Most horror and suspense aficionados of a certain age (ahem) fondly remember classic spooky and suspenseful television shows from the 1960s, such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents; all of those programs still have ardent fans to this day, and rightly so. I had seen and loved most episodes of all those shows (though I didn’t see them during their original runs, but rather later in syndication…I’m old, but not THAT old), but one that I was always sort of intrigued about but never saw was Thriller, the show that ran for two seasons on NBC and was hosted by Boris Karloff. I think the first time I heard of it was a favorable mention in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (which I have to credit with turning me on to so many cool movies, books, and TV shows when I was just a burgeoning horror nerd in the late 1970s and early 1980s), and I promised myself I was going to eventually get around to checking it out, because I love Boris Karloff, and I love horror anthologies.
And I’m happy to announce that the time has finally come to dig into Thriller. Now, initially I was going to do a post and video doing a discussion of each season in aggregate, but then I discovered that even though the show only ran for two seasons—from 1960 through 1962—there were sixty-seven (!!!) total episodes, and they were fifty minutes each, so there was no way that was going to be feasible. So what I decided to do was break the task down into six-episode chunks, and just occasionally do a post and video about six episodes at a time until I got all the way through the series.
So today we’re going to be discussing the first half-dozen installments of Thriller, but let me give a bit of a caveat. Even though the series is remembered today as featuring mainly gothic horror stories, it was initially intended to be more of a suspense and crime drama anthology, much like Alfred Hitchcock Presents was. Producer Fletcher Markle, who oversaw the first eight episodes, very much steered the ship in this direction, so the more gothic and horror elements didn’t start creeping into the show until Maxwell Shane came on board for episodes nine through seventeen, and even he stuck more with crime stories. It wasn’t until William Frye came on, around episode eighteen, that the series moved firmly into more horror territory, though it did still feature some suspense and crime oriented episodes on occasion for the rest of its run.
Incidentally, Alfred Hitchcock himself was partly responsible for Thriller being taken off the air after sixty-seven episodes; Hitchcock of course produced an expanded version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on NBC, and he sort of muscled Thriller out because he didn’t want there to be two similar series appearing on the network.
Even though Boris Karloff only appeared briefly to introduce the stories (he did act in five episodes, though I won’t get to them until later), I always love to hear his voice, and it really gives the series something special having him open the show. I was also really charmed by the fact that he would introduce the main actors before every episode started, and had a couple of catch phrases where he would say something about the story you were about to see, and then finish it with, “or my name’s not Boris Karloff!” I think that was funny to me because his real name actually wasn’t Boris Karloff, it was William Pratt. Also, he’d always end his little opening monologue with something like, “one thing’s for sure…this is a thriller!”
Anyway, I said all that to convey that the first six episodes I’ll be discussing are more suspense and crime stories than horror stories, but they’re still largely worth watching, and have some great acting and storytelling. With the housekeeping out of the way, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Episode 1: “The Twisted Image”
This was a great episode to start out on, though I did have a couple of minor issues with it, which I’ll get into later. The teleplay was written by James P. Cavanaugh (who also wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and penned the first script for Psycho), adapted from a novel by William O’Farrell, though I’ll be damned if I can figure out which novel it was; as far as I could determine, he didn’t write one called The Twisted Image, and none of the novels he did write sounded much like this episode, at least from a quick read of their synopses. But whatever.
Anyway, we’re following a wealthy and successful businessman named Alan Patterson (played by a young Leslie Nielsen!), who seems to have it all. But then one day he starts to notice that this young blonde woman is constantly (and very obviously) staring at him all the time, particularly when he’s at the café in his office building having lunch. It’s starting to creep him out a bit, as it would, but finally the woman, in a very forward fashion, sits her sweet behind down at his table while he’s eating. She introduces herself as Lily Hanson, and she says she works in his building. He’s polite, as she seems like a nice kid, but it very quickly becomes clear that this chick has honed in on Alan like a love-seeking missile and won’t take no for an answer.
Alan tries to let her down easy without hurting her feelings—he’s significantly older than her, and is already happily married—but she’s borderline delusional, inventing an entire relationship with him and refusing to leave him alone even though he tells her multiple times to knock it off. Worse still, she writes to his wife telling her that she and Alan are in love and all this other nonsense, and the wife kinda believes it, even though Alan vociferously professes his innocence.
Also, while all that’s going on, there’s another problem brewing with a dude who works in the mailroom of Alan’s company. This is a guy named Merle Jenkins, who came to the big city with even bigger dreams of success which haven’t really panned out. He’s intensely jealous of Alan’s money and family, and is looking for an angle to essentially take Alan’s job (and entire life, as it turns out). He happens to cross paths with Lily, and realizes he could use her to topple Alan from his perch; like Lily, he’s also pretty delusional, genuinely believing that he’d be next in line to step into Alan’s shoes if Alan got shitcanned. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t work out like that, and at least one person gets murdered during all the brouhaha.
I will say from the outset that this was easily my favorite of all the six episodes I watched; I’m not sure if that’s just because it was the first one so everything was kind of fresh, or whether it was objectively better than the others. It could have been also that I just really liked Leslie Nielsen in it. Regardless, this one kept me in suspense the entire time, and I couldn’t really anticipate what was going to happen next or how things were going to turn out.
A couple of small complaints I had were that I felt it was a little too coincidental, story-wise, having Alan become the target of two mentally unstable and initially unrelated people at pretty much exactly the same time, but that may have been a product of the source material. I also thought the ending was a tad anticlimactic (which was something I found with several of these episodes, as a matter of fact). But overall it was a good, gripping tale that sustained my interest for all fifty minutes.
Episode 2: “Child’s Play”
This installment, unfortunately, has nothing to do with Chucky, but it does concern a young boy named Hank, who has some…issues, which nowadays would be cause for alarm, but back in the early 60s were treated with far less seriousness. Basically, Hank lives almost entirely in a fantasy world, most of his fantasies having to do with being an Old West lawman who is constantly pursuing a criminal named Black Bart. Nothing wrong with play-acting, of course, but you know, it’s all fun and games until someone gets their face blasted off with a hunting rifle, right? (Spoiler alert: no one actually gets their face blasted off by a hunting rifle, though not from lack of trying.)
Hank’s parents—bigtime important journalist dad Bart (hmmm…) and mom Gale—have brought Hank to their cabin for the summer, and though Gale had hoped that Bart would, you know, be a dad and do dad things with Hank because there are no other kids around for him to play with, Bart basically just wanted to come to the cabin for some goddamn peace and quiet to finish some big series of articles he’s working on, and he doesn’t understand why they couldn’t just ship Hank off to summer camp like they’d been doing in previous years.
Gale then drops the bombshell that Hank was kicked out of summer camp last year because he got a little too carried away with his fantasy life and shot an apple off another kid’s head with a real gun. The other kid wasn’t hurt, but obviously the guy running the camp didn’t want Hank the Menace and his itchy trigger finger coming back to perhaps shoot at additional children. Gale apologizes for not telling Bart about it before, but she laments to Bart that he’s always gone and his family sees him so seldom, so that when he is around, she doesn’t want to spoil things by having him get mad and whip the kid’s butt.
The entire middle portion of this episode is essentially just one long and very detailed argument between Gale and Bart, as Gale airs her grievances about Bart’s long absences and his lack of involvement with his family (up to and including his not having sex with his wife), intercut with Hank running around unsupervised, having taken a hunting rifle from the cabin without his parents noticing. I actually wasn’t sure I was going to be down for all of this relationship drama taking up so much of the runtime, but I actually found it pretty riveting, especially because the acting is really good. Your mileage may vary, however.
Anyway, the parents finally pull their heads out of their own asses long enough to discover that Hank has taken one of the guns, and when they finally track him down, he’s got a bead on a random fisherman who he thinks is Black Bart, and he’s threatening to shoot an apple off the guy’s head. It comes to light that Hank’s fantasies have made a villain of his father, and it’s really his dad he wants to shoot, and everything is sorted out without any further violence.
This one also had kind of an anticlimactic ending, and if you’re impatient with frank and extended conversations about the myriad ways a marriage can crumble, then this one might not be your cup of tea. I actually thought I wasn’t going to like this episode when it first started, but I ended up getting pulled into it in spite of myself.
Episode 3: “Worse Than Murder”
This one was pretty good as well, although I think I started to lose track of some of the details and plot threads in the middle there because all the blackmail and chicanery and shenanigans got a tad complicated. Based on a story by detective and gothic horror writer Evelyn Berckman (with an adapted teleplay by Mel Goldberg), “Worse Than Murder” follows a conniving widow named Connie (played by Constance Ford, who played a smaller but similarly villainous role in the first episode as Merle’s asshat sister), who finds out after her late husband’s uncle dies that he didn’t leave a will, and that she’s not going to get a single red cent from the family.
The enterprising woman, though, discovers that old Uncle Archer had been keeping extensive diaries in the decade before his death, and she manages to get her mitts on one of them. From the detailed descriptions of Uncle Archer’s nightmares that he wrote, she deduces that he and Connie’s mother-in-law Myra had conspired to bump off their mother by giving her a double dose of insulin so that they could inherit her entire estate. Connie then uses this information in order to attempt to squeeze some money out of bedridden old broad Myra.
I actually really liked the way this one ended, and Constance Ford was a highlight as the scheming, vampish, and aggressively bitchy Connie. Some of the side characters seemed a bit superfluous, but this was a solid, middle-of-the-road story.
Episode 4: “The Mark of the Hand”
This one was my second favorite so far, though I will admit that I pretty much figured out whodunnit within the first five minutes. Based on a novel by the prolific Charlotte Armstrong and adapted for TV by Eric Peters, the tale begins when a man named Charles Mowry is “accidentally” shot in the back by an eight-year-old girl named Tessa while she’s spending the summer at the family’s vacation house. An investigation ensues, but the little girl stymies efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery by completely clamming up and refusing to tell anyone what really happened.
Meanwhile, after a few more troubling incidents occur and suspicion grows that Tessa shot the man on purpose, the cops are debating whether the little girl is disturbed and should be institutionalized. Her grandmother is adamant that Tessa is completely innocent, but the rest of the family isn’t quite so sure.
Even though (spoiler alert) I figured out that the kid was being framed by one particular gold-digging addition to the family for nefarious purpose, this one was still enjoyable overall, and had a decent “gotcha” ending.
Episode 5: “Rose’s Last Summer”
With a teleplay by Marie Baumer from a 1952 novel by Margaret Millar, this installment stars longtime Golden Age of Hollywood actress Mary Astor (probably best known for The Maltese Falcon) as washed-up movie star Rose French, who never met a bottle of hooch that she couldn’t neck in thirty seconds flat. At the beginning of the story, she gets kicked out of a bar and drunkenly hefts one of her shoes at the bar’s window, smashing it, but then she stumbles into the path of an oncoming car and gets knocked unconscious, after which she gets arrested for public intoxication and destruction of property.
Luckily for Rose, she has a good friend in the form of Frank Clyde, who met her when she stayed at a rehabilitation center he runs. He admits that Rose is a handful, but he genuinely likes her as a person, as despite her alcoholism she’s a real character and a general hoot to be around. So he becomes slightly concerned when she tells him that she’s been offered a job as a housekeeper in La Mesa, California, and is planning to leave right away.
Not too long afterward, Frank hears that Rose has been found dead of an apparent heart attack in the garden of an estate in La Mesa, and he’s suspicious enough about her allegedly “natural” death to investigate. Assisting him in this task is one of Rose’s ex-husbands, rich industrialist Hailey Dolloway, who still really loves Rose even though their marriage didn’t work out.
When the men arrive in La Mesa, they find out that the garden in which Rose was found belonged to the Goodfields, the wealthy family who had ostensibly hired Rose to look after their mansion. Turns out, though, that they wanted Rose for something much stranger and something that utilized her long-neglected looks and acting skills: basically impersonating someone else, with a view to obtaining an inheritance.
This one was okay too; the boozy Rose was an entertaining character, and I didn’t necessarily see the twist coming. It petered out a little toward the end once the mystery was revealed, but it was fairly entertaining as a whole.
Episode 6: “The Guilty Men”
I think this was probably my least favorite of the six installments I watched, though that may have been because I watched it at seven in the morning before I was fully awake yet. It told the story of three Italian-American brothers, who grew up so poor that they had to steal to pay for a coffin when their father died. One of the brothers subsequently vows to just take whatever he wants so that he doesn’t have to be poor ever again.
We then jump ahead several years, and two of the brothers are now high up in the Mob, one of them as a crime boss (Cesar), and the other as the organization’s lawyer (Lou). The third brother (Tony) wanted nothing to do with a life of crime, and has become a doctor, looking down on his other brothers’ way of life because he sees firsthand the effect of the drugs the Mob is pushing on the old neighborhood and the destitute kids living therein.
Cesar and Lou, though, are still sorta decent guys deep down, and after Tony reads them the riot act one day, Cesar has a change of heart, proposing that the organization get out of the drug trade altogether and try to go legit. Lou agrees with this plan, but another more hard-ass member of the outfit, Harry Gans, thinks they’re both going soft and starts engineering a coup in order to wrest power from the original brothers. From there, things go pretty much how you’d expect, with lots of mobsters shouting and jockeying for position, and people getting whacked.
This one was okay too, if you like gangster stories, though it didn’t hold my attention as well as the others, and it didn’t really have any surprising twists and turns. This one was actually original to the series, with a teleplay by John Vlahos, and not based on a pre-existing story or novel.
Well, six episodes down, sixty-one to go! I’ll try to post at least one or two of these every month going forward until I’ve watched all the episodes, so I hope you’ll join me for the journey. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
2 thoughts on “Revisiting Thriller with Boris Karloff: Season 1, Episodes 1-6”