Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spotlight on "Forms of Things Unknown"

By Gary Gerani


The final episode of OL’s First Season (the only ‘true’ season to many fans), “Forms of Things Unknown” is one of those peculiar experiences you either cherish and champion, or thoroughly dislike.  Stefano himself admitted that his little “foreign film” clearly wasn’t for all tastes, challenging unsuspecting viewers with a double-barreled creative assault of both heavily stylized visuals and dialogue.  Indeed, it’s easy to imagine ABC’s pilot-watching execs, hoping for a new TWILIGHT ZONE anthology with HITCHCOCK-style flavoring, scratching their pointy heads in bewilderment at JS’s latest poetic indulgence.  In a nutshell, it’s 1964 prime-time television meets the French New Wave, with enough German expressionism in the Old Dark House scenes to justify a “scary show” classification.  All that was lacking was foreign language dialogue and English subtitles.

For those who “get it,” this episode represents the purest and most powerful example of what Stefano-Oswald-Hall were striving to achieve on film at this moment in their careers.  It’s no small irony that the best episode of OUTER LIMITS is actually a slightly-altered pilot for a different TV series, created by Stefano and tailored almost preternaturally to his own unique tastes and desires.  And that’s what makes this particular trip into the “Unknown” so astonishing.  It’s Mr. Stefano’s most liberating psycho-session on celluloid, his feelings, thoughts and impressions given free reign in an oblique ‘story’ that allows for unprecedented, over-the-top experimentation.  Piloting ambitions aside, this was the very last OL episode for producer-writer Joe, one final chance to play with artistically-satisfying, network-financed toys.  Why not push things to absolute extremes, creatively?  After all, an opportunity for therapeutic expressionism like this may never come again…


It’s a little different this time…  “Forms” happens to be one of the very few OL episodes that I did not see when it was first telecast on the network.  Somehow I managed to miss it even during the mid-‘60-s syndication run, catching up with it finally in the early ‘70s.  That was only after reading about “Forms” and OL overall in John Baxter’s SCIENCE FICTION IN THE CINEMA, the same late ‘60s landmark book that first brought Jack Arnolds’ sf films to critical attention.  Baxter deemed OL the best science fiction series ever to run on television, and went on to talk about “Forms” in a way that was damned frustrating and uniquely inspiring at the same time: he provided an enticing overview of the show’s set-up, characters and specific atmospheric flavor, but never explained what the plot was actually about and where it ultimately went.  Maddening!  But oh, what my imagination did with Baxter’s carefully-chosen words as I visualized my own version of “Forms”…  And I was more determined than ever to see an apparently exceptional episode of OL that had somehow eluded me over the years.


Oh my God!  I knew “Forms of Things Unknown” was going to be a little strange, since it also served as a pilot…  But THE INVADERS theme?  I chortled with glee back in ’73 when I realized that Frontiere’s distinctive music for the Quinn Martin sci-fi series was originally composed for this ambitious OL offering, which clearly had the benefit of a larger orchestra for a richer, more nuanced rendition.  Meanwhile, in the visual department, just take look at that opening shot!  An absolutely jaw-dropping wide angle composition of a hallway studded with hanging light bulbs, soft, surreal and utterly arresting, especially with high-domed David McCallum at his most sinister, leading screamer Barbara Rush into a clock-filled madroom…  Yes, this is a teaser clip, but it’s been altered slightly, with some snappy clock shots and a forced fade on fleeing Rush, all to the PSYCHO-like tweets of Frontiere’s score.

Hooked?  You bet.  Welcome to Joseph Stefano’s most accomplished feverdream!

And the coldly scientific/futuristic graphics of THE OUTER LIMITS opening, in startling counterpoint to this teaser’s baroque flavor, remind us of the unique, decidedly offbeat blend of related (and unrelated) genres just up ahead…


No Control Voice here, folks.  Simply a series of arty driving shots, with a reckless, vaguely sophisticated couple tearing down a road, making love instead of watching it.  But before you can cry “accident!” – we’ve got a freeze frame on their speeding wheel, even as it kicks up dirt.  Hold on this for at least two long seconds.  WTF--?  Now CUT to a tracking shot of a most placid lake as credits roll and Frontiere’s crazy speed music abruptly transforms into tranquil, if uneasy and disturbing, questing notes.  And indeed, we do see something in this lake that seems a little disturbing.  It’s a man in a bathing suit.  Just standing there, somewhat enigmatically.  When he hesitates upon entering the water, his evil, self-amused little smile speaks volumes.  Say hello to Andre Pavan (Scott Marlowe), a handsome, ravenous, sadistic devil, keeper of two interesting ‘older’ women, willful Kassia (Vera Miles) and fearful Leonora (Barbara Rush).  Both are forced into the lake to serve him a poisoned drink, which we saw efficiently prepared by these lethal ladies even as Conrad Hall offered up a frame full of Andre’s grinning, sensual mouth.  What follows is an agonizing death scene, shot with every compelling visual trick in the book, and ultimately culminating in an equally impressive transition, as wide-angled Kassia, dragging Andre’s body out of the water, swings her head skyward and a thunderstorm commences.  We’re next on the road – guess who’s been stuffed in the trunk? – as the “tick-tock” motif of Frontiere’s score, anticipating events to come, lushly dominates.  A weird funeral procession leads to “the fastest zoom in movie history” as rattled Leonora begins to suspect that evil Andre is still alive.  She remembers exactly what he looked like because her “soul photographed him” before they shut the trunk hood.  Discussing all this in the rain, Kassia and Leonora are both startled to see a silhouetted, hands-on-hips male figure for a split second, almost like some time-traveling apparition winking in and out.  Leonora freaks, runs past the now-empty trunk, and finally seeks refuge in a nearby mansion.  “Do you want to tell the world what we did, and why we had to do it?” Kassia urgently reminds her friend.  But it’s too late.  An enigmatic blind “butler”, Colas (Cedric Hardwicke) opens the door, and offers these desperate women shelter from the storm.  Nice how director Oswald holds back on Colas’ reveal, staying with Kassia as she explains about their car “breaking down”; then we head straight for this aged character’s moist, sightless eyes.  Brilliant move!  The repeating three-note INVADERS music drones away ominously, this time ushering us into a commercial…


Welcome to Mr. Tone Hobart’s tick-tocking abode, complete with light bulbs strung about the hallways and mesmerizing spinning do-dads in the living room.  Every single one of Conrad Hall’s shots in this sequence is a stylized masterpiece, from insane up-angles on Colas opening a door to synchronized, star-lensed head moves in extreme CU.  Before very long, another silhouetted foretaste of Hobart’s other-worldliness leads to his actual, first-time appearance.  “Please do not need me or needlessly disturb me,” Tone (David McCallum) advises the lethal ladies with Shakespearean panache, for he has a great deal to accomplish upstairs.  This involves restoring Pavan’s dead body to life in an oh-so-strange room of clocks, countless clocks, all connected by shimmering wires to a central shaft.  We arrive there via a tracking shot through that cavernous, light bulb-lined hallway, and Tone’s abrupt shutting of the workshop door suggests something unholy happening on the other side.  Kassia borrows fireplace tools to bury “dead” Andre, presumably still in the trunk, when Tone comes upon Leonora alone…and “intrudes on her reverie.”  It is here, now, that this elegant fellow explains his bizarre agenda with the first words of actual science we’ve heard so far… What if the past and present are actually two separate time cycles, he suggests, “coiling about us concurrently.”  Mightn’t a well-calculated ‘tilt’ enable a human being to slip from one realm of reality to another?  Apparently it happened once before – Tone confesses he was indeed dead, and returned from the great beyond through the use of his clicking clock device.  Now it will happen again, this time with Andre… the “crushed clown” and would-be blackmailer of his two haunted visitors.   As an advancing Hobart delivers Stefano’s million-dollar speech to terrified Leonora, light reflects off his intense facial features in the best tradition of Mario Bava.  Music?  It’s that far sadder, secondary theme from THE INVADERS, the one we hear under “the stars of tonight’s episode,” but played with greater sensitivity (and a fuller orchestra).  This is probably the most compelling scene in an episode overflowing with impressive sequences.  Moments later, a terrified Leonora flees Tone’s workshop, for Andre is not connected to clocks at all anymore.  Instead, seemingly lifeless, he’s back in the car trunk, even as startled, poker-brandishing Kassia hears her friend scream while she’s opening it.


After carrying fainted Leonora back inside the house, Tone correctly surmises that his latest “tilt” experiment seems to have worked.  As he ventures outdoors, almost giddily, to “explain it all” to resurrected Andre Pavan, Kassia returns to the house for a most revealing chat with Colas.  It is here where we learn all about Mr. Hobart’s “sci-fi” back story (THE UNKNOWN cites madness, not a time-tilted return from oblivion, as Tone’s biggest problem).  We also learn that Tone is merely a guest in what is actually Colas’ home (“You mistook me for a servant,” he tells the surprised ladies.  “There is so little difference between a host and a servant.”).  Although Leonora finally seems to show a little backbone by insisting that she and Kassia leave Colas’ house in peace, the sudden reappearance of a very-much alive Andre, popping out of the car trunk for kicks, changes these plans in a hurry.


“Refill, please?” laughs Andre, startling Kassia and freaking Leonora out once again.  Colas, nearly tumbling into camera, finds Mr. Hobart on the ground outside after the clock master survives a disquieting encounter with Pavan (“I was wrong to bring him back.”).  But Andre’s not finished with Kassia (that “sleek sack of sin”) and a pistol-brandishing Tone, whom he lulls into reverie state before disarming him.  In THE UNKNOWN, he pierces Hobart’s ego-protecting armor of madness and hits back hard with his own diseased frustrations (it’s quite a scene).  As fate would have it, Pavan’s impromptu attempt to run over Kassia results in an accident that kills him – for real, this time.  Now, through an old letter discovered by Leonora and read aloud to her by Tone, we finally learn why this “scientist” does what he does, and what specific events have lead to the surreal melodrama we’ve just experienced.  Tone’s letter was written for his father.  It explains that he left school prematurely because he was only interested in searching for ways of bringing dead people back to life.  He wanted to bring his mother back.  Now Tone realizes the folly of this melancholy goal, and asks Leonora to help him destroy the life-restorer after he’s used it one last time.  Kassia’s sudden appearance causes Leonora to race inside the clock workroom, followed by a desperate Tone and the wildest up (and upside-down!) angles yet devised by Hall.  “Don’t destroy it – I need it!  To slide me back…into death!” Hobart cries, pushing Leonora aside while joining himself to the device’s central shaft.

Seconds later he is gone.  Vanished into oblivion.   Everything in the world seems to stop with the abrupt cessation of myriad clock tickings, as Kassia, Leonora and Colas just stand in Hobart’s workshop, numbed and transfixed.  And summing things up with celebratory resolve, composer Frontiere jumps in with a beautiful closing cue, synched to Hobart’s swinging pendulum, which reflects his now disabled time-tilter.

No closing narration here.  How could there be?  Just this amazing shot and unforgettable music.  Fade out.


With the possible exception of the final episode of THE PRISONER (“Fall Out”), there has never been an hour of network television as gleefully outlandish and self-consciously “arty” as this.  Stylistically, “The Forms of Things Unknown” might be described as “One step beyond THE OUTER LIMITS” (better make that five steps), with narrative reduced to almost poem-like simplicity and the distinctive, black-and-white look of LIMITS refined and enhanced, rendering it more flamboyant than ever.  Not only does “the mood” carry this piece, it IS the piece; an aggressive dose of sophisticated filmmaking totally alien to television and even most American theatrical movies at this time.  You don’t have to be a fan of LES DIABOLIQUES to sense that Stefano and company were bringing nothing less than art house cinema into our living rooms, and at 7:30, yet!

Adding it all up, “The Forms of Things Unknown”/”The Unknown” is an amazing visual poem masquerading as both an episode of THE OUTER LIMITS and the pilot for an unproduced network series.   It is most assuredly NOT for all tastes, coming full circle in this analysis.  But for those of us who respond to an audacious, oddly elegant sensibility that transcends conventional filmed storytelling, it is the rarest and most delicious of artistic feasts.


I imagine the CD containing Frontiere’s score for “The Unknown” has been covered at length already.  It’s certainly a must for anyone who loves this episode and the composer’s striking work.  Unfortunately, my favorite cue from the entire score, the one used when Tone delivers Stefano’s wonderful “see him live again!” speech to a stunned Leonora, was in such bad shape that it couldn’t be included on this disc.  But just about everything else is in the collection, including that amazing final cue (out-of-sequence, but it’s there).  Between this score, THE OUTER LIMITS CD and THE INVADERS CD scheduled for release later in the year, Frontiere’s groundbreaking sci-fi music will at last be fully showcased.

Gary Gerani is the author of Fantastic Television, the first book to focus on science-fiction, fantasy and horror TV. In association with IDW, Gerani recently launched a new publishing company, Fantastic Press, with November's TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES. Next up is TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES in April. His graphic novel, BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP (which takes on that famous nightmare voyage from Varna to Whitby, as you-know-who feeds on the crew of the Demeter), is available now and has garnered several nice reviews. That's him on the right, wearing the now-disintegrated Andro headpiece.


  1. What he said.

    I wonder if this is the most polarizing episode of TOL? Indeed, we've had a few...

    I definitely share your great fondness for this one. Thank you for tackling it, Gary, and for a vivid and impassioned play-by-play. Well done, sir.

  2. Looking through my dvds I just stumbled across a bootleg dvd of the pilot episode THE UNKNOWN, which I just watched. The main difference being McCallum gets shot at the end. But at only 46 minutes this feels like an edited version and I actually prefer the OUTER LIMITS episode.

    This is definitely a highpoint of the series and an example of high quality TV.

  3. Beautiful analysis, Gary. You leave little to be said. There's not much middle ground with this one: You love it as an art-house mini-feature or disdain it as an OL episode that goes over-the-top self-consciously arty (and doesn't even include the obligatory "bear").

    It's top three, for me, if only because you never see anything remotely approaching this level of envelope-pushing cinematic art in films, much less TV. This film is a catalogue of camera artistry and a grand nexus of fine actors seizing a theatrical opportunity on film and running with it. Every role hums with cryptic fascination; every line is invested with layered resonance.

    No, people don't talk like this. It's why we have theater, and poetry. To transcend the mundane in everyday speech and see what truth and beauty might lie in the best expressions of our desperate words and actions. And not everyone cares as much about What Does This Mean? as about What Happens Next? But there's room for both. Which is why we have both pure entertainment and pure art in any form of expression, and everything in between.

    I saw the old style/substance argument crop up in the main Comments. It's an insoluble one. Neither is "more important," in the subjective long-view, but public opinion will always favor substance because we're a show-me-something-measurable, results-driven species.

    But there are a lot of us who might admit to being charmed by style. And I'll cop to being a sucker for a work that simply blows my mind without leaving some cheap consolation prize in the resultant crater. Not every narrative has to be tortured into a story that makes "sense" to be of value. And now and again, I'll take a game that's lost with brilliant style over a boring, workmanlike victory. Especially in a state of being where all "victories" are ephermal.

    This is rare and wonderful artistry. As you say, Gary, it's the culmination of the Stefano-Oswald-Hall triumvirate's seasonal efforts. The vanguard for a terrific series that might have been and the flagship of the present one.

  4. Gary: You have written here an extraordinary piece that excavates well the values of this off-beat episode. Your description of the episode in terms of the French New Wave is perfect, and I wonder if, for many of us, this was actually our first introduction to that milieu. As you suggest, just imagine what a series introduction this episode would have made...

    I know there's a debate about style over substance here, but this "gleefully outlandish" episode is perfect for a one-off. If you can't experiment and push boundaries at least a few times in an anthology with a stable of over twenty segments, what's the use of the form, right?

    Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your take on "Forms of Things Unknown," a real treasure of OL. Thank you for this spotlight.

  5. My pleasure, John. And thanks so much, Larry and Ted, for your kind compliments. Yeah, it is one helluva show, isn't it? And Walker, I probably agree with you about which version is "better": a little touch of genuine science fiction enhances this surreal fable in just the right way. That said, there's something darkly disturbing about an enigmatic madman who only thinks he has conquered time and death, making this version of Tone a tad more Norman Bates-ish. Still, in any incarnation, "Unknown" pushes my cinema-savoring buttons like no other episode!

  6. Good summary Gary. Thanks for the extra info. regarding this strange episode.

  7. This is a late addition--I meant to write earlier to commend both Gary and Ted for such passionate and thoughtful writing about this episode. I've been kind of surprised that there are so few comments overall on this one, both here and on the main post, but perhaps part of it is because you two have explored it so well that there isn't much for us to add. This is indeed one of the highlight hours of 1960s TV (maybe of all TV), an unusual gem that is opaque when you look at it one way but that shines with variegated radiance when you shift the light in another direction. Nice work in capturing that, guys!

  8. I prefer Forms over The Unknown too (I have a, maybe 4rth, generation VHS copy of The Unknown, so maybe it's not a fair comparison). I just thing that all the mad beauty and tidal wave of style and sound better matches a story where time travel is real, where anything is possible... Thanks Gary, for loving this one so much as to present such an exhaustive and illuminating spotlight.

  9. Wow. This is the best analysis I've read of what is without doubt my single favorite television episode, ever. Thanks for sharing your enthusiastic critique with us here!


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