Friday, March 4, 2011

Spotlight on "Cry of Silence"

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.

TEASER:
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…

ACT 1:
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…

ACT 2:
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!

ACT 3:
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! 

ACT 4:
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?

SUMMATION:
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.

13 comments:

  1. Superb commentary, Gary. I'm compelled to bump my gyrating frogs up to TWO for the episode. You attuned my sensibilities to some easy-to-overlook qualities in this visually literal, and thus hard to take serious, story.

    Arthur Hunnicutt's gradual dislodgement from reality is, upon further consideration, a nicely measured performance, the revelation kind of submerged under the generally frantic tone set by the Thornes. And his approaching footsteps do provide a classically eerie "What's coming?" moment, albeit we're pretty sure what we're going to see.

    Too jaded a view, perhaps? That's the years---and a lot of shrill movie-viewing---piling up.

    I'll have to concede that the diary's "I yield" is probably enough evidence that Lamont has indeed spent a subtly horrifying time alone in that farmhouse, trying to resist the entity's attempts to enter his mind. I hadn't been able to accept this business of his fending off the alien's consciousness-probing, as off-handedly referenced by Andy. (But it's still hard to reconcile the diary's diction with Lamont's spoken expression.)

    That adds to the tragedy, doesn't it? The fact that Lamont suffered alone against the thing's incursion attempts, and yet it would have meant nothing for him to submit, as we learn when Andy's communication attempt comes up empty.

    The "altered physics" is also an easy point to dismiss as incidental: the fire and water effects. But what does it all mean? Would any future attempts to communicate with this alien also be doomed from ever being consummated? Are our physical forms the "matter" to their "anti-matter"---mutually exclusive?

    Good thing Karen didn't splash water on Andy to try to snap him out of his trance, eh? Or give him a hotfoot...

    Your never fail to provide fresh insights and food for thought, Gary. That's one of the beautiful things about these genres we frequent. Approaching them from different angles and perspectives is like discovering new dimensions.

    Thanks for being our guide on this trip.

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  2. You're so welcome, Ted! I actually found the chemistry between Karen Thorne (sensitive, intuitive, highly emotional) and Andy (aggressively pragmatic and logical) to be rather charming -- one completes the other. Although he's the dependable "voice of reason" we admire, she happens to be right most of the time, at least in the beginning. Which is why we stop and think about Lamont when her sixth sense tells her there's something wrong with this man, something "off" that goes beyond the horror he's telling them about. Has this obviously educated farmer sold his soul to the devil, so to speak, because he sacrificed himself, his dignity, his wife, ultimately his freedom, to that mysterious Whatever-It-Is out here? Was he punished along the way because, in spite of all this compliance, he eventually, reflexively resisted? I believe that's why Dennis' script calls attention to the difference between his eloquent diary entries and his current, more limited style of expression. It should be mentioned that Karen is extremely kind to him and genuinely concerned about his survival in Act 3; whatever self-destructive "sin" he may have committed aside, he's a decent person who came to the Thorne's rescue, and she certainly gets that. Again, a positive microcosm of humanity, all three of them, held in the desperate grip of curious extraterrestrials who simply want to reach out and spread the Truth of the cosmos as far as they can. Interesting stuff, especially for 1964 television...

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  3. Sigh. I meant (line 10) Whatever-It-Is out there, not here. Fumbling fingers strike again!

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  4. The most interesting reflection in your addendum is the idea that Karen is even thinking about demonic possession, or deals with the devil. That probably is the resonance Dennis was hoping for---an alternative possibility for the audience to ponder. But we, the viewers, bring a confident preconceived notion that no such animal can exist on TOL, and thus we sabotage this nuance.

    Our own expectations dilute what might have been a more ambiguous, more suspenseful mystery. Did anyone watching even entertain the possibility that Karen might be onto something when she evoked the Devil?

    Suppose TOL had once done a show with actual hidebound traditional demons. Would "Cry of Silence" played differently? Would Karen have begged Andy not to try to communicate with whatever "It" was, just in case?

    True, then you don't have THE OUTER LIMITS, theoretically. But shows have broken with their mission statement on rare occasions before---Perry Mason lost a few cases. And to translate it into more juvenile terms, would it have warped kids---or quickened their imaginations---if just once there'd been an actual supernatural menace on SCOOBY DOO?

    Am I really talking SCOOBY DOO on the WACT blog? See where free-association of ideas can lead?

    It's your fault, Gary, for raising such intriguing notions.

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  5. Okay, I want to see THAT show.

    Gary, you've described to perfection the (creepy, riveting, resonating) show I always WANT to see every time I've watched "Cry of Silence". But then it starts and I succumb to the limp direction and June cries havoc and I end up enjoying it for all the wrong (as intended) reasons.

    But you just did a great radio version (where the show may have better flourished), and here once again I enjoy the writing in these excellent Spotlights.

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  6. Ted: Karen literally uses the term "it's like he's made a deal with the devil" when she discusses Lamont with Andy that night. But I never got the impression that Karen was some kind of religious obsessive who might see infernal evil in the mystery that's engulfing them, where none really exists -- we'll leave that to Sara Shane, who correctly senses the cosmic Devil that is actually present in her house (wake up and smell the brimstone!). In this case, that "deal" Karen speaks of seems to mean willing human subjugation, a form of self-suicide perhaps - that strikes her as morally wrong. Lamont's diary written with classical, pseudo-religious phrasing seems to certify this personal act of "blasphemy," whatever it may have been. The farmer's wife tearing away so enigmatically is also mixed up in all this. But there is no "devil" entity in this particular S2 OL entry; Karen's pretty sharp and realistic about what they're going through given all that palpable apprehension, and even game when her husband puts himself through the final test...

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  7. Larry B: What can one say? We all see things a bit differently; then we compare notes, do some additional thinking, and who knows. What I find fascinating here is the notion of what is "good" direction and what is "lame." We all have our opinions. For me, any hour drama that holds my interest from beginning to end can't possibly be ineptly directed, since the director is responsible for story development, pacing, performance -- everything, really. As mentioned, I believe Mr. Haas looked at this material and said, "We need to do two things here... Create a sense of fear and isolation, but not go berserk with fancy angles or smart-ass compositions, because this offbeat 'threat' is actually benign, not inherently evil. We need to convey that in our style of coverage, a very subtle wink that it's our own fear that is magnifying this terror, while still keeping the situation creepy in general. Smartest and cleanest way to do this is to just cover the event straightforwardly, like a simple "you are there" experience." You know, I've always had a theory that the all-important tone of a film emanates from the id of the main character. For "Corpus Earthling," the flavor was an extension of Robert Culp's sweat-soaked paranoia, resulting in grandiose, distorted, feverdream images that are certainly visually exciting and artistically satisfying. For "Cry of Silence," it's Andy Thorne's logical, fully-balanced, ultra-rational persona that determines the film's tone, mixed perhaps with elements of Karen's primal apprehension. But shooting this episode like "Corpus Earthling" would actually be a betrayal of the material, no matter how much we cherish those exotic compositions and lighting effects. As mentioned at the beginning of my essay, sometimes less is more... an approach that, at least as far as I can tell, happens to be ideal for the personal, earnest little scary tale we have here.

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  8. Self-suicide? Did I really say that? Let's change that to pseudo-suicide, so a certain writer can (ahem) live with himself...

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  9. Excellent write-up Gary, actually makes me want to watch it again! And the above discussion with Ted further adds to it. So far I've read DJS' article (not printed here so far) about the writing of the The Companion', then Ted and Jeffrey's extensive Tavern conversations on the illustrated review and the book. I do hope you pop into the tavern and spill the beans on 'Fantastic Television' and how came about in those primitive days....

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  10. I second Bobby Josson's request for a fuller disclosure of the circumstances of young Gary Gerani's creation of his seminal FANTASTIC TELEVISION! You know, we met just about the time it was released, yet I've never heard much from you about the singular passion and drive that led to its writing. I find it a useful guide to this day---more. To echo my feelings from the OL TAVERN interview, I think of it as a "defibrillator for old TV passions"!

    And that's one beautifully concise summation of form following function, apropos of the precise description of a director's work, one of the best I've seen, as far as demystifying the widely held vague notions of what a director does. He's like the conductor of an orchestra (a Larry Rapchak clone, if you wish!). In most cases he doesn't PLAY the instruments or compose the score. But he interprets the music (script) and affects the performance of each individual (cast and crew member) with his instructions and stresses.

    Here Haas' choice, you're saying, was "All right, folks, we're not doing a spook show with this one---though its elements are scary enough---but rather a soberingly compassionate look at the tragedy of high-stakes communication breakdown. We're going for naturalism, not the surreal, here."

    An elaborating comment in the thread that's as valuable as the Spotlight itself, Gary.

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  11. Gary, I completely agree about the "Corpus Earthling" approach (or any of S1's wilder expressionism) being quite inappropriate here. What I would hope for is something of the taut direction so prevalent in a very "you are there" series like COMBAT--still straightforward, still "naturalism" as Ted says.

    Even so, I still find this one of S2's more enjoyable shows, and I was thoroughly fascinated by your vivid analysis.

    We'll just have to agree to not undisagree. Remember, I'm the guy who finds resonance in "Expanding Human, Hidden Tiger"!

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  12. Larry B---

    You mean "Expanding Cheekbones, Hidden Homeier"?

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  13. Greetings-- wish to thank you all for this look at 'Silence' and teaching me to appreciate an episode I have TRIED to like but always slogged through--until now. I'm house-sitting while awaiting college admission, and full screen sets with FULL CABLE are everywhere here--I can't study now if I wanted to. THIS TV is serving up OL and its magnificent on full screen! Tonight 'Cry' came on and instead of watching it I ran up to the computer to read you'all. Now I miss it --but never again. Next time, I'll fully appreciate "Cry of Silence". Thanks!!!

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