Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Outer Limits - "Demon With a Glass Hand"

Season 2, Episode 5
Original Airdate: October 17, 1964
Writer: Harlan Ellison
Director: Byron Haskin
Producer: Ben Brady, Leslie Stevens
Cast: Robert Culp, Arline Martel

“Demon With a Glass Hand” is a wonderful, complex science fiction story hidden underneath a beautifully shot film noir. It was “Blade Runner” long before that huge Geisha appeared on the skyscraper…and has better voice-over to boot. Writer Harlan Ellison sued the studio behind “TheTerminator” for plagiarizing his other (lesser) “Outer Limits” episode “Soldier” in a move that, to this writer, seems like quite a stretch. But though the mythology here is much different than “Blade Runner,” it’s impossible to not see all the inspirations, from the emotionless hero to the final twist.

Despite my obsession with all things “Twilight Zone” and love for anthology series in general, I’ve never before watched “The Outer Limits,” despite having the original series on DVD for a few years now. After finally digging in and watching several of the most popular episodes (“The Zanti Misfits,” “The Chameleon” and “Soldier,” among others), I was very much let down. Despite gorgeous cinematography and some good acting, the one-hour format stretched most of these science-fiction stories to their breaking point, despite very good ideas at their core. When half of your episodes feel like filler, you have a problem – the same one that “The Twilight Zone” dealt with when it expanded to an hour in its fourth season.

That’s one of the reasons why “Demon With a Glass Hand” (whose name doesn’t really make sense in retrospect) feels like such a breath of fresh air. Instead of filler scenes placed upon other filler scenes, writer Ellison provides us with an ever-changing Rubik’s cube of mythology, often so dense that the viewer is playing catch-up. It begins with a man named Trent (Robert Culp, purposely wooden) lost in modern times with a partially-constructed glass hand and several alien killers on his tail who are recognizable because they wear panty hose (not kidding) on their faces. Trent has no idea who he is, only that he supposed to be humanity’s savior, and he must retrieve the three missing fingers for the glass hand to understand entirely what has happened to him and what he must do to save the humanity of the future. And trust me, I’m just scratching the surface here. There’s more, lots more.

The first ten minutes of the episode feel like an exposition bomb has gone off. First Trent gets a boatload of information from the mysterious panty hose aliens, then more exposition from his hand, then he meets up with a woman and explains even more to her. It’s difficult to keep everything straight and would usually signal very clunky writing, but because Trent is almost as confused as we are, the exposition dump actually works to the episode’s advantage. We go along for the ride, waiting for pay-offs to mysteries we only half understood to begin with, and when those pay-offs come they are both surprising and fascinating.

Everything speeds up once Trent gets to an office building where the aliens are headquartered. Though director Byron Haskin and his fantastic cinematographer Kenneth Peach employed the shadows of noir from the first frame of the episode, the noir look goes into overdrive in this beautifully rendered building, filled with fantastic architecture and maze-like hallways. It reminds me a lot of the office in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” and I wasn’t surprised to read that Ridley Scott used the sameplace to film the third act of “Blade Runner” (there’s that movie again).

Trent runs into a woman named Consuelo (Arline Martel) who was working late and turns her into his companion, not by choice, but because the aliens have put an invisible barrier around the building. Together they move up the several floors of the building, ultimately to the roof, before Trent descends back into the danger below as Dante did into the inferno.

"Cowabunga, dude!"
Many of the more sci-fi elements of the episode are almost laughable, and this is true of the show in general. The killer ants in “Zanti Misfits” had cute teddy bear faces and were obviously horrible models swung on strings during the final siege. The aquatic monster in “Tourist Attraction” would have fit better as one of Ariel’s pets in “The Little Mermaid” than on “The Outer Limits.” Here Trent’s glass hand isn’t the most impressive prop (and, for a long period of time, is stuck in a “Cowabunga, dude!” position). The aliens all wear a big necklace that, when torn off of them kills them and sends their bodies back to the future – and yet none of them think they might be safer if they just tuck it into their shirt. And I did mention the panty-hose faces, right?

I’m willing to forgive many of these in part because of the show’s budget, time period and that, yes, “The Twilight Zone” had many shoddy effects too. But what really saves the more eye-rolling parts of the production are the film noir elements. Even the most laughable costumes look awesome when shot in shadow, and the kookiest villains look menacing when you can barely get a good look at them. It’s inspired that Trent and the aliens use guns, actual guns, to do their battle. Ellison apparently was horribly unhappy with that decision, but seriously, what adaptation of his work has he not all-but-disowned after the fact, and here the guns bring a unique level of urgency to the storytelling missing from other science fiction (the guns used here are infinitely scarier than, say, the ray gun from Ellison’s other episode “Soldier”).

The twist at the end of the episode is a genuinely surprising one that hits the viewer on both an emotional and intellectual level, and fits perfectly in the world of noir. It is also darker and self-defeating than one would expect from an anthology, a trait that seems to be repeated throughout almost every “The Outer Limits” episode I’ve seen. Humanity always sucks, things never get better, and our heroes must consistently suffer for little reward. It’s a very dire notion for stories whose imagination is supposed to reach from the inner mind to the outer limits, and perhaps that’s another reason why I haven’t become fully invested in the series. The ending worked beautifully here, that’s for sure, but in the other episodes I’ve seen it just felt tacked-on, as if it was trying to prove a point. Ah well, the show still has many great qualities and I’m looking forward to diving into the remainder of the episodes. I will say one thing about it: the opening credits are much cooler than any of those in “The Twilight Zone’s” history. So that’s, uh, something.

“Demon With a Glass Hand” is available on DVD, AmazonInstant Video, Hulu, iTunes and YouTube.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. It's my favorite episode. Robert Culp does a great job here.