by Sam Juliano
Robert Florey’s association with acting icon Boris Karloff was finally negotiated after a close call thirty years prior. The French-born director was the initial choice to helm the 1931 horror masterwork Frankenstein, but despite his involvement on the screenplay, he was removed from the project by Universal executives, and instead assigned to direct Murders of the Rue Morgue, another genre work based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. The replacement James Whale, was far less a visual stylist than the expressionist-attuned Flory, but most film historians ring true when they predicate that Whale was superior with actors, was far less austere, and understood the playful nuances of language and physical movement.
Alas the creepy ghoulishness, disorientation and unremitting gloom that defines Thriller’s second-season episode “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” are gears in Florey’s wheelhouse, and the show is an uncompromising, old-fashioned gothic horror package that features a decaying mansion à la Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher and death-like visages that envision (and pre-date) Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls. Thriller alumni Benjamin H. Kline, lens man par excellence and art director Howard E. Johnson, both of whom fashioned the fog-laden and cobweb subjugated pictorial design of the work are consummate collaborators for an overseer who during his career was far more predisposed with visual rather than spoken language. The subject matter of “Doktor Markesan” also suited Florey especially well, as his career yielded multiple instances when the motif of bringing the dead back to life was showcased. The complete absence of comic relief, aside from unintended guffaws that will undoubtedly greet some of Dick York’s corny lines (“There’s not a muscle in my carcass that’s not howling bloody murder” or “There’s something horrible going on…something unholy!”) and a powerful nihilist undercurrent that characteristically wallows in utter hopelessness, and suggests a resolution of eternal damnation. It appears deliberate that the tone of the piece is so irrepressibly bleak, that Karloff in his opening narration hammed it up a bit by referring to himself as that “creepy, sinister sort of chap” and the film’s Morton Stevens score concluded with a light, if pensive piano flourish under the closing credits.
“The Incredible Doktor Markesan” written by Thriller regular Donald S. Sanford, based on the story by August Derleth and Mark Schorer opens as Fred and Molly Bancroft arrive by car to a dreary estate, “Oakmoor” conspicuous for it’s lack of maintenance, in search of Fred’s uncle, Konrad Markesan. The baleful and portentous strings provide the proper tone for the grim and unnerving events that are to follow. Then comes Karloff’s memorable introduction where he refers to the coming Bancroft visit with linguistic relish by intoning: “They’ll soon regret disturbing the tomb-like serenity of this decaying old house”. Ignoring a notice that warns trespassers of dire consequences if the order is violated, they enter what appears to be an inhabited estate. After a general search armed with a candelabra that takes the two near the top of a winding staircase, a jarring screech is heard, a and the door to the first floor library is opened, as Markesan is seen in close-up as a man who looks more dead than alive, appearing dusty, dazed and disheveled. (The score again plays a vital role in announcing Markesan’s entrance with severe strings that reach a climax then yield to a mournful coda.) Fred tells his uncle they are broke (he actually has only twelve bucks in his pocket) and needs a place to stay until they can find employment. Fred broaches the idea that his uncle might consider using his influences at Penrose University, but Markesan, without elaborating, reveals that he “severed his connection with the university years ago.” He offers them money from a dusky old desk, but Molly states that they aren’t beggars. When Fred finally heeds Molly’s reservations and announces his coming departure, Markesan relents and agrees to let them stay in the house under the proviso that they are not to leave their room from dusk to dawn, nor to disturb him for any reason whatsoever. There are immediate questions. The food found in the kitchen crumbles, and the door to their room is locked. Still, Fred finds a way to lift the bolt after he hears moaning sounds and sneaks downstairs. From his vantage point three-quarters of the way down the stairs he sees three men that resemble living cadavers, being interrogated by Markesan. After returning to his room he later discovers information in an old newspaper that one of the men is a deceased Penrose college professor whose death notice goes back eleven years. The following day he discovers further ghoulish undertakings as Markesan is readjusting tubes and wires connected to the three men, who are being “awakened” from their coffins. While their names are revealed, he is more interested in the mention of another, a Professor Angus Holden, who is still teaching at Penrose.
Fred finds out Holden’s address and visits him at midnight (it is very odd that the academic is fully dressed in a suit and tie in his study at midnight, but these inconsistencies do little to alleviate the mounting consternation, which reaches a climax when Molly is left alone on the house while Fred sees Holden. The information Holden tells Fred leaves him in a state of shock. First off, the three professors (Latimer, Charing and Grant) testified in court against Markesan after the latter made claim to find a way to raising the dead, through a certain mold found in graves. Markesan was subsequently dismissed, and Holden further asserts that all four men are now dead. When Fred insists that Markesan is very much alive, and that he has spoken to him several times in the previous days, Holden tells him he attended his funeral. In a spooky sequence Fred then visits his grave in the local cemetery and finds his uncle’s headstone, which reveals that Markesan had passed eight years earlier. Needless to say the biggest bone of contention in the episode is the question of who resurrected Markesan from the dead, in the same manner that he revitalized the three professors. It’s not remotely a deal-breaker in any sense, but it’s the most valid question in Sanford’s teleplay.
Another is the bizarre decision to leave Molly alone in the house, knowing what Fred now knows, even with her behind a locked door. Inevitably Molly also finds the means to free herself, and she ventures downstairs into the library, where shortly thereafter the three living dead professors, followed by Markesan, gather around her in one of the shows’s most terrifying sequences. Overcome by fright, Molly faints, leaving one to fathom the horror that will shortly be visited upon her. Fred returns to the house and discovers Molly is not in their room. He breaks into Markesan’s laboratory demanding the whereabouts of Molly; Markesan assures him they will soon be together. Markesan is then killed after a ceiling fixture lands on his head after one of the professors inadvertently dislodges the base while stirring. Then comes what may well be the most horrifying image in the history of television, that of the now zombified Molly closing the hinged lid to her coffin. Many Thriller fans always mention how the show gave them nightmares for years afterwards as a result of that ghastly image, one as terrible as any the imagination could ever conjure up.
The last of his four starring roles as an actor in Thriller as opposed to his appearance as host for every show, Karloff’s turn as Konrad Markesan is not only the best of the lot, but one of the very finest lead performances in the series. Stoic, and imbued with a death-like countenance, he is thoroughly menacing, and altogether ghoulish, pre-dating the more garish interpretations posed by George Romero and Lucio Fulci a few years later. His macabre half-smile manages to recall the freak-like grin of Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s silent masterpiece The Man Who Laughs, though there is nothing disarming in Karloff’s portrayal. This is easily Karloff’s most accomplished work for television. And it’s one that’s every bit as terrifying as his aging patriarch Gorcha in the “Wurdalak” segment of Mario Bava’s 1963 Black Sabbath. The remarkably convincing atrophy of the actor’s face at the climax is engagingly discussed by Alan Warren in his seminal volume on the series, This is a Thriller. Warren relates part of an interview: “I can tell you how that got Karloff’s face to deteriorate,” actor Dick York told interviewer John Douglas in Filmfax. “The make-up man (Jack Barron) took Bromo Seltzer, ground it up real fine and put it on his face with the facial make-up. Then they sprayed him with water and it went pop, pop, pop and his face just kind of deteriorated. It was a great idea.” Indeed it was that.
York gives an intense performance as the incredulous Bancroft, equaling the finest “serious” work he has given. His wide-eyed shock at the nefarious happenings at Oakmoor is memorably etched, as is his moaning denial in the final frames. York appeared in several episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though a serious back injury incurred while working on the western They Came to Cordura led to a prescription drug addiction and shortened career. He remains best known of course for his role as the first Darrin Stephens in the popular 60’s sitcom Bewitched. As Molly, Carolyn Kearney is the weak link in the cast as the rightly mistrustful wife, but she’s of little consequence to the escalating terror.
Fundamentally, what practically all Thriller fans most fondly remember about this nightmarish episode aside from the ghastly finale is the atmosphere, which is drenched with all the gothic trappings of haunted house horror. Screeching doors, dusty furniture in disrepair, and the graveyard silhouettes in black and white splendor courtesy of Kline’s chiaroscuro photography are what dominate the piece. It’s hard to imagine another Thriller episode more visually resplendent than “The Incredible Doktor Markesan,” and in the end it’s one of the series’ finest hours. Appearing a bit past the midway point of the second season it’s Thriller’s last truly great show.