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The Children of Spider County

dir. Leonard Horn
1964 / United Artists Television / 51′
written by Anthony Lawrence
director of phogoraphy Kenneth Peach
original music by Dominic Frontiere
starring Lee Kinsolving, Kent Smith, John Milford, Crahan Denton, Bennye Gatteys and Dabs Greer
available on DVD from MGM, or for free viewing on Hulu and Youtube

A set of mysterious disappearances has the United States Space Agency worried. Four of the nation’s top minds have vanished into thin air, and all on the same day. More curious still, an investigation into the four men’s backgrounds reveals that all were born, prematurely, within a month of one another in rural Spider County, and that each share the same strange middle name – Eros. While the Pentagon is content to believe that the Soviets are responsible, snatching up our brilliant minds as part of a Cold War power grab, the US Space Agency is convinced something more troubling is afoot, something extraterrestrial. With a fifth super-human imprisoned in Spider County on a bogus murder charge the Agency sees an opportunity to solve the mystery once and for all, and sends one of its agents in to investigate.

Dubbed a ‘witch-boy’ and a ‘no-good dreamer’ by the superstitious locals, young Ethan Wechsler (Lee Kinsolving) is that fifth super-human, a fatherless mind-reading oddity for whom Spider County’s ire has finally reached a tipping point. The victim of a modern-day witch hunt, Ethan finds himself framed for a murder he didn’t commit and destined to die for being different, but a stranger in town has other plans for him. Quietly sinister and decked out in a snazzy business suit, the strange Aabel (Kent Smith) arrives on the scene and aids Ethan in escaping. It is soon revealed that Aabel, who hides a ghoulish insectine face and a set of death-ray eyes beneath his proper, human facade, is Ethan’s long-lost father, one of several emissaries from the dying civilization of the planet Eros who fathered children on Earth in hopes of securing the future of their race. Aabel wants to take Ethan home, away from vengeful humanity, but when his own cold and inhuman shortcomings (like a penchant for obliterating townsfolk) are revealed Ethan begins to have second thoughts…

By virtue of those involved alone The Children of Spider County should have been a classic of the generally fantastic first season of The Outer Limits. Writer Anthony Lawrence had previously contributed the terrific teleplay for the episode The Man Who Was Never Born, while director Leonard Horn had proven himself through his work on both that episode and the indelible The Zanti Misfits. Veteran performer Kent Smith, perhaps best known for his roles in Cat People and Curse of the Cat People and co-star of series episode It Crawled Out of the Woodwork, was on board, as was up-and-coming young actor Lee Kinsolving (The Explosive Generation). Unfortunately the pedigree of the talent involved wasn’t enough to overcome the difficulties that plagued the episode’s production, resulting in The Children of Spider County becoming one the series’ first and most lamentable failures.

The problems with Children‘s production were many, as enumerated in David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen’s official companion guide, not the least of them being that producer Joseph Stefano, along with ace cinematographer Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood) and the KTTV soundstages where the series was usually filmed, were pre-occupied with the production of the pilot for The Unknown – eventually to become The Outer Limits episode The Form of Things Unknown. The Children of Spider County was left to fend for itself with a single day of scheduled studio time at Samual Goldwyn Studio, and time wasted with confusion over drafts on the part of assistant director Wilson Shyer (in his only series outing) left director Leonard Horn with no recourse but to repurpose much of the episode’s material for exterior photography on-the-fly. Worse yet was the state of Anthony Lawrence’s teleplay itself, which had suffered greatly through a lengthy series of re-writes.

The end product is a potentially promising concept lost in fifty-one minutes of dense and clumsy exposition and shoddy monster-on-the-loose action. For a series that so regularly excelled beyond its shoe-string production values the limitations here are far too obvious, from the rough-and-tumble camera setups to the blatant re-use of episode footage and a few outright gaffs. Director of photography Kenneth Peach, tasked with photographing every series episode from this point forward, was rarely so inspired as fellow DP’s Conrad Hall and John Nickolaus, but he was still a more than capable industry veteran. His work here is uncharacteristically rough, and rife with issues of focusing and stability – further evidence of the oppressive time constraints under which The Children of Spider County was produced. Even Wah Chang’s creature design seems rushed and bland, little more than a generic bug-eyed alien (played by The Galaxy Being himself William Douglas), memorable though the sight of that monstrous head poking out of a smart business suit may be.

All of that is lamentable, but the most unfortunate victim of all is the storytelling itself, long a strong point of the series, which here takes a backseat to just getting as much of the script as possible on film. As with so much of The Outer Limits there’s a germ of greatness lurking within The Children of Spider County - a grand, tragic story of an alien race that, having lost itself at home, is searching for the better part of itself beyond; a warning against allowing the cold and the cruel to overtake imagination in our own world. More’s the pity, then, that circumstance so prevented its development. As such The Children of Spider County is all shaky images and death-ray eyes, with very little to show for itself beyond a B-monster in a suit.

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