by Sam Juliano
The late 50′s in television ushered in a bevy of television anthology shows, of which The Twilight Zone, its sixties successorThe Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were the most famous and most durable in later reruns. These programs were invariably committed to fantasy, science fiction and the supernatural, and they forged careers for many actors who sought to make their mark in shows that featured different actors every week. At around the same time, NBC was putting together their own entry, and the venture was initially assigned to network executive Hubbell Robinson. One of Robinson’s most vital decisions-one that would later determine the eventual direction of the series-was the choice of host. Since an anthology series presents a different cast of characters each week, the host is the only continuing “character” as such, and thus provides a strong thread of continuity. Alfred Hitchcock of course embodied the essential concept of his series, as did Robert Montgomery in another program, so Robinson was led to believe that a “name” star would give his show the proper launching and sustaining ‘hook.’ In this respect, Robinson made a superb choice. He selected Boris Karloff. By selecting Karloff as host of Thriller, Hubbell Robinson immediately provided the series with a warmly remembered screen icon whose very name was synonymous with horror. Karloff’s introductions established the proper mood of mystery and intrigue from the outset, and his tag line “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, This is a Thriller!“ became a memorable catch-phrase. The show was intended to be a ‘mystery anthology’ but, as Gary Gerani and Paul H. Schulman recount in their book Fantastic Television, this was the first of several mistakes. Robinson’s description of Thriller, though high-sounding was actually vague. Consequently there developed between Robinson, producer Fletcher Markle and associate producer-story editor James P. Cavanaugh a running ideological battle over the nature of the series. Where, for example, does a thriller end and a horror tale begin? What about black comedy? Is graphic violence necessary to a crime story? There were many differences in taste and concept, and as the production deadline drew nearer, tensions escalated. A bright producer named Fletcher Markel, wanted to make the show a film noir, and wanted to follow the style of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After just a few episodes Markel was replaced and the show’s concept was then to go in two directions: the ‘crime story’ and ‘the horror tale.’ Maxwell Shane took over the crime episodes while Bill Frye handled the horror. Frye, of course directed the classic Thriller episodes remember today, losing none of their power in close to 50 years. The show, which ran for a season and a half from 1960 to 1962 was called by Stephen King “the greatest horror series ever to air on television,” and it was Frye’s episodes that gave cause for such extravagent praise.
Thriller’s distinct look (at times expressionistic, at times brooding and grainy) in the horror episodes that ran from halfway through the first season till the series’ sudden cancellation the following year, were navigated by directors of photography Lionel Linden and Benjamin H. Kline, and several directors who each brought out their own disciplined interpretation of the show’s unique vision and visual design. The music by Morton Stevens and Jerry Goldsmith (as well as that heart-stopping string-dominated theme music by Pete Ruggolo) were a major component as well.
The finest of Thriller’s episodes (which were one-hour in length) remain in no particular order: Pigeons From Hell, The Cheaters, The Incredible Doctor Markeson, The Grim Reaper, Well of Doom, The Weird Tailor, The Devil’s Ticket, La Strega, The Prisoner in the Mirror, The Return of Andrew Bentley, The Terror in Teakwood, Masquerade, The Hungry Glass, The Premature Burial, The Purple Room and A Wig For Miss Devore. There are a few others that could certainly be suggested for inclusion, but this is the core contingent of quality entries.
The best-remembered episode is Pigeons From Hell, which starred the young actor Brandon de Wilde (the little boy in Shane) who played a teenager who was forced to spend a night in a decaying Southern mansion that was presumably unoccupied–ghoulish events follow in this atmospheric masterwork. In The Incredible Doctor Markeson, Karloff plays a dead man who rises every night to wake other cadavors to replay past events. The episode’s final sequence, which shows his nephew’s wife (played by Carolyn Kearney) turned into a gruesome embalmed creature who closes her coffin in macabre close-up. It is unquestionable the most horrifying image in the entire history of television. The episode was directed by the famed Robert Florey, whose renowned visual sense in present in every shot–slightly tilted camera angles create a vague sense of unease. The filming of graveyards and cemetary crypts has rarely had such creepy resonance.
In The Cheaters, reading spectacles with the word ‘veritus’ (truth) printed scross their connecting bridge, are found by a junk dealer, who puts them on innocently and reads his wife’s innermost thoughts. The wife is planning to kill him with her boyfriend, and he dispatches them both, costing him his own life at the hands of a policeman. The glasses are passed down through generations and the results are similarly tragic and unveil the ‘inner horror’ within people. Classic actor Henry Daniell plays the creator of the glasses.
In The Grim Reaper, William Shatner plays the ambitious and corrupt nephew with the endearing exterior who sets a murder plot in motion with the feigned belief that a painting featuring a sythe-weilding aparition has supernatural powers. The twist ending brings everything full circle.
The Weird Tailor is a ghoulish story about an impoverished tailor, who agrees to make a coat following explicit black-magic instructions of material and time only to find out the man who placed the order hasn’t money to pay for it. The horrifying, hair-raising conclusion is set into motion when a shop helper puts the evil garment on a mannequin. This episode was remade as one of the parts of the omnibus Asylum in 1972 by Roy Ward Baker.
One of the show’s creepiest episodes is Well of Doom, which is loaded with great performances and an overpowering atmosphere of gloom set in the fog-enshrouded English marshes. This memorable adventure in the macabre exudes a disturbing miasma about ‘netherworld creatures’ as Karloff calls them, parade through these foggy moors, past gnarled trees, their torches flaming in the dense fog–the eerie photography makes the most of their noctural prowling. The piece has a striking resemblance narratively to London After Midnight, Lon Chaney’s legendary lost 1927 film.
The Devil’s Ticket, adapted by Robert Bloch from his own short story stars Macdonald Carey as Hector Vane, and John Emery as the Pawnbroker/Devil. This engrossing drama concerns the age-old story of selling one’s soul to the devil for riches. The first-rate script is clever, literate and chilling all at once.
In The Premature Burial, Karloff plays a friend of a cataleptic man who becomes the victim of foul-play by a scheming wife and boyfriend; the pieces has some terrifying images in the burial chapel; in Masquerade, set in a decaying mansion, the show offered its single black comedy that somehow works because of fine dialogue. In The Terror in Teakwood, a pianist’s amputated hands plays a gruesome role in the subsequent events; and in The Hungry Glass, a mirror in a house near the ocean reveals some terrifying secrets.
The show’s most famous image is the one that opens the show after the opening sequence is played first (a custom back in those days, especially in anthologies) displaying the titles with diagnol lines that disappear piecemeal until the panel is clear, with only the title left. This was used for all 67 episodes of the show up until its untimely demise, which was the result of NBC getting the “squeeze” by Alfred Hitchcock, who saw the pesky show as competition to his own. This was not one of Hitch’s best hours.
Universal has steadfastly refused to release the episodes on DVD, due to their concern of poor sales (in view of the lackluster performance of the LD set) but bootlegs have been on sale for years on ebay. I have spent most of my life as a Thriller junkie, and have acquired all the episodes now on DVD. For those who love horror, television has never equalled or gone beyond this seminal show, which has been the target of imitators, whom have never matched this formidable achievement.