Friday, August 07, 2020

Twilight Zone: The Howling Man

It was sort of horror and sometimes science fiction, but The Twilight Zone was really a genre unto itself. Still, it is somewhat strange to think how few of the old school horror movie stars turned up in guest-starring roles (of course, Karloff had his own competing shows at the time, Thriller and The Veil). However, not only did the great John Carradine take a detour through the “dimension of sight, sound, and mind,” his episode also happens to be one of the most gothic of the series. Yet, it remains a perennial fan and critic favorite. Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, “The Howling Man” (S2E5) airs this Monday morning on Syfy.

Charles Beaumont, the third great
Zone writer after Rod Serling and Richard Matheson, adapted “Howling Man” from his own short story—and he has been ripped off several times since (most notably by I Trapped the Devil). During the aftermath of WWI, David Ellington commenced a walking tour of southern Europe in search of meaning. Caught in a freak deluge, he tries to take refuge in an austere abbey, but the rustic brothers try to turn him away. It is only when he collapses from weakness that they relent. However, when he comes to, he confronts Brother Jerome, demanding to know why they imprisoned the bearded man wailing in a dungeon cell. Of course, the monk tries to convince him that is not a man, but rather someone much more sinister.

Tightly helmed by veteran TV director Douglas Heyes, “The Howling Man” has lost none of its power in sixty years. It is scary, but it is even more disturbing on a philosophical and metaphysical level. It is easy for viewers to place themselves in Ellington’s position and imagine the resulting guilt and torment. Technically, it is also a great TV production, featuring sets worthy of the old Universal monster movies and cinematographer George T. Clemens’ surprisingly dramatic angles and framing.

Carradine and his booming baritone voice ham it up in a good way as Brother Jerome. Austrian aristocratic-born Friedrich von Ledebur is also appropriately severe and imposing-looking as Brother Christophorus. However, it is the haunted intensity of H.M. Wynant’s Ellington that really drives the episode.

We are in the era critics have dubbed “Peak TV,” but the span of 1959-1965 had to be “Peak Anthology TV,” when the
Zone was on the air, along with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and the Karloff shows. “The Howling Man” is a highlight episode of an undeniably classic series. The only slight disappointment is Serling’s opening appearance is merely superimposed over the scene, rather than one of those cool pan shots, where he is suddenly standing there unnoticed on-set. Oh well, can’t have everything. Serling, Beaumont, and Carradine are still an awful lot for genre fans. Highly recommended for fans of classic genre storytelling, “The Howling Man” airs Monday morning (8/10), on Syfy—and it also currently streams on Netflix.