Like Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and many others of my generation, I grew up on Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in the 1960s, so Boris Karloff loomed large in my consciousness. I watched his classic horror movies on TV and read all about them in Forry’s idolatry prose. I even kept an eye out for his latest movies, like The Raven, and TV guest appearances…but I was too young to appreciate the qualities of the anthology show he hosted called Thriller on NBC from 1960-62. That’s why it’s been such a treat to get to know this series in its dazzling new 14-disc DVD set from Image Entertainment, the company that set the bar for vintage television on DVD with its superb—
—treatment of The Twilight Zone and The Dick Van Dyke Show. (These filmed hours don’t quite pop off the screen, as those earlier releases do, but the new transfers from original source material still make most of the competition look—and sound—like mush.)
Thriller hoped to capture the same audience as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone but never quite succeeded, in spite of excellent production values, good scripts and casts, and the inimitable presence of its host, who in introducing early episodes would say, “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff this will be a thriller.” In later segments the producers worked harder to integrate Karloff’s introductions with the themes (and sets) for each particular episode, often with felicitous results. No matter what the trappings were, the veteran actor was always on top of his game and is one of the reasons the series is such a pleasure to watch.
The initial episode, The Twisted Image, featuring Leslie Neilsen, George Grizzard, and Natalie Trundy, benefits from a commentary track featuring the shows director, Arthur Hiller, who was then a TV workhorse. He offers valuable insights, not only about this assignment, but about the lot of a “hired gun” who moved from show to show and knew how to work within the studio system. (He also reveals that he and Neilsen were neighbors growing up in Canada and even played basketball together!)
Other commentaries feature such actors as Richard Anderson, Beverly Washburn, and Patricia Barry, as well as film and TV historians like Lucy Chase Williams, Marc Scott Zicree, Tim Lucas, Ronald Borst, and Jon Burlingame. Gary Gerani, the author of Fantastic Television, and David Schow, who wrote The Outer Limits Companion, provide interesting background material about the series and some of its participants on their tracks. They point out that the producers often drew on Weird Tales magazine for source material and presented the work of such prolific authors as August Derleth, Richard Matheson, and Robert Bloch, fabled as the creator of Psycho. They cite the fact that both Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft believed that a classic horror story should build in intensity to a supreme climactic moment, a template that Thriller adhered to. The series alternated between exercises in horror and stories of crime with equally effective results.
It must have been challenging to turn out an hour-long show like this every week, particularly in those days when a season demanded as many as 39 episodes. It probably couldn’t have been accomplished without the resources of Universal studios, where the show was produced. By using standing sets, the back lot, costumes and props in its warehouses, and the talents of such department heads as makeup man Jack Barron, the series managed to pull off some pretty respectable efforts. Considering that suspense and horror rely so heavily on the ingredients that require the most time to achieve (lighting, camerawork, atmosphere, music) Thriller held its own quite respectably and is still entertaining today.
Such producers as Fletcher Markle, William Frye, Maxwell Shane, and Doug Benton not only drew on contemporary talent like Arthur Hiller but also employed veterans of Hollywood’s Golden Age to direct the show, including Mitchell Leisen, John Brahm, Robert Florey and such actors-turned-directors as Ray Milland (who did a notable episode called Yours Truly Jack The Ripper) and Ida Lupino (who piloted one my favorites, Trio of Terror).
Naturally not every installment hits the bull’s-eye, but superior entries like The Cheaters, about a pair of antique eye glasses that can discern the truth, and The Devil’s Ticket, a clever Faustian fable by Robert Bloch, make up for some of the lesser entries.
Boris Karloff starred in a handful of episodes, and he is a delight to watch, whether playing a phony stage mystic whose premonitions suddenly come true in The Prediction or a man who hides a strange secret in his creepy mansion in The Incredible Dr. Markesan. Of course, it’s fun to watch the roster of actors who parade through these shows, from young workhorses like Leslie Neilsen, William Shatner, Robert Lansing, and Dick York to movie veterans like Macdonald Carey, Henry Daniell, and Eduardo Ciannelli, to name just a few.
For film music aficionados, there’s another treat: isolated music scores for a number of episodes written by such eminent composers as Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens. It’s a fascinating exercise to watch an episode for a second time without any dialogue to see how creatively these men, working on tight deadlines, managed to support and enhance the mood of the show. (I also love the theme music by Pete Rugolo; you don’t hear bongo drums often enough on television nowadays.)
Image has left no stone unturned, even including individual episode promos and Karloff’s commercial segues, which never turned up when the series was run on cable TV, where these 52-minute mini-movies have to be chopped up, or sped up, to fit today’s commercial time slots. I haven’t had time to watch all 67 episodes, but I look forward to dipping into this set for months to come.
p.s. Last year I reviewed Dark Horse’s collection of Thriller comics, which you can read HERE.