The highlight of this feature-length anthology pilot for Rod Serling’s TV series Night Gallery is the opening story, “The Cemetery,” a delicious cat-and-mouse game between iconic actors Ossie Davis and Roddy McDowall. Davis plays Portifoy, long-time butler to a rich old white geezer. He thinks he’s in line to inherit the sickly old man’s money and is none too pleased to see his boss’s nephew Jeremy (McDowall) — and sole heir — show up while the geezer’s on his death bed.
Jeremy wastes no time arranging for his uncle to catch his death of cold, and the old man is soon buried in the family graveyard next door to the house. Soon, though, Jeremy begins to see things. His uncle’s painting, picturing the mansion and accompanying graveyard, seems to change. First, there’s an empty grave in the pic. Later, a coffin appears in the grave. Then, the old man’s body shows up in the coffin. Finally, Jeremy sees an image of his uncle’s undead corpse strolling towards the house. That’s when he hears a heavy knocking at the door…
*SPOILER ALERT* Jeremy is so frightened by the knocking that he stumbles down the stairs and breaks his neck. It turns out that Portifoy was behind it all, pulling the sort of improbable gag that works only in horror movies: he had 15 different versions of the painting made in order to drive Jeremy mad. With the nephew out of the way, Portifoy stands to inherit the geezer’s fortune. However, in a second twist, Portifoy himself begins seeing the painting change, this time with Jeremy emerging from the grave to get revenge for his death. The end. Black folks can’t have shit!
Coming in 1969, the role of Portifoy is a refreshing and surprising one — not only because he’s an intelligent, articulate black man, but also because he turns out to be something of a villain. The stereotyped roles tend to be either lunkheaded villains or sterile good guys, but Portifoy is a charismatic, shrewd baddie with an intricate, admirably devious plan of action — something I’ll take any day over a flat, uninteresting hero.