October 12th, 2011
|09:55 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Space-Eaters (Monsters episode)|
Monsters is an anthology TV series that ran for three seasons between 1988 and 1991. It was made by the same people as Tales from the Darkside, and has equally poor production values. You might not remember either of those shows, or you might be confusing Darkside with the vastly superior Tales from the Crypt. Either way, Monsters and Darkside are laughably cheesy, overacted, low-budget productions which nobody watches except to make fun of them. You've seen Garth Marenghi's Darkplace? Same thing, except without all the winking at the camera.
Anyway, I was unaware of Monsters until a couple of years ago. I was looking for movies based on the works of Frank Belknap Long. Nobody remembers him anymore, either. Long was a prolific author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who was widely published and well-known when he was alive, but he's since fallen into obscurity, as tends to happen. And as it turns out, the only time he's ever been adapted for screen is a single episode of Monsters. The episode is called "The Space Eaters," and it's based on a short story of the same title, which is arguably Long's best-known work. "The Space-Eaters," written in 1928, has the distinction of being the first Cthulhu Mythos story not written by H.P. Lovecraft, and stars undisguised versions of Lovecraft and Long as the main characters.
The Monsters episode hits most of the main plot points, but is not a good adaptation. In thinking about its shortcoming, I realized that "The Space-Eaters," no matter how well it succeeds in print, is just not adaptable for screen. It's too melodramatic, too much a product of 1928 in a "robot zombies from Mars ate my brain!" kind of way to be taken seriously without severely changing the character of the story. Forget maxims about how a good writer can make anything work. So what happens in the story that's so offensive to my suspension of disbelief? Read on.
Howard and Fredrick are a couple of middle-aged intellectual twits without girlfriends who are playing chess and complimenting each other on being so very witty and erudite. As a thunderstorm rages outside, one of the local mentally-inferior and unimaginitive yokels staggers up to the door and begs for help. What's wrong? Why, his brain has been eaten. The two academics are skeptical at first, but the man clearly has a hole in the side of his head. It can't be a bullet wound because it's clean and bloodless. Fredrick (or is it Howard?) examines it and is horrified when his tweezers is sucked from his hand into the man's head, so they do an x-ray.
"Well," says Fredrick, "there's obviously no bullet."
"By the gruesome gonads of Ghatanothoa!" cries Howard, "the man's got no brain!"
Brainless Bill (actually, his name is Henry Wells, but never mind) tells them that an alien craft has created the thunderstorm as a cover, and that the aliens are here to STEAL OUR BRAINS!!! Howie and Fred deduce that the human brain is unique in the universe, and that the aliens know how to unlock the 90% that we don't use. They harvest human brains by burrowing through the skull and implanting a radio, except that instead of transmitting sound, these radios transmit matter... grey matter!
Chuck and Bernie I mean H & F formulate a plan to thwart the aliens, but in typical Monsters fashion, the twist ending prevents our heroes from success. I dunno, can it really be considered a twist ending if you know that the main character dies at the end of every episode? Because that's how Monsters works.
The hyperserious tone of the original story is carried into the show, and it's hard to swallow. Long wrote this story at the age of 27. He was still living with his parents and failing, by all accounts, to function as an adult. I'm pretty sure that his alter-ego in this story is an idealization, not self-parody. I bring this up because in order to take "The Space-Eaters" seriously, I've always had to picture the two main characters as obsessive adolescents. Otherwise, I can't handle their effete smarter-than-thouness and their characterization of the locals as a rabble of sub-cogent morons. This is my problem with the TV adaptation: Kids might accept the characters, but the story is too scary for children. Adults might accept the story, but the characters are unbelievable. At some point Long managed to grow up, I guess.
I couldn't find a copy of the episode available to stream, but you can watch the title sequence from Monsters which will give you a good idea as to why I'm so scornful of the show.
You can also read the short story at a website which probably does not have the blessing of Long's estate, but it's missing the only good line from the Monsters episode:
"Put aside your Hippocratic oath, dear doctor. We're about to commit murder!"Friggin' awful.