The Night Gallery on DVD
Few things in life are more trying than playing second fiddle to a sibling whose charm, poise, good looks and dazzling achievements you can never hope to match. Just ask Night Gallery, forever standing in the shadow of one of the most legendary and beloved of all television shows, The Twilight Zone. (At this point I am morally – if not legally – required to disclose that I am a spoiled youngest child who got every freakin’ thing he ever wanted, at least according to my sister.)
In case you need reminding, Night Gallery was an outré-story anthology show hosted by Rod Serling that ran for three seasons on NBC, from 1969 through 1973. Each hour-long episode featured two, three, or even four separate stories (at least until the third season, when the show’s running time was cut back to a half hour), which Serling, in his role as the curator of a museum of the macabre, would introduce with a painting (or occasionally a piece of sculpture) illustrative of the tale, hence the series name.
Night Gallery shares many qualities with its predecessor, but several things distinguish it from the earlier show. Like Twilight Zone, Night Gallery was created by Rod Serling and he wrote some or all of over half of the episodes, but he did not produce the series. This was a big change and it meant that he had far less authority over Night Gallery than he did over his previous creation. (As the creator and face of the show, he thought that his wishes would be respected even without the producing title, but it often didn’t turn out that way.)
During the course of the show’s run, budgets and ratings declined together, and Serling and his producer Jack Laird came under pressure to spice the program up with more action and violence; at one point Serling complained that the network wanted to turn Night Gallery into “Mannix with a shroud.” (For those yet to receive their AARP cards, Mannix was a very popular detective series stuffed to overflowing with fistfights, car chases and gunplay; Mike Connors’ Joe Mannix suffered more bullet wounds than your average in-country infantry battalion and was pistol whipped into unconsciousness an average of seventeen times a season for the eight years the show ran. I know this because I counted.)
During its five seasons (1959 to 1964), The Twilight Zone featured a full mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but Night Gallery’s emphasis was overwhelmingly on horror, and many episodes were adapted from stories by the genre’s biggest names, including H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and Richard Matheson, to name only a few.
Anthology shows tend to be uneven and Night Gallery was not exempt, the downside frequently being found in Serling’s own original contributions, which often feature the soppy sentimentality and weepy self-pity that were his specialties. Entries like “The Messiah on Mott Street” (a tenement-dwelling little boy needs a miracle to save his dying grandfather – played by the great Edward G. Robinson – and surprise, surprise, at the last possible moment he gets one) and “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” (a suicidal business failure encounters the ghosts of his past in the deserted saloon where he spent the happy days of his long-departed youth and comes away having – you guessed it – learned a valuable life lesson) show Serling at his diagrammatic worst. They might have slipped by in the 70’s (“Tim Riley” was even nominated for an Emmy) but they can be pretty hard to take now.
Welcome to the Night Gallery
Spotty quality may have shortened the show’s run, but what hurts most watching the series now is its bland look, which isn’t anyone’s fault really; that’s just how television was in those days. It wasn’t always so; most of Twilight Zone’s black and white episodes still have a certain visual elegance. They look good whether the stories themselves are strong or weak. By the 70’s, though, black and white was a thing of the past and television shows tended to feature Brady Bunch-esque color palettes and oscillated between looking merely dull and flat-out dreadful, with people wearing godawful clothes (the decade was the millennium’s sartorial low point – remember Lee Majors’ aircraft carrier-sized collars on The Six Million Dollar Man?) walking around tacky, flatly-lit sets. Because of their generally dark tone, Night Gallery episodes usually manage to avoid the worst of these pitfalls, but even so the series generated few really striking visuals. Even Serling appears haggard and frayed at the edges, in contrast to his sharp look on his earlier series; clearly decades of fighting the suits had taken a heavy toll.
The lack of visual distinction on Night Gallery makes a big difference. Quick – think of memorable Twilight Zone images. Easy, isn’t it? From Jean Marsh’s bullet-shattered android face in “The Lonely” to the fascist noir courtroom in “The Obsolete Man” to the pig faced aliens in “Eye of the Beholder,” the series abounds in sights that once seen are never forgotten. On the other hand, it’s hard to think of a single elegant or memorable visual from Night Gallery. When the episodes are good it’s almost completely a function of writing and acting – not a bad thing, certainly, but it does tend to limit the show’s hold on the memory. Everyone on earth has a favorite Twilight Zone episode; if you penetrated the deepest jungles of Borneo and spoke to the chief of the most isolated tribe, you would probably discover that he just loves “that one where Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses.” Night Gallery, on the other hand, hampered by a look as exciting as a speech by a school board candidate and lacking the endless syndication afterlife of The Twilight Zone, lives on only for a dwindling cohort, greying refugees from the Gerald Ford administration.
Rod Serling with Witches’ Feast painting
So why bother to remember it at all? Because, despite its handicaps, Night Gallery often managed to be quite good. Standout segments include a pair of fine Lovecraft adaptations, “Cool Air” and Pickman’s Model,” an Orson Welles-narrated telling of Conrad Aiken’s haunting story of a child’s descent into schizophrenia, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” and an excellent version of C.M. Kornbluth’s science fiction classic, “The Little Black Bag” starring that Twilight Zone alumnus, Burgess Meredith.
Two of the best Serling originals are “Class of 99,” which chillingly features Vincent Price as a college professor instructing a class of androids in the finer points of emulating their now-extinct creators – that is, in how to lie, cheat, exploit, humiliate and kill for their own advantage, just like any full-fledged human being, while “The Waiting Room” serves up a satisfying dose of existential weirdness, as Old West gunfighters sit around a dingy saloon until the clock on the wall tolls the hour of their death, when they must exit the bar to be hung or gunned down or otherwise meet their violent ends, only to then return to the saloon and do it all over again, for eternity. On the whole, for any lover of horror or dark fantasy, the show’s ratio of hits verses misses is good enough to make it well worth watching, even now.
And when I said that Night Gallery was a show with no visual distinction, I was not completely correct; while the episodes themselves were rarely memorable visually, the paintings that were featured in Serling’s introductions to each segment often were, a point which I am now in a position to appreciate better than ever.
Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: The Art of Darkness
There’s an old saying: be careful what you wish for – you may get it. I didn’t even know I was wishing for anything when, a few months ago, I sat down to watch a Night Gallery episode (all three seasons are available on DVD, which is the best way to see them – the series was butchered in syndication). In the course of the hour, I remarked to my wife that I wondered what had become of the paintings that were done for the show. She took note of my interest, got together with my daughter, and lo and behold, a short time ago a surprise package arrived at my house, containing a belated Christmas gift – a large, heavy book entitled Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: The Art of Darkness.
Written by Scott Skelton with Jim Benson, the book is the result of a Kickstarter campaign but is still available for latecomers at creaturefeatures.com. It’s a beautifully produced, oversize hardcover volume of 304 pages with an introduction by Night Gallery fan Guillermo del Toro (who also did commentary on some episodes on the DVD’s). The book gives a history of the series, but best of all it reproduces in full-color every painting done for the show. Each painting has a full page for itself, facing another page that gives Serling’s introduction to the segment along with information about the painting and how it was created.
Jaroslav Gebr’s pilot episode painting, The Cemetery
The paintings for the pilot episode were done by Jaroslav Gebr, but he was not available for the series. That duty was given to Thomas J. Wright, an artist at Universal Studios, and he was responsible for all of the paintings which subsequently graced the show for the rest of its three-year run. According to the book,
With the exception of ‘Pickman’s Model,’ the single script in which the painting was described, Wright was given free reign to interpret the stories in any way that sparked his imagination. Because of this freedom, his canvasses are highly varied in their subject matter, style, color palette, and inspiration in ways that Gebr’s cannot approach: still lifes and abstracts, expressionism, impressionism, modernism, romanticism, American realism, primitivism, surrealism, folk art, cartoons – whatever style struck his fancy and seemed appropriate in expressing the tone and themes of the stories.
Wright was so successful in his task of shaping his work to the individual tales that until I read The Art of Darkness I never realized that the paintings were all the work of one man; I always assumed that they were the work of a team of artists, though seeing them all in one place as the book allows you to do makes Wright’s individual artistic fingerprint more evident. In any case, it’s a pleasure to be able to take a long, close look at this wonderful work, something that a fleeting glimpse on a television screen doesn’t permit. For anyone who loves Night Gallery or appreciates macabre or fantasy art in general, The Art of Darkness is a real treasure.
Make Me Laugh (spread from The Art of Darkness)
As for my original question – what happened to the paintings? “Most of the paintings were stripped from their frames and warehoused in the Universal property department” and from there they were used as set decorations for movies and television shows. (Some of them found their way into two Columbo episodes, for instance.)
Some of them even wound up decorating the offices of actors or producers at Universal. As late as ten years after the show’s cancellation, fifty of Wright’s paintings were still in the Universal property rooms, but in the decades since, that number has “dropped to a mere handful.”
Daughter of Darkness
The others have gradually made their way out into the wider world through various modes of misplacement and appropriation (Universal even sold some – in the early 90’s one lucky lady got two Night Gallery paintings for twenty-five dollars… plus a dollar sixty-nine tax), and many have ultimately come to rest in the hands of private collectors through auction houses and other means. Gallery exhibitions of the paintings have even been put together from time to time, usually in Los Angeles, naturally.
The Girl with the Hungry Eyes
If you want a close view of the work Wright did for the series, you can buy The Art of Darkness, you can wait for a new showing, or if you have eight or ten thousand dollars in your couch cushions, you might even be able to acquire one of the original paintings. (The early 90’s are long gone, needless to say.)
Or you could go on eBay and pick up a copy done in Hong Kong. They look pretty good and one will only set you back two hundred dollars. Of course, in that sort of deal, you could get more than you bargained for… you may end up with a cursed canvas that inexorably draws viewers into a nightmarish world from which they can’t escape, and the next owner of the painting may notice a small, frightened figure that looks just like you in the background, frantically pleading to get out… hey! Sounds like a good Night Gallery story…
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was a review of the films The Black Hole And Saturn 3.