Friday, January 21, 2011

Spotlight on "Nightmare"

by Larry Blamire

When I was a kid I didn't know from soundstages.  All I knew was that uniformed men walked in a straight line to sour and discordant percussion in a featureless limbo that may be Hell or may be Purgatory and if one of them panics and breaks rank then a demon with a wand will steal their voice.

I'm conflicted about teasers, seeing them now as spoilers but still recalling their almost supernatural power when I was a kid.  They were really quite electrifying, and it's hard to shake that initial tantalizing glimpse through a forbidden window, in this case ending on a huge close-up of Martin Sheen's silent moving mouth (another that stuck with me was the "Bellero Shield" opener, with that weird alien mouth moving—what's with the scary mouth stuff?).

Stealing someone's voice was somehow more disturbing than all the murders on Perry Mason.

Revisiting "Nightmare" I realized I'd seen it—as well as my other favorites—at least twenty times over the years.  While thinking of a fresh take on something so beloved and familiar for this "Spotlight On", it suddenly dawned on me that I had not really stopped to consider the influence this episode (or Outer Limits) has had on me.  At least, not in a long time.

I spent the 80s working in theatre and in 1984 I wrote and directed a play called "Interface."  It concerned a military unit, volunteered for a top secret experiment in invisibility.  When things go wrong, they are kept confined and, when the scientists are unable to help, eventually forgotten—smothered by layers of secrecy.  The set was a simple but shadowy lab with large windowed chamber, the lighting dim and somewhat noirish, the sound design atonal and electronic, and the cast an all male ensemble.  The volunteer subjects are essentially "ordinary guys" in an extraordinary situation.  As I recall, one review even mentioned The Outer Limits.  Hell, it was a freakin' Outer Limits.  Without the bear.

At that time I was probably still aware of the show's influence (earlier, while acting in Sam Shepherd's "Angel City", I created a mask for my character's transformation into a lizard man that was clearly influenced by Wah Chang!).  But sometimes we just take these things for granted over the years and then just tuck that memory away.  I don't know if I've ever pinpointed this particular episode, but now the correlation seems obvious.

"Nightmare" has quite simply one of the finest ensembles assembled for television doing one of its finest scripts.  It's a gift to be able to read Joe Stefano's cut material in the DJS book (and David has carefully laid out the script's consistent "gamedropping").  Essentially it's a classic "life raft" drama, with a group of men (or women: see Cry Havoc) in isolation attempting to survive against threats both without and within (Sidney Lumet's The Hill another a great example).  It feels like a play, a piece of black box theatre, with its confined and empty spaces and its vivid and affecting speeches.

The acting on display betrays the prep that went into it.  Martin Sheen brings star-making intensity and sensitivity to his early role as the edgy Private Dix, baring his soul in the anguished scenes with his "mother".  I remember being happy to see James Shigeta, an actor I've always liked, years later in Die Hard, still going strong.  He imbues the poetic Major Jong with a necessary quiet charisma that keeps his irony subtly grounded.

I think Ed Nelson has far greater chops than most people realize (his twitchy grinning sadist who makes the mistake of messing with Lucas McCain's son in The Rifleman/"The Shortcut" is enough to make you forget his good guys—see?  I got westerns in here).  Here he's the perfect embodiment of the stalwart team leader, but with lurking darkness and doubt—even a suggested loathing for his own men.

Bill Gunn's speech about the dead Krug is a show-stopper.  How many, upon reflection, thought they actually saw the picture he painted so devastatingly?  Olivier once said about acting something to the effect of, "do the unexpected—don't read a line as the audience would expect it." I think of that when Gunn gives that sudden little laugh that still takes me aback no matter how many times I see it.

John Anderson is the last person you might expect to play the Ebonite Interrogator.  But this western veteran was a brilliant actor who managed to make his work look effortless (I highly recommend the epic two-part Gunsmoke "The Raid" where he plays advance man for the biggest outlaw gang ever, including OL vets Richard Jaeckel and John Kellogg).  His great dignity and presence serves the Interrogator well as both (seeming) villain and victim.

The episode title might sound generic but it quite aptly describes the show's bad dream quality, which I alluded to in my childhood impression of the bizarre teaser.  The simplicity of its bare bones set may have sprung of necessity but it suggests a world that's cold and harrowing.  Like much of OL there is a strong sense of dreamscape, as though we're all prisoners of a tapped subconscious come to life.  Visually, Ebon could almost be a creation of surrealist painter Yves Tanguy.  I believe this subtle surrealism is one of the reasons the series continues to resonate and linger long after a viewing.

Then there's the Grimm's Fairy Tale aspect  The wand that can steal your voice or vision is clearly explained—and believably so—as Ebonite science, controlling the senses.  Yet it's disturbing in a non-scientific way, a thing that witches should be able to do; a metaphysical assault that trumps even the psychological assaults of earthbound torture.  This also applies to Jong's pulverized arm, probably the most painful to watch (I still marvel at the way Shigeta sells it; there seem to be no angles left, it looks for all the world like a soft curve from shoulder to pocket).  Then there's Dr. Whorf's second appearance, no longer Dr. Whorf, but a Cheshire Cat on a wall who's just suddenly there, making his reality as questionable as Dix's phantom mother.  Finally there are the Ebonites themselves, demonic and bat- winged.

OL rookie director John Erman may have had to ride John Nickolaus to get him to shoot imaginatively, but the end result is sometimes striking, as in the off-kilter camera when Sheen breaks rank.  There is no question Erman worked brilliantly with his actors, but it would be fascinating to view his cut prior to Stefano's reworking.  The stagey quality that perhaps troubled the producer has never defused its power.

Frontiere provides the series with one of his most distinctive and haunting scores, an all too fitting combination of idyllic impressionistic spacescape, lilting yearning melody, and that sour (sorry, it just seems the right word) militaristic percussion.  The sound design/editing is extremely creative, particularly in the interrogation scenes.  In fact, no sound from the show has stuck with me like that slow, queasy, monotonous bending-note whine that provides the room's disconcerting ambiance.  No matter the hallucination, no matter the outburst—we always return to it, a reminder of the setting's utter hopelessness, in itself a torture.

The Ebonite masks once again illustrate Projects Unlimited's (and particularly Wah Chang's I think) genius for presenting something alien at the limitations of budget and the human face (why OL has given us more memorable creatures than any TV show in history).  I noticed again just how lofty those damned heads are.

The only thing I question is the early reveal of the Unified Earth brass (Whit Bissell and Willard Sage).  When first seen (and hallucinatorily not seen), bookending the Interrogator through the glass, they can be ascribed to a number of things; collaborators from one of the alluded prior missions, more hallucinations, etc.  But when shown reviewing the test subjects, practically taking bets on who will crack, well—while successful at portraying their callousness and disregard, it pretty much spills the beans.  I can't help but wonder how much stronger a later reveal might have been.

I see "Nightmare" as a member of OL's Paranoia Quartet, along with "O.B.I.T.", "Corpus: Earthling" and "The Invisibles".  Of course the show's themes on sacrifice, "the greater good" and mistrust of authority resonate to this day.  And ultimately, there is something both satisfying and telling about what we perceive to be the evil-looking Other turning out to be benign, or at least far more complex than we first believed.

The Lost Skeleton of CadavraLARRY 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. Nicely done, Larry - this is an episode I count as a favorite, for a lot of the same reasons you've described. And thanks for touching on John Anderson as the Ebonite - he seems to get overlooked, but I'd count him among The Outer Limits' "Notable, Weird Roles for Veteran Character Actors" meta-themes.

    Thanks again, I enjoyed the reflection and glad to find another defender of this episode!

  2. Just wonderful, Larry. And clearly, this seminal episode has more than its share of passionate defenders. In a minor disagreement, I think the two generals discussing which POW is going to crack is exactly where it needs to be, just before the beginning of the final act. We already saw these guys behind the Ebonite mirror, so we assumed some kind of deception was going on; now we finally return to them, still unsure of the particulars, and twice-as-fascinated simply because of that lack of information. This brief exchange tells us much about their personalities and detached emotional attitudes, in addition to Stefano saying "hey, no need to hold back on this 'cause the audience is already ahead of us. We're not TWILIGHT ZONE, after all. The real 'twist ending' here isn't that military figures are secretly watching our boys, but that Ebon's demon aliens are benign and some of us humans are morally corrupt." So, to me, saving this conversation for later would place an unnecessary emphasis on relatively familiar Gimmick #1, at a time when the story's truly original Act IV surprise needs to be presented and digested.

  3. Larry, you've splendidly conveyed the essence of this piece to a tee. Thank you.

  4. Outstanding commentary, Larry, comprehensively detailing the virtues of a great episode!

  5. Thanks, folks. Was feeling a bit redundant after the previously expressed eloquence--some excellent comments there.

    Gary, I caught your take on the generals' early appearance in the prior comments; it's persuasive, it makes sense--and I agree about the no-twist-ending here--and yet it still nags me every time I see it.

    But...I love this one.

  6. Larry (the other one) RapchakJanuary 21, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    Nice job, Larry, touching on many of the episode's most notable qualities. And speaking of the actors, I want to issue a
    BILL GUNN ALERT!!---if you want to see more of this most interesting guy at work, check Season 2, episode 3 of TV's Route 66 (fall of '61). Entitled "Good Night, Sweet Blues" and featuring a terrific (Emmy-nominated) lead performance by Ethel Waters, we meet Bill as a guitar/banjo playing musician whose big scene with Ethel is something to cherish. Turns out that she used to baby-sit him as a 5-year old boy and now, as she lies in her sick-bed, they recall a lovely, blues-y lullabye that she used to sing to him years ago. Bill both sings and accompanies on the've GOT to see it. I want to curl up and drift off in a warm, fuzzy haze just thinking about it. A real beauty of a scene (and episode).

  7. Thanks for the heads-up, Larry--that Gunn/Waters R66 is enticing. I've been tempted to pick up that series, but have only seen a few eps. As a sucker for late 60s one-hour dramas I probably should.

  8. Nice work, Larry B. "The Paranoia Quartet" -- that's perfect. Funny how OL episodes fit into thematic groupings; "The Zanti Misfits," "The Invisibles," and "Corpus Earthling" could be the GET OFF ME!!! Trilogy.

    Good call on Ed Nelson, too. He could sell stolid or sleazy with equal conviction; check him out as a smarmy oil-biz thug-for-hire in the first couple of seasons of Dallas, of all shows (back when it interrogated the values it later glorified). You can practically smell the cheap whiskey on his breath...

    Larry R.: Thanks for reminding me that Bill Gunn is in "Goodnight, Sweet Blues," my favorite Route 66 episode. Ethel Waters is amazing in it.

    Here's a good piece on Gunn from last year:

  9. Mark, I love that grouping. I realize I'm pretty much a GET OFF ME!!! junkie, as all three are in my top ten. And the GET OFF ME!!! group overlaps THE PARANOIA QUARTET. Man, I love OL.

    Never saw DALLAS, but sounds worth it for your description of a super-oily Nelson. I know the great Jim Davis was in that until his demise.

  10. Larry, thanks for taking the time to write such a good, in-depth article. Even though I've never met you, for some reason whenever your name pops up on the blog, the image of Vincent Price and his character from 'His Kind of Woman,' pops into my head. Don't ask me why, but take it as a very big compliment.

  11. Price is frikkin' HILARIOUS in that movie! That's really funny. Dude, I don't know where the correlation stems from...but I'll TAKE the compliment.

  12. Let me add my two cents recommendation for "Route 66" as an absolute favorite other series of the early 60's based on the auteur-writer Stirling Silliphant's amazing character studies, and one that holds up amazingly well.

    Two guys riding around on a Corvette through America (and this show WAS shot on locations across America) looking for meaning is just the lead-in/ The show was never really about these two guys, but the people they encounter. And they encounter some interesting people.

    Silliphant would literally drive into a town such as Santa Fe a couple weeks before the production crew arrive, probably hang out in a bar, meet some locals, and pound out a story. The crew would then arrive and shoot the story. This makes for little network interference and some really gritty portrayals of disillusioned folk all over. But great drama.

    The only disappointment is the picture quality on the first season volume one. It improves significantly after that, but I couldn't recommend this set higher for great writing in an unfiltered environment of the early 60s.

    And reading all the great writers on this post is a treat.

  13. Hollywoodaholic-

    Unfortunately, I've never seen an episode of Route 66. However, I recently learned that there was an ep. that featured Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre as actors at a monster convention or something. Now that would be one I'd love to see!

  14. It's a hoot and a fan favorite. It's a completely different mood than the rest of the series, but I believe it was the only other time since the 30s that Karloff wore the Frankenstein make up. It's in the Season 3 set.

    Another episode in the same mood/vein features Buster Keaton. Even as an old man, he still pulls off some great slapstick. The episode was a love letter to his genius.

    Robert Duvall plays a heroin junkie in another episode that will is as powerful as it gets.

    Leslie Nielson plays a serious scientist convinced the world is going to end who leads a group of people into Carlsbad Caverns to survive.

    Julie Newman plays a rich sex kitten riding around America on a motorcyle causing trouble like Paris Hilton on LSD, and followed by a lovesick detective hired by her family to 'clean up' after her.

    Just great stuff throughout. Not remotely dated.

  15. Well sir, after reading your post, I can't believe I haven't given it a try already. Looking forward to watching those, especially the one with Buster Keaton. I know many put down the Twilight Zone ep. he was in, but I always thought it was very charming. Thanks for the extra input.

  16. To all--

    I'd HIGHLY recommend Route 66---if you want to sample it, start with SEASON 2, generally regarded as the best. Just finished watching one with the amazingly gorgeous Janice Rule--had to watch it 2x, since the "scenery" was so fantastic; seriously the story is great, and the Glouchester locations are wonderful (as are old Anne Shoemaker and Murray Matheson, who unfortunately is killed off in the prologue).
    ALSO--just watched the first-rate "The Mud Nest", where the guys search for George Maharis' long-lost mother (he's an orphan)--you'll be surprised and delighted to see who plays his long-lost father(!) Then there's the terrific opening episode with Anne Francis, the second one about a violent wild horse, which features Harry Townes, and....OH, JUST BUY THE DAMNED SET; YOU'LL BE GLAD YOU DID!

    (The Karloff/Chaney/Lorre episode from season 3 is, alas, extremely boring for me; I couldn't wait for it to end. It's nice to see the old guys hobble around in the make-up/costumes, but.....)


  17. I recall in the several R66 I saw that I liked the scores, maybe Nelson Riddle?

    A little late for "Nightmare" now, but I meant to ask DJS if he had a shred of a bit of a piece of an inkling at all what the original cut was like, before Stefano's do-over.

  18. Larry R.-

    Okay!Okay! I give! I'll buy the set! Even if I don't like it, it can't be any worse then those episodes I bought of F-Troop. Always appreciate your guidance Larry. If you ever want to hit up the bars on Madison St. in Forest Park, let me know. First rounds on me.

  19. UTW--

    You're on. But is Forest Park different from Park Forest--or Oak Park, Oak Forest, Oak Lawn, Park Ridge, etc? I live in NW Indiana and it gets mighty confusing.

    Since you really appreciate quality (old) TV--you'll love RT 66; get the second season. Incidentally, even though the guest stars and their predicaments are often the focal point of the shows, the 2 leads, Martin Milner and George Maharis, are VERY good--very believable and appealing. Let us know what you think.

    LARRY B.-- Yeah, Nelson Riddle did the great theme song of Rt. 66, and is credited as composer of the scores, too. However (as in Naked City), Riddle would usually contribute a SINGLE MUSICAL THEME for each episode, upon which a staffer (I would guess) would write a number of variations. As a result, the scores often get REALLY repetitous and even annoying. There's a Naked City with little John Megna (of
    "To Kill a Mockingbird" fame) playing a "visually challenged" (nearly BLIND, that is) kid who wanders off into the streets of N.Y.; I wanted to scream by the end of that one, since the single theme of the soundtrack was driving me INSANE by the time the show mercifully ended. So far, nothing in RT 66 has been nearly as offensive.


  20. Fascinating discussion here, touching on many things. First off: neat piece on a great OL, Larry. I've lost count of how many times I've watched this one. Ever consider turning INTERFACE into a film script? Seems like a natural. I've enjoyed the "Route 66" eps I've seen over the years; especially one of the episodes shot in Boston which opens with the guys riding into town on the Tobin bridge, with a vaguely familiar skyline behind them (Boston's skyline has changed drastically since the 60s.) Finally, if any of you, like me, enjoy watching an aged Buster Keaton prove he could still do some amazing physical comedy, I highly recommend a DVD set called "Industrial Strength Keaton". A grab bag collection of TV skits, commercials and industrials, Keaton had artistic control over much of this work and he still had The Goods.

  21. Thanks, Bob.

    I haven't looked at the INTERFACE script in many many years, but as I recall the characters needed some really serious developing, and whole thing a big healthy trim. Other challenge: opening up that one set!

    But, perhaps something could be gleaned...

    Thing I remember I was most pleased with: on stage invisibility!

  22. Evidently Stirling Siliphant "driving into a town and meeting the locals" was how the infamous movie "Manos, the Hand of Fate" came about. At least, that's the story you always hear.

  23. Yes...John Anderson as the Interrogator is the star of an episode with many stars. It's nice to see the appreciation of the minimalist look to the episode. The idea that there was this planet somewhere with shiny black ground made the whole idea of Ebon more believable in 1963. The compound with that Ebonite guard pacing along the walls with that wand still makes me cringe. Visually it is the most compelling episode. Musically it is superior and the acting is matched only by Jeff Corey's Byron Lomax and all of Robert Culp's characters.

  24. This is one spotlight that I agree with completely instead of largely, and I hope it balances against SOME of the negative comments this episode gets.

    If there's one moment that stands out as far as making the two generals look bad, it's when Ed Nelson tells them how he and his men just decided to kill Major Jong, and Willard Sage's answer is "We'll try to prevent that."
    You'll TRY to prevent that?!

  25. Two B&W genre roles I always remember John Anderson from are both from TZ: "A Passage for Trumpet" with Jack Klugman where Anderson plays the angel Gabriel, and his taciturn commercial jet pilot in "The Odyssey of Flight 33". In the former, he exudes jazz-era cool without the need for dialog like "cool, Daddy-o". In the latter Anderson is the epitome of the cool-under-fire pilot who retains control of his plane and rattled crew while undertaking the most bizarre flight plan that any commercial flight has ever taken. Both highly memorable roles by an incredibly accomplished talent.

  26. ""hey, no need to hold back on this 'cause the audience is already ahead of us. We're not TWILIGHT ZONE, after all. The real 'twist ending' here isn't that military figures are secretly watching our boys, but that Ebon's demon aliens are benign and some of us humans are morally corrupt." So, to me, saving this conversation for later would place an unnecessary emphasis on relatively familiar Gimmick #1, at a time when the story's truly original Act IV surprise needs to be presented and digested."


  27. I'm certainly in the minority here about "Nightmare", but I find it not even in my Top 15 or 20 of first season episodes. The fake looking "stage" they march on bothers me. The story doesn't cut it for me. The "twist"? Nope. Maybe it's me... I dunno. Ok, just my two cents, late in the game, I know.... Give me Corpus Earthling, Obit, Man Who Was Never Born, Bellero Shield and Invisibles all day long. Nightmare? Not so much...

  28. One of the best lines had to be pointed out to me in the Companion, because it's slipped in so casually. When Whit Bissell and Willard Sage are trying to choose the "traitor" and they get to the photo of Major Jong, Bissell's line is "Maybe - recites poetry."
    That's one more thing about this story that hasn't stopped being relevant - how a flimsy thing like that can get you labeled a subversive.

  29. Good one. I saw Nightmare when it was first (or second) run on network TV. James Shigeta sold it for me. He was the good guy, period. I didn't even like the other characters, aside from David Frankham's, that is. It's a good episode overall but plays out too melodramatically to draw me in, especially emotionally. The minimalism of it appeals to me, though.


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