Thriller: One of the scariest TV shows of all time

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Thriller Film ReviewThriller

Viewers who tuned into the new Thriller program on NBC, on the night of September 13, 1960, a Tuesday, could have had little idea that the mildly suspenseful program that they saw that evening — one that concerned a male ad exec being stalked by a female admirer — would soon morph into the show that author Stephen King would later call “the best horror series ever put on TV.” The first eight episodes of Thriller came off as hour-long homages to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which it immediately followed in the 9:00 slot; solid enough episodes of murder, intrigue and suspense, to be sure, with a touch of film noir at their heart. In the face of scathing reviews and poor viewership, however, the program brought in a new production team and drastically rebooted its image, gearing itself now more toward supernatural horror and crime melodramas; indeed, episode 7, “The Purple Room,” a straight-out horror tale, had served as a signpost for the show’s new direction. The shake-up worked wonders, apparently, and today Thriller is recognized as one of the finest horror anthologies in TV history. The show only lasted two seasons, but yet managed to crank out an astonishing 67 episodes during that short time span, all of which were deliciously introduced by the King of Horror himself, Boris Karloff. Featuring a plethora of guest stars, writers and directors, the program — filmed in creepy B&W, of course — holds up very well today, more than half a century later. Personally, I enjoyed each and every episode, even the ones that fans love to disparage; there is some element to enjoy in even the least of the Thrillers, and the best of the lot are truly astounding … some of the scariest television that you could ever hope to see.

OK, I’m going to do some name-dropping now. Here is a PARTIAL list of some of the many players who appeared in those 67 episodes, many of whom were hardly “big names” at the time: John Anderson, Ursula Andress (pre-Dr. No), Edward Andrews (who appeared in 3 comedic episodes), Mary Astor, Jeanne Bal, Sidney Blackmer, Larry Blyden, Lloyd Bochner, Antoinette Bower (2 episodes), Edgar Buchanan, MacDonald Carey, Richard Carlson, John Carradine (2), Eduardo Ciannelli (2), future “Time Tunnel” star Robert Colbert, Elisha Cook, Hazel Court, pretty Audrey Dalton (3), Henry Daniell (4), Brandon de Wilde, Ron Ely, The Tingler star Judith Evelyn, Jay C. Flippen, Beverly Garland, film noir bad girl Jane Greer, Kevin Hagen, Oscar Homolka, John Ireland, Russell Johnson, Henry Jones (2), Boris Karloff himself (5), The Bad Seed star Nancy Kelly, the late George Kennedy, Otto Kruger, Robert Lansing, Cloris Leachman, Richard Long, the always hissable George Macready, Patricia Medina (2), Robert Middleton (2), Elizabeth Montgomery (three years pre-Bewitched), Mary Tyler Moore (2), ’30s star Conrad Nagel, Reggie Nalder (2), Alan Napier, Ed Nelson (2), One Step Beyond host John Newland (2), Leslie Nielsen (who starred in that first episode), Jeanette Nolan (2), Warren Oates (2), yummy Susan Oliver, scrumptious Luciana Paluzzi, Nehemiah Persoff, Edward Platt, Tom Poston, Alejandro Rey (2), comedian Mort Sahl, Natalie Schafer (a good three years pre-Gilligan’s), William Shatner (2), Henry Silva, Torin Thatcher, Marlo Thomas, Ann Todd, Rip Torn, Jo van Fleet, Robert Vaughn (three years pre-U.N.C.L.E.), Robert Webber, Jack Weston (2), John Williams, William Windom and Dick York.

Some of the directors on the show included Arthur Hiller, Mitchell Leisen, Richard Carlson, Ida Lupino (who stylishly helmed no fewer than 8 episodes), Ray Milland and John Newland, although the bulk of the episodes were directed by John Brahm and Herschel Daugherty. As for the program’s writers, some names you might recognize include Charles Beaumont (who also wrote 22 Twilight Zone eps), Robert Bloch (who wrote 8 Thrillers in all) and Richard Matheson. As you can tell, a staggering amount of talent here, both in front of and behind the cameras, with the results being some truly fantastic television.

Naturally, every fan of Thriller has his or her favorite episodes, and I suspect that mine are little different than many of the others. As I said, all the episodes have something to be said for them, but of course, some really do stand out from the pack. Here are my top 10 favorites, in chronological order: “The Purple Room,” that first horror episode, in which a man and a woman spend a terrifying night in the haunted abode known as Black Oak Mansion; “The Cheaters,” a five-part story depicting the ghastly fate that befalls the owners of a pair of ensorcelled eyeglasses; “Well of Doom,” a remarkably atmospheric and Gothic hour; “The Devil’s Ticket,” in which a struggling artist makes an unfortunate bargain with Satan himself; “Parasite Mansion,” a largely faithful version of the Mary Elizabeth Counselman short story, highlighted by some grotesque makeup work on Jeanette Nolan; “Pigeons From Hell,” perhaps Thriller‘s most frightening hour, and an excellent adaptation of the Robert E. Howard short story; “The Grim Reaper,” in which owners of a particular painting meet shocking demises; “The Weird Tailor,” in which a practitioner of the Black Arts attempts to bring his dead son back to life; “La Strega,” which finds Jeanette Nolan, again in hideous makeup, playing one of the scariest-looking witches in screen history; and finally, “The Incredible Doktor Markesan,” another truly horrific outing, in which a nephew and his wife visit his scientist uncle in a dreary and decaying mansion.

With 67 episodes’ worth of wonderful performances, choosing 10 outstanding acting turns is an extremely difficult proposition. But if I HAD to honor 10 terrific ones (putting aside from consideration those featured in my 10 favorite episodes), they might be Susan Oliver, playing a beautiful but manipulative noirish gal in “Choose a Victim;” beefcake wonder Larry Pennell, trying desperately to clean up his older brother’s homicide, in “Late Date;” the truly bizarre-looking Reggie Nalder in “Terror in Teakwood;” Robert Middleton, who actually manages to inject pathos into his role of the executioner in the astonishingly suspenseful episode “Guillotine;” Patricia Medina, for her wonderfully over-the-top thesping in “The Premature Burial;” Boris Karloff, for his superb, sly underplaying in “The Last of the Sommervilles” (although his, uh, deadpan performance in the later “Doktor Markesan” episode may just be the finest of both seasons); Jo van Fleet, surprisingly sexy and alluring in “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk;” Nancy Kelly, practically giving a one-woman show in the gripping episode “The Storm;” beautiful Linda Watkins, as a vain Hollywood starlet, in “A Wig for Miss Devore;” and my old heartthrob Luciana Paluzzi, giving a performance of concentrated wickedness, in “Flowers of Evil.” But really, these 10 standout performances could easily be replaced by 10 others, the acting turns in these 67 episodes are so uniformly fine.

Further good news regarding Thriller today is that it is currently available in a DVD boxed set, a nicely compact affair from the fine folks at Image Entertainment. The 67 episodes reside on 14 discs, and 27 of these episodes feature highly informative, full-length commentaries. The print quality, I should add, is everything that any viewer could reasonably hope for. To watch all these delicious episodes in a row is to realize that perhaps The Outer Limits — which would premiere in 1963 — has some serious competition for the title “Scariest Television Show of All Time.” All fans of macabre horror, Gothic horror, murder mysteries, film noir, ghost stories, Hitchcockian suspense, voodoo and the supernatural are strongly urged to pounce on this one; you’re not going to find anything much better…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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3 comments

  1. Elizabeth Montgomery AND Dick York? Throw in Dick Sargent and you’ve got Bewitched Bingo!

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