Friday, January 08, 2021

The Outer Limits: "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. 

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