Search this blog and The Mike's favorite blogs!

March 10, 2010

Midnight in The Twilight Zone - The Howling Man

"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."

When pressed to name my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone, one of the first few titles that comes to my mind is The Howling Man, the series' forty-first entry. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a video of the episode free online, though it is available on DVD via Netflix and retailers on a disc entitled More Treasures of The Twilight Zone. It's an episode that sits apart from the majority of the show's tales. While most of the series' best episodes focus around battles between good and evil, right and wrong, or moral and immoral, very few did what The Howling Man did - focused their attention squarely on the pitfalls of religion.

The Howling Man begins with David Ellington, an average American man, directly urging the audience to hear his story. As he relays it, he was hiking through central Europe a few years back, "just after THE war", and came across a monastery where he sought refuge from a storm. Following a Hitchcock-esque zoom in on the monastery (probably stock footage, but it's well used stock footage!) Ellington stumbles through the door and, after inquiring about a strange howling, passes out on the floor. This leads to Serling's opening narration that is listed above.

Narrators are usually right, which means that Mr. Ellington wakes to find himself in the midst of a dilemma. He quickly finds the source of the hound-like bellow, an imprisoned man who looks like a harmless sort and who's very persuasive. His claim is that the monk in charge, Brother Jerome (played by the legendary John Carradine), is a madman who's wrongly holding him hostage for a minor offense that his religion frowns upon. But Brother Jerome has an opposing story. He claims the nice man who's locked away isn't a man...but is the Devil himself.
One of the first things that I thought of while watching this episode unravel for the first time was that iconic quote from The Usual Suspects: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist." The catch of Charles Beaumont's story here is exactly what that movie was considering - the rise of skepticism in modern culture. When Jerome begins to rave about the problems of the world and the effects that man in the cage has had on the world, we understand completely why Mr. Ellington would doubt his main point. That point - that the man in the cage, devil or not, is dangerous - is lost in the details of the story that Ellington simply can't fit into his world view.

I know a lot of people who have trouble with the concept of religion today, a whopping FIFTY years after this episode first aired, and the reasoning is often the same. There are many who approach people they want to "convert" with fanatical rantings and statements of certainty that they truly believe in, but they offer little understanding of what the person they're preaching to is willing to hear. David Ellington, like so many people today, is simply unsure he can believe these statements - which leads him to act against them in fear of his world changing if Brother Jerome is correct.
I won't say who's right or wrong in The Howling Man's conflict of interests, as that's something I hope you'll find out. But it's not a spoiler to say that the final scene of the episode accurately predicts a trend in society that continued after the war that was alluded to in the episode's opening and has continued in the decades since. Humanity, in total, has done a poor job of keeping the things that could be a danger locked away. Until we find a way to do so, we'll continue to go in circles. And while we're trying to figure out who's right and who's wrong, the deadly tools at our disposal will only lead to further conflicts.

Though it's dated and a bit cheesy, The Howling Man is a story about the views of our world today as much as it's a story about that central European monastery. And that is more than enough to make me see it as one of the definite treasures of The Twilight Zone.


Jack Kirby said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
R.D. Penning said...

How did I never see this episode?!

Jeffrey Talbot said...

Rod Serling was always self-conscious that THE TWILIGHT ZONE (CBS 1959-64) would be primarily considered as a "horror" tv series and generally avoided the genre in the episodes produced. This is unfortunate because the few excursions into this darker genre like "The Howling Man" are exceptional and very well done.