Monday, January 24, 2011

Spotlight on "Corpus Earthling"

by Larry Blamire

No Outer Limits teaser is a bigger spoiler than the one for "Corpus Earthling".  There is also none scarier.  It is impossible for me to hear, "...who's been sleeping in my bed?" in anything but Culp's voice (well, of course, I tape recorded parts of this one as a kid so that probably helped drill it in), capped by Salome Jens' chilling, "I've been waiting for you."  All in a mere 25 seconds.

This is OL's absolute purest film noir.  It is drenched in the deepest blackest shadows imaginable by Conrad Hall, gaping chasms where anything might lurk.  Its protagonist is akin to the cinematic returning GI of WWII who slips down a black hole of mystery, deceit and subterfuge.  Robert Culp's Paul Cameron is at once flawed and empowered; his weakness is his extra sense, in this case providing the singular ability to hear that which he should not.  He's a classic "man who knew too much" and for that he needs to be silenced.  "Useless listeners must be destroyed", is the chilling mandate expressed by the invader.

And like all good potential paranoids, he is not believed--the plight of the loner against the well cloaked conspiracy, so memorable later in The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, etc. (descendants all of Hitchcock's man-on-the-run).  But he's not sure himself.  The vulnerable hero saddled with self doubt.

Further, the show drops him into a threatening noir landscape.  When we first see the lab it's with a slow smooth Hall push-in through shelves of rocks in the foreground.  The two scientists are virtually surrounded by stones.  The shot of the two parasites in rock form may have been isolated for practical FX work, but that isolation keeps us from knowing exactly where they are in the room—further ramping up the suspense, shooting us up with an unhealthy dose of Paul Cameron POV.

Even his own home, as he sits in the dark stewing in his own insecurity, is a haven of little hope.  And that telephone.  There's something so simple, yet unnerving, about a phone that just rings and rings and rings.  And we somehow know that whatever's on the other end is not good.  It looms in frame, and the only thing worse than the ringing is the silence after it stops... because we know it will start again.

We descend deeper and deeper down a dark staircase: the lonely rundown cabin on a distressing windswept plain, the classic seedy hotel room with paper thin walls.

Paul Cameron is a doctor and there is a correlation with sickness throughout the episode.  Dr. Temple mentions "intelligent superviruses" at the beginning when speculating on alien invasion.  The cabin caretaker (Ken Renard from the Thriller "Pigeons From Hell", very effective here) tells Paul his wife is sick, has a "fever", that makes "the young have the look of old people", describing the hosts' altered appearance as, "...death putting the finger on those it would keep".  In the end the evil is purged by fire, like a plague.

This overlaps the show's spiritual overtones that help make this one of the clearest and most effective examples of the science fiction and horror hybrid in all of Outer Limits.  Renard, amidst his circle of bonfires says "an evil spirit has entered the soul of some unfortunate hovers over us".  When Paul tends his "sick" wife the foreground candle flares like a flickering cross that seems to steadily hover over her.

Robert Culp in his second of three great OL performances is the fragile heart of this experiment in terror.  We like him instantly and empathize, thanks to that absolutely keen naturalism he so effortlessly employs to catch us off guard.  "Now just a minute, before you break into unbridled laughter" is tossed off like an ad-lib, there's just no "acting" with this guy.  I believe this role, regardless of Culp's dismissal of it, is the strongest portrait of pure fear the series would see.

Salome Jens is very interesting to watch—earthy and far from glamorous, so very different from most other TV leading ladies at the time (she's also effective in Frankenheimer's Seconds).  Jens lends a certain subtle unpredictability to Laurie that complements her edgy husband.  They are convincing as a couple also because the script is too savvy to have them each use each other's first name every other sentence (a common dialogue miscue with TV marrieds... to this day).  They are comfortable with each other but never cute.


Here billed as "G.B. Atwater", Barry Atwater has never looked more clean cut than he does at the beginning.  All the better contrast for what's to come.  His "stoned" scientist may not be one of The Outer Limits' iconic bears, but there has never been a scarier presence on the show.  His subtly made-up yet terrifyingly grim and haggard appearance looks forward to so many (dare I use the word) zombies yet to come, from Night of the Living Dead on.  The use of Atwater's extremely pronounced bone structure is brilliant, and Hall is the other "makeup" man here, shooting him in a funhouseful of bizarre angles and shadows.  The one time we see him outside, in daylight (or as light as this show gets), carries its own special strangeness as he stalks across the bleak cabin grounds.  Atwarter was also a fine understated actor, and he gives us a carefully measured and quietly menacing performance; a preview of his memorable television vampire Janos Skorzeny in The Night Stalker.  Both he and Jens get a creepy boost from the sound mix, their possessed voices disembodied and magnified, with a touch of reverb.

There are so so many small, yet never minor, triumphs in "Corpus Earthling", flashes of bravura that add to its satisfying whole.  I think it contains more effective "jumps" and unsettling incidents than any other OL: The sudden female voice, "I found you".  The drunk "Billy Fraker" in the hallway.  Laurie as the blackest of silhouettes, at the beaded curtain—a harbinger of ill fate--after Paul says he's going to town alone.  Atwater at the cabin door, blocked by a huge foreground hanging basket, only a bit of his shadow seen.  Renard in the hotel room doorway, looking as hollow and threatening as the possessed, making us momentarily wonder.  And, most chilling of all, Atwater slowly pushing Jens' face down toward the parasite—perhaps the single most horrific image in all of Outer Limits.

The parasitic attackers themselves, when not in handy rock guise, are asymmetrical (unlike their equally disgusting crustaceous cousins yet to come in "The Invisibles") and blobbish.  Their mobility is clever, simple but convincing, and I absolutely love the Byron Haskin effect when they exit a host; what looks like burning right out through the face, burning from within.  Adding to their tangible grossness, a soft disgusting gurgle, like the last bit of soda through a straw.

I'm not sure what I can add about the magic machine of Stefano, Oswald and Hall.  They teamed for some of the most electrifying and disturbing work in small tube history.  And I don't want to forget Borsten's job, making the novel's source material more immediate and vital (with essential tightening then done by Stefano I presume).

Frontiere's music is tracked from other episodes, but it makes significant--and fitting--use of his tender "Architects" theme.  And the brilliant hypnotic "Human Factor" cues "It's Here" and "Building Terror" have a far worthier vehicle this time.  Most striking of all though (also from "Architects") is "The Point of No Return"/"Madness" music; those alarming high strings for the parasite action and Paul's suicide attempt that seem to violently leap out and suspend themselves in space, holding the viewer there with them.

I fully intended on writing an analysis without a big fat ME in it this time.  But this blog—revisiting each episode, having to actually think about them (thanks a lot, John and Peter!)—has sifted stuff to the top of my brain like a Chromoite on a binge.  I guess it's hard for me not to get personal about The Outer Limits, so please forgive the indulgence.

Several years ago I wrote and directed a feature spoofing alien invasion.  Now in making a spoof I think it's important to be true-to-form, true to what's being satirized.  So the mandate went down: Outer Limits shots (read: Conrad Hall) where possible and apt.  As the earth folks are possessed, scientist Dr. Applethorpe (H.M. Wynant) becomes the leader and I realize now just how similar he is to Dr. Temple (though a tad less ghoulish).  Indeed, the long reach of Outer Limits' tendrils has been nothing short of insidious.

The subversive alien takeover scenario, AKA my-neighbor's-not-my-neighbor, is certainly one of my favorites.  It seems to come in three basic forms: the aliens duplicate earth people (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the aliens possess earth people (I Married a Monster from Outer Space) or the aliens look like (or make themselves look like) earth people and mingle (Not of this Earth).  So just for grins (and since we have another one right around the corner) here's a handy timeline of some 50s/60s notables:

1950 Lights Out "The Martian Eyes"
1953 Invaders From Mars
1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers
1957 Quatermass 2: Enemy From Space
1957 Not of this Earth
1961 Twilight Zone "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"
1958 I Married a Monster from Outer Space
1963/64 Outer Limits "O.B.I.T.", "Corpus: Earthling", "The Invisibles"
1968 The Invaders

LARRY BLAMIRE is an actor, writer, director, and artist.  Born in Liverpool, raised in the US (though still often referred to as the 46th Beatle), he is responsible for such feature films as THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, THE LOST SKELETON RETURNS AGAIN, DARK AND STORMY NIGHT and TRAIL OF THE SCREAMING FOREHEAD.  Larry has worked as a sci-fi illustrator--several pieces from his epic STEAM WARS film project appear in the newly published SCI-FI ART NOW—as well as a surrealist painter.  He is also a published playwright—his version of ROBIN HOOD having been performed all over the world.  Larry's western horror short stories are collected in TALES OF THE CALLAMO MOUNTAINS and his—rather strange—cartoons are collected in I DIDN'T KNOW YOU CAME WITH RAISINS.  He is married to actress Jennifer Blaire and they recently had a son Griffin and live in relative normalcy.


  1. Excellent analysis, Larry... Nice comments about that interesting use of the telephone as an object of extraordinary fear, ready to dispense spooky voices our Listener can certainly do without. It's funny how these childhood influences stay with us forever, seeping into our own creative work, as you've pointed out. Indeed, there's a great deal of "Pigeons from Hell" in my current BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP graphic novel...not because I was copying Robert E. Howard in any specific way, but because we writers invariably wind up traveling the same darkly inviting road that the masters originally crossed with similar thematic mood pieces. In any event, Larry B, thanks for a crisply-written, extremely perceptive overview of one of my all-time favorite OL gems.

  2. Thanks, this one's right at the top for me too, Gary. Glad to hear you've also had some OL seepage. And your observation about inspiration and that "darkly inviting road" really hit home.

  3. Inspired commentary, Larry! Your WWII returning GI analog is an apt concept. And the sharp observation about the alien rocks listening from an unspecified place in the room---that absolutely does add a quiet note of creepy expectancy to the tension.

    You're also not alone in your confession of finding it hard to report objectively about TOL at times. I feel the same way, and probably others do, as well. It was such a powerful part of our viewing history, compressed into a mere season-and-a-half. I too often find myself nudging an episode into a higher bracket simply by virtue of its having been an entry in a show of such surpassing quality, relative to most genre programs.

    Superb spotlight, though, on a deserving gem.

    You may find that you've generated a popular thread with your starter list of films about alien possession/assimilation of humans. For the moment, off the top of my head, I'll toss in:

    KRONOS (1957)

    You'll likely hear a lot more.

  4. Okay, Ted, now you've done it! Or maybe I did. Opened the takeover floodgates...

    I almost included IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, but left it off since it wasn't an invasion per se. However, you are right--it DOES include alien possession, so good call.

    I'd forgotten that BRAIN EATERS has possessed folk.

  5. "Corpus" is still my standout example of one of OUTER LIMITS' cleanest combinations of "kid horror" and "adult horror" in the same package, exemplifying the triple target of brain, heart and guts — scary material is at its best when it hits all three.

    Even worse, as a child I was a budding amateur geologist and rockhound, and had collected samples of slag from a local copper smelter that looked EXACTLY like the malevolent alien rocks in this show. After a night or so of hearing them move around in the dark, I got rid of them.

  6. Stay tuned. There's a great BRAIN EATERS digression coming up in relation to "The Invisibles."

  7. Larry (B),

    Very insightful, entertaining reading, the
    kind of commentary that really enhances the appreciation of the film at hand.

    Also, in the canon of alien possession films, let's not forget one of my favorite ultra-cheapies - "Invisible Invaders!(1959), which contains at least one dead-ringer (ha!) predecessor of G.B. Atwater in "Corpus E."

    Larry (R)

  8. Does IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (195-something) count? Semi-possession?

  9. INVISIBLE INVADERS--absolutely, Larry R, courtesy of Edward L. "It" Cahn.

    IT CONQUERED THE WORLD--Never mind "semi"--Aren't there some 100% totally possessed people in that? Haven't seen it in eons.

    I'd like to find if there's TV or movie subversive alien takeover prior to "The Martian Eyes". By the way, if you haven't seen that, it's a nicely creepy piece of early television.

  10. I'm vaguely recalling a classic Dick van Dyke show about alien possession (something about walnuts?). Of course, it all turns out to be a dream but Laura Petrie is still smokin' hot!

  11. Ah, "It May Look Like a Walnut", of course. The subversive invasion from the planet Twylo has to make our list. Good call.

    Yes, Laura spilling out of the closet on hundreds of walnuts. Very hot.

  12. Twylo! Of course! Remember Rob thinking he was trapped in "The Twylo Zone?!

    Great call on IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, Larry B! I love that movie and don't know why it didn't percolate to the top even on a quick skim. Beverly Garland (mmmm...beverlygarland) making like a proto-Ripley and delivering that great ultimatum to the Conquering Cucumber before going out after him with a rifle:

    "I don't know whether you can hear me, but you better listen and listen good...!"

    And Jonathan Haze playing a Latino grunt: "I tell you I seen a funny-lookin' bird!"

    And yes, Larry R, absolutely INVISIBLE INVADERS, since inhabiting dead Earthlings counts, too! I always thought as a kid that INVISIBLE INVADERS and THE LAST MAN ON EARTH had to have been the joint inspirations for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

    We could do a parallel blog just with our fond recollections of the junk-food movies we're still proudly gobbling!

  13. Thanks Larry. I think, as we go through this blog, all of us will find our comments coloured by personal feelings and experience. On the note of those 50's and 60's films, what about The Monolith Monsters? I saw it as a late night show as a teenager in the seventies. I don't even know if it was that great, but at the time I loved it.

  14. Larry, another cool article, as always. It was the scene in the dumpy hotel room that really made this one a noir in my eyes. Watching this one and others like 'Nightmare' makes it hard for me to believe this show was directed towards kids. Seems to me, in that stricter era, parents wouldn't be to keen in letting the young ones view it.

  15. I've noticed a side poll asking which is the scariest monster. Peter and John, was that put up by you? If so, which Twilight Zone gremlin, the movie or television show?

  16. Whoops.....just looked at it again. 'TV' terrors, ok.

  17. Jim, as I recall MONOLITH MONSTERS is exceptionally good, and with a very unique menace.

    Ted: The Twylo Zone--of course!

    UTW: I'm with you--I don't believe this was directed towards kids either.

  18. Hey Blammo,

    As usual a swell job talking about, at least at my house, the creepiest episode of TOL. Serious nightmare time for us kids of all ages. Culp demonstrates here and in his other two TOL outings, real movie star "stuff," and I always felt that a decade or so earlier he may have been a contract lead perhaps at RKO. Dark stories filmed in the glory of high contrast B&W fit around him so nicely.

  19. It Conquered The World definitely counts, since the scene between Peter Graves' character and his wife could have actually inspired the ending between Culp and Jens.

    Speaking of that, is it DEFINITELY a completely downbeat ending? It seems to me that Laurie might POSSIBLY be still alive (just because Dr. Temple had to e killed for the parasite to leave him, that might not make it a rule).

  20. I'm way in the minority on this one: the episode didn't work for me at all. The enthusiasm of all the reviews of Corpus Earthling are more entertaining (for me) than the episode itself. I was hugely disappointed. The credentials of nearly everyone associated with it were superb, and yet it fell flat for me. My favorite part was just looking at Salome Jens. The thinking-talking-we're taking over rocks struck me as more comical than frightening. Their attachment to humans might have felt creepier if I hadn't seen The Invisibles a half-dozen times or so. The ending was unsatisfying because,--maybe I'm just dumb--it wasn't clear to me whather Salome was dead or had been saved by the fires, inside and out. It struck me as highly unlikely that a human being could survive such an ordeal. Still, guys, thank for all the input and love for the series.


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