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Encounter With The Unknown (1973)

Directed by Harry Thomason
Saturn Productions, Inc. DVD

Encounter with the Unknown combines two of my favorite subgenres of trash film. One of them is real. One of them I made up. The first is the anthology film. The second is the film that goes out of its way to slow itself down at every moment to achieve a sufficient running time. Films like Jimmy the Boy Wonder and Night of Horror are prime examples of the latter. Encounter has three supernatural stories, several familiar faces, two narrators and a closing section where many questions are asked.

There are two narrators. Did that statement strike you as odd? One of them is Rod Serling. He introduces each of the tales. Some of what he says gets too convoluted and doesn’t make much sense. But, Serling was a narrating trooper. He handles it well. The other narrator speaks at the beginning and the end of the movie. At the start, he reads some text that scrolls over shots of a cemetery. His deep, echo-filled tone establishes that these three stories have something to do with the inhabitants of this cemetery. Then, the Echo Narrator returns to lead the Question portion at the end. We don’t normally get 2 narrators in a film. I like it because it raises questions and adds confusion. Was the film so important that one man was not enough? Did Rod refuse to read some of it? Did someone owe the Echo Narrator a favor?

In the first story, three college guys indirectly cause the death of a fellow student. The dead kid’s mom curses the three of them at the funeral. The Speech of Doom that she delivers is played over and over again throughout the film. At first, this is annoying. It has the same echo in the voice and the same music playing underneath every time. After a few replays, it becomes hypnotic. It reminds me of that shot of the killer with the scalpel approaching the camera in The Last Slumber Party. If you’ve seen that film, you know the shot. It gets repeated over and over, like the mom’s curse. Why keep repeating it apart from padding? And why choose her strangely worded, almost amusing, curse as the thing to repeat? Why not something more entertaining or memorable? And, why does the initial repeat play less than two minutes after we first heard it?

The second tale is about a rural village filled with charming yokel folk. One day, they discover that a hole has opened up in the ground in the middle of the woods. They investigate. Actually, “investigate” is a strong word. They sort of talk about the hole at the local barbershop. Then, they hang around near the hole for a while. Someone goes down the hole. When he comes up, he’s crazy. It’s a pretty straightforward story, apart from the fact that it doesn’t really have an ending. But, what is in the hole? Why did it drive that guy crazy? Why do I recognize almost everyone in this segment but am completely unable to figure out where from?

The third is a re-telling of the Girl on the Bridge/ Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend. A man finds a dazed woman on a bridge. He takes her home… It turns out she’s dead. The girl and her dad, who really takes the term “comb over” to new levels, are actors from Don’t Look in the Basement. This is a decent retelling of the well-known story. Although, most versions I’ve encountered don’t contain a several minute long romantic frolic in a lake. It’s scored with a very depressing 70s folk tune too. And it goes on for so long that I forgot why I was looking at the TV. Wasn’t I watching Encounter with the Unknown? Wasn’t this about a ghost girl on a bridge?

Then, there’s that Questions section.

Why end an anthology film with your narrator posing a series of very serious questions to its audience? Well, padding, obviously. All these questions take up a lot of time. But, maybe there’s another reason. Do they think that having a stentorious narrator ask these questions about their film gives it more validity? “Surely a man with a deep voice like that and all that echo can’t be wasting our time by asking these questions? This is serious stuff!” If so, maybe every film of this type should end like this? Could you imagine Tales from the Quadead Zone ending with Chester N. Turner asking what we think “quadead” means?   In the end, regardless of why they do it, it is there. And, I’ll be damned, I didn’t have a single answer for him. Does that make me a bad viewer?

Encounter with the Unknown is not a terribly entertaining film. It is very, very slow. But, the way it goes about its business brings me joy because it makes me ask so many questions.  If, however, you’d like one strange moment, right at the beginning, that will make you scratch your head and keep you tuned in, consider this: I’ve seen films that open with scrolling text being read aloud by a narrator. We all have. However, I’ve never seen one where the voice speaking the text skips several sentences that are actually printed on the screen. The filmmakers prepared the text, superimposed it on top of the shots of the cemetery and then put the shots in the film. All this costs money. When you pad, you generally want to spend as little as possible. So, why print text that your narrator doesn’t read? It’s simply another unanswered question put forth by one weird film.

Oh, and one of the college guys dies within a scene of stock footage skydiving. That is the worst way to go.