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Friday, October 24, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Cry of Silence" (10/24/1964)




“Cry of Silence”
Season 2, Episode 6 (38 overall)
Originally aired 10/24/1964


Fifty years ago tonight, ABC presented a heady mix of zombies, alien intelligence, and menacing tumbleweeds. It sounds like an Ed Wood movie, I know, but it was actually an episode of The Outer Limits… and thankfully, it wasn’t nearly as goofy as it sounds.



Andy and Karen Thorne are out for a leisurely drive in the desert (I think they’re checking on some property or something; it’s never really clear) when they spot a truck screeching away from a semi-hidden side road. Andy deduces that that’s the road they’re looking for and heads down it…. and promptly collides with a giant boulder sitting in the middle of the road. While he casts a curious eye at the damage, Karen manages to fall down a steep hill and twist her ankle something fierce.

Andy joins her at the bottom of the hill. They are suddenly beset by a herd of ornery tumbleweeds, which have apparently come to life and are feeling felonious. They form a wall around the Thornes, trapping them as night falls. Andy builds a fire and discovers that these unusual tumbleweeds don’t burn… they explode. A shadowy stranger---- a local farmer, Lamont--- arrives and helps them past their captors.


Back at Lamont’s farm, the Thornes learn that a meteor crashed in the canyon two weeks earlier, and that the tumbleweeds came to life shortly thereafter. Lamont indicates that his wife fled a week ago, and the three resolve to leave the canyon together for help. They are assaulted on all sides by hundreds of aggressive frogs, and opt to stick around the farm until the morning.

The trio attempts to leave again at daybreak and is tormented by boulders that move of their own volition. Lamont is crushed to death by one of them, and the Thornes narrowly make it back to the farm in one piece. Andy discovers a journal kept by Lamont and, after reading its contents, concludes that the various plagues--- the tumbleweeds, the frogs and the boulders--- are in fact a formless intelligence, probably alien in origin, that is inhabiting various objects in an attempt to communicate with the residents of Earth.


Lamont shows up, now a stiff and inarticulate zombie. Andy tries to get him to write, but only a few meaningless scrawlings are produced before Lamont’s dead fingers lock up from rigor mortis. But this dead end opens up a big new avenue: the invisible alien force can inhabit a human being. Andy decides to hypnotize himself in order to make his body available for possession.



And it works…. sort of. Through Andy, the alien laments its inability to establish contact with Earth, apparently deaf to Karen’s impassioned attempts to gets its attention. The alien vacates Andy and departs Earth. “It just couldn’t hear me,” Andy broods.



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RANDOMONIUM

“Cry of Silence” is directed by Charles Haas, the second of four episodes he’ll ultimately direct (he helmed last month’s “Cold Hands, Warm Heart,” and he’ll be back later this season for “Keeper of the Purple Twilight” and “The Brain of Colonel Barham”). There’s really nothing to complain about here… Haas stages the action quite well and doesn’t commit any major sins. The shot of Karen’s stunt double tumbling down the rocky canyon wall is memorably and beautifully achieved (and is definitely wince-inducing, the true mark of a well-rendered onscreen injury). The remote location shooting adds immeasurably to the episode’s production value.



The episode is written by Robert C. Dennis, who will contribute three more scripts in the coming months (“I, Robot,” “The Duplicate Man,” and “The Brain of Colonel Barham”; the latter will re-team him with this week’s director Charles Haas); here, he reaches for something above your average alien invasion-slash-monster-flick fare and is mostly successful. However, the fact that “Cry of Silence” doesn’t devolve into the realm of unintentional comedy (a la Plan 9 from Outer Space) is an achievement in and of itself. Between Karen’s histrionic outbursts (she out-screams Barbara Rush from "The Forms of Things Unknown," believe it or not) , the dangerously wacky plague of frogs, and the giddily surreal sight of those anthropomorphized tumbleweeds rolling around… well, the episode has no business coming off as cerebral as it does. Kenneth Peach’s moody photography absolutely saves the day here (really, all he needs to do is point and shoot at the gorgeous scenery), as do Eddie Albert’s energetic--- yet deadly serious--- efforts to solve the mystery and, later, establish contact with the extraterrestrial intelligence. Lamont… hoo boy, he could go either way: he vacillates wildly between auténtica loco and just plain goofy, but he ends up being just grim enough to push the proceedings over the line into safe (or unsafe as the case may be) territory. “Cry of Silence” isn’t necessarily great Outer Limits fare, but it’s successful despite its potential pitfalls.


from left: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953),
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)



Ultimately, it’s the concept that I find most attractive here. We've seen countless first contacts in TV and films over the years, peaceful or not, but rarely do we see such a dramatic (even heart-wrenching) missed attempt at it. We don’t just root for Andy as he enthusiastically tries to facilitate communication with the alien force--- we root for mankind in general, as such contact might just be the catalyst for a new age of worldwide enlightenment. Potent stuff, to be sure, and it’s a head-shaking tragedy when it doesn’t happen. So close, and yet…. no go, folks. 

The episode's themes remind me of Pink Floyd’s “Keep Talking” (from 1994’s The Division Bell), particularly the chorus:

Why won't you talk to me?
You never talk to me
What are you thinking?
What are you feeling?
Why won't you talk to me?
You never talk to me
What are you thinking?
Where do we go from here?

The venerable Floyd certainly has enough sci-fi meanderings in its expansive catalog (particularly their earlier stuff, see “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets) to justify a reference here, but "Keep Talking" in particular has another cool high-minded science element: it features a spoken word intro by world-renowned theoretical physicist and author Stephen Hawking, which goes as follows:


For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination
We learned to talk

And later:

It doesn't have to be like this
All we need to do
Is make sure we keep talking.


Sounds like something The Control Voice might say, eh? In fact, the intro narration for "Cry of Silence" attributes man's eventual advancement into space to "prehistoric man discovering the art of communication." That's some pretty deep and meaningful stuff (damn, where's the weed and the laser light show when you need 'em?), but on a lighter note, the camera rests on a chalk drawing of a curvy woman inside a telephone booth just as the CV mentions "the art of communication." Har har.
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Of course we can’t discuss a noncorporeal intelligence without being reminded of Gwyllm Griffiths (from season one’s “The Sixth Finger”), whose hyper-accelerated evolution led him to desire a state of “all thought and no matter, a vortex of pure intellect in space.” Our invisible alien (not to be confused with that hungry rascal The Invisible Enemy, who we’ll meet next week) appears to be exactly what Gwyllm longed to become… before he was sabotaged by that simple-minded---- but oh-so-stunning--- Cathy (Jill Haworth, *sigh*), so it’s nice to see that it’s at least possible (well, in The Outer Limits anyway; I obviously have no way of knowing whether or not real-life man will eventually shed his physical form, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t be permitted to share the info with you Missing Links).


The benevolence of the Extraterrestrial Mind Force™ is a bit hard to swallow upon further reflection. Lamont tells the Thornes that the tumbleweeds swallowed several head of cattle… now why the hell would a noncorporeal Brain Cloud™, alien or otherwise need to eat anything? I’m also a bit perplexed as to why possession by the Unseeable Mist of Intellect™ causes physiological changes in both the tumbleweeds (which explode when ignited) and the frogs (which dissolve in water). That second one is charmingly weird; it isn’t often I’m treated to the sight of a frog fizzing up like a goddamned antacid tablet.

The shots of the tumbleweeds leaping onto the Wall o’ Weeds™ at the end of act one are very obviously happening in reverse. This means that the shots were achieved by simply having someone stand just outside the camera’s range and toss the weeds onto the pile, then running the footage backwards in postproduction... which I suppose is much easier than rigging up an elaborate network of wires. In an interesting bit of Outer Limits continuity, season one’s “The Zanti Misfits” opens with a shot of a tumblin’ tumbleweed and closes with the same shot ran backwards. I’m not sure if we’ll see any more tumbleweeds before the series ends, but if we do, I hope like hell that footage gets reversed too. Y’now, for continuity’s sake.



The silhouette of Lamont staring over the top of the tumbleweed wall, flashlight in hand, is a striking image; he’s way creepier than the crunchy critters menacing the Thornes. Lamont is just plain unsettling from the get-go and never lets up (he even comes back from the dead for a weirdness encore), possessing that rare ineffable quality one only finds in the inbred denizens of the deep back woods. Even at his most lucid, he never comes across as the “intellectual” Andy assumes he must be after reading his notes.

And what of the absent Mrs. Lamont? Lamont indicates that she left “about a week” ago, but Karen deduces--- presumably correctly--- that it was in fact Mrs. Lamont herself they witnessed hauling ass out of Dodge the day before. I guess we can chalk Lamont’s misperception of the passage of time as another sign that he’s well on his way to Crazytown.

Lamont’s telephone rings after the alien consciousness makes its final exit. Karen answers it, announces that everyone’s okay, and hangs up. Wait, really? Even though the so-called nightmare is indeed over, there are still serious matters at hand. I guess she was so relieved to be free of cranky tumbleweeds and over-amorous frogs that she completely forgot about the dead guy on the premises, or the wife that will likely come home at some point and find said dead man (was it she who called, I wonder?). Andy and Karen return to their car and drive off into the sunset, neglecting to notify the authorities of a goddamned thing. Eckholes.


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AURAL PLEASURE


The underscore for “Cry of Silence” includes a couple of cues that we also heard last week in “Demon with a Glass Hand” (“Space Particles” and “Danger Signal”). Other selections from Harry Lubin’s extensive music library employed this week include "Ghostly Presence" and "Lost in the Galaxy."




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DRAMATIS PERSONAE



This week’s cast is probably the smallest in the entire series. With only three characters, you’d think all three actors would get credit at the top of act one… but you’d be wrong. Arthur Hunnicutt gets the shaft (his name isn't seen until the end credits roll). None of these three folks appear in any other Outer Limits episodes and have next to no genre connections to speak of; this section will be real quick, in other words.

The impressive résumé of Eddie Albert (Andy Thorne) doesn’t have much in the way of genre work, but he still beats his costars by a country mile. On TV, he popped up in “The Love Affair” episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (a series which starred TOL alum David McCallum); he also appeared on The New Twilight Zone in 1988 (“Dream Me a Life," in which he co-starred with TOL alum Barry Morse) and The Ray Bradbury Theater (“Touch of Petulance”) in 1990. On the big screen, he played The President in 1982’s Dreamscape. No matter what, Albert will forever be remembered for his starring role on TV’s Green Acres, which featured TOL alum Parley Baer in a recurring role.





Karen Thorne is brought to fragile, hysterical life by June Havoc, whose only other foray in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror realm came very late in her career: she played Aunt Clara in the shitty A Return to Salem’s Lot in 1987. She did have a starring role in the 1947 film noir Intrigue, the cast of which included TOL alum Michael Ansara in one of his earliest roles (I’ve never seen the film, which remains unavailable on DVD and Blu-ray; if it did finally get released, I’d likely buy it in a heartbeat for the sole reason that it’s a film noir and I’m a bit obsessed with that particular genre). And no offense to Ms. Havoc, but I would’ve rather seen Eva Gabor play Karen Thorne (for Green Acres-related reasons, naturally; it also doesn’t hurt that Gabor is way hotter than Havoc).







That lanky old hillbilly-cum-dead guy Lamont is played by Arthur Hunnicutt in his only Outer Limits role. His only other genre credit of note is “The Hunt” on The Twilight Zone in 1962, in which he played…. you guessed it, a lanky old hillbilly-cum-dead guy.

I was all set to turn this into a "nut punch" meme, but I've suffered this same torture at the hands (paws?) of my own dogs far too many times, so I know it's no laughing matter.

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HOME VIDEO RELEASES



“Cry of Silence” was one of the final twelve Outer Limits episodes to be released on home video in 1991 (man, ol’ Eddie Albert looks like he’s passing a kidney stone there). For its inclusion in Columbia House’s mail-order club, it was paired with “Wolf 359,” which turns 50 in two weeks.




“Cry of Silence” was left out when 28 (of the 49 total) Outer Limits episodes were released on LaserDisc between 1990 and 1995, which must’ve pissed more than a few collectors off. However, MGM acquitted itself with the 2002 release of the entire first season on DVD (the second season arrived in 2003), but made the unfortunate choice to use dual-layered, double-sided discs (DVD-18s), which are prone to eventual failure. MGM announced that the series would be released again (in three volumes, with the longer first season split in half) on DVD in 2007, which raised the hopes of at least one fan (yeah, it was me) that the series would either be remastered in high definition (as Image Entertainment had done with The Twilight Zone two years earlier) or, at the very least, repressed on standard, reliable single-sided DVDs. Those hopes were unceremoniously dashed when it was revealed that inside the pretty new slim packaging dwelled the same exact same discs from five years earlier. The three volumes were collected into one omnibus package in 2008. And now, six years later, MGM still hasn’t revisited the series for a Blu-ray release. I’d love to think that new high definition masters are being created as I type this, but I have absolutely no reason to put faith in MGM at this point.

Full disclosure: the above paragraph was repurposed from an earlier episode spotlight. What’s that? You think I’m lazy? You’re reading this for free, dammit. When I start getting paid, I’ll guarantee 100% original content in every post.



In addition to reading my spotlight of “Cry of Silence” free of charge, you can also watch the episode for free thanks to Hulu, which offers the entire 49-episode series available for streaming.

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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

Nope, nothing, nada, zip. The landscape of Outer Limits collectibles is pretty sparse to begin with, but even if it weren’t, what exactly could be merchandised from this episode? Commemorative rubber frogs? A tumbleweed action figure with jumping action? How about a rendering of the formless, invisible alien intelligence? Actually, that gag’s already been done…




I suppose one could put together a Lamont action figure using a Cletus from Playmates’ extensive Simpsons action figure collection….you’d just need to find plastic frogs, tumbleweeds and boulders of the correct size for accessories. The Simpsons has parodied a number of Twilight Zone episodes over the years (as well as the Outer Limits opening sequence for their Treehouse of Horror V Halloween special; see below)… if they opted to lampoon “Cry of Silence,” they would almost certainly slot Cletus into the Lamont role, don’tcha think?




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THE WRAP-UP

“Cry of Silence” isn’t quite top-twenty material, but it’s by no means a bad episode either. Hysterical wife aside (Andy’s, I mean, not mine), it serves as an engrossing meditation on something of a worse-case scenario if and when that glorious first contact scenario finally presents itself: what if we can’t see or hear one another? In 2009, the National Research Council published The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems, which ended with the following sentiment: "Nothing would be more tragic in the American exploration of space than to encounter alien life and fail to recognize it.” What if, as in “Cry of Silence,” that extraterrestrial life met us here, on our own turf, and couldn’t recognize us as life?



8 comments:

  1. I can't watch this episode anymore due to the number of times the wife cries "oh Andy!!!" If only the episodes title pertained to Andy's wife. Ugh.

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  2. Another great review, Craig! I have a couple of responses.

    "Lamont tells the Thornes that the tumbleweeds swallowed several head of cattle… now why the hell would a noncorporeal Brain Cloud™, alien or otherwise need to eat anything?"

    Maybe this was another of its fumbling attempts to communicate.

    "I’m not sure if we’ll see any more tumbleweeds before the series ends, but if we do, I hope like hell that footage gets reversed too. Y’now, for continuity’s sake."

    In "The Premonition", there are two tumbleweeds just outside Jim Darcy's crashed jet. David J. Schow includes a photo of the in the 1998 edition of The Outer Limits Companion with the caption, "Even the tumbleweeds aren't moving in Jim Darcy's frozen world of in-between time". See it here: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-8qCBTg1WdXA/TXP1gskrP4I/AAAAAAAADWc/Qw097i_AM9c/s640/Picture+2.png

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    Replies
    1. That means they aren't moving, forwards or backwards. Dammit.

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  3. This episode has gotten a bad rap because of the tumbleweeds. Viewers were still looking for a monster and all this episode gave them was animated, yet exploding tumbleweeds and menacing frogs. Oh and the boulders. When I saw this the first time as a kid I kept expecting one of these three things transforming into some hideous and menacing. Yes...I was one of "those" viewers back then. Year later getting into the whole episodes premise this is a decent episode. It is watchable. Lamont is probably the monster if you're still looking for a monster. Creepy! Given a chance it works and is not as funny or lame as the tumbleweeds would indicate.

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  4. Finally catching up...People gripe about this episode being totally ridiculous with its killer tumbleweeds, frogs and boulders. But once Andy realizes something alien is trying to communicate to whatever it can, the force becomes both strangely menacing and worthy of sympathy at the same time. Andy is an inquisitive man and he is the glue that holds this all together. His performance relays a sense of fear and wonder that offsets his hysterical wife and confused farmer Lamont. The opening act featuring tumbleweeds that slowly encircle Andy and Karen are kind of spooky. They slowly drift towards the couple and possess what Andy calls "a strength". Later, the alien force transfers itself to boulders that attack Andy and Karen while they are inside Lamont's farmhouse. At one point, Karen looks out of the farmhouse window and a boulder hurls itself into the side of the house. It lends a feeling of terror and isolation that permeates this underrated episode. What ultimately brings "Cry Of Silence" down a few notches is its conclusion. Its not a total disappointment, but it does minimize the horrific situation experienced by Andy and Karen. It's yet another forgotten treat from Season Two.

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  5. Among interviews w/ the makers of GREEN ACRES - there seems to be one burning question I've never seen posed. Has anyone ever asked them - out of all the plot lines they could have dreamt up to pitch for a series - where exactly did they get the screwball idea of a show about Eddie Arnold as an urbane professional city man, with a hankering to get away from it all by moving to the outskirts - and a platinum blonde wife who has to be more or less dragged along under protest - and their close encounter, when they get out there, with ... Utter Weirdness?

    Especially considering CRY OF SILENCE first aired Oct 1964, and GREEN ACRES debuted - in the Fall 1965 network broadcast season, a year later. Not saying the timing - along with the striking match with CRY OF SILENCE for key distinguishing features is suspicious or anything. Far be it from me to think such - or, anything at all. Only that sometimes, on impression - some things just seem almost too coincidental to be - coincidence (?),

    And if anyone's got a source where/when/how the GREEN ACRES concept originated ... my kingdom for that horse, squire.

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  6. Ok, I know some of you guys pick on this episode a lot, but I LOVE it! It's slightly goofy, but I think they pull it off. It's stayed with me for some 40 or 50 years, so it must have something going for it! The writing of the story works for me. I buy into the tumbleweeds, frogs,etc. On paper, just talking about it, it all sounds silly, I agree with those of you who think that. But again, I believe they pulled it off. I find it creepy as all hell. Lamont is VERY creepy! Good one---

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  7. I just watched this episode. Yes, it's a bit silly, especially with the frogs (were frogs bouncing off you *really* that great a threat?), but Eddie Albert's performance is a real tour de force that keeps the episode going, and the basic idea behind the episode is a great one, even if I think they could have handled it better. It's kind of a shame that this episode is the one that followed Demon With a Glass Hand.

    And like Brian Akers, I too, wondered if this episode might have been part of the inspiration for Green Acres. God knows weird things happened on that show, too, even if it was played for laughs instead of seriously.

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