January 11, 2019

Lost in the Twilight Zone: Lesser Known Episodes, Part Two

Rod Serling presenting "The Howling Man," (1960) an episode of The Twilight Zone
Host Rod Serling introduces "The Howling Man"
In Part One, I saluted Rod Serling’s classic series for still going strong nearly 60 years after its initial air date. I looked at two episodes from the first season, that, while not usually celebrated as among the best of the series, are still to my mind minor classics and exemplify the uncanny, macabre mood for which The Twilight Zone is so well known.

One of them, “Elegy,” I don’t remember ever seeing before I stumbled upon it last year while perusing Netflix’s episode menu. “Elegy’s” peculiar premise and characteristic twist ending was the work of Charles Beaumont, whose 22 Twilight Zone scripts greatly contributed to the series’ dark, eerie feel.

In Part Two, I’ve picked two more Beaumont-authored episodes from the second season. They’re not in the same fan favorite league as “Eye of the Beholder” or “The Invaders” from season two, but they are wild and bizarre and very repeat-watchable.


This 5th episode of season 2 starts off like a conventional ghost story, with the pale, shaken protagonist, David Ellington (H.M. Wynant) speaking directly to the camera, relating what he admits is an unbelievable tale that happened to him years ago. He had been on a walking tour of central Europe shortly after WWI and had gotten caught in a fierce storm. In a neat segue, Ellington turns around to look out the window at a storm brewing outside.

In flashback, we see Ellington, soaked to the skin, stumbling toward a sprawling old hermitage. Banging on the door with his hands, he manages to summon a grim, bearded man with a long cloak and old-fashioned lantern who looks like a refugee from the set of The Ten Commandments. The man at first gruffly tells Ellington that they don’t admit visitors, but then takes pity on the distressed traveler and takes him to see the head man, Brother Jerome (John Carradine). As they walk through the corridors, Ellington is startled to hear an eerie howl, half animal and half human-sounding.

Jerome, with his long white hair and beard, shepherd’s staff and Biblical-era garments, looks like God himself. But Jerome has no mercy on the weary traveler -- when Ellington asks for shelter and food, Jerome insists that he leave immediately. Ellington, chilled and sick, turns to leave, stumbles a few paces, then falls to the floor in a faint.

H.M. Wynant and Robin Hughes in The Twilight Zone episode "The Howling Man," (1960)
The Howling Man is definitely going to trash
Jerome and his hermitage on Yelp.
After recovering from his blackout, Ellington follows the unearthly howls to a barred cell in the deep recesses of the hermitage. He’s startled to find a handsome prisoner in tattered rags who begs for Ellington’s help, claiming that Jerome and the brothers are all mad as hatters. He tells a harrowing tale of being captured by Jerome and held prisoner for simply kissing a girl in the local village square.

Ellington, not sure what to believe, confronts Jerome about the secret prisoner. At first denying he even exists, Jerome relents and tells the whole truth about the man they are holding. The story is even more fantastic than the prisoner’s. Ellington, his mind swirling, makes a fateful decision.

This Twilight Zone fairy tale has great fun with its gothic mix of lightning, thunder, weird howls, and dark, candle-lit sets. Veteran B movie actor John Carradine, with his deep, resonant voice and antique costume, is perfect as brother Jerome. He looks ready to lead the Israelites to the promised land. This was Carradine’s only appearance on the original show.

This too was H.M. Wynant’s (Ellington) only appearance on the series. His character is shaky, nervous and uncertain throughout. The camera emphasizes his chaotic state, at times in extreme close-up where we can see every drop of sweat on his forehead, and at other times in long shot, where his character seems to be swallowed up in the gloomy halls of the old hermitage. Incredibly, Wynant, who started his TV/film career in 1955 on the live Studio 57 show and has done just about every series you can think of, is still acting today, with a credit (on IMDb) for 2018!

English actor Robin Hughes, who looks like a poor man’s Errol Flynn, does a great job as the impassioned, persuasive prisoner. His job is all the harder, as he has to deliver his best lines from behind the bars of his cell. He also has a fun transformation scene towards the end that is reminiscent of Henry Hull’s in The Werewolf of London (1935). Hughes is the star of one of my favorite “forgotten” horror films of the ‘50s, The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958) 

Underneath the High-Gothic hokiness, there is a modern psychoanalytic fable starring Ellington as humanity’s Ego, Brother Jerome as the Superego, and the prisoner as the Id. Whether in real life or in The Twilight Zone, you unleash him at your peril.


SPOILER ALERT: This episode is difficult to discuss in much depth without revealing important plot points. Proceed with caution.

“Shadow Play” adds a vicious twist to the age-old idea that life is all a dream. In the messed up head of Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver), life is a recurring nightmare in which the world and the people around him are merely set pieces in the strange, dark drama he must go through again and again.

The episode opens with a close-up of Grant in profile, seemingly sitting by himself in the darkness. As the camera pans back, the rest of the set suddenly lights up to reveal a courtroom. The jury is just returning from their deliberations. Grant is on trial for murder, but as the jury foreman declares him guilty of first degree murder, he stares off into space, chin in hand, oblivious.

At the judge’s repeated commands to stand up for sentencing, he wearily rises. As the judge imposes the ultimate penalty of death by electrocution, he at firsts laughs, then explodes in rage: “Not again, I won’t die again!” Before the guards can rush him out of the courtroom, he yells to a press reporter: “Tell the District Attorney he’s prosecuting himself, everybody in this building, … everybody in the world!”

On death row, Grant acts as if he’s seen it all before. When an old con (William Edmondson) in an adjoining cell advises him to stop imagining what the execution is going to be like, Grant, as if in a trance, describes the final minutes in great detail, from the colors of the doors and the execution room, to the feel of the electric chair seat, to the musty smell of the hood as they pull it over his head.

In a neat bit of gallows humor, just as Grant gets to the pulling of the switch, the scene jump cuts to the District Attorney’s home, where his wife has opened up the oven to check on two steaming steaks.

Grant’s bizarre behavior has wormed its way into the heads of the reporter, Paul Carson (Wright King), and the DA, Henry Ritchie (Harry Townes). Paul shows up at Ritchie’s house on the night of the execution, liquored up and clearly weirded out. His interviews with Grant have him doubting his own reality. He convinces the reluctant Ritchie to make a last minute visit to death row to talk to Grant himself.

Upon arriving, Ritchie is surprised to find out that Grant is expecting him. Ritchie gets more and more uncomfortable as Grant seems to know what he’s going to say before he says it. Grant sticks to his mad story that he is dreaming his own execution “night after night after night.” As Ritchie leaves, a desperate Grant chillingly calls after him, “I’m telling the truth Mr. Ritchie! Please, let me live and I’ll keep you alive, I’ll dream you every night, just like this…”

When Ritchie gets home, he finds a small but unnerving change to his reality -- one that Grant had predicted -- that leaves him speechless and very spooked.

With Beaumont’s clever script, you get two tortured souls for the price of one -- Grant, caught in an endless loop of nightmares, and Ritchie, who slowly comes to the chilling realization that his own comfortable world can be wiped out in the blink of an eye.

"Last meal? Hmmm, I can't decide between the mystery
meatloaf or the Spam sandwich..."
Grant’s nightmare worlds are built from scraps of memory. Another nice touch is that, even in the depths of the nightmare, Grant is fully aware of how rickety and superficial it is: the DA is an old teacher from grammar school, the clergyman who visits him before the execution is a pastor who died years before.

And, having no real world experience with courtrooms or death houses, the particulars of his tortured dreams are filled with cliches from prison movies he’s seen. He muses, “I got tried and sentenced the same day -- it doesn’t work like that. It’s like a movie. Real death houses aren’t like that, but I’ve never been in a real death house…. That’s my impression of it.”

But, in spite of the banal absurdity of it all, the horror is no less real. Or perhaps, it’s all the more horrible because it’s so absurd. Dennis Weaver’s performance is a gem. He deftly rides his character’s emotional roller-coaster from all-out panic to quiet desperation and back again.

By this point Weaver had already established some TV fame with his role of Chester on Gunsmoke, and of course would go on to even greater glory as McCloud in the 70s. But credit The Twilight Zone for really putting his talents to good use.

Weaver is ably supported by the other cast members, especially William Edmondson as Jiggs, another prison movie cliche pulled straight out of Grant’s mind. Jiggs is the grizzled death row veteran who at first tries to take the new guy under his wing, but as Grant continues to insist that the prison, the cells and everyone around him are figments of his nightmares, Jiggs snorts in derision at the madman.

Yet another plus for “Shadow Play” is the capable direction of John Brahm. The German born director was no stranger to strange films and TV. Before diving headlong into TV in the mid ‘50s, Brahm had helmed two well regarded thrillers, The Lodger (1944) and Hangover Square (1945), both starring the quietly menacing Laird Cregar. Brahm had an very productive TV career, directing episodes for all the usual suspects -- Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Man From Uncle, among others -- as well as 12 episodes of The Twilight Zone.

To my mind “Shadow Play” is the best of the Brahm lot, for its clever, mind-bending script and great performance by Dennis Weaver.

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