Going Back to Things Unknown with ‘The Outer Limits’

The Outer Limits is a mix of science fiction, nightmares, and surrealism -- the very things that make life worth living even though they scare the bejeebers out of us.

The Outer Limits: Season One
Leslie Stevens
Kino Lorber
27 March 2018

Cinema history has been dotted with pointless false oppositions between artists, as though we can only admire one or the other: Chaplin or Keaton? Ford or Hawks? Bergman or Fellini? Woody Allen or Mel Brooks? Parallel arguments have thrived in any number of schoolyards: Superman or Batman? Donald or Daffy? The Addams family or the Munsters? One of the most august debates among the throngs who care, and who were brought up glued to their televisions in the early ’60s and during subsequent reruns, was The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits ?

Consider, if you will, children of the Kennedy administration, a political background combining Camelot glamour and Cold War nuclear-baiting while TV parades an array of violent westerns and gangster shows in between cozy family sitcoms with wise parents and well-dressed suburban tykes. What’s that signpost up ahead? What strange signal takes control of your set from a merciless alien authority?

Why, it’s a couple of spooky shows: science fiction, nightmares, surrealism — the things that make life worth living. These two black-and-white anthologies scared the bejeebers out of tender minds during this era, and indeed the latter program was created partly in response to the former. The two series had many things in common, from certain creative contributors to the fact that both titles evoke a sense of dislocation far from any known map of reality. While Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is generally considered the more intellectual of the two, The Outer Limits boasted something more blunt and effective: monsters.

Whereas monsters were only infrequently depicted on CBS’ The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits made an agreement with ABC to feature a fantastic creature in every story. Those who worked on the show called it “the bear”. Some episodes tried to work around this prescription but most embraced monsters and aliens, courtesy of the special effects and make-up departments. This element caused some highbrows to consider the show cheesy and childish, but the powerful attraction to kids is one reason this two-season series has had such a lasting legacy.

Another commonality of the two series is that both were uneven. The Twilight Zone could veer into heavy-handed moralizing or allow nifty ideas to dissipate undeveloped save for arbitrary twist endings. The Outer Limits, at an hour, could drag with stories that would have been better knocked out in 30-minutes. Ah, but what matters is that these shows were frequently good and occasionally great, and those kids (and grown-ups) were lucky to have both of them. No wonder they’ve been burned into impressionable brains ever since.

These thoughts are occasioned by Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray remastering of Season One of The Outer Limits. Some of the 32 episodes are accompanied by optional commentaries from seven experts. Also included is a 40-page booklet by David J. Schow, who literally wrote the book on this series: The Outer Limits Companion, co-writted with Jeffrey Frentzen. Adopting an emblematic or fractal approach, whereby one small piece replicates in perfect miniature the larger pattern of a given phenomenon, we’ll take this opportunity to alert unwary readers to, in our opinion, the single greatest episode and one of the magnificent achievements in TV drama. I refer to “The Forms of Things Unknown”.

The Forms of Things Unknown

The first thing you should know is that The Outer Limits sometimes opened its episodes with a pre-credits teaser that was a scene from later in the show. This episode does that, and you must bypass that teaser. Go directly to the Control Voice playing havoc with the horizontal and vertical elements of the image (must this be explained to the streaming generation?) while intoning: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission… You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the Outer Limits.”

The episode begins as it means to continue: with maximum disorientation, even dizziness. We see a montage of shots of a fancy car speeding and swerving around country roads, the driver (Scott Marlowe) grinning demonically. In one of those interior driver shots, a woman (Vera Miles) suddenly emerges from behind his profile, revealing that she’d been sitting next to him. She doesn’t appear alarmed either. In one of the final shots, she embraces and kisses him while he’s driving!

Barely have we processed this dangerous behavior than sound and motion cease in a sudden freeze-frame, followed by a jump-cut to an Edenic lake in a forest. It would explain everything if the characters had been killed and everything from this point is an “Owl Creek Bridge” dream or trip to an ambiguous afterworld, and we’ll never be able to swear such isn’t the case. One of the script’s structural motifs is that we hardly have time to absorb any new information before the episode shape-shifts into something else. That’s why we hesitate to give away any more, but we must spend a little more time in the first act.

To lilting music, the camera pans left to where the man is now standing, his crotch initially concealed by a leaf in the foreground. This gives us the impression, astounding for 1964 TV, of a naked man in a forest. When the passing leaf reveals his tight light-toned shorts, he might as well be. Done with posing, he walks into the lake and, like a king or a Greek god of revelry, calls out the first line of dialogue: “Kassia! Leonora! Where’s my drink?” The montage during this speech reveals our first glimpse of yet another woman on this trip: the jittery Leonora (Barbara Rush). Maybe she was in the trunk. We also see immediately that the women are colluding to soak a poisonous leaf (from a “Thanatos tree”) into the cocktail shaker.

“Come as you are, in your fine stiletto heels,” commands the alpha male, standing up to his hips and smirking with cruelty. The women, one in a black dress and one in white, obey and wade in as though approaching a baptism. Eventually they are stepped so far that, should they wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. (No extra points if you pick up that reference.) Now the viewer’s balance of knowledge and ignorance, and our surmises about which characters know what in this multi-layered scene, become positively heady. Where is our drink?

By this point, most well-viewed audiences in 1964 would have been reminded of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s very popular thriller Diabolique (1955), about a bisexual menage and a drowning in the French countryside. The lesbian element was signaled most clearly when Simone Signoret’s character refers to “our bed”, and the dynamic between the coldly commanding woman (new boss, same as the old boss) and the nervous mouse is the same as in this story. This episode is likewise set in France.

Although ABC’s network censors had come this far, the script requires some alibi about blackmailing Leonora’s father over letters to Kassia, which really explains nothing and sheds no light on any twists in these relationships. As a result, viewers are free to speculate on the palpable three-way sexual tension and domination in the relations between the women and their gloating Andre.

David McCallum in “The Sixth Finger” episode of The Outer Limits (1963) (IMDB)

Wikipedia identifies Marlowe as bisexual, which may help explain the unsettling, confident animal magnetism he radiates through the picture tube, as though the whole world is his hunting ground and no ventures are off limits. Yet he’s still frustrated that he can’t have everything. “I am rich but I am noisy rich,” he declaims, “and I want to be quiet rich.” That’s his moment of projecting the wounded grievance of someone who can’t get into the club he really wants.

The lesbian subtext is strengthened in Act Two, when the women find themselves in a fairytale house in the woods and Leonora says she feels “as if this house has been waiting for me. I’m afraid I’ll succumb to it.” Here the episode is suddenly channeling Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. The heroine there is Eleanor, while the lesbian character is Theodora. Leonora is a conflation of their names.

This particular house is haunted by the ticking of what Leonora calls “a million mad clocks”. The manor’s blind sage (Sir Cedric Hardwicke in his final role) declares, “My Mr. Hobart tinkers with time, just as time has tinkered with Mr. Hobart.” That’s a strange, fey young man played by David McCallum, who’d previously starred in the classic episode called “The Sixth Finger”. We’ll glimpse him hastily closing a door before doing something illicit with Andre’s near-naked body propped amid a conical instrument of strings, as some life-size harps have figureheads, or perhaps entwined in the sci-fi equivalent of St. Sebastian’s arrows.

“My Mr. Hobart” lingers in the house as a kind of lost pet, and at first the women misjudge the men’s relations, just as the whole episode hinges on such misjudgments and speculations. In his commentary, Tim Lucas points out that the character’s first name, Tone, refers to time in the era’s telephone conventions. I can’t help wondering if the last name refers to cult actress Rose Hobart, who appeared in several horror films and played a demonic woman in The Soul of a Monster (1944).

I’ve revealed enough to indicate that this story has an air of feverish polymorphous perversity quite uncommon for TV of its era, but I’ve said nothing of its dazzling visual style as orchestrated by director Gerd Oswald and photographer Conrad Hall, who was about to embark on an Oscar-winning career.

The gorgeous festival of expressionist tricks includes canted angles, shadow silhouettes, play with key lights and eye reflections, high-contrast chiaroscuro, moments of soft focus and saturated light, gliding camera movements, zooms forward and back, wide angles, worm’s eye views, upside down shots and even flashes of handheld giddiness, all in glittering and lavishly textured black and white. Composer Dominic Frontiere is also going to town with unnerving frissons. Art director Jack Poplin has his own field day, even constructing a “Caligari” hallway of false perspectives and angles.

The writer-producer is Joseph Stefano, who worked on the series’ first season along with creator and executive producer Leslie Stevens. This episode was constructed as a pilot for a possible horror anthology to be called The Unknown, then re-edited as the finalé of the first season. That’s why this is among the few episodes that don’t feature a “bear”, although a bear is referred to when Tone Hobart utters a quotation from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from which the episode takes its title.

Stefano and Stevens, who both left at the end of this season, were largely responsible for the series’ vibe and for giving Oswald pretty much a free hand to indulge the German Expressionist tendencies he came by honestly via his father, silent German director Richard Oswald.

Gerd Oswald spent most of his American career in TV, including The Twilight Zone and some particularly visual episodes of Perry Mason to which I’ve called attention here. His full career deserves careful tracking, though he’s currently best known for a handful of films, including A Kiss Before Dying (1956), The Brass Legend (1956) and Screaming Mimi (1958). Even that small output hasn’t been sufficiently explored yet. Where, for example, is Brainwashed (1960), a German movie based on Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Novella”?

In his classic book The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris classifies Oswald under Expressive Esoterica and notes: “A fluency of camera movement is controlled by sliding turns and harsh stops befitting a cinema of bitter ambiguity… There are paranoiac overtones in all his films, and the anti-Nazi symbolism is never too hard to detect.”

The Outer Limits, “Moonstone” episode (IMDB)

As I mentioned, some of the episodes offer commentaries from among a pool of seven suspects. “The Forms of Things Unknown” is handled by Tim Lucas, my former editor at Video Watchdog magazine. His informative and friendly track, gleaned from his research and Schow’s book, gives background on the players and points out resonances with the Stefano-scripted Psycho (1960) and the Universal Frankenstein movies, among other details. We must still go whistling for what would have been a great bonus: the pilot version of “The Unknown”.

In his excellent booklet, Schow says of “The Forms of Things Unknown” that “no single hour of television ever looked like this before, and your film education is incomplete if you haven’t seen it at least once. Not one of the ‘best,’ but certainly an essential Outer Limits episode.” I’ll respectfully disagree to the extent of asserting that I do find it one of the best, not just of Outer Limits but all TV.

Certainly there’s a lot to enjoy in the other episodes. Oswald is the most prolific director, while others include Byron Haskin, Laslo Benedek, James Goldstone, John Brahm, Leonard Horn, Robert Florey and writer-creator Leslie Stevens. Future Oscar winner Robert Towne wrote one script, and Harlan Ellison and Jerry Sohl would contribute to Season Two, which we trust is forthcoming.

Actors include Cliff Robertson, Robert Culp, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau, Ed Asner, Peter Mark Richman, Ralph Meeker, Bruce Dern, Sally Kellerman, Carroll O’Connor, Warren Oates, Gloria Grahame, Luana Anders, Marion Ross, Macdonald Carey, Sam Wanamaker, George Macready, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Leonard Nimoy, Signe Hasso and Robert Duvall.

My main bone to pick with this set is that it’s needlessly hard to find the episode you want. Discs are only labeled, for example, “Episodes 11-15”, and the booklet doesn’t number them. We must do math. I guess it’s a small price to pay.

The Outer Limits, “The Zanti Misfits” episode (IMDB)

RATING 8 / 10