Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Twilight Zone - "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"

Season One, Episode 22
Original Airdate: March 4, 1960
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Ronald Winston
Producer: Buck Houghton
Cast: Claude Akins, Jack Weston, Batty Atwater, Rod Serling

I’m not sure whether or not I was in fourth or fifth grade, but one day in class we decided to have a “dramatic reading” of one of the stories in our English textbook. It was an old teleplay. This one. The boldness of the narrative and the bleak ending affected me deeply even then…even when it was only a bunch of ten-year-olds reading it aloud.

The quality and excellence of “The Twilight Zone” remain unsurpassed on television, even over half a century later. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen episodes that would be considered masterpieces. The recurring theme for the vast majority of episodes is isolation – isolation from society, from a familial unit…from yourself. And in using that as a foundation, series creator Rod Serling (who penned most of the series along with such greats as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) used science fiction to create thinly veiled metaphors for what is wrong (or right) in our world.

Though other episodes matched it in darkness or dread, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” feels like Serling wrote it with a rage that comes across in every scene. The only other episode that even comes close is “Deaths-Head Revisited,” where a Nazi captain revisits a concentration camp to be haunted into madness by his victims. We barely get a shot of the idyllic Maple Street (which seems lifted directly out of “Leave It To Beaver”) before Serling’s script begins turning the screws.

There’s a noise and a flashing light over the street, and soon all the residents realize the electric doesn’t work. Neither do their cars or battery-powered gear. A group of neighbors form in the hot sunlight, and a horrible, horrible child hypothesizes that it’s aliens causing it. Not just that, but they have probably sent one of their own ahead who is now living on the street. From that moment, every person on the street is a frog in a big pot set to boil.

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad child.
I’ve seen the episode on numerous occasions, and however many times I watch it I can never pinpoint the specific moment in the show when the tides turn toward insanity. The dialogue is so well-paced and subtly built that you actually become immersed in the moment-to-moment interactions more than looking for specific ways the script ups the stakes. Is it the moment the car turns on? Or when the group runs across the street looking like a mob? How about when a neighbor accuses another of “staring too long at the sky at night”?

Once the ball is rolling, it isn’t long before the lynch mob formed by Charlie (Jack Weston) implodes by turning on itself. It’s Charlie’s fault because he shot a guy! It’s the kid’s fault because he started the whole thing! And so on and so forth…until the street descends into violent, savage anarchy. If that were the ending, the viewer would already be picking his jaw off the floor at the lack of any (any!) redemption for any character. But what makes the episode transcendent is that Serling adds a twist which brings another level of sickening awareness to the proceedings. The entire thing was caused by aliens, who did nothing but turn on and off a few appliances, sit back and watch humanity self-destruct.

Talk about a punch to the gut.

The reasons the neighbors turn on one another is because the others are “different” in ways that are utterly trivial. This is a veiled metaphor for any number of things: racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, etc. His closing narration underlines this, and remains amazingly powerful in how blatant it is about the episode’s motives:

“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. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone…”

Hmmm…otherwise “good” people who inhabit a normal American street turning on one another for being “different” before descending into anarchy. Sound familiar? Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” borrows heavily from Serling’s structure in his film, using a blatant illustration of the shades of racism whereas Serling uses a very thin veil. There’s no point in arguing the merits and superiority of one or the other, but I would like to point out one thing. In Lee’s film, he allows for a scene after the mob and the destruction…a hint at possible recovery. There is none in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Only more darkness.

The director of the episode is Ronald Winston, who gives the affair the feel of a film. When the intensity begins and the neighbors turn into a mob, he begins to shoot the characters from the waist down as they walk or run, inherently presenting to us that they are no longer individuals but a group of faceless horrors. When he does show the characters in these moments, it’s in harsh close-up, all in the same position in the frame. In essence, all interchangeable save for their savagery.

In 2002, UPN relaunched “The Twilight Zone,” and during its one season on air it remade several episodes from the original, including “Eye of the Beholder” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” While they left “Eye” intact, they changed the “monsters” in “Monsters” to terrorists, and the results were uneven at best. The show also produced one excellent episode called “It’s Still a Good Life,” which was a sequel to the original series’ “It’s a Good Life,” with the original cast.

Perhaps because of the veil of science fiction, but more likely because of the excellent writing, “The Twilight Zone” simply refuses to age. Sure, many of the effects are cheesy and the budget constraints are obvious in places, but that matters little when the underlying storytelling is as impactful as a sledgehammer to the chest. And that’s exactly what watching “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” still feels like today.

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is available on the first season “Twilight Zone” DVD, as well as for free in the Amazon Prime program. You can also purchase it on iTunes.

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