Original Story by Robert R. McCammon
Teleplay by Philip DeGuere
Directed by William Friedkin
Original Airdate - October 18, 1985
Scott Paulin - Price
James Whitmore Jr. - Sheriff Dennis Wells
Robert Swan - Bob
Exene Cervenka - Waitress
Sandy Martin - Lindy
Bobby Bass - Ray
Matt Levin - Ricky



A state trooper stops for a hamburger and coffee at a roadside eatery called Bob's, and it's apparent he comes there often because they're all on a first-name basis. He tells Bob and the waitress about the multiple homicide he'd just helped clean up back at the state line, and that the murderers might be headed this way. They're now visibly scared. A family come in looking for shelter from the rain, and sits down in a booth. The sheriff offers to escort them to a nearby motel.

It's pouring rain outside and pitch dark, when out on the road a car swerves to miss an oncoming truck and comes barreling into the parking lot. It screeches to a halt and parks, and a man gets out and limps into Bob's. His hair is wet and his eyes are tired and red, and it's apparent that he's handicapped in some way, since he's limping badly. He asks for coffee, hot and black, and the waitress pours it for him. He asks Bob if they serve beer, and the owner says no, they don't have a liquor license. The stranger says it would only put him to sleep and he needs to stay awake, but Bob sees the cup of coffee in the stranger's hand change to a beer can for a few seconds, then back to a coffee cup. Bob looks very surprised, and glances uneasily at the trooper to see if he'd seen the phenomenon, but the trooper didn't notice. Now Bob is watching the stranger with a little more attention.

The state trooper was instantly put on alert from the wild way the stranger parked his car, and watches the man out of the corner of his eye. When the stranger takes out a pill bottle and swallows several of the pills, the trooper asks if he's got a 'script for them. The man says, "Sure do, Mr. Trooper," and gives him a sideways smile. The waitress fills up the stranger's coffee mug again, and tells the trooper to leave the guy alone. The stranger is drinking his coffee, and playing with the lid of his lighter while he relaxes. The waitress says in questioning voice, "Nightcrawlers." The trooper asks her what she meant, and she said that was written on the side of the lighter, with army insignia.

The stranger says that everyone in his unit got one, and the trooper asks if he was in the Vietnam war. The man nods, and the trooper starts to ask him questions, saying that he wasn't over there but always wanted to go. The stranger says he doesn't want to talk about it. The trooper pushes the stranger, and suddenly the stranger is emotionally telling the story of his entire unit's demise. He was the only one to survive. The entire cafe is listening by this time. The stranger scrubs at his face, and asks how much the coffee was so he can leave.

The trooper says he wouldn't let the stranger leave in his condition if it was bone-dry and daylight outside, and that he would have to go to a motel for the night. The stranger says he can't do that; he's got to keep on the move. When he sleeps, things happen. The trooper is suspicious now, and asks what that means. The stranger says that he brought back a little something more from the war than bad memories. He's run into four other vets who could also do what he can do; he thinks they sprayed the soldiers with some experimental chemical agents in Vietnam that gives them powers beyond the normal. The trooper is skeptical, and the stranger says to Bob, "I don't think you've got T-bone steak on the menu, do you?" Bob shakes his head no, and a T-bone steak suddenly appears on the grill, sizzling while it cooks. After about ten seconds, it disappears. The stranger says that he fell asleep last night, at a motel on the state line, and the horrors he brought back from the war came alive, because of his powers. The trooper still won't let him leave, since he's now sure the stranger is the one responsible for the mayhem at the motel. The stranger melts the gun in the trooper's hand. The waitress hugs the stranger, who turns to leave. The trooper hits him over the head with a ketchup bottle, knocking the stranger out.

All of a sudden, there are lights, and helicopters and enemy soldiers advancing on the cafe. The family that had come in are hiding in the booth, and the mother jumps out to try and wake up the stranger, knowing that all this is coming from his subconscious, but he's still out. Rifles blast out the windows, bombs explode outside the cafe and a stray shot kills the trooper. Soldiers come flying through the broken windows, and Bob sneaks out with a heavy frying pan to kill the stranger and put an end to his dream. One of the soldiers aims at Bob and shoots him, and the waitress throws a pan at the soldier, knocking him flat. The soldiers advance on the stranger, who is chanting "Charlie's in the light," over and over, and they shoot him many times. The soldiers, bombs, helicopters and the lights all fade as the stranger dies. Dawn comes and there are rescue people there to pick up the pieces, though no one can believe what happened yet. The waitress is helping the medics take Bob out to the ambulance, and she tells him he's going to be all right. Bob can't stop saying, "There are four more vets, who can do the same things!"

No opening or closing narration



"Nightcrawlers" was a landmark episode in the history of the new Twilight Zone. Though the stories that had gone before were good, and some were great, "Nightcrawlers" was the first to pick up the audience by the scruff of the neck and hold them hostage while the story unfolded. Based on the Robert R. McCammon short story of the same name, it was truly the first breakout episode of the first season and cemented the appeal of the series to a great many viewers. The idea that defoliants might have created special powers in the soldiers who were subjected to it is brilliant, and is a perfect storyline for the NTZ.

In the forward to the "Stories from the New Twilight Zone," Alan Brennert mentions that "Nightcrawlers" might also have been responsible for the eventual demise of the show, in a roundabout way. CBS had put the NTZ on at a later, more adult hour, during its first few months of broadcast, but decided to move the show to an earlier slot in mid-October, 1985. The first episode shown in this earlier slot was "Nightcrawlers," a story that had been developed specifically for that later timespot. Parents tuning in saw a diner full of people blown to bits, heard automatic gunfire with people shouting in the background to "Shoot him!", and saw a man get blasted away by phantom soldiers. While this may have only strengthened the appeal of the series to its fans (as it did in my case), it horrified the parents seeing it for the first time. The NTZ was banished from a lot of homes, based on this one episode.

However, "Nightcrawlers" does not deserve this kind of reputation; the violence in it is perfectly suited to the story and is not graphic. It is a solid, mesmerizing piece of work that is a true classic. William Friedkin, director of "The Exorcist" and "The French Connection," has had a checkered career. The two aforementioned films are considered classics, but he has not done as well in his other ventures. With "Nightcrawlers" he rose to the occasion and crafted a near masterpiece. There is a tension in the episode that puts you on edge from the start, and I consider it much, much better than his work on "The Exorcist." I think it rivals "The French Connection" in suspense and tone.

Scott Paulin has a very real presence as the Vietnam vet, Price. He is the main reason the episode works as well as it does. His tortured performance is as good as any I've seen. Paulin is also in another favorite of mine, "To Heal a Nation," the story of Jan Scruggs and the Vietnam Wall memorial, and though I haven't seen anything to substantiate this, I have the feeling that Paulin may be an actual Vietnam vet. If anyone can verify this, I'd love to know. He's an exceptional actor, no matter what he's in.

James Whitmore Jr. is serviceable as the state trooper. His character is written as a little too predictable, but he plays the stolid cop well. Exene Cervenka might be the most pleasing surprise of the episode. The lead singer of the punk rock group X, as well as the ex-wife of Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy), she is excellent as the waitress who seems to have a psychic connection of some kind to Price. Robert Swan is homey and down to earth as Bob, the owner of the roadside diner where all this takes place. The phantom soldiers are very well done; they aren't shown in a full light, but are left in shadow and silhouette much of the time.

My only quibble with the episode is that it seems to have been cut a bit too much. At odd times I feel that there is part of the story missing, and it runs a little too fast towards its end. It might have benefited from five or ten more minutes, giving the story time to gain its irreversible momentum. It's a small quibble, but I'd like to see what was cut from it, if anything. The teleplay is true to the short story, so this "feeling" might only be my imagination or may the result of editing. The only thing that makes it seem as if something was cut, is that the waitress calls Price by his name, as he's leaving, yet we never hear him say his name.