It Crawled Out of the Woodwork

Directed by Gerd Oswald; written by Joseph Stefano. Cast: Scott Marlowe (Jory Peters); Michael Forest (Stuart Peters); Ed Asner (Detective Thomas Siroleo); Kent Smith (Dr. Block); Barbara Luna (Gaby Christian); Joan Lamden (Stephanie Linden). Broadcast December 9, 1963. Story: Physicist Stuart Peters goes west to accept a position at NORCO, a mysterious and isolated research facility. His younger brother Jory tags along, as does their longstanding, unspoken resentment of one another. A messianic zombie, a reluctant young woman, and a sentient energy mass enter their lives to force the issue.

A bipedal nuclear storm and a true oddity in an audacious, pent-up tableau, this episode's "bear" is the story's single entity capable of honest self expression. Mythical, not rational: it may dwell in a laboratory, but it's not a creature born of science. Its genesis is displayed but never explained; its absolute power can only be subdued. For the moment. It rests in the pit (Satan?) and brings death, the decisive alteration of energy. It enslaves with fear, this grotesque problem. It isn't science: it lives, to kill, in a lab—but it crawled out of the woodwork.

To parallel this power-starved demon, Joseph Stefano established his perverse "focus on the family" in "Woodwork", offering a tightly-wound fraternal relationship as subtextual fodder for the tale told. The relationship of the protagonists (the brothers Peters) betrays the brittle signs of essential, tenuous engagement—Stefano's microcosm of human attachment: poignance and poison; a pleading, confusing mix of the deeply heartening and the dangerously irritating, a need for closeness so strong that it breeds distance. Jory's dependence on Stuart, his inability to grow beyond the tragedy of parental loss and become something more than a man-child who treats everything "like a magazine in a doctor's office," reflects the necrocentric energy-depletion of Dr. Block's NORCO, embodied by it's barely-contained resident beast.

Forest and Marlowe are impressive and convincing here, suggesting a longstanding relationship that is loving, though hampered by history and habit. Marlowe's Jory, pathetic with his stuffed bunny, annoying in his moodiness, tragic and flailing madly, is finally forced to grow up and act on someone elses behalf (true Stefano, true Outer Limits); sadly, he must lose yet another parental figure to do so. By story's end, he is both wise and damaged beyond his years; no doubt he will be, as Dr. Block noted of brother Stuart, a long time dying. Smith is perfect in the role of Block, with his coffin-dry voice, adopting a sleazy Teutonic bearing and accent; he suggests a Nazi war criminal in hiding, permutating der Führer's evil with nothing short of glee. The perfect company man (perhaps standing in for an ABC programming executive), pushy bottom-liner Block is as lethal as his beloved monster, and remains one of the most flagrant and unrepentant antagonists the series produced. Stefano, a writer equally moralistic and relativistic, offered many difficult villains in his episodes for The Outer Limits—some clearly wicked, others true believers in ultimately vile endeavors; Block is both. And he's a necrophile: a hard man to rationalize (watch for the loving portrait of Block's true God above his desk).

It is the ultimate dead-end job, toiling at NORCO, and work itself takes a drubbing in "Woodwork", where wage-slavery acquires a dreadful dimension. The tightly-reined environment of a large organization is the height of paranoid experience, even in the best of situations; here, the price of voicing job dissatisfaction is the brutal short-circuiting of one's company-installed pacemaker (the episode's funny/scary symbol for complacency). As Jory puts it, in typically arch Stefano dialogue, "I'd rather be dead than caught working at NORCO;" if only Forest's Stuart had felt the same. We leave the disruption caused by the momentarily contained beast and its decadent Old World accomplice (the death focus of European existentialism unabashedly evoked) with a traumatic series of losses to confront. Our nominal heroes can only stumble out of the disaster zone, shocky and ironically energy-depleted. The end of our shared world has been averted, for now, but not without sacrifice: the end of several smaller worlds. As always, knowledge is costly in The Outer Limits.

—DCH

Not quite the muddled amalgamation of unrelated ideas it first appears to be (though there are loose ends to be sure), "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" is more terrifyingly complex than could possibly be absorbed in a single viewing. Form follows function here—absorption and muddle are "Woodwork"'s narrative and milieu.

As David J. Schow notes in The Outer Limits Companion, "Woodwork" works on one level as Joseph Stefano's inevitable reaction to the pressures of network interference; in this regard it pays backhanded homage to Leslie Stevens's series trilogy ("The Galaxy Being," "The Borderland," and "Production and Decay of Strange Particles," although that episode was a ways off) in which cosmic greatness is thwarted by malevolent conformity. Such an episode was bound to emerge from Stefano's acid pen, and the sublime obscurity of the monolithic, threatening NORCO and its crushingly dehumanizing pattern of death, resuscitation, and enslavement speaks volumes about his perception of working conditions at ABC. Literally wearing their fragile hearts on their sleeves (or at least on their lapels), NORCO's once-brilliant undead minions are reduced to acting as mere recruiters for the installation's league of techno-zombies, while Dr. Block, their ostensible leader, is dominated by an inscrutable, wholly uncontrollable energy cloud he can scarcely comprehend. The implication is as uproarious as it is disquieting: the assembly-line drudgery of weekly production, and the creative cowardice of corporate sponsorship, had the potential to drain the life from The Outer Limits and its resident artists. If such a reading seems far-fetched, just watch a representative episode from the show's second season.

Stefano wasn't simply interested in excoriating Daystar-Villa di Stefano's corporate parents or underscoring the stultifying effects of a workaday existence, however. More than just a darkly satiric jab at ABC, "Woodwork" is another of his excursions into a deeply troubled relationship in which repression has taken on monstrous form—indeed, brothers Stuart and Jory Peters are among his most emotionally compromised characters. The years-long rift precipitated by their parents' accidental death is untenable and hindering to them both, yet they rely on it in their bitter, mutual need for each other; in this sense, they've allowed their unexpressed anger and grief to become as blindly destructive as the "problem" in NORCO's pit. The purposeful, taciturn Stu and the frivolous, jovial Jory are at an emotional impasse, as afraid to confront the pulverizing resentment they harbor as they are fearful of leaving it, and one another, behind. Yet there is real affection between them, and the brothers share telling character traits despite their fundamental differences: the normally reserved Stu is charming and flirtatious with Dr. Linden, while carefree Jory is brooding and grim as he waits impatiently for Stu's return from the lab. Their relationship is dictated by the conservation of energy law central to the work at NORCO, and to the episode: their misunderstanding is too deep-seated to be completely destroyed or abandoned, yet their genuine love for each other offers the potential for its reformation into something respectful and abiding. Sadly, NORCO's wailing energy creature eradicates the possibility of such a change, and takes Stu's life (again) after forcing him to hastily confront the hapless and confused Jory.

In this way "Woodwork" robs us of the uplifting resolution that seems inevitable until Stu's jarring second death, and the bewilderment and loss that go unrelieved leave us as demoralized as its characters. Uncharacteristic a television experience as this is, it enables us to consider their predicament in a broader perspective—one in which the enigmatic energy mass and its helpless adherents take on social, even historical significance. Stuart and Jory; the mad, vain Dr. Block and despondent Dr. Linden; even the seemingly imperturbable Gaby and Detective Siroleo are all hopelessly in thrall to the indifferent, impenetrable being at "Woodwork"'s literal center, whose narrowly focused drive seems brutal and beyond understanding. Beleaguered by a force they can't control, and compelled to contain that force without the luxury of deciphering it, the most any of them can do—and it's the least of them, Dr. Block, who does it—is mollify the incomprehensible beast and allow NORCO to serve as its base.

This casts an unexpectedly harsh light on our susceptibility to petty fears and shallow resentments, and on our penchant for becoming subservient to those fears and resentments. But the episode goes deeper still by subtly yet ferociously interrogating the nebulous tyranny of power and the depleting, all-consuming control required for its maintenance. Thus Dr. Block's Old World accent and mannerisms aren't the non sequiturs they initially appear to be, but instead link him to Europe's long history of totalitarianism—specifically Nazism, which had been defeated a mere 20 years prior to "Woodwork"'s broadcast—and provide the episode with its final, sickening punch. "It Crawled Out of the Woodwork" clearly intrudes into places no network censor could have conceived, and presents one of Joseph Stefano's most potent challenges to the notion of a rational, well-ordered universe in which there are no (as Dr. Block puts it) "foolish laws."

At this point would we expect anything less of Stefano, or of The Outer Limits?

—MH

 

 

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