by Gary Gerani
Sometimes less is more.
Take a couple of frightened characters, isolate them in a daunting location, and allow the sun to set. In no time we’re in a primal fear zone like no other, a place we recognize from our nightmares (the better ones, anyway), recalling our childhood terror of the dark and the nameless monsters we’re convinced inhabit it. “Pigeons from Hell” was all about such unseen yet palpable horrors, both in short story form and as a classic episode of NBC’s THRILLER. OL’s “Corpus Earthling” also found its way into this somewhat specialized terror-tory, at least for most of the episode’s second half. With “Cry of Silence,” Season Two producer Ben Brady offered his own take on this particular scary tale approach, merging it with a legitimate, intriguing science fiction premise as simple as the fear it inadvertently inspires. The result is an OL episode like no other, closer in feel to a well-crafted radio play one might listen to in a darkened room on a rainy night… provided one had the nerve.
Of course, to let a story like this work its magic freely, we viewers first have to deal with two highly superficial obstacles: alien-possessed tumbleweeds, like malevolent talking rocks, play like outrageous self-parody to certain audiences members – OL’s need for ongoing et threats admittedly pushed the show into some pretty far-out concepts. The second obstacle is even more arbitrary, and perhaps even more difficult for some folks to reckon with. Eddie Albert (as city-bred protagonist Andy) and wife June Havoc (Gypsy Rose Lee’s actress sister) can’t help but be compared to the equally urban Oliver (or “Ol-LIV-a”) and Eva Gabor (sister of Zsa Zsa Gabor) from television’s wildly popular GREEN ACRES series, which premiered just a couple of years later. When Andy tells his rattled wife Karen that he’ll “give up that idea of buying a farm,” a howl of laughter is virtually guaranteed from any TV fan who grew up during this era.
But again, these are superficial problems. “Cry of Silence,” like “Wolf 359,” uses spooky plot developments and ultimately sense-of-wonder revelations to mystify and captivate its audience. Director Charlie Haas’ visual style is effective but smartly neutral, never interfering with the simple “you are there” sensibilities that give this tale its raw power. Moreover, this is an entirely logical and rather sophisticated approach to such material, because the episode “knows” the alien force is benign way before the protagonists even begin to suspect what’s going on. None of these creative choices interfere with “Silence” registering as a first-class chill-fest from beginning to end, however, and darkly laconic Arthur Hunnicutt, the eventual third member of this show’s mini-cast, only adds to the frightening atmosphere.
Urbanites Andy and Karen innocently venture down the canyon road, right after witnessing a pick-up truck tearing away in the opposite direction. We never quite learn who it was who managed to escape “imprisonment,” although Karen later speculates that it was Lamont’s desperate wife, spoken about a couple of acts later. Whatever… It’s an eerie, portentous beginning for this story, as the unsuspecting married couple run over some rolling tumbleweeds and begin their fateful journey…
Interestingly, high-strung Karen begins to “feel” the alien intelligence before anything of significance happens, setting her up as someone with intuitive gifts (she’s also a bit of a stumblebum, almost instantly falling into a ravine and spraining her leg). But hey, this allows for her and hubby to spend the night surrounded by mysterious, menacing tumbleweeds, kept at bay by a weakening campfire and Andy’s rocksteady confidence. Even so, things get a little dicey, especially when Andy is actually attacked after grabbing one of the tumblers (“How do you animate a dead weed?” he logically shouts, more dumbfounded than scared). But that’s okay… Karen’s scared enough for both of them. There is some nice primal terror stuff going on here… Tumbleweeds, like frogs, may be laughable out of context, but the Project Unlimited team manages to move them about convincing, and they promptly form a formidable wall that surrounds their human ‘victims.’ When Farmer Lamont arrives, in silhouette with a flashlight, the tension is not dissipated, but actually increased. “They don’t burn like ordinary weeds,” he informs trapped Andy and Karen (true enough; we’ve actually seen them explode upon contact with fire). But like ancient monsters of legend, these things are driven back by fire, and the trio manages to escape from this potentially deadly massing…
Escape is a relative term, of course. Back at Lamont’s isolated farm, he informs his shaken guests that they’re all trapped in the canyon, prisoners of the strange foliage. As a matter of fact, everything Lamont says in this scene is alternately fascinating and terrifying (“What a horror!” Andy concludes). The first hint of science fiction is introduced when the farmer talks about “that strange object that streaked across the sky a couple of weeks back,” not a meteorite, as we’ll later learn, but the probing alien intelligence making a soft landing on Earth. An interesting bit of business that doesn’t go anywhere specific is Karen’s distrust of spooky Lamont, reinforced by his fascinating diary entries, which she reads aloud (“An educated man wrote this, not some mountain hillbilly” she deduces). What emerges is a portrait of a man losing his mind, perhaps his soul, as the mysterious power about him grows stronger with each passing day. “I yield,” he writes plaintively, desperately; yet Lamont still resists the ultimate takeover, perhaps on reflex, which will eventually prove his undoing. Meanwhile… Lo and behold! The tumbleweeds seem to be gone! But before Andy and Karen get very far, they’re assaulted by waves of leaping frogs (a few cool shots here, along with some embarrassing ones), and are forced back into the house. When Andy places one of these creatures in a pan of water, it dissolves, once again illustrating how this “force” defies Earthly physics. Briefly trapped outside, terrified Lamont stumbles back in, more unhinged than ever, rocking away in his chair as he blathers something about “a million mad frogs!” What a horror, indeed!
Somehow, our couple manages to endure this harrowing night, and in the morning, they’re amazed to find that the frogs have disappeared, just like the tumbleweeds. Armed with “fire and water” for protection, and with a walking but vacant Lamont in tow, they actually get within sight of their car before the next bizarre assault is launched: this time it’s cascading boulders, preventing them from leaving and striking Lamont dead in the process. “At least act like you’ve got intelligence!” Andy shouts to whatever’s out there, frustrated and angry. But the boulders just keep rolling at them threateningly, until husband and wife have no other choice than to return to Lamont’s farm. Once again, that all-important diary provides some clues, even as the house is battered relentlessly by powerful rocks. Finally, only a trickle of sound is heard… but instead of providing relief, this leads to a most terrifying revelation: “It’s coming for us, now!” gasps Karen. And indeed “it” is. The trickle of sound solidifies into footsteps. Is it possible that the alien intelligence has somehow congealed into a humanoid entity, who even now walks methodically to the front door and turns the knob? All it takes is fundamental coverage (generally what director Charles Haas gives us throughout) to make this key dramatic moment supremely terrifying – close-ups of the door and knob, reaction shots of Andy and Karen. When the door finally does open, it’s the familiar figure of Lamont who walks into the room and sits in his favorite chair. But that vacant stare and Lubin’s OL theme remind us that – dear God – Lamont is actually dead, killed by one of those energized rocks during the escape attempt. “Andy… what is it?!” Karen shouts, understandably freaked. It’s a zombie, Karen, an animated dead man – and truly one helluva frightening way to end Act 3!
Although having a living dead person sitting in the kitchen is a tad unnerving, that doesn’t stop Andy from hitting on a notion that practically makes him giddy with anticipation – the diary! What if the alien intelligence within Lamont can express itself through his writing? Even as audience members, we feel Andy’s excitement at this sudden idea, mostly because it actually seems plausible. Unfortunately, these written expressions are conveyed in the alien’s own language, a brief series of strange symbols that don’t repeat… and then rigor mortis sets in. Still, it was a smart idea, and before long Andy accepts the inevitable: he must allow his own, living mind to become blank, so that the alien has a legitimate vessel of expression. When this happens in the climax, we finally hear “the other side”… and the results are pretty amazing. We get a portrait of desperate, frustrated space travelers trying in vain to connect with us – Albert the actor really lets himself go here, painfully channeling the Entity’s sorrowful thoughts. This super-threat is really no threat at all, but a benevolent form of life desperate to make contact. Having failed in its goal after traveling countless light years to get here it finally just gives up, as it must, hoping against hope that some racial memory of its visit will remain (“This…is the only flag we can plant…as we depart,” groans the discouraged alien within Andy). Wow. We actually feel sorry for the thing, realizing at long last that it’s only real “sin” was a rather awkward attempt to reach our species any way it could. As Andy and Karen make their way from the farm to their car, the story ends with a sad, memorable line that sums up the experience quite well: it’ll only take this husband and wife a few hours to reach home. But just how far will these disappointed aliens have to travel before they feel the comfort of familiarity again?
For a suspense tale involving high terror, imprisonment and death, there is no actual “bad guy” in “Cry of Silence,” which is both fascinating and refreshing. All the principal characters, human or otherwise, are decent, in many ways admirable seekers of truth. “What we have here… is failure to communicate,” pretty much says it all, with apologies to COOL HAND LUKE. But while Andy correctly sums up this failure as a “tragedy” for both sides, it’s also a strange kind of victory. Albert’s character and the Entity were really very much alike: determined, resourceful, courageous… and finally heartbroken that contact simply couldn’t be made, in spite of everyone’s best efforts. But a kinship of sorts was established, if distantly, and perhaps someday the alien’s dream-wish will indeed be fulfilled. Hope trumps fear in the end.
Working with very little, “Cry of Silence” accomplishes much. Eddie Albert is a wonderful actor, having given first-rate turns in movies since the 1930s. Sure, Andy’s probably a little too much on top of the situation (being an engineer doesn’t hurt, but still…) and maybe June Havoc’s performance is a tad on the hysterical side (though she’s never less than convincing, as she was in her most famous movie role back in 1947, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT). Bottom line? This humble and earnest scary tale amounts to a most impressive S2 episode, partially because we feel genuinely sorry that this well-intentioned attempt to connect with another species simply didn’t work. In the meantime, that harrowing day and night in the wide open spaces will never be forgotten, by a certain city couple and us TV viewers. Good show, Mr. Brady.