The reputation of Boris Karloff’s “Thriller,” which ran from 1960-1962, is such that it was one of the most highly anticipated DVDs until its 2010 release. Despite its somewhat hefty price tag, it became a best seller (and was followed by a ‘greatest hits’ top ten release in 2012). Author Steven King’s proclaiming it the “best horror series of all time” (in his 1981 book, ‘Danse Macabre’) certainly enhanced its eminence. Of course, a statement that absolute is going to be argued, and it was (with naysayers pointing to the earliest crime oriented episodes as evidence against King’s boast). Naturally, like all series, “Thriller” is uneven. Still, the positives outweigh the negatives enough to justify its cult status.
Karloff hosted each episode, and acted in a few. This was his second horror anthology series. His first, the ten episode “The Veil,” from 1958, never actually aired; after its DVD release in 2001, it was dubbed by some critics as “the best television series never seen.” A later DVD release, under the title of Tales Of The Unexplained From The Veil,” featured two additional “lost” episodes. “The Veil” has also been referred to as a precursor to “Thriller,” although it’s not quite as good and the flavor is different. Hopefully, we’ll get around to reviewing the earlier series by next Halloween.
“Thriller” premiered on September 13th, 1960 with the episode “The Twisted Image” (directed by Arthur Hiller), which starred Leslie Nielsen and Natalie Trundy. “Her possessive eyes… Alan Patterson was aware of her eyes at the newsstand, at the lunch counter, in the elevator. He was aware of them for almost a month and they were to lead him into guilt, and terror, and murder as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. ”
As we watch, Karloff informs us that this a tale of watching and being watched, assuring that a shattering effect lies within the “Twisted Image.” Nielsen, as Patterson, a married, successful business man, is watched by four psychotic eyes belonging to Lily (Trundy) and Merle (George Gizzard). Lily lusts after him and, at least on the surface, Merle is insanely jealous. Although director Hiller denied it, as it was written (by James P. Cavanagh adapting William O’ Farrell’s novel) and played by Grizzard, there is sexual longing in Merle’s voyeurism as well. Still, we’re not entirely convinced he deserves all the attention, as the very young Nielsen has none of his later charisma. Grizzard walks away with the episode playing a scheming, destructive looney tune coworker. Competent, but unimaginative with no surprises, this debut waddles its way to a lackluster finale.
“Child’s Play” (also directed by Hiller and written by Robert Dozier): With marital discord between his parents (Frank Overton and Bethel Leslie), young Hank (Tommy Nolan) is overdosing on B-Westerns and William Tell while vacationing at a cabin. The potentially darker side of the imagination is explored, with young Hank transforming into a symbol for gun control. A slight improvement over the pilot episode, it’s surprisingly a stationary affair that could have used a dose of fantasizing.
“Worse Than Murder” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Mel Goldberg) takes a turn for the worse. If television viewers of 1960 relied solely on first impressions, it’s relatively easy to see why “Thriller” failed to find its audience. This one’s about a murder motivated by love of dyed green paper. Constance Ford kicks into high gear as a scheming gold digger, but her acting is the only thing that thrills here. Otherwise, it’s pedestrian in both writing and direction.
While the first three episodes are dull and conventional, “Mark Of The Hand” (directed by Paul Henried, Laszlo of Casablanca fame, and written by Eric Peters) may be the series at its lowest ebb. An eight year old (Terry Turnham) may or may not be guilty of murder. While that premise might have potential in better hands, this is a mystery devoid of mystery: predictable, campy, and a sluggish affair.
“Rose’s Last Summer” (directed by Hiller and written by Marie Baumer) could be easily dismissed as a small screen ripoff of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or a lame warmup to Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962). It’s about the murder of an aging actress, which remarkably fails to generate even the slightest interest, despite starring one time Oscar winner Mary Astor.
“The Guilty Men” (directed by Jules Bricken and written by John Vlahos) is a run of the mill crime melodrama starring Frank Silvera as a mobster who is trying to go clean and… yawn. On the plus side, Silvera’s campy acting is a hoot.
With “The Purple Room” (written and directed by Douglas Heyes) starring Rip Torn and the house from Psycho (1960), we finally have a genuine “Thriller.” It’s hardly original, having an old dark house plot, but there’s some fun to be had in the send-up of genre traditions and stereotypes. Karloff never resented being stereotyped, believing that it gifted him a career niche. Additionally, unlike many actors of his period Karloff, had no qualms embracing the small screen medium, and with new producer William Fry, the series takes advantage of its host’s screen persona none too soon.
Duncan (Rip Torn) has inherited his sibling’s Bayou mansion, with the condition that he must live there for a year. However, as lawyer Ridgewater (Alan Napier, best known as Alfred from TVs “Batman”) informs Duncan that, if he fails to do so, the mansion falls to scheming cousins Rachel and Oliver (Patricia Barry and Richard Anderson, who would later be known for rebuilding the Six Million Dollar Man ). Naturally, as host Karloff warns us in the intro, the mansion has a little problem with ghosts. Being a pragmatist, Duncan isn’t worried in the least, and to prove it, he will spend the night in the Purple Room, where a murder took place one hundred years before. Shot in crisp black and white, this episode almost makes up for a lack of originality and uneven acting with atmosphere.
“The Watcher” (directed by Jon Brahm and written by Donald Sanford) is serial killer Freitag (Martin Gabel) who is so good at dispensing with his victims and playing the role of religious zealot that local law enforcement (Alan Baxter) believes the deaths to be unrelated suicides. Freitas sets his sights on sinful lovers Larry and Beth (a pre-“Doctor Kildare” Richard Chamberlain and Olive Sturges) and attempts to convert them before he judges them. There’s a latent bit of same sex lusting in Freitag, but despite the peanut butter and jelly theme of religious hypocrisy, this somewhat grisly episode is an also-ran in the “Thriller” canon.
“Girl With A Secret” (directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Charles Beaumont) missteps back into the crime melodramas of the first six episodes, courtesy of producer Fletcher Markle. Newlywed Alice (Myrna Fahey) discovers that her husband Anthony (Rhodes Reason) is not who he says he is. The same goes for his “family.” It takes a deft hand to sell this kid of espionage nonsense, and Markle is no Hitchcock. Also starring Victor Buono.
“The Prediction” (directed by Brahm and written by Sanford) stars Karloff himself as a phony psychic who begins to have death visions for real. A first season “ Adventures Of Superman” episode covered related ground, and did it in a more entertaining way. Karloff wrings pathos out of his role, which almost makes up for the contrived plot.
“The Fatal Impulse” (directed by Gerald Mayer and written by Phillip MacDonald) features a superb cast, which includes Robert Lansing, Conrad Nagel, Elisha Cook Jr. and, briefly, a young Mary Tyler Moore. It’s another preposterous melodrama about a loony named Harry (Cook) who gets caught in an attempt to kill Mayor Wylie (Nagel). Not one to concede defeat, Harry plants incriminating evidence—a bomb–in the purse of an office worker, which brings in a bleak Lt. Rome (Lansing). This crime caper has a different producer in Maxwell Shane, and it helps considerably. There’s tension aplenty as Rome races to find the bomb before it is set to go off. The flavoring of this episode supersedes awkward writing. Mary plays a librarian named Mary.
“The Big Blackout” (directed by Maurice Geraghty and written by Don Tracy) is an anonymous, dull episode about an alcoholic amnesiac named Burt (Jack Carson) who belatedly discovers he was involved in some shady business.
“Knock Three One-Two” (directed by Herman Hoffman and written by John Kneubuhl) stars Beverly Garland as Ruth, the put-upon wife of gambling addict Ray (Joe Maross). Ray, having cried wolf one time too many, is not going to be bailed out this time by his wife, which inspires him to hire killer Benny (Warren Oates) to make him a widower. Garland steals the show, although there’s not much to steal in this episode of contrived irony.
“Man In The Middle” (directed by Fletcher Markle and written by Howard Rodman) miscasts comedian Mort Sahl in the dramatic role of Sam, who overhears Mr. Clark (Werner Klemperer—son of conductor Otto and star of “Hogan’s Heroes”) plotting a murder. Reluctantly, Sam decides to try and thwart the thug’s evil plan. If the plot sounds hackneyed, that’s because it is. Series Producer Markle is also out of his element and bowed out for good after this entry.
“The Cheaters” (directed by Brahm and scripted by Sanford from a story by Robert Bloch) is the first authentically “classic” episode, one worthy of the series’s cult reputation. It kicks off in an entirely different mood: rather than the usual Pete Rugolo jazz opening, producer William Frye brings in composer Jerry Goldsmith, who expertly shrieks and enhances the drama about to unfold. Former Karloff co-star Henry Daniell (from Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher) briefly appears as an inventor who puts on a pair of queer “cheaters” (sunglasses) and has a vision that leads him to hang himself before dawn. His failure to destroy the lethal eyewear proves unfortunate for the victims ahead, who include “A little old fashioned lady named Miriam Alcott played by Miss Mildred Dunnock, a nephew named Percy Dean played by Mr. Jack Weston, and finally a man who discovered the real purpose of the spectacles, Sebastien Grimm played by Mr. Harry Townes. What they saw through those yellow gold lenses they never forgot, and neither will you, my friends, because as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thrillah.”
This time, Karloff’s lisp lingers, convincing us of goosebumps ahead. Inscribed in the “cheaters” is the name Veritas, the Roman goddess of Truth and, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, the spectacles reveal the soul, shorn of pretense. In a cast of superlative performances, Paul Newlan is a standout as the junk dealer Joe Henshaw. Most fans and critics rank “The Cheaters” in the top five episodes and, for once, the consensus is spot on.