to make it seem horrific.
I’m also impressed by just how well Matheson and Heyes use time. This episode is filmed in real-time, so we see the invasion in the same amount of time it happens in. This means that the first few minutes of the story are taken up by Moorehead just wandering around and cooking. That takes a certain amount of guts to pull off, and I can’t imagine the network note sessions (if there were any) were happy about the prospect of just watching this woman go about her life. But it establishes what we’re going to see so quickly and so perfectly that these moments fly by all the same. Here’s a woman who lives all alone. She seems happy and content. We’re not going to hear very much (if any) dialogue. But we know something’s coming to get her. Events start to speed up, slowly but surely, and then we’re in the episode’s final moments, and everything builds to an impressively thunderous climax, as the woman takes the hatchet to the spaceship after it issues a warning about a dangerous giant planet.
Down at the bottom of everything, I just like TV shows that try lots of different kinds of things. The Twilight Zone would never again do a dialogue-free episode like this, but then, it didn’t have to. There wasn’t a lot of experimentation like this going on on television in the early ‘60s, and if some of the elements of the episode—like Moorehead’s performance—can seem a little broad to modern eyes, that thought is canceled out, I think, by just how gutsy all of this is. Everybody here is going for broke, and if there are elements that can seem laughable, that almost paradoxically makes the episode all the more powerful. You can’t do something great unless you risk falling flat on your face, and “The Invaders” proves that in spades.
Alien invasion stories are, of course, apocalypse stories almost always. The trick “The Invaders” plays is to take the apocalypse inherent in this idea and personalize it. This isn’t about aliens landing on every street corner. It’s about two astronauts wandering into a corner of the galaxy they weren’t expecting and getting into a war with a woman who may not match them for technology but has the advantage of sheer ferocity. The final shot is meant to convey sort of the same effect that Psycho’s famous twist does, in which that film and this episode force you to sympathize with the side (murderer, alien killing humans) you’d normally root against in a story like this. It’s a trick, in some ways, but it’s an effective one. When the monsters are inside your house, are you really going to take the time to find out what they want? Or are you going to get rid of them as soon as possible, if only so you can stop the terrible scratching at the walls?
What a twist!: Those spacemen? Yeah, they were from Earth, sent to explore a planet that turned out to be occupied by giants.
- One of my favorite tricks with a story like this is to imagine if it works just as well from the other point-of-view, and it’s not hard to see how exciting this would be from the point-of-view of the astronauts. Landing on a giant planet and having to do battle with one of them? There’s nothing in there that doesn’t sound awesome.
- The use of lighting in this episode is moody and evocative, with shadows concealing everything and the woman carrying small flames that don’t stand a chance against that darkness. Unfortunately, it made picking a good screencap almost impossible.
- I made fun of the astronaut waving around the knife from under the bed up above, but the moment when the woman is stabbed by it poking through the door is pretty spectacular.
“A Penny For Your Thoughts” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 2/3/1961)
In which Dick York stumbles into Bewitched well before it ever hit the air
I have a real problem with stories where someone suddenly gains an ability to read other people’s thoughts. I don’t mind it as a dramatic device, I guess, and there have been some fun stories about it over the years—Buffy’s “Earshot” springs readily to mind. But I just can’t get past the notion that if you gained the ability to read thoughts, everybody around you would be thinking entirely in full sentences that immediately followed up whatever they said to you. I know, I know. It’s about subtext, and how we don’t always know what people are thinking about us, even if we think we do. It’s about how the way someone says something is as important as what they actually say and how we’re often very poor at reading that. But at the same time, it’s a very, very silly notion.
“A Penny For Your Thoughts” is one of those occasional comedic episodes of The Twilight Zone. It’s immediately obvious to modern viewers, simply because it features Dick York in the lead role (making him the second future Bewitched star in as many episodes, what with Moorehead in the last episode). Contemporary viewers, of course, had no idea of the role York would eventually become most famous for, but he immediately announces himself as a straight-arrow comic presence here, mugging relentlessly and stumbling about through the story in such a way that it often seems like there should be some sort of over-the-top musical score to indicate that this is all supposed to be whimsical.
The episode doesn’t need that score because its premise is so weird. York plays a man named Hector Poole, who works at a bank and decides to buy a paper one morning while heading to work. When he tosses his quarter into the box, however, it lands on its edge and stays there. He soon begins to hear what other people are thinking, which is almost always some sort of ironic opposite to whatever they actually say to him. He breaks his glasses and gets into several “thought” conversations with people before he realizes what’s going on (in a sequence that seems to last forever), but he eventually uncovers what appears to be a plot to steal from his bank, as well as the fact that Miss Turner, one of his co-workers, has a bit of a thing for him and wishes he’d just be a little more confident. This being The Twilight Zone, Hector very nearly loses everything he has, but since he’s a comedic hero, he gets it all back (and the girl) in the end, even as he knocks the coin over and ceases his mind-reading abilities.
Since the episode is comedic, of course, it doesn’t pay to worry too much about how dumb the idea of a coin standing on its edge granting the ability to read thoughts is. Yeah, it sort of works in a “fairy tale logic” sort of way, and I’m glad the show doesn’t try too hard to make more sense of it than it really deserves. But it’s still an utterly bizarre notion, and it’s one that isn’t helped by the episode’s portrayal of mind-reading as a kind of “guess the ironic subtext” game. The problem with thoughts is that we don’t always think in language. We might think in images or sounds or smells. We might have a sudden, intense on-rush of memory. I mean, yes, all of us have had an experience where something happens, and we’re pretty sure the other person is at fault, but we say “Sorry!” anyway, then mentally add a “Jerk!” but “Penny” presupposes that this is all any of us ever do.
That’s probably getting too down in the weeds for an episode this intentionally humorous—oh, would Smithers really sit there and so thoughtfully outline a plan he has to steal a bunch of money and go to Bermuda if he’s had this idea dozens of times before?—but the storytelling is no great shakes either. As mentioned, the first half of the episode really drags because Hector takes forever to realize that he’s reading everybody’s thoughts, when the audience has presumably caught up with him long before that happens. (Was the idea of mind-reading just that unusual in 1961, so the episode had to spend a lot of time depicting it before explaining what was going on?) There’s an attempt to tie it into how oblivious Hector is in general—he had no idea Miss Turner had the hots for him—but that makes him seem even more bizarre of a character. He’s an utterly competent accounts man who’s just a little bit stupid.
That said, the episode works, somewhat, because there are some pretty funny gags here. When Hector is walking around, reading the thoughts of the patrons of the bank, there’s a great joke where he leans in close (you have to lean in close to read people’s thoughts, apparently) to see whatever a blonde bombshell is thinking, only to realize she’s apparently not thinking anything. (He goes back just to be sure.) It’s a funny moment, and York gets all the laughs he can out of it. I also liked the way he thought George Washington’s bust was speaking to him when Miss Turner was rattling on about how great he was while ducked down behind the filing cabinets, and the later moment when he outlines the robbery he thinks is in progress for his boss, nose pressed against the glass.
Finally, I just like that the episode ends in a very sweet place. The old man didn’t rob the bank. He couldn’t. He had the thought every day, but that was just a thought you have when you work at a job that’s come to be something you grudgingly go to every day. Hector’s false accusations very nearly get him fired, but he soon realizes he can use his knowledge of his boss’ dalliances with a woman named Felicia to keep his job. Miss Turner—who’s come to believe that he can read thoughts (at least somewhat)—helps him through the crucial negotiation, in a scene that feels straight out of a romantic comedy. Hector bumbles over his lines, but he gets the promotion. Even better, he gets the girl, and he stops hearing voices in his head. It’s as unambiguously happy an ending as the series ever came up with, and it makes some of the drudgery on the way there all the more appealing.
I still don’t buy the mind-reading thing, though. Man, I think if you really could read people’s thoughts, it would be a lot crazier.
What a twist!: Hector uses his powers in a way that almost gets him fired, but eventually gets him a promotion and the girl. When he knocks over the coin, it takes away his abilities, but he’s glad for that, as they’ve almost ruined his life.
- I really enjoy Dan Tobin as Mr. Bagley and Cyril Delevanti as Mr. Smithers, who both really do seem like they’ve been working in this bank for ages and will take their pleasures wherever they can find them.
- I like the way the newspaper boy has been so careful to keep that quarter up on its side all day long, like it’s a miracle or something.
- Is it me, or can you tell a comedic episode of The Twilight Zone entirely thanks to the way Rod Serling reads his opening narration? He sounds downright jovial here.
Next week: Zack checks out one creepy dream in “Twenty Two” and apparently enjoys numbers divisible by 11 in “The Odyssey Of Flight 33.”