Thriller: The Complete Series (Image)
“As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller.” Hosted by Boris Karloff (who plays it straight with theatrical flourish grounded in easy-going dignity and knowing humor), this television horror anthology of the early 1960s began as an awkward mix of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Naked City, favoring psychological dramas and crime stories over tales of terror.
“The Twisted Image,” the first episode of the series, is in fact a pretty interesting (if a little outré) piece of genre TV, with Leslie Nielsen bringing a touch of smarmy arrogance to his role as a business executive and family man picked out by an obsessive young woman (Natalie Trundy) with piercing eyes and delusions of a relationship. As she transforms from nuisance to would-be homewrecker hounding his wife with phone call confessions, the tale gets tangled in the parallel story of a mailroom employee (George Grizzard) who is equally disconnected from reality as he passes himself off as Nielsen’s character. As a thriller it’s a bit clumsy and overworked and the climax can’t really sell the concept, but as a portrait of early sixties social culture twisted up by suspicion and psychosis it’s downright fascinating.
The show stayed with this direction for a dozen or so episodes (as evidenced by this box set) before producers at the tiller charted a more effective course through supernatural stories, classic horrors and Twilight Zone-styled twists tales of the fantastic, the episodes that eventually made its reputation as a minor classic of its era and inspired Stephen King to cite it his favorite TV horror show of all time. The show turned to stories by Edgar Allan Poe, August Derleth, Cornell Woolrich and Robert “Psycho” Bloch and scripts by Hollywood screenwriter Barre Lyndon and Twilight Zone veteran Charles Beaumont, while such screen veterans as John Brahm, Ida Lupino, John Newland, Arthur Hiller and Ray Milland directed stand-out episodes. Guest stars include the usual suspects of early sixties TV, including up-and-comers William Shatner, Richard Chamberlain, Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, George Kennedy, Bruce Dern, Robert Vaughn and Warren Oates and former screen stars and respected character actors Mary Astor, John Carradine, Jeanette Nolan, Jocelyn Brando, J. Pat O’Malley, Patricia Medina and others. Karloff himself takes roles in a few shows too, playing a stage mind reader in “The Prediction” who is suddenly blessed—or cursed—with the ability to actually see future, but only tragedies, and of course no one will heed his warnings, and as an aging millionaire with a fear of being buried alive in an adaptation of Poe’s “The Premature Burial.”
“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” an episode from late in season one adapted from a Robert Bloch story by Barre Lyndon and directed by Ray Milland, is a series stand-out, a smartly scripted tale of a British detective (John Williams, a veteran of Alfred Hitchcock films and TV shows) with a theory that Jack the Ripper is an immortal who reappears at various time and places in history to perform ritual killings to keep his youth and immortality. New York is his next stop and his predictions lead the police to the artist underground of Greenwich Village. It’s a snappy little show with a parody of bohemian culture and a clever little surprise climax. The earlier season one episode “The Cheaters,” the show’s first Robert Bloch adaptation, which follows a pair of glasses that gives the wearer the ability to hear the truth behind the lies of others. The result is madness and murder because (to paraphrase a classic movie line) some people can’t handle the truth. “Guillotine,” a Charles Beaumont adaptation of a Cornell Woolrich, is a period thriller of murder and poetic justice with Robert Middleton as a humble man who happens to be the dreaded executioner M. de Paris, and thus the target of a condemned man whose only hope of escape is to prevent the executioner from meeting his appointment.
But the jewel in the crown is “Pigeons From Hell,” one of the creepiest horror tales ever made for television. Adapted from a story by Robert E. Howard, it’s a haunted house tale with a jolt of voodoo and southern gothic melodrama in an abandoned antebellum mansion almost reclaimed by the swamps, where two brothers lost on a road trip take refuge. The acting is a little overcharged (Brandon de Wilde proved himself much better such films as All Fall Down and Hud) but the imagery and atmosphere created by director John Newland is superb.
The series is less well known than The Twilight Zone or the The Outer Limits but it completes the triumvirate of sixties American television of the fantastic and is a minor classic of its era, as this long-awaited set finally reveals. 67 episodes on 14 discs in a box set of seven thinpak cases, with most of the episodes looking quite good. There is commentary on 27 episodes by series producers, episode stars and horror experts and aficionados (among them horror David Schow, soundtrack authority Jon Burlingame, Twilight Zone historian Marc Scott Zicree, Mario Bava historian Tim Lucas and filmmakers Jim Wynorski, Ernest Dickerson and Larry Blamire), plus isolated scores on select episodes spotlighting the music of Jerry Goldsmith and others, episode promos and still galleries.