Written by: : Jack Anderson, Joe Glass, Hillman Taylor, and Harry Thomason
Directed by: Harry Thomason
Starring: Rod Serling, Rosie Holitik, and Bill Thurman
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“Come explore the possibility of the impossible…”
Horror is a genre that’s often known for its many famous faces; less celebrated are the famous voices that have sent shivers up our spines throughout the years. After all, one can argue that Boris Karloff’s booming, gravelly dialogue is just as distinctive as his often monstrous facial features; likewise, who would mistake Lugosi’s Hungarian accent or Price’s velvety voice for any other? While Rod Serling’s face might not have been as famous as these titans of horror, his voice is arguably just as recognizable, as it haunted television audiences for a couple of decades as the host of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Low budget production outfit Centronics International must have been banking on Serling to croon audiences to the drive-in when they gave him top billing as the narrator of 1973’s Encounter with the Unknown, a collection of tales that has gone to be fairly unknown itself since its release.
An opening narration informs us about the research of a doctor who discovered a bizarre pattern of deaths linking a handful of American cemeteries. We’re then taken to one of these cemeteries, which house the unfortunate victims of each of our stories. The first tale features a vengeful mother who puts a curse on the three college boys that accidentally caused the death of her son in a typical “prank gone fatally wrong” episode. The second story takes us back to 1906, where a young boy’s dog falls into a foreboding hole in the ground that might lead directly to hell. The final episode is a variation of the infamous spectral hitch-hiker story that has seemingly been told in all corners of the globe.
It’d be easy to say that the stories featured here feel like leftover Twilight Zone episodes that were slapped together to make a quick buck; that’d be sort of accurate, and Serling’s presence only makes it all the more obvious. However, it might be more apt to say that this might be an indication of what a 70s Twilight Zone feature film might have been if it were co-directed by Charles B. Pierce and S.F. Brownrigg. Perhaps it’s the use of the Arkansas locales and the overall rustic production qualities as a whole, but this feels like something that either B-movie maestro could have been attached to; the “based on true research” angle particularly feels like something out of Pierce’s book. As such, don’t expect much in the way of brilliance; instead, settle in for a low budget spook show that’s often cheesy but sometimes effective. Serling’s stately narration lends itself to much of this effectiveness, as he brings his signature lyrical quality to the surprisingly well-written and alliterative monologues that introduce and close each tale.
The spooky air that Serling brings elevate the tales a bit, and without them, they’d be even more nondescript. The first tale is admittedly clever in theory and anticipates the cruel sense of fate presented in Final Destination (in fact, one of the victims in the tale is a passenger on a Flight 180, the same as the ill-fated plane in that film). Likewise, the middle chapter manages some creepy spots in a darkened wood that’s scored by what sounds like the hounds of hell bellowing beneath the ground. The final story is the weakest--it telegraphs its ending and is more sentimental than horrific. One common ground among all three is the poor pacing; each one plods along and meanders to its ultimate twist. It doesn’t help that the film also tacks on a ten minute epilogue that recaps each story. It too features a narration (not by Serling), and it’s far from elegant and is instead more akin to a rambling, faux-philosophical rant that ponders everything from Atlantis to the existence of witchcraft.
That Serling gets top billing just as a narrator rightfully should tip you off that the acting is nothing special. There are, however, some familiar drive-in faces, such as Rosie Holotik, Bill Thurman, and Gene Ross. Given very little to work with, everyone involved tries their best, but the characters are ultimately nondescript and mostly serve to push the story along through heaps of exposition. That’s symptomatic of the film at large, really, as it’s awkwardly plotted and relies heavily on dialogue and flashbacks, and it ultimately doesn’t go very far anyway. Director Thomason went on to direct a few more low-budget flicks before settling into a solid television career, so his direction here is about what you’d expect knowing that. Shots are simplistic, but he manages to capture some eeriness when the script calls for it.
Had it trimmed some of the fat and clocked in about 15 minutes shorter, Encounter with the Unknown could have been a solid anthology. As it is, it just seems like a few cool campfire tales that were thrown together with a cool premise (the cemetery angle, which is sadly pretty much dropped after the opening). Appropriately enough, the film arrives on DVD for the first time as part of Code Red and Navarre’s Exploitation Cinema series; there are no special features apart from a few trailers, but the film’s presentation is as good as it can be, I suspect. The anamorphic transfer is full of scratches and discoloration, but it’s very watchable; the soundtrack is similarly scratchy and low-fi, but also fine. It plays as part of a twin bill, with the other half being Where Time Began, so you’ll get two B-movies for the price of one. Twilight Zone fans will especially want to check this one out, if only to hear Serling’s familiar voice give them chills once again. Rent it!
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