Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Spotlight on "The Guests"


By John Kenneth Muir

In the gloom-laden and visually dazzling Outer Limits episode, “The Guests,” a leather-jacketed drifter named Wade (Geoffrey Horne) becomes trapped in the past both metaphorically and literally when he happens into an alien “brain” that has taken the form of an old Victorian mansion atop a hill. 

This strange, imposing edifice — which seems to occupy a space entirely outside the Laws of Physics — serves as  home to several strangers including a faded silent screen star, Florinda Patten (Gloria Graham), a Wall Street investment banker of questionable morality, Randall Latimer (Vaughn Taylor), and his gleefully diabolical and cruel wife, Ethel (Nellie Burt).  All these souls have been denizens in the alien house since at least 1928 and evidence surprisingly little interest in leaving it.

The hidden master of this dark old house is an inquisitive monstrosity: a quivering, gelatinous, luminescent thing from another dimension who seeks the “missing vector” or “missing quantity” that would permit him to better comprehend the human race. 

The emotionless, questing creature probes Wade’s mind several times and discovers at last the missing “one note in the symphony.” 

It is, simply, “love.” 

Specifically, Wade’s romantic, selfless attachment to another captive in the house, the beautiful Tess (Luana Anders), ultimately proves the factor that resolves the alien’s incomplete equation. And when Tess leaves the safe temporal “bubble” of the house, super-ages and dies in a matter of seconds to preserve Wade’s freedom, the house begins to shift back to the alien’s dimension. 

After escaping, Wade watches the alien brain fade away slowly into nothingness, and continues down the road…

Strange, unsettling and dominated by extreme camera angles that suggest early German expressionist cinema, “The Guests” is a daring and occasionally surreal entry in The Outer Limits canon.  Specifically, the Donald Sanford (Thriller) narrative is a deliberate and artful blending of literary movements, old and new.  The episode has widely and appropriately been described as “Gothic,” for instance, for its familiar horror and romantic flourishes, settings, and characters. 

At the same time, however, this episode of The Outer Limits also cannily mirrors the perspectives of the post-war, Beat Generation; particularly that movement’s dedicated opposition to modern warfare, military technology, and such middle class, bourgeoisie balms as leisure and material affluence.

The Gothic in “The Guests”

In terms of its Gothic influences, “The Guests” highlights a common setting in the genre: a house that appears to be haunted both by an external, self-organizing “supernatural” force and by the personal, individual secrets and sins of the human dwellers within.  Unlike Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), however, there’s no mad woman hiding in the attic, but rather a monster holding court in an upstairs bedroom. 

Furthermore, the character of Tess, who harbors a grotesque secret about her age and true physical appearance until “The Guest’s” last act, also recalls the attractive/repulsive romantic duality one might expect to find in such Gothic standards as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844). 

In both stories, scientific advancement transforms a young woman of pure innocence and beauty into something inhuman and grotesque.  In the case of “The Guests,” however, it is alien custodianship and the instantaneous passage of decades that is responsible for Tess’s final crone-like appearance, not the interference of her flawed, human, scientist father.

Most importantly, however, “The Guests” veritably obsesses upon the familiar Gothic trope of ancestral, historical sins cursing future generations.  Here, established and affluent American society is represented by the triumvirate of Randall, Ethel and Florinda.  Each one of these characters from the early 20th century is presented as being corrupt in some essential fashion. 

Randall was on his way to face legal charges for unethical behavior on Wall Street (shortly before the Great Depression…) when he was captured and waylaid by the brain. 

Ethel, Randall’s wife, makes verbal cruelty a sport and favorite pastime.  This is a commentary, perhaps, on the fact that, as an aristocrat’s wife, she has no other productive activity to contribute to the culture.  Idle hands make for the devil’s work. And for a forked tongue too.

And finally, Florinda is the living embodiment of vanity or self-love, hoping to retain her celebrity and youthful appearance for all time.  She is concerned only with herself, not the planet, and certainly not her fellow man. She is all about self-glorification and self-worship.

Importantly, only Wade — the Jack Kerouac-styled, Beat Generation drifter — can reveal to the alien being something positive and valuable about human nature; something not tethered to the institutions and established “ancestral” sins of the land and culture. 

In particular, Wade is willing to remain in the house out of love for a woman from a different time period, Tess. He is willing to put his freedom on the line, and even his mind itself. 

Beat Generation Philosophy in “The Guests”

In terms of its historical context, “The Guests” aired in 1964, only a few short years after the publication of such Beat Generation literary landmarks as William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) and Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl (1960), so perhaps it is no surprise that this new school of American philosophy would find prominence in at least one outing of this classic, literary-minded science fiction TV series.

By the time of The Outer Limits, the Beats were already morphing into “Beatniks” (and well on their way to becoming hippies by the end of the decade…), but still, this episode very adroitly keys in on such then-contemporary Beat Generation conventions as evil capitalists (the unscrupulous Latimer), the futility of war, and the heroic depiction of the protagonist Wade as one of the so-called “angel-headed hipsters” of Ginsberg.

Looking closely, at “The Guests,” one can discern how Beat Generation obsessions dominate the narrative.  When Wade is confronted with the Monster Upstairs, it dispassionately tallies for him the positives and negatives of the human condition.  Amongst the negative factors are fear and hatred, hopelessness and, importantly, war. 

One of the positive conditions is art. “Art could be mankind’s destiny,” the alien concludes. 

This is very much a Beat-styled assessment: that the individuality encompassed in art can lead man out of the dark, materialistic and militaristic mindset of American in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the epoch when President Dwight Eisenhower warned citizens about the increasing and dangerous influence of the military-industrial complex.

At least twice in “The Guests,” images of nuclear detonations – mushroom clouds — are also featured, and in one conversation with Tess, Wade expressly describes the horrible power of the atom bomb.   This imagery is reflective of Beat Generation anti-war sympathies and also an embodiment of Gothic sin; a sin grown from the American past that Wade has opted out of by becoming a drifter and taking his life “on the road.”

Considered in this light,  “The Guests” is very much a pitched battle between historical literary traditions, with the Gothic aspects representing a secretive, corrupt, even “monstrous” past, and the Beat movement representing a new hope of sorts; a new paradigm or outline for human happiness. 

For example, the people inside the scary old house attempt to forestall inevitable fate and live forever.  They knowingly defy “the forlorn rags of growing old,” a human eventuality which Kerouac considered the only certainty in life…and in the end they pay the price for their hubris, and for cheating nature.  

By contrast, the drifter, Wade, and his lover, Tess, embody the opposite impulse.  They each broach personal sacrifice, imprisonment and death for the possibility of the other’s happiness. This idea is very much the beginning of a Beat-styled “second religiousness” for Wade.  He realizes a better future can be forged on love and personal sacrifice, rather than on material wealth and warfare.

Visualizing “The Guests”

“The Guests” connection to Beat Generation writers actually extends beyond even a straight-forward interpretation of the episode’s theme or “message.”  The form of the episode — the visuals — reflect the content to a powerful degree.  The works of Beat Generation authors such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs are frequently described with adjectives such as “surreal,” “Dadaist” or simply “dream-like,” in part because these notorious authors were not shy in their use of illegal drugs to spur their sense of creativity.  

Accordingly, dream imagery and discussions of dream states permeate the “The Guests.”  At one point, Wade discusses how he feels as though he is “having a bad dream.”   He is also told that the alien will “control” his “dreams now” and that the alien has even “undreamed” the house’s windows and front door.

Finally, there’s even a discussion of “dreaming a life” or “living a dream,” and the distinction between those two descriptions.  But the point is that the visuals themselves are rather dream-like, or perhaps more aptly, nightmarish.

“The Guests” opens with expressive film techniques that nicely suggest a Gothic, traditional influence, in keeping with the story’s central locale.  When Wade first approaches the house/brain, director Paul Stanley’s camera views the man from inside a second-story window, through dangling curtains.  However, the curtains draw down mysteriously, falling around Wade in the frame and effectively squeezing out his space. This is a visual cue to suggest that Wade is walking into a trap, and the next shot – an ominous overhead, extreme-high-angle view of the haunted house’s Victorian foyer – takes that thought even further.

Eventually, such expressive, Gothic horror compositions give way to more avant-garde, surreal, modern, Beat Generation-styled ones.  While attempting to escape the house later in the episode, for example, Wade ventures into a seemingly infinite realm of darkness, one punctuated only by the occasional Greek column.  Here, there is no end and no beginning.  As viewers, we suspect that we have entered the corridors of the alien’s mind. 

“Interesting architecture?” asks one character in the drama, but that description hardly covers it.  Indeed, in the course of a half-hour, The Outer Limits goes from employing familiar Gothic, horror-styled visuals to surreal images instead. Doors appear without walls to support them.  Wade seems to walk on a path of light down a hallway of infinite dimensions. Interiors open mysteriously into exsterior graveyards, etc.

Perhaps because Donald S. Sanford’s story plants its feet for so long within the confines of that dark, old house, “The Guests” yet thrives as one of the mostly deeply unsettling and claustrophobic episodes of The Outer Limits pantheon.  From the first time that house on the hill appears, the episode aims for throat-tightening fear, and hits the target.  On the soundtrack, a weird, syncopated heart-beat rhythm plays — repetitious and ominous — a reflection of the evils trapped inside the edifice. 

Another frightening moment sees Wade dragged up a long, dark, shadowy staircase into the realm of the monster, entirely against his will, while the others watch…smiling at his misfortune.

Perhaps it is that moment of involuntary action that best reflects the point of this Outer Limits episode.  It is a point ably expressed in Tess’s final sacrificial act, and in the work of the Beat Poets.

Sometimes in life, we fear we are being dragged, helpless, out of control, towards a future we haven’t chosen for ourselves. 

But that’s the illusion we must battle, argues “The Guests.”   We can choose love over hate, individuality over conformity, and escape over imprisonment.  We can solve the human equation to our liking and not to the tune of tradition or convention.

After all, there’s a reason, this episode isn’t called “The Prisoners.”  In its clash of Gothic and Beat Generation aesthetics, “The Guests” reminds audiences how easy it is for humans to decorate even the most horrible cages to appear “acceptable.”   Here, Ethel, Latimer, Florinda and even Tess, for a time, opt to stay trapped in the known, but unsatisfactory past rather than countenance an unknown future.   

Many Outer Limits episodes are anti-war and pro-human in sentiment, but by marrying the terrors of Gothic expression to the criticisms and solutions of the contemporary Beat Generation, “The Guests” proves one of the most emotional, artistic and purely human of the series canon. 




John Kenneth Muir is the author of over twenty reference books about film and television, including award-winners Terror Television (1999), Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) and The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (2004).   John is also the creator and director of the independent science fiction web series The House Between, which was twice nominated (in 2008 and 2009) as “best web production of the year” by Sy Fy Portal and Airlock Alpha.  John blogs daily at Reflections on Film and TV, and his latest book is Music on Film: This is Spinal Tap (2010; Limelight Editions).

13 comments:

  1. Fascinating analysis, John. Interesting to note that OL's looking back somewhat to the "Beat Generation" was in actually looking forward to the anti-establishment '60s Hippie movement, which was just a few years away. The Tess/"Rappacchini's Daughter" connection is also a cool insight. BTW, always felt the absence of narration worked beautifully for an episode this peculiar... peculiar even for THE OUTER LIMITS!

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  2. Thanks for a very thoughtful and precise essay; a fascinating angle on this wonderful and resonant episode. Since Sanford denied any "deep, subtle meanings" as he called it, I guess we'll never know whether he arrived at a juncture of Beat and Gothic by direct route, or by simply wandering through his own subconscious (has ever a show evoked more surreality than OL?).

    Thanks for a terrific read!

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  3. Thank you both for commenting so thoughtfully on my piece concerning "The Guests."

    Gary Gerani: It is funny to think about, isn't it? The Outer Limits arriving after the Beat Generation but before the Hippies; sort of a time of neither/nor in the Counterculture, a time of relative calm between two storms. I also agree with you that "The Guests" works well without narration, in part because the visuals are so startling. You just don't need the words here, because the images we leave "The Guests" on are so powerful.

    Larry Blaimire: Thank you for the kind words as well. I would have loved to talk with Sanford about "The Guests" and get to the bottom of the story's genesis. What was the creative process that led him to this tale of souls trapped outside of time? Direct, or as you say, a wander "through his own subconscious?" I'd love to know; but either way I'm overjoyed that he gave us such a surreal and thoughtful marriage of the literary traditions of the Gothic and Beat poets.

    All my best to you both,
    John Kenneth Muir

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  4. As none other than George Carlin pointed out, if you were hip, then beatniks were passe by 1959 ... but that cultural time-keeping doesn't account for the percolation of Beat philosophy into commercial television storytelling. This makes the "On the Road" flavor of Wade more bold for the time, when the alternative was Maynard G. Krebs. Overall, a fascinating and thought-provoking perspective on this episode — one I don't think has ever been fully addressed until now.

    Interested parties are also referred to WILD WILD WEST's "Night of the Man-Eating House," by John Kneubuhl, for a slightly different spin on the basic idea.

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  5. Deeply intuitive analysis of a fascinating and complex episode, John, one that might too easily be dismissed by the short-sighted as pointlessly simplistic. ("What's the missing factor in the equation that might assure man of a hopeful destiny? LOVE, of course! Well, DUH...!")

    You could approach this stylish tale from a number of framework standpoints and not lose its message of individualism and self-determination being paramount: The Brain is an alien solving an intriguing puzzle; or a slumbering intellect assembling the factors of one; it's a god pondering judgment; or it's a troubled human dreamer---Wade himself, or another trying on his profile---conducting a surreal self-examination born of guilt.

    The gothic framework could be interpreted in many ways without compromising the richness of the clash of generational psyches you so persuasively propose.

    A prodigious piece of associational insight, John.

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  6. I have several of John Kenneth Muir's books and especially like the studies of such series as One Step Beyond, Doctor Who, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, Blake's Seven,etc. TERROR TELEVISION is a favorite of mine.

    But I especially want to draw attention to how valuable some of these "spotlights" and comments are in pointing out interesting themes. For instance, when I finished watching "The Guests", I thought it was good and an entertaining show. But thanks to spotlights like this one and the comments by all concerned, I'm rethinking my overall reaction and will have to watch this again because I now think it is more than just "good".

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  7. A fresh, welcome perspective on an episode that rewards contemplation, John. You illuminate how the convergence of two distinct periods in time (and two genres, for want of a better word) gives "The Guests" its depth and at least a portion of its uneasy edge, and I understand better why this one keeps me coming back. Bravo.

    The Outer Limits came at an amazing time in history, and the dissatisfaction with the old and impatience for something truly new come through strong here, as they do more obliquely in "The Chameleon"; the fact that Wade isn't decked out in the network-TV version of beatnik garb gives it credibility, as DJS points out, as does his disarming earnestness and restless charm. Knowing in hindsight what was coming culturally gives his exit in the last scene an extra dimension, and its tempting to think the artists responsible had a glimmer.

    At the very least, I have to wonder if Sanford (like Stefano) was in therapy at the time -- the upstairs creature's "sessions," which the guests fear yet also look forward to, are a grotesque, near-violent amplification of the process ("Bring your brain here!"). In that way the lack of Control Voice bookends is even more apt, as if to say, "You've had your 55 minutes, go make of it what you will."

    Anyway, thanks again for an insightful spotlight.

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  8. John--

    A compelling and insightful commentary. Your perspective actually helps dissect the collective brain of the folks that created this show and its main character during what historian John Margolis called "The Last Innocent Year - 1964."

    The character of Wade is something rather unusual for TOL-- a thoughtful, laid-back, sensitive sort that is remarkably free of angst, anger, and any trace of hostility. Instead, there's an ethereal, benign quality to him that I find intriguing, and Geoffrey Horne had EXACTLY the actor's temperament to bring these qualities to life. He's very much his own guy, but obviously not on a mission to tear the world apart; he "drifts" in an understated, contemplative and soulful way.

    The leather jacket, shades and vintage convertible neatly embody this inconspicuous crusader, caught, as you point out, in his own social/cultural/historic netherworld between '50's BEAT and 60's Hippie.
    And it's his instinctive kindness towards and concern for the ancient Burt Mustin that propels him into the netherworld of the brain-mansion, where the lyrical, surreal and deliberately paced drama unfolds.

    I just watched Horne in his screen debut in "River Kwai"; he was featured in John Willis' Screen World "Promising Personalities" of 1957; too bad he never really reached his potential in films. (Incidentally, I have very few problems with the much-maligned TZ "The Gift" in which he stars, an episode whose merits FAR outweigh its liabilities, in my opinion).

    Again, thanks for a fascinating read.

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  9. Thank you John. A very interesting analysis. So Much food for thought in this episode. I had never thought of it in it's cultural/ historical context that you point out here. It seems to mean many different things to different people. Despite the best efforts of other OL's, none seem to be able to quite dislodge The Guests as my favourite.

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  10. Hello everyone,

    I love reading these comments, as you all bring new insights and vast experience to analyzing The Outer Limits, and a reading of this singular episode, "The Guests."

    Most of all, however, I am truly thrilled to have found kindred spirits who enjoy this episode as much as I do. "The Guests" isn't a "signature" or "trademark" OL episode in any traditional sense, but I believe it is one of the top 5 in the canon, as some commenters suggested yesterday.

    Between the tense heart-beat music, the clash of generations, and the surreal visuals (not to mention claustrophobic interior space...), "The Guests" really strikes on all cylinders; at least for me. I often wish more TV could be this daring, or off the beaten path.

    Thank you for all contributing your own spotlights to this one.

    best,
    John K. Muir

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  11. I had some visions of this episode from when I was a child in the 70's, but I had thought it was a movie. I asked elsewhere and was told it was OL The Guests. I verified the response was correct. I must have caught a rerun - couldn't have seen it in 64. Anyway, a long mystery solved.

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  12. Regarding the voices in the cemetery. Several words from one man, the last two words are "creature upstairs". Were they talking about shooting the shots for the creature scene upstairs? The first two words sound like "crawling thing" but are not quite that. The words may actually be a name of someone. Can anyone else listen to it and tell?

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  13. I'm glad someone has commented on the voices in the cemetary, even though I'm still as unsure of what's being said as I was before. I'd like to listen again, though.

    I have my own version of a "Thought it was a movie; caught it as a rerun," which is Forms of Things Unknown. I saw the murder scene late one night, and assuned it was a spooky MOVIE.

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