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Whoops -- forget Michael Jackson for a moment, for the Thriller celebrated here is the cherished hour-long TV show from the early 1960s, hosted by Boris Karloff and dedicated to horror, suspense and things that go bump in the night. The Twilight Zone was the place to find bizarre Sci-fi and fantasy concepts, but Thriller delivered plain old goose bumps, in pale B&W, and no laugh track. Bost Horris ... I mean, host Boris played it straight, as did almost all of the episodes. Young and impressionable viewers remember this show as the one that curled the hair on the back of their necks. The only thing scarier was John Newland's slightly demented, haunted presence over on One Step Beyond. The show even won the endorsement of author Stephen King, in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre. In a project that took over a year to put together, Image Entertainment has gathered all 67 episodes of this series in one hefty, pricey DVD box: Thriller: The Complete Series. All the shows are uncut and were remastered by NBC several years ago.
The Twilight Zone became a major career showcase for sci-fi, horror and fantasy writers who otherwise might have been restricted to the 35¢ pulp racks at the supermarket. Thriller used a few of the same personnel once or twice (Charles Beaumont) but cast its net a bit wider. Prolific TV scribe Donald S. Sanford wrote the most episodes, but Psycho novelist Robert Bloch also contributed a substantial number of horror efforts, including the macabre highlights The Weird Tailor (starring George Macready and Henry Jones) and The Grim Reaper (William Shatner, Natalie Schafer). Other "interesting" writers involved in the show include H.P. Lovecraft associate August Derleth, mystery ace Cornell Woolrich, Alain Caillou, Barré Lyndon and Philip MacDonald, who worked on everything from The Bride of Frankenstein to Hitchcock's Rebeca.
By 1960, prime time TV dramas were dominated by productions from the big studios or their subsidiaries. Thriller was at first criticized as a copy of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, substituting the avuncular Master of Suspense with the acknowledged King of Horror, Boris Karloff. Karloff plays his introductions with a macabre relish, often seeming to step into the wings of whatever setting comprised the show prologue -- much in the same manner as did Rod Serling. Most of his soliloquies use a variation of the phrase, "As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!" Karloff was a master at pulling a deliciously theatrical menace out of the most innocuous lines. For many viewers his baleful stare alone was sufficient to send a chill up the back.
The hour-long show aired on Tuesday night on NBC; we're told that the first few episodes aired leaned toward twisted murder mysteries, before the supernatural element took hold. The first truly exceptional episode, The Cheaters, was written by Robert Bloch and played much like an old E.C. Horror Comic. In a prologue set one or two hundred years in the past (a recurring device), alchemist Henry Daniell creates a pair of magic glasses that allow the wearer to learn the truth about people. The 'cheaters' are passed on to three unlucky owners, including Mildred Dunnock and Jack Weston. The show ends with another recurring device, a reveal of a gruesome makeup job. By 1960 standards, this was pretty rough stuff: Hitchcock preferred understatement and Twilight Zone only occasionally resorted to a shock visual. Although used differently, the episode La Strega has excellent makeup by Jack Barron, turning Jeanette Nolan into a wonderfully desiccated witch woman.
I watched ten shows and sampled several more, taking the recommendations of confirmed Thriller fans. I saw a lot of solid spook-show efforts, with plenty of musty rooms, cursed artifacts, haunted paintings, etc. A scarecrow comes to life in one imaginative show (The Hollow Watcher), while witches figure in others. As stories about bizarre murders crop up from time to time, there's frequently a nice tension while waiting to find out if the supernatural is involved. One show I do remember seeing when it was new -- I believe my parents changed the channel before it finished -- is Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper starring John Williams and Donald Woods and directed by Ray Milland. In contrast to other TV shows about murders, Thriller was completely unpredictable. Halfway through this one we meet a nice woman with a small child, and figure that she'll be spared the Ripper's scalpel. Uh-uh, too bad. No wonder Thriller had a playground reputation as genuinely creepy stuff.
The Grim Reaper gathers good haunted-painting chills with William Shatner reaching a perfect pitch in a wordy screenplay. The equally praised Pigeons from Hell just seemed a silly and repetitious spook house story. After a while the 'killer pigeons' are forgotten and the plot goes in another direction. The Weird Tailor has a rather good gimmick, nicely orchestrated by Robert Bloch. La Strega stars Ursula Andress before her breakthrough as a Bond girl. Her good performance might have been coached by Ida Lupino, her director. Lupino did nine episodes. Veteran John Brahm of Hangover Square did twelve, including The Cheaters and a psychological mystery, The Watcher. The prolific Herschel Daughtery did fifteen Thrillers, including The Weird Tailor, The Grim Reaper and Waxworks. Scoring with just a couple of shows is Arthur Hiller (who would finally break out into a theatrical career just a couple of years later, impressing us all with The Americanization of Emily). Actor-turned-director Paul Henreid did two, as did the legendary Mitchell Leisen. One Step Beyond's John Newland also did a couple. It's too bad that he and Boris couldn't have shared a bizarre on-camera introduction together, although I just can't see such a thing working out!
When the shows are good, they tend to have enough incident for a compact feature. The less thrilling shows I saw (and sampled) were padded with slow walks into dark corridors, or extra dialogue scenes that didn't necessarily advance the story. But in 1961 or so I can see audiences really getting into this show, which undoubtedly created many new horror film fans. My older sister would watch Thriller with her 6th-grade girl friend, both of them peeking out from behind the living room furniture. My future wife remembers visiting friends, eating freshly-baked cookies, and trying not to look frightened while watching. Evidently the very presence of Boris Karloff put everybody in a fun "let's get scared" mode.
Looking at the shows now, we realize that they seem to have attracted every working character actor and rising hopeful in Hollywood; the list of names is endless. We see old veterans (Alan Napier, J. Pat O'Malley, Henry Daniell, Eduardo Ciannelli, John Carradine, Abraham Sofaer, Vladimir Sokoloff) and journeyman hands (Edward Andrews, Henry Jones, Robert Middleton, Edward Platt) putting in multiple appearances, along with younger faces and 'new talent' the studios wanted to see get some exposure: David Frankham, Richard Chamberlain, Audrey Dalton, Donna Douglas, Ed Nelson, Patricia Medina, Charles Aidman, Constance Ford, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Oates, K.T. Stevens, Elizabeth Montgomery, Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas, Robert Vaughn. Then there are special folk who tend to be good in everything they do: Elizabeth Allen, Patricia Barry, Walter Burke, Jocelyn Brando, Victor Buono, Robert Cornthwaite, Cloris Leachman, Reggie Nalder, Jeanette Nolan, Jo Van Fleet. And of course, don't forget Boris Karloff, who besides hosting plays dramatic roles in a few episodes as well.
Yes, Jo Van Fleet, directed by John Brahm, in The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk with John Carradine and Bruce Dern -- perhaps Bruce Dern was a carry-over from Wild River (?). There are "finds" hidden in every corner of this deluxe horror box.
Image Entertainment's 14-disc DVD set of Thriller: The Complete Series does indeed collect all 67 episodes, in seven slim cases. The transfers are good, if not razor sharp on a large screen -- as many as five 47-minute shows appear on each disc, so the bit rate can't be all that good. They still hold their own, quality-wise, with most other TV releases of this vintage. The shows include full credits and the bumper graphics that cover the screen with an animated web of broad white lines. All of the shows are in fine shape when it comes to completeness, lack of flaws and clear audio.
The discs also contain a lot of extra material organized by two disc producers, Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani. Half of the episodes have full commentaries, and a few carry two chat tracks, and not just with TV critics. Authors, "fan" screenwriters, a few actors from the episodes and representatives from today's horror-fantasy notables are present -- Ron Borst, Arthur Hiller, Larry Blamire, Jon Burlingame, Tim Lucas, David Schow, Richard Anderson, Patricia Barry, Beverly Washburn, Craig Reardon and Alan Brennert are just a few. The producers have also rounded up excellent copies of teasers and promos for the show, along with exhaustive still galleries. If only MGM would do the same with The Outer Limits!
An added bonus for music fans is a selection of discrete Music & Effects tracks for many episodes, featuring full scores by Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens. The Thriller: The Complete Series box is a pricey item of great interest to fans of vintage horror and fantasy television; Image has done the show full justice.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thriller: The Complete Series rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.