“Good evening, and welcome to the Night Gallery. Now, if you’ll just follow me. Time again for your weekly excursion into the cultural: paintings, statuary, still lifes, collages, some abstracts—and some items in ice. That’s not the technique—that, hopefully, is what we turn your blood into.
“A good way to begin the attempt: painting number one, about a man who spends a night in a haunted house—an unbeliever, if you will, who, by dawn, believes. The name of the painting is ‘A Question of Fear.’ The name of this place is the Night Gallery.”
At an exclusive men’s club, Dr. Mazi, a distinguished gentleman, recounts his terrifying experience at an old, abandoned house reputed to be haunted. One gentleman in the room, Colonel Denny Malloy, sneers at the idea of ghosts or evil spirits, claiming that he himself is incapable of fear. Mazi and his guests pick up the gauntlet Malloy has thrown, wagering him $15,000 that he cannot spend one whole night alone in that house without being frightened to death. With a laugh, Malloy accepts, boasting, “For $15,000 I would survive a night in Hell.”
Arriving at nightfall, Malloy enters the darkened, two-story house. The sound of distorted, hysterical laughter seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. Cautiously shining his flashlight around, he feels a wet sensation on his hand—spattered with what looks like blood. Pulling his revolver from his backpack, Denny follows the moaning laughter down the hallway. Sensing something behind him, he turns and fires at a flaming apparition closing in on him. It disappears, but, examining the area, Malloy finds fresh blood stains on the floor.
Descending into the basement, Malloy discovers a slimy trail that leads into the darkness. A shrieking phantom suddenly appears, a hideously distorted figure that flies at him from the shadows. The horrified Malloy empties his revolver at it—but it disappears, leaving nothing but more of the telltale stains. Now visibly shaken, Malloy returns to the kitchen for a cup of strong coffee from his thermos. To his surprise, he finds his hand trembling; with an effort he controls it. This evening has been full of new experiences for Malloy, not the least of which is his fuller understanding of the emotion of fear. Then a new sound intrudes on his self-discovery: the discordant banging of piano keys from another room. Malloy, fighting a sudden sense of dizziness, picks up his revolver and follows the sound. A figure sits at a piano—the phantom from the cellar. It rises and faces Malloy, its hands bursting into flaming braziers. Focusing his eyes, Malloy notes an artificiality about it—and it suddenly dawns on him that the whole house has been rigged by Mazi.
Laughing out loud, the relieved Malloy groggily heads up the stairs to get some sleep. Still chuckling, he lays down on the large canopy bed—and a set of steel restraints erupt from the mattress like curved daggers, pinning him down. Ripping through the top canopy slides a swinging, razor-sharp pendulum that comes increasingly closer to the stunned Malloy’s throat. He yells out to Mazi that wagers can’t be collected from dead men, and the pendulum, a scant centimeter from contact, abruptly stops. Malloy sneers, “You know what I think, Mazi? I think you just want to see me afraid. You want to reduce me to your level, right Mazi? Well, I’m sorry, pal. That’s one fraternity I refuse to join.” Malloy drifts off to sleep.
When he awakens the next morning, the restraints and pendulum have disappeared. Downstairs in the deserted kitchen, a closed-circuit television blinks on and Mazi’s face appears, informing Malloy of the reason for the expensive and elaborate setup. During World War II, Malloy came into contact with Mazi’s father, in civilian life a concert pianist, who was at the time a junior officer in the Italian army. Malloy captured and interrogated him about the German advance. Getting nothing from him, Malloy poured gasoline on his hands and set fire to them, burning them to blackened stumps. On his father’s deathbed, Mazi vowed to track Malloy down and exact revenge.
Malloy pulls his revolver, bracing himself for anything as Mazi continues calmly with his story. By profession a biochemist, Mazi has discovered a way of converting a complex enzyme molecule in the human body until its structure is identical with that of an annelid. As a result, the bones of the body disintegrate until the victim is reduced to something very much like an earthworm. While Malloy slept off the effects of his drugged coffee last night—compliments of his host—Mazi injected him with this serum. Malloy scoffs. For proof, Mazi suggests he revisit the cellar. “There you will see now my colleague. He’s quite harmless—only rather repulsive.” Frantic, Malloy heads to the cellar door, then freezes. A trail of slime—like that of a giant slug—leads across the kitchen floor to the cellar steps. “You will be a very brave worm,” taunts Mazi. “Why are you stopping? Your fate is there, in the cellar. Go, and look at what you will be!” Instead, Malloy turns back to the television monitor, struggling to regain his composure in the face of this fresh horror. Steeling himself, Malloy snarls, “You still lose, Mazi”—and lifting his revolver to his head, fires. Mazi watches Malloy’s dead body slump to the floor. “No, Mr. Malloy,” he says with satisfaction, “you lose. There is nothing in the cellar.”
The Old Dark House theme has produced numerous variations since cinema’s infancy. Leave it to Night Gallery to pull off an original twist. Disguised as just another night in a haunted house, this outing is a white-knuckle tale of revenge with a complicated and bizarre payoff.
From Bryan Lewis’s short story, Theodore Flicker fashioned a taut, intricately plotted script. The writer was scheduled to direct, but soured on the prospect after his unpleasant experience directing “Hell’s Bells.” Jack Laird stepped in to helm this segment, his first time directing.
For his flagship outing, Laird hired close friend Leslie Nielsen to portray Malloy, the cocksure adventurer submitting to the ultimate test of his courage, well supported by Fritz Weaver as his subtle nemesis. Nielsen’s characterization is, at first, sharp and cool, then captures in increments the sense of a hardened man turning to jelly, coming to grips with his growing belief in the supernatural—a nuanced and believable performance. “I felt it was quite an honor,” Nielsen says. “Jack had enough confidence in my abilities to hire me for his first directorial effort, this very special thing that he was doing.”
As with most first timers, Laird had difficulty getting a grip on the rigorous filming schedules imposed upon series television—so much so that he was himself guilty of the same offense for which he had fired others. “He fell on his ass on that one,” said unit manager Burt Astor. “We fell one day behind and had all kinds of problems with that segment.”
“Thank God I wasn’t there,” laughs Les Berke. “Jack shot, I think, twenty-six hours of film by the second day. What do you say to the executive producer? ‘Sir? We’re replacing you, sir.’ Right, of course you aren’t.” Laird, under severe pressure, ran past the shooting schedule by a day and a half. The Universal moguls were not pleased. “Of course, I was assigned to Jack,” recalls Ralph Sariego, assistant director on the segment. “He bombed so badly. I was with him until four a.m. on a Saturday morning. He felt that it was the end of his directing career—that was it, they wouldn’t let him direct anymore.”
For all the distress and the overrun, Laird completed the segment the way he envisioned it, according to Leslie Nielsen: “He did run over, very much so, but nevertheless we still did it his way. It was his first effort and he insisted. And I’m sure he caught a great deal of flak for it.”
“A Question of Fear” is a tense, superbly executed segment, building inexorably to its surprising, wholly satisfying climax. The special effects department had a field day, creating believable (and quite scary) visuals on a paltry budget to accompany Malloy’s journey into fear. In addition, Lionel Lindon’s photography is exceptional, arguably his best for the show, richly textured and atmospheric. And editor David Rawlins’s brilliant achievement may be the most valuable of all, wading through the mountain of footage Laird had shot to produce a piece that not only is coherent but also flows with a masterful control of tempo and tension.
In TV Guide’s log-line description of “A Question of Fear,” the writer accurately made special note of the episode’s “unearthly music,” although Paul Glass’s shivery, spine-chilling score delivers moments of an equally strange beauty. Both emotionally and instrumentally, “A Question of Fear” is in jarring contrast to Glass’s earlier score for “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” The music is tense, nightmarish, and dissonant. Strong brass and percussion colors highlight the stark terrain, and Glass banished violins from the string body to reduce warmth. The broken, agonized piano line (an unsettling commentary on the savage encounter between Malloy and Mazi’s concert pianist father) wanders throughout the score like an accusing wraith, and Glass’s use of eerie, dissonant string figurations and percussive outbursts go a long way toward exposing the raw nerves just beneath the surface of this tale.
So popular was this music with Jack Laird that it was used constantly throughout the second season, and this high-profile score may arguably be thought of as representing “the sound of Night Gallery.” It was used again in “Camera Obscura,” “Pickman’s Model,” “Tell David . . . ,” “The Funeral,” “Lindemann’s Catch,” “The Dear Departed,” “Last Rites for a Dead Druid,” “Deliveries in the Rear,” “I’ll Never Leave You—Ever,” “There Aren’t Any More MacBanes,” and in Serling’s introductions to “Brenda,” “Cool Air,” and “Dead Weight.”
As it turned out, Laird’s fiasco did not kill his directorial career at Universal after all. He directed a slew of vignettes, and later in the season allowed himself to film another full-length segment, “Pickman’s Model”—by common consent, a series classic.
A QUESTION OF FEAR
Teleplay by Theodore J. Flicker
Based on the short story by Bryan Lewis
Directed by Jack Laird
Music: Paul Glass • Intro: Oliver Nelson
Director of Photography: Lionel Lindon
Colonel Denny Malloy: Leslie Nielsen
Dr. Mazi: Fritz Weaver
Al: Jack Bannon
Fred: Ivan Bonar
Waiter: Owen Cunningham
Apparition: Paul Golden
To read more about this episode and the making of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, click here.