Monday, June 2, 2014

Boris Karloff Hosts a Thriller

In his 1981 history of horror fiction Danse Macabre, Stephen King dubs Thriller "probably the best horror series ever put on TV." It's still hard to argue with King's assessment. While this 1960-62 anthology series was inconsistent, it boasted some of the most chilling content ever broadcast on television. Ironically, that--combined with its one-hour length and short run--may explain why it never achieved lasting popularity along the lines of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Simply put, episodes like the classic "Pigeons from Hell" (which featured a "zuvembie" and a hatchet murder) aren't everyone's cup of tea.

Don't let Miss DeVore (Patricia Barry)
remove her wig!
Thriller was created by Hubbell Robinson, a television pioneer who served as executive producer of CBS's prestigious anthology series Playhouse 90. According to the book Fantastic Television, Robinson sold Thriller to NBC without a pilot and based on a vague description. From the beginning, Robinson and his producers disagreed about the direction of the series. Unlike The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller lacked a strong vision and its initial ratings were soft. Fantastic Television includes this enlightening Robinson assessment: "The show simply did not have time to find its identity."

Veteran producers Maxwell Shane and William Frye were brought in to salvage the show. At the same time, the series' scope was narrowed to suspenseful crime stories (produced by Shane) and horror tales (Frye). Although Thriller fared better with critics and viewers, it was still a show with a split personality. One never knew what to expect on a given week: an episode about a botched kidnapping scheme or a scary yarn about a wig that turns its wearer into a vengeful killer.

Henry Daniell in "Well of Doom."
In retrospect, the show's reputation rests almost exclusively on the horror episodes--many of which are still hailed as genre classics. The aforementioned "Pigeons from Hell," adapted from a Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) story, is a contemporary Gothic tale about two brothers who encounter a zombie-like, murderous creature in a decayed Southern mansion. In "The Cheaters," a pair of unusual glasses reveals different things to its various owners--but the result is always bad for everyone involved. The title hairpiece in a "A Wig for Miss DeVore" was once worn by a vengeful witch burned at the stake. It restores youth to a washed-up actress--who unfortunately transforms into a nasty-looking killer whenever the wig is removed. And, in a personal favorite, the densely-atmospheric Well of Doom, a man and his fiancee are imprisoned in a dungeon by mysterious strangers that may possess supernatural powers. The stellar cast features Henry Daniell (looking like Lon Chaney in London After Midnight) and Richard Kiel (Jaws in two Bond films) as the villains.

John Williams in "Yours Truly,
Jack the Ripper."
While I agree that the crime episodes are not as engrossing overall, there are notable exceptions. Stand-up comic Mort Sahl gives a good dramatic performance as a none-too-bright joe who overhears a kidnapping plot in Man in the Middle. His unconventional solution: Kidnap the heiress first. In The Twisted Image, married businessman Leslie Nielsen becomes the target of an obsessed younger woman. And in another fave, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," John Williams (a Hitchcock semi-regular) portrays an expert engaged by the Washington, D.C. police to help apprehend a Ripper-like murderer. Or is the murderer actually Jack the Ripper himself, who has used black magic rituals to defy ageing? This episode was based on a short story by Robert Bloch, who also penned teleplays for Thriller (and wrote the source novel for Hitchcock's Psycho). Interestingly, Block revamped his Jack the Ripper short story a few years later as the Star Trek episode "Wolf in the Fold."

Boris Karloff served as host of Thriller. It was not his first TV series, that distinction belonging to the 1954-55 British program Colonel March of Scotland Yard. Karloff, whose career was fading in the 1950s, gained fame anew when his Universal monster films were released to television, starting in 1957. By 1960, his name was synonymous with horror and he brought instant recognition to Thriller. Alas, his introductions weren't always well-written and often add little to the show. They lack the dark humor of Hitch's introductions on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the poetic fate of Serling's Twilight Zone narratives.

Thriller composers Pete Rugolo and Jerry Goldsmith earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination in 1961 for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Music. Rugolo, who wrote the jazzy Thriller opening theme, is perhaps best remembered for his work on The Fugitive. Goldsmith, of course, went on to a long, highly successful career as a film composer. Morton Stevens, another Thriller composer, later wrote one of the famous of all TV series themes: Hawaii Five-O.

To learn more about Thriller, I recommend checking out the entertaining blog A Thriller a Day... and Alan Warren's book This Is a Thriller. You can watch Thriller on MeTV; the complete series is also available in a boxed set from Image Entertainment.

This post is of part of The Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to view all the other great blogathon entries.


  1. Great read, Rick. As always - seems the record is stuck on that line whenever I comment on your posts.

    I've seen THRILLER in pieces as available on YouTube and mostly Karloff's introductions. I am thrilled :) that I can now set my DVR to watch it on MeTV. I hadn't even noticed it was a part of the line-up. That said, it may well be the type of show I can watch now and again given I love horror, but am also a chicken. Interesting backstory too.

    Great choice.


  2. "The Incredible Doktor Markesan" episode, which stars Boris Karloff, gets my vote as the best "Thriller" episode ever. Genuinely creepy throughout, with an unforgettable, haunting final scene. Great pick, Rick.

  3. I've been inspired to check out this series on MeTV--thanks for this essay!

  4. I first saw Thriller when one of our local stations bought it to show after the Saturday night 10pm news back in the 80s (surprising that it would be on a mainstream channel that recently), but I'd read about it before then, and knew about it.

    I was never all that impressed with the series as a whole, but I agree that some of the individual episodes were memorable, very powerful. I particularly remember the episode "The Cheaters," which had been highly touted in the book that first introduced me to the show. Saw that again a few months ago, and it still packs an existential punch.

  5. I'm more than pleased with this review. Again you have shown me something I had no idea about. Excellent I wish I could get MeTV.

  6. Did a blind buy on this show when it came out on DVD and it was money well spent. Sure it could be inconsistent but even The Twilight Zone had a few clunkers. Glad the series now has a chance to pick up more fans thanks to MeTV!

  7. Have seen a few episodes of this show and been pleasantly surprised. I am going to try and catch more of them on MeTV! Great post.

  8. I confess, I've never seen this series, and I don't know how I've missed it. Surely the sight of Henry Daniell doing a Chaney impersonation is too tempting to miss! Thanks for highlighting this show; I will definitely look it up.

  9. It's so wonderful to see Thriller getting some much deserved attention. As you said a bit inconsistent in terms of having a definitive identity, more often than not, the episodes were so atmospheric, unique and down right creepy even by today's standards. Well done!!!! It was a pleasure to revisit this beloved show with all the rich detail you included!!!

  10. Nice review! I own the DVD box set but have only dipped into it a little. I'm partial to the Jack the Ripper episode because I love John Williams. I am going to make it a point to watch some of the other episodes you've highlighted soon because they sound interesting.

  11. I really enjoyed your review of "Thriller." One of the things I especially enjoy about TV programming at that time is the strength of the guest stars. These actors and actresses truly turn in some very memorable performances. I agree with you that Boris Karloff is less interesting than the brief appearances of Hitchcock or Rod Serling. Well done, Rick!

  12. THRILLER is a show that never ran in syndication in my local market when I was growing up, so I am pretty unfamiliar with it other than by its reputation. I did pick up that 10 episode "Fan Favorite" release from a few years back, which contains "Pigeons from Hell," "The Cheaters" and "Well of Doom," among others, and I hope to get around to them shortly.

    Nice post, Rick!

  13. I had never heard of this anthology tv show until I read your post. I then checked on Youtube and all of season 1 has been posted there, so my 11 year old son and I watched Pigeons from Hell last night. My son loves MST3K, so I thought he would not enjoy the show but he did and we plan on watching another one tonight. I got the chance to tell him who Boris Karloff was and he recognized his voice from having seen The Grinch cartoon several times.

  14. Does anyone know if the "THRILLER" episode made in 1961, starred a young "Aundre the Giant?? Saw it on me TV now! We are all saying YES! He's maybe 21-22'ish?!!

    1. Could you be thinking of WELL OF DOOM? If so, that was actually Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in the James Bond movies.