July 6, 2017
As one of the premier voices in the science fiction and horror genres, Rod Serling made his mark in the world as a screenwriter. But, it’s impossible to overlook how effective of a narrator he was. Between “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” Serling’s soothing and calm introductions to tales of the mystical and macabre are burned into the minds of fans everywhere. He was even enlisted as a narrator on projects that he didn’t write, everything from Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise to Delbert Mann’s The Legendary Curse of the Hope Diamond. He also slummed it sometimes, such as when he narrated the subject of this week’s Cinema Fearité – the 1973 anthology Encounter with the Unknown.
Encounter with the Unknown consists of three stories that revolve around the same graveyard and are based upon the supposed cases of an alleged parapsychologist named Dr. Jonathan Rankin. First up is “The Heptagon,” a tale about a trio of young men who play a prank on a fourth friend that results in that fourth friend’s death. The dead boy’s mother puts a curse on the remaining three, saying that one of them will die every seven days after the funeral.
Next is “The Darkness,” a story about a young boy in 1906 Missouri whose dog disappears down a dark, smoking hole that mysteriously appears in the ground. After hearing the horrible sounds that emanate from the hole, the boy’s father agrees to be lowered into the abyss in order to find the dog and investigate the noises.
Finally, “The Girl on the Bridge” is about a senator and his wife who offer a ride home to a strange girl whom they find walking across a bridge. As they get to the address that she gives them, she disappears from the car, prompting the senator to knock on the door of the house. The girl’s father tells the senator that she was killed in a car accident years before.
Encounter with the Unknown was directed by Harry Thomason (So Sad About Gloria, The Day It Came to Earth), with the director sharing the writing credit for the individual stories with Jack Anderson (the journalist from “The Mike Douglas Show”), Joe Glass (Revenge of Bigfoot), and Hillman Taylor (Zontar: The Thing from Venus). It’s basically a typical seventies exploitation flick, a pseudo-documentary which purports to be based on fact but is really just a bunch of rehashed old urban legends. The production is very low-budget, using no-name actors and a skeleton crew of inexperienced technicians, so the feel of it is like that of a television movie or a student film. The whole thing has a The Legend of Boggy Creek/The Town That Dreaded Sundown vibe to it.
Rod Serling’s voiceover is the biggest selling point in Encounter with the Unknown, and he isn’t even the main narrator of the film. Serling introduces each individual story, but another uncredited narrator does the main introduction and the wrap-up, the sections that attempt to tie everything together with the research of Dr. Rankin. They’re not his best work, but Serling’s setups are more memorable than the wraparound narrator, and they alone add a bit of legitimacy to the movie.
The pacing of Encounter with the Unknown is a bit odd. The film seems to be padded, almost as if Thomason’s original vision ran too short and the director was forced to stretch the segments out after they were written. The first and third (“The Heptagon” and “The Girl on the Bridge”) seem to go on for twice along as they need to, even continuing for a while after the stories have been resolved. Interestingly enough, the second segment (“The Darkness”), while still a bit dragging, feels like it ends early, like it’s over as soon as it really gets rolling. There’s also a heaping helping of wrap-up at the end of the film that, again, feels as if it is there simply to add to the running time after the individual segments are over. All in all, the stories in Encounter with the Unknown could probably have been told in half the time, but then he would only have had a forty-five minute movie, so Thomason riffed on it a bit.
The music in Encounter with the Unknown also contributes to the erratic pacing of the film, particularly in the last segment where the backstory of the titular Girl on the Bridge is accompanied by a folk song called “Rememberin’ (How It Used To Be)” that is performed by a lass named Becky Fain and written by a fellow named Steve Beeson. The song is a typical seventies sugar-sweet nostalgia tune, the kind of earworm that will stick in the viewer’s head long after the film is over, but its placement is strange in that, like much of the narrative in the third segment, it comes after the conflict of the story seems to have been resolved. The soundtrack to Encounter with the Unknown is rounded out by some filmic music written by Johnny Pearson (who orchestrated John Paul Jones’ score for Scream for Help, but is better known as the composer of the “Monday Night Football” theme), but none of it is as memorable as that “Rememberin’ (How It Used To Be)” tune.
Rod Serling’s legacy in the sci-fi/horror world has been cemented solely by his work on “The Twilight Zone.” But the seventies were a wondrous time, and Serling pops up in some interesting places throughout the decade. Places such as in between the stories of a “fact-based” paranormal exploitation movie like Encounter with the Unknown.