Revisiting Thriller with Boris Karloff: Season 1, Episodes 33-37

At long last, I’m returning to my exhaustive breakdowns of each episode of the American Thriller series from the early 1960s, hosted by Boris Karloff. This time around, I’m only covering five episodes (instead of the usual six), because there were only five left in season one, so without further ado…

Episode 33: “The Terror in Teakwood”

This is easily one of the most discussed and beloved episodes of the series, and it’s pretty easy to see why. The creepy atmosphere, the beautiful shot compositions, the cool score, the eerie story, and the fantastic acting performances all make this one of the standouts of the entire run. As a matter of fact, speaking of actors, horror fans will immediately recognize several of the main players here, including Hazel Court (veteran of a handful of Hammer films and Roger Corman’s celebrated Poe pictures The Premature Burial, The Raven, and Masque of the Red Death), Guy Rolfe (from William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus and Stuart Gordon’s Dolls), Reggie Nalder (who famously starred as the terrifying Barlow in Tobe Hooper’s classic adaptation of Salem’s Lot), and Vladimir Sokoloff (who had a small but memorable role in I Was a Teenage Werewolf).

The episode was directed by Paul Henreid (probably best known for his acting roles, particularly playing Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) and based on a story by Harold Lawlor that first appeared in the March 1947 issue of Weird Tales. It reminded me a lot of the 1924 silent film The Hands of Orlac starring Conrad Veidt (which I discussed at length here, and which was based on a 1924 novel by Maurice Renard), since it likewise centers around a brilliant pianist and a pair of rogue appendages. Incidentally, The Hands of Orlac was also adapted again in 1960, and that time around starred Christopher Lee!

Anyway, back to the matter at hand (see what I did there?). At the beginning of the story, we have a bit of a teaser opening where we see a man we later learn is world-renowned musician Vladimir Vicek (Guy Rolfe) paying a gravedigger to let him into a particular crypt, where he proceeds to do something presumably horrible to the corpse entombed within, judging by the gravedigger’s scandalized reaction.

We then cut to a concerned woman named Leonie (Hazel Court), who is imploring her friend/former suitor Jerry (Charles Aidman) to help her figure out what the hell is going on with her husband Vladimir, who seems to be losing his ever-loving mind.

See, Vladimir had a longtime, intensely hateful rivalry with another brilliant pianist named Carnowitz, who had freakishly large hands, which allowed him to play pieces that other musicians couldn’t. Carnowitz recently went to that big concert hall in the sky, and Vladimir is gloating like a madman about it, but Carnowitz had one final fuck you to his despised adversary: he composed a beautiful sonata that only his massive mitts could play. This pissed Vladimir off no end, and he’s presumably going a little nuts trying to figure out how he’s going to get the upper hand (ha, I did it again) on his now-dead counterpart.

His wife Leonie, who is worried about him, enlists Jerry to become Vladimir’s personal assistant to keep an eye on him, neglecting to tell her husband that she and Jerry used to be a thing; Vladimir is a tad possessive, as you might have surmised. Vlad employs Jerry, and immediately entrusts him with a mysterious teakwood box that he warns must be kept within Jerry’s sight at all times. Jerry later opens this box (to be fair, Vladimir never told him he couldn’t) and discovers to his horror that it contains a pair of severed hands. I’ll note here, though, that when Jerry later tells Leonie about this, he actually says that they’re plaster casts of Carnowitz’s hands, explaining that Vladimir broke into his rival’s crypt in order to make the casts from the dead body. This doesn’t really make any sense, however, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit. Maybe the producers of the show were trying to circumvent the censors by implying that they weren’t real severed hands? Who knows.

Anyway, the climax of the story occurs when Vladimir gives a concert in which he insists that he’s going to play Carnowitz’s infamous sonata…and a bunch of people, including a delightfully abrasive journalist who absolutely loathes Vladimir from the tips of her toes to the top of her crazy feathered chapeau, show up to watch his ass fail. But to everyone’s surprise, he plays it perfectly, and smugly drinks in his triumph as he gets a standing ovation. Leonie, though, watching from the audience, notices blood dripping from her husband’s wrists…

So yeah, it turns out that Vladimir absolutely did sever the giant hands of his sworn enemy so he could essentially use them as meat gloves in order to play the sonata. This is why everyone was so appalled when they found out what he did; I mean, making a plaster cast off a corpse is weird, sure, but not really that shocking in the great scheme of things. Straight up stealing body parts and wearing them, though, is getting into Ed Gein territory. Hell, even the gravedigger from the beginning (played by Reggie Nalder) starts blackmailing Vladimir to keep anyone from finding out about the grave desecration; I have a feeling no one really would have given much of a crap if Vlad had just snuck in there with some plaster of Paris, you know?

At first, when Vlad wore the hands, he explains, the appendages fought him viciously, as though Carnowitz’s spirit still imbued them with the hatred he had for his rival in life. Eventually, however, Vladimir bent the hands to his will, and even plans to use them (because it turns out they can also crawl around by themselves, by the way) to kill his wife, who he believes is fooling around with Jerry (the script leaves it ambiguous as to whether she is actually cheating, though).

But you just know that Vladimir isn’t going to get away with his dirty deeds, and he ends up getting hoist by his own petard, or rather strangled by the very hands he stole from the remains of his nemesis.

As I mentioned, this was a great episode, and immediately shot up to my top five favorites so far. The story has been done before—there were a lot of “rampaging body part” tales floating around back then, after all—but the execution here is fantastic; it’s a grim, moody-looking piece that just draws you right in with its compelling performances and spooky tone. Definitely a winner.

Episode 34: “The Prisoner in the Mirror”

Slightly less awesome but still worthwhile, the next episode was directed by the ubiquitous Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Arthur, who penned loads of creepy TV episodes in this era and also wrote a whole bunch of the Three Investigators books that I loved so much as a child. Playing like something of a slight variation on the much more famous episode “The Hungry Glass,” this one also concerns a haunted mirror; it’s pretty straightforward, but still a good time.

The opening of the story takes place in Paris in 1910, and we see a man and woman having a fancy dinner. The guy impresses his date with some sleight of hand, first producing a bird from beneath a napkin, then materializing a fabulous diamond necklace. The woman is enchanted, but then the date takes a darker turn (something I’m sure a lot of people have experience with), and the man transforms into a skeleton dude and straight up murders the woman right in the middle of the restaurant. Later on, the poor guy is at home with his mom, lamenting that he’s innocent but will never be able to prove it. The cops are closing in downstairs, and the man leaps from the window to his death. What on earth could be going on here, you may be asking yourself?

We then jump ahead to the present day (well, present to when the show came out), still in Paris. Lloyd Bochner (who was in hundreds of TV shows, but will probably be best known to horror fans for starring in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”) plays Professor Harry Langham, who’s writing a paper on Alessandro Cagliostro, a real Italian “adventurer” and dabbler in the occult who lived in the 18th century (who also gets name-checked in the following episode, as it happens). Rumor had it that ol’ Cagliostro had a magical mirror that he used in his spells, and Harry is interested to find it, even though he obviously doesn’t believe in any of this black magic hooey.

A colleague of Harry’s named Professor Thibault (Peter Brocco) warns Harry that Cagliostro was the real thing, and that Harry should really leave well enough alone. To prove to him the danger he’s in, Thibault takes Harry down to a crypt and shows him the coffin of Yvette Dulaine (Patricia Michon), who fell under the spell of Cagliostro and died in 1780, but still appears in mint condition, as it were. Harry is weirdly and very obviously attracted to the dead(ish) woman, and even though he now believes that maybe there is something to this occult business after all, seeing Yvette just makes him more determined to continue his research.

In this pursuit, he eventually tracks the mirror down; it used to belong to the guy from the 1910 opener, and that guy coated the glass over with black paint at some point. Hmmmm. The antique dealer bids Harry to scrape away some of the paint to prove that the glass is still good under there, and during the course of this endeavor, Harry catches a glimpse of Yvette in the mirror, clearly trying to communicate with him. Now he knows he wants this thing, so he spends an absurd amount of money purchasing it and having it shipped back to the States.

Back home, Harry seems to live in a palatial mansion with his research assistant/future brother-in-law Fred Forrest (Jack Mullaney) and his fiancée/Fred’s sister Kay, who’s played by Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days herself, Marion Ross! The hilarious thing about this is that at one point, Harry coincidentally toasts Kay with, “Happy days,” even though that iconic show didn’t start until 1974. It was like a pre-emptive Easter egg.

Because Harry is so obsessed with this mirror and the hot French dead woman within, he acts like a real dick to Kay from the moment he gets home, blowing her off and shutting himself up in his room, staring at the glass endlessly. At first, nothing happens, but eventually, Harry sees Yvette appear in the mirror lighting some candles. She can’t talk, but he’s able to determine that she’s trapped in there, and that there’s apparently no way to get her out.

Harry finally comes clean to Kay about seeing the beautiful undead woman in the crypt in Paris, but when he tries to show Kay that the same woman is alive in the mirror, Kay can’t see anything but her own reflection. She understandably begins to think that her betrothed is maybe losing his marbles a little bit, perhaps getting too wrapped up in this Cagliostro paper he’s writing.

Shortly afterward, though, another person appears in the mirror, a guy who looks like an 18th-century nobleman (Henry Daniell). He tells Harry that the evil Cagliostro has also trapped him in the mirror, but that he happens to know a spell that might be able to get both him and Yvette out. Harry, besotted moron that he is, agrees to go along with this scheme, even though it entails him having to go through to the other side of the mirror for reasons which he stupidly fails to question. Anyone with any sense would have realized that this mysterious “trapped” man in the mirror is Cagliostro himself, but Harry clearly does not have the intelligence that natural selection gave to an average garden snail, so like a dumbass, he lets the guy do the spell, and his spirit goes through the mirror, leaving his empty husk of a body sitting in an armchair.

Well, surprise surprise, the sly old alchemist is all, “Thanks for the free body, bro,” and sashays out the mirror, leaving a stunned Harry behind with Yvette. Once donning Harry’s body like a cheap suit from Men’s Wearhouse, Cagliostro proceeds to do all kinds of nefarious things, including romancing Kay like she hasn’t been romanced in a while (bow-chicka-wow), and going down to a sleazy bar to pick up a “waterfront girl” (a euphemism for a sex worker that I admit I hadn’t heard before), who he subsequently murders. In fact, we discover as the story goes on, this has been Cagliostro’s modus operandi for a couple centuries: he cons some sucker into trading bodies, then traps said sucker in the mirror while he gallivants about doing lord knows what, after which he pops back into the mirror, leaving the innocent sucker on the hook for whatever crimes Cagliostro committed while prancing about in the other person’s skin suit. It’s a good system…for Cagliostro, anyway.

But because Cagliostro is as careless as he is evil, he pretty much immediately gets fingered for the murder, as a couple of Harry’s students were at the bar and saw a man who looked like their professor leaving with the victim. Harry is able to parlay his professorial dignity into persuading the cop that it was a case of mistaken identity, but shortly after the officer leaves, Kay finds one of the dead woman’s earrings in her (impostor) fiancée’s pocket. These are the same earrings featured in the photo of the woman that’s on the front page of the newspaper. So Kay is all, uh-oh, I’m planning to marry this bitch and he’s probably a killer…? Meanwhile, Cagliostro in Harry’s body is thinking, “Well, I was gonna have some more fun with Mrs. C, but she’s onto me now, so…”

Fred is suspicious of what’s been going on too, but Cagliostro is able to make it so that no one can see anyone trapped in the magic mirror unless he wants them to. When Fred arrives at the house and finds Kay dead, though, he and Harry engage in some fisticuffs which result in the mirror breaking (even though Yvette told Harry earlier that the mirror was unbreakable because it was protected by magic). This episode actually had a sort of downbeat, ambiguous ending; not only did Kay get killed (which I really wasn’t expecting), but we’re led to assume that Harry and Yvette are now trapped in the mirror universe indefinitely, or at least are dead now because the portal has been shattered. Sure, Cagliostro dies too because he was outside the mirror, but it seems small consolation. Poor Fred is the only one left to pick up all the pieces (both literally and figuratively).

I found this one a decent, middle-of-the-road episode. Henry Daniell is great as the dastardly Cagliostro, and the parts where Lloyd Bochner as Harry has to act like Cagliostro is inhabiting his body are really well-acted. It was also great seeing Marion Ross in something other than Happy Days, and she’s a delight here. The story is fairly predictable, and the ending was a little frustrating because it left so many unanswered questions, but overall, a solid watch.

Episode 35: “Dark Legacy”

A bit less successful was the next episode in the series, which was directed by John Brahm and written by John Tomerlin. Don’t get me wrong, this one was also entertaining, but some of the acting performances were a little over the top for my taste, and it was easy to tell where the story was going to go after the first few minutes.

At the beginning, we meet a wild-haired magician with a sweet black robe festooned with occult symbols. This is Radan Asparos (actor Harry Townes in crazy makeup; he also plays the lead role of Mario Asparos here, looking like his normal self). Radan tells his faithful manservant that his time is nigh, so he bids the old man a fond farewell and ducks behind his astrological curtains, where he does an invocation to Astaroth before climbing into the coffin he has all ready and waiting for him, and closing the lid. Always good to be prepared, right?

We then start to follow Radan’s nephew Mario, who is a failing stage magician. Along with his wife/assistant Monika (Ilka Windish, chewing scenery like a kaiju devouring Tokyo), he’s in danger of being canned from the club where he’s doing his act, unless he comes up with some better material.

Fortuitously, Mario hears of his uncle’s death, and goes to the reading of the will. The will mysteriously stipulates that a certain valuable book of Radan’s will go to whoever is supposed to have it, but makes no further explanation. All the other grasping relatives are furious at the vagueness of the wording and the fact that they didn’t get as much cash as they were expecting outta the old codger, but Mario seems pretty meh, more worried about his flagging career than some nebulous inheritance.

While he’s at the reading, though, Monika is home alone during a terrible storm in which the power goes out. There’s a lightning flash, she goes to the window, and when she turns around again, a big-ass magical tome is suddenly sitting there on the desk, at which point she completely loses her shit. When Mario comes home, his friend Toby Wolfe in tow (who’s played by the awesome Henry Silva, only a year before his breakout role in The Manchurian Candidate), he seems pretty blasé about the magically appearing book, explaining that Radan was one of the world’s greatest magicians, so it made sense that he would have pulled a trick like this, even after death. Monika, not surprisingly, isn’t so sure.

You can probably guess where this is going. Mario, initially skeptical of the book containing any “real” magic, nonetheless hopes that it contains some cool tricks he can incorporate into his act, so he sets about studying it closely. Monika, who knew Radan was evil and wants nothing to do with his book, tries to convince Mario to get rid of it, while Toby just thinks the whole thing is hogwash.

But before too long, Mario has summoned Astaroth himself, and starts doing amazing magic tricks on stage using real black magic, to great success. One of these is the infamous “magic bullet” illusion, which he always closes his shows with; though there is of course a way to do this trick without using any magic (though it is still very dangerous), Mario insists that he’s using demon magic to accomplish the feat. Toby doesn’t believe him, so Mario, who by this point is starting to go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and a touch mad with power, insists that both Toby and Monika watch a summoning so they can fully appreciate his malevolent accomplishments.

Well, the conjuring works, but apparently Astaroth has had enough of Mario’s petty stage magician shit, because he kills Mario and leaves Toby and Monika alive. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the demon killed Mario and Monika’s dog earlier (whose name was Peter and who was a very good boy), so I’m really not inclined to root for the demon this time around the way I normally would in these types of stories.

This one was okay, but after the heights of “The Terror in Teakwood,” it seems like something of a downgrade. Ilka Windish was wildly overwrought as Monika, and her hammy performance put many of the scenes off kilter. Harry Townes in his brief role as Radan was also a total hambone, though he was much more restrained as Mario, so it all kind of worked out. Additionally, there were some long stretches of the episode where Mario was just poring over his uncle’s book for long periods of time, to a point where I was just like, “OH MY GOD, please just summon the demon already so we can get this show on the road.” So yeah, an enjoyable episode all around, but also kind of a forgettable one.

Episode 36: “Pigeons from Hell”

Notable as the first filmed adaptation of a short story by Conan scribe Robert E. Howard (who wrote the tale in 1934), “Pigeons from Hell” is usually cited as among the best episodes of Thriller, which I can totally understand; it’s eerie and atmospheric, and though the backstory is a little convoluted and at the same time inadequately explained, it was still pretty great.

We’re following two brothers on some unspecified road trip into the swamps of the Deep South; their names are Timothy (Brandon De Wilde of Shane and Hud fame) and Johnny (David Whorf). They take a wrong turn somewhere and end up with their car stuck in the mud; while Johnny goes off to try to find something to help get them unstuck, he comes across a spooky old plantation house that appears to be deserted. He also, significantly, gets attacked by a flock of raging pigeons. Tippi Hedren to the white courtesy phone!

After that strange episode, the brothers decide that maybe they should camp out in the old house, since it’s starting to get dark. Johnny seems unsettlingly attuned to the place, as if listening for something, but soon enough, the guys get a blaze started in the parlor fireplace and bed down for the night.

Soon afterward, though, Timothy awakens to find his brother gone. He also starts hearing a creepy sound that might be a woman humming or singing. This is followed by a blood-curdling scream that clearly issued from Johnny. Racing up the stairs, Timothy is confronted by his brother, but something about Johnny just ain’t the same; the dude’s head is covered with blood, he appears to be in some kind of trance, and he’s brandishing a hatchet at his brother as though he’d like to lop off his head. Timothy, wisely, gets the fuck out of Dodge as fast as his legs will carry him, but he falls in the swamp and knocks his own terrified ass unconscious.

Thankfully, he’s rescued by the local sheriff, Bruckner (Crahan Denton from To Kill a Mockingbird), who takes him back to a nearby hunting lodge owned by a dude named Howard and his wife. Timothy tells the sheriff that he was sure Johnny was dead when he was coming at him with the hatchet; his head was split open, he says, but he was still walking. Bruckner naturally doesn’t believe this, but asks Timothy to come back to the plantation house with him to see what’s what. He also surmises that the house is probably the Blassenville mansion; at the mention of this, Howard—who was initially going to go along on this little excursion—nopes the fuck out.

So Bruckner and Timothy head to the house and find Johnny’s dead body; it appears as though Johnny came all the way downstairs and planted the hatchet right at the spot on the floor where Timothy’s head would have been resting. Bruckner is suspicious that Timothy actually killed his brother and is spinning some nutty yarn to cover it up, but after going upstairs and having some possibly paranormal shenanigans occur with the lantern he’s carrying, he’s less certain that there’s a rational explanation for all this.

Timothy asks about a portrait of a woman hanging over the mantel, and Bruckner tells him it’s probably Elizabeth Blassenville, who was the last person to live in the house. She apparently lived there with her sisters, but they all disappeared at some point or another; he also says that the sisters couldn’t even keep household staff at the mansion because they were assholes who beat their servants.

The guys also find a diary belonging to Elizabeth, and in it she writes that her sisters didn’t actually disappear, but were murdered by someone (or something) in the house that she fears might now be after her.

Because she names one of their former servants and implies that he might know something about what’s going on, Bruckner and Timothy decide to go see the man. Said man is Jacob Blount (Ken Renard), an ancient fellow from Barbados who lives in a shack on the property. And he does indeed know a whole bunch about what in the hell is going on up there; he says that a servant girl who everyone assumed ran away from the sisters’ brutality, Eula Lee, not only never left, but wasn’t even a servant: she was actually the Blassenvilles’ half-sister.

Jacob starts to get a bit cagey at this point, because he’s afraid that if he talks too much about what happened, he’ll be punished by Damballah. That’s right, there’s voodoo involved; in fact, Jacob himself was able to make zuvembies (essentially a word Robert E. Howard coined for female zombies; fun fact, sometimes comics would use that word in lieu of “zombie” to get around the Comics Code), who are immortal and have magical command over dead people, snakes, and…dun dun DUUUUNNN…pigeons, which are sort of implied to be soul carriers in this mythology.

Anyway, because of Jacob’s big mouth, Damballah sends a venomous snake into his house which kills him, and shortly after, when Bruckner and Timothy return to the mansion, Timothy is entranced by the weird humming/singing noise he heard earlier, and he wanders upstairs, where his skull is nearly cleaved in two by Eula Lee, whose zuvembie form is brandishing the same hatchet from before. Because Jacob told them that Eula Lee could be conveniently killed by a lead bullet, Bruckner shoots her dead before she can kill Timothy, and then the two men find a secret room containing the skeletal remains of the other three sisters, who Eula Lee killed fifty years before. I don’t actually think it was specified exactly why Eula Lee asked to be made a zuvembie so she could kill her half-sisters and live in this dusty old mansion alone for a half-century. I guess it was because they beat her, although it occurred to me that maybe she was also jealous because she was only a half-sister (and thence perhaps not in line for an inheritance or something like that). The original Howard story didn’t contain this “twist,” though (and in fact the zuvembie wasn’t even a sister, half or otherwise, but turned out to be the Blassenville sisters’ Aunt Celia), so maybe I’m thinking too much about it. But suffice it to say that she was pissed off about SOMETHING enough to live forever as a scary old battle axe who haunted the echoing halls of her ancestral home, hacking up whoever crossed her path. And who knows; maybe that’s its own reward.

Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was my favorite episode, it was definitely one of the better ones, and even though there were some changes from the original story, it stuck close enough for purists, I reckon. It was a tad exposition-heavy and some of the backstory got a little confusing, but otherwise, another classic episode.

Episode 37: “The Grim Reaper”

Ending season one with a bang, “The Grim Reaper” was absolutely one of my favorite episodes of the whole series so far. Directed by the ever-present Herschel Daugherty, and based on another short story by Harold Lawlor—and this time adapted for television by the brilliant Robert Bloch—this tale had it all: an intriguing premise, great acting, a spooky atmosphere, and a compelling ambiguity as to whether it was a horror story or a murder mystery and actually turning out to be both. Besides that, it not only starred the inimitable William Shatner, but also Natalie Schafer, better known as Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island!

At the very beginning of the tale, set in the 19th century, we see actor Henry Daniell again as Pierre, the concerned father of an erratic artist named Henri Rodin, who has come to check on his unstable son. Sonny boy won’t answer his summons, so he and the housekeeper bust the door down and find Henri dangling lifeless from the rafters. His final painting, which he finished just before taking his own life, is a macabre portrait of the Grim Reaper, complete with scythe.

Jump ahead to the present day. A man named Paul Graves (Shatner!) is arriving at the sprawling estate of his aunt Bea (Natalie Schafer), and seems concerned to see a hearse parked out front. When Bea answers the door, however, she’s fit as a fiddle, and tells Paul she bought the hearse as a publicity stunt; she’s a famous mystery writer, you see, and she’s really leaning into her morbid image.

So what brings Paul out to visit dear old auntie, she wants to know, since he hasn’t been to visit her for more than a year? Does he need money? Nothing like that, Paul insists. In fact, it’s her aforementioned morbid image he wants to speak with her about. He just heard through the grapevine that she purchased Rodin’s infamous last painting, and he’d really like her to destroy it because it’s actually cursed.

Bea, who has recently married her fifth, sixth, or seventh husband (she can’t quite remember), who is a much younger, hunky actor by the name of Gerald (Scott Merrill), pooh-poohs this whole curse nonsense, saying that she bought the painting for exactly the same reason she bought the hearse, and precisely because of the horrific legends surrounding it. Paul begs her to see sense, laying down the tragic litany of the painting’s history: of the last 17 owners of the work, he tells her, 15 have died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. And not only that, he goes on, but the painting actually gives a warning when its owner is going to kick the bucket: the Grim Reaper’s painted scythe begins to spontaneously drip blood.

Bea and her boy toy just laugh the whole thing off, but Bea’s young, pretty secretary Dorothy (Elizabeth Allen) is thoroughly creeped out. And then, Paul approaches the painting and exclaims in horror…he touches the canvas and shows them his fingers, which are now covered in fresh blood.

As the night goes on, Bea gets deeper and deeper into her cups, while Paul desperately tries to convince her that she needs to get rid of the painting before it’s too late. Meanwhile, Gerald is off being rapey toward Dorothy, and she tells him in no uncertain terms to fuck all the way off with that shit because she is definitely not interested.

Bea drunkenly tells Paul that she doesn’t particularly care if she dies or gets sent to a sanitarium, because that would mean Gerald and Dorothy could have the house to themselves to do whatever their hearts and genitals desired. Paul eventually gives up trying to reason with his aunt and trundles off to bed, leaving Bea alone with her booze and her bitterness.

In the middle of the night, though, as expected, Paul is awakened by Dorothy and Gerald, and when the three of them approach the staircase, they see Bea’s dead, broken body at the bottom of it. Presumably, she stumbled down the stairs in her highly inebriated state; a terrible accident, certainly. And it’s not as though that cursed painting had anything to do with it…right?

The cops come and determine that Bea’s death was indeed an accident, and before the poor woman’s body is even cold, Gerald invites her attorney to the house to read the will. Bea left every cent to Gerald, all very legal and aboveboard. Not long after the will is read, Dorothy decides to get gone, warning Paul that he should leave too, because Gerald isn’t to be trusted, and probably pushed Bea down the stairs himself.

Paul says he’s going to stay over the weekend to wrap things up, but that he’ll leave right afterward. That night, Paul is up late in the study, typing something or other, and Gerald comes in, complaining that he hasn’t been able to sleep since Bea died, and he’s starting to think that maybe that painting is cursed after all. Paul companionably gives him a sedative from a bottle he has in his bag.

And right here comes the big twist, which I’ll admit I didn’t see coming (although it’s possible I’m just a dummy). Turns out that it was Paul who pushed Bea down the stairs; he actually used her purchase of the painting as an excuse to come see her, and then he played up the artwork’s cursed history, even tricking everyone into thinking the painting was bleeding by surreptitiously putting red paint on his fingers.

Gerald is confused at first; why would Paul kill Bea if he knew that he wasn’t going to get any of the inheritance? Well, climb onto the clue bus, Gerald, because remember that sleeping pill you just blithely took from someone who was essentially a total stranger? Yeah, that was poison. And now, since Paul is Bea’s only living relative, he’s going to get the whole enchilada. He even typed Gerald’s suicide note, which was also a confession that he had murdered his wife for the money. Gerald tries to protest that no one will buy a typed suicide note because he didn’t sign it, but Paul thought of that too…within the first few minutes of the episode, he had asked Gerald if he would sign an autograph for a ten-year-old girl who was a big fan of his. Gotcha, bitch! Paul stands there and coldly watches Gerald breathe his last on the study floor.

Paul calls the authorities, and at first, it looks like he’s going to get away with his evil scheme. But then Dorothy returns after she hears of Gerald’s death; now she’s doubly worried about Paul, who it’s implied she’s starting to develop feelings for. During the course of a conversation, however, she figures out that it was actually Paul who killed Bea, and she cleverly escapes Paul’s clutches by telling him the arm in the Grim Reaper painting moved. Because although Paul faked the whole “bleeding painting” thing, he’s been seeing the faces of his two murder victims superimposed over the Reaper’s skull face, and everything’s going a bit too “Telltale Heart” for his taste.

Anyway, up to this point, the story could absolutely be read as a straightforward crime narrative; the creepy sightings in the painting could have been the product of Paul’s guilty imagination, after all. But then, in a final twist that plants the episode firmly in the horror category, Paul notices that the Grim Reaper is no longer in the painting at all. He sees a menacing figure shadowed against the wall, hears the repeated swish of the scythe’s blade slicing through the air…

Dorothy arrives with the police not long after, and they find Paul with his throat slashed open. Not only that, but the Grim Reaper is now back in his painting, and his scythe is dripping with fresh blood.

Man, what a great episode this was. It was spooky, cleverly plotted, and had absolutely no dull moments. Shatner was wonderful as the seemingly conscientious nephew who took a horrifying heel turn before the end, and I absolutely adored Natalie Schafer as Bea; she had something of Norma Desmond about her, all theater and faded glamor, but with a real vulnerable side that came out when she drank. I also liked the misdirect with the Gerald character, where you think he’s the villain until he ends up a victim too (he’s still a rapey asshole, though, so I didn’t feel too bad for him). A definite highlight of the series, and an outstanding high note to end season one on.

Be sure to keep watching this space for whenever I get the gumption to get started on season two! And until then, keep it creepy, my friends.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s