When David Ellington is introduced to us through a seeming fourth wall break, I remembered this was an episode I loved from my youth. Written by Charles Beaumont, I welcomed the change from the last few episodes of loathsome characters Serling had given us. And this is one that stands out. It’s such a classic. David Ellington finds a monastery and inside is a man trapped in a cell. The keeper of the monastery says it’s the devil, but surely that’s crazy talk. I mean, look at Brother Jerome! It’s the early 1900s, somewhere after the Great War but before the Second and this man dresses up like Moses and walks around carrying a staff. Forgetting for a moment that we are watching The Twilight Zone – a show where we know the strange happens regularly – this seems like a wild claim from a madman. But watching this with the critical eye that comes from writing about shows, I realize how unfortunate the 25 minute format is for such a great story.
My first observation was how weak David was. This might be apt considering he’s up against a goliath but he’s weak before he meets The Howling Man. He was on a walking tour of Europe when he got stuck in a storm. He arrives at a hermitage and asks for shelter. When he gets denied, he passes out, because, you know, rain water is a real killer! Now, I can turn a blind eye to that, but then the opening credits roll and we return to seeing him wandering about the hermitage. Off he goes to talk to the imprisoned man, of course. I think if Brother Jerome is so determined to keep his prisoner, he either drops David outside or locks him in a room if he really wants to be humane. Look, I don’t think most people of a religious order would be quick to throw a sick man into the street, but when the fate of the world rides on it, maybe you make the tough calls! And let’s face it, the devil’s cell was not well hidden; it’s 6 feet from the front door. Then we come to Jerome: he’s not a bad person, but he’s written like a quack. “I’m not the ignorant fanatic I would appear!” So lose the staff, at the very least! Do you need it to walk around the room? You have a better sense of balance than our protagonist, that’s for sure! Sure he addresses the fact that he dresses the way he does, but given half a chance, he’s in Ellington’s face asking “You believe me, don’t you?” What’s Ellington going to say, “No, you’re a nutter”? Then, almost as if he wanted it to happen, he lets Ellington walk back to his room unguarded. Why?! Why not just walk him back to his room? Is this the Dr. Evil’s Approach to Good Planning? And that’s when the worst part happens…
Ellington asks what is needed and the man behind the door says to simply remove the staff. Ellington knows something is amiss: why didn’t you do it yourself, he asks. The guy might as well have been the Doctor with the “I’ll explain later” response, but in that moment, any man, even one suffering pneumonia, must realize things are not as they appear. The staff was clearly in easy reach of the howling man but Ellington isn’t that sharp. He removes the bar. And here’s where we get the moment that really makes the episode so memorable. The sequence is so stunning that it never left my mind. As Robin Hughes (the actor playing the title role) walks past column after column, more features appear denoting this to be the devil. His unkempt hair neatens, his nose elongates, his horns develop. Even the loose fitting coat he’s wearing over his shoulders becomes a cape, complete with clasp. It’s a stunning transformation for the early 1960’s and it makes a major impact. With a flourish, the man turns to David, then leaves in a burst of fire and smoke. David Ellington has released the Devil back into the world and shortly thereafter World War II starts, followed by the Korean War and on and on….
At this point we realize the opening is not the fourth wall break we think, but David was speaking to his housekeeper. David managed to hunt the devil and recapture him; once again David has beaten goliath. But for some reason, he felt the need to hire a housekeeper who he has to tell not to touch the door and as the camera fades to black, we see her removing the Staff of Truth. Undoubtedly this is what lead to Covid-19! Damned housekeepers…
Is this a good episode? I can’t help but say yes, but I think that’s because the idea is a profound one. I don’t think the execution of the bulk of the episode is actually all that good but the transformation is astounding. Perhaps in written form there could have been more than what we got onscreen. The short format is limited and these are effectively stage plays. Serling even calls them that in his narration when announcing the next episode. There’s only so much you can do with this format, so I’m willing to accept some of what goes on due to those limitations.
But I wouldn’t be me if not for a sick sense of humor. I was reminded of a line from Lord of the Rings when Brother Jerome says that no man had been imprisoned at the hermitage. I recall the Nazgul saying no man could beat them either, so it was fitting that a woman does it. Clever use of words, though that weird corner of my mind then turned this into a comedy instead of a horror story: Ellington goes back and finds that Brother Jerome has glued hair all over the Howling “Man” and his statement was right: no man had been imprisoned! Obviously the only thing Ellington could do is save her and run off into the warped sunset of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
In 1959 Charles Beaumont wrote a short story titled The Howling Man for the magazine Rogue, which offered a mixture of nudity and science-fiction, apparently what men needed at the time. I’m not entirely sure things have changed all that much since then. The following year, Beaumont adapted his story for this episode of The Twilight Zone, taking the series as close to the horror genre as it has come so far.
The setting is pure Hammer Horror, a gothic castle (OK, a hermitage, but it looks like a castle) in a thunder storm at night. Initially we are led to believe that the monks are up to no good, some kind of evil cultists who won’t even give shelter to a lost traveller in need. It turns out that they don’t want to risk visitors for fear that their prisoner will escape with his manipulative words, but for much of the episode we are left to speculate who is telling the truth here. The “Howling Man” seems credible in his claims. The original plan was for a large cross to be used against him, but a “staff of truth” was substituted to avoid anger from Christian viewers. Beaumont was not impressed with the change, but I think it actually works in the story’s favour because it retains the element of doubt for longer. As soon as we see a cross being used against somebody, it’s obvious he’s evil, but a “staff of truth” keeps things much more vague.
The director does everything possible to unsettle the viewer. We are used to Rod Serling breaking the fourth wall, but the episode starts with Ellington talking directly to the camera and it immediately feels unnerving. Then we have Robin Hughes’ performance as the Howling Man, which is reasonable and persuasive while he is locked up, and then the minute the door is unlocked he looks sinister and has an air of supreme confidence about him. The standout scene of the episode is his transformation from man to demon, his appearance changing gradually each time he passes behind a pillar as he walks along the corridor. It’s done seamlessly and it’s a very clever effect.
It is strongly suggested that the release of the Howling Man leads to just about everything that goes wrong in the world, including wars. This is both a compelling and a troubling notion. I think most people would be quite comfortable describing the horrors of the Second World War, for example, as evil deeds. It’s comforting to assign such terrible acts to an external influence, or something inherently wrong with the people who committed those acts. At the same time, it stops us from acknowledging the depths of depravity of which human beings are capable, and the danger that such horrors could occur again, without the need for an arch-manipulator with horns to orchestrate the carnage.
If there’s a message here it’s a warning about how easy it is to be fooled by an evildoer. People who might wish us harm can sometimes appear to be very credible and friendly. The lesson is to keep up your guard in life, which is a bit depressing, but I’m sure most people reading this will have had experiences that back up the existence of many a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a smiling assassin, a false friend. In this respect, the ending is once again a logical progression of the story rather than a twist. Ellington’s life’s work is a waste, and it is shown to be basic human nature to fall victim to a convincing liar, or to respond to a howl of anguish. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. If we weren’t so easily tricked by our instinct to help and to believe in the good in others, we would be a little less human and a little more like the Howling Man. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Eye of the Beholder