by Gary Gerani
INTRODUCTION: TRIO FOR TERROR
It wasn’t long before Joe Stefano found an opportunity to turn a scientific research facility into The Old Dark House, complete with a snap-crackle-pop energy vampire as resident bogeyman. “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” (not a parody, but an actual line of dialogue) is the first of the celebrated Stefano/Conrad Hall/Gerd Oswald collaborations that came to characterize Season One OL, at least for me. It’s significant that Stefano was not a fan of science fiction movies in general, and he had particular disdain for those characterless, ‘50s-style BEM thrillers. How ironic, then, that Fate hands him the creative reins of a “science fiction chiller” TV series, one requiring the monsters, special effects, spooky music, etc., that pretty much defined the genre as we knew it ten years earlier. So mystery writer Stefano ups the ante: he uses his cobwebby Psycho pedigree to ram through gothic horror teleplays, containing enough ‘weird science’ elements to qualify as Outer Limits plots. Often baroque and quasi-European, these bizarre, one-of-a-kind feverdreams amount to nothing less than horror poetry: “Woodwork,” “Don’t Open Till Doomsday,” “The Invisibles,” and maddest of all, “The Forms of Things Unknown.”
OPENING NIGHT: IT’S CALLED WHAT?!
This was one I watched alone in my room, sitting at my desk and facing that really nifty portable TV (a “Setchell-Carlson”), which sat on a nearby rolling cart. For some reason – it may have been the TV Guide listing – we kids knew of this episode’s title ahead of broadcast, but didn’t quite know what to make of it. For better or worse, Outer Limits had become the “sci-fi creature of the week TV series.” Could this episode be some kind of inevitable self-parody? I mean, that title! It wasn’t very different from “The Monster That Devoured Cleveland” or the kind of campy take-offs found in the pages of Mad Magazine. So we sat in front of our sets, hoping for the best, ready for whatever sci-fi surprise Outer Limits had in store for us…
THE TEASER: KRAKA-BOOMMM!!
No ‘sneak peek’ clip this week, but an actual depiction of the outrageous title event, complete with energetic monster attack. Moving in on that establishing NORCO pillar in the midst of a raging thunderstorm pretty much says it all: Stefano is winking at his receptive audience by presenting an “atomic age” version of classic haunted house thrillers, deliberately embracing bombastic clichés of this genre (nasty weather) to nail the parallel. It’s like Joe’s saying, “Hey, don’t blame me if this show gets a little weird. You were warned from frame one that I was giving in to cheeky excess!” Inside spooky old NORCO, an unsuspecting cleaning lady accidentally gives the dustball from Hell super-monstrous life via her vacuum cleaner. Dazzling, unforgettable images say it all, the first of many in this hour… it’s Conrad Hall’s noir expressionism gone amok, with every exaggerated composition a made-for-TV masterpiece.
ACT ONE: “WE ARE A SLAVE TO A PROBLEM OF GROTESQUE PROPORTIONS”
The Peters brothers show up bright and early at NORCO, have a cryptic chat with the pacemaker-wearing gate guard, and just narrowly avoid another memorable fx set-piece. The energy creature’s assault on this unlucky turncoat provides some amazing visuals (“I didn’t tell!” earns extreme close-ups for both eyes and mouth), and the bear itself is a real special effects doozy: unlike the casual killing cloud that Donald Pleasence whistles up in “Man with the Power,” this thing plays like a churning, imploding, whip-lashing banshee, inexorably advancing, ready to zap the life out of both living and re-animated victims. Still, that matchbook “warning of doom” from the luckless guard gets through to the brothers. Next day, ultra-rational Professor Stuart Peters (Michael Forrest) brings it to the attention of NORCO administrator Prof. Block (suave and distantly demonic Kent Smith, who speaks with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula accent and has an atomic bomb portrait lovingly positioned over his desk). Doomed or not, Peters is ushered into the lab of low-key fellow genius Prof. Stephanie Linden, method actress Joan Camden, who played similarly depressed characters in the high-profile studio hits A Catered Affair and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It’s here where we learn about that “problem of grotesque proportions” Prof. Block mentioned, and observe Stephanie’s slave-like addiction to it. It is she who, despite some heavy misgivings, entraps nice-guy Peters in “the Pit,” or rather the freakishly narrow corridor leading to same. This walkway extending to a sliding door with a small flashing portal is “Woodwork”’s most effective and disturbing mini-set, with director Oswald and lenser Hall squeezing every last parsec of claustrophobic angst from it. Anyhow, snared Stu is locked in this intimidating hallway as the released energy creature thunders forward and apparently eats him for breakfast.
ACT TWO: “BECAUSE OF ME YOU’VE FACED THE MOST TERRIFYING EXPERIENCE OF ALL – AND GOTTEN IT OVER WITH!”
Now it’s time to spend what amounts to a shrink session with Stu’s emotionally immature, guilt-ridden kid brother Jory (Scott Marlowe), who, we are told, “treats everything like a magazine in a doctor’s office.” Patiently listening to him is a comely wench of recent acquaintance (Barbara Luna), a surrogate psychiatrist/best friend who makes it very clear that she doesn’t like the word “malevolent.” I’ve always suspected that Jory is really Joey Stefano, and the decision he can’t make is exactly how to position a hero in this deliciously wacked-out storyline. After all, script writing in general and these teleplays in particular were therapeutic exercises for JS; at this moment they enable young Mr. Peters to pour out various neuroses and set up his “I accidentally killed our parents” back story, key considering what’s about to happen. But just when we think we’ve had enough of JS’s psycho-speak, Jory relaxes and talks about his brother’s “nice smile” – SHOCK CUT TO Stu’s death grimace, in the first of at least three ‘knock ‘em into next week’ Conrad Hall mega-images. “He was a long time dying,” Block solemnly observes. Regardless, Peters shows up a week later at the motel he and his brother were staying at. Stu is dead, an honest-to-God zombie, but he’s still human enough to have a very real, very disturbing conversation with Jory, provoking his understandably hurt sibling into threatening a good old-fashioned punch in the nose. Conflicted Stu reminds Jory with a caring half-smile that “You never hit me,” making the older brother’s bathtub fall and subsequent electrocution all the more tragic. An ‘on the nose’ parallel event, certainly; but still well-staged and nicely performed by both Forrest and Marlowe.
ACT THREE: “IF HE’D BEEN IN ANY BETTER HEALTH, THEY WOULD HAD GIVEN HIM A MORNING SHOW ON TELEVISION!”
Enter Sgt. Siroleo, Ed Asner with a gun and lots of sensible questions for everybody. It’s here where we discover that dead people can be brought back to life through a remarkable little scientific gizmo known as a cardiac pacemaker. Honestly. This is Stefanoverse logic at its most outrageous; we know damn well it makes absolutely no sense but we go along with Joe’s audacity big-time, because, among other things, it allows for a cool gothic horror story with zombies and force monsters and all the stuff free-flowing nightmares are made of. Which is pretty much what Stefano and his cohorts seem obsessed with depicting on OL, as follow-up efforts will confirm. Anyway… It isn’t long before Siroleo is enticed into the Pit, providing yet another iconic close-up (his slack-jawed, up-lit visage is used on the DVD menu). This time, however, conscience-stricken Stephanie relents, and sets the huffing and puffing policeman free. “Go. Go! Go!!!” she begs him, only to be answered by Prof. Block’s inevitable, off-screen demand: “Go? Where??” To the final commercial break, where else?
ACT FOUR: “AS LONG AS WE STAY IN THE DARK, WE’RE AS SAFE AS WE CAN BE.”
Determined Jory’s on his way to NORCO so he can finally “make a decision,” but the real action’s in the main lab, as Prof. Block, holding a gun on Siroleo and Linden, explains everything we need to know about his pet monster’s origin. Okay… Which outlandish shot of Count Dracula do you prefer? Block’s enormous wide-angle hand gesturing to turn off his victims’ pacemakers, or that rude, admonishing finger of his (“Remember how we worried about the atom bomb?”)? From this point on, it’s ‘mad science’ excitement at its wildest as the now fatally-wounded Block commits one final heinous act, loosing his insatiable Energy Eater from the Pit. I can tell you, as a kid, these exciting scenes did more than satisfy. The monster thunders through the main set in long shot, enabling viewers to savor every jerky dance-like movement as sheets of paper blow wildly in all directions. It rages through NORCO hallways, engulfing zombies and blowing their pacemakers at the same time – how cool is that? Finally, when all power is shut down to lure this Dust Devil back into its Pit, the remaining living dead of NORCO find their little life-support devices hopelessly drained. And this includes our sad friend Stephanie Linden, who at least re-dies heroically as Block’s rampaging creature trundles back into the lab and is contained once again. Jory, his 52-minute session in psychotherapy finally ended, arrives just in time for Sgt. Siroleo to sum things up. “It’s under control,” he manages to explain, still catching his breath. “For the moment.”
IN CONCLUSION: THE LIMITS LEGACY
Okay. So energy can’t be destroyed, but our reckless and potentially dangerous emotions (pure human energy) can be acknowledged, controlled and lived with. Hanging on that broad notion, and with key creative collaborators, Joe Stefano was able to spin a bizarre, transcendent black comedy about death, guilt, obsessive behavior and (inevitably) the redemptive power of love. I always envied the freedom Stefano enjoyed as OL’s producer/head writer, for he could allow himself the luxury of exorcizing personal demons on film, co-realized by such perfectly in-sync fellow artists. This intoxicating unaccountability would get even wilder with "Don’t Open Till Doomsday," and enter permanent, almost free-flowing dream-state with "Forms of Things Unknown."
Question: Does all this add up to “good” science fiction? Is it science fiction at all, or, instead, the therapeutic musings of an eccentric, psychology-driven mystery writer using the far-out possibilities of “science” to make his bizarre little morality plays even stranger? Whatever it is, it happens to be The Outer Limits in its most satisfying form as far as I’m concerned, a unique melding of three remarkable talents in an ideal venue, the thing that defines the series at its most creatively potent and fearlessly surreal.
And it all began with that little ball of dust in a dustless corner…
Gary Gerani is the author of Fantastic Television, the first book to focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV. In association with IDW, Gerani recently launched a new publishing company, Fantastic Press, with November's TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES. Next up is TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES in April. His graphic novel, BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP (which takes on that famous nightmare voyage from Varna to Whitby, as you-know-who feeds on the crew of the Demeter), is available now and has garnered several nice reviews. That's him on the right, wearing the now-disintegrated Andro headpiece.