Sunday, August 22, 2010

Boris Karloff's Thriller Coming Soon to DVD

On August 31st, the classic horror anthology TV series Thriller will be available on DVD in its entirety for the first time.

Image Entertainment is releasing the 1960s, Boris Karloff-hosted series -- all 67 hour-long episodes -- along with many extra features, including extensive commentaries from filmmakers, fans and film historians. You can pre-order the set

Back in March of this year, I reviewed a few installments of the classic horror program, and today I wanted again to remind you of some of these series highlights. Now you can check them out for yourselves.

On "Pigeons from Hell"

"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 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.

It is here that "Pigeons from Hell" grows incredibly creepy. On every instance in which Sheriff Buckner enters a certain room...his lantern goes out. It works just fine downstairs. It operates perfectly on the staircase and in the upper hallway. But when he and Tim enter that is mysteriously and permanently snuffed out. Something inside waits for them, and these scenes are absolutely shiver-provoking.

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 rumbling 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 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.

...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.

On "The Hungry Glass"

"The Hungry Glass" is a kind of regional-based horror story of the supernatural variety. Only here we've left behind the Deep South for a chilly "New England autumn" and a sleepy seaside community. It is in this setting that photographer Gil Thrasher (Shatner) and his wife, Marsha (Joanna Heyes), purchase the Bellman old mansion strangely devoid of mirrors.

The Thrashers are upset to learn from locals that their new real estate purchase is not only the site of a fatal accident, but it may actually be haunted. It seems that the woman who once owned the home in the 1860s, Laura Bellman was so vain -- so obsessed with her own beauty -- that when she died, her spirit moved into any and every object that would cast a reflection, whether a mirror or a window. The Thrasher's real estate agent, Adam (Gilligan Island's Russell Johnson) attempts to assuage the couples' fears, but soon Marsha finds a locked door in the attic. Inside, in the dark, is a room of more than-a-dozen mirrors. Laura is watching...

Almost immediately upon moving into their new home, Marsha and Gil are startled by images of Laura,'s ghost, the woman in the mirror...beckoning to them. She is trying to "break through," to "reach you" and there is no doubt that she is murderous.

The terror builds and builds in "The Hungry Glass" until the malevolent ghost (another old crone...) pulls unlucky Marsha into the looking glass with her, leaving her husband to destroy the mirror. Before the episode ends, there's another shocking death too...

Like "Pigeons from Hell," this Thriller episode features some remarkable visual compositions. As the show commences, we get a view of the vain homeowner, Laura -- a beautiful woman. Or rather a view of her reflection, for she is seen only through a row of mirrors mounted on the wall. We move with Laura as she dances and plays to the looking-glass, and our vision of this character hops from mirror to mirror as she whirls and spins. In each mirror, we ponder, exists a universe unto itself. Then, when Laura is forced by circumstances to open the front door, we see the real Laura for the first time: an elderly hag who looks like she's already been embalmed, in the words of the teleplay.

We also get a great Shatner-ian performance here. In fact, Shatner plays the same type of character he has played in other contemporary genre anthologies: vulnerable but strong. For some reason, his "horror" characters always have feet of clay, and Gil Thrasher is no exception. In Twilight Zone's "Nick of Time," Shatner's newlywed character became paralyzed because of his superstitious nature. In "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Shatner was (again) a married man with a problem: he had just suffered a nervous breakdown so no one believed him when he claimed to have seen a gremlin on the wing of a plane in flight. If you think of Shatner's bomb de-fuser in One Step Beyond's "The Promise" and also his imperiled astronaut in The Outer Limits' "Cold Hand, Warm Heart," you see the same combination of vulnerability and strength showcased.

"The Hungry Glass" is exactly the same. Here, Gil is a Korean War veteran who experienced hallucinations and also "the shakes" after his tour of duty ended. Now, when he begins to experience hallucinations again in the Bellman House, Gil's wife is doubtful about his sanity. And as the episode builds to its inevitable climax, Shatner's character gets closer and closer to the edge and, finally, goes over it in most dramatic fashion. As the lead, Shatner is saddled with a lot of exposition in "The Hungry Glass," but he's marvelous in such scenes because it's clear his character -- while delivering words about Laura's after-life -- has become a shattered basket case. Shatner gets a faraway look in his eyes as he recounts Laura's final disposition, and it's clear he's lost his grip on reality.

And yes, Shatner does get to scream in "The Hungry Glass." So in his horror anthologies, I think he's three for four in that category.

"The Hungry Glass" is also filled with ironic commentary about mirrors. "Mirrors never lie," "mirrors bring a house to life," "Every time you look in a mirror, you see death," etc., and Boris Karloff's ghoulish introduction gets in on the fun too. He notes to the audience that it should "make sure that your television casts no reflection..." It really is enough to give you a chill.

Douglas Heyes directed several classic, timeless Twilight Zone episodes including "The Howling Man," "The Invaders" and "Eye of the Beholder." Thriller's "The Hungry Glass" is right up there with the best of those in terms of presentation and impact. A pervasive sense of evil hangs over the Bellman House, influencing everything. Those who survive the night bid a hasty exit from the haunted mansion, never to return But as a viewer, this is one haunted house you'll definitely want to re-visit.

On "The Cheaters:"

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."

Finally, here's an article on Thriller by Michael Barret, heralding the DVD release of the series, as well as some specifics of the box set:

"Some of these digitally restored programs have commentaries by fans and scholars. Many offer the option of a music-only soundtrack to play the show as a kind of music video and see how the score contributes to the effect. In fact, composers Jerry Goldsmith and Pete Rugolo were nominated for an Emmy for their spooky, shuddering, pounding, nerve-wracking music.

Karloff hosted and sometimes starred. Cadaverous old John Carradine made an episode. Also seen were the then-unknown William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Richard Chamberlain, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York, Cloris Leachman, Robert Vaughn, David Janssen, Bruce Dern and, in the same year she made "Dr. No," Ursula Andress.

Robert Bloch ("Psycho") contributed many scripts and stories, including "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," directed by actor Ray Milland. Many "Twilight Zone/Outer Limits" people worked on this show, such as writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson and directors John Brahm and John Newland. Ida Lupino, Hollywood's only female director of the era, also made several episodes..."

If you love cult-television, if you love horror, you just can't go wrong with Thriller. It's about time this 1960s masterpiece could be added to your home archive...


  1. Thanks for spreading the good word about the long-awaited DVD release of THRILLER. Sadly, Richard Matheson's sole episode, "The Return of Andrew Bentley," was not quite the happy experience he'd had with Rod Serling. The aforementioned John Newland, who both directed and starred, reworked Matheson's script (based on a short story by August Derleth and Mark Schorer) to remove some of the humor. Matheson had been going for an effect similar to the dynamic between William Shatner and Patricia Breslin in his TWILIGHT ZONE episode "Nick of Time," where the couple reacts in a light-hearted way at first and only gradually realizes the seriousness of the situation. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (, tentatively due out in early October.

  2. Matthew:

    Thanks for that nugget of behind-the-scenes info on the making of Thriller, and the episode "The Return of Andrew Bentley." Very interesting. I look forward to your upcoming about wrangling me a review copy?! :)

    Best wishes,

  3. My pleasure. I'll let McFarland know you're interested!

  4. Hey Matthew,

    Thanks! I'm really looking forward to the book.

    All my best,

  5. Grayson2:38 PM

    I am looking forward to picking this up and watching the Shatner episode. For all the jokes about his acting ability, most of the pre-ST stuff of his that I have seen is very good. (Although I have not seen it, I have read that his performance in The Andersonville Trial from 1970 is the best of his career).

  6. Matthew: Thank you, I will look forward very much to your book. Sounds great!

    Grayson: The Shatner episode is pretty good, and he's great in it. I agree with you -- it's easy to joke about the Shat, but he was FANTASTIC in "Cold Hands, Warm Heart," "Nick of Time" and here, in "The Hungry Glass." I don't think you'll be disappointed.


  7. Thanks for the interesting reviews -- all great episodes, for sure. Growing up, I actually liked "Thriller" better than "The Twilight Zone" or "One Step Beyond".... don't know if it was the story-lines, or the atmosphere; the direction or the terrific musical score by Goldsmith and Rugolo.

    My personal favorite episode also starred William Shatner -- "The Grim Reaper". It was the only episode that really "scared me to death" as a child, yet still has the power to send major chills down my spine as an adult (especially viewed in the dark, at night!). The prologue sets up the piece magnificently -- Nineteenth Century Paris, and the boarding house in the artists quarter, where impovished painter Henri Radin rents a dank garret which he uses as his studio. His concerned father arrives, and convinces his landlady that all might not be right, so they enter Radin's room (nice turns by veterans Henry Daniell and Fifi D'Orsay, BTW). Radin has hung himself -- we only see the body as a shadow on the wall, hanging from the rafters. But not before he's finished his "masterpiece" -- a full-length portrait of "The Grim Reaper". It's a darkly brooding, and terrifying, painting -- the skeleton reaper holding his scythe, with eye-less sockets that (as one character later says) still seem able to fix a gaze on the viewer. The father comments that he finished his last painting, to which the landlady comments that "maybe the picture finished him"....

    Boris Karloff then gives his introduction, standing next to the horrid portrait, and even cracks a sardonic joke that "Yes, the picture did finish it's morbid creator, but I can assure you that our story is not finished..."

    Flash-forward to the "present time" with Shatner, Natalie Schaefer (Mrs. Howell of "Gilligan's Island"), and Elizabeth Allen (who looks much like Kim Novak as Madeline in "Vertigo"). Schaefer is a rather wacky murder-mystery writer with a fondness for multiple husbands and the bottle -- who's acquired the title portrait for publicity. Shatner plays her earnest nephew, who shows up concerned about the "curse" of death that "The Grim Reaper" seems to carry to all it's owners. To reveal any more would be unthinkable!

    The lighting and cinematography are superb, and able to convey terror and menace from a static painting. As with all classic horror movies and television, the black and white photography works perfectly, and one simply cannot imagine this story told in color. And the screeching violins of the soundtrack never work so well as in this episode. Between them, and the creepy Reaper himself, you find your nerves are being "played on" like a fiddle string, as the tension mounts. For horror fans, "The Grim Reaper" definitely stands as "must see" TV!


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