When I was a little boy (far too little to watch horror, anyway), I was madly in love with monsters and the supernatural. I used to build monster model kits with loving patience. “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine was my first magazine subscription and monthly bible (rest in peace, Forry Ackerman). The late Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” was my absolute favorite television show (that is, before “Star Trek” came into my life). The early 1970s were a time where the occult was everywhere. In fact, the 1970s seemed to be much more cool with those sort of things in popular media than we are today (I’m looking at you, Nashville Catholic School’s ban of Harry Potter books…).
December of 1973 saw the release of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, which was the first movie I remember attending (at the wildlyinappropriate age of 7) with lines going around the block outside of the theater. In those days, there was a witch’s brew of horror flicks & TV series/movies involving haunted houses, witch’s cults, or satanic themes (“Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, “The Devil’s Rain”, “Race With the Devil”, “Satan’s School For Girls” and “Legend of Hell House” to name a few). There was also, of course, an NBC-TV series hosted by none other than Rod Serling himself, called “The Night Gallery”.
I won’t lie; “The Night Gallery” scared the living s#!t out of me as a kid… and I couldn’t get enough of it.
***** HELLISH SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
The pilot episode aired in 1969 as a 90 minute TV movie, and starred Joan Crawford, Roddy McDowell, Ossie Davis, and Richard Kiley. As most good pilots do, the “Night Gallery” pilot film successfully set the tone for the series that followed in December of 1970. It began with Rod Serling in a darkened surreal art gallery, introducing each segment via a single painting. The film was an anthology, consisting of three segments.
Season 1 (1970-1971).
The regular series began in December of 1970, and an eerie new theme for the show written by talented composer Gil Melle. The hour-long format of the first two seasons has each episode divided into 2 or sometimes 3 stories, with a terrifying ‘A’ segment, usually filled out with a slightly more comical ‘B’ (and sometimes ‘C’) segment.
Producer Jack Laird was more fond of the horror comedy potential of the show, in stark contrast to host/producer/occasional writer Rod Serling, who’d lent his name and credibility to the show. It’s no surprise that the Emmy-winning Serling’s stories were often the deeper, more human stories (“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”, “Dr. Stringfellow’s Rejuvenator” “Little Girl Lost” etc). As he did with his passion project “The Twilight Zone”, Serling wrote half of the first season’s six episodes, but his involvement with scripts in later seasons would vary as other writers such as Laird and Earl Hamner Jr. (“The Waltons”) submitted scripts as well. Despite changes to the show’s format after the first year, host Rod Serling, artist Tom Wright and composer Gil Melle’s contributions would remain staples of “The Night Gallery” throughout the three season run of the show.
Favorites of Season One.
Here are some of my personal favorite segments of the first season; I prefer to use the term ’segments’ instead of episodes, since some of the best segments of the series often had the misfortune to be paired up with some of the worst in order to fill out the first two seasons’ hour-long running time:
Season 2 (1971-1972).
Season 2 was where the series really hit its creative stride, producing more episodes than either of its other two seasons, as well as some of the more memorable segments of the series (“Dark Boy,” “Messiah on Mott Street”, “Green Fingers”). Behind the scenes, Jack Laird was assuming more creative control of the series, and his penchant for horror-based humor (Dracula visiting a blood bank to make a withdrawal) is all-too evident in some of the more juvenile segments of the season, which were unfortunately paired with some of its best. I can certainly understand Laird’s desire to give the audience a nice relieving laugh after a good scare, but many of his ‘comedy’ segments were not exactly rib-ticklers. Even as a kid, I thought some of them were just eye-rollinglystupid (the late Adam West’s “Mr. Hyde” joke is a true groaner).
Overall, the quality of the series still favored the good stuff, and even the lame comedy segments boasted terrific paintings by the series’ in-house artist Tom Wright. Composer Gil Melle punched things up a bit as well, giving Season 2 the definitive version of his main title theme.
Here are some of my personal favorites of Season 2:
Season 3 (1972-1973).
This final season of the show saw the largest changes to the series’ format. New episodes were now single, half-hour stories instead of multiple-segment hour long installments; this change echoed the successful formatting of Serling’s earlier “Twilight Zone” series. Gil Melle also changed his opening title theme completely; with a new mix of ghostly, electronic echoes combined with chaotic, panicked-sounding strings. While Melle’s new theme worked well enough, it lacked the menacing, foreboding quality of his previous work. It also sounded vaguely reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s classic theme to “Psycho.” Despite the third season’s unjustly tarnished reputation, it has many standouts as well.
My personal favorites of Season 3:
The artwork of Tom Wright.
After the 1969 pilot, artist and prolific future television director Tom Wright was commissioned to produce all of the artwork featured seen in the Night Gallery set over its three regular seasons.
Wright, who was only in his early 20s at the time, had an amazing aptitude for doing quality work very quickly. He could produce artwork in radically different styles (cubism, realism, impressionism, surrealism, etc) , and thus provided over 120 very different paintings to use for each episode. At San Diego Comic Con in July of this year, I had the chance to meet the prolific artist and TV director (“Smallville,” “Castle”, “The X-Files”, “Firefly” and many others). I told him that his artwork was pure nightmare fuel for me as a boy, and he smiled and we shook hands.
Night Gallery Required Reading.
There is one book every fan of “Night Gallery” should not be without; it is “Night Gallery: An After Hours Tour” (c. 1998). This book is “Night Gallery”’s equivalent of Marc Scott Zicree’s brilliant “Twilight Zone Companion” (1981). “Night Gallery: An After Hours Tour” thoroughly chronicles the series’ birth, evolution, turmoil and eventual demise. The book is loaded with in-depth reviews of each episode, interviews with surviving cast members, producers, directors, as well as artist Tom Wright. Written by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson, “Night Gallery: An After Hours Tour” needs to be on your bookshelf if you love this series as much as I do!
Night Gallery’s Legacy & Future.
During the Night Gallery 50th Anniversary panel at San Diego Comic Con 2019, it was also hinted that a large coffee table book featuring Tom Wright’s surviving original paintings from Night Gallery may be released sometime in the future. Many of the paintings were sold, some are stained, some were altered for other productions, and the locations of some of them are presently unknown… but they hinted that an effort to locate and photograph the paintings is underway. If theory, the book would feature lovingly detailed photo reproductions of as many of the paintings as possible. Fingers crossed!
Given today’s penchant for remakes, reboots and sequels, I don’t doubt that we might someday see a remake of “Night Gallery” emerge from the shadows. “Twilight Zone” has been remade multiple times for the big and small screen (the most recent attempt by CBS-All Access is a decidedly mixed bag at best). All I can offer is that if a “Night Gallery” reboot is attempted someday, I wish the producers all the best (whomever they may be). While the original casts aformidable shadow, a new production could also spark a renewed interest in the classic series as well.
Finally, humbly submitted for your perusal is a link for the terrific “Night Gallery” website and resource, nightgallery.net: https://nightgallery.net