You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, The Twilight Zone.
While I was growing up, I used to spend summers with my grandparents. The local AM radio station would broadcast Science-Fiction Theater on Saturday nights. We would turn off the television, gather 'round the radio with hot chocolate, and enjoy the riveting stories. We used our imaginations and visualized the events portrayed in each story. Grandma used to reminisce about the same experiences with her father and brothers when she was growing up; she actually heard the infamous Orson Welles War of the Worlds performance.
Throughout the summer, we also watched reruns of The Twilight Zone on Friday nights. I loved the wonderfully well written stories, and Rod Serling's foreboding, enticing intro. I couldn't wait for Fridays and Saturdays to enjoy the great stories of speculative and science fiction. So, when I found out I would be reviewing The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, I had just as much difficulty waiting for them to arrive in the mail.
Stacy Keach hosts the new Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, providing the narrative for each episode as Rod Serling did for the original TV programs. Even unseen he has a powerful dramatic presence, and his masterful delivery is an excellent fit for these productions.
Each of these volumes contains 4 CDs, each with a different episode, and each with a different guest star. In the first episode, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim," Jim Caviezel plays Christian Horn, a man leading a wagon train from Ohio to California in the mid 1800's. While in Arizona, he scouts ahead of the wagon train, only to find his way into another century. Mr. Caviezel plays this part well. He seems very comfortable with the radio medium and gives a warm performance. The supporting cast members, who unfortunately are not named in the promotional materials and are given short shrift in a breathlessly brief spiel at the end of the performance, are also very capable and make this story quite entertaining.
"The Lateness of the Hour" is the second episode from the first volume. It guest stars Jane Seymour and James Keach. This episode deals with a woman who lives a life of comfort and ease, thanks to her fatherís robotic servants. As it turns out, she may be a bit too perfect herself. Jane Seymour is the only bright spot in this episode. She plays Jana, the daughter rebelling against her perfect environment. She performs admirably, giving her character a sense of depth that is missing from the other performances in this story, especially that of James Keach, who plays the father. The flatness of his character, as well as the dry and lifeless supporting cast readings, detract from what could be an eerie story. The lack of richness in these characters leaves the end of this story powerless and falls quite short of what I expect from a Twilight Zone story.
The third installment, "A Kind of Stopwatch," stars Lou Diamond Phillips as Patrick McNulty, a man who receives a magical stopwatch that can stop time for the holder. When he abuses this power, it quickly turns on him in a most fitting way. Mr. Phillips steps into this character as though it were written specifically for him. He gives the character life and believability. I found his performance vibrant and exciting. He and the rest of this supporting cast take one of my favorite Twilight Zone stories and give it a wonderful spark that helps make the ending extremely satisfying. This is my favorite of the episodes on Volume 1.
"Mr. Dingle, the Strong" rounds out the selections for Volume 1. Tim Kazurinsky stars as Mr. Dingle, a vacuum cleaner salesman given the strength of 300 men as part of an experiment run by a couple of aliens from Mars. Tim Kazurinsky does an adequate job with this particular character, but in some places he takes it over the top. What really makes this piece as good as it is are the performances from the sadly slighted supporting cast. They really jump into this story and give it life, despite Mr. Kazurinsky's over-exaggeration. The light and bouncing background music is delightful and lends a wonderfully farcical feel to the atmosphere. Overall, this is a solid piece to end the first volume with.
Volume 2 begins with "The Thirty-Fathom Grave," starring Blair Underwood as the captain of a Navy destroyer who encounters a strange signal coming from a submarine that sank over twenty years ago. Mr. Underwood's performance as a Naval officer is top notch. He makes a very believable Captain. The supporting cast (still slighted creditwise) for this episode is a very solid foundation that supports Mr. Underwood excellently. All of their performances are stellar. The production on this episode is extremely well done. The sound effects are very affective in helping to visualize this piece, and the background music helps to create a very eerie feel to this story.
Ed Begley, Jr., stars in the second offering on Volume 2, "The Man in the Bottle." He plays Arthur Castle, a kind-hearted pawn shop owner who discovers a genie and is given four wishes. He and his wife soon find out that there's always a hidden price to pay. While not the best episode of those reviewed here, this is definitely a solid piece. Mr. Begley's performance, while steady and capable, is missing that special something that usually makes him fantastic. He's simply not up to his usually superb level of work.
Music plays an important part in these dramas. Unfortunately, the particular piece chosen for this play was bland and did nothing to improve the lackluster production. In fact, this section stands apart from the other selections in that overall, the soundtrack for these episodes is very listenable and adds greatly to the atmosphere. Not so with "The Man in the Bottle."
"The After Hours" finds Kim Fields playing a woman on the non-existent ninth floor of a department store after the store closes. She does an adequate job, tackling the role of a woman who thinks she's losing her mind. Her performance is not the strongest of the set, but it is passable. The rest of the cast really carries this episode. They put forth the effort to lift it from the depths of banality, and again I have to mention how disappointing the lack of proper cast credits really is. As a former actor, I find it disturbing that performers are mentioned in a ten second or less listing at the end of each episode, without even a hint of which part each played. Much more time is given to sponsorship and production credits, underscoring the unpleasantly over-commercialized nature of these releases.
The final episode on Volume 2 is "Night of the Meek." Chris McDonald stars as Henry Corwin, a normally unemployed man who plays Santa at the department store every year. But this year, his bag of toys appears to be magical. This particular episode has gained some notoriety from the original TV series, with the original Henry Corwin being played by Art Carney. This one has always held a special place in my heart, as the only "Christmas" Twilight Zone episode I can remember. I knew this one would have to be outstanding to live up to my expectations. Chris McDonald plays this role with a zeal that gives strength to the fanciful ending of this drama. He plays off the supporting cast well, as the supporting cast does in turn. If not quite as good as the original, this is still an excellent and highly entertaining production.
One final note: as I expected from a radio play, there are continuity breaks where commercials would have been during the actual broadcast. However, unlike most entertainment projects adapted from television or radio, they've actually inserted advertising into these breaks. Even in these days of compulsive commercialism I found this completely unexpected and at least as disturbing as any Serling tale. I actually had to listen to the first episode over again; the first time, I was in shock from the commercials for The Original Hollywood Diet that filled every break but the last. The last break was saved for advertising the Radio Dramas themselves, as well as their Web site -- which, by the way, is where I hunted futilely for supporting cast credits. According to the site, each volume retails for $27.99; if I were to pay that much for these sets, I would certainly be upset about finding advertising all through the production. This definitely mars what is otherwise good old fashioned entertainment.