The Twilight Zone: A Most Unusual Camera

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959Ok at this point, I think it’s got to be a joke.  The universe is having a laugh at my expense.  Everything I’ve been watching has been chock full of terrible characters!  What happened to the Mr. Bevis’s and the Mr. Bookman’s?  Remember them from season one?    They were such likeable people.  Within the first minute of this story, we are introduced to 2 crooks.  Are we meant to like them?  They sure aren’t loveable rogues.  They are even a bit dim!  Oh, who are we kidding?  A bit??  They’re imbeciles.  I was reminded of a cartoon from when I was a kid with Bugs Bunny being told to Shaddup (shut up).  Now that character was funny but it was funny because Bugs drives him nuts.  It’s the contrast that makes that work.  And there’s a big difference anyway to cartoon violence.  Real people being crude and stupid to one anther without the contrast character loses its charm fast.

Take our current predicament.  Two dime store crooks pull in a small haul of random junk worth… not very much at all.  Chester is the “brain” behind the operation, but I use that word loosely.  Paula is his oblivious wife.  They go through their loot and find a most unusual camera.  When they take a photo, the picture it produces looks like a joke: somehow it puts a fur coat on Paula that she wasn’t wearing. Chester thinks the thing could be loaded with black magic… again, I remind you this is not a likeable, intelligent rogue!   Moments later, Paula finds a fur coat, puts it on, and Chester realizes the camera showed the future.  He shows Paula the genius who doesn’t see the oddity.  He has to spell it out for her.  If she’s meant to represent the audience, good lord!  What did Serling think he was catering to?  I think the idea hits home the moment she finds the fur coat and anyone watching the show with even 2 working brain cells saw the punchline!  The fact that Paula doesn’t should give away her IQ, and if Rod Serling thought the viewing public needed it spelled out, he clearly didn’t think they were much sharper than Paula!   Shortly thereafter, they take a picture of a door and the photo shows Paula’s brother “Woodward” entering, who ironically  has the personality of a plank of wood.  Oh, but he’s thousands of miles away in jail, surely he won’t show up.  But the audience knows.  To prove his intellectual prowess, he broke out prison and went to his sisters place and then walked straight into their bedroom upon sneaking into their home.   Good thing they didn’t move since he was locked up!  Equally, good thing they weren’t engaged in couples therapy.  Although he’d probably think they were wrestling and try to join in, such was Woodward’s intellect.  (Maybe his name would have meant something then…)

So the three stooges go to the race track and find a way to make money.  Then they go home and leave a massive amount of money lying around while they have food delivered so that the waiter can see it.  He knows French and points out that the writing on the camera says they are allowed 10 pictures to the owner.  He leaves, having set up that catch, like some wishes granted by a Genie, and the stooges have used up 8 of their chances already.  An accidental picture shows a frightened Paula just before Chester and Woody get into a fight that not even Jim Kirk and Finnegan could have made look more ridiculous and together they plummet out the window to their death.  In a bit of actually outstanding comedy, she initially laments the loss of her brother and husband saying she has no reason to live, before the massive amount of money catches her eye.  She admits, sometimes you have to soldier on!   She takes a picture of her dead family, as one does, for “posterity” – because you know, you have one picture left and you use it on the two dead bodies that fell out the window!  Then our friendly French waiter comes in and starts stealing the money.  Paula has catlike reflexes… except the cat is dead.  She does nothing to stop the man, not even trying to swat at him with a blunt object.  He notices that the picture shows more than two bodies, so Paula runs over to the window to check and snags her foot so she too plummets to her death.  Who cares?  I didn’t like any of them anyway.  They were terrible people doing terrible things.  Then the French Fool talks to himself and walks over to the window while looking at the last photo and realizes there are 4 bodies in the courtyard, not three as he initially counted… Yes, four is a big number, especially when you consider the IQs of these 4.  I think they split the IQ between them…  So yes, the waiter falls out the window to make the photo come true?  What caused it??  The realization that 4 is the number after 3?  What a bunch of wastrels.  I like the camera, but I was delighted to know that 4 people will never infect the gene pool again.  Not here or in The Twil…… shaddup, shuttin up!  ML

The view from across the pond:

After last week’s sublime effort from E. Jack Neuman, we are back to a Rod Serling scripted episode, and we know what that normally means: a great idea, poorly executed. The great idea is a camera that takes photos 5 minutes into the future. The poor execution is a clumsy attempt to turn that idea into a comedy, which isn’t remotely funny.

A camera that can predict the future is potentially a creepy and disturbing idea, but it is only really troubling the first time it happens, and then only marginally, with Paula shown wearing a fur coat she hasn’t put on yet. This opens up all kinds of questions that could have been tackled by Serling: is the camera showing what has to happen, which leans towards the idea of a fatalistic universe, or could their actions change the future? They never try, so who knows? Could the camera even be manipulating the trio of criminals into engineering their own demise? After all, without the camera the fate it depicts would not have happened, so it is doing something more than just photographing a future that would have occurred naturally; it is instrumental in creating that future. That hints at a sentience that makes it a variation on the genie in a bottle story we saw a few weeks back with The Man in the Bottle, except with ten wishes instead of four. It’s just that every one of Chester’s wishes is money, as one might expect from a burglar. It doesn’t bring him happiness.

All of this speculation is invited by the brilliant concept, but none of it is explored. Instead Serling tries to make us laugh, and with badly-written 60s comedy comes the inevitable over-acting, mainly from Jean Carson as Paula. The saving grace of the episode is Marcel Hillaire as Pierre, who is actually quite amusing, and it’s fun to see him get the better of these money-obsessed and foolish crooks, who make no attempt to hide the fact that they have stacks of money lying around. Eventually, though, he turns out to be just as much of an idiot as they are, wasting the final photo with a shot of their dead bodies lying on the street. Why on Earth would he do that? Logic takes flight at the end of the episode, and I think Serling probably knew the punchline he wanted but couldn’t get there. Take Pierre’s demise, for example. Serling is so lacking in any ideas about how to make that happen that the director just cuts away, and we have to guess how Pierre fell out of the window. The reason we don’t actually see it happen, of course, is that there is no way to make it happen that doesn’t simply involve the man jumping out of the window for no reason at all. Serling has bumped off all the other characters, so he has nowhere to go with this. His response to that problem is to just fudge the ending and hope nobody notices, as if he hopes the viewers are all as stupid as the characters in his misbegotten attempt at a comedy episode.

Comedy is intrinsically a waste of sci-fi or horror ideas, because it takes the fear and the mind candy and tosses all that away in the pursuit of a few good laughs. That can work if the comedy is really funny and we love the characters, but what you can’t do is sacrifice logic in favour of humour and hope the audience will come along for the ride. A Most Unusual Camera is an example of sci-fi comedy at its worst, with the fear factor, clever ideas and a coherent storyline all abandoned in favour of unfunny humour, but you’ve got to credit Serling for another fascinating idea. Maybe he should have been passing on his ideas to a different writer.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Night of the Meek

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Twilight Zone: A Most Unusual Camera

  1. scifimike70 says:

    A Twilight Zone episode that can be likened to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with a reasonable message on how knowing a fixed future can ruin your life, even with laughs for the audience, could have found a better home in the a comedy anthology like Really Weird Tales. But after reviewing an episode of Peele’s TZ about a time-bending camcorder with more serious drama, A Most Unusual Camera feels agreeably even more out of place in our TZ reviews after all the ground we’ve covered. And yet the ultimate consequences of greed for when something so powerful comes into your possession would fairly enough still make a good anthology story. Whether you believe the futures the camera shows the trio are fixed or not, it’s probably meant to teach them all a big lesson. Thank you both for your reviews. 📷

    Liked by 2 people

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