Tuesday, March 23, 2010

CULT TV BLOGGING: Thriller: "The Cheaters"

"The Cheaters" is another remarkable and chilling episode of the two-season, classic horror anthology series from the 1960s, Thriller.

Like "The Hungry Glass," this installment is based on a story by genre legend Robert Bloch. Although there's no William Shatner headlining this particular segment, it still boasts a special treat for horror enthusiasts: a creepy score by none other than Jerry Goldsmith.

In "The Cheaters," a scientist creates a very special pair of eye-glasses in the 1800s. Inscribed with the word "VERITAS" (Latin for "truth"), these glasses permit the wearer to hear the true thoughts of anybody he cast his eyes upon.

In a bizarre opening twist, the inventor peers into the mirror and sees the "truth of his mind." He promptly goes insane and dies in the throes of terror. We don't see what he sees in the looking glass, however. Instead, the picture blurs on an image of his screaming visage (a technique reminding us of the nature of eyesight...), and we join host Boris Karloff as he introduces the tale.

The story then picks up a hundred years later, as a kindly junk dealer, Joe (Paul Newlan) comes across the cursed spectacles. He puts them and learns that his wife, Maggie, and his business-partner, Charlie, are planning his murder. Consequently, he bludgeons them both to death with a tire-iron before a policeman shoots him down. As it sounds, this is an exceptionally violent passage, especially for 1960s television.

Before long, the seemingly-cursed eyeglasses become the property of an elderly woman, Miriam Olcott (Mildred Dunnock). While wearing the glasses, she learns that her heirs, including Edward (Jack Weston), plan to have her murdered for her wealth.

In fact, her attorney, Clarence, plans to push her down the stairs so he can claim half her estate for himself. Like Joe before her, Miriam retaliates, impaling Clarence on a knitting needle. She then drinks whiskey and toasts the dead man. "To what is most precious between friends," she declares, "the truth..."

There are more disasters to come involving Edward, and finally the eyeglasses become the property of one fortune-seeking Sebastian Grimm (Harry Townes). He tracks down the history of the glasses and, in a reflection of the opening scene, views himself (wearing the spectacles) in the same mirror as the inventor did. At the urging of a malevolent, disembodied voice Sebastian "dares" to gaze into his own mind, and this time Thriller spares us no horror: Grimm's true self looks twisted and depraved, monstrous...and he promptly dies of the horror. But not, at last, before smashing the offending eye-wear.

Frankly, I can't imagine watching "The Cheaters" and "The Hungry Glass" week-to-week, back-to-back (December 27, 1960 and January 3, 1961), as they originally aired. I think if I had, I would have been too frightened to ever watch Thriller again. Both episodes are pretty intense.
Yet in some ways, "The Cheaters" is even more frightening than either "The Hungry Glass" or "Pigeons form Hell." The story is incredibly disturbing, and paints an entirely unflattering picture of mankind. Every character, in some fashion is a cheater: whether in love, in cards, or in the attainment of wealth.

Every character also nurses a secret and hides some internal ugliness behind the mask of normality. That's ultimately what we see embodied in the mirror during the climax: a portrait of human insincerity and ugliness. I just can't imagine a horror TV series on the air today making a statement this strong, or this downbeat. "The Cheaters" pulls no punches.

It's fascinating that the eyeglasses in "The Cheaters" never expose or excavate feelings of love, sympathy, generosity, empathy or caring. Every person those glasses "see" is bedeviled by malevolence, avarice or self-delusion. Therefore, while watching the episode unfold, you wonder if the glasses themselves are really truthful, or are pure evil themselves...the very opposite of the proverbial "rose colored glasses." Tellingly, the spectacles are also known as "the cheaters," and you wonder if this refers to the fact that they "cheat" by giving us a secret insight. Or perhaps they cheat in another, deeper, trickier way.

"The Cheaters" of this episode's title may also refer to all humans beings. According to Thriller, these foolish creatures say one thing but think different things entirely. It's a scary thought, and I love how Thriller visualizes the exposed, unfortunate cheaters. Their faces exist half-in-shadow, and their eyes are bulbous, exaggerated orbs of hate. Very creepy stuff from director Donald S. Sanford, and another stand-out episode of the series.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanx for this! I love this episode so much, and ye original Bloch tale as well. Indeed, I've written a sequel to "The Cheaters" that was inspir'd as much by ye THRILLER episode as it was Bob's story. In my story, I've invented a second pair of glasses...