Boris Karloff’s Thriller Debuts with Spooky Quality
by Kristin Battestella
Oft bespectacled and mustachioed horror guru Boris Karloff came to the small screen in 1960 as host of Thriller, and though uneven to start, the black and white anthology series’ 37-episode Season One debut packs a wallop of suspense, drama, and scares.
Businessman with a stalker Leslie Nielson (The Naked Gun) is the first of many guest stars on Thriller in “The Twisted Image.” The implied vices, family secrets, violent subtext, and domineering dames may not be anything we haven't seen before, yet we know the suspicion, schemes, and opportunist desperation can’t end well. Then scandalous topics and saucy literary sources give Thriller a mature tone, and blackmail, wills, and murder keep the sly, vindictive players entertaining to watch. Without the effects of today, Thriller relies on the players and the plot to craft well paced episodes and escalating acts – “The Mark of the Hand” uses flashback recountings, distorted investigations, and non-speaking child witnesses for its suburban scandals and askew twists. Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) may be a bit obvious in “Rose’s Last Summer,” but its fun to see how the fading stars, would be comebacks, and alcoholism will play out. Disc Two, however, provides the first whiff of the supernatural on Thriller with “The Purple Room.” Rip Torn (Men in Black) and Richard Anderson (The Six Million Dollar Man) spend the night in the house from Psycho and great atmosphere, isolation, hauntings, and hysteria follow in this deadly, scary tale. “The Prediction” continues the bizarre with Karloff himself doing double duty as host and performing as an aging psychic for play within a play theatrics, deadly intuitions, and crazy Cassandra circumstances. Even though it probably would have meant even less episodes for Thriller, I wish Karloff could have played a macabre part in every show.
Blink and you will miss a very young Mary Tyler Moore alongside Robert Lansing (Star Trek’s Gary Seven) for “The Fatal Impulse,” an intriguing look at mid century bomb plots, politicians, and murder threats complete with a ticking clock and unknown peril. Of course, “The Cheaters” may be Thriller’s most famous episode. From the period piece science and accursed spectacles to an antique mood and desperation, the vignettes here offer a disturbing perspective with props to match. What if one could see another’s true, cruel thoughts – or maybe even our own? It would certainly come in handy over poker! This hour makes for a wild precursor to the spooky antiques of Friday the 13th: The Series. The stars continue on Disc Four with more cobwebs, stormy cliff side locales, and creepy mirrors in “The Hungry Glass.” Kirk himself William Shatner and Gilligan’s Island Professor Russell Johnson add to the atmospheric reflections and what you may or may not see, and the proverbial smoke, mirrors, shadows, and lighting tricks set off this simmering spooky and period panache. Likewise, “The Posioner” is delightfully gothic and operatic thanks to a Jerry Goldsmith score, past waistcoats, paintings, pesky family fortunes, and that suspicious titular tea. The beach bum con artists and rich dames of “Choose a Victim” may be too gullible to be believable; however, kinky swindles and double crossings see it through to the end. Dated witchcraft perceptions may also hinder “Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook,” but eerie chases, Stonehenge accents, and pitchfork imagery keeps this one perfect for Halloween – and look its Batman’s butler Alan Napier! Goldsmith’s music again matches the sacrifice discussion and superstitious ways ala The Wicker Man, and these great supernatural outings just seem to be the better episodes on Thriller.
“The Merriweather File” opens Disc Five with dangerous gas, a deceased child, and dead bodies in the trunk as touchy feely, supposedly friendly lawyers bring subtext and tawdry secrets to light. “The Fingers of Fear” implies more than just child murder to match the quite creepy abductions, sociopathy, and pursuit twists. It’s neat to see how town apprehension, suspicion, evidence, public opinion, and what’s in the newspaper influence the case – especially compared to today. The late Richard Kiel (The Spy Who Loved Me) looms over the “Well of Doom” along with a booming score, roadside terror, and castle evils. Is this a scheme or the supernatural? The picture is too dark at times during the titular dungeon escapes, but the desperation and atmosphere work. Likewise, fun science equipment goes awry for Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven) in “The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell.” Pleasing paranoia, spinning effects, unknown trauma, and dangerous triggers accent the escalating laboratory obsessions and frayed tensions. Oft-Thriller director Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker) helms the anthology within an anthology episode “Trio for Terror” with 1905 English scenery and heaps of chilling mood. In what might have been a neat design for the series, claret sipping Karloff hosts these segments from inside a pub full of shady characters – telling tales of spooky train car companions, creepy wax artifacts, high stakes suspense, tricked out castles, and serial stranglers. Though disjointed, there’s a little bit of everything to fit one’s scary need, and the smaller literary based stories do well over the hour.
Ironic carnival scoring and a killer sideshow atmosphere lead Disc Six in “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” While mid century suits debate the psychology of the killings and analyze ongoing 70-year patterns, scandalous burlesque dames, beatnik artists, bloody pacts, and a morbid shocker or two create a fun take on the Whitechapel theme. “The Devil’s Ticket” continues the sinister with shady pawn shop dealings and a high price on tokens usually not for barter – such as your soul or your painting talent perhaps. Great dialogue talks about the fantastic, “What the devil do you mean?” “Now, now, let’s not mention any names,” whilst also debating the internal struggle of objective and subjective truths, the games we play, and the prices we pay. These topics aren’t as cut and dry as we hope – especially when a love triangle adds to the devilish deadline. Likewise, surprising innuendo matches the captivity and titular derelict of “Parasite Mansion” along with some pre-Texas Chainsaw Massacre backwoods family shenanigans and one creepy cackling old lady. The moody score fits the tense attempts to flee amid cobwebs and maze like interiors while more twists await within the walls and beyond. Ironically, the crime and scandal with a little something sinister in this hour is a well done combination of the mixed suspense and supernatural vision looking for its footing on Thriller.
Child innocence and warm velvety interiors lead to squabbling relatives and a disembodied, ghostly voice to start the lovely “Mr. George.” Inheritance plots and turnabout on those deadly intentions build suspense thanks to swinging camera work and cleverly edited accidents. “The Terror in Teakwood” continues on Thriller's supernatural superior with Hazel Court (The Premature Burial), romantic rivals, Pandora's Box scares, musical desperation, and piano melodies. Similar to the later The Mephisto Waltz, demented pianist talents and deadly compositions get, well, out of hand, as it were. An opening Paris 1910 charm conceals more menacing tricks and hypnosis alongside Marion Ross (Happy Days) in “Prisoner in the Mirror.” Karloff pops in to update the time line changes, and forgotten burials, beautiful not so dead corpses, and internal plays on mirrors, reflections, and doppelgangers create some fine illusions here. Dark shadows and lighting schemes accent the atmosphere, twists, and through the looking glass spins beautifully. Ominous music immediately sets the tone of “Dark Legacy” as fates are decided with occult motifs and the blurred line between magic and sorcery is explored. The rites, rituals, and fake symbols are a little hokey, but smoke and thunder special effects do wonders in upping the misused incantation temptations. Romance becomes insignificance when black magic leads to stage success – or demonic corruption! Concluding Thriller's First Season on Disc Eight are “Pigeons from Hell” and “The Grim Reaper.” Great swamp fog, overgrown ruins, and avian danger amid the ghostly sounds and off camera screams in “Pigeons” make an excellent Southern Gothic mood for the deadly turnabouts, mistaken investigation, and paranormal afoot – and it's all done with one scary set and three players. “Reaper” brings Shatner to Thriller again, this time with Hearst driving Mrs. Howell Natalie Schafer of Gilligan's Island. Ghoulish paintings, kooky authors, trophy husbands, and cursed artwork do superbly for this blend of superstition and suspense. Great shadows, up close editing, and what you don't see scares hit home, and this final stretch of scary and supernatural sends Thriller's debut session out on a high note.
However, despite its title and horror pedigree, the first half of Thriller seems somewhat weak or unsure what direction the series shall take. Scary fans could even skip Disc One on the set altogether, for one expecting all weird or speculative horror will be disappointed in the straight drama and gun play of “Child's Play” or the stereotypical mobsters from “The Guilty Men.” “The Big Blackout,” “Knock Three-One-Two,” and “Man in the Middle” are also redundant in their similar blackmails and crimes against women. Though workable as an hour of dramatic crime and entertainment, Richard Chamberlain’s (The Thorn Birds) small town scandal in “The Watcher” and Cloris Leachman’s (Phyllis) “Girl with a Secret” heist are nothing new and the Moroccan flavors of “Man in the Cage” don’t sparkle as they should. The simmering score in “Late Date” can’t overcome the run of the mill, get rid of the body, beach side violence, and stereotypical Puerto Rico designs, voodoo scares, and non-believing authorities can’t help John Ireland’s (Red River) looking over his shoulder desperation in “Papa Benjamin.” The creative premeditation, literary inspiration, clever weaponry, and fun performances of “A Good Imagination” would have been a neat as the lone bookish murderer among a season of horrors, but since Thriller starts off the other way around, it's just another more of the same amid too many cheats, blackmails, and revenge.
Fortunately, Thriller provides layers of historical and then-contemporary nostalgia. I’ll take a bottle of your best champagne for fifteen bucks! Sweet cars, swanky music, mid century fashions, and period accents create mood or accessories as needed – although one could lose an eye with these bullet bras! There are unfortunate, of the time subservient minorities but thankfully, past prejudices are few across Thriller’s eight discs for Season One. The DVD designs for the Complete Series set are also a lot of spooky fun with spider webs and skull cursors. While there are no subtitles and the sound is often uneven between soft voices and loud effects, numerous episodes across the discs have commentaries, promos, or isolated scores by Jerry Goldsmith along with trailers, photo galleries, and production stills. This video collection is a bit elusive, but Thriller can be found on retro over the air stations like Me-TV and with other streaming options.
Unlike The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or even One Step Beyond, Thriller’s first season is not totally paranormal or speculative in nature and can’t really be compared to such anthologies. The show’s division between straight mystery and macabre may split viewers, but overall, Karloff’s outing is more akin to the suspense of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour thanks to these mostly dramatic fifty minute tales. Big Boris himself is of course always suave as host with a fun style and props to his introductions – even if his greetings often read as double talk shoehorning in a titular pun. It’s not the sardonic of Serling or the humor of Hitchcock, but Karloff’s own charming stature is reason enough for some horror fans to tune in for Thriller, so long as you avoid the purely dramatic episodes. Regardless of scary expectations and a rocky start, there are still numerous hours of entertainment, guest stars, and ghastly for mid century television lovers or creepy enthusiasts to enjoy this First Year of Thriller.