Wednesday, September 20, 2023

One Week From Today: "Old Skin" (9/27/23)


One week from today!

Next week on Enter The House Between, our denizens come face-to-face with their own demons in the dark matter dimension, the "old skin" of the universe...

Don't miss the series that Nerd Alert News calls a "must-listen!"

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

50 Years Ago: Satan's School for Girls (1973)

All considerations of quality aside for the moment,  a conscientious reviewer has to give the 50 year-old TV movie Satan's School for Girls (1973) some pretty serious plaudits over that incredible title.  

But then again, Satan's School for Girls comes to us from the great age of TV-movies; when they boasted colorful and memorable monikers such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), or A Cold Night's Death (1973).  

As the title makes abundantly clear, this made-for-TV movie was also produced during the rarefied age of  1970s Devil film: the wonderful spell between Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and The Exorcist  (1973). 

Specifically, this Aaron Spelling TV-movie first aired on September 19, 1973, and later earned a reputation, according to The New York Times, as one of the most "memorable" made-for TV horrors of the disco decade.  It was even re-made in the year 2000, with Shanen Doherty in the lead role.

The original Satan's School for Girls stars fetching scream queen Pamela Franklin (And Soon the Darkness [1970], Legend of Hell House [1974]) as Elizabeth Sayers, a young woman investigating the apparent suicide of her beloved sister Martha.  

To that end, Elizabeth masquerades as a new student at Martha's former school, the exclusive and 300-year old Salem Academy for Women.

Elizabeth enrolls immediately in two classes: Behavioral Psychology with creepy Professor Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner) and an art class with hunky Dr. Clampett (Roy Thinnes).   In the latter class, Clampett urges the female students to "hang loose" and remember that everything in life is both "illusion and reality." 

Elizabeth soon befriends several students, including resourceful Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), popular Jody (Cheryl Ladd) and the troubled Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson).  Debbie, in particular, appears afraid...and has painted a creepy portrait of the dead Martha trapped in what appears to be an old cellar.

Elizabeth locates that ancient cellar in her very dorm, Standish Hall, and learns from Roberta about a creepy local legend; about eight Salem witches who were hanged in a cellar just like that.  

After Elizabeth discovers that Debbie has also committed suicide, she investigates the files in the office of the Headmistress.  She learns that all the students at the school have been orphaned; just as Elizabeth herself has been orphaned.  She also learns that student files on Debbie and Martha are missing...

Then, late at night, when the power goes out, Dr.Clampett evacuates the campus save for Roberta and Elizabeth.  

In the dark, quiet loneliness of the cellar, Satan soon makes his play for eight young, impressionable and father-less souls to replace the ones he lost in Salem all those years ago.  

"I welcome what man rejects," he tells his would-be acolytes with open arms

And he's reserved a spot  just for Elizabeth...

Now, I'm not quite old enough (but almost old enough!) to remember Satan's School for Girls from its original transmission  Rather, I first saw it sometime in the early 1980s in weekend syndication.  I probably saw it when I was eleven or twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since.

And now, after watching Satan's School for Girls again, at least I have a better understanding of why that's the case.  

The movie, released on DVD by an outfit called "Cheezy Movies," looks like a relic from another lifetime.  The TV-movie is simple, straight-forward and even innocent in a weird sort of way by today's standards.  Yet some of the horror moments really do get the blood pumping.  This is a major accomplishment, because it's clear the movie was made for next to nothing.  There are no real visual or make-up effects to speak of, and almost the entire film takes place in just four of five interiors.

But Laurence Rosenthal's steroidal musical score works over-time to build shivers and anxiety, and director David Lowell Rich does an effective job keeping to the basics.  Many scenes have been lensed entirely at night, or in the dark, Gothic passages on the campus.  Thunder roars on the soundtrack, lightning crackles, and heavy doors creak regularly.  The fear expressed here -- simply -- is of being alone at night, in the darkness, and wondering if something malevolent might be hiding in the impenetrable blackness close-by.  

Nothing more complicated than that.

Yet it's amazing how many modern horror movies forget that it is the simple things that scare us the most.  A basement in the dark.  A storm at midnight.  The intimation of the diabolical.  Roy Thinnes in tight polyester pants...

Okay, I try not to do snark, in part because there are so many other places on the Internet where you can so readily find it, but if you're inclined to laugh or giggle at Satan's School of Girls, it's probably easy to do so.  I can't, in good conscience, deny that. 

The performances -- much like the narrative -- are oddly naive and almost child-like.  But if you're willing to buy into the movie (and it helps if you have some nostalgia for it), Satan's School for Girls unnerves in a very efficient, very 1970s fashion. You want to giggle and assure yourself that a cheap TV-movie effort like this couldn't possibly bother you.

But just try watching it alone in the dark. At night. The cheesiness sort of evaporates and you find yourself in the midst of this very sincere, very straight-forward and eminently creepy tale. Everyone involved really committed to it (just look at that actress screaming for her life in the still near the top of this post!) so what the hell is our excuse for not doing likewise, right?

And, if you dig just a little under the surface of Satan's School for Girls the movie actually features some interesting  ideas. It's a movie about girls who don't have fathers, and who try to find a father figure in either Professor Clampett or Professor Delacroix. Clampett urges the girls to "condemn nothing" and "embrace everything" -- the 1970s equivalent of "just do what feels good," and Delacroix treats the students like rats in a maze; hoping to awake them from their "passivity" should they ever encounter real "terror."

If you've seen the film, you know which of these guys is really the Devil in the disguise -- either the liberal artist or the paranoid psychologist -- but the push-pull between the clashing philosophies at least gives the viewer something to think about between scenes of screaming ingenues.

Satan's School for Girls is worth a curiosity viewing just for the cheeky title (as well as the bizarre opening sequence in which Martha grows terrified -- terrified I tell you! -- at the  sudden, unexplained appearance of not one, but two strange old men). But more than that, if you let yourself buy into the premise of this 1973 made-for-TV movie, you might just get a good schooling in old-fashioned terror.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Enter The House Between Episode 8, "Old Skin," Premieres Next Wednesday, 9/27!

Enter The House Between's next new episode, "Old Skin," premieres next Wednesday, 9/27, on YouTube, Spotify,  Audible, etc. 

This episode, the penultimate before the season finale, follows immediately after the climax of "Temple of Immensity,"and features some unforgettable character moments, not to mention the arrival of a mysterious guest character (and guest performer) as well. 

"Old Skin," is a different kind of tale, one more aligned with the rubber reality sub-genre of the horror movie genre.  Think Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Phantasm.

As many of you know, I love to play with the expectations and tropes of various genres, so before we finish up the season, you'll have listened to blockbuster action ("The Oneness Intended for Us All,"),  a love story ("Love Conducted Unto One Death,") a mind-bending mental hospital story ("Folie a Famille"), a closed room mystery, ("Dresden,") and next, rubber reality. 

Each type of story has its own challenges and pitfalls, of course, but its fun putting the denizens through a "multiverse" of genres in a single season.

Anyway, I can't wait for you to listen to "Old Skin" next week. I'm already counting down...

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Outer Limits' 60th: "The Invisible Enemy"

As I've written here before, I'm a big fan for the "doomed space expedition"-style story featured in horror/sci-fi films like Alien (1979), and Europa Report (2013) or depicted on TV series such as Space:1999 ("Dragon's Domain,") Dr. Who ("Planet of Evil") and The Twilight Zone ("Death Ship").

I harbor endless fascination with these tales about courageous astronauts who brave dangers alien and eerie in remote corners of the universe; cut off from Earth; cut off from help.

It's just a thing with me, I suppose...a frontier spirit maybe; or perhaps just a deeply-held belief that the next hill is always worth climbing, whatever the danger lurking on the other side. That danger doesn't have to be a monster in these macabre stories, just something unknown...and perhaps inexplicable. Like the planet in Solaris (1972), for instance.

And that brings us to one of my favorite TV examples of the form; one that does feature a (very memorable) monster: an Outer Limits episode (from the second season) titled "The Invisible Enemy." 

Appropriately enough, the episode (written by Jerry Sohl and directed by Byron Haskin) first aired on Halloween in 1964, and it's guaranteed -- even today -- to give you a little shiver.

The Control Voice (our series narrator) describes this tale as a "painful step from the crib of destiny" and "part of the saga of the space pioneers." More specifically, the episode involves a rocket, called M2 that lands on the chalky surface of Mars to investigate the disappearance, three years earlier, of the first mission to the Red Planet by the M1.

Commanding this rescue/exploratory mission is Major Merritt, played by a pre-Batman Adam West. His first mate is the scoundrel Buckley (Rudy Solari), who describes himself -- pre Dr. McCoy -- as just an old "country astronaut." The entire crew of the M2 has been ordered by Earth Control (and a computer named Telly...) to remain constantly in eye sight of one another while on the surface. The M1 crew separated. And disappeared. In the blink of an eye...

Even with this edict in place, a subordinate, Mr. Lazzari suddenly disappears on the crumbly planet surface. Lazzari's fate may also prove amusing to Star Trek fans since he is played by Peter Marko -- doomed Mr. Gaetano in the Trek episode "The Galileo 7." Then another astronaut, Frank Johnson, also disappears...also in an impossibly fast fashion.

In short order, Merritt and Buckley discover that the sand on Mars is actually a living ocean of sorts. And that swimming beneath the surface of this glittering sea is a race of monstrous, carnivorous sand sharks. The astronauts Lazzari and Johnson were pulled down below...and eaten. The monsters, in fact, can smell human blood...

Merritt discovers the subterranean sharks while trapped atop a rock in the middle of the "ocean" even as a sand storm blows the tide higher and higher. It is at this moment -- with man and beast in the same shot -- that the audience realizes for the first time how colossal the sand shark is. One step into the sand, and Merritt will meet the same grim fate as his crew members.

In the end, the surviving Earth men escape the hungry sand sharks and return safely to Earth. The episode makes a big point of the fact that the astronauts both survive, in large part, because they willfully ignored Ground Control (and Telly...) and made "human" decisions in the heat of the moment instead.'s a kind of pioneer spirit. Free from bureaucracy and committee; with life or death on the line.

One reason I enjoy "The Invisible Enemy" so much (besides my fetish with 1960s future-tech...) is the exquisite, black-and-white visualization of the Martian landscape. 

Though scientifically inaccurate -- there's air on Mars!? --- the terrain is nonetheless foreboding, barren...and gorgeous. Rocky outcroppings dot the horizon, and the endless sand ocean glimmers and brims with mystery. In one evocative shot (from Buckley's perspective), the sandy sea actually transforms into an Earth-style, watery sea, and that's how the astronaut begins to suspect the existence of, well, sea life.

But the image I've always remembered most from this episode involves the monster itself: the roaring, hungry sea shark. We first see an ugly dorsal spine cut above the sand, like a shark fin cutting over a watery-surface. 

And then, over time, more of the beast is revealed until we understand it to be some sort of huge, malevolent, gliding, under-sand dragon. One of the episode's final shots is a humdinger too: a whole school of the beasts -- six or seven, perhaps -- breaking the surface after their brethren is killed...with vulnerable man just outside reach, on the rocky shore beyond. 

"The Invisible Enemy" also reminds me of a (buried) fear of mine from childhood (no doubt brought on by my exposure to Blood Beach [1980]): the idea of disappearing beneath the sand on the beach, grabbed and eaten by something invisible and avaricious.

When we do get to Mars, there likely won't be giant sand sharks waiting for us in dusty seas, but there will, no doubt, be other Invisible Enemies. 

Perhaps just the elements themselves. 

Hopefully we'll meet those challenges with the same insight and resourcefulness demonstrated by Merritt and Buckley in this classic Outer Limits episode.

The Outer Limits' 60th: "The Guests"

In the Outer Limits episode called “The Guests,” a drifter in a leather jacket named Wade (Geoffrey Horne) is inexplicably trapped in the past -- metaphorically and literally -- when he happens inside an alien “brain” that has assumed the shape of a Victorian mansion atop a hill summit.            

This imposing edifice -- which occupies a space entirely outside the Laws of Physics -- serves as home to several strangers including a faded silent screen star, Florinda Patten (Gloria Graham), a Wall Street investment banker of questionable morality, Randall Latimer (Vaughn Taylor), and his gleefully cruel wife, Ethel (Nellie Burt).  All these souls have been denizens of the alien house since 1928 and evidence little interest in leaving it.

The hidden master inside this dark old house is an inquisitive monstrosity: a quivering, gelatinous thing from another dimension who seeks the “missing vector” that will enable him to better comprehend the human race.  

The emotionless, questing creature probes Wade’s mind several times and discovers at last the missing “one note in the symphony.”  

It is, simply, “love.” 

Specifically, Wade’s romantic, selfless attachment to another captive in the house, the lovely Tess (Luana Anders), ultimately proves the factor that resolves the alien’s incomplete equation. When Tess leaves the safe temporal “bubble” of the house, super-ages and dies in a matter of seconds to preserve Wade’s freedom, the house begins to shift back to the alien’s dimension.  

After escaping the strange trap, Wade watches the alien brain fade into nothingness, and continues down the road on his journey…

Strange, unsettling and dominated by extreme camera angles that suggest the cinema of German Expressionism, “The Guests” is a gloom-laden, visually-dazzling, and often surreal entry in The Outer Limits canon.  

Specifically, the Donald Sanford (Thriller) entry is a deliberate and artful blending of literary movements, old and new.  The episode has widely and appropriately been described as “Gothic" for its familiar horror and romantic flourishes, settings, and characters.  At the same time, however, this episode of The Outer Limits also mirrors the perspective of the post-war, Beat Generation, especially the movement’s dedicated opposition to modern warfare, military technology, and such middle class balms as leisure and material affluence.

Regarding its Gothic influences, “The Guests” highlights a common setting in the genre: a house that appears to be haunted both by an external, self-organizing “supernatural” force and by the personal, individual secrets and sins of the human dwellers within.  Unlike Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), however, there’s no mad woman hiding in the attic, but rather a monster holding court in an upstairs bedroom.  

Furthermore, the character of Tess -- who harbors a grotesque secret about her age and true physical appearance until “The Guest’s” last act -- also recalls the attractive/repulsive romantic duality one might expect to find in such Gothic standards as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844).  

In both stories, scientific advancement transforms a young woman of pure innocence and beauty into something inhuman and grotesque.  In the case of “The Guests,” however, it is alien custodianship and the instantaneous passage of decades that is responsible for Tess’s final crone-like appearance, not the interference of her flawed, human, scientist father.

Most significantly, however, “The Guests” veritably obsesses upon the familiar Gothic trope of ancestral, historical sins cursing future generations.  Here affluent American society is represented by the triumvirate of Randall, Ethel and Florinda.  Each one of these characters from the early 20th century is presented as being corrupt in some essential fashion.  

Randall was on his way to face legal charges for unethical behavior on Wall Street (shortly before the Great Depression…) when he was captured and waylaid by the brain.  

Ethel, Randall’s wife, makes verbal cruelty a sport and favorite pastime.  This is a commentary, perhaps, on the fact that, as an aristocrat’s wife, she has no other productive activity to contribute to the culture.  Idle hands make for the devil’s work. And for a forked tongue too.

And finally, Florinda is the living embodiment of vanity or self-love, hoping to retain her Hollywood celebrity and youthful appearance for eternity.  She is concerned only with herself, not the planet, and certainly not her fellow man. She is all about narcissism.

Importantly, only Wade -- the Jack Kerouac-styled, Beat Generation drifter -- can reveal to the alien being something positive and valuable about human nature; something not tethered to the institutions and established “ancestral” sins of the species and the culture. 

Specifically, Wade is willing to remain in the house out of love for a woman from a different time period, Tess. He is willing to put his freedom on the line, and even his mind itself.  

The Guests” aired in 1964, a scant few years after the publication of such Beat Generation literary landmarks as William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) and Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl (1960), so perhaps it is no surprise that this new school of American philosophy would find prominence in at least one outing of this literary-minded science fiction TV series.

By the time of The Outer Limits, the Beats were already morphing into “Beatniks” (and well on their way to becoming hippies by the end of the decade…), but still, this episode adeptly homes in on such then-contemporary Beat Generation conventions as evil capitalists (the unscrupulous Latimer), the futility of war, and the heroic depiction of the protagonist Wade as one of the so-called “angel-headed hipsters” of Ginsberg.

Gazing closely at “The Guests,” one can discern how many Beat Generation obsessions dominate the narrative. When Wade is confronted with the Monster Upstairs, it dispassionately tallies for him the positives and negatives of the human condition.  Amongst the negative factors are fear and hatred, hopelessness and, importantly, war.  

One of the positive conditions is art. “Art could be mankind’s destiny,” the alien determines.  

This is very much a Beat-styled assessment: that the individuality encompassed in art can lead man out of the dark, materialistic and militaristic mindset of American in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the epoch when President Dwight Eisenhower warned citizens about the increasing and dangerous influence of the military-industrial complex. 

Twice in “The Guests,” images of nuclear detonations – mushroom clouds -- are highlighted, and in one conversation with Tess, Wade expressly describes the atom bomb's horrible power.   This imagery is reflective of Beat Generation anti-war sympathies and also an embodiment of Gothic sin; a sin grown from the American past that Wade has opted out of by becoming a drifter and taking his life “on the road.”

Examined in this light,  “The Guests” is very much a pitched battle between historical literary traditions, with the Gothic aspects representing a secretive, corrupt, even “monstrous” past, and the Beat movement representing a new hope of sorts; a new paradigm or outline for human happiness in the age of technology unchained.  

For example, the people inside the scary old house attempt to forestall inevitable fate and live forever.  They knowingly defy “the forlorn rags of growing old,” a human eventuality which Kerouac considered the only certainty in life…and in the end they pay the price for their hubris, and for cheating Nature herself.   

By contrast, the drifter, Wade, and his lover, Tess, embody the opposite impulse.  They each broach personal sacrifice, imprisonment, and death for the possibility of the other’s happiness. This idea is very much the beginning of a Beat-styled “second religiousness” for Wade.  He recognizes that a better future can be forged on love and personal sacrifice than on material wealth and warfare.

“The Guests” connection to Beat Generation writers actually extends beyond even a straight-forward interpretation of the episode’s theme or “message.”  The form of the episode -- the visuals -- reflect the content to a powerful degree.  The works of Beat Generation authors such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs are frequently described with adjectives such as “surreal,” “Dadaist” or simply “dream-like,” in part because these notorious authors were not shy in their use of illegal drugs to spur their sense of creativity.  

Accordingly, dream imagery and discussions of dream states permeate the “The Guests.”  At one point, Wade discusses how he feels as though he is “having a bad dream.”   He is also told that the alien will “control” his “dreams now” and that the alien has even “undreamed” the house’s windows and front door. 

Finally, there’s a discussion of “dreaming a life” or “living a dream,” and the (real?) distinction between those two descriptions.  But the point here is that the visuals themselves are determinedly dream-like, or more aptly, nightmarish.

“The Guests” opens with expressive film techniques that overtly suggest a Gothic, traditional influence, in keeping with the story’s central locale.  When Wade first approaches the house/brain, director Paul Stanley’s camera views the man from inside a second-story window, through dangling curtains.  However, the curtains draw down mysteriously, falling around Wade in the frame and effectively squeezing out his space. This is a visual cue to suggest that Wade is walking into a trap, and the next shot -- an ominous overhead, extreme-high-angle view of the haunted house’s Victorian foyer -- takes that thought even further.

Eventually, such expressive, Gothic horror compositions give way to more avant-garde, surreal, modern, Beat Generation-styled ones.  While attempting to escape the house later in the episode, for example, Wade ventures into a seemingly infinite realm of darkness, one punctuated only by the occasional Greek column.  Here, there is no end and no beginning.  As viewers, we suspect that we have entered the corridors of the alien’s mind.  

“Interesting architecture?” asks one character in the drama, but that description hardly covers it.  Indeed, in the course of an hour, The Outer Limits goes from employing familiar Gothic, horror-styled visuals to surreal images instead. Doors appear without walls to support them.  Wade seems to walk on a path of light down a hallway of infinite dimensions. Interiors open mysteriously into exterior graveyards, and so forth.

Perhaps because Donald S. Sanford’s story plants its feet for so long within the confines of that dark, old house, “The Guests” thrives as one of the mostly deeply unsettling and claustrophobic episodes of The Outer Limits pantheon.  From the first time that house on the hill appears, the episode aims for throat-tightening fear, and hits the target.  On the soundtrack, a weird, syncopated heart-beat rhythm plays -- repetitious and ominous -- a reflection of the evils trapped inside the edifice.  

Another frightening moment sees Wade dragged up a long, dark, shadowy staircase into the realm of the monster, entirely against his will, while the others watch…smiling at his misfortune.

Perhaps it is that moment of involuntary action that best reflects the point of this Outer Limits episode.  It is a point ably expressed in Tess’s final sacrificial act, and in the work of the Beat Poets.

Sometimes in life, we fear we are being dragged, helpless, out of control, towards a future we haven’t chosen for ourselves. 

But that’s the illusion we must battle, argues “The Guests.”   We can choose love over hate, individuality over conformity, and escape over imprisonment.  We can solve the human equation to our liking and not to the tune of tradition or conventions like capitalism.

There’s a reason, this episode isn’t called “The Prisoners.”  In its clash of Gothic and Beat Generation aesthetics, “The Guests” reminds audiences how easy it is for humans to decorate even the most horrible cages to appear “acceptable.”   Here, Ethel, Latimer, Florinda and even Tess -- at least for a time -- opt to remain trapped in the known but unsatisfactory past rather than countenance an unknown future.   

Many Outer Limits episodes are anti-war and pro-human in sentiment, but by marrying the terrors of Gothic expression to the criticisms and solutions of the contemporary Beat Generation, “The Guests” proves one of the most emotional, artistic and purely human of the series canon.  It's a weird, weird episode, but one that contributes greatly to an understanding of where America "was" in the early 1960s. 

(Note: A version of this essay also appeared at We Are Controlling Transmission in 2011, a blog devoted to The Outer Limits.).

The Outer Limits' 60th: "Fun and Games"

Originally published in Astounding Magazine in June of 1944 Fredric Brown’s short story “Arena” has since become a staple of science fiction television, re-purposed -- and sometimes without attribution -- for many diverse series.  

The story has been featured on The Outer Limits as "Fun and Games," on Star Trek (1966-1969) as "Arena," on Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) as "The Rules of Luton," on Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) as "Duel" on  Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) as "Buck's Duel to the Death," and later, on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) as "The Last Outpost."

Brown’s influential story revolves around a space war between Earth Man and “intelligent spider” aliens called "Outsiders.”  

During one combat engagement, a human pilot, Carson is beamed from the cockpit of his one-man “scouter,” and transported to the narrative’s titular arena: a planet of blue-colored sand and strange, talking lizards. There, an omnipotent alien explains to Carlson that the cosmic conflict won't be settled between the stars, but in this very ring.  The human will fight an Outsider -- a round, tentacled organism -- to the death.

Should Carson lose this brutal contest, mankind will be wiped out of existence. Contrarily, if Carson prevails in the match, the human race inherits the universe and the Outsiders shall be destroyed.  

In the end, Carson vanquishes his alien nemesis without any significant reservations, committing an act of violence that is a “moral imperative” according to the tale's author.

Written during World War II, Brown’s vignette determinedly suggested an alternative to the horrors of the times.  What if a war could be settled by two individuals -- trained warriors from each side -- rather than by the vast technological and personnel mobilization of nation-states

Wouldn’t that solution be better, more reasonable, and a far less messy way to wage war?

Across the decades, the “Arena” story template was been modified dramatically, and Brown’s Darwinian “survival of the fittest” message has frequently been overturned in favor of 1960s anti-war philosophy.   

For instance, in Star Trek’s famous “Arena,” adapted by Gene Coon, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and a Gorn commander -- like Carson and the Outsider -- are transported to a neutral planet for one-on-one combat, while omnipotent aliens known as Metrons wait to declare a victor, and destroy the loser’s ship.  

But in this iteration -- and unlike his literary antecedent -- Kirk defies the God-like aliens and refuses to kill his opposite number. The focus of this optimistic TV story is on not fighting in the first place, rather than winning or losing in person-to-person combat.

Later iterations of Brown’s outline, namely Space: 1999’s “Rules of Luton, Blake’s 7’s “Duel,” and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Last Outpost” similarly stress the “more evolved” moral ideal of resisting an arranged fight; and of defying instead the God-like aliens who desire “bread and circus”-styled entertainment from the warring behavior of other intelligent beings.

Instead of Brown’s Darwinian tale of survival of the fittest, these later programs meditate on the Sun Tzu axiom: “He will triumph who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” and turn the god aliens -- not the war enemy -- into the real villain of the story.

But “Fun and Games,” The Outer Limits’ memorable variation on the “Arena” template -- and the first to air on network TV -- remains determinedly different from such later re-tellings.

Specifically, “Fun and Games” is the only version of Fredric Brown’s story (though not credited as such by the Daystar series…) which doesn't feature an overtly futuristic setting (like the 23rd century setting of Trek, or the 25th century setting of the Buck Rogers’ episode “Buck’s Duel to the Death.”)  

Rather, the story takes place in America of the 1960s.

Even more significantly however, “Fun and Games” differentiates itself from its TV brethren by focusing squarely on contemporary, flawed man, rather than on more idealized, knowledgeable men of the Space Age like James Kirk, Buck Rogers or Will Riker.  

Instead, Robert Specht’s teleplay “Fun and Games,” originally called “Natural Selection,” focuses squarely on two 20th century human outcasts, a man and a woman of less-than-sterling character who quite unexpectedly are called upon by alien gamesters on Andera (very nearly an anagram for the word “arena…”).  Their task: to battle primitive “Calco” aliens…with the survival of the Earth at stake.  

Actually, “Fun and Games’” primary protagonists might even be considered bad people rather than heroes, at least in terms of the standards and traditions of the 1960s.  Benson (Nick Adams) is a small-time hood and ex-boxer with questionable ethics, while Laura Hanley (Nancy Malone) outwardly presents the appearance of sterling character but is actually a divorcee who left her husband because, simply, she didn’t want to be “his mother.”  The Anderan Senator, who lords over the gladiatorial games challenges Laura on her characterization of the marital separation.  

The truth is, explains the Senator, Laura’s husband just wanted “help” and she did not want to offer it.

Benson and Laura are hardly paragons of humanity, at least by most Camelot-era ideals.  And yet they are deliberately selected by the Anderan Senator to represent us in the battle to save the Earth.  

Both the questionable natures of the protagonists and the story’s focus on the necessity of killing -- rather than avoiding the fight -- render “Fun and Games” perhaps the hardest edge variation on Brown’s “Arena" in cult-tv history.

Yet, in keeping squarely with Outer Limits tenets, “Fun and Games” also features a “nod to high-minded ideals,” as the concept was described in David J. Schow’s series literary companion.  Perhaps, the episode’s narrative suggests, the trick to winning the Anderan contest is an understanding of when to be savage and when to be civilized

Nick and Laura’s opponents, the beastly Calcos, don’t have the same sense of adaptability as their human opponents in this regard.  The male Calco kills his female partner to secure the necessary nutrients for longer-term survival on the arena planet. An ally would have been more valuable to him.

By contrast, the human female, Laura, comes to Nick’s aid at a crucial moment and double-teams the last Calco, assuring human kind “the win.”

If the Calcos are a negative example for the displaced or “electroported” humans to learn from, the Anderans are not really any better.  

The Senator is a taunting, cackling master of ceremony.  It is plain that his highly-advanced people -- no matter how “peaceful” or “affluent” -- are absent human traits such as empathy or compassion.  The Anderan quest for “pleasure” may control and appease their passions, but they are also utterly without mercy, not to mention decency.

With the negative examples of the Anderans and Calcos in mind, the high-minded moral at work in “Fun and Games” involves balancing the ups and downs of human nature; both the impulse to kill and the capacity to work with others for a common goal. The episode presents an even-handed, believable portrait of the species. 

"Fun and Games" opens with images of blood sports; of a 1960s-era boxing match and of filmic recreations of gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome, specifically.  Accompanying these visuals, the Control Voice non-emotionally discusses our human history of competition and sport, and how such games in the modern technological era have been “drained of all but their last few drops of blood.”

This not entirely positive assessment of modern “fun and games” suggests that humans -- or at least some of us -- have lost our desire to be, well, the fittest; that such blood sports somehow keep us “ready” or primed for those life-and-death occasions in which we must rise to such a challenge.  

Without regular contests to firm up those ancient instincts, do humans lack the edge necessary to survive in a hostile cosmos?

“Fun and Games” intimates that in the absence of such “authentic” blood sports, some humans -- of a certain stripe anyway -- seek other avenues to “survive” and confront challenges.  

For Nick Adams, despite his fears and professed lack of courage, this means that he survives as a criminal,  an outlaw skirting the police and involving himself in life-or-death scenarios, like a poker game gone wrong.  He spends his life as a desperate rat in a cage, running forever in place.  But always running, nonetheless…his instincts always heightened.

Although it has been reported “Fun and Games” ran short in its final cut and that producer Joseph Stefano devised the notion of playing a kind of “time loop” in the episode, rerunning the sequence of murder at Nick’s poker game in Laura’s boarding house, the deliberate repetition of time and imagery in the episode actually works to the narrative’s benefit in the final analysis.  

The repeating footage ably suggests that Benson’s life is already a life-and-death contest of sorts, each and every day, in every possible moment. It’s as though he’s trapped on a treadmill, running and re-running in place.  No end. No beginning. Just endless danger.  Endless adrenaline.

For her part, Laura has also checked out of the socially acceptable and decorous behavior of her culture (America of the mid-1960s). She ditched a husband and marriage that didn’t suit her, and now lives alone. Again, this is a brand of survival of the fittest, isn’t it?  

In the battle between fighting for her needs, and for her husband’s needs, Laura’s needs won out.  She made it so.  

Not unlike Nick then, Laura is already a least in the contest called life.   In some ways, she is even more a dedicated, hardcore fighter than Nick.  For instance, it is clear that without her assistance, Nick would have lost the Anderan contest to the Calco.  It is also clear that she uses whatever means she can think of to persuade Nick to participate in the Anderan game.

One of the many elements of The Outer Limits I’ve always appreciated is its realistic rather than idealized depiction of human beings.  There is optimism inherent in that view; a deep respect for human resourcefulness and tenacity. However, the series is not shy, either, about revealing humanity at his most savage (“The Zanti Misfits”), or his most fearful (“The Architects of Fear.”)  “Fun and Games” remains a delight because it paints a balanced picture of the human animal, simultaneously remembering the savage past and hinting at an enlightened future. 

Sometimes, mankind is willing to fight and murder, but in the case of the Anderan bread and circuses, these acts are for a very worthy cause: the survival of the species. Delightfully, the Control Voice’s final meditation about “human qualities” directing mankind to a better future in the “great darkness” of space (or the future) takes an important step beyond “Arena’s” literary narrative.   Even if the battle for survival is at hand, we would do well to wage that war with the best angels of our nature, “compassion” and “love.”    

In some situations, murder and violence may indeed be Fredric Brown’s “moral imperative,” but we don’t have to relish or enjoy these occasions.

(Note: A version of this essay also appeared at We Are Controlling Transmission in 2011, a blog devoted to The Outer Limits.).

The Outer Limits 60th: "The Zanti Misfits"

Imagine you're a little kid again. The year is 1963. And it's a Monday night.

You've just adjusted the channel on your (black-and-white) TV set to ABC. The Outer Limits is airing, and this week's "transmission" from the Control Voice involves the creepiest alien creatures you've ever seen: skittering, howling, relentless, big-eyed ants known as Zantis.

And during the final act of this Joseph Stefano-penned nightmare, these Zanti Misfits are EVERYWHERE.

They're crawling down walls, attacking American soldiers, and jumping -- literally -- out of the woodwork of a hotel-turned military installation in Morgue, CA.'s pretty much an unstoppable onslaught of alien bug-eyed monsters.

In vetting this harrowing denouement, the classic TV anthology truly lives up to producer Stefano's famous mission statement: "The viewer must know the delicious and consciously-desired element of fear..." (Gary Gerani. Fantastic Television, Harmony Books, 1977, page 57).

Another story element that Stefano always insisted upon in each episode of The Outer Limits was a focus on some important aspect of "the human condition." "The Zanti Misfits," directed by Leonard Horn, lives up to this dictum too, revolving specifically around the contemporary problem of what a"civilized" society should do with its criminals.

Here, the U.S. Government is "co-erced" by the technologically-advanced alien Zantis into accepting on our soil a shipment of their extra-terrestrial criminals. The draconian Zantis are described by the teleplay as being "perfectionists" and are genetically incapable of executing their own kind, even their most heinous law-breakers.

The Zanti Misfits encounter two small-time Earth criminals, played by a very young Bruce Dern and Olive Deering, upon landing in the California desert. This unexpected incident could cause the destruction of the Earth since the Zanti insist on privacy for the prisoners. And it is learned very quickly that Zanti have no qualms about killing human beings.

In the end, the Zanti escape their prison ship with their guards and overrun the town of Morgue, now the U.S. "warden" post for the prisoners. The U.S. Army and an inexperienced military historian, Stephen (Michael Tolan) fight for their lives, and it's utter chaos in the aforementioned final scene. 

The Zanti are finally taken out with fire, with rifles...and with good old-fashioned bug foot-stompin.'

The kind-hearted general in command of the installation (Robert Simon) fears a Zanti reprisal for this violent response from Earth men, but a transmission from the Zanti home world reveals a surprise and, indeed, some sense of relief.

"It was always our intention that you destroy them," the Ruler reveals, referring to the Zanti criminals.

In other words, the Zanti were banking on destructive human nature to resolve their problem of housing criminals. worked. As the final narration from the Control Voice points out rather trenchantly, the Zanti solution is not a human one or an in-human one. It's just a...non-human one.

What I appreciate most about The Outer Limits, and the reason why it remains worthy of extensive study and remembrance today, is the fact that each episode of the series is shot in exquisite and expressive horror-movie fashion. This episode opens, for instance, with an establishing shot of a sign reading "Restricted Area: Do Not Enter," which raises viewer anxiety and fear. What's behind the sign? What's behind the fence?

As a book-end to this mysterious opening shot, "The Zanti Misfit's" final composition reveals another sign, this one cast-off on the ground, disordered and revealing the name of the desert town: "Morgue."

Of course, the hotel and surrounding lands have been turned into a literal morgue, at least for the the sign transmits, with much gallows humor, a sense of truth. The bottom-line is that this TV drama from 1963 features, in some important ways, a deeper sense of classic film style (and film grammar) than many of the major motion pictures produced today.

In between these book-end "sign" shots, the episode finds time to orchestrate a terrific upside-down, claustrophobic of Bruce Dern surrounded by rock, expressing well the idea of death. And -- for 1963, anyway -- the Zantis are rendered pretty convincingly through stop-motion photography, especially in close-up.

I've pulled some screen-shots of these famous alien beings (probably the most famous of all Outer Limits bears...) and you can see for yourself the amazing detail on their faces, around their mouths and lips, for example. Amazingly, the Zanti are also depicted by the production as unique individuals. There's one alien criminal with facial hair ...a beard, actually. I wasn't expecting that level of differentiation in alien insects, nor so much attention to detail either.

These malevolent creatures are shot well too. Horn's camera frequently zooms-in jarringly on close-ups, and gives the audience full-on, disturbing views of these little buggers howling and complaining about their treatment and predicament. When a chase sequence in the desert is presented -- with the Zanti pursuing Olive Deering's character -- Horn goes with a hand-held camera, and the sudden herky-jerky nature of the camera really gets the blood boiling.

I know Hollywood is currently working on a feature-length remake of The Twilight Zone. Well, if The Outer Limits ever gets the same silver-screen treatment, "The Zanti Misfits" would be a prime candidate for inclusion in the project. The alien villain of this installment is extremely memorable (and disgusting...) and the central scenario is tense and involving.

The Outer Limits often concerns the idea of humanity confronting himself at the rarefied frontiers of science.  "The Zanti Misfits" is about man's willingness to kill, and more trenchantly, his willingness to kill that which is physically repugnant to him.  The alien Zantis plan the death of their criminals "perfectly."

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The Outer Limits 60th: "The Sixth Finger"

In “The Sixth Finger,” The Control Voice ponders the “wonders” or “terrors” that evolution may have in store for humanity across the next 10,000 years.  

The narrative then shifts to an old English house where a scientist, Professor Mathers (Edward Mulhare) is working in a state-of-the-art laboratory and hoping to “speed up the slow process of evolution.”

In an impatient and aggressive coal-miner named Gwylim Griffiths (David McCallum), Mathers finds his opportunity. 

Gwylim volunteers to act as guinea pig in a dangerous experiment that will transform him into the man of the future, a being who – hopefully -- can grow beyond passion and self-destruction.  Gwylim sees his transformation as an attempt to escape a lifetime of “breathing coal dust” in the dark.

Mathers’ experiment is successful, but as Gwylim evolves (and adds a sixth finger on each hand…), some crucial element of humanity is subtracted from his mental gestalt.  Gwylim becomes all cold intellect, and loses the capacity to feel, and even to love. When he kills a woman with telekineses, he feels no remorse for his actions.

Worse, Gwylim sees the local village and its ignorant inhabitants as a mortal threat to him; a threat that must be destroyed at all costs…

“The Sixth Finger” is a sort of trademark episode of The Outer Limits (1963 – 1965), and perhaps for good reason.  The story has a good, easy-to-comprehend hook, that man must not tamper in God’s domain, and the “bear” or monster -- a dome-headed, white-skinned David McCallum -- is both convincingly presented, and memorable in visage.

However, even though “The Sixth Finger” can be described in pedantic and clichéd terms, it remains a great episode of the cult-TV anthology because of McCallum’s character, Gwylim, and his aspirational quest.

When we meet Gwylim, he is covered in coal dust, excessively violent, and in love with beautiful Cathy (Jill Haworth). 

But he realizes that he can never give her the kind of life that she deserves.  He is “too smart” to remain stuck in the coal mining town for the rest of his life, but there is no opportunity for him to do anything else.  

Thus, he is effectively ensnared or trapped, and the episode symbolizes this trap with an expressionistic image.  At one point, the camera focuses on Gwylim’s balled-up fist as a visualization of his grim determination.  From this coiled fist, the viewer gets the sense that he is ready to do anything -- even kill-- to escape the meaningless life that has been “chosen” for him by fate (or is it God?)

Gwylim’s ambition to escape the limitations of his life is matched only by the ambition of Professor Mathers, a man who helped to create the atom bomb, and -- out of an intense sense of guilt -- is now desperate to engineer an “end to war.”  It doesn’t matter the cost.  Mathers desires for man to “mature” out of warring and hostility so badly that he doesn’t care that he must push, or force the issue.

And at first Gwylim does evolve in wondrous fashion.  

He learns to play the piano brilliantly (though he writes off his skill as “only a matter of mathematics and a degree of manual dexterity…”). He reads dozens of books too.  He develops his mind (and foregoes sleep, even…) and becomes a philosopher of sorts. 

Gwylim’s growth and ascent away from humanity is nicely contrasted in “The Sixth Finger” with the nature of the village locals, who are mired in the past and virtual prisoners to their parochial world-view. They don’t want to acknowledge anything different or new, and see the handiwork of the Devil in every new feat of science.  They see in the old Gothic house not a state-of-the-art laboratory, but an affront to everything they have ever believed and known.

When Gwylim evolves beyond remorse, beyond pity, he sees no value in the locals, who, by his judgment, will not be truly “civilized for a million years.”  Eventually, however, he evolves out of the need to destroy them.  Instead, he just wants one thing: to continue his evolution.  So even as an advanced being, Gwylim still possesses human ambition, a driving desire to move forward.  And thus Gwylim keeps pushing, spurring his evolution ever closer to infinity, with the help of Cathy; the woman who took him “out of the blackness” in the first place.

In expressing his aspiration to escape his lot, and to be a better man, Gwylim proves anything but a monster or villain.  Indeed, he remains a character easy to relate to. He practically aches to give Cathy a better life, and to find true happiness. He hungers for something more than what life has given him.

Eventually, Gwylim dies while attempting to go forward, and the Control Voice concludes that Mather’s experiment was “too soon, too swift.” 

The lesson is therefore one about the impatience that both men have demonstrated with the present.  Some things cannot be rushed, or pushed, “The Sixth Finger” notes.  Some states -- like ignorance or hostility -- must be endured until we are ready, as a species to move past them together.  That’s just the human condition, and even with the best of intentions and with the aspiration to be better than we are, we can’t trick our way out of it.

“The Sixth Finger” imagines both terrors and wonders in mankind’s future, but the part of Gwylim that endures from stage to stage is, on some level, also an admirable one.  It’s the part of our human nature that aches to know what is next, no matter the personal cost.

One Week From Today: "Old Skin" (9/27/23)

  One week from today! Next week on Enter The House Between, our denizens come face-to-face with their own demons in the dark matter dimensi...