Rod Serling’s moralism ran high in the many parables he wrote to illustrate how rotten mankind can be. Sometimes, frankly, it could be unwatchable, like his 1964 TV-movie, A Carol for Another Christmas, a modern retelling of Dicken’s classic tale. Commissioned to promote the United Nations. Serling replaces the heart and charm of the original with grinding didacticism about war and greed and all the other fun in which we humans like to engage. In the end, this modern Ebenezer doesn’t buy a turkey for the Cratchits, but he does sit down in the kitchen to have a cup of coffee in front of the servants.
Fortunately, Serling couldn’t get into as much trouble with the 25-minute running time of a Twilight Zone episode, compared to eighty-four minutes for Carol (which felt twice as long!) And it helped when the series served up its lessons with a healthy dose of horror. So far, we have mostly avoided the more terrifying episodes of TZ (although “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a pretty fair example). In the three episodes we were assigned for tonight’s class, we are given a heaping dose of atmosphere and dread to help make the medicine go down. And if occasionally the dialogue wears us down, the incredible imagery and sound design still transports us.
This week, we encounter for the first time the work of Charles Beaumont, a writer of science fiction and horror stories and screenplays, who contributed twenty-one episodes of the series, making him the most prolific writer of TZ after Serling himself (Richard Matheson wrote sixteen episodes). Beaumont is responsible for two of my favorite childhood movies: The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, which still holds up, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, which doesn’t. He also wrote one of the best-worst sci-fi movies of all time, Queen of Outer Space starring Zsa Zsa Gabor. One of my favorite Beaumont stories, “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” decries the culture of beauty and conformity to chilling effect. We’ll be watching a lot of Beaumont in the coming weeks.
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“The Howling Man” (written by Charles Beaumont, based on his short story of the same name; original broadcast 11/14/60)
“Ancient folk saying: you can catch the devil but you can’t hold him long.“
A tourist caught in a terrible storm comes upon a castle containing an order of monks and a ragged, filthy man whom the monks have imprisoned, stating that he is the Devil himself. Everything the head monk, Brother Joseph (John Carradine) says about the man – but everything!! – sounds crazy, and so at the first possible moment, the tourist unlocks the door, lets the man out – and causes World War II. For, yes, the howling man is the Devil, after all, as his sprouting horns and Halloween costume indicate. The tourist then dedicates the rest of his life to recapturing the Devil and sending him back to the monks in the castle. But by the time he locks his prey in the spare room, he sounds as crazy as Brother Joseph, and since he’s stupid enough to warn the new maid a million times not to let the guy out, what exactly does he think is going to happen when he goes to the store for a few things . . . ???
Beaumont adapts his own short story, which was set in an Abbey and has a more ambiguous ending: the ragged man is never confirmed to be Satan. When he wrote the screenplay, the setting was the same, but producers worried about the religious ramifications of the tale, including the placement of a cross against the door holding the Devil inside his cell. It was replaced by a “Staff of Truth,” and it is reiterated a few times that this is not a religious order; unfortunately – for Mankind, at least – this, and the ragged appearance of the brotherhood, doesn’t help their believability. The Devil is a religious symbol for evil, and to deny that renders the whole point of the story almost nonsensical. In fact, you can’t think too long or hard about this one: it’s not really a Pandora story, because the howling man is standing right before the tourist, assuming “a pleasing shape.” Still, that howling is pretty off-putting, and I’m not sure I would let a man out of his cell who made those noises.
The point of the story is that we have this relationship with evil in which we tend not to recognize it and therefore let it free to grow and destroy. This lesson is one that we can point to in every generation: it worked explaining Naziism and the Cold War, and both sides of the current political spectrum use it to explain the other. But the example here is downright unfair: the tourist isn’t tempted by anything; rather, he thinks he’s performing an act of rescue. Fortunately, the look of the episode goes a long way toward mitigating its outright nature as a parable. Director Douglas Heyes maintains a level of barely suppressed hysteria throughout, helped by the sound of storms raging outside, and George T. Clemons invests his camera with all sorts of creepy angles, suggesting perhaps that the feverish tourist himself is not playing with a full deck.
Only in the end does Heyes falter: it had been decided that the identity of the Howling Man would not be ambiguous as it is in the story, and Beaumont conceived of an idea that, after his escape, it would be revealed that the Man had a cloven hoof. That would have been SOOO cool! Instead, the director wanted to do something more transformative, and so he has an admittedly nice shot where the Man passes behind a series of pillars and emerges each time more “Satanic” than before. Unfortunately, it’s a very traditional version of the Devil, in tights, with horns and a nice goatee. The good news is that the Man is played by Robin Hughes, a fine Welsh actor who also played the title role in The Thing that Couldn’t Die, one of my favorite truly awful 1950’s horror films, and he manages to be both pathetic and devilish.
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“The Jungle” (written by Charles Beaumont; original broadcast 12/1/60)
When it leans into its horror roots, “The Jungle” is a great episode. Who after all doesn’t love a good curse, and that is exactly what has happened to Alan Richards (John Dehner), recently returned with his wife from a business trip to Africa on behalf of a large American company commissioned to build a hydroelectric dam there. Unfortunately, the project necessitates the displacement of some native people and the erosion of sacred lands. The result is that the company members have been cursed by a witch doctor to suffer a slow, painful death if the project goes forward.
For good or bad, the episode takes place entirely in New York City. I say “good” because the metaphor of the big city as a jungle is used to brilliant effect here (although this is the most deserted New York City I have ever seen!) I say “bad” because the absence of Africa or of any African character leaves us with an unbalanced picture – not surprising for the times but off-putting nevertheless. The only image we see of African “culture” is a mannequin (played by a real person!) dressed in old-fashioned native garb, looking fierce and holding a spear. I recognize that TZ is not going to give us a nuanced depiction of the issues facing the modernization of Africa, but it’s good to be warned about this image going in.
As I said, the horror elements are terrific. After Richards destroys the protective charms his wife had smuggled home after they were cursed, he leaves for a business meeting (who has these meetings in NYC at night?!?) and finds a dead goat lying outside his apartment door. After the meeting, he finds himself stranded in a lonely neighborhood, and the rest of the episode is basically dialogue-free, to great effect. William Claxton’s direction and George T. Clemens’ photography, coupled with a score made up primarily of silence and jungle noises, ramp up the suspense considerably. There are some great shots: the interior of the bar that Richards just left, showing that the lion’s tooth charm his wife had slipped into his coat has been left behind; the POV shot of Richards looking at the back of his taxi driver, telling him the light has changed and he can go (except the driver looks awfully stiff now); the whole sequence in the park, and the justifiably lauded final moment when Richards, now “safely” at home, opens his bedroom door to find out what’s making those growling noises . . .
Again, however, it doesn’t pay to think too long and hard about the story. The first ten minutes amount to a different take about superstition than the one we find in “Nick of Time.” When Richards discovers all the charms in his wife’s bag, he rails against her caving in to superstition. During the business meeting that follows, it looks like we might get into a meaningful discussion about how American companies neglect to take into consideration the troubles their projects may inflict on foreign countries. Instead, Richards deflects this with another discussion about superstition, pointing out to his colleagues their own foolish practices and asking them why carrying a rabbit’s foot or reading one’s horoscope is saner than African magic. The Richards we see in this scene also seems much more cognizant of the effect the dam has had on the natives than he was with his wife, although it could also be attributed to his own growing concern about the curse.
Where “Nick of Time” achieved its strength by containing no magic and showing how our superstitions weaken us, the end of “The Jungle” has a freaking lion standing on Richards’ bed, pawing his dead wife before leaping over the camera and eating him up. I know, I know – I can’t expect The Twilight Zone to be consistent about its world-building, only its moralizing. The young couple in “Nick of Time” deserve a chance at happiness, while the characters in “The Jungle” are invaders who feel no remorse – only fear.
Nearly twenty years later, it will be much the same in the movie Poltergeist, where writer/producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper will only give lip service to the plight of indigenous people, whose ancient graves are dug up to pave the way for a new all-white suburb. There, as in “The Jungle,” we have to take what we can get: the effect, through magic, of this heartless action on the people who committed it. Still, I will give Beaumont credit: what happens to Richards – and, according to the curse, probably the entire corporate team – in the end seems to be exactly what he deserved. Considering it’s 1960, I would call this progress.
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“Deaths-Head Revisited” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 11/10/61)
“Ten million human beings were tortured to death in camps like this. Men. Women. Children. Infants. Tired old men. You burned them in furnaces. You shoveled them into the earth. You tore up their bodies in rage. And now you come back to your scenes of horror, and you wonder that the misery that you planted has lived after you?”
Gunther Lutze (Oscar Beregi) a former S.S. officer who had escaped to South America after the war, decides to return to Dachau for some happy reminiscing. He meets a man named Becker (Joseph Schildkraut) whom he recognizes as one of his former prisoners but who now seems to act as caretaker for the crumbling concentration camp. But Becker is actually a ghost, and he raises other ghosts of other victims to put Lutze on trial for his crimes against humanity. He is found a few hours later by his taxi driver and a doctor, who pronounces Lutze insane.
This is a tough one on many levels because the horror is real. The opening sequence, where Lutze checks into a small inn under the name “Herr Schmidt” but is recognized by the innkeeper has a dash of silliness, but Beregi effectively underplays his Nazi villainy. (Think of him more as Herr Strasser in Casablanca than Major Berkhalter in Hogan’s Heroes.) The real star here is Schildkraut, a great stage and screen actor who was famous for playing Emile Zola and Anne Frank’s father in film. He is tasked with delivering a series of Serling-penned lectures about the evils of Naziism and, through his presence and delivery, makes them both horrifying and heartbreaking. So do the other ghosts, a silent jury of dead prisoners who haunt the “defendant” throughout the story. The sentence carried out against Lutze is that he must experience in his mind every sadistic act he inflicted on his prisoners, and that brief moment is also terrifying to watch.
This is not an episode that I particularly enjoy watching, but I appreciated the assignment, given the rise yet again of anti-Semitic feeling in our country. The Holocaust is no longer a guaranteed history unit in our schools; in fact, I came upon a recent argument at the school where I used to work about teaching books like Elie Weisel’s Night. And this brings up the entire argument about teaching students some of the darker events in human history, like the effects of slavery or the Holocaust on the descendants of those who suffered it. At the end of the episode, the doctor examining the fallen Nazi looks around him and wonders why Dachau has been left standing. Serling’s answer to that question epitomizes the reason that we must always fight those who dismiss these lessons as “woke” and unnecessary and teach children what happens when we let our guard down:
“All the Dachaus must remain standing . . . because they are a monument to a moment in time, when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it, they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”
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Elliot gave us a bonus for this week, a first season episode written by Serling and directed by John Brahm, who also helmed “Time Enough At Last.” “The Judgement” amounts to a dress rehearsal for “Death’s-head Revisited.” It is far less gut-punching but a little more human, very much a “typical” episode of TZ, complete with puzzle and twist. Nehemiah Persoff plays a traveller named Lanser, who finds himself on an English ship trapped in a thick sea fog. As he meets the passengers and crew, he has a growing feeling that disaster is imminent; if only he could figure out where this danger is coming from.
No offense, but you have to be pretty thick not to figure out where this one is going. The fact that we are set up to view Lanser through semi-sympathetic eyes in the beginning adds to the emotional reactions we may have by the end, but this example of holy justice being meted out is pretty standard fare for the series. It’s beautifully filmed, however, and it’s nice to see that in his eternal suffering, Lanser is forced to become friendly with the people around him; it makes the doll floating in the water, the comely nurse burning alive in her cabin, and the haunting moment when Lanser confronts the ghosts of all his victims that much more affecting. The series also has tiny appearances by Patrick “The Avengers” MacNee and James Franciscus, and the great radio star Ben Wright, who will later play the Doctor in “Death’s-head Revisited,” plays the Captain.
Next week, we watch three stone-cold Twilight Zone classics, including two really scary episodes, plus the greatest pun-of-a-twist-ending Rod Serling ever created! Join us, won’t you?