Friday, November 27, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 5: “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff…”

No less a horror authority than author Stephen King—in his reference book on horror in pop culture, Danse Macabre—described NBC-TV’s horror anthology series Thriller (1960-62) as “the greatest horror series ever to air on television.” Though the series’ overall run was lamentably brief, many of its episodes to this day remain classic examples of the horror genre—and also transformed its host, Boris Karloff, into a pop culture icon in the same league as The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, One Step Beyond’s John Newland (also a frequent director/performer on Thriller) and Alfred Hitchcock.

The concept of Thriller was created by network executive Hubbell Robinson, who envisioned a rotating mystery anthology of episodes dealing with both horror tales and crime stories on a weekly basis. Fletcher Markle, the wunderkind producer who had been touted as the Canadian Orson Welles due to his contributions to CBS Radio’s Studio One, was one of the first individuals chosen to develop the series but because Markle envisioned Thriller as part-film noir and part-Alfred Hitchcock Presents, friction began to develop between he, Robinson and associate producer-story editor James P. Cavanaugh over just where the series would eventually go. Markle left Thriller after a few episodes and was replaced by Maxwell Shane (the writer and director of Fear in the Night [1947] and its remake, Nightmare [1956]) who assumed responsibility for Thriller’s crime output, while William Frye’s bailiwick was the show’s horror tales—the episodes that were inarguably the best and best-remembered nearly fifty years later.

Casting Karloff as the host was a stroke of genius on Robinson’s part—the actor’s long association with horror films made him the ideal person to introduce each weekly segment…and as an added bonus, Boris would occasionally act in the stories as well. Karloff appeared in a total of five out of the series’ sixty-seven episodes, including a splendid adaptation of the classic Edgar Allen Poe tale “The Premature Burial” (10/02/61)—but his finest performance on the show might be in the classic episode “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” (02/26/62), in which he plays a scientist who discovers a means to reanimate the dead. Not only does “Markesan” wrap up with one of the most horrific images of any TV episode, but allows Boris to showcase his tongue-in-cheek gallows humor when he observes in his introductory remarks: “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.”

The classic Thriller episodes—much like those of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits—still resonate in the memories of fans today; perhaps the best-remembered is “Pigeons from Hell” (06/06/61), which stars Brandon “Come back, Shane!” de Wilde as a young man who, spending the night in an old abandoned house, awakens to discover that his brother’s (David Whorf) been killed after taking an axe to the head—and that his corpse wants to kill his brother in the same fashion! (This episode, based on a story by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, isn’t necessarily my cup of Orange Pekoe but I felt it only proper to include it.) “The Cheaters” (12/27/60) would get my vote as the best of the Thrillers; based on a short story by Robert (Psycho) Bloch it chronicles how an evil pair of spectacles changes the lives (and not for the better) of a junkman (Paul Newlan), a wealthy old lady (Mildred Dunnock), her scumbag nephew (Jack Weston) and a self-centered novelist (Harry Townes).

I’m also partial to a pair of episodes which, interestingly enough, feature both William Shatner and Elizabeth Allen. “The Hungry Glass” (01/03/61; adapted by director Douglas Heyes from a Bloch story) stars The-Man-Who-Would-Be-Kirk as one-half of a married couple (his wife is played by Joanna Heyes) who purchase their dream house from realtor Russell Johnson (Allen plays his wife)…a house that has a haunted—and dangerously tragic—past. Shat gives a nice little performance in this; he’s not entirely certain that the unusual events taking place in the household aren’t the result of a previous medical condition he suffered (a case of shellshock) while serving in Korea, which reminds me of his character in the classic TZ episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” “The Grim Reaper” (06/13/61; this time Bloch does the script, adapted from a short story by Harold Lawlor), on the other hand, features Bill as a conniving nephew who conjures up a fable about a painted (allegedly cursed) owned by his aunt, Natalie Schafer—with Allen (blonde in this one) as Schafer’s secretary.

Another Thriller tale I particularly admire is “A Wig for Miss Devore” (01/09/62), starring Patricia Barry as a faded actress who plans to make a comeback playing the part of a woman hung for witchcraft; her devoted assistant (John Fiedler) manages to procure the very wig worn by “the witch” for realism’s sake…and I don’t have to tell you that what results is not pretty. There’s also the sublimely creepy “The Weird Tailor” (10/16/61; adapted by Bloch from his own short story) which stars Henry Jones as a haberdasher commissioned by wealthy George Macready to weave a suit that will bring Macready’s son back from the dead. The episodes I list here are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg of the fine tales showcased on Thriller; I also like “Well of Doom,” “The Devil’s Ticket,” “The Prisoner in the Mirror,” “Terror in Teakwood,” “Masquerade,” “The Purple Room,” “The Closed Cabinet” and “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk.”

As a whole, the Thriller episodes that concentrate on crime stories aren’t quite as successful—possibly because that particular genre was being beaten to death on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But there are always exceptions to the rule: I have a soft spot for “Man in a Cage” (01/17/61), a nifty suspenser that stars Philip “Captain Parmalee” Carey as an executive searching for his smuggler brother in Morocco, and I also enjoy “Papa Benjamin” (03/21/61), a nice adaptation of the Cornell Woolrich tale (which I always associate with the radio series Escape) starring Jester Hairston as the titular character and John Ireland as the unfortunate composer who tries to mix music and voodoo.

Showcasing top-flight talent in all areas was the rule, and not the exception on Thriller. As previously mentioned, author Robert Bloch’s classic short stories were frequently adapted as material for the series’ plots (not to mention Bloch’s own contributions), and the writing was handled by pros like Donald S. Sanford, John Knuebuhl, Robert H. Andrews, Robert Arthur, Alan Caillou and Twilight Zone mainstays Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson. The direction of the episodes on Thriller was also placed in capable hands with veterans like Mitchell Leisen, John Brahm, Herschel Daughtery and Robert Florey. On occasion, ambitious actors anxious to show off their skills behind the camera got a crack at directing, too—the most prolific of them was Ida Lupino, but Paul Henreid, Ray Milland and Richard Carlson all got at least one turn in the chair. Among the familiar movie and television faces that could glimpsed on the series (in addition to those previously named): Leslie Nielsen, Mary Astor, Everett Sloane, Jay C. Flippen, Rip Torn, Richard Chamberlain, Victor Buono, Ellen Corby, Mary Tyler Moore, Jack Carson, Jeanette Nolan, Beverly Garland, Warren Oates…even Mort Sahl!

Though Thriller engaged in stiff competition during its two years on the air—its inaugural season found it up against the popular Red Skelton Hour, and a move to Monday nights in season two didn’t do the show any favors, bumping head-to-head with Ben Casey—the series performed well enough to NBC’s liking, but its demise was due to two factors: the schizophrenic nature of the show (horror vs. crime), and Alfred Hitchcock who, it has been said, was jealous of the competition Thriller presented to his own series (which would expand to Thriller’s sixty-minute format in the fall of 1962). (The speculation was that Hitch used his influence at the National Broadcasting Company to terminate any further seasons.) Undaunted, Thriller enjoyed a healthy retirement in syndication…and was even one of the programs featured on the Sci-Fi Channel in its halcyon days, and later turned up as a staple on a Canadian cable channel, Scream (which is the source for many of the bootleg DVD collections that circulate on the internet—something I would never even dream of purchasing…even if that Google ad to the right has been plugging it like crazy all this week).

No, Thriller aficionados will soon see their beloved, neglected series available as a commercial DVD release next year, and as sure as my name is Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., it’s going to be one of the biggest TV-on-DVD releases ever.

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Peter Nellhaus said...

I was maybe ten years old when I saw A Wig for Miss DeVore. Freaked me out big time. Of course it made sense many years later when I found out it was directed by John Brahm.

Dan in Missouri said...

Thriller is but one of many old filmed shows that seem to have a great reputation, but hasn't ever seem to be rerun like Alfred Hitchock Presents or The Twilight Zone.
This could get me started on the great number of other worthy filmed shows that don't get shown anymore, despite great copies and plenty of episodes. Love That Bob, Our Miss Brooks, The Jack Benny Program and Burns and Allen to name a few. Don't we all miss the original TV Land?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Dan--all I can say is that you've come to the right place. ;-)