Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Spotlight on "Don't Open Till Doomsday"


by Gary Gerani

INTRODUCTION: THE STORY OF LIZARD TAYLOR

Or, a Brainless Glob by any other name…  

Without question, “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” is a remarkable Stefano/Oswald/Hall “high noir”: it’s rich in gothic atmosphere, bizarre Freudian symbolism, and bewildered characters in search of a sensible plot.  But it was also reasonably “commercial” in its day, strange as that may seem.  The Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-style thriller was in full bloom at the box-office, so it made perfect sense to cast Bette Davis’ one-time rival Miriam Hopkins as a “horror hag” for TV.  And why did the network want Joseph Stefano to begin with?  Psycho, of course.  So plunk Baby Jane inside Norman Bates’ off the beaten path Old Dark House, and since this is an Outer Limits episode, work a rubber creature into the scheme of things.  Now everybody’s happy.  Except, maybe, some sf traditionalists and Cleveland Amory (TV Guide’s resident critic, who needed help from a child in understanding this episode).

OPENING NIGHT: A GRANDMA’S VIEW

For some reason, I wound up downstairs this particular Monday night, watching “Doomsday” with my quiet-but-perennially pissed grandmother and obnoxious cousin Joe, who was anything but quiet.  Whenever a scary monster appeared on the screen, he’d bellow at the top of his lungs, simply because it was acceptable to go nuts during “shock” moments in films…so naturally Joe abused the privilege.  My grandmother, on the other hand, watched the entire episode with her customary stone-faced indifference and what I can only describe as Old World scorn.  Truth to tell, cousin Joe and I had just as much fun checking out Grandma’s priceless lack of expression during this hour as we did watching “Doomsday” itself.  Her ultimate opinion (“This stinks”) was predictable and eagerly anticipated by the two of us.   Now, almost 50 years later, it’s finally my turn to review the show.

THE TEASER:

Another ‘sneak peek’ clip, a real shorty, with John Hoyt gazing through the tiny peephole of a weird-looking box in a cobwebby old mansion.  What he sees freaks him out; Hoyt runs, turns, get zapped by a nifty dematerializing ray and is pulled inside the box.  Awesome!  The decision to leave this exciting opening bearless was a wise one…better to wait for the Doomsday Creature’s memorable reveal in the story itself.  But that most peculiar box, textured optical effect and Thriller-like spooky environment certainly promised cool stuff ahead… 

ACT ONE: 

Roaring ‘20s music blares away as an odd little man delivers a low-groaning boxed gift to a wedding reception in progress (“For the newlyweds” says his disembodied voice).  No shadowy views of an anxious young bride or even a few partying guests, unfortunately, but we do meet the handsome tuxedoed groom Harvey Kry (Terrence Ralph Brookman…whoops, David Frankham) checking out this “funny” present…  And here’s our very first view of this week’s lovable bear, the Doomsday Creature, arguably the weirdest-looking monster in the entire OL pantheon.  As DJS points out, he’s a bizarre combination of male and female sexual organs, all coiled together and capped with a single glowering eyeball.  This strange alien lives in the “non-elemental void” of what is apparently a box-shaped spaceship that appears to be permanently Earthbound.  In any event, Harvey peeks inside, sees you-know-what, screams like a banshee… and then time dramatically marches forward via dissolve and Frontiere’s descending, despairing musical cue.  It’s three decades later now, and a fresh set of newlyweds — Gard and Vivia — are married by an elderly couple (Russell Collins and a wheelchair-bound Nellie Burt, the latter limbering up for OL’s "The Guests").  This prompts a disturbing view of that original, unseen bride as she is “today” (Miriam Hopkins), a kind of diseased combination of Baby Jane and Miss Havisham, smeared with bad makeup and still flappin’ to ‘20s tunes on her rickety old victrolla.  So naturally Nellie sends these kids-on-the-run-from-a-rich-but-dominating-father over to Kry’s moldy old mansion because, as she significantly points out, “Heaven itself couldn’t find you there.”  A spooky organ version of Frontiere’s sorrowful ten-note “lost love” theme leads our pensive couple into the Devil’s waiting den, as we fade out for a commercial. 

ACT TWO:

Yep, we’re in Great Expectations territory now, with unopened wedding presents and cobwebby decay on full display in Mrs. Kry’s “unused bridal suite.”  Still boxed up after all these years, Doomsday Creature observes the young couple hugging and kissing and such, until we cut to DC’s profound reaction shot when the word “virile” is mentioned.  Hmmm…  Gard soon takes off to hide their car, and we are finally provided with some indication of what the hell is going on: an old newspaper shows our gift-delivering friend from that original wedding night, apparently named Dr. Spazman, warning the community about outer space invaders in our midst.  Mrs. Kry explains to Vivia how her hateful father caused Spazman to lose his mind, although the eyeball-rolling truth of his bizarre claims happens to be just a few feet away…and hungry for some new guests, as always.  So that’s what happened to that guy in the tuxedo, I remember thinking to myself, watching a solemn Harvey Kry within the Box’s nether void, sick and tired of hearing his aging wife carrying on (and besides, the acoustics seem pretty out of control in there).  Well, with newlywed Vivia targeted for engulfment, at least Harvey will have a little company on his indefinitely expanded wedding night.  Fade out as she stares hopelessly into that inviting peephole. “This is a real sick episode, even for The Outer Limits,” I remember cousin Joe commenting on his way to the bathroom.  He had a point.

ACT THREE:

Gard comes back and bangs at the “stuck” bridal suite door, winds up getting nowhere.  But it’s what’s happening inside the room that truly catches our interest… and then some.  In one of the strangest and most suggestive throwaways in all of OL, overwhelmed Vivia seems to be having a sexual experience with the Box, whimpering like a frightened virgin, her head pressed so close to the thing that she appears partially absorbed by it.  This is altogether different from the means of capture we generally associate with our friendly neighborhood Doomsday cubicle.   Anyway, by the time Gard’s “groomy shoulders” push their way into the room, this curious act, whatever it was, has been consummated.  Vivia’s now trapped inside the Box, and Gard thinks she’s run back to rotten old “daddy Balfour,” his sizzled sunspots notwithstanding.  Speaking of Mr. B, here he is at last (John Hoyt at his most delightfully venal), sleeping some bucks under Nellie Burt’s blanket.  Next thing we know, Mrs. Kry is smashing her own stuck window (guess the “stuck” theme is omnipresent in “Doomsday”) to get Balfour’s attention when he comes a calling.  This inspires Frontiere and Hall to go wild with Kry’s Act Three closing line about “stairs being the most treacherous things” as, hellish harps in full flutter, we swing to that now-iconic shot of the stairway leading up to Kry’s bridal suite, a Caligari-like window frame shadow stretched ominously on the wall beyond…

ACT FOUR:

God, even Frontiere’s music is having a laugh as Mrs. Kry leads a befuddled Mr. Balfour up Those Stairs.  The teaser once again unfolds as he’s hit by that fancy-schmancy optical effect and Kry gasps with sicko relief, knowing a truly suitable subject for the alien’s needs has been delivered.  Great scene with Balfour banging away at the portal, as Frontiere’s music decides to push the envelope and finally tear right through it.  Wow, what a cue!  Anyway, Mr. Justice of the Peace Russell Collins has a change of heart and returns Balfour’s bribe money to a disillusioned but still game Gard, then rather decently implores him to save his beloved lady and screw everything else.  Right on!  But wait…  Here it comes… “You are NO PLACE!” Doomsday Creature tells John Hoyt in a reverberating voice to die for.  Here’s where we get that monumentally tall tale about the creature’s plan to “first blow up the Earth, then the entire Galaxy!”  I mean, dear God!  More, please… DC was apparently going to join others of his kind to “blend frequencies,” but he had no experience with space and time, so, well, he kinda got lost – even Doomsday Creature seems a tad embarrassed by that particular admission.  Maybe Mrs. Kry was right… he really is a stupid monster.  Anyway, the morality theme of our story is laid bare: the Devil tempts Harvey (no chance), then tries to seduce Mrs. Kry (obey him, lose me, is Harvey’s ultimatum to his less scrupulous wife); but nasty old Balfour seems ideal for the alien’s diabolical purpose.  Unfortunately for DC, yet in keeping with the guys-redeem-themselves subtheme that Russell Collins recently started, Balfour announces (rather foolishly) that he’s reneging on the deal just long enough for Gard and Vivia to escape.  Which, of course, pisses Doomsday Creature off no end.  You can practically see the words “I’ve Been Had!” supered over his eye-rolling mug through that peephole.  “If I cannot annihilate the world, I must uncreate myself — and you!!” he proclaims with more than a trace of understandable bitterness.  The kids get away (“Daddy!”), Mrs. Kry’s in her wedding outfit and feeling no pain, and the house is blown to bits by an escalating firecracker, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be.  But ahh, that neat-looking smoking wreckage, grim OL theme music, Vic Perrin’s ruminations about Evil having to be perfect, etc., and, last and most awe-worthy, the surviving calling card for the original boxed “gift.”  And so ends one of the strangest hours of network television ever broadcast (soon to be topped by the same creative team’s “Forms of Things Unknown”).

IN CONCLUSION: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

There’s no sense trying to explain “Don’t Open Till Doomsday” to the uninitiated, or the hopelessly literal-minded.  I’ve tried.  Even older science fiction fans of the Bradbury-Heinlein-Clarke generation consider it a bizarre exercise in pointlessness, an insult to “true” science fiction — whatever that happens to be.  “Doomsday” is an extreme example of OL’s decidedly offbeat approach to the genre in general… Psycho with a rubber space monster tossed in, something to be viewed metaphorically for true satisfaction.  Once again, Stefano employs a thinly-disguised version of Satan for a heavy, making the entire weird experience a classic morality play of temptation and redemption spiced somewhat with that venerable horror catalyst, the fear of sex.  As for “Doomsday”’s players, Hopkins seems to be having loads of fun cutting loose with Stefano’s over-the-top dialogue; this is her Sunset Blvd., and she seizes every juicy moment from it as only a golden age actress with theater chops can.  Hoyt, Collins and Burt are fine as usual, as is David Frankham and even Buck Taylor. Melinda Plowman is yet another OL starlet who’s kinda pretty in an ugly way, or ugly in a pretty way.  I’ll let our horny panel of OL bloggers wrestle with that one.

Tidbit: This was one of the OL properties that I was developing as a comic book story for Topps in the mid-‘90s.  I thought it might be interesting to do a prequel, dealing with Dr. Spazman, how he found the Doomsday box, more information about the alien invasion itself, and how Mrs. Kry’s evil father wound up driving Doc Spaz to the point of madness and foul revenge.  How amazing would it have been to have Joe Stefano himself contribute new dialogue and conceptual ideas!  Somewhere in the catacombs of my old computer is a proposal synopsis, which I’ll try to retrieve…


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.

9 comments:

  1. That's "notwithstanding," not "nonwithstanding" -- damn fumbling fingers strike again! And for you newbies, "Lizard Taylor" comes from Cleveland Amory's outrageous TV Guide review, and "The Brainless Glob" was the title of Topps' equally outrageous trading card featuring the Doomsday Creature as an "abandoned space pet." Later, guys...

    ReplyDelete
  2. So you had video cameras set up throughout your house? Once again, Gary, I'm in absolute awe of your phenomenal memory for specifics regarding these initial childhood viewings. Thank you for another fun ride!

    I've often wondered if ERASERHEAD or REPO MAN were influenced by this strange ol' box o' alien?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just goes to show you what a sick kid I was! I always seemed to remember what the adults and relatives in my world had to say about these sci-fi or monster experiences I loved so much, with comments ranging from "Isn't this interesting?" (my mom) to "This stinks" (my grandmother). Both my cousin and my grandmother are gone now (Joe died of AIDS in the early '90s), but these childhood memories are precious and obviously permanent. Yeah, I can see some ERASERHEAD in "Doomsday," and REPO MAN provides an interesting parallel as well (haven't viewed that one since it came out). As mentioned in an earlier comment, there's something "Crystal Egg"ish about this episode, what with an obsessed scientist (the briefly glimpsed Dr. Spazman) and an a small, benign-looking object containing a grotesque alien monster that "looks back" at the humans peering in... I wouldn't be at all surprised if Stefano read this H.G. Wells perennial when he was a kid, just as I did...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Gary--

    Once again, a fun and fascinating read; you and I must get together sometime and compare our 50 year+ old memories.

    ALSO--
    Today's "Did You Know?" TOL trivia: Frontiere's and Farris' name for the creature was "GLUB IN THE BOX."

    ReplyDelete
  5. To my dying day I'll never get over the fact that OL dared to be a "monster of the week" anthology, churning out one fantastic gargoyle after another in scary, ultra-weird sci-fi thrillers, exploring all fx possibilities (including stop motion) and every conceivable conceptual/visual angle. With the metaphors and bizarre sexual subtext of "Doomsday" for inspiration, coming up with a look for the Doomsday Creature must have been quite a challenge for the PU gang. "Hmmm... Guess we'll make him a deranged mixture of male/female organs, as Joe's psycho-sexual script suggests...but to kids and the casual observer, he'll pretty much come across as a lump of shit with an eyeball on top." Ingenious.

    BTW, just remembered... a distant cousin to "Don't Open Till Doomsday" is that Season One STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION Joe Stefano wrote ("Second Skin," I believe) involving an alien race that removed the Evil from itself and then took off for a grand destiny elsewhere in the universe... but the Evil they left behind eventually solidified into a tangible, monstrous, sludgelike entity. Hearing Stefano's poetic dialogue emanating from this disgusting mass as it chats with astounded humans brought back memories of "Doomsday."

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sharp commentary, Gary, and sentimental in the very best sense. I second Larry B's remark about your Polaroid recall of the entire domestic set-up as the episodes played out. Awaiting your grandma's and cousin's opinions is part of the appeal!

    Yeah, this episode defies efforts to defend it to the non-receptive. You like this kind of amalgam of disparate elements and trampled logic, or you don't. We do because it adds up to a synergistic new artisttic construct that satisfies our instincts and excites our emotions. If you have to know the "why" of every plot turn and eccentric character tic, you won't dig it.

    I'm intrigued by where you might have gone with the prologue to this story. That synopsis would probably be of genuine interest to a lot of us TOL fans.

    Larry R--- Now I'll never be able to look at my dashboard and see anything but a "Glub Compartment"---thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  7. GG: That Nuevo-Star-Trek was "Skin of Evil," and it was about 50% Stefano since it was clogged up with staff-written character cuteness and an arc about the death of Denise Crosby's character in that episode.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks, David. Yeah, I vaguely remember that weirdly-divided aspect of the show... the "Skin of Evil" storyline seemed to end about twelve minutes before the episode itself did, with all of the remaining time going to Denise Crosby's character saying goodbye to each and every one of her friends, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, the creature itself was clearly LIMITS inspired, from the classical nature of its origin to the poetic dialogue emanating from its non-mouth. All hail Joseph Stefano, Master of the Eloquent Monster!

    ReplyDelete
  9. UP HERE WHEN YOU SHOULD BE DOWN THERE

    Be sure to check the bottom of the original "Doomsday" post for the links to the Misfits' "Don't Open Till Doomsday," studio and live versions!

    (I made a disc of this for Joe Stefano about ten years ago. He dug it.)

    ReplyDelete

Apologies for having to switch to moderated comments. This joker (https://www.blogger.com/profile/07287821785570247118) has been spamming our site for weeks, and we're hoping this will finally get him/her/it to crawl back into the hole from whence it came. Sadly the site isn't smart enough to detect that every single comment they make is spam. We'll be sure to review and post legitimate comments quickly. As for you, "Blogger" (trust me, we've got far more imaginative and appropriate names for you) on behalf of all of us at WACT, don't let the door hit you on the way out!