October 14, 2019

A Tale of Two Thrillers: Special TV for Halloween Edition, Part One

Title screen - Brian Clemens' Thriller TV series, 1973-1976
Now Playing: Thriller (UK TV series, 1973-1976)

Pros: Created by British master of suspense Brian Clemens; Features many recognizable faces from TV and movies of the ‘70s; Adds new twists to old suspense cliches
Cons: Limited budgets and sets led to many episodes being place-bound and static; Could have benefited from more out-right supernatural stories

Once upon a time, I was surfing the internet (on a desktop computer no less!) when I stumbled upon a DVD collection for sale that got my blood pumping. I thought I was ordering the old Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller TV series (1960-1962) which I had heard great things about.

Imagine my surprise when I got the discs, and there was no trace of old Boris anywhere on the cover art. Turns out, it was the complete British series from the mid-seventies, created by Brian Clemens of The Avengers fame (British TV series of the ‘60s, not the Marvel superhero franchise).

My memory is fuzzy. Either in my excitement I didn’t look closely at what I was ordering, or the seller misrepresented the product. Since the former makes me look bad, I’ll go with the latter.

Anyway, instead of returning the thing, I decided to give it a chance. After all, it was the brainchild of Brian Clemens, a behind-the-scenes legend in his own right, and a writer not only of scores of Avengers episodes, but of such classics as Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), See No Evil (1971), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974), to name just a few.

As I watched the episodes over the next couple of months, I was very happy that I decided against returning the set. Clemens, who wrote most of the teleplays from his own stories, was a master of eliciting terror from otherwise humdrum middle class life. His somewhat mundane, relatable characters encounter all kinds of cliches like old, dark mansions, escaped lunatics, mysterious disappearances, and even mad doctors, but he provides plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep the material fresh.

DVD cover art - Thriller (UK, 1973-1976)
The ghoulish face on this early DVD
promised a bit more horror than
the actual series delivered.
Clemens also had a knack for writing believable, sympathetic female characters. Well before the “final girl” became a boiler plate element in horror films, he eschewed cardboard victims in favor of ordinary women who, when faced with extraordinary peril, often find the strength and resilience within themselves to face it down. And, to keep things interesting, he also sprinkled a few female monsters and psychos into the mix.

Unlike the Karloff-hosted U.S. Thriller, which started off featuring human killers and psychos and progressively turned to the supernatural and outright horror over the course of its run, Clemens’ Thriller mostly stuck to earthly menaces with a few spooky episodes thrown in here and there. Many were what I would call contemporary Gothics: newly married women who come to suspect their husbands are not what they seem; students dealing with creepy, sinister neighbors at an old boarding house; baffled relatives investigating the mysterious disappearances of loved ones; women being stalked at every turn by menacing figures.

With an eye toward the U.S. market, the producers hired recognizable B-list American actors for many of the episodes, including Paul Burke (Naked City, Valley of the Dolls), Gary Collins (The Sixth Sense), Kim Darby (True Grit, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), Barbara Feldon (Get Smart), Lynda Day George (Fear No Evil, Mission Impossible), George Maharis (Route 66, The Satan Bug), and Donna Mills (Play Misty for Me, Knots Landing), among others.

Notable Brits appearing in the series included Ralph Bates (The Horror of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde), Denholm Elliot (The Vault of Horror, To the Devil a Daughter), Edward de Souza (Kiss of the Vampire), Pamela Franklin (The Legend of Hell House), Richard Johnson (The Haunting), Patrick Magee (Tales from the Crypt, A Clockwork Orange), Hayley Mills (Tiger Bay, In Search of the Castaways), Helen Mirren (Prime Suspect), and Richard Todd (Asylum, Doctor Who), among countless others.

Donna Mills as Chrissie Morton in Someone at the Top of the Stairs
"Don't go in the attic!" Sure enough, by the end of the
episode, Chrissie (Donna Mills) will go up to the attic.
A good example of one of the few outright supernatural episodes, and one of the more highly rated on IMDb, is Someone at the Top of the Stairs, first aired in the UK in April, 1973. It features Donna Mills and Judy Carne (of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In fame) as students looking for cheap accommodations in London, and who stumble on a boarding house that seems too good to be true. The prim and somewhat strange caretaker, Mrs. Oxhey (Alethea Charlton) seems to have been keeping a room available just for them (or someone just like them, she says with a wink), and is willing to let them have it very cheaply.

Chrissie’s (Mills) relief at getting a screaming deal (pun intended) on a room turns to unease as she interacts more with the house residents. They include a retired military man, a middle-aged couple with a young son, and a young man who doesn’t seem to have a job.

They’re all nice enough at first, but Chrissie starts to get distinctly odd vibes from her fellow boarders. They all use the word “marvelous” a lot, and they have an odd habit of making a triangle with their index fingers and thumbs.

The oddness soon turns menacing. First, Chrissie tries to do a good turn by giving the young boy a kitten. The next night, she is awakened by an animal scream. After she discovers the body of the kitten in the trash, she confronts the parents, who give her a story about the animal falling from their second floor window.

Scene from Someone at the Top of the Stairs, Thriller (UK, 1973)
A prospective tenant is surprised at how low the rent
is at the spooky old boarding house.
Next, as she’s trying to take a bath, she’s startled to see someone looking through an eyehole where one of the pipes enters the bathroom. She rousts the offender, the boy, from an adjacent closet. The father makes a show of taking the boy to the apartment to be disciplined, but as she turns to walk away, she hears the whole family laughing behind the closed door.

Chrissie’s sense that something is off is confirmed when she answers the front door bell one day and talks to a concerned father looking for his missing daughter, who he thinks had taken a room somewhere in the area. He leaves a photo with Chrissie, and later she notices that the girl in the photograph is wearing the very same pendant that Chrissie found in a dresser when she moved in. Mrs. Oxhey insists that the girl never stayed at the house, but Chrissie is now very suspicious.

Hovering over the strangeness at the boarding house is the mysterious, unseen Mr. C, who lives in the attic room, apparently never leaves it, and has been there as long as anyone can remember. Moreover, Chrissie points out to her roommate Gillian (Carne) that she has never seen Mrs. Oxhey or any of the other residents leave the house. Gillian and Chrissie’s new would-be boyfriend Gary (Francis Wallis), a fellow student, try to get her mind off the house and its weird occupants, but Chrissie’s growing unease turns out to be entirely justified. And the source of all the weirdness seems to come from the enigmatic attic room and its shadowy occupant.

Someone at the Top of the Stairs is a slow burn of accumulating “whodunit”-like details and escalating weirdness. The supporting cast of the boarding house residents do a great job of playing normal, everyday people who, while seeming to be nice and welcoming on the surface, are decidedly “off.”

Judy Carne in Someone at the Top of the Stairs, Thriller UK TV series
Gillian (Judy Carne) is guest of honor at a weird party being
thrown by the oddball residents of the house.
It seems appropriate that the visiting American student Chrissie, already a stranger in a strange land, is almost immediately alert that something about the house is not right. Her native friends, the roommate and the boyfriend, chalk it up to the ordinary eccentricities of their fellow Brits long after the alarm bells should have been going off.

All of the creeping tension, however, is somewhat dissipated with the big reveal of house’s secret at the climax. At least it’s a legitimate supernatural explanation, and not a “let’s conspire to drive the new girl insane” sort of cheat.

While the concept of the supernatural menace is clever and eerie enough, the execution is mundane and not chilling in the least. After spending almost the entire episode as an unseen, forbidding presence, when we and Chrissie finally meet the mysterious Mr. C, it’s about as scary as being trapped at a dinner party by an old, conceited windbag who wants to tell you the story of his life.

Still, all of the accumulating weirdness leading up to the climax is well done, and the cast, especially the eccentric house residents, is excellent.

Thriller is all about simmering psychological suspense, created and written by a master. As a bonus, there are several episodes sprinkled throughout the series to satisfy the cravings of those who prefer supernatural horror. Due no doubt to the limited budget, many of the episodes come off like videotaped stage plays. These “parlor room” mysteries may become tedious for viewers accustomed to more action-oriented stuff. But the beauty of the series was the way Clemens could twist and subvert conventional mystery-thriller cliches using familiar faces and relatable characters.

Where to find it: If you’re in the mood for hour-long suspense TV and love British accents, check out Amazon Prime or the DVD collection.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where I will cover some of my favorite haunted house episodes from the U.S. Thriller series...

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