Thriller ran for two glorious seasons on NBC, from 1960 to 1962. The episode roster came to include sixty-seven hour-long installments, all lensed in stark black-and-white. Horror icon Boris Karloff served as the series host, and Hubbell Robinson produced. Some episodes boasted scores by a young Jerry Goldsmith. In its early days, Thriller alternated between "thrilling" crime adventures and out-and-out horror stories, but before long, the series moved deeper into the horror genre, and offered a number of memorable tales in that venue.
Perhaps the most famous of these efforts was "Pigeons from Hell," written by John Knuebuhl and adapted from Robert E. Howard's 1938 short story that was first published in Weird Tales (and recently adapted again as a Dark Horse comic-book in 2008). Shot by golden-TV age cameraman extraordinaire Lionel Lindon (1905 -1971), the episode was directed by One Step Beyond's John Newland, and it first aired in prime time on June 6, 1961.
"Pigeons from Hell" is a dedicated Southern Gothic, a horror sub-genre that excavates the "cultural character" of the American South, features frequent grotesqueries and evidences an atmosphere of pure, creeping, unadulterated dread.
The televised tale begins as two likable young brothers, Tim (Brandon De Wilde) and John Branner (David Whorf) take an unexpected detour on their road trip through the Deep South. They come upon an abandoned Plantation, the Blassenville Estate, as night falls. The introductory shot of this Estate is rather masterfully vetted: the camera pivots from the thick woods suddenly; to a veil of hanging Spanish moss that juts down into frame. Beyond, the dilapidated Southern castle stands in the distance. Half occluded. Half in another world.
The two brothers spend the night in the house, and Karloff's opening narration (from a misty swamp...) informs us that this is a bad idea. That "spirits of the dead" have come back to "guard their ancestral home" from these northern invaders. Then it's back to the story as Tim and John sleep downstairs, by a roaring fire. John is awakened in the night by the odd sound of cooing pigeons...which have mysteriously congregated around the house -- on the porch and veranda. At first, the cooing of these birds is kind of comforting, but then it belies a certain madness, and the perpetual noise grows menacing and unsettling...like the sound of blood coming to a boil.
In the middle of the night, John is drawn upstairs (across a winding, damaged staircase of grand proportions) by the call of a female voice. This disembodied voice sings to him. He disappears into an upstairs room and we hear a blood-curdling scream (but don't see what occurs). Tim rushes to his aide, only to find John -- his head split open and bloodied-- now an axe-wielding zombie.
Tim flees the Blassenville house and returns later that night with Sheriff Buckner (Crahan Denton), a no-nonsense law-enforcement official. They explore the darkened house together -- finding a bloody staircase first and then heading upstairs...into the dark.
Soon, Tim and the Sheriff discover the diary of the house's last known resident, Elizabeth Blassenville. Over fifty years ago, she wrote of a time when the Plantation had turned to "weeds" and something evil prowled outside her house. By night, she would hear a strange rfumbling at the door...
The resolution to this mystery involves the last known plantation worker, a slave named Jacob Blount (Ken Renard). In terrified fashion, he reveals to Tim and the Sheriff a story of "zuvembies" - inhuman women who "live forever." For them "time means nothing." And in the great tradition of the Southern Gothic, the resolution of the Blassenville story involves the family tree, and a heretofore unknown, half-sister to the Blassenvilles, the African-American Eulilee.
The last several moments of "Pigeons from Hell" are filled with authentic, throat-tightening terror, as the voice of the ancient siren beckons Timothy upstairs...to the dark room. And then, out of the darkness (in a lovely shot transitioning from blurry to crystal clear), a murderous old crone -- with hatchet -- appears. Following that sequence, we get a good look at what has become of the Blassenville sisters.
Thriller in general, and "Pigeons from Hell" specifically, were lauded by Stephen King in his book on horror, Danse Macabre (1981) and for good reason. Under Newland's expert direction (by this point he had directed over ninety-episodes of One Step Beyond...), the episode never lags, and the creepy atmosphere is so thick it is almost tangible. There's a lovely push-in on a painting of Elizabeth at one point, cob-webs framing and surrounding her very alive-looking face. The image suggests her entrapment, and indeed that's the crux of the story. Another terrific and evocative shot climaxes this long night of Southern terror: the old crone -- in the background of the shot -- is silhouetted by a powerful ring of light, just as she is about to launch her final bloody attack.
The feeling underlying this Southern Gothic is one of trespass: John and Tim step into a world they know nothing about, and are punished for the transgression. More than trespass even, the story involves a family legacy of hatred, racism and revenge that stretches from beyond the grave and chokes those still in the mortal coil. The old Lady "monster" in this episode is a sight to behold, and this sinister old crone represents the long history of secrets stretching into the present. Like the Old South herself, this Evil never forgets the past.
In the days and weeks ahead, I'll be blogging further episodes of Thriller, in part because I feel it deserves some renewed attention (and isn't available officially on DVD), and in part because it's so damned good. But for today, it's enough to remember (with a chill...), the series' finest installment, "Pigeons from Hell." John Newland was a damned good director of horror (he also helmed the amazing TV-movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark starring Kim Darby and several episodes of Night Gallery). I admire the way Newland selected his shots here: not just because they were scary, per se, but because they were scary in a way that explicitly reflected the episodes' narrative content. "Pigeons from Hell" is Newland at his best too, and that just makes the episode all the more effective.