As part of our MONSTRAVAGANZA Week-Long Event, Black Maria has been fortunate enough to have some guest contributors join the party. Please welcome Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., writer par excellence from over at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, where he covers classic movies as well as vintage television and old-time radio. We don’t often venture into the televised terrain, but Halloween is all about tricks, right? Boo!
The creative minds behind the television crime-horror anthology Thriller had to know that they selected the perfect host for the hour-long series that premiered over NBC on September 13, 1960. That master of ceremonies was actor Boris Karloff, the horror movie icon who was famous for playing the Frankenstein monster in three successful films during the 1930s (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein)—not to mention appearing in such films as The Old Dark House (1932), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934) … and many, many more.
Viewers got the opportunity to discover that Boris really wasn’t the “ghoulie” he so often portrayed in the flickers—but a cultured, sophisticated English gentleman with a playfully macabre sense of humor. The plus of having Karloff as Thriller’s host was that he occasionally plied his thespic trade in some of the show’s outings; he would grace the casts of five of Thriller’s total sixty-seven episodes including the darkly comedic “The Last of the Sommervilles” (11/06/61) and the multi-story “Dialogues with Death” (12/04/61). Boris also appeared in a first-rate telling of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” (10/02/61), but his finest dramatic turn was as the titular “The Incredible Dr. Markesan” (02/26/62), playing a scientist who’s discovered a means for reanimating the dead. “Markesan” is fondly remembered by many of the series’ fans as one of the very best (with a denouement that’s really a wow) but I in particular enjoyed the actor’s introduction to the episode: “You know, there’s…there’s something vaguely familiar about that Dr. Markesan…creepy, sinister sort of chap, don’t you agree? I have it! He’s the kind of netherworld character who’s forever popping up in nightmares … my nightmares, anyway.”
Not surprisingly, the horror-themed episodes of Thriller tend to remain in the memory more than the program’s foray into crime stories, which was already the bailiwick of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A mixture of horror and crime tales was how the anthology was envisioned by network executive producer Hubbell Robinson, who brought William Frye on board to handle the horror assignments and Fletcher Markle for the crime-related material. Markle didn’t stay with the program long; he left due to friction between himself and Robinson, as well as disagreements with associate producer-story editor James P. Cavanaugh. Writer Maxwell Shane (Fear in the Night) was brought in to replace the departing Markle.
Fans often furiously debate “the best” of Thriller. A large contingent is quite fond of “Pigeons from Hell” (06/06/61), an atmospheric haunted house tale in which two brothers (Brandon de Wilde, David Whorf) bunk down for the night in a dilapidated old plantation house…when de Wilde wakes up to find brother Whorf, his head split by an axe, coming after him with another axe. I like a good axe murder as much as the next guy, but I’m sort of in the minority that argues that while “Pigeons” might have been strong stuff back on TV in 1961 it doesn’t particularly wear well today.
My vote for Thriller’s finest hour (apologies for the pun) is “The Cheaters,” adapted from a Robert Bloch (Psycho) story; a sinister pair of eyeglasses falls into the hands of four different people: a junkman (Paul Newlan), a wealthy old recluse (Mildred Dunnock), her social-climbing nephew (Jack Weston) and a self-centered novelist (Harry Townes). Directed by John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square) with an eerie score courtesy of Jerry Goldsmith (the composer wrote most of the best music in the series), “Cheaters” is a real piperoo (I won’t go too much into the plot because I’d rather not spoil it for those who’ve not seen it).
Author Bloch had a rather profound influence on Thriller; many of his tales are among the most fondly-remembered installments of the series, and he also penned a few teleplays as well. I’m a big fan of “The Hungry Glass” (01/03/61), a goose-pimply outing in which a young couple (William Shatner, Joanna Heyes) purchase a coastal house in New England with its share of ominous secrets: there’s nary a mirror to be found in the joint, and Shatner’s character begins to see strange apparitions. The-Man-Who-Would-Be-Kirk also starred in “The Grim Reaper” (06/13/61), which Bloch adapted from a short story by Harold Lawlor; Shat plays the nephew of a wealthy authoress (Natalie Schafer) who’s acquired a painting that depicts the collector of souls … he’s convinced of the painting’s cursed past and begs her to get rid of it at the earliest opportunity.
Some other noteworthy episodes (and some that are personal favorites):
“Well of Doom” (02/28/61) – A young man (Ronald Howard) and his faithful retainer (Torin Thatcher) are kidnapped by a sinister pair who are also holding his fiancée (Fintan Meyler) hostage, unless the groom agrees to their blackmailing terms. Character great Henry Daniell plays one of the kidnappers in this story directed by John Brahm and appears to have modeled his makeup after that of Lon Chaney’s vampire in the legendary (and lost) London After Midnight (1927). (Daniell appeared in five Thriller episodes, including “Glass,” “Reaper,” and “God Grant That She Lye Stille.”)
“The Devil’s Ticket” (04/18/61) – Classic Robert Bloch story in which a painter (Macdonald Carey), strapped with nothing to pawn, agrees to loan his soul to the Devil (John Emery) for 90 days in return for wealth and fame. All the artist has to do is paint a portrait of the individual who will take his place when the time comes to collect. An absolute winner.
“Parasite Mansion” (04/25/61) – A young woman (Pippa Scott) is trapped in a decaying old mansion with a family of eccentrics harboring a dark, terrible secret. I might be a sucker for this one because of its Southern trappings (it’s set in Loosiana) but I enjoy it because it plays like a Southern-fried version of The Old Dark House (with a little Spider Baby for seasoning). It also features Jeanette Nolan as the matriarch of the clan, who’s always mesmerizing when she plays cackly old women.
“The Terror in Teakwood” (05/16/61) – A renowned concert pianist (Guy Rolfe) makes plans to play a difficult piece composed by his deceased rival with a little supernatural help. Paul Henreid (Casablanca) directed this little chiller that features Mr. Sardonicus’ Rolfe and British scream queen Hazel Court…not to mention Charles Aidman, who would later narrate the tales on the 1985-87 TV revival of The Twilight Zone.
“The Prisoner in the Mirror” (05/23/61) – It’s Henry Daniell again, this time as evil magician Count Alexander Cagliostro … whose full-length mirror falls into the hands of a professor played by Lloyd Bochner. There’s a reason why that mirror was painted black, Lloyd. Marion “Mrs. C” Ross plays Bochner’s fiancée (and demonstrates she was quite a babe in her halcyon boob tube years) and you’ll definitely get a chuckle when Bochner toasts her with a glass of champagne (“Happy days”).
“Guillotine” (09/26/61) – A man (Alejandro Rey) condemned to die is gambling on a loophole: if his executioner (Robert Middleton) dies before the date of execution, the prisoner will be set free. It’s up to his paramour (Danielle De Metz) to make the necessary arrangements. There’s some great pedigree on this episode: it was directed by Ida Lupino (a frequent Thriller helmer) and scripted by Charles Beaumont (from a Cornell Woolrich story).
“The Weird Tailor” (10/16/61) – Another fantastic Robert Bloch contribution (he adapted his own story) in which a wealthy man (George Macready) desperately tries to resurrect his dead son (Gary Clarke) by commissioning a clothier (Henry Jones) to make him a most unusual suit. The ending on this one features one of the series’ most indelible images.
“Masquerade” (10/30/61) – I’ll admit that the ending to this outing—scripted by Donald S. Sanford from a Henry Kuttner story—might induce a little eye-rolling…but it features John Carradine as an innkeeper (his house is the Bates mansion from Psycho) who checks in a couple (Elizabeth Montgomery, Tom Poston) and challenges their beliefs as to whether or not vampires exist. (For another great Thriller featuring Carradine, check out “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk”—in which Jo Van Fleet demonstrates a proficiency for raising swine due to her unusual origins!)
“The Return of Andrew Bentley” (12/11/61) – Richard Matheson’s sole contribution to Thriller (adapted from a story by August Derleth and Mark Schorer) is the eerie tale of a man who gains possession of his uncle’s house and untold wealth…provided he never leaves the place and takes special care to observe that his uncle’s crypt is undisturbed. John Newland, who couch potatoes remember as the host of the paranormal anthology One Step Beyond, directed a few Thrillers including this one…and he stars as the nephew as well.
“A Wig for Miss Devore” (01/29/62) – A washed-up actress (Patricia Barry) is scheduled to make a movie comeback playing a legendary female who was executed for witchcraft; complications arise when her press agent (John Fiedler) obtains for her the very hairpiece worn by the accused as she was about to be hanged. This tongue-in-cheek episode was a favorite of many a young kidlet who grew up watching Thriller, judging from what folks have told me in the past (keep in mind, it is not a scientific poll).
Stephen King opined in his pop culture horror book Danse Macabre that Thriller was “probably the best horror series ever put on TV.” Sadly, the program ran for only two seasons; some have speculated that its schizophrenic nature (it did crime stories in addition to its horror content) made viewers all too aware that it could be a hot-or-cold affair—others have suggested that Alfred Hitchcock used his muscle to squash the show because his own Alfred Hitchcock Presents was expanding to an hour in the fall of 1962 (The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). The reality probably resides in the fact that producer Hubbell Robinson had landed a position with his former network, CBS…and it only made sense that NBC had no obligation to continue with a show owned by someone working for the competition (Robinson’s 87th Precinct received a pink slip as well).
But the cult appeal of Thriller is undeniable: beloved by fans, Thriller saw a limited release of some of its classic episodes on VHS and laserdisc, and was heavily bootlegged before Image Entertainment released the full Monty on DVD in 2010. Crammed with commentaries and other bodacious extras, it’s a box set that undeniably lives up to its name.
I’m one of those who think “Pigeons of Hell” is the best episode of Thriller. It frightened me as a child and it still frightens me today! That having been said, it is hard to pick a favourite. “The Prisoner in the Mirror”, “The Cheaters”, and “Parasite Mansion” are all pretty scary too! At any rate, I do think Thriller was television horror at its best. It has never quite been matched ever since.