The Guests

Directed by Paul Stanley; written by Donald S. Sanford; based on a teleplay by Charles Beaumont. Cast: Geoffrey Horne (Wade Norton); Luana Anders (Tess Ames); Gloria Grahame (Florida Patton); Nellie Burt (Ethel Latimer); Vaughn Taylor (Randall Latimer). Broadcast March 23, 1964. Story: Restless, rootless Wade Norton is lured to a secluded mansion where time appears to have stood still. Soon after meeting his host, Wade determines that he and the house's other inhabitants may not be guests at all.

One of The Outer Limits' many assets was its facility with the bizarre. While its television contemporaries framed their more outlandish episodes in comfortable, not always inventive terms (like the creaky, juvenile gothic corn of Thriller, or the mawkish, heavy-handed social science fiction of The Twilight Zone), The Outer Limits rarely took its genre elements lightly—no matter how familiar they might've been. Instead, it allowed such elements to fuel the weightier concerns almost always at hand, and fostered a creative atmosphere in which the blending of the intellectual with the fantastic was almost commonplace. It was inevitable, then, that a handful of episodes would eschew the explicable altogether, and effectively abandon realism—if not reality itself—for something genuinely surreal. Such episodes may be as close to the truly "experimental" as network television will ever come, and perhaps the most fully realized of them is the odd, intensely off-kilter "The Guests."

"The Guests" is not just unusual television—it's unlike most other Outer Limits episodes as well. What makes it markedly different is not just the absence of series trademarks like the customary Control Voice bookends, but rather its sparse, interior milieu and plainly ritualistic tone. For its cardinal struggle takes place not just within the four (windowless) walls of the looming and convenient mansion at its center, but also—or perhaps primarily—deep within Wade Norton's consciousness. The irrational, ethereal events that occur there comprise a test that will lead him, ultimately, to the responsibility and reason of adulthood, or the stagnate hell of a lifetime of puerile self-deception.

In this sense, the house is a spatial representation of Wade's inner conflict, and its other guests embodiments of the grave choice he faces; they are also worldly (and otherworldly) obstacles to his eventual salvation. The mansion's lower level is corporeal and seductive, with the gentle, pliable Tess the primary draw for Wade. But even the churlish, invariable bickering of the Latimers and Florida Patton's vacuous madness offer a degree of familiarity and comfort, particularly to someone already disposed to personal resignation and denial. The temptation here lies less in the boyish, idealistic love Wade envisions for he and Tess (itself a sort of indolent retreat that she comprehends at once), but with the complete abdication of emotional and social progress. The current guests, Wade soon discovers, have given in so thoroughly to this temptation that they've become a group of twisted ascetics unable (or unwilling) to engineer their own individual escapes.

The temptations of the structure's upper level are, conversely, incessantly cerebral and dispassionately cruel. The inhabitant here—ostensibly the mansion's host, but in truth merely an uninvited guest itself—relies completely upon cold intellect, and is so bereft of a material framework as to be little more than a shapeless mass of tissue. This lumpish creature's lack of definition leaves it as physically featureless as the lower level's inhabitants are psychically malformed, and just as stranded as they are. Yet in spite of the upstairs creature's philosopher-scientist persona (it routinely spouts quasi-Buddhist parables like "Each [guest] has his own door..."), the absence of or unwillingness to find a common philosophical space in which the occupants of both levels can adjoin leaves them all suspicious and fearful, bitterly manipulating one another out of some uncomprehending need. It makes for a very fine line on which Wade has little choice but to tread.

The creature's merciless, arrogant probing of the other guests appeals to Wade's sense of superior detachment, and in many ways the idea of engaging its unyielding intellect illimitably is as alluring to him as an eternity with Tess. Yet his resistance to both the moral resignation downstairs and the mental rape upstairs represents something new to the house: a mature, far-sighted sense of hope that finally triggers the meeting of its two levels in an ultimate, inevitable collapse. In classic Stefano fashion, Wade's recognition of his own imperfectly human longing for a future—spurred by Tess's selfless sacrifice, itself typically Stefanoesque—allows him to escape the confines of the sinister house, with its eternal netherworld of blind hallways and dead-end choices. The final image of the house dissolving first into a great, outsized brain and then into nothingness closes the episode on an ambiguous note: Wade's test is complete, and all guests—whether of the strange, secluded mansion or simply of his imagination—are evicted. Their purpose has been served, and his passage is complete.

Treating "The Guests" to such an intensely insular reading is a risky proposition, and focuses perhaps too narrowly on a single aspect of a uniquely layered script. But, thanks largely to the subtle talents of writer Donald Sanford and his inspiration, television legend Charles Beaumont, the episode holds up to such an explication as few others would. Director Paul Stanley, so spotty in his other Outer Limits work ("Second Chance" and the awkward second season episode "Counterweight"), also excels here, as does the rest of the creative team—so much so that it's surprising to realize that this film was only a few episodes away from the close of the first season and the end of the Stevens/Stefano reign. Despite the end-of-season austerity, "The Guests" works as beautifully as any of the series' earlier, better-known entries, and its eerie, dreamlike quality (due in part to Dominic Frontiere's haunting score and Kenneth Peach's hushed photography) and bravely introspective premise are sustained throughout. "The Guests" also takes it share of risks. As in "Don't Open Till Doomsday" (this episode's thematic cousin), the extraterrestrial origin of the creature upstairs is never fully explained or supported, and is daringly cast aside so that the film can concentrate on the more compelling, deeply psychological issues at hand. The creature's presence is warranted, yet its horror potential is never fully exploited; its immobility, in fact, precludes the sort of lurking one might expect in such a setting. The cast also rises to the challenging material, with Geoffrey Horne a particular standout. The mercurial yet resilient Wade Norton is a difficult role to pull off, but Horne finds the perfect balance between intellectual curiosity and impetuousness, and makes Wade's struggle between lingering adolescence and impending adulthood palpable. Luana Anders brings similar conviction to the touchingly sweet-natured Tess, despite being several years too old for the role (though the age disparity is thematically consistent); and Nellie Burt displays perfect control as the sadistic Ethel Latimer, to the point that it's difficult to imagine her buckling under the intrusive scrutiny of the creature.

The most intriguing bit of casting here is, of course, Gloria Grahame as the vacant and deluded starlet manqué Florida Patton. Not unlike Miriam Hopkins (for whom Grahame had understudied at one point) in "Doomsday," there is an uncomfortable parity between the actress and the role: ingenue Grahame had flirted with breakout stardom throughout the '40s and '50s, but her brash manner and unconventional beauty (later distorted by a perplexing regimen of plastic surgery) managed to keep popular acclaim firmly at bay. As Florida, she seems distant and somehow unreal—altogether fitting for both the character and the circumstances, but genuinely unnerving and a little sad. Grahame did, however, manage to provide Stefano (who seemingly collected fine performances from fading actors in unusual roles) with a final casting coup of which he could be proud.

There was little in the way of consistent risk left in The Outer Limits following "The Guests," both in its initial season and as a series. With the exception of the gentle, elegiac "The Chameleon," this was the end of its classic period, and it's difficult not to feel a sense of loss upon viewing the episode. Yet the series couldn't have planned for a more praiseworthy swan song, and it proves unequivocally that the show was a work of daring and resolve even in the face of dwindling funds and network indifference.

—MH

 

 

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