Horror legend Joe Dante remembers his chilling ’80’s TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Shadow Man”.
Even considering how poorly Warner’s 1983 theatrical attempt to revitalize the house that Rod Serling built fared at the box office (not to mention the tragedy that unfolded behind the scenes), CBS nevertheless dipped back into THE TWILIGHT ZONE well and green-lit a prime time return of the series, this time to be filmed in full color and to be creatively propelled by some of the biggest names in dark fantasy entertainment.
The first season of the revamped THE TWILIGHT ZONE premiered on September 27th, 1985 and, from the opening credits on in, it was clear that this TZ was going to be a serious immersion into thoughtful and terrifying science fiction and horror. The theme music was an experimental wash of dread, only gently referencing the classic theme by Marius Constant, that was composed and performed by 60s cult band THE GRATEFUL DEAD; key episodes were written by heavy-hitters like Harlan Ellison (Shatterday) and Stephen King (Gramma) and were directed by genre icons like Wes Craven (A Little Peace and Quiet, Wordplay), William Friedkin (Nightcrawlers) and, of course Joe Dante.
Dantes sole contribution to the 1985 TZ came in the shape of The Shadow Man, a tender tale of pre-teen angst and supernatural revenge. In it, a kid (Jonathan Ward) who is bullied and put-upon, discovers one night that an inky, humanoid phantom lives under his bed; a faceless, fedora wearing boogeyman who drifts into the room and, in a deep, sinister voice says, I am the Shadow Man and I will never harm the person under whose bed I live.
More fascinated than terrified, the boy watches the spectral intruder slink out his window and into the night, only to learn the next day that a fiend matching The Shadow Mans description had assaulted some of his classmates after dark. Night after night, the ghoul returns and the attacks continue, but our hero is nonplussed. In fact, as he is the lone child in the school unafraid of the nocturnal spook, he becomes empowered, is seen as brave and, in turn, goes from zero to hero.
But, this being THE TWILIGHT ZONE, all does not end well; there is a dynamite twist in the tail end of Rockne S. O’Bannons script that is beyond chilling and one that many now-grown children of my generation still shudder over.
Dantes installment of the aforementioned TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, a riff on the classic TZ episode Its a Good Life called Anthony, was one of the highlights of a middling film, though in it, the director seemed more interested in indulging his ever-present obsession with vintage Warner Bros. cartoons than in going after anything resembling stark terror. Here, however, Dante does indeed get dark; less Serling and more EC comics. “The Shadow Man” has a dose or two of typical Dante mirth, but by and large, the episode is the stuff of nightmares, with the central villain being, in essence, an omnipresent predator, one whose focus on children is singular and sinister.
After rediscovering “The Shadow Man” recently and exposing my own children to its chilly charms, I knocked on Joes door to jog his memory about the now 30 year old short film he made for a series that doesnt get nearly enough respect.
SHOCK: Was “The Shadow Man” shot before or after EXPLORERS?
JOE DANTE: After. That’s why EXPLORERS’ wrong-side-of-the-tracks kid, Jason Presson, plays the bully
SHOCK: You were riding a commercial high after GREMLINS so was there any trepidation about diving into TV, however briefly?
DANTE: None, because I’d already done two episodes of POLICE SQUAD!, which was my first DGA (Directors Guild of America) job. And I’d already done an episode of AMAZING STORIES too, which made the new THE TWILIGHT ZONE look like poverty row.
SHOCK: You’re obviously a fan of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. But unlike in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, you weren’t shackled by the expectations of remaking any existing episode. Was there any conscious attempt to lock the spirit of Serling or were you simply making a Joe Dante short film?
DANTE: The 80s ZONE revamp was a different animal entirely from the Serling original, which was economically produced but benefited from the availability of the MGM backlot and studio gloss. The new series was shot very quickly at the former Republic Studios lot in Studio City, which only had a tiny backlot. Producer Phil DeGuerre was notorious for post-production tampering and this was one of the first TV series edited on videotape. This allowed for much editorial mischief, as evidenced by director Gil Cates’ complaint that his “Paladin of the Lost Hour” episode was botched by DeGuerre in cocaine-fueled editing and when televised, was officially credited to the fictitious DGA nom de plum “Allen Smithee”.
SHOCK: The Shadow Man himself is terrifying and obviously a visual nod to the character of The Shadow, yes?
DANTE: Certainly in his costume, which was quite difficult to photograph by the way, as a black shadow against the sets.
SHOCK: There is mention in the story of The Shadow Man harming the children, but never killing. The ending of episode (SPOILER ALERT) sees Jonathan Ward dangling in a choke-hold…do you think the boy dies?
DANTE: You bet he does!
SHOCK: Did you have your pick of scripts when you came on board or were you assigned “The Shadow Man”?
DANTE: As I recall, Rockne’s existing script was pretty much a take it or leave it proposition. I don’t recall much effort to enlist the directors in choosing material, although I can’t believe that Friedkin just happened to end up with “Nightcrawlers”, which may be the best episode of the series
SHOCK: Your Director of Photography on “The Shadow Man” was Bradford May, a TV guy through and through. The short is very atmospheric and cinematic. Do you have any memories of the man?
DANTE: This episode was made in record time, just a few days and I do remember Brad as accomplished and confident. He ended up directing, which I think is where his heart was.
SHOCK: The music for “The Shadow Man” is effective. It was composed by Merl Saunders, who played with Jerry Garcia (of THE GRATEFUL DEAD) often. Did you work with Saunders closely?
DANTE: No. Once you hand in a TV episode, your involvement is pretty much over. I never met any of the music guys, who were hired long before I was.
SHOCK: The series really hold up…I had forgotten how many incredibly strong episodes there were in that first season
DANTE: There were some very nice episodes. I only regret that because they were shot on film but edited on tape, no film record exists. Don’t look for any HD or Blu-ray releases, because this technology only degrades when copied. It’s quite likely that eventually, the 80s series will not exist in 20 years, since it can’t be upgraded. Luckily, the Serling series exists on film and can be preserved pretty much forever.
SHOCK: Speaking of that, which is your favorite classic Serling episode?
DANTE: “Walking Distance”. 1959. Season one. Pure Serling. Pure sentiment. Pure Bernard Herrmann
And for those of you with 20 minutes to spare, please feel free to indulge in THE SHADOW MAN, running in its entirety below, thanks to our good friends at YouTube