The Twilight Zone - Essential Episodes (55th Anniversary Collection) DVD Review: Gift It or Rent It

Lives up to its subtitle admirably, though not for those looking for the quality.
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The groundbreaking, thought-provoking science fiction television series The Twilight Zone is truly a gift that just keeps on-a-givin'. Who - apart from a fortune-telling napkin dispenser in a tiny rural town somewhere - could have possibly conceived that when a visionary named Rod Serling first presented television viewers with his first creepy look into his now-legendary fifth dimension all those years ago that the show would still be inspiring and delighting people all over the world? Never you mind the countless times Serling and his crackshot writing staff destroyed said world in the process: they still made it happen just the same - and Image Entertainment's release of The Twilight Zone: Essential Episodes (55th Anniversary Collection) presents a condensed look at a genuine first-rate classic.

Though the two-disc release is really little more than yet another "best of" set to make the brand a gift that keeps on giving of another color (green, in this instance), the assortment of episodes is a delightful, pretty much indispensable gathering from the original five-season run of the initial series. (There were other versions of the program produced and aired, including a shorter-lived '80s run, an embarrassingly even briefer series in the early 2000s, and that classic '80s big-screen flick many of us hold as a guilty pleasure.) Submitted for your approval here are 17 episodes, spanning the gap between 1959 to 1964. But mostly the first three seasons, because that's where most of the show's best work was brought forth. Interestingly, nothing from the show’s fourth season is included here.

We begin with the great Gig Young in the sky's starring role in "Walking Distance," wherein a man constantly on the go returns to the town he spent his childhood in, only to find that things haven't changed much in the last two-and-a-half decades. As a matter of fact, things haven't changed at all - and it is only when he meets his 11-year-old self that he truly begins to wonder if something might be amiss. The revered "Time Enough at Last" is one of two vehicles to star the wonderful Burgess Meredith in this set, and finds television's favorite Penguin as a bookworm who finally gets his wish to have a little time to himself to read in peace. "The Hitch-Hiker" with Inger Stevens may very well have served to inspire Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, while the paranoia-laden "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" (with young Claude Akins) remains an all-time favorite of mine.

James Daly stars in "A Stop at Willoughby" - which Serling later credited as his personal favorite from the show's first season - as a man so exhausted by the push, push, push world of media advertising hell (and rightfully so), that he begins to dream and then pursue of a fictional late 1800s town on his regular train commute. "The After Hours," another exemplary "essential" here, finds Anne Francis as a woman who gets more than she bargains for after she's taken to the ninth floor of an eight-story department store (I know, "a what?"). "The Howling Man" with John Carradine examines the very concept of evil within, while the well-known "The Eye of the Beholder" - one of the hardest episodes to film, for reasons anyone will notice upon viewing - takes a look at beauty within.

"Nick of Time" finds William Shatner and Patricia Breslin as a newlywed couple who find themselves (well, Bill, mostly) bewitched by a fortune-telling machine in a diner; "The Invaders" casts Agnes Moorehead as a lonely hermit woman whose isolation is interrupted by two tiny (but nonetheless, dangerous) spacemen in a small flying saucer. "The Obsolete Man" again features Burgess Meredith as a bookworm, though this time in a totalitarian state where books and even God have been outlawed; "It's a Good Life" - one of my least-favorite in the collection - casts a young Bill Mumy (Lost in Space) as a little brat with a very deadly gift. In the apocalyptic tale "The Midnight Sun," we witness the last moments of a young NYC artist (Lois Nettelton) and her landlady (Betty Garde) as the planet Earth spirals out of control into the sun. Because that always makes for a good bedtime story.

Two of the most popular episodes ever - "To Serve Man" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" - are also included here (thankfully). The first finds the magnificent and underrate Lloyd Bochner as a UN translator who attempts to unravel the true purpose behind by an alien race (all of whom are portrayed by an even-more-comatose-looking-than-usual Richard Kiel) who comes to Earth promising peace. The second once again involves man vs monster - as a recently released mental patient (William Shatner again, delivering one of his campiest performances ever) attempts to battle both his inner gremlins and the furry one that appears on the wing of the plane. "Living Doll" - my other least-favorite of the lot - finds Telly Savalas as a bitter man who goes to war with his stepdaughter’s talking doll. The set concludes with "The Masks," wherein the tired, aging elder of a deplorable family in New Orleans who is ready to depart from this world, but not before he passes out some "gifts" to his less-than-loving relatives.

The bad news here is that The Twilight Zone: Essential Episodes (55th Anniversary Collection) squeezes 17 half-hour episodes onto two DVD-9 discs, so there are some considerable signs of compression to be found here. Nor is there any room for extras because of this. Anyone looking for the utmost in quality, naturally, or special features should pick up the stellar massive DVD or Blu-ray sets released in 2012. And worst of all, the image of Rod Serling used on the cover looks more like Nestor Carbonell than Serling. But then, this set wasn’t made for those worried about such things. This is, as I previously stated, just a "best of" release. That said, however, it's a great way to introduce new fans to the timeless, ever-topical underlying tales housed within these episodes (all of which were penned for television by Serling, Charles Beaumont, or Richard Matheson), or for anyone looking to rekindle their romance with the show after a long absence.

Best served as a gift or rental. Available on July 1.

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