Corpus Earthling

Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Orin Borsten (additional material by Joseph Stefano and Lou Morheim). Cast: Robert Culp (Paul Cameron); Salome Jens (Laurie Cameron); Barry Atwater (Jonas Temple); Ken Renard (Landlord); David Garner (Doctor). Broadcast November 18, 1963. Story: After suffering a nasty bump on the head, Dr. Paul Cameron is able to overhear the invasion plans of two inconspicuous, rock-like alien life forms. They take umbrage at his eavesdropping, and make plans accordingly.

The first season of The Outer Limits was immersed in the vernacular of horror films. From its dark, expressionistic cinematography to those (crassly misinterpreted) "bears," the series traded in images and emotions familiar to anyone who's seen films as diverse as Jack Clayton's evocative The Innocents (1961) and the workmanlike, wonderfully awful Attack of the Giant Leeches (Bernard Kowalski, 1959). In other words, pretty much everyone.

In one sense, these gothic trappings allowed the series to pursue complex storylines with little interference from censors or the network; presumably, those who would object to such subversive episodes as "Don't Open Till Doomsday" or "The Bellero Shield" were unfamiliar with anything approaching subtlety in a weekly television show, or found the potent sexual and political undercurrents of these films somehow mitigated by their baroque, underlit and monster-laden settings. Such components also helped to ensure a steady audience, and managed to draw viewers who may not have ordinarily tuned in to a "serious" dramatic series. (A contemporary analogue might be Ronald Moore's scathingly brilliant revision of '70s dog Battlestar Galactica.) But the horror elements were also central to Joseph Stefano's vision for the series, and its powerful tensions and bizarre, often ambiguous imagery set the tone for a consistent body of work in which the human race struggled with its identity in the face of darkly overwhelming, barely comprehendible forces. Unjustly criticized for catering to adolescents, The Outer Limits in truth appeals to those mature enough to acknowledge the imaginative appeal to be found only in a sense of dread.

Nevertheless, the series didn't deal in genuine horror stories on a regular basis. During its first season, only a handful of episodes were structured as traditional, unambiguous "man vs. monster" stories, and most of those (like "Specimen: Unknown") were among the season's worst. The show thrived instead on more intricate explorations of human nature, and on the horrific and admirable potential found therein. What to make, then, of "Corpus Earthling"? Still very much in the Stefano vein of moral cautionary tale, this episode is also a horror film that throws the characteristic hopefulness of the series into serious question; it's a disturbing detour about which even Stefano had misgivings (perhaps not surprisingly). This isn't to imply that "Corpus Earthling" is simplistic or without subtlety, because it's not. It is, however, a terrifying reminder that while we as a species may encompass extraordinary impulses along with all those baser ones, there's no guarantee that we can access them and make ourselves somehow more whole—or less vulnerable to mysterious, destructive voices.

The horror, at least to the characters involved, is all in Paul Cameron's "defective," metal-plated head. The alien conversations he overhears are as classically delusional (with their implications of control and incitement to suicide) as his reactions—and the reactions of his wife, Laurie, and her colleague Jonas Temple—are predictable; Jonas puts it most bluntly when he tells Paul that he's suffering from "a kind of hallucination that's not at all uncommon." But such equivocation fails to put Paul at ease, and, fully believing he's heard what he thinks he's heard yet also realizing that it's quite impossible, he understandably begins to doubt his sanity. Despite Jonas and Laurie's assurances that he's only suffering from exhaustion (and the first half of the episode abounds with such assurances), Paul begins a downward spiral into a genuine paranoia that ultimately leads to the destruction of everything he cares for.

But what exactly is it that Paul cares for? What do these three characters value most? Perhaps the answers to these question provide the key to Paul's undoing, and to the depth of the horror at play in "Corpus Earthling." As scientists, Paul, Laurie and Jonas are thoroughly grounded in the rational world: they believe only what they can prove empirically. Yet Laurie and Jonas, despite their seemingly endless prodding, heating and microscopic observation of rocks, have no real affinity for the natural world from which the stones come; they are stiff and rock-like themselves, and seem able only to catalogue their specimens dutifully and hollowly. Paul, a surgeon, seems as incapable of understanding the subtleties of the human system as Laurie and Jonas do of comprehending their precious rocks; he makes reference to the "iron constitution" of his latest patient, who has unexpectedly survived a delicate operation with little or no surgical intervention from Paul. These three are stubbornly devoid of any interest or trust in the non-rational world, and it eludes and confounds them completely. To compensate, they choose either to ignore this realm or explain it away in rational terms—Temple even manages (rather miraculously) to hit upon the exact nature of the alien beings in this way, a common science fiction trope that's used to wonderfully ironic effect here. It's this fundamental absence that ultimately leads them to their downfall, for what Paul experiences flies in the face of their values. In refusing to believe his own ears and go beyond his dependence on the explicable, Paul is unable to categorize what he's overheard in any concrete, familiar way. His only option is to flee the familiar altogether, along with Laurie, and their destination proves to be more potentially liberating than he could ever hope for—or that any travel brochure could ever promise.

It's significant that the two seek refuge in Mexico. Primarily because of its Catholic intensity and strong indigenous traditions, Mexico is often interpreted by foreign observers as a place where superstition reigns; it is, in that sense, a land of voices where Paul's "affliction" is less cut and dried. Whether or not you choose to accept such a view of Mexico is beside the point within the context of "Corpus Earthling," where the country is made to embody a sense of magic and mystery and embrace the non-rational in a way that Paul, Laurie and Jonas could never comprehend. (Thankfully, this is imparted with subtlety and respect, and the episode never sinks to stereotypes or gross generalizations.) This point is driven home by the fires the landlord tends near the cabaña he rents to Paul and Laurie. Though he burns the fires to protect himself from the possessed (wisely, it turns out), the landlord never indicates that he has any better an understanding of the mystical forces at work than do the North Americans—he simply accepts their existence. When Paul inquires if the fires are a ritual, he reveals an arrogant lack of acceptance on his part that also belies a stunning naïvete about the place of ritual in his own life. What, after all, are his elaborate preparation of the injection he gives to Laurie and Jonas' constant poking at the Bunsen-burner oven other than (largely ineffectual) rituals? Paul is compelled to fit the landlord's actions into some sort of rational context just as he himself has been labeled insane, and when Laurie is possessed by the second alien he cannot bring himself to address the inexplicable threat to his wife and come to her aid. Instead, he abandons her in panic and terror. When the landlord finally tracks Paul down and convinces him to help Laurie, his supplication is the single selfless act in the entire episode.

Yet it's too late for Paul to save Laurie or Jonas, and when they perish he's left with nothing. It's only coincidence that his actions also spare the earth from an apparent alien invasion; such salvation changes little for him anyway. Paul's slaying of Laurie makes for one of the darkest and most painful Outer Limits finales, and the fact that his loss could have been avoided had he been able to trust his instincts makes it that much harder. Those instincts, however, were clearly corrupted by his hyperrational inability to comprehend—or at least acknowledge—the otherworldly conversations he was privy to. In another culture (Mexico, perhaps), Paul's ability to hear such voices might have been viewed as a gift, and made him a prophet or hero—or at least allowed him to remain a husband. Instead, he ends up as far from God or Laurie as he can possibly be.

The tight, four-character structure of "Corpus Earthling" is unusual for The Outer Limits, and, unlike many episodes, puts the focus more on the actors than on the writing (which is excellent and understated). Fortunately, the casting choices are appropriate and even inspired. Robert Culp, the lead actor to make the most appearances on the show, is convincing as Paul Cameron, and is unafraid to appear genuinely vulnerable and terrified. Culp makes Paul's paranoia truly oppressive, and he's completely, frighteningly believable as a man unconvinced of his own sanity. It's a strong performance that's uncomfortable to watch, and Culp is commendable for his daring understanding of the role. Salome Jens and Barry Atwater are equally impressive, and Gerd Oswald deftly exploits their natural coldness and distance as actors (a trait Jens would mine later in a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Atwater is particularly effective in the scene in which Jonas Temple is taken over by the alien creature: his painful, helpless writhing ranks with Don Gordon's agonized depiction of a broken ankle in "The Invisibles" and Bruce Dern's pathetic death-shrieks in "The Zanti Misfits" (The Outer Limits seemed to place an unusual emphasis on the verisimilitude of mock pain during this period). The oddest bit of casting is that of Ken Renard as the Mexican landlord. The actor (who went on to appear in True Grit in 1969) is effective and dignified in the role, but he appears more Creole than Mestizo. This would hardly be out of the question and it's not a distraction, but it does lead one to wonder why a Latino actor wasn't chosen for the role.

Oswald's direction and Conrad Hall's photography are, as usual, exemplary. The low angle shots in Temple's lab and later in the cabaña are straight out of classic 1930s horror cinema, yet also resemble the odd, off-kilter perspective of comic book frames. The camera also takes on a "rock's eye-view" at certain points that helps zero in on Paul's agonizing realization that something is terribly wrong. Borsten and Oswald add a subtle touch midway through the film as Paul and Laurie sit at home in the dark, waiting for some sort of imminent disaster. The setting gives the distinct impression that the two have been in the same spot since daylight, and have in their fear and tension let the sun set on them. The scene heightens the paranoia quotient considerably, and despite what we may have heard in the lab, we also begin to doubt Paul's emotional stability. The rock creatures who harass him are, in a way, atypical of other Outer Limits aliens: they're conniving, bigoted and utterly without sympathy or redeeming qualities (except perhaps that they're relatively easy to destroy). The squid-like beings are more representative of the series, however, in that they're peripheral to the story, and the Project Unlimited puppet design is fittingly nondescript and invests the aliens with a low-key menace perfect for the episode.

"Corpus Earthling" deals in a kind of horror that The Outer Limits rarely explored. Though larger social issues loom, as they inevitably do in all quality episodes, they're much less tangible and feel further off; this lack of a moral foothold makes the episode all the more disturbing. Paul Cameron and the other characters are as effectively cut off from their societal and cultural anchors as they are their natural instincts, and the implication that this is no less than the human condition is terrifying. After viewing the episode, one can't help but recall Paul's desperate lament early on: "I've been trying to push this out of my head, but I can't...." Push all you want—"Corpus Earthling" isn't going anywhere.

—MH

 

 

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