Though Flawed, Thriller’s Second Season Remains Frightful
By Kristin Battestella
In 1961, Boris Karloff returned as host for Year Two of the spooky and suspenseful anthology series Thriller. With 30 episodes a season, the mixed focus on scares and scandal runs thin at times. However, several thrilling and frightful gems –with a few from Big K himself – keep this season entertaining.
Disc One of Thriller’s Second Year opens with an ill wife, an easy to suspect a husband, and pretty younger sister in “What Beckoning Ghost?” Directed by Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker), the suspense, coffins, premonitions, wills, and funerary wreaths escalate the gaslighting versus supernatural possibilities. Smart shadow placement and quality editing on the toppers combine for a nice mix of both scary and crime – a positive blend in the identity crisis that will continually hamper Thriller. Also directed by Lupino and adapted by Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone), “Guillotine” sets the French flavor with slicing practice, dark prisons, and jingling shackles. The delicious intro from Karloff, crimes of passion, simmering pace, and seduction anchor the sinister poisons versus ticking clock executions. Although the plot boils down to a straightforward crime, the unique period piece tone and final twists make up the difference, and “The Premature Burial” ups Thriller in full on, macabre Poe fashion. Boris himself is involved with this dreary Victorian tale, its elaborate tombs, questionable deaths, and catalepsy – and this episode aired before the release of the 1962 Roger Corman film adaptation. The larger than usual cast, great costumes, and fancy sets add to the deceit, unfaithfulness, and obsession while the black and white accents the morbid fail safes, bells, turnabouts, and demented performances. More statues and fortune tellers highlight “The Weird Tailor,” written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) and also later adapted in the 1972 Amicus anthology film Asylum. The deadly sorcery mistakes here can’t be amended, but the special eponymous request leads to marital dysfunction, one unusual sewing dummy, and fine social drama amid the occult intensity.
Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), Tom Poston (Newhart), and John Carradine (Bluebeard) start off Disc Two with the lighthearted, perfect for Halloween farce “Masquerade.” From a writer on a honeymoon and a stormy night breakdown to ominous music, the Psycho house setting the scene, and rumors of vampires afoot – even Karloff’s introduction is unabashedly in on the spooky winks, tongue in cheek tone, and self aware repartee. Maybe the vampire cliches are too hammy for some viewers expecting true scares, but fortunately, the haunted house kooky and maze like bizarre contribute to a delightful kicker! “The Last of the Sommervilles” – again directed and also written by that oft Thriller gal Ida Lupino – has hastily buried bodies as garden fertilizer as well as Karloff once again making a slick appearance alongside Martita Hunt (Anastasia). This greedy family has plenty of crazy aunts and hidden relations with inheritance double crosses and Victorian irony. The actual murder how tos are a little loose, but sinister bathtub suggestions and fine interplay raise the suspense. Intense silhouettes, a bemusing score, card game puns, and old ladies with binoculars make the crimes in “A Third for Pinochle” all seem so quaint in this quid pro quo social etiquette meets hatchets tale. The belittling frumpy wives and unassuming killer neighbors ala The ‘Burbs is perhaps too similar to Season One’s “A Good Imagination” also starring Edward Andrews (Sixteen Candles), however, there’s enough whimsy to accent the hi-jinks while thunderstorms, slamming windows, a spooky castle, dungeon cobwebs, and great costumes up the scares in “The Closed Cabinet.” The medieval riddles sound like nonsensical hyperbole, but the 1880 flair, disbelieving lineage, and a superb black and white mood add to the ghostly beckoning, gothic dressings, and ye olde medieval harmonies.
For Disc Three of this Second Season, Thriller finally caught on with the need for more in on the game Karloff and serves up two tales both featuring Boris in different roles for “Dialogues with Death.” Morgue slabs, afterlife questions, skeptical reporters mocking the idea of asking the departed who killed them – and that’s the first half before more American Gothic swamps, flooded mausoleums, and catalepsy. Thriller can seems redundant or as if its running out of content with too many family scares in a row, especially so if every episode had been this kind of multi-plot variety, but writer Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone) picks up the slack with a crazy uncle and his unusual internment requests in “The Return of Andrew Bentley.” The shrill sounds effects are terrible, indeed, however, familiars, necromancy, and occult warnings on tampering with the perimeters of death add to the moody marital discord. Wow, Jo Van Fleet (Wild River) looks so beautiful and evil alongside pup Bruce Dern (The ‘Burbs) and the again suspicious John Carradine in “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk.” The quaint farm, cute piglets, weird whimsy, and county fair gentility belies the ruthless thieves and deadly rural. This toes the too goofy line, but there are some fun chess battles had here. More creepy voices, shadows, nightmares, and a noose start “An Attractive Family” before Leo G. Carroll (Spellbound) and Robert Long (The Big Valley) duel over crafty but thwarted spousal accidents that keep the audience guessing to the end.
“Waxworks” leads Disc Four with uncomfortably realistic designs and what you think you see tricks setting the mood for another Robert Bloch tale. The cops are trite, however French flavor adds to the Old World atmosphere, double take scares, unexpected violence, and noir style – making for another pleasing combination of the crime and paranormal parents on Thriller. Ursula Andress (Dr. No) looks divine for “La Strega,” making the viewer care for the peasantry even if the Italian setting is slightly stereotypical and somewhat Spanish thanks to Ramon Novarro (Mata Hari) and Alejandro Rey (The Flying Nun). Once again director Ida Lupino builds an Old Country and foreign horror feeling with witches, familiars, and a dangerous mix of beauty, curses, and superstitions. Operatic orchestration accents the romantic tragedy and inevitable pursuits that can’t be outrun while creepy crones ascend toward the camera with their dread uninterrupted. More screams, black cats, and solitary perils elevate the standard premise, understandable fears, and expected suspicions in “The Storm.” Pesky cabbies and unheeded warnings escalate toward frightful power outages, deadly downpours, animal knee jerks, natural scares, and a fine topper. “A Wig for Miss Devore” begins with past executions and fatal beauties before film within a film aging starlets and movie magic deceptions featuring John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show). It’s interesting to have seemingly contemporary talk of parts for 25 year old fresh red heads only and a 38 year old has been who was finished at 32 – a swift social commentary on desperate charms and Hollywood extremes. Thriller is on point when the crimes are supernatural, period set, or elevated with more cultural dimension as in “The Hollow Watcher.” Backwoods murder and Irish mail order brides lead nosy but fearful townsfolk, local legends, and phantom vengeance with scandalous touches and schemes compensating for anything that may appear comical now. Besides, scarecrows are already disturbing enough, right? The series peaks here with what may be the single best disc in the complete Thriller collection.
Karloff’s final in character appearance in “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” leads Disc Five with excellent slow, stilted moves and a sunken, deathly veneer. Suspicious medical university secrets, a kitchen with food so old its turned to dust, and inquisitive nephew Dick York (Bewitched) accent the no trespassing signs, old newspapers, and eerie meetings. Terrifically terrifying makeup and music ala The Gentleman from Buffy highlight this mix of murder and science, going for the scares as Thriller should have done all along. “Flowers of Evil” brings yet more ghoulishness with skeletal props and Victorian flavor. How does one come into the business of procuring bad luck bones to sell, anyway? coughmurdercough. Though overlong in some spots, budding forensics, cadavers, and dissection keep the gruesome mood afloat. Robert Bloch pens the western set “Til Death Do Us Part” with a fortune hunting undertaker in a town where the dead body business isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The comedic music is overdone, but the unique setting, murderous intentions, and eloping in a horse drawn Hearst are much more fun when played for the macabre bigamy gone bad. “The Bride Who Died Twice” has torture, creepy Mexican generals, and unwilling marital alliances with a wonderfully different setting, epic music, and lovely costumes accenting the star crossed lovers and corruption from director Ida Lupino. Despite the horrors of revolution, fine cinematic flair, and all around period delightful, ironically this strictly dramatic hour doesn’t seem like it belongs on Thriller. Fortunately, Mary Tyler Moore sings Cole Porter in “Man of Mystery,” setting a swanky, urbane feeling for this whodunit full of playboys, money, secrets, and escalating obsessions, and Ida Lupino bows out her Thriller directing on Disc Six with sulfuric acid, animal trophies, timid librarians, iron fisted new bosses, and play within a play winks for the dual femmes in “The Lethal Ladies.”
Since it took so long for Thriller to get its full on horror, it’s tempting to give several pedestrian episodes a free pass. As the spelling suggests, “God Grante that She Lye Stille” serves up ye olde burning at the stake declarations before more familiar moonlight curses almost pull off all the horror stops. Unfortunately, the odd, interchangeable combination of witches and vampires doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. The room to room opening and closing doors in “Letter to a Lover” feel like an old Scooby Doo montage, complete with repetitive, nondescript country manor suspicions, subservient minorities, subterfuge, and murder. Someone even nearly says, “And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you kids!” “Portrait without a Face” has a neat premise, but John Newland (One Step Beyond) starts with a hammy Vincent Price imitation before one annoying, cackling old lady and a slow double talk investigation that can’t fill up the 50 minute runtime. “Cousin Tundifer” repeats the Edward Andrews humor and comical music, missing the teleportation and topsy turvy time irony and opportunity on laughter and yet another nephew trying to get rich while “Kill My Love” also rinse repeats murder, adultery, and gas leaks. Young George Kennedy (Dallas) can’t save the obvious and disposable Burke and Hare plots of “The Innocent Bystanders,” and as to the crooks and cops of “The Specialists”…yawn. For such a short run, Thriller over relies on too many of the same witches, suspicious couples, amoral families, murderers, and profiteers, and in retrospect, the series seems reluctant to fully embrace its built in horror mantle. I suppose mystery and adultery of the week were simply cheaper to film than weekly macabre. That doesn’t mean that the suspense and crime episodes aren’t entertaining – Thriller provides a little something for everyone across the spectrum from witty to scary and everything in between. Through today’s lense, however, Thriller appears to play it safe more often than it should.
Thankfully, mid century furs, pearls, old technology, fedoras, cool cars, and classy interiors add charm alongside somewhat simplistic but atmospheric and fitting ghost effects – which were probably pretty elaborate for a time when $3, a cup of coffee, or 20 cents a mile paid the cab driver and real operators connected the phone line. Thunder, lightning, fire, mirrors, and black and white ambiance accent the 17th century through Victorian times. Again, it probably wasn’t cost prohibitive to always be period set, but more mood and effort seems to grace the historical pieces, and those well dressed interiors and gothic feelings carry Thriller regardless of the time period onscreen. The series may not be as immediately recognizable as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, however, Thriller does have a universally spooky atmosphere. Part of that may be Karloff’s lure, but he’s still having a good time doing the introductions, even occasionally getting into it with more spunk on the weaker episodes – popping in amid the sets more like Serling this season and quoting Shakespeare in the cemetery! Although the soft voices and sometimes bombastic sounds on this Complete Thriller series set are still obnoxious, more fine Jerry Goldsmith scores add ambiance and can be isolated on select episodes alongside commentaries and other treats.
This second season lags across the middle discs, and a shorter season with more Karloff would have been so sweet, but I’m happy Thriller righted itself this year with a more scary focus. I’d love to see the earlier Karloff series The Veil for comparison, but unfortunately, those sets appear incomplete, elusive, and unavailable on Netflix. Today, a show like Thriller would have been continuously tweaked into its short ruin with all half horror horrors reaching for stunt casting guests and anything and everything shocking in a desperate grab for ratings. Overall, Thriller’s attempt at a suspenseful and scary middle ground is uneven and divisive, leaving audiences to skip around the scary or pick and choose the scandal. However, I’m glad the series didn’t cater to the lowest audience with cheap horror, and thus, Thriller remains sophisticated fun be it murder or macabre.