SHOCK slips into THE TWILIGHT ZONE to examine what might be the show’s crowning achievement.
Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare – Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive
With those words, Rod Serling closed one of the most effective episodes from the spotty fourth season of his signature television series THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Its also one of the most important and prophetic installments of the original show period and one of the most groundbreaking moments in television history.
The episode in question is the Serling-penned Hes Alive, a grim, jet black peek into the sad life of a disenfranchised young man whose heart is full of hate; a boy so beaten down that he seeks empowerment by finding a cultural and social scapegoat, one whose truths he will twist and manipulate to rally a community of malevolent dissent around. Hes Alive is yet another Serling ZONE musing on Nazism as supernatural horror (see season threes Deaths Head Revisited for an equally chilling parable) and yet, outside of the then-topical, still-potent use of Third Reich brainwashing and iconography, its message about mass-madness spurred on by a sociopath or group of sociopaths is a global theme that applies to and anticipates the contemporary state of the world in which we all live, love and die the latter, often needlessly.
Hes Alive stars a very young, post-REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and NIGHT TIDE and pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper as a troubled, disenfranchised and cartoonishly xenophobic would-be neo-Nazi named Peter Vollmer. By day, Vollmer is a scared broken youth whose abusive childhood and failure to start his own engine have left him angry and in the thralls of an all-encompassing depression. By night, he funnels that welled-up bile and spews it out on street corners; he raves like a manic preacher in the dead of night, dressed head to foot in none-too-fashionable fascist attire and screeches his faux pro-American, anti-immigrant racist dogma for all of those who stop their strolls to listen.
Problem is, nobody takes him seriously. Hes ultimately a coward, a sniveling wimp who is despised by his community and ignored. That is until one night, after another failed rally, when a shadowy figure emerges from the ether, snapping Peter to attention and vowing to whip him into shape. Soon, the whining would-be prophet is sharpening his senses, refining his vile speeches, amassing a flock of fevered fist pumpers and murdering those who dare stand in his way. But as with any devil-dealing, success has its price and when the identity of his benefactor is finally revealed, its far too late for redemption.
When Serling and CBS announced that THE TWILIGHT ZONE would be returning in 1963 with long form 60 minute episodes, it seemed exciting. The typical three-act, sting in the tail format of the show was key to TZs instant cult following but CBS was concerned about the flailing ratings. Robbed of their compact poetry, many of the hour long installments dragged and built to an unsurprising shock ending that was obvious by the third commercial break. This is not to say that season four was bad. Like child actor and TZ vet Billy Mumy (who starred in three TZ episodes including the classic Its a Good Life) once said, All the episodes were good and most were exceptional.
But they often lacked the energy the show traded in. Hes Alive, expertly directed by Stuart Rosenberg, is a major exception; the dialogue crackles, the cinematography is pure noir and Hopper – evil and sad, pathetic and terrifying – is as magnetic as hes ever been. The morality here about fear, cowardice and ignorance creating an opening to let evil in is again, just as sound today as it was a half century ago. One need only turn on the TV to see a mutated Vollmer in the guise of a dangerously buffoonish Donald Trump, or a murderous ISIS assassin channeling the same lethal disenfranchisement that makes a monster of the young man. We see Peter Vollmer in our schools, on our streets, in our own families. He is indeed alive and that’s the tragedy of it.
In Hes Alive, Serling deftly illustrates, in deceptively simple fashion, the mechanics that makes these human monsters and, in doing so, offers practical advice on how curb their catastrophic brand of insanity before it has a chance to do the kind of damage it almost always does.
Once more, with feeling, heres to the heart and mind of pop cultures enduring prophet, Rod Serling. And heres to what might be his crowning achievement, Hes Alive.