Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Twilight Zone Vortex 2016 Halloween Countdown #5: "The Dummy"

The Twilight Zone is an amazingly diverse program that offers stories of almost every conceivable theme and setting within the overall structure of intelligent modern fantasy. One area in which The Twilight Zone excelled was in the story of terror, exploring the darkest aspects of human existence in myriad ways. To celebrate the Halloween season, we’re counting down the 31 most frightening and unsettling moments from The Twilight Zone, one for each day of October. We’ll be revisiting some of the episodes we’ve already covered and looking ahead to episodes from the final three seasons of the series.                                                                                                                                    -JP

We move into our top 5 most frightening moments!

#5 - Willy Takes Over, from “The Dummy,” season three, episode 98
Written by Rod Serling, directed by Abner Biberman, starring Cliff Robertson

Rod Serling’s “The Dummy” is a slice of pure horror modeled on one of the most frequently used motifs of horror literature and film during the first half of the 20th century: the ventriloquist’s dummy. Before sound film and the advent of television, live performance was the preferred method of entertainment available to Americans. Among live performers, ventriloquists were some of the more popular attractions. Writers were quick to capitalize on the inherent creepiness of a man throwing his voice to imbue a wise-cracking wooden dummy with life. Serling’s take on the theme follows an already established formula: the tortured performer who believes his dummy is alive and wants to harm him. What elevates “The Dummy” above other fare of the type is the manic performance of Cliff Robertson, the disorienting, dreamlike camera work of director Abner Biberman and photographer George T. Clemens, and, of course, the harrowing ending sequence. Serling’s principle model of influence was the final segment of the formative 1945 horror anthology film Dead of Night, from Britain’s Ealing Studio. In this segment, titled “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” Michael Redgrave stars as a man whose malevolent dummy, Hugo, manages to take over his body (or perhaps remains only as a distinct personality in the mind of the ventriloquist, the film leaves the truth ambiguous). Serling takes this concept a step further and delivers one of the most disturbing ending in the entire series as Willy, the evil dummy, assumes human form and Jerry, the ventriloquist, is transformed into a wooden dummy. The effect is a startling one as makeup transforms actor George Murdock into Willy and a dummy is created bearing a caricature of Cliff Robertson’s face. The flourishing reveal of the horrible switch is another moment of uniformly excellent camera work in the episode, which perfectly captures the loneliness of the grimy nightclub world of stage lights, cocktails, and cigarette smoke.

-“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” segment of Dead of Night, the film that inspired “The Dummy,” was itself inspired by two sources: the 1929 film The Great Gabbo, starring Eric von Stroheim, based on Ben Hecht’s 1928 short story “The Rival Dummy,” and Gerald Kersh’s 1939 short story “The Extraordinarily Horrible Dummy.” Read our full coverage of Dead of Night here.
-According to Wikipedia, both the original Willy dummy (created in the 1940s by puppeteer Revello Petee) and the Cliff Robertson dummy created for the episode are housed in magician David Copperfield’s private collection of literature and artifacts related to magic known as the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, though (appropriately enough considering the clandestine nature of performance magic and conjuring arts) there is no citation of the source for this information and access to Copperfield’s museum of over 80,000 items is only available to scholars of the conjuring arts through a written application to the Archivist. 


  1. The link to coverage of Dead of Night appears to be missing. Good choice for the top 5!

  2. Copperfield’s wife shared a pic of herself in the museum with the Dummy, so there is your source.