The Twilight Zone is, for the most part, timeless– though many of its stories seem rooted in a Cold War era of paranoia, many others convey fears and preoccupations that seem inevitably attached to the human condition and our inherent vulnerability in light of forces we cannot identify or explain. I think that’s what makes us return to the series, or perhaps it is that the series never really leaves us. It is why certain tales of terror and suspense and psychological turmoil that Rod Serling gave us stay with us and why the show remains so classic, so universal, so important to us even generations later. That said, unless you’re like me– watching the marathons and re-watching episodes year after year when they air on TV– some of the specific plots may not be as familiar to viewers today as certain others. And besides, if done right, I think certain episodes could make really fun, brilliant feature films today, whether to give some interesting narrative context or to modernize the effects or to remind us that the series’ metaphors still carry weight in our current world. Here are a few episodes that I think could work as movies for those reasons and more:
1) Living Doll: I figure, if Chucky can have his own horror movie franchise, then Talky Tina from this 1963 classic episode certainly can, too. Maybe James Wan could direct, given his handling of Annabelle, the now infamous doll from The Conjuring. This episode is terrifying on its own but I feel like a horror makeover, if handled well, could make this story even more chilling. Plus, it could help answer questions (whether or not we had them) such as, how did Talky Tina become so evil– is it magic, voodoo, a serial killer avenging abused children against brutish step-parents everywhere? Finding the answer within the episode doesn’t seem important and besides, it’s not really existent there, but I think it’d be fun to explore in a film given all the space and time to finally do so.
2) The Monsters are Due on Maple Street: This episode from The Twilight Zone‘s first season, in 1960, follows an all American town that has been thrown into a fervor of panic and unease when electricity and power are cut– blame is thrown around, tensions are rising, hostility is palpable within the formerly tight-knit community. When it is revealed that aliens were indeed responsible, the whole morale of the tale is eerily conveyed– all the aliens would need to do to take over the planet, or destroy it, is to allow the humans to riot and destroy themselves by fighting one another out of their fear and paranoia and suspicion. The message is applicable in any time, especially now– when the knee-jerk reaction is violence and when surveillance and other such themes of paranoia are particularly prevalent yet again. Plus, the townspeople could easily be made up of an ensemble of today’s most talented A-list actors.
3) The Midnight Sun: This episode, from 1961, is one of my favorites– it’s scary and simple and would work really well as a full-length movie now given our obsession with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tales in cinema and television. This episode is about our society once again collapsing in on itself as we turn against one another in the face of extreme and dire situations– this time, it’s that the earth and sun are growing ever closer together, causing extreme heat, that is until the film’s epic and eerie twist ending. Given our specific anxieties about climate change, and with perhaps more time and focus given to the science of what is happening, as well as the human threats faced by our well-meaning protagonists as they struggle through sweat and thirst and desperation, this hypothetical film could be really entertaining and gripping, and the story at its core could really benefit from that kind of context and embellishment, I think. As long as Roland Emmerich doesn’t get his hands on the project, turning it into a too-big mess of special effects that leave no room for nuance, then this could be a really unique and interesting foray into the apocalypse subgenre and a worthwhile adaptation, too. I’d also keep M. Night Shyamalan away from it as well, for fear that the amazing twist would turn into a joke.
4) People Are Alike All Over: Another episode (from 1960) that could be a really thought-provoking sci-fi film today, this episode carries a goosebump-inducing message that could perhaps be elaborated upon to make a fuller, more complicated feature that would hopefully pack the same punch. The story centers upon a couple of explorers traveling through space. When one is injured and dies, the other is left alone, cynical until he meets martians who appear to be human. The thing is, people really are alike everywhere, as the closing lines state– thinking he has been met with hospitality, the tables turn when we realize that in fact, our protagonist Conrad has been put into an exhibit, much like a zoo, showing him off in his allegedly natural habitat, for the amusement and entertainment of fellow martians. In a movie version of this tale, the twist can be put off for a little longer, and the suspicion turning to trust turning to realization turning to utter despair can all be accentuated and sustained even better in a longer format– the build can take its time, the burn can be slower, and the pay off could be really great.
5) Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: In 1963, William Shatner guest starred in this classic episode, based on a short story by master sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. In the episode, he plays a man who believes he sees a creature on the outside of the plane he’s flying on, messing with the wing and engine and with his head, as well. Everyone believes he has suffered from a nervous breakdown and that he has imagined the creature. The episode induces tension and suspense perfectly, and I think extrapolating that and finding a comparable pacing and tone in a feature-length film version could be doable and ultimately satisfying. I think if a dynamic lead actor with similar charm could play Shatner’s part, and if we made a truly horrifying monster for the gremlin as special effects would definitely allow for today, then the film could even be truly scary. I think the setting of an airplane is, perhaps, even more tense now than it was then, given current events and the associated apprehensions surrounding terrorism of all kinds. But even taking these unavoidable associations away, we haven’t had a good horror movie set in such a claustrophobic space recently– there have been action movies, and movies explicitly about terror, and everything in between. This could be a much needed entry into whatever canon exists for movies about nightmares at 20,000 feet, and in many ways, this was one of the first and ultimate nightmares of that sort to begin with– why not relive that dream in movie-form today?