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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Guests" (3/23/1964)



“The Guests”
Season 1, Episode 26
Originally aired 3/23/1964



Driving down a winding rural road, beat poet-wannabe Wade Norton narrowly misses squashing the casaba of a frail old man lying by the roadside. He sets off on foot to find help, discovering a pocket watch with a picture of a lovely young woman inside. An insistent rhythmic pulse draws him to a nearly mansion and, when nobody answers his knocking, he enters.



He finds the same young woman asleep near the fireplace, who runs away timidly when he disturbs her. He then encounters three people: Fraudulent investment banker Randall Latimer, his vile and provoking wife Ethel, and insecure silent screen star Florida Patton, all three of whom are monumentally unhelpful as Wade tries to procure assistance for the old man. The same metronome-like pulsing emanates from upstairs, pulling him up against his will.



The second floor of the house is a seemingly endless maze of black corridors. At its center is a large, hideous alien who explains that the house and its occupants are part of an ongoing experiment to predict the ultimate fate of humanity. It’s absorbed the others’ minds, but still hasn’t found the elusive factor that will change the equation and save the human race. It wants to probe Wade’s mind. Wade refuses to comply.

Wade learns that the house’s occupants have been there for decades but haven’t aged; it’s only if they leave that their “years will catch up with them.” Tess quickly falls for Wade and tries to convince him to leave the house while he still can. He’s fallen in love with her as well and, when she makes it clear that she cannot leave, he relents and submits to the Brain Creature’s probing.


Later, Tess tells Wade that the old man he found on the roadside was her father, and that she can never leave because “out there, my years are waiting for me.” She again implores him to leave, to return to his life, but Wade instead chooses to remain with her inside the alien’s infinite dream. Realizing that there’s only one way to save him, she exits the house and immediately begins to age rapidly, crumbling to dust before his eyes.


The omnipresent alien has found its missing piece of the equation: love. It orders Wade to leave the house, to share love with the world. Meanwhile, in the parlor, the lights abruptly go out. The remaining occupants recoil in terror, realizing their infinity bubble is bursting. As Wade looks back, the house transforms into its presumed true form--- a gigantic brain--- and dissolves into nothingness.


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RANDOMONIUM

“The Guests,” which premiered fifty years ago tonight, began as a teleplay by Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont called “An Ordinary Town,” which was monumentally rewritten by Donald S. Sanford (according to Schow, the only thing Sanford retained was the visual of the giant brain on the hill; this would explain why Beaumont didn’t receive screen credit). Like Anthony Lawrence’s “The Man Who Was Never Born,” Sanford’s script is a dark, otherworldly fairy tale with a doomed romance at its center. The entirety of act one, in which Wade is slowly drawn toward the house, then into the house, then gradually up the stairs to the horrific creature awaiting him, is a marvelous construct that is impossible not to become engrossed in; as he is pulled in, so are we. If the rest of the episode doesn’t quite live up to the first act’s promise in terms of narrative structure, the bizarre visuals and events are more than sufficient to maintain interest.


Interestingly, the striking image of Tess’s father rapidly aging and turning to dust is straight out of TZ’s “Long live Walter Jameson” and “Queen of the Nile” (the latter of which recently turned 50).... both of which were written by Beaumont!* Coincidence? Perhaps, or perhaps such details are merely an inevitable thread in the fabric of that cosmic quilt commonly referred to as The Twi--- wait, wrong show.


In the director’s chair this week is Paul Stanley, who also helmed “Second Chance” a few weeks ago. It’s amazing what a difference a decent script makes, as this episode is superior on all counts. The real star on the production end of things, however, is director of photography Kenneth Peach. “The Guests” is probably Peach’s greatest contribution to the series: his deft use of shadows and soft light to create mood and atmosphere is nothing short of exquisite, and (I can’t believe I’m about to say this) Conrad Hall couldn't have done a better job. The act two sequence in which Wade searches through the hall of empty doors and light columns can stand proudly with the greatest visual moments in the entire series (for once the alien isn't the most impressive sight on display).



The episode’s off-kilter spirit is enhanced significantly by a variety of surreal, frankly unforgettable visuals: a long shot of Wade and the Brain Creature facing off in the darkness, a single long shaft of light connecting their faces. The Brain Creature, floating motionless against swirling clouds. The house on the hill morphing into a gigantic, bisected brain before it dissolves into nothingness.



Here we have another house stuck in an earlier era, just like the Kry mansion in “Don’t Open Till Doomsday,” complete with a group of people being held against their will by a bizarre and hideous alien being. The fact that the house appears as a gigantic brain to both Tess’s father and Wade would seem to indicate that it's not really a house at all, but rather a timeless limbo in which the Brain Creature conducts its research (it refers to its house construct as the “control center” of its “searching-self universe”; the Box Demon in “Doomsday,” meanwhile, resided in a timeless pocket of negative space inside what appeared to a real-life undreamed box). Who knows? It’s probably safe to assume that the Brain Creature could dream any illusory environment into existence, even a suspicious box on a table of unopened wedding gifts.


So this jolly, jiggly Brain Creature is yet another alien from an unspecified species and an unnamed planet. It’s basically a research scientist, trying to make sense of human nature to predict how humanity will eventually destroy itself… for some reason. It uses the old Venus flytrap method to attract specimens, then picks their brains and sustains them long past their normal lifespan (I’m unclear why it keeps them alive after absorbing their minds, since they really aren’t of any further use). I’d be interested to hear some behind-the-scenes details regarding its experiment: is it part of some interstellar think tank, amassing all the knowledge in the universe? Or is it a college student, working on its senior thesis? On that note, I love the bits in which the Brain Creature gets all academic and starts using some sort of mental overhead projector to illustrate its points (pay attention, Wade, there’s gonna be a test later).


If the Brain Creature looks familiar, well, it damn well should: it’s the enormous head and torso piece from the elaborately wacky Chromoite costume (from January’s “The Mice”), this time with brain-like convolutions on its translucent crown. It works much better in this capacity, since it doesn’t have to walk around (or eat Play-dough).


An early scene finds our hero walking through a forest dense with swirling fog, an environment also seen in “The Man Who Was Never Born” and “The Children of Spider County,” two earlier episodes that share similar themes with “The Guests” (doomed love in the former, reality vs. dreams in the latter).


The long shot of Wade walking toward the house has a great sense of scale and space; I think it may have inspired some of the opening title graphics in Showtime’s stab at their own Outer Limits series in the 90’s. Or perhaps not… I may be reaching a bit here.





Speaking of The Twilight Zone: when Wade first creeps through the house and finds a cigarette burning on the edge of the piano, I was immediately reminded of a similar bit in TZ’s “Where Is Everybody?” episode, in which Earl Holliman finds a lit cigar in a town completely devoid of people. In fact, both sequences are very familiar; each even finds the protagonist encounter a motionless girl (Wade's is merely sleeping; Holliman's is a mannequin). Come to think of it, the events in that episode turned out to be something of a surreal dream too.





Damn, that Ethel is a seriously horrible woman. I found myself shuddering every time she spoke, her words dripping with a kind of gleeful contempt as she stared with those steely eyes. And I thought Finley’s wife was bad! Ethel’s the kind of woman who makes one appreciate one’s own wife a bit (or a lot) more. I certainly don’t advocate spousal abuse, but I was hoping Latimer would, um, maybe put her in her place at some point. Gawd, she’s just awful. At the same time, though, she seems to have everything more or less figured out, and she’s by far the least tortured of the group. At the end, when everything crashes into oblivion, as her husband weeps and Florida screams…. she laughs maniacally. I’ve gotta respect that.

Hey, you know the editing technique in which a person walks toward the camera, blocking the entire frame, at which point there’s a cut to a reverse angle in which they walk away from the camera? I've seen it million times, but I've never seen it done at crotch level (time stamp 27:00, which finds Geoffrey Horne walking dick-first straight into the camera lens). Is there a subliminal message in here someplace? Am I supposed to be experiencing the awe and mystery of Geoffrey Horne's package?


The act one shot of Wade walking up to the door of the house, the old man's pocket watch swinging absently from his hand, is an image I cribbed for Nothing to Fear, a short film I wrote, directed, shot, edited and scored back in the mid-90’s, which I produced through the facilities of Tualatin Valley Public Access (now known as Tualatin Valley Community TV). It starred a couple of high school buddies (Donovan Littlejohn and Jason Ulven; ‘sup fellas?), plus me in a cameo as a homeless guy, and it was basically a Twilight Zone-ish tale of a man living in mortal fear of an inter-dimensional monster and relaying his story to a psychiatrist. It’s nothing terribly impressive (or even good), but it enjoyed many, many airings over a span of two or three years (likely because it was something--- anything--- other than city council meetings, quasi-religious talk shows or high school sports). During that time, Donovan and Jason were regularly recognized by friends and family who were flipping through the channels; me, not so much (bitter? Me? Nah).


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AURAL PLEASURE


The music in “The Guests” is comprised of familiar Dominic Frontiere cues from earlier scores, most of them from “Nightmare” (including the hypnotic, metronome-like pulse that throbs in the background of much of the episode). The following is by no means a comprehensive list (as always, I reserve the right to miss things), but I think I hit most of them.

Ebonite POW Camp, Tortures of the Mind (from Nightmare)
The Lottery, “To Be Turned Into That” (from The Architects of Fear)
The Years Pass (from Don’t Open Till Doomsday)
The Outer Limits Signature Loop (from The Man Who Was Never Born)


But wait, there’s more! The episode’s music track also features three distinct Frontiere pieces that were recorded for Stoney Burke, Daystar’s pre-TOL series (1962-63).  The titles of these pieces are unknown (at least to me), so I’ll assign placeholder titles for reference purposes:

“Wade and Tess” is heard during romantic scenes throughout the episode; it first appeared in the Stoney Burke episode “The Wanderer.”

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“Aftermath” is heard after Tess disintegrates before Wade’s eyes, and also originated in Stoney Burke’s “The Wanderer.”

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Finally, “Tess Goes to Pieces” (sorry) is heard during the aforementioned disintegration of Tess, and first appeared in the Stoney Burke episode “To Catch the Kaiser.”

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“The Garden” is a 3:03 solo piano piece recorded by George Winston for his 1991 album Summer. The liner notes indicate that it incorporates “two love themes by composer Dominic Frontiere, from the 1962-63 TV series The Outer Limits.” Those two themes are the aforementioned “Wade and Tess” and “Aftermath” cues. Have a listen:




DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Geoffrey Horne plays Wade Norton in his only Outer Limits appearance. He also popped up on The Twilight Zone (“The Gift,” in which he played a misunderstood alien who is killed before he can give humanity the cure for cancer… d’oh!) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“Completely Foolproof”).


Luana Anders is delicate and wispy as Tess Ames, but her other genre credits are much more, um, full-bodied. She appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s ax-slinging Dementia 13 (1963) as well as Roger Corman’s blade-swinging The Pit and the Pendulum (1961); she also appeared in the atmospheric noirish thriller Night Tide (also 1961). 


Gloria Grahame (Florida Patton) doesn’t have any significant genre experience, but she’s a bona fide film noir siren, having appeared in several notable noir pics including 1947’s Crossfire, 1950’s In a Lonely Place, 1953’s The Big Heat, and 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow. However, she may be best remembered (and most often seen) as the vixen Violet Bick in the perennial holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life.


Nellie Burt is deliciously nasty as Ethel Latimer in her second Outer Limits appearance (she was the Justice’s wife in January’s “Don’t Open Till Doomsday”). She also appeared in “The Ghost of Sierra Cobre,” the unsold pilot for a proposed series called The Haunted which TOL producer Joseph Stefano wrote and directed (Hey MGM! This would make a fantastic supplement for a Blu-ray set). Burt also appeared in the “Nightmare” episode of The Invaders.


Vaughn Taylor (Randall Latimer) appears for the first of two Outer Limits gigs; he’ll be back next season for “Expanding Human.” Other genre credits include “Beachhead” (the pilot episode of The Invaders), as well as a whopping five Twilight Zones: “Time Enough at Last,” “Still Valley,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” and “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” (which also starred TOL alums Don Gordon and Gail Kobe).

Tess’s father is played by Burt Mustin, who appeared in two Twilight Zones: “The Night of the Meek” (in which he memorably asked Santa Claus for a smoking jacket and pipe... and got both!), and “Kick the Can.” He also graced an Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Landlady,” in which he played “Old Man Playing Darts,” which I'm sure was a complex and stimulating role), and two Alfred Hitchcock Hours (“The Star Juror” and “Nothing Ever Happens in Linvale”).



HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“The Guests” has received the bare minimum of home video exposure. It first showed up in the usual two VHS flavors: standard retail (all by its lonesome) and Columbia House mail-order (double-featured with next month’s “The Special One”). It’s one of the 21 episodes sadly never released on LaserDisc (sorry, Platterheads).


The episode first arrived on standard-definition DVD in 2002 and, 12 years and two more redundant repackagings later, remains the only home video game in town. As we continue to celebrate the series’ 50th anniversary, the lack of a synergetic Blu-ray release continues to gnaw at me. I dunno, maybe I should be thanking MGM for keeping the series afloat on home video (when it’s all but vanished in syndication) for nearly 30 years. Maybe they’ve never made enough money on it, or perhaps their returns have been progressively diminishing with each release, so they’ve essentially thrown in the towel. This would certainly explain why they’ve made all 49 episodes, including "The Guests," available on Hulu for free. As I demonstrated two weeks ago, the Hulu streams look identical to the DVDs, so why would anybody spend money on the DVDs? 


Hey MGM, how would you like to make some money off of The Outer Limits again? The solution is quite simple: PUT IT ON BLU-RAY!

TRADING CARD CORNER

Maybe Topps didn’t bother with the Brain Creature because they felt like they’d already covered its Chromoite antecedent with their three “Jelly Man” cards in 1964. Maybe Rittenhouse did likewise because they only featured eight episodes in their 2002 card set (and honestly, if you only had eight episodes to choose from, would you pick “The Guests”? Yeah, I probably wouldn't either). This leaves us for the reliable DuoCard set from 1997, which fairly allocated one card to every first season episode. “The Guests” is card #40.


There does exist a four-card apocryphal extension to the Topps set, designed by David and Mark Holcomb of Transmission Control fame, which exist in virtual form as a good-natured (and well-deserved) parody of the Topps set. We've seen their work before (“Controlled Experiment,” which spawned The Man with the Powder), and I’m delighted to share another of their efforts.


We’ll see the Holcombs’ work again next season, when we get to “Keeper of the Purple Twilight” and “The Duplicate Man.” Or you can go here to see ‘em now.


MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


If you’d like your very own Brain Creature, Dimensional Designs can hook you up. They offer a 1/8-scale resin model kit (DD/OL/BC-21), sculpted by Danny Soracco, which will set you back $49.95 plus shipping. I really wish they’d put a little LED light fixture inside its head…. I suppose a semi-skilled individual could easily customize it to include one (not me; I’m packing ten thumbs here).


THE WRAP-UP

“The Guests” is a heady mix of Gothic atmosphere and the kind of weird, squirmy sci-fi that The Outer Limits does so well. I have trouble calling it a favorite, but I do like it quite a bit. I’m conflicted… do I place it at the front of the middle of the pack, alongside last week’s “The Mutant,” or do I create a limbo area between the upper and middle tiers for it?  All this uncertainty…. to quote Wade as The Brain Creature assimilates his mind: “It hurts. My head, inside. It hurts inside.”







* ”Queen of the Nile” wasn’t actually written by Beaumont: he helped map out the story, but Jerry Sohl (who will contribute “The Invisible Enemy” next season) ghostwrote the script. Beaumont received sole credit, however.




6 comments:

  1. Wow...outstanding summary and analysis of this episode! I've always thought that the hypnotic, metronome-like pulse you mentioned was perhaps Dominic Frontiere's most effective music cue in the entire series; it is immediately alien and stress-inducing and downright scary. And it sounds completely unlike any other music cue in film/TV history.

    Also want to add that Geoffrey Horne later became a highly regarded acting coach, and he's still around. I don't know if he's ever been interviewed about "The Guests" but it would be interesting to hear what he has to say.

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  2. "Unknown" is right to praise your analysis of this episode, which is almost as psychologically complex as "Doomsday". When explaining is needed, you do some pretty good 'splainin'. It's also fitting that you and your readers are giving so much consideration to Dominic Frontiere's endlessly fascinating music.

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  3. A wildly strange episode, "The Guests" is a love story and a tale of alien abduction wrapped into one. Loner Wade Norton is driving on an old country road when he nearly hits an old man who collapses on the side of the road. Wade goes looking for help and finds an old mansion which is "home" to three oddball characters and a beautiful young woman named Tess. The house has another strange resident, namely an alien blob that looks like a combination of silicone and jello. This is one of the greatest things about the original "Outer Limits" series. It's monsters and aliens were always so unique and imaginative.

    Wade is continually interrogated by the alien, who is trying to find the missing emotion that will help it figure out man's destiny. This episode is filled with odd imagery. The alien brain fronts a background of rapidly moving clouds in one scene. The mansion itself is also subject to some eerie effects during the episode. Inside the mansion, strange lighting, long hallways and multiple doorways confuse Wade during his search for a way out of the house.

    The acting here is well done. The three oddballs accentuate the implied sanity of Wade and Tess. "The Guests" is not the best example of a typical "Outer Limits" story. It's mix of haunted house meets science fiction is not entirely representative of the series, but it is definitely entertaining.

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  4. This episode well-stands the test of time. Even today, it's a great story and wonderful to watch. Somehow I don't think it would work had it been filmed in color.

    It's a perfect companion piece to "Don't Open Till Doomsday."

    Lurker111

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  5. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and came to know the Outer Limits from seeing it Saturday afternoons on a local station (KTLA Channel 5?). At 7, 8 years old I didn't always understand the plots, including that of "The Guests," but the visuals of this episode were the most striking and memorable of the entire series -- the House/Brain on the hill, the upstairs room with the Brain Creature, and most of all the stark corridors, columns, and doors to empty rooms where Horne wanders. Then add the haunting, dreamlike score by Frontiere, which goes perfectly with the proceedings. A true gothic masterpiece! And I agree -- this episode in particular simply would not have worked in color.

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    Replies
    1. It would have been KTTV Channel 11. Most of season 1's interiors were filmed at KTTV's studios, and they reran TOL for more than 20 years (although it eventually wound up on KABC Channel 7 before moving to cable).

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