Revisiting Thriller with Boris Karloff: Season 1, Episodes 13-18

So here we are with another installment of our ongoing discussion of all the episodes of the 1960/1961 Thriller series, hosted by Boris Karloff. We’ve already discussed episodes 1-6 and 7-12, so we’re getting right into the next half-dozen.

Episode 13: “Knock Three-One-Two”

Another crime-heavy episode, this one was pretty entertaining, though it didn’t really have any major twists, and it was easy to see where the story was going. It was directed by Herman Hoffman, and adapted from a novel by Fredric Brown, who incidentally also wrote a novel called The Screaming Mimi, which was not only adapted into a 1958 film starring Anita Ekberg, but was also the unofficial inspiration for Dario Argento’s classic 1970 giallo film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Main character Ray Kenton (played by Joe Maross) is a liquor salesman with a gambling problem, and at the moment, he owes $1,500 to some people who’ve implied they’re gonna ice him if he doesn’t come up with the loot in 24 hours. His long-suffering wife Ruth (played by the awesome Beverly Garland, who’s fantastic here) works as a waitress and has been socking money away in her own separate savings account. She used to be more of a pushover, lending money to Ray whenever he got in a jam, but she’s understandably tired of him constantly pissing her cash away, and though she still has $4,000 in the bank (the equivalent to almost forty grand today), she’s decided at long last to put her foot down and not give him any more money, even though he tries every trick in the book to try to guilt the cash out of her. I was rooting for Beverly to shut the bum down, though, and girl came through for me.

There are two other plot tendrils that also play into the story as it goes on. The first of these involves a serial killer stalking the city, who’s murdered four women by strangling them with silk stockings. Ray actually sees the guy one night as the killer is leaving the scene of one of the crimes, but he doesn’t realize the guy’s a killer until a revelation later on.

Then there’s Benny (played by Warren Oates), a mentally challenged newspaper seller who has convinced himself that he’s the murderer, even though there’s no way he possibly could be. He confesses to the police on the daily, and they’ve tried to get him help by setting him up with a psychiatrist, but he won’t be dissuaded from his delusions.

So we have a guy who desperately needs money whose wife won’t give it to him, a guy who erroneously thinks he’s a serial killer, and an actual serial killer whose identity becomes clear to the first guy about halfway through the story. From those pieces, you can probably start to put together the puzzle of the plot that Ray comes up with to keep his gambling debts from getting him whacked.

This one had some slow spots and was sort of predictable once it started to play out, but the acting was still damn good, and I enjoyed it overall. Beverly Garland really elevated it for me, I have to say; I love her, and she played a great character here, tough and sympathetic at the same time.

Episode 14: “Man in the Middle”

Directed by Fletcher Markle (a prolific director and producer who, fun fact, was married to legendary actress Mercedes McCambridge, who horror fans will know as the voice of Pazuzu in The Exorcist) and based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong (who also wrote the novels that earlier Thriller episodes “The Mark of the Hand” and “Girl with a Secret” were based on), “Man in the Middle” was another noir-style crime thriller which was diverting enough, though some of the characters made bafflingly dumb decisions which led to less than ideal outcomes for all involved. The third act had some good, tense moments, though.

Mort Sahl plays a sort of sad-sack TV writer named Sam Lynch. At the beginning of the story, he’s in a restaurant and overhears the two guys in the booth behind him very casually planning to abduct a well-known local heiress for ransom, and possibly kill her if necessary. Now, granted, I’m not a kidnapper or murderer myself, but I would imagine that if you and your associates were arranging such a scheme, it might behoove you to, y’know, maybe hash out the details in a private location, like your own damn house, rather than blabbing the whole shebang at normal volume in a public place. But maybe I just don’t understand crime.

Sam is spotted by the two miscreants—Baby Hoffman, played by Julian Burton, and Mr. Clark, played by Werner Klemperer, aka Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes—so he loudly tells the bartender a story about saving a dog from getting run over, which is meant to imply to the kidnappers that he isn’t going to squeal. They acknowledge his message, but subtly let it be known that he’s toast if he goes to the cops. HEY KIDNAPPERS, MAYBE NEXT TIME DON’T TELL YOUR PLANS TO THE WHOLE RESTAURANT, AND THIS KINDA STUFF WOULDN’T HAPPEN. Damn.

Anyway, Sam starts thinking about the heiress, Kay Salisbury (played by Sue Randall from Leave It To Beaver), and even though he doesn’t know her from Adam, he decides he’s going to take a stand for once in his life and not be what he calls a “fence-sitter,” i.e. someone who just keeps his mouth shut and lets bad things happen to innocent people. He goes to the young woman’s father to warn him about the plot, making it clear that the two kidnappers will kill him if they find out he ratted, but of course dear old dad doesn’t believe him.

So then Sam essentially kidnaps the woman himself (*facepalm*) and hides her in a safe location, and things get more and more needlessly complex, mainly because of either Sam’s inability to just clearly state what he’s up to, or other people’s unwillingness to believe anything he says. Things work out more or less okay, but there was a bit of time there when I thought shit was gonna go REALLY badly.

I did like the theme here of Sam deciding he was going to risk his own life to save someone he didn’t know, just because he was tired of seeing bad people getting away with things. There was also a little side-message about the heiress, Kay, and the privilege that her family’s wealth afforded her; she acknowledges at the end that she basically never had to be “in the world” because she was always insulated from evil, so she was almost glad that all this shit happened to her because it opened her eyes somewhat.

I still wish the inciting incident—Sam overhearing the kidnappers—could have been done in a more believable way, though, because the whole time I was watching it, I was like, NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF THE THUGS HAD JUST TALKED ABOUT THEIR CRIME AT HOME. But maybe that’s just me.

Episode 15: “The Cheaters”

This episode was actually a bit more horror-oriented (or at least had something of a supernatural element), though a lot of the focus was still on crime, specifically people scheming to bump other people off for money. It’s also like three or four stories in one, and was based on a tale by famed Psycho author Robert Bloch.

At the beginning, a sorcerer/alchemist dude named Dirk Van Prinn (Henry Daniell) invents a pair of spectacles that causes him to see something he apparently REALLY doesn’t like; this something must have something to do with the truth, because he also engraved the Latin word “veritas” into the frames. Van Prinn subsequently commits suicide.

We then jump to an old junk man named Joe Henshaw (Paul Newlan), who buys up Van Prinn’s old house for a hundred bucks, hoping there’s some valuable stuff inside he can sell for a tidy profit. His wife Maggie (Linda Watkins) berates him for spending that much money on what’s sure to be a bunch of worthless crap, and for a time it looks like she’s right; when he and his assistant Charlie (Ed Nelson) enter the old place, it’s a dusty ruin with nothing particularly promising contained therein. Inside a secret compartment in a desk, however, Joe finds the glasses, and when he puts them on back home, he discovers that when you look at other people, you can tell what they’re really thinking. In this way, he uncovers a plot to kill him, cooked up by his wife and his assistant, who also happens to be banging her. Shit goes drastically sideways in a way I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting.

The glasses then end up in the possession of doddering but wealthy old kleptomaniac Miriam Olcott (Mildred Dunnock), and they reveal yet another murder plot by Miriam’s conniving relatives. There’s a lot of that going around, it seems. After her fate plays out, the glasses fall into one of said connivers’ hands, then on to one of his sneering party guests, a writer who finally brings the plot full circle by putting the glasses on and looking at himself, rather than at others.

This one was pretty fun, if a bit disjointed. The ending was a tad silly and unsatisfying, and some of the acting toward the end was way overdramatic, but I liked this slightly more horror-centered story, though it almost had the weird feel of an anthology within an anthology.

Episode 16: “The Hungry Glass”

One of the better-known episodes of the series, this one was also based on a Robert Bloch short story, 1951’s “The Hungry House,” and it’s the first overtly horror installment since episode 7, “The Purple Room” (not surprisingly, both that episode and this one had the same director, Douglas Heyes). It probably goes without saying, but this was easily my favorite episode of the series so far, not only because it was an effectively creepy ghost story, but also because it boasted some very familiar faces, including William Shatner, Russell Johnson (aka the Professor from Gilligan’s Island), and a brief appearance by Elly May Clampett herself, Donna Douglas!

Gil Thrasher (William Shatner) and his wife Marcia (Joanna Heyes) have purchased an old seaside mansion in a rather unwelcoming New England town called Cape Caution. The oldsters in the town’s only bar/restaurant/general store hint at some dark doings at the house, but Gil and Marcia laugh it off, as does their new friend and out-of-town realtor Adam Talmadge (Russell Johnson), who sold them the place. One of the weird things about the house, it seems, is that there are no mirrors anywhere, which causes Gil to snark that maybe the place was built by vampires.

It soon becomes clear that some bizarre shit having to do with reflections is going on up there, though; at a celebratory get-together at the fated house, Adam’s wife Liz (Elizabeth Allen) is certain she saw a man with a hook for a hand staring at them through the picture window, even though there’s nothing but a sheer cliff drop where the man would’ve had to have been standing. As time goes on, Gil sees what appears to be a little girl’s face appearing in one of his photographs, and after his wife finds all the wayward mirrors stashed in a hidden room in the attic, Gil also sees what looks like an apparition of an old woman with a fan. There’s some ambiguity introduced about the whole thing, however, because Gil suffered with some brain fever while in the Army in Korea, and he wonders if he’s just having a recurrence of the hallucinations he experienced back then.

Adam finally tells Gil that the woman the house was built for, Laura Bellman (Donna Douglas), was so obsessed with staring at her own beauty in the house’s many mirrors that she shut herself away in the mansion until she was found later, a very old, Baby Jane-looking woman (Ottola Nesmith) who still saw herself as young and gorgeous in her reflection. A bunch of people died in and around the house subsequently, all in supposed accidents that involved mirrors or windows somehow.

This was a great story, very atmospheric and spooky, and I really liked the witty, sparkling dialogue exchanges that took place among the four principal actors before the terror really set in full force. I think when people look back at the Thriller series fondly, it’s particularly the scarier episodes like this that they’re thinking of, and it’s easy to see why this one is remembered by horror nerds all these decades later.

Episode 17: “The Poisoner”

This episode veered back toward the crime stories again, though it did have some more horror-like elements, since it involved a serial killer; and as it was set in the 19th century, it also had something of a Jack the Ripper-type feel. This was also the first installment of the show, as far as I’m aware, that was based on a true story, though this fact wasn’t really spelled out explicitly.

Our main character is an insufferably pompous windbag named Thomas Edward Griffith (Murray Matheson), who fancies himself something of a bon vivant, dabbling in painting and writing and throwing lavish parties for the upper crust of society. At the beginning of the story, he marries a woman named Frances Abercrombie (Sarah Marshall), believing she’s wealthy. See, ol’ Thomas appears rich, but in reality, his money is held in trust by his Uncle George (Maurice Dallimore), who refuses to pay out any more to his profligate nephew, since Thomas not only spends oodles of cash on extravagant doodads for his house, but also forged his uncle’s signature in order to get some money on at least one occasion.

So in desperation, Thomas marries Frances, but on their wedding day, her crass mother and sickly sister arrive, and it becomes obvious that Frances is not as wealthy as Thomas assumed. What’s worse, mother and sister both move in (as does the family kitty), and Thomas, after learning that the mom actually does have some money stashed away from the sale of her house, decides to help the Grim Reaper along with the use of some nameless poison he keeps in a handy compartment in a jeweled ring. Over the course of the story, he kills pretty much everyone who gets in his way (including, indirectly, the sweet kitty, which made me want to throw the smarmy asshole into a shark tank wearing a raw meat codpiece), but due to some slick wordplay and legal jiggery-pokery, he actually sort of gets away with it, at least for a time.

As I alluded to earlier, Thomas Edward Griffith was based on a real guy: Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a 19th century writer, artist, and dandy who was an irresponsible spender and whose fortune was indeed held by his uncle George. Several people around the real Thomas did die mysteriously, including his sister-in-law, his mother-in-law, his uncle, and a friend of his, and though several writers like Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde embellished stories about him being a serial poisoner (including inventing the whole strychnine-inside-the-ring bit), there was no solid evidence that he killed anyone. Much like in the episode, though, he did get convicted on a technicality relating to the forgery, and got shipped off to a penal colony in Australia.

Upon reading the real dude’s Wikipedia page, I realized that Murray Matheson playing the character as a pretentious poseur who was in love with his own cleverness was probably right on the money, as evidenced by Wainewright’s literary career, in which he actually used the pseudonyms Janus Weathercock, Egomet Bonmot and Cornelius van Vinkbooms. Seriously, even if he didn’t kill anybody, fuck that guy.

Episode 18: “Man in the Cage”

This one was a bit harder for me to get into, since it’s focused on smuggling in Tangier, but the mystery was still intriguing enough to keep me interested, at least through the first part.

Based on the 1960 novel by Jack Vance, the story begins with an American named Noel Hutson (Guy Stockwell), who’s smuggling some guns for Arab Nationalists who also give him something extra in a couple of boxes labeled “Soap Powder.” Noel doesn’t want whatever is in the boxes, but he gets hastened on his way at gunpoint because the heat are bearing down on them. Noel tries to weasel out of the job as he’s driving away, but the guy he’s with, Kazim, tries to force him to keep driving to Tangier, at which point a struggle ensues, and Kazim gets killed. Shortly afterward, Noel apparently disappears.

We then follow Noel’s brother Darrell (Philip Carey), who comes to Morocco after receiving a troubling letter from Noel three weeks previously, in which he said he needed money. Darrell sent the money, but it was never picked up, so Darrell got worried and flew to Tangier to see what was wrong.

During his stay, a whole bunch of shady shit occurs, most of which centers around people trying to get Noel’s letter away from Darrell, who eventually finds out that the “Soap Powder” boxes contained a cool million in pure heroin. People are tortured and killed, Darrell is briefly shoved in a cage (hence the title), and it’s all seemingly because Noel’s employers believe that Darrell knows where both Noel and the stash of heroin is. Meanwhile, Darrell conducts his own investigation into what ultimately happened to his brother.

As I said, this one didn’t really grab me as much as some of the others, as international drug smuggling intrigue isn’t usually high on my list of fascinating story topics, but this one was still pretty good, though it didn’t really have any compelling twists and turns, being a fairly straightforward crime tale.

Fun fact: the kid who plays the thief Slip-Slip in this episode is actually Barry Gordon, who would go on to do tons of voice acting, and is best known as the original voice of Donatello and Bebop in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.

Keep watching this space, as I’ll get around to reviewing the next six episodes sometime in November. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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