Sunday, September 16, 2012
Cult-TV Blogging: Circle of Fear: "Earth, Air, Fire, and Water" (January 19, 1973)
Last week while discussing the Circle of Fear episode “Dark Vengeance,” I described a kind of anti-sense or nightmare logic that canny horror productions sometimes marshal and deploy to good effect. One of the absolute champions of this approach may well be this week’s Circle of Fear episode, “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” written by Dorothy Fontana and Harlan Ellison.
I shouldn’t beat around the bush about this episode. When I wrote about it for my horror television survey, Terror Television (1999), I gave it a pretty negative rating and review. But today, a decade and beyond later, I find my own commentary on the episode poorly-supported and flat-out wrong. After a recent viewing of “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” I feel like I can see it better for what it is: a genuinely upsetting and highly unnerving hour.
Perhaps what I was reacting against originally were my own feelings of discomfort. Who can say for sure? But now, today, I count “Earth, Air, Fire and Water’s” capacity to unsettle as a very real strength, not a weakness. This episode is deeply scary in a cerebral way. It manages to vet some terrifying moments with precious little in terms of resources.
“Earth, Air, Fire and Water” concerns a group of starving artists -- a 1970s commune of sorts -- that rents a dilapidated shop in a quaint downtown area and begins to sell their creative wares there. While cleaning up the place, the artists come across an old chest. Inside are several transparent jars filled with strangely-colored fluids.
In a short amount of time, exposure to these jars begins to turn the artists’ work…sour. A landscape painter now creates creepy paintings worthy of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, for instance, instead of views of scenic shores and light houses. The group's esprit-de-corps shatters like glass, and something sinister seems to hang in the very air itself.
We learn -- though only obliquely -- that the former residents of this building practiced black magic. But beyond that blanket explanation, we’re given no real cause for the artists’ strange change, or any real origin for the bizarre jars.
From the episode’s first frames -- a low traveling shot through the interior of a wrecked shop -- “Earth, Air, Fire and Water” develops a strong, almost overwhelming sense of amorphous dread. We hear individuals (souls trapped in the jars?) talking to one another, but we don’t know where they are or what, precisely, they are. The effect is unsettling. We know we should feel alarmed and frightened, but there is no focal point for those feelings. Instead, we just feel...uncomfortable.
There’s an interesting metaphor at work here as well, and yes, it escaped my radar when I wrote Terror Television. In short, this episode concerns the transformation and decay of the hippie dream from the 1960s into the 1970s. It concerns people -- hippie artists -- who optimistically build a collectivist world of art, intellect, and commerce but then become separated from one another, trapped and demented inside their tiny individual worlds, ones represented by the unusual and devilish jars.
This could be a comment on how deeply ingrained individualism and capitalism -- or selfishness -- are ingrained into the American culture. Or this could be an allegory for the terror and perversion that infected the hippie dream as manifested by Charles Manson. Love became hate. Belonging became an opportunity for group delusion and madness.
However you choose to read it, “Earth, Air, Fire and Water” is very, very 1973. It’s about the death of a social movement, and that death, make no mistake, is one of a spiritual nature. Corruption turns the artists into isolated self-consumed monsters.
The episode’s terrifying final moment -- in which this spiritual decay unexpectedly takes over a human being -- seems to represent well the Manson phase of the hippie dream. Ugliness is now manifested not just inside, but outside...as flesh. It’s a shocking and terrifying image that lingers in the memory, for certain.
I didn’t really understand everything that was going on with “Earth, Air, Fire and Water,” when I wrote about it in 1998, but I sure hope I’ve now rectified my initial error in judgment by posting this review. This episode is light on dialogue and characterization, but extremely powerful in tenor and atmosphere. It’s one of the very best and most challenging of all Circle of Fear episodes, and a good one to watch with the lights out.
Next week: “Doorway to Death.”
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