by Sam Juliano
Note: This is the first in a new series that will be focusing on individual episodes of classic American anthology television series of the late 50′s through the early 70′s. The following shows will be well-represented: ‘Boris Karloff’s Thriller,’ the original Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Gary Gerani’s seminal volume ‘Fantastic Television’ covered the anthology concept as well, though I will stay clear of sitcoms, and will basically examine the half-dozen or so shows that I have identified above.
The 67 episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, a one-hour horror anthology that ran on network television from 1960-62, were later syndicated and for a number of years were a staple on the popular Sci-fi Channel. E bay subsequently supported the bootleg sales of various sets that included some of the better know episodes, and in the late 90′s Universal released six shows to VHS and laserdisc, with the LD quality so layered and luminous that some to this day argue it is still incomparable. While Universal moved forward at a snail’s pace releasing individual seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents throughout the first decade of the new millennium, they steadfastly stayed clear of bringing Thriller to DVD, in large measure because the sales on VHS and LD were reportedly very poor. But Universal has long been tagged with a reputation of indifference when it comes to their classic television holdings, and they opted to lease the series to Image Entertainment, who released all the episodes with generous extras in an August, 2010 box set that can now be had inexpensively. Image followed up the comprehensive box two years later with a single disc Thriller: Fan Favorites, which offered up ten of the very best episodes of the series on a single disc aimed at tempting neophytes with the larger purchase.
Though the Image release has helped to bring the landmark series to a good portion of the uninformed masses, the series still can’t be framed with much more notoriety than a curiosity, though seasoned genre fans have regularly attested that they grew up with the show, and have never let it go decades later. Some noted writers in fact ran a highly-successful blogothon, started in September, 2010, examining all 67 shows, and hosting some celebrated guests like cinematographer Ernest Dickerson and acclaimed horror scribe Tim Lucas. Horror maven Stephen King famously declared in his volume Danse Macabre, that “Thriller is the best horror series ever put on television” and he has stood behind that position in subsequent interviews.
The truth is that Boris Karloff’s Thriller is really a mystery-police procederal hybrid that didn’t take hold with viewers until the show’s producers decided to focus on gothic and expressionist horror after the first half of Season 1 failed to attract the numbers needed to continue at NBC. To be sure the mysteries and police procedurals that appeared from the beginning did not gain an audience, and a new producer William Frye was brought in to permanently, indeed radically, alter the show’s focus. The first episode Frye produced was “The Purple Room,” aired on October 25, 1960. A ghost story set in a mansion believed to be haunted, it was Thriller’s first horror entry, and was moodily directed by Douglas Heyes and shot by Bud Thackeray. Though Frye decided to go forward with a few non-horror entries that were still in preparation (the excellent “The Watcher” came up next) it was clear to studio executives that the series needed to develop new horror screenplays. After a few more hybrid episodes aired to low ratings, Thriller showcased two of it’s best horror episodes ever: The Cheaters and The Hungry Glass. A few more undistinguished mysteries and then the show wisely went exclusively with the scare quotient till it’s untimely cancellation before the send of the second season. None other than Alfred Hitchcock himself was a major reason why the network opted to close down the Thriller shop, but that’s another story that I hope to cover in one of the future pieces.
“The Weird Tailor” was the very first episode of the show that I watched. It’s funny how certain memories stay with you well into your middle ages years as vividly as if they had occurred yesterday. I saw it at the tender age of 7, while I was being baby sat by a lovely Irish woman who passed several years ago at 90. She was purportedly a big fan of horror and of Thriller, and the viewing of that show on October 16, 1961 caused some terrifying nightmares that scared me away from seeing the anthology show until it ran on syndication several years later – at a time I was older. I never quite remembered the show’s mise en scene, but the macabre denouement stayed with me many years till I got the chance to see the re-runs. “The Weird Tailor” is an early second-season episode written by Robert Bloch, a prolific writer of crime, horror and fantasy stories who is best known as the author of Psycho, which of course was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock for the legendary 1960 film with the same name. Block actually penned the teleplay from his short story. Directed by Hershel Daugherty, a prolific television veteran who helmed a total of sixteen Thrillers, including some of the best segments, the episode boasted eerie, expressionist cinematography by Benjamin H. Kline and an atmospheric score by series regular Jerry Goldsmith, one of the cinema’s most celebrated composers. Wholly compelling and containing some unnerving effects, “The Weird Tailor” by any barometer of measurement is surely among the half-dozen finest episodes of the series.
“The Weird Tailor” opens with a jolt: an inebriated young man named Arthur Smith stumbles home one night to find his father dabbling in black magic. Ignoring the warnings of dire consequences from the older man, and unable to maintain his balance the son falls forward into the circular boundaries, and promptly falls dead after a puff of smoke. Stunned and grief-stricken, but determined to bring his son back, Mr. Smith makes contact with a blind psychic named Madame Roberti, promising a great deal of money if his son can be resurrected. The woman warns him that “any man who defies God and nature has no fortune,” to which she is answered “You are playing with words Madame Roberti.” Responding with an ominous “You are playing with damnation” Roberti sends him to an unconvincing car salesman named Nicolai, who runs a business that’s a front for a black market for occult holdings, including a rare book titled “De Vermis Mysteriis” that the seller claims is one of only three left in the world. He asks a steep price – one million dollars – but Smith is too desperate to decline, and basically surrenders his fortune to obtain it.
Smith then visits a downtrodden tailor who just minutes before had been told that he had only a week more to pay his overdue rent, and asks for a suit to be cut to the exact specifications documented (and illustrated) in the book, and to be be crafted from the material that Smith has brought – colorless fabric that looks other worldly- exclusively by hand honoring exact times and hours on the specified dates. Smith promises the tailor, Erik Borg $500 for the adhered to and timely completion to be paid upon delivery. The tailor, a seeming chauvinist with a clipped German accent, ignores the opinion of his wife who opines the material is “unholy” and completes the assignment while his wife spends time in the back room with her special companion, a life-like dressmaker’s dummy she names ‘Hans’ with a skull crack, whom she lets know is “the only friend that I have in the whole world.”
Smith again reaches out to Madame Roberti, who informs him that Nicolai has been killed in a plane crash, a tragic end that she says is warranted after the evil he committed by selling the book. Smith implores Roberto to look into her crystal ball to find out his own fate, and a skull appears. The tailor meanwhile brings the completed suit to Smith, who now is unable top pay the money until funding comes through after his liquidation. Erik notices what appears to be a just-purchased icebox, and opens it to find the corpse of Smith’s son. A brawl ensues after Smith demands the suit without payment, and the tailor stabs Smith dead. Returning to Anna, he demands she burn the suit; she instead puts it on the dummy Hans who then comes to life and chillingly advances on Erik with facial and body movements that achieve utter ghoulishness (the dummy was brilliantly played by a professional meme named Dikki Lerner) After disposing of Erik he comes back to Anna with a fearful declaration that in resolve and temperament vividly recalls the ending the classic fifth-season Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll” when ‘Talking Tina’ issues her own ultimatum.
What ultimately elevates “The Weird Tailor” in the Thriller pantheon is the eccentric cast of characters. The blind Romanian fortune teller Madame Roberti as wonderfully played by Iphigenie Castiglione is appropriately humorless and knows from the beginning that her customer is headed for certain doom. One recalls the ominous card dealer played by Peter Cushing in Amicus’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, who like M. Roberti sees what others can never discern. As the embittered Erik, Henry Jones projects fear, unease and desperation in an oddly stilted performance that includes such incessant bullying of his affectionate wife Anna (nicely played by Sondra Kerr) that his own demise seems warranted. Jones is at the center of the episode’s most memorable and chilling effects, including the graphics of a spider weaving its web while Erik is at the same time weaving with cloth tainted by the specter of evil. In the later scene at the pub Erik hallucinates, seeing the face of his landlord Schwenk, who has arrived to collect overdue money that of course cannot be paid. Schwenk’s face dissolves, yielding to the web again, which in turn unveils the faces of Smith and his dead son Arthur. The aristocratic Smith is played as a stock figure by George Macready, who admittedly lacks the personal warmth to convince as a character who would give up everything to attain something won by ill-gotten means, but Macready does negotiate obsession well enough, especially in the scene at the shop when he explains to Erik that everything must be done precisely as documented. Abraham Sofaer, who also appeared in the Thriller episode “The Prediction” evinces a comic countenance in his car salesman role, until he gets dead serious after learning he will become rich after one single sale.
It’s worth noting that Block again adapted his short story a decade later for a segment of the Amicus horror anthology film Asylum which starred Peter Cushing and Barry Morse, and was directed by veteran Roy Ward Baker. As effective as the 1972 film remains, it can’t match the atmospherics of the Thriller episode, nor is the central scare quotient -the dummy coming to life- as terrifying as it is in the earlier incarnation. Cushing, however, is more effective than Macready. “The Weird Tailor” is one of Thriller’s most effective hours, and over fifty years later remains one of the most frightening individual episodes of any show ever aired. A pristine transfer has been offered up on the Image set complete with an interesting, though tangent-prone commentary by Gary Gerani and the son of Thriller producer Doug Benton.