15 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

Guess who’s due on Maple Street? One of the most acclaimed episodes on The Twilight Zone!
Episode #22: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
Directed by Ronald Winston. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Claude Akins, Barry Atwater, Jack Weston.

“Maple Street, U.S.A. Late Summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice-cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and a flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street. . . . This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street, in the last calm and reflective moments before the monsters came.”

If I had to select a favorite episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone, I’d pick “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” In fact, I think I just did. If I had to select a favorite episode from the entire run of the show, I couldn’t do it—but “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” would make the short list. It’s Zone in full social-commentary mode, but it strikes the right balance of message with genuine terror, great performances, and solid direction. And the message remains potent today, long after the original inspiration for it has settled into the history books.

The events that occur in the trimmed lawn and ice cream cart landscape of Maple Street are meant to mirror the Communist Witch-Hunts of the 1950s. A sudden weird radiance and noise from the sky presages an abrupt power loss across the street, from lights to automobiles. An imaginative youth suggests that it’s the start of an alien invasion—and the aliens have probably planted human-appearing spies to help clear their way.

Normally, no one would pay attention to Tommy’s out-there explanation . . . but the situation on Maple Street starts growing weirder when power gets restored in a few places, causing the residents to get suspicious of each other as possible collaborators with the hidden invaders. The suspicion keeps mounting and mounting until Maple Street and the episode boil over into a frenzy—it’s one the greatest moments in the show’s history, and a fantastic piece of photography and editing. It’s so good, the “surprise” twist is almost unnecessary.

This is Rod Serling at his “playwright” best. His skill at handling dialogue between a large cast and maintaining the gradual escalation of tension between Maple Streeters are tremendous. If at first it seems outlandish that anyone would listen to the boy’s “alien invader” theory, at the end you completely understand why Maple Street has turned into a war zone.

Although the McCarthy-era inspiration of the episode appears obvious, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” works because the fear of mob-mentality concerns us to this day. The episode also explores how our irrational fear of “the other” can explode in even the most innocent of places. Given an environment of fear, humans rapidly turn into beasts. Pointing a finger and shouting “you’re not one of us!” is all you need to do.

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices. To be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and the frightened, thoughtless search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own: for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things can not be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

Serling does hammer at the theme a bit hard with that closing narration, but in 1960 people might have needed a sharp blow on the head to remind them of the danger of mass-hysteria and prejudice. I’d like to think we don’t need the theme spelled out for us so blatantly in 2009, but perhaps I’m too optimistic. (Yeah, I am.) These things aren’t confined to the Twilight Zone, or to the Cold War.

The “who-is-the-alien?” game would appear again in the second season in another Zone classic, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, but that episode aims more for comedy than social commentary.

Steven Spielberg had planned to re-make “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, but he changed to the less interesting “Kick the Can” after the tragedy that killed two child actors and star Vic Morrow during the filming of John Landis’s segment. Spielberg felt concerned about another night-shoot featuring children and explosions. And I doubt even Spielberg could better the execution of the original.

A semi re-make called “The Monsters Are on Maple Street” appeared in 2003 on the disliked third incarnation of the show. The re-make made the obvious leap to using the fear of terrorism. Let me emphasize obvious. That’s the problem. The flexibility of Serling’s premise makes re-doing the episode pretty pointless.

A bit of trivia for science-fiction fans: the spaceship flying away at the conclusion is footage from Forbidden Planet flipped upside-down and run backwards. Which must make the aliens really dizzy.