Friday, January 28, 2011

Spotlight on "The Invisibles"

by Larry Blamire

Groucho Marx once said he would never join any alien invasion that would have him as a member.  The attempted takeover in "Corpus Earthling" may have been flawed, but this one's downright messy.  In fact its partly the invasion's makeshift, nasty, spontaneous quality that gives "The Invisibles" its power and makes it my favorite Outer Limits.

Like an extreme ideology, the Invisibles recruit the disenfranchised.  As soon as we meet the three newbies we are struck by how different they are for this series, as though the aliens recruited them from a Naked City show.  In effect, they bring street cred to the Gothic proceedings that follow, they help ground it in reality.  It's also like Actor's Studio meets classic horror, here embodied by the inestimable team of George MacReady and Walter Burke, as mad scientist and hunchbacked assistant.

An army of Renfields recruited by a staff of interplanetary Draculas.  As much fun as it is to assign classic tropes, there is nothing so comforting as an old Universal horror movie in the unpleasant proceedings that follow.  On the contrary, the scenes of recruitment at the abandoned army base are among the most disturbing in all of Outer Limits.  This is a backroom invasion and it's as gritty as an armored car job planned in a Charlestown bar, with a network of corruption and seedy decay that scifi-horror has rarely seen—certainly not on TV.

Corruption seems to already infest the souls of these losers, as though they've brought their own parasites.  One even feels that GIA agent Luis Spain is just a few brain cells away from joining them in his self-induced hero-loner state.

Outer Limits' second chilling parasitic invasion is well under way when we jump in.  There is no discovery, no realization that earth is under attack--that's already happened and countermeasures are in effect (think: where "O.B.I.T" left off).  This lends the episode immediacy, a vital urgency.

Of all the subversive alien takeovers in movies and television, I think this is the most compelling.  First of all there is the sheer physical nastiness of the process.  No perfect duplication with tidy disposable pod, no simple and sterile mind control.  What we have is loathsome attachment for the hosts, and for the lackeys inoculation that might work if you're lucky, but which also requires a vile process to test it.  The failures are both pathetic and disturbing, wandering about the dismal base performing menial tasks.  The two tiered invasion force—hosts and recruiters—is an engaging and fascinating idea.

Then there's the randomness of it all.  Some diseases got together somehow in space and somehow gained intelligence and somehow came to earth.  It feels spontaneous and coincidental, as if a purely organic process is taking place; predators with no more thought than a leech has for your leg.

The final key factor in the unique physics of the invasion is the host's inner struggle with the "master", a relationship that seems tenuous at best, capable of slipping at any time.  Very human euphoria mixes with confusion and desperation.  Host and occupant are far from comfortable, as though nature never intended such a union--an incorrect mingling of species whose crossing of paths in all the vastness of space should have been highly unlikely.

For me, all this makes it resonate and seem real; it's all just awkward and random and lopsided enough to be true.

With "Invisibles", "Corpus Earthling" and "O.B.I.T." it's like Conrad Hall invented a visual language for paranoia (perhaps a logical descendent of the distorted mistrustful world of Menzies' Invaders From Mars).  No one since has sketched in the same brilliant paranoid shorthand; claustrophobic closeups, looming gobo patterns, crazy cants, deadly black holes.

One of his key weapons here is the low-angle extreme close-up with wide-angle lens, distorting hosts MacReady and Hamilton when they wax parasitic.  The height of their elation/confusion evokes some major weirdness and becomes a highlight of the episode.  It's here, in fact, that Stefano's script becomes a thing of terrible beauty, assigning sheer poetry to revolting interplanetary parasites in lilting and majestic speeches.  Here is MacReady's answer, when Castle asks their origin:
    We were conceived in the nothingness of space, sired by a
    satyr of cosmic energy, formed by the coming together of sick,
    nameless nuclei which waited a billion, billion years for that
    precise, ungodly moment. We fell to Earth and the velocity
    of that fall quickened the seed of intellect, at the same time it
    stunted the evolution of our primitive form.
He further states about the Invisibles:
    Their victims suffer to the edge of death, and they're never
    the same again.

As with Hillmond, the master/host relationship is strained in Neil Hamilton's General Clarke, human emotions and frailty wrestling with cold acceptance:
                    GEN. CLARKE
    It's all happening so fast, so much faster than I expected.
    All over this country, hosts in all the right places, men like
    Senator Springer, Wilson Greenbaum, Billy--...Men in places
    so one would believe how high they are...Yes...
    Yes, master, oh I know...I am vainglorious...I say too much.
    I endanger us all.
This is wild and giddy stuff.  And what more can be said at this point about the brilliance of the Stefano/Oswald/Hall team?  Oswald once again seems to channel his heritage with an expressionistic fever dream, like a peek into a twisted subconscious, in so many unforgettable moments: Castle, after midnight inoculation test failure, half-glimpsed in the hallway, turning away from camera; wonderfully sinister Walter Burke's, "Attachment this...It isn't supposed to show", as he looks to his hump-backed shadow on the door; The Invisible guard bouncing a ball off the wall as MacReady lectures inside; The cold and clinical Attachment 101 Class, so casual and thorough about correct parasitic placement, capped by Spain seeing Johnny's muddy boots on the covered corpse.

And then there's pretty much everything about the inoculation test scenes that seem a product of absolute madness for television at this time: MacReady tenderly stroking an Invisible every chance he gets, men with their shirts off lying face down on a bench as the parasite is carefully placed on them, Planetta's roll off and sick laugh after his proves successful.

Coloring all this with the usual otherworldly shimmer and aural electricity is Dominic Frontiere.  As in "Corpus Earthling", he effectively recycles his unbearably tense "Architects of Fear" music, as well as "Man who was Never Born."

The cast is uniformly excellent--like the presentation itself, a graft of old school and new (reminiscent of Thriller in that respect).  Veterans MacReady, Burke and Hamilton are superb, with special marks for the future Commissioner Gordon and Bellero patriarch for reaching into some ethereal high register.  Don Gordon is always genuine, interesting to watch, equally effective at cops and criminals; the perfect brand of edginess for a man walking the daily tightrope of undercover.  Both he and Tony Mordente are essential to selling the tense and sweaty inoculations.  Mordente makes Planetta the perfect loose cannon loser, but evokes genuine pathos as the fall guy manipulated by our "hero".  Dee Hartford as Mrs. Clarke actually seems alien in her slightly creepy exaggerated 60s "first lady" look, and it's a nice twist that she's merely "controlled".  Richard Dawson is a pleasure to watch as the oily and effeminate Oliver Fair.

The parasites themselves—I suppose they may garner laughs today.  For me, they still hold up.  It's important that the legs move independently; it's a nice effect and that buys a lot of crustacean credibility.  The design is familiar enough in that crab-louse kind of way to be believable, but different enough to be pretty horrific, with tufts of hair (in some places looking like mold—ugh) and that single eye.  Unlike the previous invading rocks, they don't speak, except though their hosts, and as much as the excellent voiceover worked for their predecessors, I'm grateful for the omission here.  What we're left with is a roaring (DJS tells us from Dinosaurus) which is effective because of the way it's mixed; that strange broken rhythm, as though aligned to the thing's pulse, its various layers suggesting an angry compacted menagerie (echoing its bizarre origin).  It's all way too loud a cacophony, and that incongruity really boosts the strangeness and disorientation of the inoculation ritual.

What's key for the climactic Invisible assault on the crawling Spain rests not so much on the monster but on Don Gordon himself.  Not only what he's expressing in the moment, but everything from the time his leg is caught in that wheel well up to then (like, as DJS mentions, his convincing agony as the boot is forced back on).  His pain is crucial in selling that final jeopardy—aided by Hall's low moving camera, those scurrying little legs and that gleam in the single eye as the thing moves into shadow.

The extreme locations are my favorite in the series: the decrepit old dark army base, perpetually rainy and gray, with its long shadowy corridor, nightmarish menagerie of a morgue, and dismal training room; Hillmond's sunny seat of power in stark contrast; and the power plant with its long buildings and crisscrossed communication lines, a tangle of forced perspective.

Now in those dim days before Schow or Gerani had books out (and how in blazes did I miss TOLAIR?), there were slim pickin's for Outer Limits fans looking for someone to throw us a bone.  So I remember being ecstatic that John Baxter talked about the show in his book Science Fiction in the Cinema (okay, he mistakenly remembered Don Gordon as Burt Reynolds—hey, it was pre vhs, okay?).  Baxter compared the climax of "The Invisibles" to early German cinema.  This was corroboration, Caligarian credibility for a (possibly) forgotten TV series that—damn in—must have gnawed away at my brain for a reason.  The show had unmistakable power.

Like me, my wife is a big fan of the fantastic, but there a couple of things she won't watch and this episode is one of them.  A tribute to how this nasty little Invisible gets under your skin and burrows.  I'm just another victim, but frankly that leaves me was giddy as General Clarke.  In a good way.

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. Bravo Larry B.! I couldn't have said it better myself in a million years.

    Now tell me how cool it would have been if the episode had an extra two minute montage, in the middle, showing the other Invisibles going about their own dastardly missions, right before Don Jordan does his?

  2. Excellent coverage, Larry! Your arguments eloquently defend this powerful episode's many virtues.

    Those speeches by MacReady and Hamilton always coil along my spine, no matter how many times I've heard them. I don't think there's ever been a more chilling (or perversely lyrical) exposition concerning an alien monster's origin. It's couched in phraseology normally reserved for some sublime love.

    The Invisibles' growling sound (and yes, I hear it and can only think of a T. Rex battling a steam shovel) had to be a real problem while in transit, eh?


  3. WOW--larry,

    You've nailed it. Little more need be said, especially since you've gone beyond the mere description of the episode, but also avoided the more abstruse philosophical speculation that TOL seems to invite; instead, you lay out something of the range of emotions that many of us experience when viewing this particular show, sort of a "peeling away" of its surface effect and examination of its truly horrific UNSPOKEN power.

    It is twisted stuff, that's fer' sure.

    Which leads me to focus on the whole alien attachment thing itself, beyond the jarring inoculation scene. There is the truly grotesque, unthinkable idea--much in the manner of William Castle's madhouse "TINGLER"--that these things actually crawl into the tiny pin-prick opening, and fuse themselves into the actual SPINE of the host, where they more or less hang out to do their unholy work. When the host gets out of line in any way, even idle boasting that may call attention to itself, the parasite tightens its grip around the spine as a warning; obviously it is capable of much more.

    This is REALLY demented stuff, whether in print, on the big screen, or safely confined in the imagination of its author.....but it was actually broadcast on network TV in 1964.


  4. Just great, Larry. You didn't miss a precious detail, and there are so many of them! Obviously I cherish this episode, too. There's just so much on display here for OL fanatics to savor: photography, locations, tough performances, juicy dialogue, music... As mentioned in my earlier post, I also consider those wild speeches by enraptured MacReady and Hamilton to be highlights. What the hell did Hall do to achieve Hamilton's "vainglorious" close-up, a distorted wide-angle that appears to be trembling, in keeping with the victim's pain/pleasure seizure? Can you believe the sophistication of this amazing work? Cool that you mentioned Mordente's sick little laugh after his roll away from the creature; this bit was used as the teaser clip, optically fading out on Planetta laughing... which accentuates the episode's peculiar, "homoerotic" elements before it even begins! (A little IN COLD BLOOD foreshadowing here). Also love the fact that we finally have some words to match an ongoing OUTER LIMITS visual motif... "...the wind that blows newspapers down a gutter on a windy night..." And setting up our vigilant spies for a possible weekly series, "...and sweeps the gutter clean." No matter how you look at "The Invisibles," it's an impressive and often groundbreaking hour of golden age television.

  5. You wonder just how to approach these sometimes--something so damned ingrained. But I do think all this reexamining achieves something as close to objectivity as we're likely to get at this point, as well as (maybe) crystallizing just what makes this stuff burrow in your brain, tick in your heart, or squirm in your gut.

    It's so nice see how many others were infected by this remarkably compelling little germ.

    UTW: Tempting to think about. But I love how this show is 100% Spain POV (Spain Brain) right through and through, and wonder if that might throw it off.

    Ted: You notice how the critter roaring starts up when the morgue lights come on? I've wondered about this transport issue--maybe the suckers are light-sensitive? Why didn't Attachment 101 cover this?

    Speaking of attachment: Larry R, pretty queasy to think about isn't it?

    Gary: So right about Hall--I can only redundantly exclaim; what a brilliant artist this man was.

  6. Larry B--- I never noticed the light sensitivity. But then, I think we can hear Planetta's critter growling inside it's case at the end, when it's under his cot. In any event, yeah---Stefano must have skipped over the instruction block when the shining-eyed recruits ("All riiiiiight! I found a group crazy enough to have me for a member!") are told:

    "OK---there's just one little problem. When they start to get withdrawal symptoms, and they sense that you're sitting on a crowded bus---well, that's why they call themselves Invisibles and not Inaudibles!"

    Larry R--- You're right on the money about the whole attachment thing. When I saw this as a kid, it was that shocking scene of trial-attachment that made my hair stand on end. It isolates and twangs some atavistic gag reflex. Just the idea of something alien/crawly/pinchy/hungry invading your body---sitting on your back and doing something unseen and unspeakable---

    I never thought it operated like THE TINGLER, though, beyond the idea of spinal attachment. MacReady's chatter about "fusion" and "spinal atoms," plus the fact that it doesn't show when proper symbiosis takes place, makes me wonder if it isn't more of an assimilation/osmosis process. Then again, it's got feathers. I'm not sure how those would be absorbed!

  7. Ted: Good point about the feathers...the only thing standing between us...and total turkey takeover.

  8. A magnificent appreciation, thank you Larry.

  9. Wow, you've touched on each of the sick, nameless nuclei that went into making this episode an unforgettable experience.

  10. Props to this episode, as spotlit here. A treat to discover this OL tribute site. Albeit too late for the party (sigh). But as an incorrigible OL enthusiast, this is among my favorite episodes. Looks like nobody's commented on some of its key strong points, at least as win highest marks from me.

    The 'bear' itself is perhaps weakest link. A surprising flaw, for a series like OL - whose 'best foot forward' so often was its special visual effects (from optical to makeup design and execution, to props etc). But the powerhouse story, and narrative structure - pulling back the stage curtain slowly, letting the viewer in on what's going on here - bit by surprising bit. Drip, drip, drip - its delicious torture, to savor and thrill this viewer's sensibilities.

    In Act 1, we're drawn in unawares, not suspecting a thing. We're offered these three derelict guys, as recruitable losers. And we take them at face value, exactly as this 'subversive, powerful' operation does - from what we gather (initially). Its all creepy, dark, and intriguing.

    Then WHAMMO - the sleeper scene, peeling back Spain's cover, revealing he's an Intel Community agent, on job. Only now do us viewers find out, we've been involved in a counter-subversive operation, without even knowing or suspecting. The storyline, as its unfolded so deviously, has played us for 'useful idiots' - like violins. That's a hard hitting moment, great story telling.

    And continuing the 'excruciating narrative' angle - nothing can equal the next scene for dramatic impact. A moment before Spain was so cocky-confident that 'daddy' (as he told his fellow agent contact in the woods) 'didn't know' he was out. Obviously, Spain did his best to sneak out without 'daddy' noticing. But to think he pulled it off, got away with it? Apparently Spain might have spoken too soon.

    And as a viewer, the story ramifications in that moment are dizzying. Talk about suspense. Apparently Spain's tape-recorded field report to HQ, won't be reaching its destination, and his contact out of the game - permanently. But the uncertainties rushing through the viewer's mind in that moment are staggering. Was Spain's cover blown in the process? What of the recorded tape, with his voice - did it fall into invisible hands? Thus tipping them off as to exactly who Spain really is, and what he's doing - bungling his entire mission, in effect?

    Its almost like a gimmick from MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. In most episodes, about half-way through, comes a moment when, all of a sudden - something goes wrong. And their operation about to be breached (cut to commercial 'cliff hanger' break).

    In that moment, the intensity plays across Spain's face in a perfect moment of acting and direction. He sees those muddy boots on the body beneath that sheet. And realizes a whole raft of high-stakes questions suddenly facing him. His biz has been compromised but he doesn't know how far - as us viewers realize, to our nail-biting suspense, along with him.

    That is a truly 'oh sh#t' story moment, unparalleled throughout so many great OL episodes and scenarios. Love the way they did that, in this episode, talk about your great scifi story-telling styles ... one of many OL virtues, well displayed in this episode (which I award all 4 of my Zanties).

  11. "Its almost like a gimmick from MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. In most episodes, about half-way through, comes a moment when, all of a sudden - something goes wrong. And their operation about to be breached (cut to commercial 'cliff hanger' break)."

    One of the most intense moments in the late-80s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE revival comes in a 2nd-season (9th season?) episode, where Jim's cover IS BLOWN, and the baddie tries to kill him, knowing full well EXACTLY who he is!! .....and then Jim goes ahead and PULLS OFF the mission ANYWAY. Wow.

  12. I never thought before to compare it to The Tingler with Vincent Price, with the William Castle magic of Percepto, but I agree on the similarities for this excellent episode, with George Macready, Don Gordon and Walter Burke! Mr. Burke does another fabulous job in The Mutant with Warren Oates!

  13. I think I come back to re-watch this episode more than any other. Absolutely riveting tv! The speeches, acting, plot line, this thing has it all. When first watching this as a 9 year old, it must have gone WAY over my head, thus, I don't recall this episode from my childhood, like I remembered vividly Man Who Was Never Born, Sixth Finger, Second Chance and 1 or 2 others. But as an adult, it totally comes alive for me. Bravo!


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