The Twilight Zone: “The Howling Man”/“The Eye Of The Beholder”
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The Twilight Zone: “The Howling Man”/“The Eye Of The Beholder”

“The Howling Man” (season 2, episode 5; originally aired 11/4/1960)

In which you’re better off listening to the guy with the Staff of Truth

This one tells you where it’s going right from the opening shot: a man, desperate, begging the audience to believe him as the camera slow tilts. I’ve had nightmares like this, I think, and even if I haven’t, I still recognize the language of bad dreams. “The Howling Man” is a generally absurd episode. It has a hero who, during a walking tour of Europe, stumbles across a monastery where the monks call themselves the Brotherhood of Truth. They even have a Staff of Truth. (And be sure to note the the miniature version of the Staff our hero is using at the end.) They also have the Devil locked up in a cell, and I don’t mean a demon, or an evil man, or a monster. I mean the actual honest-to-God Satan. With horns, and everything. It turns out, he’s responsible for the Great War—at least, that’s what Brother Jerome wants you to believe. According to Jerome, he managed to capture Satan five years ago. Since then, the world has been in relative peace. But the man in the cell keeps howling, and he tells a plausible story about jealousy and crazy religious people. Who do you believe?

Spelled out, this is a goofy story, pleasing in its circularity, but ripe in the detail. Charles Beaumont’s script (his first for the second season) is pure pulp. More than that, it’s pure period-appropriate horror, with thunder, lightning, a spooky mansion, and John Carradine. Oh, and THE DEVIL. It’s hard to imagine a modern show pulling off this level of camp with a straight face. Lucifer pops in on Supernatural from time to time, but he doesn’t have horns or a magnificently malevolent cape, and when Supernatural, or really any genre series, goes the “dark and stormy night” route, they do it with a certain amount of self-awareness. Ha ha, look at all the goofy haunted-house stuff, isn’t this hilarious, and so on. There’s no winking in “The Howling Man.” Even Serling’s narration, though purple as ever, never lets on that what we’re about to see is anything else than deadly serious. Calling it “campy” comes close to nailing the overheated, cartoonish vibe, but it also does the episode a disservice. For all the potentially silly elements, “The Howling Man” never feels silly, and that makes it all the more fun to watch.

This has to be one of the most purely pleasurable episodes of the show I’ve seen so far. That’s not to say everything before this has been a slog—I hope at this point it goes without saying that The Twilight Zone is by and large terrific, and even the groaners have at least a few moments to make them worth watching. But “The Howling Man” hits all my particular pressure points, and it does so with a gusto that helps me overlook the big weak spot. Director Douglas Heyes goes all out here; both episodes this week are showcases for directors who were willing to take big chances, and those risks help to give “The Howling Man” and “Eye Of The Beholder” each their own distinctive feel. Whether or not that feel works for you will go a long way towards defining what you take from these half hours. If you like Dutch angles, then boy howdy, do I have an episode for you.

A camera trick which these days is mostly connected in viewers’ minds with the Adam West Batman series, the Dutch angle is something that can be so easily overused it’s become practically verboten—a cheesy, overly-obvious technique intended to convey a sense of skewed reality, but which generally comes across as “Look at me, I have a film camera!” It’s showy, is what I mean, and show-camera tricks, while they can be effective, have a tendency to be overused by people who think being obvious is the same thing as being good. Heyes goes the full obvious route in this episode. The camera tilting starts from practically the first frame, and while things eventually level off, any time the director wants to show the uncertainty or mental instability of our protagonist David Ellington (H.M. Wynant), away we go. This is not a subtle episode of television, and yet that full-throttle, nightmarish intensity works very well.

The best example of the success of Heyes’ approach comes near the end. Ellington has listened to Brother Jerome (Carridine, in full Moses mode) explain the situation. Jerome used to live in the modern world, but he decided the simple life of not shaving and wearing robes had more appeal, so he retired to the Brotherhood for a life of Staff-holding and poor body hygiene. Then Satan showed up. The village near the monastery is such a friendly, peaceful place, the Devil can’t resist paying a visit and trying to ruin everyone’s lives, and the last time he did this, Jerome managed to catch him. (Not explained is how, if Satan is powerful enough to be responsible for the first World War, he feels he needs to take the time to get one on one with a small town in central Europe.) Jerome never tells us how he did this, but that lack of information works to the story’s advantage. This isn’t an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or, again, Supernatural; those shows use specifics to help ground arcane concepts. On The Twlight Zone, given the time limits, it makes more sense to work in generalities.

So, Jerome has Satan locked away in a cell, and the Devil keeps howling, but that’s a small price to pay. But poor Ellington is faced with a dilemma. He’s met the man in the cell, the supposed Devil, and for a Devil, the guy seems pretty reasonable. The Howling Man claims that Jerome locked him up over a woman, and hey, who knows what these monks get up when outsiders aren’t around. In a choice between believing a story that requires you accept Satan as a quantifiable reality, or one that just needs you to go along with the possibility that people can be real dicks, it’s hardly a choice at all. As nice as the monks seem, they have a man locked up in a cell. Besides, as tempting as it would be to blame world wars on some conscious, specific form of Evil, I’m not sure I’d be at all comfortable with the knowledge that Lucifer wasn’t just a metaphor for our capacity for wrongdoing. Believing in the Devil means, for most of us, changing our entire concept of how reality works. That’s a tough sell.

Ellington releases the Howling Man, and, in the episode’s most striking sequence, the Howling Man becomes full-on Satan in about a minute: his face darkening, his rags turning to robes, and horns popping out of his forehead. This is the example I mentioned above, of how Heyes’ willingness to go all-out pays off to memorable effect. In Beaumont’s screenplay, we didn’t see the transition, and conventional wisdom would be on Beaumont’s side; there’s no way Satan revealing himself could really play on camera with all the impact and horror it needed to have. But Heyes wanted the transition, full of on camera tricks and convenient pillars, and I think it works. It’s a matter of taste, but for me, the silliness here actually makes it all the more unsettling. Here is something which should not, by any reasonable expectation, exist. This isn’t a metaphorical Lucifer; this isn’t Al Pacino chewing the scenery. This is a guy in a velvet cape, goatee, and horns. There is no concession to believability, to modernization, to complex iconography. It’s just The Devil, and it doesn’t really matter what you think.

It’s this unvarnished directness that helps “The Howling Man” overcome what, for me, is it’s most glaring flaw: It doesn’t really make sense. Oh, I don’t have any problem with Satan being responsible for the first and second World Wars, and I’m willing to accept that the only thing that can keep him trapped is the Staff of Truth. (Apparently, the staff was originally supposed to be a cross, but that would’ve attracted the wrong kind of attention.) What I find a little harder to choke down is that after all their warnings, the Brotherhood doesn’t bother to make it difficult for Ellington to let the Howling Man go. The guy with the key to the cell falls asleep, and the cell itself isn’t even guarded. Even worse is the story’s conclusion. After Satan escapes, we cut to a much older Ellington telling his story to a unimpressed chambermaid. He begs her to believe him, and tells her that he finally managed to trap the Devil again, behind a door in his suite. Which is all well and good, but then, after repeatedly insisting how important it is not to let Satan out, he says he has to make a few calls and then leaves the maid alone in the room—where she inevitably reaches to open the door.

This comes across as extremely silly, in a way the rest of the episode largely avoids. Sure, I get it, the point of all this is that it’s basically impossible to keep the Devil trapped for long, and it’s hard to imagine being much satisfied with an ending where Ellington wins and the world is saved and everybody’s happy again. But it’s clumsily handled, and makes Ellington appear as the dumbest man on the planet. Watching this, I laughed; it’s too clearly a sequence made in service of the ending the writer wants, and not justified by character. In retrospect, though, I think it works better than I gave it credit for. Who knows what sort of effect Satan has on the people who try and keep him at bay. He can’t let himself out, but maybe he can make his captors a little tired, a little hasty, a little more fallible. Or maybe not. Maybe what’s really happening here is that this is a wide-awake story in a nightmare world, and like all good nightmares, everyone in it keeps doing things they know they shouldn’t, because they just can’t help themselves.

What a twist: David Ellington finally manages to trap the Devil he let loose almost 40 years ago. But because room service is not to be trust, Satan won’t stay trapped for long.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • Another possibility is that, apparently, whoever lets the Devil out is tasked with chasing him down. Brother Jerome felt bad for Ellington, but he never offered to help the guy in his search. Maybe Ellington doesn’t want to bother with the effort of bringing the Devil back the monastery (that would be a weird flight), and so he’s just going to pass on the curse to whomever’s close at hand.
  • This should’ve been a backdoor pilot. I would’ve watched a “Howling Man” TV series.

“The Eye Of The Beholder” (season 2, episode 6; originally aired 11/11/1960)

In which I can’t quite—could you step a little closer, into the—DEAR GOD

Have you heard of this? There’s a trend on YouTube now, with preteen girls (and a few boys) posting videos of themselves asking if they’re pretty or ugly. The comments run about as you’d expect; it is YouTube, after all. But the fact that kids do this, even though most of them must realize they probably won’t get the affirmation they desperately need, is heartbreaking. It’s not new, of course. Kids (and adults) have been practicing this kind of behavior ever since we invented self-esteem and the ability to lack it. It’s just the naked desperation that gets to me, the stark reminder of how, for all our attempts to talk around it or find confidence in other areas, we are still at the mercy of a smile, or a wink, or a shudder. No one wants to be ugly. I spent most of my 20s miserable, and I remember there were days when the only thing I wanted in the world, more than wealth or fame or even love, was just for somebody to tell me what I looked like. Even if they said I was ugly, I thought I could deal with that. I just needed to know. We spend our whole lives behind these faces, and so much of what we yearn for depends on their design, and if you don’t have the right face, or the right body, if no one looks up for long when you enter a room—it’s like you don’t even belong in the world, really.

“The Eye Of The Beholder” is one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes, and it’s also one of the episodes to suffer the most for its fame. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching this for the first time now and not knowing the twist ending; I certainly did. With some classic episodes, that’s fine. Knowing that Burgess Meredith breaks his glasses at the end of “Time Enough At Last” doesn’t ruin the rest of the story, because there’s enough story and character there to make you get invested even when you know you shouldn’t. But with “The Eye Of The Beholder,” so much of the power of the final sequence depends on it coming as a surprise that the episode can’t help but suffer when you spend the 20 minutes beforehand knowing full well that Janet Tyler is a hottie under those bandages, trapped in a world of pig-fish men. (Actually, I don’t know if Maxine Stuart, the actress who plays bandaged Janet, is a hottie, but Donna Douglas, the actress who plays her when the bandages come off, is.) For “The Eye Of The Beholder” to have its full impact, we need to be shocked into looking at the world in a different way. But by now, the shock has become cliché. I wasn’t surprised at the reveal, and worse, I spent most of the episode just wanting to get to that point so I could see all the cool monster makeup.

I’d argue that this isn’t the fault of the episode. We’ve dealt with plenty of eps which relied too much on their twist endings to be really successful, but while “The Eye Of The Beholder” does put a lot of faith in its conclusion, that faith seems well-earned. Sometimes, a gimmick is worth the effort, even if that means diminishing returns for future audiences. We want art that lasts over time; more, we value the longevity as a critical advantage. A movie or a book or a show which loses cultural cache over time is considered less valuable than something that endures the years and familiarity with aplomb. But there can be works which push the envelope in a way that renders them ultimately obsolete, and those works can still have value. I’m getting in a little deep here, but my basic point is that it’s fairly impossible to watch “The Eye Of The Beholder” now the same way people watched it when it first aired, and, given how the episode was made, that means it’s not quite as effective. (At least, it wasn’t for me, although I’m sure some of you are preparing strenuous defenses as you read this.) But it’s still deserving of its status as a classic, because it’s just such a weird, huge risk for a TV show to take. I don’t want to overemphasize, but The Twilight Zone does seem like a show that would change the way people watched TV; not in any major way, but in the sense that it reminds us to ask questions and pay attention in ways we might not have done so before.

If you’re unfamiliar with the central trick of the episode, this must all seem very abstract. How it works is, we’re introduced to Janet in her hospital bed. Her face is thickly bandage, and we learn soon enough that she’s undergone some kind of plastic surgery procedure, because apparently, she is hideous. I don’t mean unsightly, I don’t mean, “Eh, if you just took off those glasses and let your hair down we might have something,” I mean it makes people physically uncomfortable when they look at her. This is her 11th time going under the knife, and it will, by law, be her last. If this latest procedure failed to alter her appearance enough to allow her a place in society, she’ll be deemed an outcast, and she can either kill herself, or be sent to live with others of her kind.

The stakes are high, and what’s impressive in retrospect is noticing how effectively Serling (who wrote this script) is able to connect our cultural obsession with attractiveness and beauty with a fascistic, conformity-obsessed regime. It’s not a one-to-one relationship, and in some ways, this episode is more about the horrors of a world where everyone has to fit into lockstep with everyone else, or risk expulsion or death, but it’s hard not to cringe in sympathy listening to the nurses talk about how awful it was to look at poor Janet, and how uncomfortable she makes everyone. We’ve all had moments when we’ve felt like Janet, desperate to be accepted and loved, but held at arm’s length by people because our desperation makes us off-putting. Worse, we’ve all seen strangers we instinctively disliked because they were too heavy, or freakish, or smelled awful, or didn’t fit in with our ideas of how a normal person should look. People try to overcome these instinctive (or socially engrained) responses, and it’s wonderful that we can actually do this, but that doesn’t mean we’re inherently generous and supportive to everyone who needs it.

Janet’s doctor and the various nurses of the hospital all want what’s best for their patient, they really do. The doctor is especially frustrated by his repeated failures in this case, and he and one of his nurses have a chat about the merciless demands of their world, and why some people can’t be like other people, and so on. It’s all a little too forced, really, but you’d be forgiven if you don’t listen closely to what these two are saying. Because you can’t see their faces. No matter what happens, either the camera angle is wrong, or there’s too much shadow, or the actors’ heads are out of frame. That means a lot of ADR work, which is distracting in and of itself, but it also means you spend plenty of time in the episode trying to figure just how and why the director is doing this. When a nurse turns for a pack of cigarettes, you think, “A-ha! Now I’ll see something,” but of course you don’t. Like “The Howling Man,” “The Eye Of The Beholder” has the quality of a nightmare, but it’s a different sort of dream. Instead of familiar horror tropes and demons, “The Eye Of The Beholder” captures that strange sense of never quite being real, of always haunting the margins. The hallways of the hospital here could’ve been lifted from The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, and so could the way no one is ever entirely in focus.

This is a gimmick, and it’s a gimmick done to serve a single end: When Janet’s bandages come off, she is, by human standards, a beautiful young woman. But she isn’t in a human world, and the doctor who performed her final surgery is dismayed by her appearance. “No change,” he says, “No change at all,” and the camera pulls in, and we finally see what we’re dealing with: a staff made of up of twisted, ugly faces. The irony being that even if Janet looks fine to us, she looks horrible to the people of her world, as horrible as they look to our eyes. In case you missed the point, another freak like Janet (who arrives to take her away to a private compound full of other “freaks”) underlines it: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

The line isn’t really necessary, and I’m not sure the episode benefits from having a semi-happy ending. Intellectually, I understand that Janet is traumatized by everything that’s happened, she’s been deemed hideous and disgusting her whole life, and, given the very creepy speech we hear from a guy called The Leader (this is never a good sign), it’s doubtful the happy place that Mr. Walter Smith takes Janet away to at the end will last all that long. (I imagine The Leader will start talking about how much the Freak Commune is costing the city the next time there’s a budget deficit.) Emotionally, it just looks like a handsome man came to rescue the pretty lady from the monsters, who are both ugly and evil—which, by the way, also undercuts some of what the episode is trying to lay down. (You shouldn’t judge people by their appearance! Except this is a world run entirely by ugly people and it’s an Orwellian hell!) I’m not sure how much of this is just watching the episode knowing exactly what was going on the whole time, and how much of its inherent in the show’s design, but it’s still problematic.

Yet I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t mostly effective. One of the rules of thumb of any art form is if you’re using tricks to tell a story, and the audience is paying more attention to the tricks than the story, you need to find a different trick. Any time a gimmick calls attention to itself it’s almost always bad news, but “The Eye Of The Beholder” is one of those rule-proving exceptions, because the gimmick here is so weird, and so big, that it becomes more than just a trick. After 20 minutes of shadowy heads, silhouettes, torsos, and backs, it’s hard not to think about how we normally view the world, and how easy it is to feel lost in a sea of half-people when there’s no faces to latch onto. The intention is for the audience to spend most of the episode believing Janet is hideous, but given what I already knew, I got to thinking instead about what it’s like when you feel ugly. Trapped, for one thing, and you tend to see a lot of feet and floors and walls because you don’t want to make eye contact. But mostly, you’re just consciously aware of yourself in a way that makes it impossible to see anyone else. Every conversation, every stranger you pass on street, you think, “Are they seeing me? Do they know?” People fade, and the world is just a dull place, where all you can think about is what you see in the mirror. I’m not sure “The Eye Of The Beholder” really works as it was intended to anymore, but it’s still a striking episode, powerful for what it does within the limits of television, and for what it says about what we look for, and why.

What a twist: All this time we thought Janet was ugly, but you take off those bandages and va-va-voom! Shame about the pig-fish guys, though.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Unusual as this episode is, it’s also really just a different version of one of Rod Serling’s favorite narrative gags; the reveal of the Pig-Fish People is, in its way, similar to the reveal in “Third From The Sun” that the heroes weren’t actually from Earth after all. (Both play off basic assumptions an audience makes when we aren’t presented with certain information. If you don’t tell us this isn’t Earth, we’ll assume it’s Earth; if you don’t tell us these people aren’t human, we’ll assume they’re human.)
  • I wasn’t a huge fan of a lot of the dialogue in this one. It’s rare to have a gimmick basically carry an episode, but it happens.

Next week: Todd gets his Shatner on in the “Nick Of Time,” but can’t help but wonder at “The Lateness Of The Hour.”

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