Rod Serling, who had gained fame from an earlier series, The Twilight Zone, served both as the on-air host of Night Gallery and as a major contributor of scripts, although he did not have the same control of content and tone as he had on The Twilight Zone.
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Serling viewed Night Gallery as a logical extension of The Twilight Zone, but while both series shared an interest in thought-provoking dark fantasy, the lion’s share of Zone‘s offerings were science fiction while Night Gallery focused on horror and the supernatural.
Serling’s time serving The Twilight Zone came to an acrimonious end in 1964, ultimately selling the rights to the programme to CBS, his creation now riddled with endless outsider tampering, schedule shifts and budget wrangles. Work was never in short supply – he immediately began production on an unconventional Western, The Loner, omitting the usual gunfights and macho posturing in place of more thoughtful character studies. Inevitably, the critics loved it but CBS were unforgiving and the series was cancelled half way through its first run.
From here, a less meaningful career as a television game-show host, a popular documentary narrator and writer of television films developed (though a huge ratings-hit, 1966’s The Doomsday Flight unfortunately prompted numerous copycat airline bomb threats). This was punctuated by Serling writing three drafts of the hugely popular Planet of the Apes (1967), though these in turn were re-written to prevent the budget spiralling. Nevertheless, it provided the impetus and the raise in profile for NBC to green-light a TV movie in November 1969, The Night Gallery, which showcased three tales, two of which came from Serling’s own collection, The Season to be Wary. Rather neatly, this saw both the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg (Duel; Jaws) on the episode, Eyes, which also featured the final screen role of acting legend, Joan Crawford (Strait-Jacket); a poignant, yet unintentional, passing of the baton from one master of the art-form to another.
Unlike the series, in which the paintings merely accompanied an introduction to the upcoming story, the paintings themselves actually appeared in the three segments, serving major or minor plot functions. It was a success, so a weekly television series was commissioned. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery was initially part of a rotating anthology or wheel series called Four in One. This 1970–71 television series rotated four separate shows, including McCloud, SFX (San Francisco International Airport) and The Psychiatrist. Two of these, Night Gallery and McCloud were renewed for the 1971–72 season with McCloud becoming the most popular and longest running of the four. Serling appeared in an art gallery setting and introduced the macabre tales that made up each episode by unveiling paintings (by artist Thomas J. Wright) that depicted a key scene in the stories.
The hour-long running time allowed for up to four different tales. Typically idiosyncratic introductions included: “Good evening and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector’s item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare”
“Welcome to this morbid mortuary of oddities in oil…”
Night Gallery regularly presented adaptations of classic fantasy tales by authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber (Conjure Wife), as well as original works, many of which were by Serling himself or that other titan of the twisted tale, Richard Matheson. All was set for another seminal television series but this was never quite the package Twilight Zone was. Weary of the endless tribulations that dealing with the television network brought, he relinquished production and editorial control, under the assumption he would still be consulted over any major changes, given that his name was writ large over the titles. This was not the case and almost immediately episodes were screened with huge chunks omitted and clumsy re-writes evading thoughtful dark meditations in favour of more basic, schlocky scares.
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Throughout its existence, the show featured a sparse, eerie electronic theme tune composed by Gil Mellé, a master of catchy atmospherics on both the small and silver screens, from Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Killdozer to Blood Beach and The Sentinel.
Pitted against not only NCB and CBS, Serling was also up against the might of Universal, who handled production. By the series’ second year, Serling was even having his own scripts rejected and was becoming, in their eyes, an annoyance who had already served his purpose and would continue to do so until the series was cancelled in 1973, his name bound up in the rights with no means of escape. Despite the fluctuating quality, there were still many stand-out episodes and a raft of famous stars making appearances. These included such genre stars as E.G. Marshall (Creepshow); Vincent Price (Witchfinder General; The Abominable Dr. Phibes); Victor Buono (The Mad Butcher; The Evil), Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace; The Toolbox Murders) and Michael Dunn (The Mutations; Werewolf of Washington).
Memorable episodes included: The Pickman’s Model – H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale of a painter who is dedicated to painting only what he sees – but how does that explain the ghoulish subjects of his artwork?
A Certain Shadow on the Wall – Written by Serling, as if the title didn’t give that away, Agnes Moorhead (The Bat), in one of her final screen roles, plays an elderly lady who proves more than a little difficult to forget.
The Devil is not Mocked – Francis Lederer (The Return of Dracula) play a vampiric count whose castle is invaded by Nazi soldiers in World War Two. Written by Manly Wade Wellman, the veteran writer of such pulp tomes as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories.
The Caterpillar – Possibly the most beloved of all the stories, a man is determined to win the hand of his best friend’s girl, even if it takes murder… even if that murder takes a small garden creepy crawly to do the dastardly deed.
As you might expect, Tom Wright’s paintings which are featured in the series now attract impressive sums of money at auction, often commanding up to $10,000. Wright himself became a successful director of television programmes, including The X-Files and The Wire.
Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia