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Hipster Holy Grail: Encounter with the Unknown (1973)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Encounter with the Unknown is basically The Shitty Twilight Zone.  It recycles so much of its own footage that it accidentally implements the "repeat until it's funny" gag, and when it's not doing that, it's just really, really stupid.  If you're into bad movies, there's a good chance you'll find parts of it funny.  But to get maximum enjoyment, you really have to watch this one with friends.

My Rating: 4 / 5 if you watch with a crowd, 2.5 / 5 if you watch by yourself (Novice Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Let me tell give you a bit of setup before I get to the plot, because just telling you what happens won't do this justice.

Almost ten years after the original run of The Twilight Zone went off the air, some folks got together to make a TTZ-inspired anthology movie, which they called Encounter with the Unknown.  It's painfully clear where they took their inspiration from.  Not only is the format the same, but the settings, dialogue, and plots of each vignette harken back to the "spooky small-town America" vibe that The Twilight Zone was so good at.  They even hired Rod Serling to narrate it.

But alas, there was one problem: nobody knew how to tell an actual story.  It was the director, Harry Thomason's, first movie, and his team of writers (including himself) had no other writing experience to speak of, save for two B-movies from a few years earlier.

The end result is so much worse than "a pale imitation."  It's so overblown, so paper-thin, so deprived of tension or self-awareness that the whole thing plays out like a parody.  And in that respect... it's actually pretty damn funny at times.

The anthology opens, like any good anthology does, with a framing device to help blend all three of its segments together.  Unfortunately, that device happens to be endless droning from a passive narrator.  And it doesn't matter that Serling serves as said narrator - this shit is dense.  I mean, look at the text crawl that opens the movie:

And it actually gets worse.  Not only does similar babble pop up between each of the segments, but the movie actually ends on the mother of all voiceovers, a fifteen minute soliloquy that can only be described as "an incoherent rant."  If you're the kind of guy, like me, who thinks that Aaron Mahnke's monologues on Lore go off the train more often than not, then the final speech of Encounter with the Unknown is basically the kind of thing you'd do to make fun of him.  Except, again, keep this in mind: that wasn't intentional.

All the movie's endless ranting about death, the afterlife, God, emotions, and yes, even psychic powers - all of it is delivered straight-faced and self-serious.  Which means either there's some amazing trans-generational trolling going on here, or you'll want to crack open a bottle before you start watching.

So, enough setup.  What actually happens in this anthology?  Let's break it down.

Vignette #1 - The Endless Spooky Warning

The first story begins at a funeral, where three college kids, Deadmeats #1 through #3, are mourning the death of their pal, John Davis.  They're all sincerely, genuinely upset by his passing, but John's mom seems to think they're all a bunch of shitheels.  So, after her son's casket is lowered, she theatrically points at them - or rather, at the camera - and for the first time delivers this warning:

"One by land, two by sky. Look to the hectagon, for it is there.  Seven times around go the three of you.  And may your reward be just, and true!"

Got that?  No?  That's okay, just make sure you have your bottle ready to drink, because the movie's going to repeat this about another dozen times before the credits roll.

The kids and all the other mourners shrug this off for some reason.  I guess since it was the '70s, they were thinking, "Well, y'know, women do weird things when they feel those... uh, what's that... emotions?  Yeah, that shit fucks with their brains."  So everybody leaves and goes on their somber ways.

But then we pick up with one of those kids on a flight two weeks later.  He's sitting next to a priest, and he can't shake some troubles wandering through his mind.  So, he turns to the priest and strikes up a conversation, then spills his guts.  And yes, he makes sure to redeliver John's mom's spooky warning.

The kid goes back to the beginning, back when John was alive.  Seems all four of the buddies were shooting some pool, and then they got it in their mind to play a prank on John.  They told him there was a cute girl in town who wanted to go on a date with him, and all he had to do was go to her house and pick her up.  That's all the information John needs to know - I guess the '70s were a different time - so he drives straight over and rings the doorbell.

Ah, but it was all for naught!  Turns out there's no comely young lass there; no, it's just an elderly woman who's afraid of strangers and who's husband left her with a loaded gun with the safety off and told her to carry it with her if anybody came to the door.  Naturally, she does exactly that - wouldn't you?  After explaining to John that there aren't any sexy co-eds around, she accidentally fires the gun and kills John.

(The police are more than happy to chalk this up as just an unfortunate accident, and no charges are brought forth.  It's pretty damn sweet to be white, let me tell ya.)

So, we fast forward through the funeral again and see John's mom look at the camera and give that warning again, and then the kid narrating the story tells us how thought it was nothing... until exactly one week later, when one of his other buddies was killed by a runaway car.

And now that it's exactly one week after that tragic death, this kid asks the priest, "Say, you know how that warning was ONE BY LAND and TWO BY SKY and SEVEN TIMES AROUND... you think maybe, like, she means seven days later, one of us will die by land and then the other two will die by sky?  And if so, do you think I'm at any risk being on a plane, father?"

And the priest goes, "Nah, probably not."  Then the plane lands for a connecting flight and he leaves, but as the plane takes off with the kid on board, it tragically - and totally unpredictably - crashes.  And yeah, that kid's dead.

Let's back up for a second here.  Something I don't get about this.  You've already put the pieces together, right?  That two will die "by sky"?  And clearly it's troubling you enough that you feel compelled to tell somebody?  So why get on a plane?  Why not take a bus, or just stay put, or at least wait a day so you're not flying on a day that's an exact multiple of seven from when you got that warning?  And even if you don't believe the warning's real, why are you doing anything right now?  You just buried two of your closest friends in the last two weeks!  You're supposed to be sitting in your bedroom listening to sad music and finding the right rhyming structure for your poetry!

Is this just another thing to chalk up to the '70s?  People just went to funerals every goddamn week, so you didn't care?

But, anyway, the priest goes to talk to another priest to share the story as he's heard it so far.  And while he tells the story - which isn't really that complicated so far - the movie replays the entire vignette up to this point as a brief montage, including the spooooooooky warning, just in case you missed any of it.  And the other priest goes, "Nah, probably nothing to worry about."

But the first priest still feels a little weirded out.  So, exactly one week later - not any sooner - he decides to reach out to that last kid to warn him and/or see how he's doing.  But - gasp - the last kid doesn't answer... instead, his friend tells the priest, "Oh, you just missed him.  He left to go... skydiving."

Cut to that last asshole falling out of plane while Rod Serling - no exaggeration here, this is actually what he says - goes, "But what was it that John's mother said?  One by land.... two by... sky?"  And then the movie replays that fucking warning AGAIN because you're TOO FUCKING STUPID TO GET IT.

And that's the end of Vignette #1.  Congratulations, everybody!  We made it!

Vignette #2 - Some Hole In the Ground

We pick up with an excitable grade-school-aged kid in the countryside.  You see him hang out with his friendly, God-fearing mother and father, then wander around in some fields with his dog.  It's all very idyllic and laid-back, until the kid stumbles across a giant, spooky hole out near one of the neighboring farmer's fields.

"Spooky" doesn't quite get it across.  The hole is about six feet across and seemingly bottomless, but it's constantly pouring out thick fog and you can hear a lot of angsty, painful moaning coming up.  So, I guess it's more accurate to say that it looks like a portal to Hell or something.

Anyway, the kid loses his dog and thinks maybe it fell down there, and that's what's making the moaning sounds.  Because the kid does not know that dogs traditionally whimper when they're hurt, I guess.  So, he goes to get his dad, and they just kinda stare at the hole in bewilderment.

But they don't hog all the fun.  Soon, every able-bodied man in town gets in on the hole-watching action.  They all gather around and wonder what's down there.  Then it rains, so they leave.  But they can't stop thinking about that hole.  "I wonder what's up with that hole," they say.  "It's a big hole."  And they ask things like, "Who's got the most experience with holes?  We oughta explore that hole."  And some of them say things like, "No, we oughta leave that hole alone."  But then, they say, "Aw shucks, I really can't stop thinking about that hole."

So eventually, the kid's dad goes, "That's enough.  Time to stop wondering about that hole and go check it out."  So they strap a rope around him and lower him down.  But a few minutes later, he screams horribly.  They pull him back up and find that he's passed out.  When he comes to, he starts hooting hysterically and runs off into the forest like a maniac.  Then Rod Serling tells us that he had to go to a psychiatric ward and he never got better.

That's a wrap on Vignette #2, everybody!  And in only twenty minutes?  Nice!  Way to keep it under budget!

Vignette #3 - The Girl on the Bridge That's Totally Not a Ghost

Sadly, the last vignette of the bunch is by far the most boring.  And yes, I know how that sounds when we're coming off the heels of a story where the premise is, "There's a hole."

The story opens with a car going off the road near a bridge and crashing in the water underneath.  Then we cut to that same bridge later on at night, and a friendly old man stops his car because he sees a young woman standing there by herself.  He asks her if she needs help, and she asks for a ride home.  He agrees.  But when he gets back to her house and knocks on the door, her father explains, "Why... she's been dead for years!"

Um.  I mean, I guess there's kind of more that happens, but... no, that's about it.  Pad that out with like fifteen minutes of flashbacks where the girl was on a picnic with her boyfriend and you've basically done it.

Okay, so now we get to the grande finale monologue, and even though there's no longer a context for it, we replay the "One by land, two by sky" warning another 3-4 times.  Also, for no good reason, we get a couple more recap montages of the vignettes we've seen already.  Which means, if you're keeping track, you've now watched that first vignette three times.

The end.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I would love to watch this movie again with a group.  It's such a blissfully stupid, incoherent, anti-climactic bit of fake-horror that I think we'd all have a grand time with it.

But.  Watching it alone?  I can't say it's all fun and games.

The main problem with Encounter with the Unknown is that it's just got too much downtime.  That's not such a problem if you're watching with a couple pals who're on board with you.  You'll all mock the movie together, chat over the silence, and keep each other entertained with riffs and rants.  But when you watch by yourself, you feel every second of silence.  It gets painful.

That makes it a little dull to recap exactly what I liked and didn't like.  The stuff I liked is also the stuff that makes it such a shitty horror movie - the overblown reactions to minor details, the inept premises, the lack of tension.  The stuff I didn't like is the empty space in between.  And nobody wants me to spend much time talking about empty space.

I do think I'd recommend this if you can get some other willing participants to sit with you.  Otherwise, maybe just try to get through the first vignette and see if it makes you chuckle.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

I'll have to give this one a fair amount.  By default it gets 20 points for obscurity and another 15 for an ensemble "you've never heard of them" bonus.  But there's more to it.

Encounter with the Unknown works on multiple levels of hipster.  For one thing, you've got Rod Serling in a movie that nobody remembers, and on top of that, it's a Twilight Zone-inspired movie that has none of the creative staff from Twilight Zone.  But then on top of that, you have ironic appreciation.  That's all got to be worth a solid 30 points.

Plus, I'll have to give it a 15 point recommendation bonus, even though it's got a couple strings attached.

That adds up to a respectable total of 80 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

It's floating around on Youtube and other streaming sites.  This is the copy I watched.