When it comes to anthology genre TV, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is the one most people hail as the best. It was by no means, however, the only show of its kind. In the wake of Zone, shows like The Outer Limits, Thriller, and One Step Beyond flooded TV in the 1960s. Alfred Hitchcock himself even had two separate series of suspense stories. By the 1970s, however, the well had started to run dry. It’d come back in the ’80s, but the last gasp of the first rash came in the form of Night Gallery, Serling and producer Jack Laird’s pure-horror (within reason) series. All three seasons of this oft-forgotten show are out on glorious Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, and it’s really worth a look.
History of Night Gallery
The production history of Night Gallery is fascinating and super complicated, so I won’t try to get into it too much, but suffice to say, unlike The Twilight Zone, this was not a full Serling joint. He hosts and he wrote a good number of segments, along with producing, however.
The premise of each episode has Serling walking around the titular “Night Gallery,” a huge and mostly empty space with paintings hanging from the ceiling. Each painting is a macabre interpretation of a different story. Serling sets up in front of a painting and gives a trademark opaque introduction for whatever story we’re about to watch.
The Night Gallery Pilot
The first Night Gallery episode was a feature length TV movie. It featured three separate stories; the first, “The Cemetery” is a riff on the M.R. James story The Mezzotint in which a painting changes, indicating something scary will soon attack. It features Ossie Davis as the long-serving butler of a wealthy Southern landowner on his deathbed and Roddy McDowell as the wealthy man’s nephew who stands to inherit everything.
The second story in the pilot is “Eyes,” directed by a young Universal contract director named Steven Spielberg. It finds Joan Crawford as a high society with vision impairments matron who undergoes an experimental surgery that offers her 12 hours to see. And the final story, “Escape Route,” has a fugitive Nazi facing ghostly comeuppance for his past crimes.
The Night Gallery pilot is very straightforward, though executed incredibly well, and was popular enough to get the series greenlit. The interesting thing, however, is that as the show went on, the kinds of stories got a lot wilder, with far fewer “gotcha” twists and more proper horror. The first season consisted of only six episodes, the second a full 22, and the third would be cut down to 30 minutes rather than 60, and has 15 episodes.
The Best Night Gallery Segments
In total, the show had 96 separate segments. Rather than try to talk about all of them, instead I want to talk about some of my favorites, to give you an idea of why I think Night Gallery is so special and why it deserves to be talked about in the same breath as The Twilight Zone.
Season 1, Segment 3b: “Certain Shadows on the Wall”
This is an excellent riff on a classic ghost story. Agnes Moorhead is an aged woman who dies under mysterious circumstances and, inexplicably, her shadow remains on the wall to taunt her sinister brother. This features some truly creepy visuals and mood, great work from director Jeff Corey.
Season 1, Segment 5c: “The Doll”
An adaptation of an Algernon Blackwood story, “The Doll” finds a child’s toy terrorizing a Colonial officer in Queen Victoria’s army. A lot of Night Gallery‘s best segments fit into traditional Victorian, Gothic horror tropes, which coupled with the ’70s TV aesthetic produces an especially unsettling effect.
Season 1, Segment 6a: “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”
The longest single segment on the show, and also the most atypical. Serling wrote this tale of a has-been salesman (William Windom) who longs for “the good old days” when his life had promise. Upon hearing that his favorite bar will be torn down, the man begins experiencing ghostly visions of the past. This segment earned Night Gallery an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Single Program” in 1971.
Season 2, Segment 10a: “The Dark Boy”
Night Gallery adapted several “weird fiction” stories from the early 1900s. “The Dark Boy” is one such, adapted from August Derleth’s story of the same name. In it, a young school teacher at the turn of the century takes up a position at a rural community. The welcoming committee tells her she’ll have 16 students, however when she gets to class she learns there’s a 17. Despite her attempts, this boy never seems to get what she’s teaching. Eventually she, and the audience, learn the sad and spooky truth of who this child is.
Season 2, Segments 11a and 12a: “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air”
In successive episodes, Night Gallery adapted two H.P. Lovecraft stories. The first, “Pickman’s Model,” finds an artist depicting terrible and nightmarish things in his paintings. Guess what? They’re real. This one would later end up in Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, which I think is actually the better version.
The second, “Cool Air,” adapted by Serling, turns one of Lovecraft’s very short horror stories into a romantic, supernatural drama. In it, a young woman falls for her father’s colleague. The man has a very specific aversion to heat of any kind, pumping his rooms with a rudimentary air conditioning system. There is, of course, a reason for his needing cool air, and as you might expect, it’s not a happy one.
Season 2, Segment 17b, “The Ghost of Sorworth Place”
Another excellent ghost story for the series. This one sees an American tourist happen upon an estate in Scotland owned by a comely young widow who seems petrified of something. The man soon learns the woman fears the return of her husband, who died one year prior. It’s Night Gallery, so you can guess this probably isn’t just paranoia. The ghost effects here are some of the series’ best.
Season 2, Episodes 20-22
While looking over the segment list, I realized that all seven segments in the second season’s final three episodes are brilliant. They include: a student of sorcery trying to ensure a life of leisure; a “sin eater” in the Middle Ages meeting a grim fate; robots getting revenge for mistreatment; an expat in Borneo plotting a gruesome end to a romantic rival; and a psychiatrist who has to help a scientific genius process grief. All of them are just superb.
Season 3, Episode 2, “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”
By the third season—saved from cancellation at the last moment—the network mandated the show go to 30 minutes. That meant, aside from two outliers, that was only one story per episode. Generally these episodes are not as good; however, the second episode is a crackerjack entry. It finds a photographer whose latest muse is not merely a beautiful woman, but the beautiful woman whom every ad agency wants as their spokesmodel. The trouble starts when, as the photographer gets more and more money, more and more men end up mysteriously dead. Succubus, babyyyyyy!
Season 3, Episode 6, “The Other Way Out”
An old man lures a murderer to a secluded farm house where the man seeks to enact his revenge. He places the murderer in a pit with no way out. All the old man (played by Burl Ives, no less) tells his prisoner is that he’ll be dealt with when “Sonny” arrives. We learn the extent of the murderer’s crime and hear his pleas for mercy, only to be met with an absolute gut-punch when Sonny indeed arrives.
These are just some of the best episodes of the show. Give it a look and see for yourself. All three seasons of Night Gallery plus the pilot movie are available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. Just as they did with The Outer Limits and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, they’ve poured dozens of hours of commentaries and extras for fans of horror media and old American TV. They are the best sets of their kind on the market.