One Of The Scariest Episodes Of The Twilight Zone Had Almost No Dialogue

One of the reasons "The Twilight Zone" endures today is its uncanny ability to tell any kind of story. Even the most classic episodes often feel like they were made for completely different reasons, and only share between them a whiff of the uncanny or supernatural. "The Night of the Meek" is one of the sweetest, kindest episodes of television ever filmed. "The Eye of the Beholder" is one of the most daringly experimental and powerful. 

But sooner or later, "The Twilight Zone" always comes back around to the realm of absolute terror. Godlike children transforming hapless adults into Jack-in-the-Boxes, man-eating aliens from outer space, paranoid suburbanites ripping each other to pieces ... there's a frightening episode of "The Twilight Zone" for just about anybody.

And one of the scariest they ever filmed took place in a tiny cabin, with only one actor — one of the greatest of her generation — and she never says a word.

Agnes Moorehead vs. the invaders

"The Invaders" stars Oscar-nominated actor Agnes Moorehead, whose performances in films like "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Johnny Belinda" are second to none (no matter what the Academy says). She plays a woman living alone at the edge of civilization, in a tiny cabin. In the middle of the night while she's making her dinner, she hears a strange sound coming from her roof. When she climbs up to investigate, she discovers that a UFO has landed, and the spacecraft is roughly the diameter of a large coffee table. 

The UFO opens its hatch and two tiny aliens emerge, armed with mysterious weapons that cover Moorehead's character in alarming welts. Soon she's fighting for her life as these invaders, realizing that their weapons can't kill her, begin to take more shocking measures to inflict violence, and using her own sharp kitchen knives to slash her ankle and hands.

This poor woman is finally able to throw one of the invaders into the fire, and follows the other one upstairs with an axe. In a fit of horrifying rage, she chops at the alien craft over and over and over again, until a small river of blood pours out of it. Meanwhile, the last surviving invader sends a message back to its home planet, warning them to stay away from this land of terrible giants forever.

And that invader's home planet ... was Earth.

Sorry, wrong planet

Agnes Moorehead was a good get for "The Twilight Zone." She was a veteran of Broadway and radio, with unforgettable roles in some of the best dramas ever produced. In a few short years, she'd accept a role in one of TV's most beloved sitcoms, "Bewitched," and appear in all 254 episodes as Endora, a witch who absolutely hates that her daughter married a dweeby mortal guy.

Still, the unusual nature of "The Invaders" was apparently rather confusing to Moorehead. According to the episode's director, Douglas Heyes ("Kitten with a Whip"), when she initially read the screenplay, she couldn't figure out who she was supposed to play, since there was just one character with no dialogue, and surely they would have given her some dialogue, yes?

No. According to Heyes, that was the whole idea.

"The reason that I suggested her was that she had done a radio show called 'Sorry, Wrong Number,' which was a half-hour tour de force where she used nothing but her voice, and I said, 'Here's a half-hour tour de force where the woman doesn't use her voice at all!'" director Heyes revealed in "The Twilight Zone Companion."

Moorehead proves completely up to the challenge. Watching her character evolve from a placid, humdrum evening to awe at the UFO, horror at being attacked by little monsters, and panicked problem-solving as she takes matters into her own hands is a master class in physical acting. And final assault on the "alien" craft is a nightmare sequence, straight out of a horror movie.

Small soldiers

As for the invaders themselves, they didn't just look small on-screen. They were made "life size" on the set, and were performed by the episode's director using two fingers for the arms, and two fingers for the legs. "By having them that size, she was able to grab them physically and hurl them across the room, which made it far more interesting than if you were using process and she couldn't really touch them," Douglas Heyes explained in "The Twilight Zone Companion."

Heyes claims the inspiration for the design came from the Michelin Tire Man, and served two purposes: The invaders looked like they weren't human, but after the revelation that they are actually human, it made sense in retrospect: "Ah hah! Then therefore, they were in inflated spacesuits, right?"

Apparently not content to play his invaders with his own hands, he also provided the voice of the aliens as well. At the end of the episode, when the humans inside the UFO make a radio announcement to Earth, warning them of this planet of terrifying and violent giants, "that was my voice," Heyes said, "because I was those little guys."

Heyes's enthusiasm for the episode's depiction of the invaders wasn't shared by the episode's author, Richard Matheson, who, in addition to claiming the episode was paced too slowly, said: "I thought those little roly-poly dolls were ridiculous looking. The way I had written it, you would only catch very quick views of them and never anything clear. To see these little things waddling across the floor was about as frightening as Peter Rabbit coming at you."

Those little rascals

All due respect to Richard Matheson, but even though the final version of "The Intruders" failed to match his vision, it works in its own right. The pacing he didn't care for is a startling shift from typical fast-paced TV shows, resetting the audience's internal chronometers so that we get used to Moorehead's character's normal life, and respond with as much confusion and terror when it's interrupted by "aliens."

What's more, the fact that the invaders are, in their own way, on the cute side is a striking contrast to the threat they pose. If they were visualized as an obvious threat, that could also have been effective — perhaps not unlike the killer doll sequence from the classic TV movie "Trilogy of Terror" — but by transforming an aesthetically disarming creature into the stuff of terror, "The Invaders" perhaps presaged future horror stories about tiny monsters that pose huge threats. Moorehead fighting the invaders off in her kitchen foreshadows similar scary scenes in films like Joe Dante's "Gremlins," the "Critters" movies, and the exceedingly scary TV movie classic "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."

"The Invaders" boldly alters the cinematic language audiences were expecting from a show like "The Twilight Zone," and although it wouldn't be the last mostly-silent episode of the series, it's still one of the show's most terrifying episodes. And there was no shortage of competition.