29 April 2011

Twilight Zone: The Howling Man

Episode #41: The Howling Man
Directed by Douglas Heyes. Written by Charles Beaumont. Starring John Carradine, H. M. Wynat, Robert Hughes.

“The prostrate form of Mr. David Ellington, scholar, seeker of truth, and regrettably finder of truth. A man who will shortly arise from his exhaustion to confront a problem that has tormented mankind since the beginning of time. A man who knocked on a door seeking sanctuary, and found instead the outer edges of the Twilight Zone.”

I like to spread out my Twilight Zone episode reviews evenly across the season, but in this case I have to review three consecutive episodes that are either too good or too famous to skip past.

“The Howling Man” is one of the too-good-to-pass-up episodes. It’s the first outstanding half-hour of the second season, for which we can thank the combination of author Charles Beaumont, the atmospheric direction of Douglas Heyes, and the magnetic acting of the infallible John Carradine.

Charles Beaumont wrote some of the best episodes of the show, and in the second season is when he really started to show what he was capable of. After a bout with a few “Serling-on-autopilot” outings to start out the season, Beaumont brings a fresh feeling to the show with a Gothic horror piece. It’s a somewhat predictable tale, but Beaumont infuses it with an arch quality that allows its director and star to shine.

The terms “Gothic horror” and “Twilight Zone” are not often linked; the show tended toward contemporary, futuristic, or absurdist settings. “The Howling Man” looks like it came right from Universal’s stable of 1930s and ‘40s horror, and the scenario of a traveler in a foreign land driven to seek shelter from a storm in a creepy old building is as old as they get and as repeated as the come. (Cripes, I just sold a story with the same premise.) But this setting is one of the reasons the episode stands out.

Nothing about the tale that “The Howling Man” spins out of this familiar opening is particularly original, or even surprising. David Ellington (H. M. Wynant), a wanderer in post-World War I Europe, comes across a castle of a monastic order of men who dress like Old Testament prophets, complete with shepherds’ crooks. A bizarre howling noise lures David to discover a man (Robert Hughes) locked up in the dungeon. The prisoner claims that the crazy men of the order have locked him up the minor crime of kissing a woman in public.

When David brings up the prisoner with the leader of the order, Brother Jerome (John Carradine) tells the traveler an incredible story that involves the fate of the entire world. The distant setting—seemingly removed from the rest of humanity—turns into the stage for a tale of epic consequences.

This is where Carradine’s performance works its magic on a story that might otherwise feel ludicrous, even with Beaumont’s skilled dialogue. Brother Jerome wavers between looking like an utter madman, as insane as the story he tells, and being completely convincing. Carradine nails it: he is crazy and believable. A lesser actor with an unimposing voice would have come across as hammy, and the tension in the story would deflate.

By the way, if The Lord of the Rings had somehow gotten made into a live-action trilogy of movies in the mid-sixties, right as the book became a bestseller, wouldn’t John Carradine have made an amazing Gandalf? Watching him here, I get shivers picturing how mind-blowing that would have been.

Douglas Heyes’s direction is marvelous for a television show on a tight schedule. He was one of The Twilight Zone’s most accomplished visualists and brought to his nine episodes the cinematic quality that Rod Serling wanted for the show. Heyes made the most of the single location in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” brought an uncanny look to the otherwise poor first-season episode “The Chaser,” and shot three of the series’ most famed episodes: “The After Hours,” and two upcoming second season episodes that I will definitely cover, “The Eye of the Beholder” and “The Invaders.” For “The Howling Man,” Heyes keeps the camera fluid and askew, and obviously knows his Universal Gothic source material.

A strange aspect of “The Howling Man” is the dual narrators. The episode is presented as a flashback, with David Ellington speaking directly to us (or so we think) at the opening, explaining what happened to him all those years ago. But then, in comes Rod Serling to do his obligatory narrator’s job. It is a bit disconcerting to have the story introduced to us twice, once from a subjective view and then from an objective one. Although it would break the standard Twilight Zone rules to have removed Serling from the start of the episode, in this case I think he should have only appeared at the conclusion, once David Ellington finished his manner of telling the story.

Charles Beaumont’s originally had the men of the order using a cross to trap the Howling Man, but the producers forced him to change it to the invented “Staff of Truth” to avoid religious ire. I think that the Staff of Truth works better than a cross because it adds ambiguity to the hermits, makes them even stranger and more eerie. David Ellington’s ultimate choice makes more sense through the haze of this fairy-tale creation.

Nota Bene: The images of the castle seen from a distance is footage of the ruins of Manderley from the opening of Rebecca, Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel.