Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The Invaders"


Agnes Moorehead meets the Invaders
“The Invaders”
Season Two, Episode 51
Original airdate: January 27, 1961

Cast:
Woman: Agnes Moorehead
Astronaut Voice: Douglas Heyes (uncredited)

Crew:
Writer: Richard Matheson (original teleplay)
Director: Douglas Heyes
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Darrell Hallenbeck
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Lindsley Parsons, Jr. 
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

Rod Serling’s Promo:
“Next week we bring you a show called ‘The Invaders’ written by Mr. Richard Matheson and in this room you’ll watch Ms. Agnes Moorehead in a tension-riddled attempt at escape…from a pair of very improbable housebreakers.  This one we recommend to science fiction buffs, fantasy lovers, or to anyone to grip the edge of his seat and take a twenty-four minute trip into the realm of terror.”


Rod Serling’s Opening Monologue:
“This is one of the out-of-the-way places.  The unvisited places.  Bleak.  Wasted.  Dying.  This is a farmhouse, handmade, crude.  A house without electricity or gas.  A house untouched by progress. This is the woman who lives in the house, a woman who’s been alone for many years.  A strong, simple woman whose only problem up until this moment has been that of acquiring enough food to eat.  A woman about to face terror which is even now coming at her from… the Twilight Zone.”


Summary:
There is an old woman who lives in a house.  A tiny house.  An old house.  A house that hasn’t felt the warmth of another person in many years.  In this house, the old woman scrimps by, living out her days simply and quietly, not concerning herself with anything or anyone else besides herself and her tiny, old house.
While washing the dishes one evening, she hears a loud, piercing noise followed immediately by a crash somewhere above her.  After a few moments she decides to climb up to the attic to investigate.  Upon entering the attic she discovers that a small air vessel of some kind has crashed through her roof.  The vessel is round and thin with a diameter of about three feet.  The woman approaches the vessel with caution.  As she does so a small drop-door begins to descend from underneath the ship and a tiny figure dressed in a space suit emerges.  Frightened, the woman flees to the attic door and waits for the figure to approach.   She kicks the figure as it approaches through the attic opening down into the bottom interior of the house and swiftly shuts the door back.  Then she notices a second figure standing on the opposite side of the room.  The figure immediately aims his arm at the woman and fires a laser of some kind.  She is apparently too big for the tiny weapon to do any permanent harm but nevertheless its effects are immensely painful and she fleas back to the kitchen.
After she dresses her wounds she begins to look for figure number one.  She notices that one of her kitchen knives is missing.  She searches the house in extreme caution.  One of the figures emerges from under a floorboard and plunges the knife into her foot.   She screams in pain.  She runs to the kitchen and grabs a hatchet, determined to destroy her home invaders.  After having her hand sliced open while grabbing the makeshift door handle on her bedroom door she enters into her bedroom and finds one of the tiny figures hiding under a blanket.  She approaches the blanket slowly and grabs the moving mass underneath.  The figure attempts to stab her with the knife once more but is not successful.  As she does this she is confronted by the second figure shooting at her from the ledge of a nearby window.  She shoves the figure off of the window ledge onto the ground below.  She then wraps the other figure up in the blanket and slams it down on a table repeatedly as if she were trying to bust the table open with a sledgehammer.  She stops once the figure stops struggling. 
She hears noise above her.  She climbs back up the attic ladder in search of the other invader.  She approaches the ship, her fingers gripped around the handle of the hatchet.  She hears a voice inside.
“Gresham is dead,” the voice says.  “Incredible race of giants here.  No counter attack, too powerful!  Stay away!  Gresham and I are…finished.”
The woman begins to smash the ship in a violent frenzy until she collapses from exhaustion.  Afterwards, we pan over the only part of the ship left intake.  Printed in English in large block letters are the words: U.S. Air Force: Space Probe No. 1. 

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration”
“These are the invaders: the tiny beings from the tiny place called Earth, who would take the giant step across the sky to the question marks that sparkle and beckon from the vastness of the universe only to be imagined.  The invaders, who found out that a one-way ticket to the stars beyond has the ultimate price tag.  And we have just seen it entered into a ledger that covers all the transactions of the universe, a bill stamped ‘paid in full,’ and to be found on file…in the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
Never a program to shy away from a challenge, the second season of The Twilight Zone had already given audiences Rod Serling’s “Eye of the Beholder,” an episode in which none of the characters’ faces can be seen until the end of the story.  Now the show offered viewers a story with only one performer who doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue for the entire twenty-three minutes that she is on screen.  Her thoughts and emotions are conveyed through facial expressions and the use of pantomime, making it one of the most memorable episodes in the entire Twilight Zone canon.
For an episode that has scant dialogue and is shot in real time, “The Invaders” always feels surprisingly fast-paced, with tension instilling itself during the first moments of the episode and not letting up until its denouement.  This is one of only a handful of episodes that breaks the formula of the opening sequence which usually consisted of a teaser followed by Serling’s appearance on screen.  Here, the audience is given no information before Serling’s introductory monologue.  Instead, Matheson and Serling grab the viewer’s attention as soon as the title sequence is over with Serling launching into what may be the single most effective opening line in the show’s five year run:

“This is one of the out-of-the-way places.  The unvisited places.  Bleak.  Wasted.  Dying.”

The rest of the monologue continues in a similar manner with Serling describing both the woman and the house in an unflattering fashion.  When Matheson first began writing for the show he didn’t attach an introductory or closing monologue to any of his scripts believing that Serling preferred to write the monologues himself.  But he found out later that this was not the case and began to write them himself.  It can be assumed that by this point Matheson had begun scripting his own monologues, for this example in particular resembles Matheson's prose style even though it was written specifically to be spoken by Rod Serling.  Its effectiveness lies in not only what is being described but the way in which the words are strung together.  Its terse delivery and harsh language immediately grab the viewer’s attention and lunge them into the world of this strange woman.
            Matheson had explored the theme of role reversal between human beings and extraterrestrial life a decade earlier in his short story “Third from the Sun,” which was adapted by Rod Serling for a memorable season one episode of the show. In that story, the audience is led to believe they are watching a family escape from an Earth on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse only to find out by the end of the story that it is an alien family traveling to Earth.  Matheson later recycled the basic idea and plot structure of "The Invaders" for his short story “Prey,” which was published in the April, 1969 issue of Playboy.  “Prey” tells the story of a young woman alone in her apartment with a Zuni fetish doll that she has purchased for her boyfriend.  After only a few paragraphs, the Zuni doll comes to life after the woman accidentally removes a restricting charm from around the doll's neck. The diminutive killer begins to stalk the woman around her tiny apartment for the remainder of the story. When interviewed, Matheson has said that his original pitch for “The Invaders,” a script titled "Devil Doll," was much closer to the plot of "Prey" but that producer Buck Houghton and series creator Rod Serling thought it was too grim a tale and suggested that he set it on another planet and try to tone it down somehow. “Prey” was later made into a segment of the made-for-television horror anthology film Trilogy of Terror (ABC, 1975).  This film was intended as the pilot episode for a possible anthology series but was not picked up as a series by a network. Trilogy of Terror was directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis based on three of Matheson's short stories, "The Likeness of Julie," "Needle in the Heart," (or "Therese") and "Prey."  All three segments feature Karen Black in the lead role.  The first two segments were adapted by writer William F. Nolan, a personal friend of Matheson's and frequent collaborator with Dan Curtis, but the “Prey” segment, titled “Amelia” in the film, was adapated by Matheson, the writer perhaps sensing something special about the segment as it is undoubtedly the most fondly remember portion of the film.  Curtis directed a sequel to the film, Trilogy of Terror II, in 1996 which includes a sequel to the “Amelia” segment from the first film, picking up right where the original segment ended.  William F. Nolan wrote the screenplay for this segment.
            Calling the shots on “The Invaders” was director Douglas Heyes who was becoming the show's saving grace when it came to technically demanding episodes.  Unfortunately, this would be the last episode directed by Heyes.  The Twilight Zone never employed any regular staff directors, writers, or actors.  Everything was freelance, with the producers purchasing the stories they felt were right for the show and hiring the directors, performers and composers they felt were right for that particular story.  Heyes was simply brought in to direct the episodes that the producers thought were a right fit for him.  It is unclear why Heyes did not return to the show after this episode.  But he left the program at the height of its popularity and his daring, avant-garde style had a lasting influence on it.

In an interview with Marc Scott Zicree (The Twilight Zone Companion), Heyes said that once he read the script he knew that the set design had to be as simple as possible to fool the audience into thinking that this story was set on Earth.  Nothing specific to Earth, or anything overtly foreign, could be used as a set piece.  This is why the woman’s house looks as primitive as it does.  All of the set pieces seen inside the house are the basic tools one would need for survival.  Heyes also revealed that the “invaders” were simply puppets that were manually operated by various crew members.  Heyes and the crew members wore black, long sleeve t-shirts and were able to maneuver the puppets by placing their hand through an opening on the back side of the puppet and moving the legs with their fingers.  This is why the spacemen move with such slow, wooden gestures.  Over the years, many fans have criticized and even scoffed at the rather simplistic portrayal of the spacemen, and in the age of digital effects they do appear extremely crude.  However, the story is so good and Moorehead’s performance so captivating that this is quickly forgotten.  Heyes said he based the spacemen on the Michelin Tire Man.  Heyes also revealed that the voice of the astronaut at the end of the episode was actually his voice.
            One of the most memorable features of this episode is the panic-laden score composed by Twilight Zone veteran Jerry Goldsmith.  No doubt taking a cue from Bernard Hermann’s famous score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was released the year before, Goldsmith uses mostly harsh strings and occasional piano arrangements which greatly add to the unsettling atmosphere in this episode.
            And finally, although Matheson gives us a solid script here and both Heyes and Goldsmith help breathe life into it, this episode more or less belongs to veteran actress Agnes Moorehead.  A veteran character actress of stage and screen, Moorehead was a well-known name by the time this episode aired.  She started out as a radio performer.  In the 1930’s she became friends with Orson Welles and eventually joined his Mercury Theatre Company.  In 1938 she took part in Welles’s famous radio adaptation of H. G. Welles’s War of the Worlds.  After Welles moved to Hollywood she appeared in several of his films including Citizen Cane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  She went on to have a wildly successful film career appearing alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, and Vincent Price to name just a few.  But it was her role as Endora on Bewitched that would immortalize her forever (much to her irritation as she was reportedly not a fan of the show).
Heyes recruited Moorehead for this episode specifically based on her performance in a one-woman radio adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1948) for the show Suspense.  He was impressed by her ability to sustain terror for the entire half hour episode and figured that she would be a good fit for “The Invaders.”  The challenge here of course is that she had no dialogue to help her move the plot along or develop her character.  As there is little dialogue in this episode most of the story is told through the actions, mannerisms, and facial expressions of Moorehead’s character.  Years earlier she studied under renowned pantomime artist Marcel Marceau and her performance here is one of the best the show ever offered.  It is at times crude and even embarrassing but she still manages to be completely compelling.  Her mannerisms are almost primitive and there is one scene where the woman, exhausted, is seen drooling uncontrollably.  It is as genuinely authentic as any performance that one is likely to see on television from this or any other era. 
Although “The Invaders” has come to be a fan favorite and one of the more recognizable episodes of the show it should be noted that Richard Matheson was not a fan of it.  He was irritated at how the tiny invaders look on screen.  He always praised Moorehead’s performance but thought the episode moved far too slow compared to his original script.  Even so the idea was unique enough to cement this story in the cosmos of popular culture.

Grade: A

Notes:
-Agnes Moorehead also appeared in two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "Certain Shadows on the Wall," scripted by Serling from a story by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and "Witches' Feast."
-Director Douglas Heyes was considered by producer Buck Houghton to be the go-to director for technically challenging episodes. Heyes acquired this reputation first by how well he handled the first season episode "The After Hours." Heyes would also helm such technically challenging episodes as "The Howling Man" and "The Eye of the Beholder." Heyes wrote and directed the first segment of the series Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Dead Man" (based on the story by Fritz Leiber). He wrote two additional segments, "The Housekeeper" and "Brenda" (based on the story by Margaret St. Clair) under the pseudonym Matthew Howard.
-"The Invaders" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama by Dennis Etchison, starring Kathy Garver.

--Brian Durant 

2 comments:

  1. This episode suffers a lot from the fact that we now have HD TVs with big screens. Those spacemen look like squeaky dog toys! This was a very good writeup, though I have seen this episode so many times I'm tired of it and don't know that I'd give it a straight A. It always seems to turn up on the New Year's Eve marathon right around the time I turn on the TV!

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  2. I'll agree with you here, Jack. I still think it's a great episode but it suffers from overexposure big time. But if I'm trying to be objective then it's interesting enough to me to get an "A," even if I've seen it a million times (and yes, the spacemen look ridiculous). Thanks for reading.

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