Friday, 29 October 2004

"This....is a Thriller!"

Sunday is Halloween and my mind is turning to the horror genre. Growing up I remember a horror anthology series called Thriller. I was not yet born when the series first debuted on September 13, 1960. In fact, I was not even born when the series last aired on NBC on April 30, 1962. For much of that two year run, Thriller brought tales of unspeakable horror to the small screen, including adaptations of some classic stories from horror literature. This was perhaps fitting, as the series was hosted by famous movie ghoul, Boris Karloff. Fortunately, as I was not yet born during its original run, Thriller had a healthy syndication run. I remember KRCG reran it in the Seventies. I watched it as often as I could. It was possibly the most frightening TV show I had ever seen, short of a few episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Though it is best known as a horror anthology series, Thriller did not start out that way. Thriller was created by TV legend Hubbell Robinson (former programming chief of CBS). As originally conceived by Robinson, Thriller would be "the Studio One of mystery, a quailty anthology drawing on the whole rich field of suspense literature." The series would be on par with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Robinson assured NBC that Thriller would be his own personal project. Robinson had been programming chief at CBS during the so called Golden Age of Television. During that time he had watched over the development of many of that network's greatest series, including I Love Lucy and Sergeant Bilko. Robinson championed such classic anthology series as Studio One and Playhouse 90. He had also been executive producer for Playhourse 90. Robinson then had a good deal of clout in the televison community and NBC added Thriller to their fall 1960-1961 lineup without requiring a pilot episode.

Unfortunately, problems regarding the series developed almost immediately. Nineteen sixty was the year of the second longest Writer's Guild strike of all time. For the duration of the strike, no television writer could write, re-write, or even so much as edit any script of any TV series. To do so would result in sanctions from the Guild. Needless to say, this made things extremely difficult for televison shows, particularly those going into production for the first time. A more serious problem was a disagrement between executive producer Robinson, line producer Fletcher Markle, and associate producer/story editor James P. Cavanaugh as to what consulted a good "thriller." The three men disagreed as to whether horror and black comedy could be included under the heading of "thriller," whether graphic violence was necessary within a thriller, and nearly everything else about the show.

Between the writer's strike and inner turmoil in the production staff, Thriller debuted to almost universally hostile reviews and low ratings. As the series progressed, neither the quality of the stories nor the reviews nor the ratings showed any significant improvement. Its sponsor was not happy, hence neither was NBC. Robinson blamed the low quality of the initial episodes on the writer's strike. From anohter producer this might be an acceptable explanation, but, from Hubbell Robinson, NBC did not buy it. NBC conducted its own investigation and discovered the ugly truth: Robinson, Markle, and Cavanaugh simply could not agree on anything

After eight episodes, NBC handed Robinson an ultimatum: either Thriller would be brought up to the level of quality they had expected of the show or it would face cancellation. Robinson decided that the series' problem was the fact that its focus was simply too broad. Its focus was then narrowed from the whole field of mystery to two specific subgenres: the horror/mystery tale with supernatural elements and the fast paced crime story. Markle was fired and two new producers were hired. William Frye would produce the horror episodes, while Maxwell Stone would produce the crime episodes. Peter Rugolo, who provided Thriller with loud, jazzy musical scores, was replaced by Morton Stevens and Jerry Goldsmith, who provided the series with more appropriately chilling music. Finally, Boris Karloff, the master of horror himself, was brought in as the show's host.

Robinson's solution initially made for an uneven series. Though the episodes were now of a fairly high quality, the show itself was divided between two very distinct genres. One week the viewer might tune in to see an exciting tale of murder and drug smuggling, while the next week he might tune in to see a terrifying tale of the undead and ghostly possession. As the first season of Thriller progressed, however, the show began to take shape as a definite horror anthology. Tales of terror outnumbered the tales of crime, and even the crime stories took on a more of an air of Hitchcockian suspense or pyschological horror.

In some respects it was logical that Thriller would evolve into a horror anthology. This would further set it apart from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to which it is still compared. At the same time, television had yet to fully mine the horror genre. Thriller first ventured into the horror genre with its fourth aired episode, the first one produced by William Frye, "The Purple Room." This episode dealt with an heir (played by Rip Torn) who must first spend a night in a house said to be haunted before he can inherit the property. It was with the series' 12th episode that Thriller took shape as the horror anthology which most fans remember it as. "The Cheaters" was based on a story by Robert Bloch, originally published in Weird Tales back in 1947. The episode centred upon a mysterious pair of glasses which allowed the wearer to see through the facades of anyone to the truth about that person. Unfortunately, it does so at a terrible cost to the wearer. "The Purple Room" was pivotal in the development of Thriller in that it was the first of many to be based on a classic horror story and it was the first in which Boris Karloff utters the immortal words, "This....is a Thriller!" That phrase would become the tagline for the series.

"The Cheaters" was among the best episodes of the first season of Thriller. "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" was based on the classic Robert Bloch story from a 1943 issue of Weird Tales, in which a man (John Williams) discovers that Jack the Ripper is alive and well in the United States and continuing to commit murders. Robert Bloch himself adapted "The Devil's Ticket," based on his own story which first appeared in Weird Tales in 1944. In "The Devil's Ticket" a starving artist (MacDonald Carey) pawns his soul to Satan for three months of fame and fortune. PErhpas the most terrifying episode of the series' entire run as John Kneubuhl's adaptation of "Pigeons from Hell," based on the story by Robert E. Howard which first appeared in Weird Tales in 1938. In "Pigeons from Hell" two brothers, stranded by car trouble, find themselves facing the undead presences of a particular sadistic plantation family's servants. Over all, the first season of Thriller saw some of the best horror tales ever aired. To this day many of the episodes remain umatched in their power to evoke terrior.

For its second season Thriller shifted almost entirely to a horror format. Only the final episode, "The Specialists," an unsold pilot about an international ring of jewel thieves, contained absolutely no elements of terror. Among the best episodes of this season was Robert Bloch's adaptation of his own "Waxworks," first published in Weird Tales in 1939, in which figures in a travelling wax museum modelled after famous killers are brought to life. In another one of Bloch's adaptation of his own stories, "The Weird Tailor,"a man has a tailor make a special suit that will resurrect his dead son.

Karloff himself appeared in a few of the second seasons. Among these was an adaptation of Poe's "The Premature Burial." Karloff played a woman's lover who buries her cataleptic husband alive. Karloff also appeared in "The Last of the Sommervilles," in which he plots with his cousin to kill their wealthy aunt. In "The Incredible Dr. Markesan," based on an August Derleth/Mark Schorer story first published in Weird Tales in 1934, Karloff plays a doctor who has figured out a way to cheat death.

Not every episode of Thriller was an exercise in chills. The show also dealt in black comedy. An example of this is "The Remarkable Mrs. Hawks" in which a lady hog farmer (Jo Van Fleet) in a small American community turns out to be the legendary Circe!

By the end of its second season, Thriller was a cult favourite with horror fans and had redeemed itself with television critics. Unfortunately, this would not guarantee that it would see a third season. . At the time NBC was also home to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Unlike the hour long Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had only been a half hour in length. With the 1962-1963 season, Hitchcock and his production staff decided to expand his series to one hour and rename it The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It seems possible that Thriller was cancelled to make room for more Hitchcock. Perhaps confirming this theory is a report from Thriller associate producer Doug Benton who had heard that Hitchcock thought that in making Thriller Hubbell Robinson had tread on his turf. From what Benton had heard, Hitchcock thought that Thriller was doing the same sort of material he covered in his own show. The fact that both shows aired on NBC and that both were made at Revue at least makes it possible that Hitchcock expanded his show to an hour in an effort to compete with Thriller.

Regardless, Thriller went onto a very successful syndicaiton run, airing on local stations for literally years. To this day it is perhaps better remembered than horror series with longer runs. The reason is not just its famous host, Boris Karloff, but the fact that despite an awkward start it went onto become a quality anthology series. While Robinson had wanted to do the Studio One of mystery, he ultimately produced the Studio One of horror. It was one of the few shows to adapt classic tales of horror from pulp magazines, often by a master of horror himself (Robert Bloch). The show also benefited from several talented directors, among them John Newland, John Brahm, and Ida Lupino. Finally, as both host and actor, Boris Karloff lent the series both an atmosphere of terror and an air of prestige.

To this day I have fond memories of Thriller. A few of the episodes are out on video and I have thought of buying them at times (unfortunately, I don't think "Pigeons from Hell" is one of them). I am hoping that at some point they will release the entire series on DVD with several extras (the original network promos, a documentary on the series, et. al.). Given its continued popularity, it seems possible that some day they will.

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