Tijuana News, November 18th 1963. Paul Cameron, 33, wanted for double homicide and arson. Seen leaving rental home with dead wife in his arms. Former colleague left murdered on the floor and the building was set on fire. Residents should be on the lookout for a man with a hell of a hairdo who wears a jacket in blistering heat and sweats profusely. Use a magnet near his head: if it sticks, you’ve got the right guy! Said the local who rented the shack to the couple, “His wife was so stressed when they arrived, she seemed to age visibly overnight.” The local is standing in a circle of burning twigs to keep the aging process at bay…
Corpus Earthling is a fantastic episode. It’s creepy as hell and as blog readers know, I like creepy stories a lot. When I was a kid, it was one of only two episodes that stuck in my head and instilled a sense of dread. I credit Culp (“Bill Maxwell, FBI”) with being in three of the best episodes this classic ever released. This may have been his least liked, but I’d say it’s the creepiest of them all. Culp plays Paul Cameron, a man who goes to pick up his wife from the geology department and ends up hearing voices. Those voices are rocks that are alien life forms and they want him dead because he has been eavesdropping on them. (Is there a message about what happens to eavesdroppers here?)
The first thing to acknowledge is that there is a skill in taking the commonplace and making it scary. How much more commonplace can we get than rocks? And man, they are scary. When we see them pulsating and quivering, they have such an organic look that it has to chill you to the core. Worse, when one transforms and attacks Dr. Temple, it resembles a sort of octopoid spider thing complete with glowing eyes. The one that doesn’t transform seems to be quaking with joy as it watches Temple being overtaken. It’s a deeply disturbing scene and it’s marvelously executed. To compound the fear factor, Temple is a creepy looking son of a rock! He looks old and angular and his standing in doorways exacerbates his possessed qualities to the max.
The timeliness of watching this series now is unprecedented. This is at least the third or fourth episode where something is said that resonates with 2020. “There are no superviruses that invade the human body!” Oh no? The idea of these rock things being like intelligent viruses is yet another feather in that creepy cap. Goodness knows, this episode has so much creepy-factor, even the guy who rents Paul and his wife the house is creepy; he sleeps outside on the ground to not bother the people he’s renting to, and he tracks Paul down to his hotel and stands in the hallway until the door opens. CREEPSTER!!
I do have some thoughts on this though: how long were Paul and his wife planning on staying in Mexico? They bring nothing with them (so one might presume a short time) but Laurie gives him a list of things they will need as if they are going to be there for a very long time indeed. Also, when my wife is cooking and she decides to go for a shower while things are on the stove, I don’t go far because I’m cautious. Temple sets a fire and leaves Paul in the room with it but when the fire goes out, Paul almost blows himself up trying to relight it. He tells Paul that they’ve had some trouble with this burner in the past. So why, dude, do you leave it unguarded?? The episode does a great job building suspense actually turning the ringing of a phone and the knocking on a door into something terrifying. And I may hate seeing people smoke on TV and Culp is no exception but credit is due where the cinematography is concerned. Culp sits in darkness in his home while smoking and every puff gently lights up his face as the glowing embers burn. And who would think that the defect in his head is exactly what gives him the ability to know the rocks are alive? (Buck Rogers, that’s who! Yeah, in the 25th century, Buck gets a fever and it’s due to that fever that he can see the bad guys, while no one else can! Slick!)
But the real meat of this episode isn’t the creepy factor or all those little things I mentioned. It’s down a simple idea Paul shares with his wife. He tells her he has all the traits of paranoia. Now it may not be paranoia when they really are all out to get you, but we are seeing a show about talking rocks! What’s more likely: alien rocks are planning to kill this man using his wife and coworker to get to him, or are we actually watching a man going mad? Paul does what he’s told like a pro, but no amount of someone telling me to jump out of a window will really get me doing it. We take the story as a sci-fi, but is it? Is it not perhaps a drama where Paul slowly starts seeing things? Laurie’s departure with Paul where neither of them actually tell their jobs where they are going bears a striking similarity to a kidnapping. Why else leave without taking anything with them? (Paul even leaves his house window wide open, perhaps to throw off any investigators!) Also note, the caretaker doesn’t hear Laurie screaming when Temple is there forcing the rock creature to possess her. The caretaker doesn’t react to the gunshots or the fire. In fact, the fire doesn’t seem to be spreading to the outside of the house when Paul carries the dead Laurie to the car. No smoke is seen coming out of the house. He doesn’t even seem to notice that Paul’s wife actually aged in a day because maybe none of that happened; at most her aging may have been worry over her husband’s health. What we see presented from Paul’s point of view may never have actually happened. Perhaps, there were no alien rock creatures. Temple wasn’t possessed and was murdered for coming to check on them; a check-in precipitated by a call from Paul’s wife while they stop on their way to Mexico; an act of a woman trying to get help. And Paul’s wife may lie dead in the back seat of his car because he murdered her while imagining an attack that never really happened. Temple takes a shot at him but all we ever see is a cut on his shoulder which could have been the result of his throwing himself at the wall while pretending to be shot. We must not forget that at the start of this story, Paul was in the room with Temple and Laurie for a while before the explosion caused him to hear the voices! Maybe the plate was jarred and caused him to see menace in every shadow. It really makes me wonder if what we saw is all that it was cracked up to be at first glance… Hold on, the news is on again. Let me listen, it sounds a little different this time…
Tijuana News, November 18th 1963. Paul Cameron, 33, wanted for double homicide. Seen stuffing his dead wife into his car before fleeing the scene of a double murder. Former colleague, Jonas Temple, found dead on the floor of a stab wound. Residents should be on the lookout for 6’1” tall man. Said to be moving southbound. Local caretaker Ken Renard said Cameron was acting strangely that morning having left without his wife but returned sometime later with a manic look on his face. He believes he heard raised voices and a gunshot before Cameron ran out of the house carrying his dead wife… Cameron is believed to be armed and dangerous… approach with caution… ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
But there might be something wrong with your rockery. Lock the doors and close all the windows, because the rocks are coming to get you.
I’ll be charitable and call this a brave idea. The problem with making rocks into monsters is that the minute you need a rock to move it stops looking like a rock. Instead it becomes unintentionally amusing, particularly when two of them are chatting to each other and pulsing away. The moving rock latching onto a hand is actually surprisingly creepy, but at that point it’s no longer really a rock; it has become a monstrous alien blob instead.
So the visuals are a bit hit and miss, but if you don’t worry too much about that it’s actually a really clever story. Robert Culp is back again, a little too soon after The Architects of Fear, but once again he puts in a great performance and really sells Paul’s frustration and fear. The moment he tells his wife and his colleague what he has heard is brilliantly done, because it is clear that he knows exactly what reaction he is going to get but he just needs to get those words out anyway in order to unburden himself.
“Rocks don’t talk.”
The problem is, he just looks like he’s nuts, especially when he starts picking up rocks and putting them to his ear, and then the aliens try to manipulate him into committing suicide. As he later identifies, his actions match paranoia symptoms. Luckily he has a very understanding and supportive wife, and she is happy to help him by just getting away from it all and going on a holiday to stay in a place that actually has tumbleweed outside (so that stuff isn’t just a myth!)
A lot of time is spent building up their relationship as something really lovely, supportive and fun. A modern drama producer would probably consider that all far too slow-paced, but I do feel this is one area where older sci-fi shows gain. By the time Laurie is attacked by Rock/Temple we understand exactly what she means to Paul, and what a lovely wife she is to him, and that makes what happens to her all the more shocking and sad. It has impact. Following on from that, there is a looming dread and inevitability, as we wait for the moment when Paul gets found, so when the caretaker of the holiday house turns up instead and persuades him to go back and care for his wife that subverts our expectations, and the time spent building up their relationship avoids that becoming a moment where the viewers are asking why on Earth he’s going back there willingly. He loves his wife.
So in the end this episode took an idea that was almost impossible to execute successfully, and actually did a surprisingly good job with it. There were still missed opportunities. I would have liked the writer to have given a bit more thought to the properties of rock and made use of that. Instead of turning it into an amorphous blob, which isn’t exactly… well, rocky, he could have instead had the aliens taking control of Earth rocks and weaponising them, a bit like the Autons’ use of plastic in Doctor Who. That would have been a good way to expand the threat, and truly ramp up the paranoia levels. Also, he could have had a rock smashed, only to turn into smaller rocks that continue to attack. There was potential there for an even better story, but the aliens themselves were just one element of the episode. Thanks to the focus on the relationships between the main characters, the writer polished a craggy rock of an idea, and turned it into a little gem.
We now return control of your computer, until the next time we visit the outer limits of the Junkyard… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: Nightmare