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The Twilight Zone (Episode #88): “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” (airdate 2/23/62)
The Plot: A young man wakes up in the middle of his own funeral, but instead of celebrating, his friends and neighbors believe he might be something more human than human.
The Goods: For all its quaintness, this story runs a lot deeper than its gap-toothed smile pretends. It begins with Jeff Myrtlebank (James Best) being laid to rest in a country chapel, the pews filled with his family, neighbors, and bride-to-be Comfort Gatewood (Sherry Jackson). At the fever pitch of the pastor’s eulogy, Jeff sits bolt upright in his coffin and scares the potato salad out of everyone.
At first, everyone is fearful, but when Doc Bolton (Edgar Buchanan) explains that this sort of thing can happen (and even has a fancy name), they calm down and fawn over the poor young man. Unfortunately, that love is crushed by suspicion, and the pitchforks and torches are soon handed out.
Despite the abjectly racist way that writer/director Montgomery Pittman portrays the townsfolk of Small Town, Southern State, the heart of the story is a favorite for Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. How soon can irrationality spread throughout a community and create the basis for violent action? It’s surroundings and trappings might be different, but this is yet another Cold War allegory dressed up in overalls.
Best, perhaps known as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, plays the unwitting fool here with incredible aptitude. He’s a dolt that has had something inexplicable happen to him, but there’s a glint of possibility hiding behind his eyes. What if he really is a demon who has taken over Myrtlebank’s body when it was most fresh? What if he really can bring evil down on everyone?
There’s a Beauty and the Beast quality to the flow, because the key to Myrtlebank’s salvation is in convincing a frightened Comfort to agree to marry him again. Even though he shows up to her door with dead, fresh-picked flowers and there’s a cacophony of rumor flying between the county’s telephones that Myrtlebank just ain’t right, Comfort sees through it all and agrees.
However, while love and understanding win the day, it’s really Myrtlebank/Possible Demon’s logic of threat that truly puts the county lynch mob in its place. For all their bluster, he offers them two realities. In one, he’s Jeff, and their actions would result in killing or driving out an innocent man. In the other, he’s the demon, and their actions would make him angry and cause retaliation of the worst kind.
The Cold War seeds are obvious, but it’s a different angle than Serling and company have ever taken before.
What do you think?
The Trivia: One of the mailboxes on the side of the country road reads “M. Pittman,” which totally counts as a director cameo.
On the Next Episode: Aliens land on earth to give us peace and lots of food and lots of medicine to cure bad diseases, and there definitely isn’t a catch at all.
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.