Revisiting Thriller with Boris Karloff: Season 1, Episodes 7-12

So here we are with the second installment of this ongoing series; if you missed the first post, where I gave a bit of background on the short-lived Thriller TV program and discussed the first six episodes of season one, you can get caught up here. Otherwise, let’s dive right in with the next half-dozen!

Episode 7: “The Purple Room”

I explained in my first post that many of the earlier episodes of Thriller were largely crime and suspense stories, and that the more horror-based tales didn’t come along until later. Even though the same can mostly be said for episodes 7-12, “The Purple Room” is the first one that is pretty overtly horror, and thus was easily my favorite among the six episodes I watched. Though it’s ostensibly a ghost story, the resolution ends up not being supernatural (I think?), and it actually has some similarities with the original House on Haunted Hill, but the atmosphere and acting are great.

We open on a shot of the iconic Psycho house on the Universal backlot, which has been cast in this story as a stately old mansion called Black Oak. A guy named Duncan Corey (played by Rip Torn) has inherited the place after the death of his brother, and all he sees are dollar signs, since the house is located on a piece of land that’s going to become very valuable due to some upcoming development.

Like many stories of this ilk, though, there’s a catch. Duncan’s brother has stipulated in his will that Duncan must spend one night there, which should be sufficient to cement his love for the place, and afterward must live in the house for one year, after which he may sell it if he chooses to, though the brother doesn’t think he’ll want to sell it after the year has passed. If Duncan doesn’t abide by these stipulations, then ownership of the house defaults to his cousins/relatives, a couple named Oliver (played by Richard Anderson, of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman fame) and Rachel. Rachel is actually played by Patricia Barry, who I immediately recognized as the busybody friend of John Forsythe in 1964’s Kitten With a Whip, which I’ve seen multiple times on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I also discovered that Douglas Heyes, who wrote and directed this episode, also directed Kitten With a Whip! Small world, isn’t it? Incidentally, he also directed nine Twilight Zone episodes, including the classic “Eye of the Beholder.” So there’s that.

Anyway, Oliver and Rachel show Duncan the house, and tell him about the tragedy that happened there: couple lived in the house before, couple heard weird noises downstairs, man went down to check and left his wife terrified in bed holding a gun, wife apparently saw something come into the bedroom that looked like a creepy apparition, wife shot said apparition, apparition turned out to be her husband and she subsequently went mad because she killed him, but then when he was found dead he’d actually been stabbed in the heart? So the man, Jeremy, is supposed to still haunt the place, in particular the titular Purple Room, where cousins Oliver and Rachel have arranged for Duncan to sleep. Mwahahahaha.

The couple leaves Duncan alone in the house for the night, and almost immediately, spooky hijinks begin to ensue: phantom footsteps, unexplained cold breezes, creaky doors, and so forth. Duncan is convinced that Oliver and Rachel are just fucking with him, and keeps loudly making jokes and berating them, telling them to knock off all their foolishness, but as the phenomena continue, it’s clear that he’s becoming less and less convinced that his cousins are responsible for the ghostly mischief, and getting more and more frightened of the heightening activity.

At last, he goes downstairs and sees what is supposedly Jeremy’s ghost, complete with a knife poking out of his chest and wearing the mask that was apparently designed for the 1957 Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces. The reveal of the apparition is actually really well done, with the blurry face slowly coming into focus as the ghost approaches Duncan.

Duncan, still believing that this is simply Oliver in a costume, is kinda shitting his pants anyway, and finally he can’t take it anymore and empties his pistol into the “ghost,” which just keeps on coming. At this point, Duncan believes the spirit is real and keels over from a heart attack.

Moments later, it’s revealed that (spoiler alert), the ghost actually WAS Oliver in a costume, and he had pre-loaded the pistol with blanks. He and Rachel, not surprisingly, wanted to get their scheming paws on the house, so they decided make like a Scooby Doo villain and frighten Duncan out of the place, thus voiding the will and passing ownership on to them. They hadn’t actually meant for him to drop dead, though, so now they have to cover that whole thing up, which really cramps their style.

After they try to make it look as though Duncan plowed his car into a swamp near the house, they decide to spend the night at Black Oak, but Rachel is already getting nervous, saying she always believed the house was really haunted. Oliver tells her not to be such a ninny, but as they bed down for the night, there’s a repeat of the story they told about the original couple: weird noises downstairs, Oliver goes down to check leaving Rachel in bed with a loaded gun, you know the drill. Only this time, Rachel doesn’t shoot her husband; she actually ends up shooting Duncan, who either wasn’t really dead and staggered back to the house in a daze, or was really dead and was possessed by the spirit of Jeremy; it’s not clear which.

Even though the plot of this one was pretty pat and very easy to figure out, it’s still a fun, creepy episode, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the ones people remember most fondly. The cinematography is eerie and effective, the acting is solid and entertaining, and the whole thing has a real old-school spook-show feel, like a William Castle flick.

Episode 8: “The Watcher”

This episode was pretty decent too, and still kinda skirted around horror territory, as it centers around what would today be termed a “mission-oriented” serial killer.

Martin Gabel plays a schoolteacher named Mr. Frietag, who rents a room in this nowhere little town. He’s a big Bible-thumper for sure, and not only goes around endlessly quoting Milton at everybody, decrying how sinful everyone is these days, but he also spends a great deal of his time watching people’s comings and goings from his window, grumbling about those damn promiscuous teens and all of the presumed sex they’re having with people other than him.

Thing is, even though all the copper-bottomed old biddies in this burg just love Mr. Frietag, him being a good, upstanding Christian and all, we as the audience already know that this fucker is a stone cold serial killer, as the very first scene shows him sadistically drowning a teenage girl (in a bit that seems as though it was maybe a precursor to the opening sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1963 film Dementia 13). The girl’s death was deemed an accident, so no one yet suspects this shit-heel of anything nefarious, but we also see that he’s a fan of typing up letters to send to the police that say things like, “Is there another corrupter abroad? I must be sure before I kill again.”

Apparently, Mr. Frietag has honed in on a 20-year-old local man named Larry, who had been casually dating the girl he killed earlier. Larry is played by a young Richard Chamberlain, and he’s shirtless a lot, if that’s your thing. Larry is now seriously involved with a young woman named Beth (played by Olive Sturgess), and the pair are thinking about getting married, but Beth’s mother doesn’t like the two of them dating for some reason, and Beth keeps having to sneak out to see Larry, which is causing her a lot of anguish.

Mr. Frietag doesn’t like the situation either, and leers at the two young people constantly, even going so far as to follow them on some of their dates so he can watch them from behind the shrubbery. Early on in the episode, Mr. Frietag approaches Larry while he’s working (Larry helps out fixing boats and such), asking him a bunch of nosy questions about his future and whether he’s going to college, and kinda low-key coming onto him; maybe I’m imagining that, but I don’t think so. Larry is very curt with him, and later tells Beth that he thinks Mr. Frietag is creepy, which he absolutely is.

So Frietag eventually decides he’s going to have to kill Beth and Larry to punish them for their transgressions, and proceeds to try to do so. The thing that stood out in this part of the episode was just how fucking awful both Beth’s mother and Larry’s aunt were. They both separately call Beth a “tramp” (for, I guess, dating an age-appropriate guy and thinking about marrying him?), and after Larry is wounded by the serial killer and Beth muscles her way in to see him despite the aunt’s protests, the aunt straight up tells Mr. Frietag, “If it didn’t go contrary to my Christian beliefs, I’d wish them both dead.” Which is ironic, because Mr. Frietag is in fact there to kill them, though he doesn’t succeed in the end.

The authority figures in this are just the absolute worst, in other words, and it feels as though it was done very deliberately, in order to demonstrate the hypocrisy of so-called “Christian” people who would rather see their children hurt or killed rather than have to endure the shame of someone finding out their teenagers might be having premarital sex. It turns out that the teenagers were the reasonable people who saw Frietag for what he was, while all the traditional oldsters were snowed by his veneer of piety.

The ending is left a bit ambiguous, though, as Beth smacks Frietag in the head and he subsequently falls out a window, but I was wondering if all the shitty parents and parental substitutes would even believe that Beth was just defending herself and would instead just tut-tut about what a floozy she was and how it’s not surprising that she’d stoop to killing poor, religious Mr. Frietag. Maybe Beth realized this, which is why she just screamed and screamed at the end upon seeing Frietag lying there dead in the garden. Hmmm.

Episode 9: “Girl with a Secret”

This episode went back into the crime/blackmail sort of arena, and as such, I think it was one of the weaker installments of this bunch. It stars Myrna Fahey as a woman named Alice, who recently married a dude named Anthony (Rhodes Reason) and is going to meet his wealthy, “formidable” family for the first time.

Sure enough, the family are a bunch of standoffish weirdos (and one of them is played by Cloris Leachman!), but that isn’t even the worst of it. Only hours after arriving at the estate, Anthony is called away on business; he claims that he has to fly back to Minneapolis right away because his boss got injured and needs someone to fill in for him. Alice isn’t too jazzed to be left alone with Anthony’s rude-ass relatives, and she considers flying back home, but the family eventually persuades her to chill there until Anthony gets back.

However, while Alice is helping Anthony pack, she notices that his plane tickets are for Mexico City, not Minneapolis, and she asks him what in the blue fuck is going on. He’s reluctant to tell her at first, but finally admits that he’s been a secret agent for the past two years, and that he wasn’t allowed to tell her anything. He also says that now she knows where he’s going, the mission is compromised and he has to call it off. Alice promises she’ll keep mum about it, though, and encourages him to carry on with the original plan, since it entails nuclear secrets and is in the interest of national security and so forth. He relents, but warns her that breathing a word to anyone about where he went could get him killed.

Alice is as good as her promise, but unfortunately, the family’s cleaning woman Mrs. Peele (played by Ellen Corby, aka Grandma Walton) overheard the whole Mexico City conversation, and demands a really expensive pair of Alice’s earrings in order to keep her mouth shut. Alice, not having much choice, caves in, but it turns out that the earrings, which Anthony gave her, are family heirlooms, and the relatives aren’t real enthused about seeing them dangling from the lobes of a lowly maid, so they start castigating Alice about giving them away and asking her why in the world she would do such a thing. Of course Alice can’t tell them, and even though they start to suspect she’s being blackmailed, she refuses to tell them anything, knowing that one slip-up could get her husband rubbed out.

Directed by Mitchell Leisen from a teleplay by Charles Beaumont (which was in turn an adaptation of a 1959 novel by Charlotte Armstrong, who also wrote the novel on which episode 4 of Thriller, “Mark of the Hand,” was based), this one was all right too, though nothing all that special. There was some good tension-building around Alice getting into deeper and deeper trouble and not being able to explain to anyone why she was stonewalling, though, and I enjoyed Mrs. Peele’s character, as she was just such a grasping, greedy little shit and totally unrepentant about it, and it was fun seeing Grandma Walton play a role like that.

Episode 10: “The Prediction”

The first legitimately supernatural episode of Thriller, and the first to feature Boris Karloff in an acting role rather than just a hosting one, this one, directed by John Brahm (who also helmed the 1944 film The Lodger), was also quite enjoyable. Karloff plays an avuncular sideshow psychic named Mace the Mentalist, who makes no secret of the fact that his entire act is just illusion and cold-reading; he has never claimed to have true clairvoyant abilities. He’s a genuinely good guy, beloved by everyone, and has a grandfatherly relationship with his lovely young assistant Norrine (played by Audrey Dalton), whose dad is an abusive drunk.

For reasons left unexplained, Mace is suddenly blindsided one night by an apparently real psychic vision: he foresees that a boxer named Tommy Tims is going to die in the ring at the prizefight going on a few miles away. Alarmed, he persuades some of his colleagues to go to the arena to warn the boy’s manager to stop the fight. One of the guys he sends, Roscoe, says he warned the guy but the fight went ahead anyway, and the kid was indeed killed. It then comes to light that Roscoe didn’t warn anyone at all; he just placed a bet on the fight, knowing that Tommy was going to bite it. Tommy’s manager then accuses Roscoe and Mace of orchestrating the death in order to cash in, but Mace is appalled at this idea.

Meanwhile, Mace keeps having visions about one thing and another, and it’s really starting to get to him. Norrine has been seeing a guy named Grant, and he wants to marry her, though she’s reluctant to leave Mace in the lurch, especially now that he’s been having so much trouble. Grant decides he’s going to ask Mace if it’s okay if he marries Norrine and takes her away to Edinburgh, where he has a job waiting, and Mace warmly concedes, but he’s had a terrible vision of death concerning the young couple, so he only allows it on the condition that if Grant sees a twisted sign reading “Edinburgh 50 Miles” on his way out of town, then he’ll immediately turn back. Grant, knowing that his job was actually moved to Rome at the last minute, is happy to agree, as he figures they won’t even be driving anywhere near Edinburgh, so how could the vision come true?

The rest of the story plays out about how you’d expect, with a bunch of things conspiring to make things line up with Mace’s vision, though it ends with Mace essentially sacrificing himself to save Norrine and allow her to get on with her life. Although there really isn’t any solid explanation about why Mace suddenly started having real psychic abilities after years of “faking” them, I didn’t really mind all that much, and it’s always fantastic to see Boris Karloff in anything. He’s so charming and lovable here, as well, and gives a really kindly and heroic performance.

Episode 11: “The Fatal Impulse”

Another nail-biting, heist-type story, this episode was directed by Gerald Mayer from a teleplay by Philip MacDonald (who co-wrote 1945’s The Body Snatcher with Val Lewton), and was based on a novel by prolific thriller author John D. MacDonald (whose 1957 novel The Executioners was the basis for both the 1962 and 1991 Cape Fear films).

Ubiquitous character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays a deranged nut named Harry Elser who’s planning to assassinate mayoral candidate Walker Wylie with a miniature bomb that looks like a small box wrapped in brown paper. He disguises himself as a maintenance man and is able to get into Wylie’s office, but is spotted by a secretary before he can plant the bomb. He beats cheeks, still carrying the device, and apparently in a panic and wanting to rid himself of the evidence, he drops the bomb into someone’s handbag while in a crowded elevator, then skedaddles out of the building.

Unfortunately, moments after fleeing the premises, he’s hit by a truck; before he dies, he tells police that he put the bomb in someone’s handbag. From then on, it’s a race against time to try and figure out whose purse the bomb is in before it detonates at 11 p.m., and fun fact, one of the potential receivers of the explosive is played by none other than Mary Tyler Moore!

Anyway, interwoven with all of this chicanery is the dating misadventure of Jane Kimball, who not only turns out to be the unwitting recipient of the infamous bomb, but worse, is stuck in a relationship with her insufferable boyfriend Robert, played by MST3K punchline Lance Fuller, who played Brack in This Island Earth and mumbled his way through the entertainingly terrible 1956 scifi film The She-Creature. I must admit I kinda loved the ending of this episode, where after being saved from the explosion by the valiant Lieutenant Rome (played by Robert Lansing), Jane tells Lance Fuller to vamoose, and immediately takes up with the hunky cop who kept her from getting blown to smithereens. This was another decent episode, and the countdown to the bomb going off was a really effective narrative device.

Episode 12: “The Big Blackout”

This one was another crime-oriented story, but I found myself really getting into the mystery, as it played out like something of a much more serious, noir version of that movie The Hangover.

A guy named Burt Lewis (played by Jack Carson) is a recovering alcoholic; he apparently spent two years in a bit of a drunken haze, with not much memory of what transpired over that time period. He went to jail and rehab, and put his life back together; he’s now got a loving wife named Midge (Nan Leslie), a baby named Bibsy (???), and a gig running a charter boat. The job doesn’t pay much, but he’s getting by.

At the beginning of the story, his friend and business partner Ethel (Jeanne Cooper) calls him up and asks him to come see about a guy who’s passed out drunk in the motel she manages. Turns out that after getting out of rehab, Burt became an AA sponsor, and is always keen to help someone else who’s struggling with the demon drink.

The guy in the motel is in pretty rough shape, and is going to be transferred to the clinic where Burt once resided. But while Burt is looking through the guy’s things for ID, he finds a note that basically implies that Burt Lewis is maybe not his real name, that he actually might be a dude named Bill Logan, and what’s more, that he probably did something really bad over those two drunken years he can’t remember, because this guy in the motel was evidently sent to kill him.

Burt is starting to wig out, because it’s entirely possible that he did some really fucked up shit during the titular “big blackout,” but he’ll be damned if he can recall a single iota of it. Not only that, but the guy in the motel, whose name is Adams, later turns up dead, and it appears that someone is trying to frame Burt for the crime; other gangster-type guys he sort of knows from back in the day also turn up and threaten him and his family for information about “Bill Logan.” Burt suspects he might actually be Bill Logan, but the whole fun of the plot is trying to figure out what the hell Burt was doing for those lost two years that suddenly has all these shifty characters gunning for him. It was obvious pretty early on (at least to me) that the exceptionally thirsty Ethel was involved somehow, but I still enjoyed this one regardless, as it did take a couple turns I didn’t expect, and it was kind of nice seeing alcoholism treated with such relative sensitivity in a show that’s more than sixty years old.

Well, twelve down, 55 to go. Join me for another six installments whenever I get around to watching them! And until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

One thought on “Revisiting Thriller with Boris Karloff: Season 1, Episodes 7-12

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