By Ted Rypel
Well, here’s the Season 2 episode we’ve all been waiting for. No doubt the Comment thread preceding this Spotlight will have provided ample corroboration. The film will likely rank as the consensus best of the season and land on most viewers’ top ten lists for the entire series.
That seems to be an almost universal phenomenon with “Demon.” So out of curiosity I checked the episode’s ranking on IMDb: 9.2/10. Easily the best in the series and remarkably high for any film ranking on the site. In fact, STAR WARS and CASABLANCA, tied at 8.8/10, shared the highest theatrical film ranking I could find in a brief random sampling of several all-time standard-bearers! Highly subjective and unscientific judgments, to be sure, but they must mean something in terms of viewer esteem.
So why is “Demon” the—gulp!—possibly highest ranked movie of all time among those disposed to register considered opinions—or knee-jerk reactions—in a facile public forum?
Because within accepted media and budgetary limitations, and allowing for stylistic conventions and the much-bandied, yet always valid, “suspension of disbelief,” it’s arguably a nearly perfect presentation, at least within the parameters of what it was supposed to deliver. And those for whom it was intended—the sf community—seem to apprehend and appreciate what a circus catch of lightning in a bottle it really was.
To an impoverished show with its death-march ticket virtually punched, Harlan Ellison returned with his force-of-nature dynamism and delivered a truly brilliant, award-winning script. We had seen them before from TOL, but this one was plucked from a rarefied branch of that Tree of Imagination. It managed to synthesize high-concept ideas, telling details, and a brand of kinetic motion and energy that had never been a hallmark of the otherwise first-rate show.
(And you’ve gotta love Ellison’s devilish touch, chronicled by David J. Schow in the COMPANION, of throwing the network suits a crumb by using the hyperbolic attribution “Demon” in the title, satisfying their witless bear-lust with a backhand gesture, as simple as using reverse psychology on a child.)
The story is a marvel of layered dramatic problems: Alien invasion of a future Earth that spills through a time mirror into our day, like two battling behemoths crashing through your front door (conceptually echoing, as its launching pad, the climax of “Soldier”). A claustrophobic arena established in an urban building surrounded by a force field. A single heroic figure, not only pitted against impossible odds but also responsible for the lives of all of future humanity—an amnesiac hero, to boot (so fashionable in today’s pop culture). And a single frightened woman snared by the barbed frenzy of a violent pursuit situation, who ends up providing far more support than calculated emotional baggage.
Now that’s a riveting story in any genre. High-stakes sf-noir.
In an earlier post, Gary Gerani referenced the territory we’d be getting into here, mentioning Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), an American P.I. on another planet in a thinly veneered future in Jean-Luc Godard’s ALPHAVILLE, a year or so after “Demon.” Crime and suspense tropes are present there, as here, in perhaps more of a social science-fiction framework (the standard, lip-service interpersonal greeting, all in one gulp: “I’m very well, thank you, you’re welcome”). In 1970, Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE would chillingly record the dark tenor of a back-alley violent future. But neither would dangle the jackpot of human obliteration we see hanging in the balance here.
In “Demon” we get the whole package in a little nuclear firestorm. The story blasts out of the starting blocks and hurtles toward its climax, revealing its details, jolt upon jolt, at the dead run. You can practically feel the enthusiastic labor of the cast and crew sweating off the screen in this skillful balance of ideas, artistry and action.
The economic necessity of corralling Ellison’s original plan for a cross-country chase into his “verticality” brainstorm—keeping the action in a single high-rise office building—proved a fruitful accommodation. “Demon” is a reasonable precursor to the whole DIE HARD sub-genre, with its display of nerve-wracking suspense possibilities within a modern building’s infrastructure.
The characters in “Demon” are memorable in design and realization. Robert Culp is completely convincing as the beleaguered Trent, with his pleasant features turned earnestly vulnerable by that wounded expression, his brow furrowing, jaw clenched against the oppressive moment. There’s a dreadful immediacy to all his quick, athletic, tense movements in the film. He’s so convincing in action (which would of course serve him well in the coming I SPY series). This episode is, on the one hand, this season’s “Forms of Things Unknown,” and on the other the culmination of Culp’s TOL involvement---the paranoia of “Corpus Earthling” galvanized by the identity confusion of “Architects” into an explosion of directed fury.
Future STAR TREK alumna Arline Martel compels your sympathies with her honest and earthy portrayal of a lonely, hard-working woman swept up in a conflict beyond her ken, attracted to a man who is, by turns, frightening, then vulnerable, and ultimately heartbreaking. In a stark betrayal whose unique, unanticipated circumstances are beyond control, Consuelo and Trent are seen to have flipped their attitudes in an unusual resolution of both character arcs at once.
You can’t say enough about how different this episode looks, in terms of movement and energy. Much of that owes to the squad of fine stunt players, employed in greater force than we’re accustomed to seeing on TOL. Most of them portray the Kyben invaders, on their suicidal mission to retrieve Trent’s computer hand. They perform like their boldly belligerent (or, in the case of Arch, impudent) names: Battle, Breech, and Budge. One can readily imagine an invasion force from another world, eager to strike fear in the hearts of humans, adopting such aggressive monikers once they’ve assumed human form for the sake of convenience.
We’re not privy to the Kyben’s normal physical form, but their need to change to something climate/terrain appropriate, time-travel facilitating, and threatening to humans might explain their very choice in nuance of appearance. Might they not have acquainted themselves sufficiently with human culture to understand its scary tropes? They affect villainous black garb, with tight service caps (concealing what, perhaps?) reminiscent of the slavish workers’ headwear in METROPOLIS. Some Kyben are nylon-masked, like freakish bank robbers; all have darkly circled eyes. Assuming the latter wasn’t from passing around one of those “naughty” peep-show gags, I would posit that they were very consciously adopting human pop-culture shorthand for intimidating appearance. A thousand years from now, wouldn’t black eyes still signify scrappy toughness? Apparently humans will still look the same, if Trent was fashioned in their image.
Harry Lubin’s musical score for this episode is very modern, jazzy in spots, and displays considerable variety. We get creeping woodwinds, ominous tympani, rolling organ fills, shards of scampering piano notes, some stabbing phrases actually punctuating the action. (This last reminded me a bit, at least in principle, of Carmen Dragon’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS score—all these observations, of course, rendered by a non-musically trained music lover. I’d like to hear Larry Rapchak’s specific observations about this score, and perhaps we will or already have.)
Let’s skim this whip-cracking, lean narrative to sketch out how it works its storyboard magic:
After an establishing high-angle stock shot of city streets, we’re treated to the stark beauty of the most self-consciously arty shot in the film: Culp, trapped in the expressionistic prison-bar shadows of “Caligari Alley,” menaced by a silhouetted stalker. “Talk to the hand” takes on a new meaning:
“The hand, my…hand told me what to do”---and that it can tell him more only if he can obtain its three missing finger-lobes.
What follows is a thoroughly fascinating “exposition by crucifixion” scene. Our hero ambushes a Kyben named Breech and lashes him to an iron gate, beyond which we can discern what looks like the scrub of a wasteland. We learn that his name is Trent, and in a mind-swarming rush, we gobble an enormous amount of background about the Kyben War, the time mirror, the medallions, force-fields, the missing 70 billion future humans—all of it gripping and efficiently rendered, the amnesiac Trent requiring the exposition quite as naturally as we do.
“I can’t stand pain.” Breech’s unusual craven villain remark leaves an impression of vulnerability in these vicious aliens. But they’re an entire armed force against one man. And they’re desperate to take his glass hand and its secret knowledge. This is some narrative sendoff.
We witness the first shimmering disintegration—a blanching burst of positive energy in the gloom—as Trent dispatches Breech by yanking off his medallion. Then he’s at the “Dixon” Building, a timeworn, leaking edifice, the perfect unobtrusive hideout for seedy businesses, or aliens concealing genocidal purposes and facilitating time mirrors. “You’re the Last Hope of Humanity,” the hand tells him. He enters the building with feline caution, but his presence is noted at once. Arch, the Kyben leader, played by British character actor Abraham Sofaer (TZ, ST, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH), welcomes him from the shadows in a mocking voice full of cultured arrogance and complacent aggression: “[We want] yoooou, Mr. Trent!”
Trent is immediately engaged in a gun battle with a stocking-masked Kyben, whom he kills, offering us a nifty dummy-drop shot down a stairwell. Then Trent seeks cover by breaking into a grimy office, where he meets his lone ally—Consuelo, who can only react to the chaotic shooting and the confronting gunman with a genuinely felt “Don’t kill me!”
I always get a kick out of the first scene in Act 2. Culp, with palpable fear in his voice, tries desperately to calm the terrified woman as he clamps her mouth shut with the now-gloved glass hand. When he removes the hand, Martel’s mouth is sort of vacu-formed into an unnatural shape. Now that’s Method acting! Watch for it.
There’s some wonderful dialogue here, concerning attitudes, human and Kyben, toward violence and war. We learn just enough of Consuelo’s feelings to grasp her abject distaste for what she’s been dragged into. A nice “dawning moment” played out by Culp as Trent seems to realize his own name for the very first time—he knows little that the hand or the Kyben haven’t told him. And then Battle comes to in time to share a verbal grudge match over the horrors of war and “Kyben…superpatriots.” Trent discovers that Arch has one of the three missing fingers to the hand, while the other two are still in the future.
When Battle breaks loose and warns Arch and the others, Trent and Consuelo make tracks up to a higher level, chased by yapping piano chords. Consuelo goggles to hear the glass hand speak for the first time, its glove removed, but we all double-clutch at the next brilliant plot device, as the computer voice advises the trapped Trent to “let them kill you!” He does. (At this suspenseful turn of events, I am sometimes compelled to wonder at the Kyben choice of 20th-century handguns and can only speculate that they feared damage to the glass hand, should they use anything more powerful. It hardly matters, though, when a story is this compelling—the crux of Joe Stefano’s own dramatic-truth-trumps-fastidious-realism m.o.)
“He’s dead—very dead.” And so Arch plugs in the first missing finger.
A bit of awkwardly intrusive exposition occurs here as Trent’s body reposes on a table before the kneeling Consuelo. Arch and a cohort rationalize keeping the woman alive, for our ears mostly, but it’s excusable in view of the stylish visual presentation as a silhouetted dialogue. Consuelo prays—and the hand answers: “You can save yourself.” A defiant challenge to the efficacy of prayer that was borderline daring in the ‘60s. The whole revival procedure, with the bio-sign readings and Trent’s slight disorientation (check his dilated pupils when he first opens his eyes—this, to me, was the first clue that he was a robot, more than the actual revival) is nicely staged. It was here that I first clearly recognized that it was Culp’s voice-over, clipped and mock-Brit, for the computer hand.
Nice efficiency here: The hand tells Trent that Durn has come through with another lobe of the hand. Martial tympani ushers him out in pursuit. He’s jumped by Durn but saved by his newly committed ally, Consuelo, who zaps the Kyben back after he’s affixed the second finger. Beautiful pacing. The positioning change on Martel is pronounced, during the disintegration effect. You’d never notice it the first time, Durn lighting up the frame as he prepares to stomp the downed Trent.
The second finger-lobe enables the computer hand to spill more here: the radioactive plague to destroy the Kyben, the translation of 70 billion future humans into electrical impulses on a “wire”—“a commonplace means of preserving life,” in the future. But where’s the wire? Trent relates, tellingly, “To save all of man, I have to become a killer.” Consuelo commiserates, asks when he slept last. His admission that he never seems to tire is the second big clue. And now Consuelo reveals her dawning love, which he rejects with a melancholy regret: “I’m not in love.” So poignant an exchange, as Haskin repeatedly captures starlights in Martel’s eyes.
The last finger is coming through, and Trent must intercept it. Following the sadly broken-off kiss attempt, in a neat reversal of the usual suicidal circumstance, Ellison has Trent talk Consuelo into climbing out on a building ledge! He will “try to beat the devil.”
Trent quickly tracks down Arch, subdues him, and torments him about the terrible physics of “snapping back” to the future. A delicious moment of comeuppance. Obtaining the location of the time mirror, Trent “sends him up,” this time off camera—Haskin steers our attention to the vindictive reaction that informs Culp’s features. Slickly impersonating Arch’s accent, Trent fools Battle into thinking the leader is on his way to meet Bonn, who brings the final finger.
I question, at this point, whether the Kyben would brazenly shout their intelligence across the echoing atrium. A minor quibble that’s quickly snuffed in a blaze of frenzied action.
Trent sneaks into a back door of the office commandeered by several Kyben (underscored by classic TOL lab sounds). He overhears the news of Kyben Budge, about the devastating radioactive plague. Bonn comes through the time machine—which we finally see operating as, basically, a tightly-framed funhouse mirror distortion. Trent makes his move in an electrifying (literally) assault that leaves all but two of the Kyben dead and the time mirror’s console destroyed. Budge grabs the last finger and bolts from the office, very cleverly dropping the lobe down the mail chute—splendid use of the location’s incidentals-—and then racing Trent, elevator vs. stairs, to the ground floor (a better race, to be sure, than in “The Special One”).
The captivating climactic fight takes us down to the lobby, then back up to the storage level, and finally smashes us through the storage window, where a frantic Consuelo helps the embattled Trent dispatch the last two Kyben. Amazingly well designed and choreographed, crisply edited, with a nice set-up thrown in of Culp crouched in the rafters, plugging in the final finger-lobe, before ambushing a Kyben.
Of course, “ask the hand,” now that it’s complete, and ye shall receive the grim news that thou art the “Guardian of the human race,” for about the next 1200 years—but, alas, not a human. A lonely job. And now Trent is in need of companionship, while love-struck Consuelo can only recoil in disillusionment. With a tale to keep in her heart, for who would believe it? The camera pulls back from Trent for his final forlorn climb to where he stands gazing upward, the weight of his millennial burden crushing that portion of the robot’s sentience fashioned after his makers’.
We talk about the “suspension of disbelief.” By this we mean cutting a production some slack, making allowances for stage conventions and stylization, economical production design, lack of FX budget. We lend our imaginations in trusting partnership with a well-told story. Theater has counted on this arrangement for millennia. Cerebral but frugal film confections—like DR. WHO, for example—have traded successfully on fans’ generous fancies for decades. Unfortunately, a lot of arrant kitsch plea bargains for suspension of disbelief, as well. And we’re not obliged to grant the legions of ineptitude lined up behind ROBOT MONSTER and THE CREEPING TERROR any more than funny-bone forgiveness for a wacky good time.
On the other end of the spectrum, an intentionally stylized, top-drawer work, like “Demon,” can entice us to surrender skepticism to a degree that might be characterized as “extension of hyper-belief.” How else to explain an IMDb ranking that would be earth-shattering, if it represented the Richter scale? Is that putting too fine a point on it?
Talk to the glass hand.
Ted Rypel is the author of the GONJI series of adventure-fantasy novels. He has also written about THE OUTER LIMITS for Fantastic Films magazine and in his own late-‘70s fanzine series The Outer Limits: An Illustrated Review.