Monday, May 30, 2011

Thrill Me

"And as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is going to be a thriller."

I got rid of my cable awhile back, and thanks to Netflix and sites like Hulu and Crackle, I haven't missed it one bit. In fact, I've actually been able to catch up on shows I haven't seen in decades. One such show is the Boris Karloff hosted Thriller series from 1960. Last month, I watched all 37 first season episodes on Instant Watch, most of which I had forgotten about or just plain hadn't seen. Ordinarily, I wouldn't post about a TV show, but there was so much crossover talent involved in the writing, directing and acting of Thriller, that it seemed somewhat relevant to film discussion. Thriller is a pretty much forgotten show that was somewhat overshadowed by The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits in the viewing public's mind mostly because there seemed to be very few reruns after the show's initial two-year stretch while the other series hung around in perpetual syndication. In re-watching Thriller though, I found it had a much higher batting average of hits to misses episode-wise. To be sure, TTZ and TOL had some stone cold, classic episodes, but many people forget all the mis-fires, duds and repetition that came along with the memorable single eps. It's not surprising when there are over 3 dozen episodes being cranked out per season that there would be some mediocrity. What is surprising is just how few of the Thriller episodes were poorly written or executed. A big reason for the show's high quality has to do with the scripts which were often adapted from works of established writers. Robert Bloch wrote or adapted no less than ten scripts for the series alone. The directing talent was also experienced, solid talent which consisted of people like Ida Lupino, who helmed nine episodes, and John Brahm who directed a dozen. The actors were a mixed bag of everything from up-and-comers, like Warren Oates, Rip Torn and Richard Chamberlain to established screen character actors like Henry Daniell, Alan Napier and Jeanette Nolan. Below, I've listed seven of the best episodes that I'd recommend to anyone who just wants to sample the show. Some are notable for the actors involved, some for superior atmosphere, but all are well written with superior black and white cinematography.

The very first episode of the Thriller series, Twisted Image, often gets lumped in with a couple of earlier, weaker entries, but it is a unique story that involves a female stalker who is subsequently stalked herself. Natalie Trundy is superb as the seemingly sweet, office girl who begins making moves on a married, successful executive played by Leslie Nielsen. George Grizzard is the dapper but envious office boy who covets Nielsen's status and begins stalking his stalker. Trundy's performance puts the D in delusional and her character was way ahead of her time in terms of obsessive stalkers. I had no idea how the story was going to play out and it had a twist that I never saw coming. Score 7/10

Episode 7 The Purple Room features a starring turn by a very young and surprisingly handsome Rip Torn who plays a prospective heir who must spend the night in a spooky house in order to inherit the property. Richard Anderson and Patricia Barry co-star as cousins who are in line to inherit the estate. A familiar story but it does have a couple of nice twists and there's some decent tension building early on. Rip Torn is great as the cynical relative (Did Torn ever play a character who wasn't obnoxious?).  The house he has to stay in looks vaguely familiar:                               Score 8/10


Episode 8 The Watcher has a truly disturbing opening with a self-appointed moral avenger drowning a young girl in a pond. Martin Gabel plays the wolf-in-the-fold killer quite well. Richard Chamberlain appears as the boyfriend of the female protagonist who is played by Olive Sturgess. The episode gets really suspenseful around the halfway point and has an almost urban legend feel to it. The latter half loses a little steam, but its well worth watching overall. 7/10

Episode 15 The Cheaters concerns a pair of eyeglasses that reveal truth to the wearer - which is never a good thing. Several stories are strung together with the glasses as the lynchpin each time. Surprisingly effective show that moves right along due to the multiple story lines. Jack Weston and Harry Townes star in a story by Robert Bloch. Score  7.5/10

Episode 16 The Hungry Glass is worth watching just for the 60's television icons-to-be. Captain Kirk, The Professor and Elly May Clampett (William Shatner, Russell Johnson and Donna Douglas) all appear in this entry. If that wasn't enough, it is also based on a solid Robert Bloch story. It's very much a modern day, gothic-type ghost story set in a large, spooky manor on the coast which has just been purchased by The Shat's character. As in most  of the Thriller series, the B & W cinematography is outstanding, but this is one of the best looking and most atmospheric of all the shows. It's also an essential for any fan of 60's TV. Score 8/10
Note: Bill's guest starring turns in most of the anthology shows usually wind up with him looking like this by the end:

Episode 27 Late Date concerns a young man, played by Larry Pennell, who comes home to find his older brother (Edward Platt) has just murdered his adulterous wife. The older brother is resigned to turn himself in, but the younger brother has other ideas. This one is a straightforward crime drama but it is taut, fast-paced and suspenseful as the Pennell character keeps trying ever harder to cover up his older brother's crime. Score 7.5/10

Maybe because it reminds me of The Old Dark House, or maybe because it has Beverly Washburn of Spider Baby, or maybe because it has the best atmosphere of any episode and literally starts out with a bang, but whatever the reason, episode 30 - Parasite Mansion is my favorite of the first season. The opening is very strong as a school teacher, played by Pippa Scott, tries to navigate her car through a downpour and has to take a detour when a shot rings out. She wakes to find herself in an old creaky mansion that's populated by a very strange family whose matriarch is an old lady played in a wonderfully demented performance by screen veteran Jeanette Nolan. I swear I saw Nolan's eyes spinning with lunacy during a close-up. Fans of the show may argue that The Hungry Glass is the best episode of the first season, but I found the family in this one irresistible, especially Nolan's nutty granny, James Griffith's emasculated son, and Washburn's shy and reclusive granddaughter. The story isn't quite as strong as the acting or atmosphere, but it's still a superior, spooky 50-minute ride.
Score 8.5/10

Honorable mentions:

Episode 14 Man in the Middle  Great set up as a man overhears a kidnapping/murder plot and the prospective kidnappers notice him. Mort Sahl is criminally miscast as the ordinary shlub who just wants to mind his own business, but Werner Klemperer, of Hogan's Heroes fame, is truly menacing as the would-be kidnapper. 6.5/10

Episode 22 The Fingers of Fear I really debated putting this in the recommended list above as it has a really creepy child abduction story line that works quite well. Ubiquitous character actor Nehemiah Persoff plays the cop on the trail of the abductor. 7.5/10

Episode 23 Well of Doom Gothic chiller loaded with atmosphere and another appearance from the great Henry Daniell and a giant Richard Kiel. 7/10

Episode 32 Mr George Ida Lupino directed this episode which reminded me a lot of Curse of the Cat People probably due to the presence of the little girl. 6.5/10

Episode 34 The Prisoner in the Mirror Henry Daniell returns with Lloyd Bochner and the future Mrs C from Happy Days. Strong episode with a solid ending. 7.5/10

Episode 35 Dark Legacy Only slightly above average episode, but it's made awesome by the presence of Henry Silva who plays a good guy for once. Unfortunately he's not the lead. 6/10

Episode 37 The Grim Reaper The Shat is back! and this time with Mrs Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schaffer. Henry Daniell also puts in another appearance in this story adapted by Robert Bloch about a cursed painting. Solid. 7.5/10

And for those that want to delve further than these episodes, but want to dodge the clunkers, here's a list of the less watchable episodes of Thriller:

Episode 2  Child's Play   This one gives away its one suspenseful moment in the prologue. Watch that and skip the rest as its grating and preachy. 3/10
Episode 11  The Fatal Impulse  With a woman unknowingly carrying a bomb around with her, this should have been more suspenseful, instead it was kind of ridiculous. Great pedigree with a script based  on a John D MacDonald story and starring Robert Lansing and Elisha Cook Jr, it kind of dragged.  4.5/10
Episode 18  Man in the Cage  Veteran actor Phillip Carey plays a man looking for his brother in Tangier. Unexpected twist near the end but, meh. 3.5/10
Episode 24  The Ordeal of Dr Cordell   Despite the presence of Robert Vaughn and Marlo Thomas, this one plays like a really bad Jekyll and Hyde movie. 4/10
Episode 28 Yours Truly, Jack theRipper Maybe my expectations were too high, it was directed by Ray Milland based on a story by Robert Bloch, but was like watching a boring costume drama. Ihave a friend who loves this episode,  I just couldn't muster any interest. 5/10

As I said, the first season is currently playing on Netflix Instant watch. I noticed also that the box sets have dropped substantially in price. Along with the original Outer Limits, it's one of the few TV box sets of the era I'd recommend owning.

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