Revisiting Thriller with Boris Karloff: Season 1, Episodes 19 & 20

It’s time once again to dive back into the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller series, though I regret that I’m going to have to truncate this installment a bit. Although I’d previously been doing these posts as six-episode chunks, once I got to episode 19, I discovered that the Roku Channel, where I’d been watching the series, only goes up to episode 20 of season one, even though there are actually 37 episodes total in season one (and another 30 in season two). I was under a bit of a time crunch this week anyway, and probably wouldn’t have been able to watch and write about six episodes in time to get this post up on schedule, so I decided to just cut my losses and talk about the two episodes that I did see, then figure out how I’m going to watch the rest of the series later on. Anyway, onward and upward.

Episode 19: “Choose A Victim”

Yet another episode revolving around people scheming to bump someone off for money, this one was directed by Richard Carlson, who was also quite well-known as an actor (he was in the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, for example, and I also recognized him as Tom Stewart from the 1960 film Tormented, which I saw dozens of times after it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000).

In the tale, a lowlife con man named Ralphie Teal (played by Broadway actor Larry Blyden, who would go on to host the revival version of the panel show What’s My Line? in the early 1970s) hangs out at the beach, looking for a way to make some scratch. One day, he spots a gorgeous blonde in a very expensive sports car, and figures he’s going to worm his way into her life and see if he can milk this cash cow for all she’s worth. While she’s on the beach sunning herself, he futzes with her car so it won’t start, then steps in to help her when she returns. The two of them then go to a coffee shop and get to know one another. The woman, whose name is Edith (played by the prolific TV actress Susan Oliver), initially seems wary and standoffish, but eventually softens toward the persistent and slightly pushy Ralphie.

As the story goes on, we learn that while Edith is indeed very wealthy, she’s still under the thumb of her autocratic Uncle Phil (played by Vaughn Taylor, who played George Lowery in Psycho), who constantly sets her up on dates with the sons of his friends and harangues her about getting married. It’s implied that Phil took over the care of Edith after the death of her parents, but at this stage, Edith is at least 28 years old, so I’m not entirely sure why Phil is still on her case. I thought maybe that she wouldn’t get her inheritance until she married due to some caveat in her parents’ will, but if that was true, you’d think that Phil would actively be encouraging her NOT to get married, so he could hang on to the money and the house for himself (because Edith does tell Ralphie at one point that the house is hers). I don’t know, maybe I’m thinking about all this too much.

Once Ralphie discovers where Edith lives, he conspires to break into her house to rob it, but Edith wakes up while he’s blundering around in her bedroom and guilts the shit out of him, saying she thought he was different. Ralphie, who seems to have fallen for Edith, apologizes, and the two begin a bit of a romance. Edith tells Ralphie, however, that because her uncle would not approve of her cavorting with a shiftless beach bum, they’re going to have to keep their dalliance on the down-low. Ralphie is a tad frustrated by this, as he wants to take his new lady-love out dancing and eating at fancy restaurants (all on her dime, of course). Edith is understanding, but insistent, so the couple continue to meet underneath the pier at the beach, and take care that no one sees them together; Edith mollifies Ralphie by buying him expensive gifts.

It will be pretty obvious to anyone watching that Ralphie, although he thinks he’s playing this poor little rich girl, is actually being played by her, because he is a big dumb sucker. And sure enough, he wanders right into the careful trap she’s laid out for him, eventually suggesting that he make Edith’s Uncle Phil have an “accident” so that Edith can get her inheritance and the two of them can get hitched and live high on the hog. Edith is shocked—SHOCKED—that he would even propose such a thing, but she allows herself to be talked into it, or so it seems.

Thereafter, a series of mishaps occur that keep messing with their murder plans, but finally, Phil is dispatched by having his car go careening down an embankment. Ralphie, idiot that he is, happily tells Edith that they should cool it for a week to avoid suspicion, then reconvene at a later date and bask in their shared spoils.

Imagine Ralphie’s consternation, then, when the cops show up at the door of his beachside shack literally the day after Phil’s untimely demise. Again, it will surprise no one that Edith has engineered this whole plot from the beginning: making Ralphie think he was the one that came up with the idea to murder Phil; taking great care to not be seen with him; even fixing it so that the first two attempts at the crime went wrong in specific ways so that Ralphie would look even more guilty and Edith would look like the hapless victim of a money-hungry stalker. It’s actually kind of funny when Ralphie figures out how badly he’s been duped, and I admit that I kinda wanted Edith to get away with the whole thing, just because I respected her game. And she actually almost does, but she’s sussed out by a small, inconsequential detail: one of the cops notices that the scent of Edith’s very distinctive, expensive perfume is also present on Ralphie’s clothes and in his house, proving that the pair had a prior association. Don’t wear the pricey Chanel when plotting a homicide, is the lesson there, kids.

This was another decent episode, similar in plot to the other crime-focused installments, but more of a standout because of the strong acting of the two leads, the simplicity of the narrative, and the tension inherent in their cat and mouse game. Although it’s fairly obvious from the get-go that Ralphie is the one being conned, it’s still a fun ride watching his plans crumble and wondering when exactly he’s going to wise up to the fact that he ain’t the one running this show.

Episode 20: “Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook”

Just from the title of this episode, I anticipated that it was perhaps going to be based on the real-life murder of Charles Walton, a case I wrote about in the first volume of my true crime compilation, The Faceless Villain. And indeed, as the story unfolded, I found that I was correct. This one was another more horror-based story, delving into English witchcraft, and another one of my favorites in the series so far.

At the beginning of the tale, an old man is murdered in a field in a tiny village called Dark Woods on the border between England and Wales; the killer stabs the hapless victim through the chest with a hay-fork, then uses a bill-hook to carve a cross into his throat.

Detective Inspector Harry Roberts of Scotland Yard (played by Kenneth Haigh) is sent to the village to investigate, and right away, it’s clear that the residents of Dark Woods would have preferred it if the big-city police officer had left them to their own devices. The man who was murdered, you see, was a fellow named Thomas Watson, who everyone in the village thought to be a witch; and what’s more, they all sincerely believe that he had to be killed, since he was responsible for a smattering of cattle deaths and lackluster harvests that had taken place recently.

Harry Roberts, of course, thinks all of this is poppycock, as does his wife Nesta (played by Audrey Dalton, who I recognized from the 1964 film Kitten With a Whip, featured on another MST3K episode), who has accompanied her husband to Dark Woods in the hopes of having a bit of a honeymoon once the murder case has been sorted out. Upon meeting with the chief constable, Sir Wilfred, it comes to light that the superstitious townsfolk will never aid Scotland Yard in the investigation, as they believe that killing a witch is completely justified and necessary for their own survival.

A wrinkle arises, however, when Nesta sees a black dog in the road as she’s riding in a car with her husband and the Dark Woods constable, Evans. Neither Harry nor Evans see the dog, and Sir Wilfred later tells Harry and Nesta that the residents regard black dogs to be omens of death; he advises that Nesta not mention her sighting of the dog to anyone, as because she was the only one to see it, the townspeople might start suspecting her of being a witch.

Not long after Harry and Nesta arrive in town, there’s actually another murder; an old woman named Agnes is placed in a wicker hamper that was stolen from Sir Wilfred’s house and burned alive. Harry is incensed that Constable Evans isn’t bothering to investigate this crime either, but again, the people of Dark Woods think that Agnes was a witch and got what was coming to her. They’re also starting to throw around notions that Nesta is a witch; Evans tells the rest of the residents about her sighting of the black dog, and several of them point out that Nesta is very dark and pretty, with a “fire” in her eyes.

Despite all the stonewalling, Harry does manage to make some progress on the investigation; with the help of soldiers from the next town, he finds a watch belonging to the first murder victim, Thomas Watson, which he tells the townsfolk will probably have the murderer’s fingerprints on it. Whether it really does or not is immaterial, but Harry wants everyone to think it does; he sets it up so that he has to pack the watch and leave it in the post office overnight so it can be mailed to Scotland Yard headquarters in the morning. He’s hoping that the murderer will try to break into the post office overnight to steal the watch, and he’ll be able to collar him or her. Nesta also does her part, driving to the county seat called Quaintly to do some research on the town’s history of witchcraft killings.

While Harry is doing his nighttime stakeout at the post office, however, Constable Evans and his mother invade the inn where Nesta is sleeping alone, and they knock her out and throw her in another wicker hamper, having decided that she’s a witch too and should be burned forthwith. In a nice touch, Harry is able to rescue his wife from certain death when the black dog she saw before approaches him and leads him to where she’s been taken. Sir Wilfred gets killed by Evans, sadly, but both Evans and his elderly mother (who it turns out was the one who killed Thomas Watson at the beginning) get hauled off to the clink.

I enjoyed this episode quite a bit; although I was very familiar with the real case that was used as inspiration, this went off in its own direction, utilizing the folklore of the area to great, spooky effect. I also liked that in the end, it was left fairly ambiguous as to whether anyone was a witch or not; I suppose it could be argued that the black dog was supernatural, as Nesta saw it a couple of times when no one else did, but the fact that Harry eventually saw the dog too and that it helped him save his wife suggested that maybe the dog was real after all, or at least wasn’t the ill omen that the townsfolk believed.

As I mentioned, the Roku Channel’s run of Thriller stops here, so I will continue discussing this series whenever I find the rest of the episodes streaming somewhere. Until then, keep it creepy, my friends.


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