02 October 2009

Twilight Zone: Nightmare as a Child

Yes, today is the the day. And right in time for the start of October Country, my favorite time of the year. Today is the official Fiftieth Anniversary of The Twilight Zone. The first episode, “Where Is Everybody?”, premiered on CBS TV on 2 October 1959.

My big celebration of the show, however, will have to wait until Tuesday, where I promise you at least 3,000 words about the first season of the show. But for today, I’ll review one of the first season episodes that I passed over during my summer retrospective. Bring on the Spooky Little Girl (and a Jerry Goldsmith score) in . . .
Episode #29: Nightmare as a Child
Directed by Alvin Ganzer. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Janice Rule, Terry Burnham, Michael Fox.

“Month of November, hot chocolate, and a small cameo of a child’s face, imperfect only in its solemnity. And these are the improbable ingredients to a human emotion, an emotion, say, like fear. But in a moment this woman, Helen Foley, will realize fear. She will understand what are the properties of terror. A little girl will lead her by the hand and walk with her into a nightmare.”

“Nightmare as Child” is one of the almost-greats of the first season of The Twilight Zone. It’s draped in an intense and strange atmosphere, it contains a trio of excellent performances, the suspense builds through the claustrophobic setting (the action is confined to an apartment and the stairway outside) . . . and then it abruptly peaks and falls off, never effectively tying together its supernatural appearance with its plotline. There’s something subtly disappointing about it all.

Helen Foley (Janice Rule) comes back to her apartment to discover a pretty but very insistent ten-year-old girl who calls herself “Markie” sitting on the stairs outside. Markie starts to reveal an unusual amount of knowledge about Helen, such as a scar from her childhood on her arm, and she also knows that Helen saw a man today that she seems remember . . . but not exactly from where. The performance from child actress Terry Burnham as “Markie” is impressive: she pushes, prods, and snaps at Helen in an antagonistic way remarkable for one so young.

Markie’s appearance is prologue to Peter Selden (Michael Fox, the reason a later actor had to put a “J.” in the middle of his name) knocking on Helen’s door. It seems that this smarmy Mr. Selden is the man whom Helen had seen earlier and thought perhaps she knew. Selden starts to explain that he was friends with Helen’s mother, and he seems inordinately interested in how much Helen can remember from her childhood and the night of her mother’s death.

Audiences will probably already figure what is happening before the actual “nightmare” of the title—a dizzying memory from childhood—and Markie screaming out the extremely obvious plot point. The story might have worked better if Markie never had to elucidate her identity; the photo that Mr. Selden provides is all that’s needed. And the episode further suffers from the lack of connection that the mysterious “Markie” figure has to the outcome; it would have happened the same way whether she had sat on Helen’s door at the opening or not.

The episode still leaves the proper residue of creepy. The echoing sing-song of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is the sort of aural cue that The Twilight Zone could do so perfectly, and Burnham is spot-on as a little girl who knows exactly how to freak you out. The limited confines of the episode work to its benefit, and Rod Serling put his play-writing background to good use. There’s also a subtextual sexual element: Peter Selden mentions to Helen that he “sort of had a crush on her” when he knew her earlier . . . which would make him a grown man and her ten years old. Ick. This makes me wonder what he would have done to young Helen when she was a child if her screams hadn’t brought the police.

This is one of Jerry Goldsmith’s finest scores for the series; it’s the opposite of the tender music from “The Big Tall Wish” and accents the mounting uncertainty perfectly.

Joe Dante, in his segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, named Kathleen Quinlan’s character “Helen Foley” as a nod to this episode. (There are a ream of classic Zone name references in that segment.)