I had never even heard of the Boris Karloff anthology series Thriller (1960-62), until I caught it very late one night on the Sci-Fi Channel about seventeen years ago. (This was back in the not too distant past when they were still airing original Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes.) But then I wasn't and am not alone, surely: compare the 848 ratings for Thriller on imdb.com with the 46, 438 for The Twilight Zone and the 9671 for Alfred Hitchock Presents. (Let's not even get into the 662, 468 for The Walking Dead.)
Finally, six years later, I acquired a set and I am hugely enjoying both old Thriller favorites as well as ones I never saw originally. Having watched the Season One in its entirety, I thought I would name my favorite episodes from that season. It's probably a pretty conventional list of choices, but you tell me.
#12 A Good Imagination
It was either going to be this or Late Date--based on a Cornell Woolrich "How do I get rid of the body?" story--for the #12 spot, but it was the mordant humor of A Good Imagination that settled the matter for me. As Thriller fans know, this episode is not supernatural horror, but rather one of the series' crime tales, which are usually, rightly I think, maligned by Thriller fans as inferior to the horror episodes. Thriller adaptations of Margaret Millar's Rose's Last Summer (with a good performance by Mary Astor), Charlotte Armstrong's The Mark of the Hand, Philip Macdonald's The Fingers of Fear and Fredric Brown's Knock Three-One-Two are earnest but oddly uninvolving, I think. However, A Good Imagination is a vintage slice of the mirthful wickedness we associate with Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
|Patricia Barry, Edward Andrews|
Also in the cast is the late Ed Nelson, playing a hunky handyman. We'll see him again, in an episode farther down, where he plays, well, a hunky handyman. Series television back then certainly depended on those actors who could reliably play a type! Nelson gets to to play a couple of more, um, developed characters in Thriller's second season.
One of the amusing bits in the episode, incidentally, is how the bookseller gets his murder inspirations from the "classics." The final scene might remind you somewhat of a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents too.
|"I ain't afraid of no ghosts": Rip Torn|
#11 The Purple Room
The seventh episode in the series, The Purple Room was the first to incorporate supernatural elements (or are they???) in an episode, in a riff on the classic bit of the brash person (in this case Rip Torn) who must spend the night in a haunted house (the Bates house from Psycho, which will make further appearances in the series).
The moments that a deliciously scenery-rending Rip Torn--appropriate name--spends alone (?) in the house are quite eerily done, although the resolution isn't landed quite as solidly as I would have liked. Rip's relations are played by Richard Anderson and Patricia Barry.
|really, people should know to stay out of this house|
#10 Dark Legacy
This one starts off as well as any episode in the series, with relatives gathered on a stormy night in a creepy house where their wealthy kinsman, who just happens to be a dabbler in the dark arts, is dying. (The whole splendid milieu looks like something out of a Charles Addams book.)
The magician's nephew, a hack magician (Harry Townes, who we will see again below), inherits his uncle's book of sorcery and soon is putting it to work to advance his career. What will be the result? Nothing good, we can be sure. Most atmospherically directed by John Brahm, director of the genre films The Undying Monster, The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Locket and The Brasher Doubloon, Dark Legacy has some fine flourishes, though the story is not exceptional, and the actress who plays Townes' wife (Ilka Windish) goes over-the-top too quickly, detracting from the fright factor rather than adding to it. When you scream at everything, Ilka, then nothing becomes frightening! A good episode, but admittedly more style over substance.
The best performance in the episode is given by veteran Milton Parsons, playing the sorcerer's butler, but he doesn't get enough to do. Parsons enlivened (?) film and television for years with his ghoulish presence and delivery.
|the inimitable (perhaps even embalamable) |
#9 The Poisoner
This is a nicely done Victorian family murder story, where poison plays a tremendous role, as it always should in a Victorian family murder story--unless Lizzie Borden is involved of course. (The Victorian era was such a great era for poisoning.) What can gentleman Thomas Edward Griffith (based on a real life personage, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, 1794-1847) do about his irksome relatives and in-laws? Quite a lot, it seems!
|Griffiths' ironic self-portrait|
Born in Australia, Matheson was another fine character actor who appeared on countless television programs from the 1950s into the 1980s, including one of the classic Twilight Zones, where he played the clown in the surreal Five Characters in Search of an Exit.
About the real person on whom the Matheson character is based, the dandyish artist, essayist, poet and possible multiple poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, there has been much controversy up to this day. The inspiration for a story by Charles Dickens and the subject of an essay by Oscar Wilde, Wainewright continues to attract the interest of writers in the modern era.
#8 The Hungry Glass
A classic haunted house tale, based on a short story by Robert Bloch, who by providing either the original source material or adapting that of others, gave us some of the best hours of the series. (A Good Imagination, above, was adapted by Bloch from one of his own short stories; for others he was involved with, see below.) An attractive young couple (William Shatner, Joanna Heyes) purchase a long abandoned cliffside mansion in New England with a history of violent deaths. What could go wrong?
|What does he see in the glass?|
Very evocatively shot, with supporting performances by Russell Johnson and Elizabeth Allen as another nice young couple who become friends of the Shatner and Heyes characters. (Everyone else in the town would seem to be more comfortable in an HP Lovecraft adaptation). It's somehow kind of thrilling to see Captain Kirk and the Professor from Gilligan's Island thespianing with each other. Shatner, you no doubt will agree, is much more flamboyant, but I think they play off against each other well, Johnson's stolidness balancing the Shat's patented rising, halting-voiced hysteria.
Interestingly, Shatner's character is a Korean War veteran who suffers from PTSD. In this respect he rather reminded me of his character in one of the great Twilight Zones, Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet. Shatner's greatest Thriller, however, is not The Hungry Glass but The Grim Reaper, where we will also see Elizabeth Allen return. (See below.)
|not Lon Chaney but Henry Daniell|
#7 Well of Doom
A superbly pulpish tale brought to splendidly eerie life. On the way to his wedding a Scottish laird and his estate manager are abducted by a hellish, vengeance-spouting maniac (Henry Daniell) and his hulking assistant (Richard Kiel). What dread fate lies in store for them?
The great English actor Henry Daniell popped up in five Thriller episodes, but this is my favorite one with him. My, does he get to chew the scenery! Wonderful, scary performance. In the 1940s, Daniell appeared in both the Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan franchises. (He, along with Lionel Atwill and George Zucco as I recollect, played Moriarty to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce's Watson. He was also in The 13th Chair, The Suspect (with Charles Laughton), The Sea Wolf (fighting it out with Errol Flynn) and, along with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, The Body Snatcher. He died not long after Thriller went off the air and surely Well of Doom offered one of the best of his later performances.
It's also fun to see the towering Richard Kiel, who was as familiar on television and film in the 60s and 70s playing giants as Billy Barty was playing midgets, in a role where he gets actually to speak as well as loom menacingly.
|not Janet Leigh but Pippa Scott|
#6 Parasite Mansion
What's a thriller without southern Gothic? Thriller's moonlight and magnolia mayhem in the South always seems to take place in Louisiana, in crumbling old mansions of course, (The Purple Room is set in the state too). I lived in Louisiana for seven years, and it's certainly an evocative locale, so why not?
Here a pretty and earnest college teacher (Pippa Scott) following a road detour somewhere in the bayou, wrecks her car (after a wheel is shot out) and is knocked out in the process. When she wakes up she finds herself a prisoner in the most cobweb-strewn southern mansion you surely have ever seen. Also residing at the house are a malevolent rifle-toting boy (popular child actor Tommy Nolan), his older, drunk brother (B-film star James Griffith) and Granny Harrod, a cackling old harridan played with characteristic panache by Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles' film version of Macbeth as well as Granny Hart in one of the best Twilight Zones, Jess-Belle).
|You can trust Granny!|
This episode typifies what Thriller does so well: trap someone in an old dark house for 48 minutes and follow them around as they try desperately to escape. This is a little different from the standard film formula, however, in that the heroine is not a shrinking violent but really in effect a paranormal investigator. When I watched Pippa Scott climbing up those hidden stairs to the attic I was reminded rather of that determined youngster Nancy Drew. Her courage under mire may tamp down the scares a bit, though there are some very good ones indeed. However, this is really a splendid paranormal mystery, based on a fine 1943 short story of the same title by Alabama weird fiction writer Mary Elzabeth Couselman.
|Mr. George's new residence|
#5 Mr. George
Based on the short story of the same title by the incredibly prolific author August Derleth, Mr. George tells the story of a wealthy, orphaned little girl named Priscilla. (Gina Gillespie, who would soon play the young Blanche Hudson, aka Joan Crawford, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) Priscilla is imperiled, right at the turn of the nineteenth century, by the ill-motivated machinations of her awful, greedy cousins, the Leggetts: childish Adelaide (Lillian Bronson), sanctimonious Jared (Howard Freeman) and just plain mean Edna (Virginia Gregg). It's a good thing for Priscilla that she has a most devoted protector in Mr. George....
This episode is like a Grimm's fairy tale of sorts, with childish innocence menaced really quite nastily by adult evil. Like several other episodes of Thriller, this one was directed by the veteran actress Ida Lupino and she does a splendid job. There's lots of creative camerawork and superb performances from the evil cousins. In her severe black hairdo Virginia Gregg in particular was Emmy-worthy. Yikes.
|Edna is not happy--but then she never is.|
I should mention that the wonderful musical score adds a lot to the episode, as it does to many a Thriller. The score here, as in 17 additional Thrillers, was written by Jerry Goldsmith, who would go on to win an Oscar for his film score for The Omen. Altogether he was nominated for Oscars 18 times between 1963 (Freud) and 1999 (Mulan). His nominated scores included those for genre films Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Boys from Brazil, Poltergeist, Basic Instinct and LA Confidential. An impressive record! Indeed, Thriller's only Emmy nomination was for its music. Thriller lost to a concert performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein, which seems a little unfair.
#4 The Terror in Teakwood
A dreadful delight from start to finish. First, what a great cast this episode has!
There's also, in supporting performances, the great Russian-born actor Vladimir Sokoloff (who also shows up in Mr. Sardonicus) and Linda Watkins, stage star of the 1920s and 1930s, who will be appearing very soon again on this list, for another brilliant Season 1 Thriller episode.
|Okay, this is Charles Aidman in The Twilight Zone|
but, damn, what a beautifully composed shot
The story concerns the classic "triangle," here composed of the brilliant, though insanely jealous (of course), concert pianist (Rolfe), his beautiful wife (Court) and her puppy dog loyal admirer (Aidman). But there's more to the story than that. Why is a creepy central European graveyard caretaker trailing this trio around? And what is in the great pianist's locked teakwood box?
Admittedly, the plot is not exactly original, but it is carried off with real virtuosity and panache. The music scenes are especially effective. For sheer dramatic tension I'll take Rolfe attempting to play the notorious Carnowitz Sonata over that damn baseball bat in The Walking Dead any day. Linda Watkins in her terrific supporting role as a music critic who colorfully professes loathing for Rolfe's concert pianist character contributes both humor and intensity.
The Terror in Teakwood was directed by debonair Continental actor actor-turned director Paul Henreid, who seems a natural for this sophisticated Thriller.
This is one I missed back on Sci-Fi, but I had heard so much about from viewers who had first seen it as kids or teens back in 1961 that I was really looking forward to it. I don't think it's the very best Thriller as many say, but I can certainly see the appeal. It's a strong southern Gothic reminiscent not only of works by Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner (albeit with a strong otherwordly aspect), but also the Grand Guignol of the film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964).
Based on a posthumously published 1938 story by Robert E. Howard, Pigeons from Hell tells the story of two young Yankee brothers (Brandon De Wilde, David Whorf) whose cars bogs down, literally, in the countryside while the brothers are touring plantation country in Louisiana. Nothing to do but to go out and investigate that long-abandoned mansion nearby! But why are there so many pigeons around the house?
|Petrified: Paul Renard|
Then we move into a period of investigation, which to me doesn't quite live up to the beginning but is still excellent and still has its shocks, which I of course shall not divulge. Let's just say some decrepit plantation houses are best left untoured!
For me the highlight of the second half of the episode was Paul Renard's performance as an old black man, a former employee on the plantation, who knows things about the house's history, terrible things, he doesn't want to divulge.
Tragically, Brandon De Wilde died in a car accident in 1972, when he was only 30, leaving behind not only Shane and Hud but Pigeons from Hell as some of his best known projects.
Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), creator of the renowned fantasy warrior Conan the Barbarian, lived most of his adult life in Cross Plains, Texas. On his father's side of the family Howard had some German ancestry, which out of a sense of atavistic wish-fulfillment he seems to have believed was Scandinavian, or, as he put it, "Viking."
The parents of his father, Isaac Mordecai Howard, came from southern Arkansas, not far from the town of Camden, and his maternal grandmother, Louisa Elizabeth Henry Howard (1835-1916), used to tell young Robert Old South ghost stories. These shuddery tales were obviously a major source of influence on Pigeons from Hell.
|Joe Hardy, wait, I mean Brandon De Wilde|
"In many of her tales," Howard recalled of his grandmother's stories, there "appeared the old, deserted plantation mansion, with the weeds growing rank about it and the ghostly pigeons flying up from the rails of the verandah."
Seemingly these ghostly pigeons were direly omnipresent as well, murmuring and flapping their wings, in "negro" ghost stories he was told:
The one to whom I listened most was the old cook, Aunt Mary Bohannon, who was nearly white, about one-sixteenth negro, I should say....
|Who is the lady in the picture?|
I'll leave it to those of you haven't yet seen Pigeons from Hell to conclude how closely this description matches the television adaptation!
Shortly before Robert E. Howard wrote Pigeons from Hell, the U. S. National Park Service established the Historic American Buildings Survey to document American architecture and, not altogether incidentally, provide employment for architects, draftsmen and photographers in need of remunerative work during the Great Depression. Some of the most evocative photographs of decaying Louisiana plantation houses were taken during this decade as part of the survey. Walker Evans (1903-1975) was another famous Depression-era photographer of these homes. Thriller did a wonderful with the Pigeons from Hell adaptation of capturing this moss-bestrewn atmosphere of decay and death.
|the awful truth: Mildred Dunnock|
#2 The Cheaters
Based on a 1947 Robert Bloch story (there is also a resemblance to Daphne Du Maurier's unsettling Fifties tale The Blue Lenses), The Cheaters shows that horror can do more than merely frighten: it can make us think. (Perhaps to think is to be frightened.)
This one opens with a prologue in which a man (Henry Daniell, yay!) creates a pair of spectacles that allows him to see the truth in others and, when he looks in the mirror, in himself. The results aren't pretty. The rest of the episode take us through a series of vignettes in which we see the spectacles (aka "cheaters") having an impact in the modern day, leading up to a shocking climax. A wonderful story, translated to film with great finesse and boasting particularly good performances by veteran the Oscar-nominee Mildred Dunnock (playing one her patented batty old ladies), then relative newcomer Jack Weston and Harry Townes (back again). Ed Nelson and Linda Watkins again deliciously deliver in smaller roles.
|Death looks down|
#1 The Grim Reaper
Probably not just my favorite episode of Thriller in Season 1 but my favorite Thriller episode period and one of my favorite episodes of any television program ever. It's got superb pacing, scripting, acting, atmosphere--it's simply wonderful!
Ingeniously adapted by Robert Bloch from The Black Madonna, a Weird Tales short by Harold Lawlor, The Grim Reaper easily could have been a stage play with diabolically eerie elements. After a memorable prologue with a Henry Daniell cameo (yay again!), we join Paul--a handsome if stolid young accountant played by William Shatner--on his visit to his eccentric mystery-writing aunt, Beatrice Graves (a delightfully dotty Natalie Schafer), at her newly-acquired mansion, "Grave's End," where she resides with her newly-acquired husband, the debonair--in a slithery sort of way--Gerald Keller (Scott Merrill), and her secretary, lovely Dorothy Lyndon (Elizabeth Allen, a blonde this time rather than the brunette she was in The Hungry Glass).
|Is he just a gigolo?|
To his aunt Paul expresses concern not about her having acquired a melancholy old mansion (a classic California Spanish Revival resembling something out of Hollywood's Golden Age) or a mercenary young (relatively) gigolo, but, rather, about her having bought a "cursed" painting by a mad French artist of...the Grim Reaper!
Like the Hope Diamond, the Grim Reaper painting is said somehow to bring death to its owners. Beatrice informs Paul that she has bought the painting precisely because of the curse: it makes for good publicity for a mystery writer. Paul fears for the worst, however--and the worst soon happens!
|A tipsy Beatrice Graves explains the world to nephew Paul|
With a clever and suspenseful script and a grand finale, The Grim Reaper is a winner. The acting too is excellent, with the four main players being exceptionally well cast. Shatner is relatively subtle here, but he gets the chance to execute something extra in the way of emoting soon enough, carrying us along with him every scary step of the way.
Originally a stage dancer, Merrill, co-starring with Lotte Lenya, played Macheath (Mack the Knife) in the acclaimed 1954-61 American revival of Kurt Weill's and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (see photo on the right). Surprisingly he had only three television credits, and none in films.
Merrill's once-promising career declined from 1961 onward, though his performance in The Grim Reaper suggests he ought to have done well on television. Could something in his private life have held back his career?
Born in Baltimore on July 14, 1918, Wilfred Joseph Unger, to use Scott Merrill's real name, was the son of Wilfred Genouse Unger, an iron foundry moulder, and Caroline Rothmaier. After his father's death his mother married bartender John Rahll and with him ran a Baltimore cocktail bar.
|near far right is the house where Wilfred Unger (aka Scott Merrill) lived with his|
mother and stepfather, who ran a Baltimore cocktail bar
Enrolled by his mother in dancing school upon a doctor's recommendation after he was diagnosed with diabetes, Wilfred as an adult took up dancing professionally. While performing in local clubs he landed his first role in Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark, on tour in Baltimore. It was then that he took the name Scott Merrill. He danced in the musical when it reopened on Broadway in 1943. Dancing roles in Oklahoma!, Paint Your Wagon and Pal Joey, among others, followed.
Aside from Macheath in The Threepenny Opera, Merrill's most significant acting role on the stage was in Eugenia, adapted from Henry James' The Europeans, where he played Felix De Costa, brother of the title character, played by Tallulah Bankhead.
Merrill died, seemingly largely forgotten in the artistic world, in 2001 at the age of 82. The slightly younger Busse passed away four years later at the age of 85.
In a brief obituary of Merrill, the Hartford Courant referred to Busse as Merrill's "longtime friend," a classic euphemism, but the longer notice in the New York Times allowed that Busse had been Merrill's "companion" (though in the article Busse's name was misspelled as "Buffe"). In death the two men, a couple of many years standing in life, share a headstone in a Bristol cemetery.
Elizabeth Allen, done up for The Grim Reaper as a frosty blonde, has a great presence that reminds me of Hitchcock leading ladies from this time, particularly Kim Novak and Vera Miles. She particularly shines late in the episode with some dramatic and quite convincing line deliveries.
But the show is stolen by Natalie Schafer, known for many decades now as daffy millionaire matron Mrs. "Lovey" Howell from Gilligan's Island, a staple of my childhood when it was in syndication (I must have seen every episode several times), but who actually had roles in some notable films, including Dishonored Lady, Secret Beyond the Door, The Snake Pit, Caught and Female on the Beach. Initially Schafer's Beatrice Graves seems just a wacky eccentric, like Martita Hunt's deliciously oddball character, as we will see, in a Thriller episode in Season 2; but we come to see pathos in her as well.
|Watch your crown, Jessica, Lovey's coming!|
Well, there you have it, my top dozen Thrillers from the first season. A dozen more are to follow from Season Two.
Stick around--if you dare! For, as sure as my name is The Passing Tramp, there are some very good ones indeed remaining.
For more on Thriller see the guys over at the A Thriller a Day blog and MonsterGirl at The Last Drive-In blog.