Destruct that ship, General!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Corpus Earthling" (11/18/1963)



“Corpus Earthling”
Season 1, Episode 9
Originally aired 11/18/1963





Fifty years ago tonight, an innocent man found himself between a rock and a hard place. No? Okay, how about a stone’s throw from imminent danger? Still no? Fine. Agate it. Man, you guys are sure hard to please. I’m feeling a bit taken for granite right now.


Surgeon Paul Cameron stops by Dr. Jonas Temple’s geology laboratory to pick up his wife Laurie (Temple’s assistant) for lunch. An incident with a faulty kiln blasts him across the room and jars the metal plate in his skull, causing him to hear two disembodied voices discussing a plan to invade and take over the world through parasitic possession. A CAT scan reveals no damage but, upon returning to the lab, Paul hears the voices again.



Paranoid by nature, Paul holes up at home in the dark until Laurie suggests an impromptu second honeymoon in Mexico. Meanwhile at the lab, Temple is attacked by a parasitic alien organism (one of two who have been masquerading as rock specimens, and are the source of the voices in Paul’s head).



Temple, under the control of the parasite, follows the couple to a rental house in Mexico and, while Paul is out getting supplies, exposes Laurie to the other parasite. Upon his return, Paul is horrified to discover his wife in her possessed state and flees. The caretaker of the rental house finds him in a Tijuana hotel and implores him to return, stating that Laurie is sick and near death.


Paul returns to the house to find Temple waiting for him, gun in hand. Paul gets a bullet in the arm in the ensuing struggle, but he manages to kill Temple. Laurie then moves in for the attack, forcing Paul to use Temple’s gun on her. The parasites leave their dead hosts and converge on Paul, who prevails by tipping an oil stove over onto them. His dead wife’s body in his arms, Paul walks away from the burning house and into the night.



RANDOMONIUM




Adapting Louis Charbonneau’s 1960 novel was writer Orin Borsten’s only Outer Limits assignment (he had some help from Lou Morheim and series producer Joseph Stefano). The IMDB lists a meager four writing credits for Borsten; interestingly, one of them is the 1961 film Angel Baby (which costars this episode’s Salome Jens). Gerd Oswald is back in the director’s chair who, along with Director of Photography Conrad Hall, provides more of that beautiful, shadow-laden imagery we've come to expect when they team up.

Unrelentingly grim and unapologetically creepy, “Corpus Earthling” is easily the single most disturbing episode in the series’ entire run.  It’s the first time (but certainly not the last) that the show will present a tale rooted in science fiction but, for all intents and purposes, is actually a horror story. The fact that the parasites are alien in origin is incidental; their possession of Laurie and Temple could just as easily be demonic in nature, and said possessions are nothing if not horrific (the change in their appearance reminds me a bit of The Man, the pasty-faced harbinger of death, in 1962’s Carnival of Souls).


Comparisons to 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers are unavoidable. Both feature extraterrestrial parasites out to conquer and colonize earth, both are studies in paranoia, and both end with the male protagonist ultimately losing the woman he loves to the parasitic threat. But Invasion never quite feels like a horror movie; as effective as it is, it never reaches the desolate terror that “Corpus Earthling” achieves. Invasion ends on a semi-hopeful note, offering at least the possibility of containing and defeating the alien threat; “Corpus Earthling,” meanwhile, ends on a bleak, ambiguous note. Paul survives, but by no means does that survival feel like a victory.


I say ‘ambiguous’ because, really, we have no reason to think that the two crystalline parasites depicted here are the only two on the earth.  It’s implied that they are part of an invasion force, so there are likely lots more of them around. I think it’s safe to assume that Paul’s dispatching of these two won’t make a damn bit of difference in the end.


We see the parasitic aliens in two forms; first under the guise of obsidian-like rocks, which throb while “speaking.” Later, we are shown their true, larger and bulbous forms… which are unfortunately pretty silly, and sure to disappoint after the amazing aliens the series has shown us thus far. In The Outer Limits Companion, David J. Schow describes them as “spider-like,” but I just don’t see it (unless “spider-like” is code for “melted licorice blobs”). They’re vague and sloppy looking, lacking the intricate detail of, say, the similar parasitic aliens in the upcoming “The Invisibles”; something sleeker and more explicitly arachnid in nature would've been much more effective. It’s hard to believe, but these invaders are actually more threatening in their rock disguises. Watching them wriggle slowly across the floor in the show’s climax is hilarious, which I’m sure wasn’t the intent.



I want so badly to call “Corpus Earthling” a perfect episode, but I've gotta dock it a point for this. I’m reminded of The “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of The Twilight Zone (which, coincidentally enough, just turned 50 too), a tense and thrilling episode whose effectiveness is also undermined by a goofy creature: the notorious Gremlin, which looks like a mentally challenged teddy bear and isn’t scary in the least. The crystalline parasites aren't anywhere that level of ridiculousness (thankfully!), but it’s really frustrating to imagine what might have been. 


Ridley Scott showed us just how terrifying (and beautifully designed) such a creature could look with his face-hugger in 1979’s Alien. Of course a 1963 television series couldn't possibly have put together something on that level, but an alien with a name as cool as “Crystalline Parasite” should’ve looked at least somewhat frightening.

Now, having said all that, the parasites' modus operandi is gruesome and shocking. While the parasites of “The Invisibles” possess their victims through the back, the crystalline parasites here do it through the face, and it’s not a gentle process either. The sight of Temple writhing in pain is a bit unnerving; however, the sound of Laurie’s anguished screams, coupled with the abject terror on her face, is absolutely chilling. 



The Tijuana hotel room in which Paul hides out at the top of act four looks familiar. I think it’s the same set as Andro’s boarding house room in “The Man Who Was Never Born.” The light fixture by the front door is the giveaway (though here it’s reduced from a double fixture to a single); also, the placement of the vanity near the window is roughly the same in both (different vanities, though).


Paul's accident in Temple's lab is impressively staged and, if it was faked, I can't tell. Kudos to Robert Culp for having the stones to do his own stunt work.



If you wanted to make a crystalline parasite of your own (but lack the skills or materials to fabricate silicon molds), all you’d really need is a pair of black rubber gloves and a couple of LED bulbs, and maybe hidden wheels to give it mobility.  Uh-oh, I’m getting that tingly feeling, which usually means… that’s right kids, it’s Project Limited, Ltd. time!

This started as a joke. In fact, I considered finding a little kid to do it, but exposing a child to "Corpus Earthling" would probably be irresponsible on my part, so it fell on me to somehow render the Crystalline Parasite in three dimensions. It was never my intent to fixate on accuracy, or to capture their soulless evil.... which is a good thing, because what resulted from my increasingly-drunk efforts is anything but accurate or evil.


God, it looks like a Crystalline Parasite back in its kindergarten days. It doesn't want to highjack human bodies; it just wants to chase butterflies and play with its friends. It's, well... kinda adorable, actually.



AURAL PLEASURE


“Corpus Earthling” sports a stock score, which means Dominic Frontiere didn't compose any new music for it; instead, pre-existing music from other episodes was used. This time around he mined material from no less than five different episodes! Here are the notables:

Point of No Return, Double Vision, Madness, Aborted Phone Call, Scarecrows.

The Outer Limits Signature Loop (aka I Was Never Born!), The Big Chase.

It’s Here, Building Terror, Struggle and Gunshot.

The City #2.

The Big Finish.


I also heard a couple that I didn't recognize, so they must’ve come from Frontiere’s compositions for Daystar’s previous series Stony Burke (1962-63), which will hopefully see a soundtrack release one day. Anyway, those cues listed above (and so, so much more) can be found on the 3-disc soundtrack release from La La Land Records, which is shockingly still available as of this writing for the criminally-low price of $19.95.
Connection time! Dominic Frontiere composed the score for the 1971 film A Name for Evil, which starred… Robert Culp! The soundtrack is available from La La Land Records, who were kind enough to include Frontiere’s score for The Unknown (an intended pilot for a new Daystar series that aired as the Outer Limits episode “The Forms of Things Unknown,” which we’ll get to in May). The disc is sold out according to their website (glad I snagged my copy while it was still in print!), but I’m sure one could find it second hand if one were so inclined.




DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Robert Culp is fevered and intense as Dr. Paul Cameron in this, his second Outer Limits stint (we last saw him in “The Architects of Fear,” and we’ll see him again next season in “Demon With a Glass Hand”). Culp went on to starring roles on I Spy (1965-1968) and The Greatest American Hero (1981-1986, which is where I first became a fan). All three of his TOL episodes are top notch; it’s a shame he didn't do a few more.



Salome Jens makes her only TOL appearance as Laurie Hendricks-Cameron, but she worked for Daystar Productions before (in the “Spin a Golden Web” episode of Stoney Burke). She’d cross paths with Robert Culp again when she appeared in the “A Room With a Rack” episode of I Spy in 1967. And speaking of racks….

Effective March 23, 2015, Blogger will disallow all sexually explicit or graphic nude images. Therefore, Salome's ample bosom must be concealed. Sorry, gang.

Jens costarred with Rock Hudson in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 thriller Seconds, which I've mentioned repeatedly in these pages because of its heavy Outer Limits vibe. It’s a tense, surreal masterpiece (which features some welcome nudity from the, um, physically gifted Jens).

Barry Atwater (Dr. Jonas Temple) is no stranger to the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres. He was suspected of being an alien invader in The Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” in 1960. In 1969, he dropped some serious logic as the Vulcan Surak in “The Savage Curtain” episode of Star Trek, which also featured TOL alums Phillip Pine (“The Hundred Days of the Dragon”) and Janos Prohaska (“The Architects of Fear”). 1972 found him spilling blood as the vampire Janos Skorzeny in the TV movie The Night Stalker (which led to the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series).


HOME VIDEO RELEASES







“Corpus Earthling” was made available on VHS in two flavors: first, the standard retail release (above), and a mail-order edition exclusive to Columbia House (paired with “Tourist Attraction”; below). In the UK, it was paired with “O.B.I.T.” for a double-feature paranoia fest (right).





As I recall, “Corpus Earthling” was released fairly early in the eight years it took MGM/UA to release all 49 episodes on tape (I had it, which means it hit no later than 1990; see here for details); however, it didn't get the laserdisc treatment until 1994, as part of the third (of a total four) volume.


Those VHS and laserdisc were rendered obsolete with the series’ bow on the superior DVD format in 2002, 2007 and 2008. You could assume that each release represented incremental improvements in image and sound quality… but you’d be wrong. The same exact discs were released three different times with different packaging. I’d be willing to forgive this crass attempt to triple-dip unsuspecting fans if they’d just get a blu-ray release in the pipeline. 

Hello?  MGM?  Hello???  *crickets*


Since the series seems destined to be forever frozen at DVD resolution, you might as well skip the arduous physical task of loading up the DVD and just stream “Corpus Earthling” (or any other episode) on Hulu. It’s free and, as long as you've got a decent internet connection, it looks just as good as DVD anyway. 


TRADING CARD CORNER

Nope, nada, zip. Nothing to see here, folks.


MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

Dimensional Designs appears to have at least planned a model kit to commemorate “Corpus Earthling,” but I’m guessing it was cancelled since there’s no photo in their listing (DD/OL/CP-36) and no option to order. The listing does credit Danny Soracco as the sculptor, so who knows? They won’t return my emails, so I’m guessing they don’t want my money. 


I can’t confirm this, but I half-heartedly suspect that this episode directly inspired the Pet Rock craze of the 70’s. Shit, wouldn't that have been the perfect cover for an invasion of Crystalline Parasites?


THE WRAP-UP



Goofy aliens notwithstanding, “Corpus Earthling” is yet another outstanding Outer Limits offering, effectively clearing the slate after last week’s disappointment. Seriously, I really lava it (of quartz I do). Simply put, it rocks.





16 comments:

  1. Hi ! really interessant ! your blog is great, i read english but it's not easy to write in !
    merci et bonne soirée !

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  2. Today's somber 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination reminds us old, "original" viewers that it affected very much how we perceived The Outer Limits, and especially how we regard it in retrospect. November 22nd, 1963 was the first of the national traumas that gradually changed the collective outlook and expectations of the American audience. I'm not qualified to comment on such a complicated topic (sociology?), and I hope that readers will Google various aspects of it, to find history and expert analysis. I think I remember David J. Schow quoting Joseph Stefano on the irony of "The Hundred Days of the Dragon" depicting a fictional Presidential assassination only weeks before an actual one. I don't have to consult the excellent TOL Companion (though I will) to assure you that this episode was not among the ABC prime-time reruns the following summer! I also remember that, on Sunday of that JFK weekend in 1963, the live-TV shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald came tumbling off the screen and into our living rooms in a way that reminded me AT THE TIME of the disturbingly similar entrance of "The Galaxy Being" into our world about two months earlier. And when "Nightmare" first aired over a week later, I couldn't finish watching it -- I felt I needed a break from televised ugliness (even though my dad did watch it all, and assured me that it was excellent). I wrote Troy Thomas about this a few weeks ago, because he -- like you, Craig -- has mentioned that 1963 viewers might have had a certain perspective on TOL. Though I don't know or understand the series as well as many other people do, I can say that the JFK assassination is a part of the story of The Outer Limits, just as it is a part of the story of anything else that happened then -- we were all very traumatized (excuse the cliché), sometimes without even realizing it, and that affected our choices and actions. I've often wondered if, had nothing happened in Dallas that day, the nation as a whole and TV viewers in particular might not have needed quite so much comforting re-assurance in the mid-'60s, and might have welcomed the shock and challenge of The Outer Limits for a little longer than they did.

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  3. PS: I wish that Bill Huelbig, John Whalen and other readers who are as old-- I mean, as "original" as I am, might also chime in about their 1963 takes on TOL.

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    1. Yes I saw the original run and this one terrified me.I was 8 years old when the show first aired. Even though I pretty knew each episode was going to shake me up I did whatever I could to watch it each week. My dad turned me on to it when we watched Galaxy Being together. My mom tried forbid me from watching it because she was sure it would give me nightmares. Each time I watch an episode today I watch with that 8 year old kid in my head and it keeps the original "awe and mystery" alive. No television program, past or present, ever affected me like the first season of The Outer Limits.

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  4. Having been born in 64 I would be extremely interested of hearing other peoples recollection of their feelings.

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  5. As someone who was born several years after the JFK assassination (and The Outer Limits' original network run), my perspective is naturally different. I'm sure I'll never quite understand the emotional gravity of living in that time. Please, everyone, continue to share such thoughts and memories here.

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  6. Thanks, Adrian, for giving me a cool new perspective on getting old. I'm original! And glad of it, since I got to see three of my favorite TV series when they were new (Outer Limits, Twilight Zone and Star Trek). Actually I wish I were about 10 years older, so I would've been able to see all those great 70mm/Cinerama roadshow movies from the 50s and 60s the way they were meant to be seen.

    I was 8 when The Outer Limits started, which probably accounted for my reactions to O.B.I.T. and Corpus Earthling: I didn't understand them. Maybe they were too dark, too grim, just too serious for a kid. But I didn't give up on the show because of them. I don't think I ever missed an episode.

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  7. I finally caught up!

    So, Robert Culp stars as a man with a metal plate in his head, which enables him to hear a couple of rocks that talk to one another. As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s the setup for the entertaining episode "Corpus Earthling".

    The matter of rocks laying around waiting for their moment to strike becomes somehow exciting and after watching this, you may never look at rocks in the same way again. The rocks as aliens premise is fun but I'm not certain I understood just how they were going to conquer the Earth.

    As Culp's character Paul sinks into perceived paranoia, the look of the episode gets darker. Eventually, Paul's wife and Dr. Temple are overtaken by the aliens and are changed into zombie-looking characters that are quite scary. Each time I watch this story, it seems to get a little more talky, but it's still another fine example of the creativity of the Outer Limits. Let's give this episode a 7 out of 10 rating.

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  8. So I have been patiently been waiting for the Nightmare review when I noticed the original release date skipped a week. I have been trying to keep up with the 50 year release date but got too involved and now I just finished The Borderlands. Hurry up! I am travelling to China next week and brought the next 4 episodes to watch on the 15 hour plane flight.

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    1. "Tourist Attraction" was originally scheduled as the tenth episode to be broadcast on November 25, 1963 following "Corpus Earthling" on November 18, 1963. It was pre-empted by coverage of the JFK assassination of 11/22/63, along with all other network programming that week. "Tourist Attraction" was rescheduled and broadcast December 23, 1963. When The Outer Limits went into syndication, "Tourist Attraction" was restored to its original tenth spot in the running order.

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  9. My spotlight on "Nightmare" should be up bright and early Monday morning.... assuming I emerge from my Thanksgiving food coma in time.

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  10. This was the most frightening Outer Limits episode I saw as a kid, eight years old in 1963. Perhaps for that reason, though, it doesn't hold up that well today. Unlike the first eight episodes, which more or less adhered to Leslie Stevens original concept for the series, Corpus Earthling is a straight forward horror tale about alien invasion and bodily takeover. There is some nostalgia in watching a thing like this, as it reminds you of what it felt like to have the wits scared out of you when you were little, but it really doesn't have much else to offer. I'm not convinced Robert Culp was the best choice for the lead role he plays, and Culp himself claimed to not remember even being in the show. There are some nice bits, though. Salome Jens, as Laurie, and Barry Atwater, as Dr. Temple, were well suited for their roles as alien takeover victims, both having somewhat downbeat personalities. Atwater, in particular, infuses Temple with an odd glumness, intended, perhaps, to foreshadow his being taken over by one of the aliens. Jens, as Laurie, comes across as slightly fatalistic, suggesting that she, too, is destined to fall victim. My favorite scene occurs when Paul, having gone into town for water, returns to the Mexican cabin. He calls his wife but she doesn't answer, and he's about to enter the bedroom when something outside a window catches his attention. The cabin caretaker is burning ceremonial fires, and when Paul asks him why he replies that an evil spirit has possessed the body of some unfortunate person. Paul gets a spooked look on his face, holds it for a moment, then shakes it off with a smile. Then, he goes into the bedroom and gets the surprise of his life! This bedroom scene, complete with Culp reciting a line from "Goldilocks And The Three Bears", was used as the teaser for the episode and was one of the most memorable of all the teasers. Culp is at his oddball best when he's about to leave the Tijuana motel room and the caretaker is standing right in front of him as he opens the door. "Your wife is very sick" he tells Paul, "she needs a doctor". Paul doesn't even offer an excuse as to why he ran away and left his wife all alone, he simply tells the caretaker that "there are plenty of doctors in Tijuana". I can still remember the original ABC commercial for Corpus Earthling, with a narrator intoning "A rock, a stone, becomes a living thing, and unfolds its terrifying plan to destroy the earth, this week on The Outer Limits."

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  11. I don't have much in the way of good things to say about The Outer Limits DVD releases to this point, but one brilliant thing they did was, apparently, digitally erase the strings which pull the rock-like parasite across the floor in the final scene. Those strings were always visible in TV showings of the episode, as well as in the videotape and laserdisc releases, but they've disappeared in the DVD version. If the show ever makes it on to Blu Ray, or even a decent high definition DVD release, there are other things that they could digitally fix as well, I like to imagine.

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  12. I'm completely in love with this episode. I would date it and marry it if I could. Probably in my top 2 or 3 of first season shows. I've watched it probably 10 times the last year. Yes, I'm insane, I know. But if anyone understands, you guys do. It just presses all the right buttons. It's scary, well acted, creepy atmosphere and music, it's got it all. Didn't they even think they made it TOO scary after they finished post production on it? That's why it holds up. Even though the killer rocks premise is silly on paper, the show works for me. The wife and doctor turning into invaded zombies? I love it! The Mexican guy. Love him! Burning leaves... Hey, is it a ritual??......

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  13. The second act of this episode, with the exception of a few minutes at the end, takes place in Paul and Laurie's apartment. It's a long. talky scene, but somehow it works. The best part comes when Paul Robert Culp) tells his wife Laurie (Salome Jens) that "I...uh...think I'm going insane". Laurie abruptly replies "No!", as if saying no could stop someone from going insane.

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