October 31, 2019

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

Title card - Thriller TV series, 1960-1962
Now Playing: Thriller (US TV series, 1960-1962)

Pros: The series set a high point for Gothic horror on American television.
Cons: Never established a consistent identity; Vacillated between Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense and supernatural horror.

You’ve seen it a million times before. It’s a dark and stormy night. There’s a car, and it’s broken down, or caught in the mud, or can’t go anywhere because the bridge is washed out. Sometimes it’s just a solo traveler, sometimes it’s a couple, and occasionally, a group of people. But always, there’s the old dark house just up the road, that, while looking ominous, is the weary traveler’s only option to get out of the storm or phone for help.

The “father” of Frankenstein, director James Whale, made the definitive old dark house movie back in 1932, appropriately titled The Old Dark House. Starring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton, it told the tale of five travelers who seek refuge from a raging storm at a remote estate, only to be subjected to the terrifying lunacy of the owners and their manservant.

Some people, this blogger included, think that the ultimate haunted house movie is The Haunting (1963), directed by Robert Wise, a former protege of the master of B-movie horror Val Lewton. The Haunting substitutes a group of paranormal investigators for the standard-issue weary travelers. The group is headed up by a professor played by Richard Johnson, and includes a pair of women with psychic abilities (Julie Harris and Claire Bloom).

Wise used the lessons learned working with Lewton to set up his haunted house. His philosophy was that ghosts should be heard and not seen, and that, under the right circumstances, a shifting shadow or a sound that’s not supposed to be there can be far more frightening than a specter that jumps out at you. The result was a masterwork of suspenseful horror that continues to fascinate and terrify to this day (and is an enduring Halloween fixture at my house).

Still - Opening scene - Pigeons from Hell, Thriller TV episode (1961)
Another weary traveler is about to make the mistake
of going into an old, dark house.
These days, traditional ghosts and haunted houses are few and far between in movies and TV, because they don’t lend themselves to the sort of action-horror that audiences crave and filmmakers love to depict with digital effects. Where they do materialize, contemporary ghosts are more like poltergeists on steroids, with the ability to throw hapless humans around like rag dolls.

Fortunately for fans of more traditional, atmospheric horror, classics of the past are always turning up in unexpected places around the media world: a DVD release here, a Blu-ray release there, a streaming service or two, and if all else fails, retro broadcast TV like Me-TV or Decades.

Last post I talked about ordering a DVD set of what I thought was the great Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller TV series, and instead being introduced to Brian Clemens’ Thriller, originally broadcast in the UK in the 1970s. That was an intriguing series in its own right, but no substitute for old Boris.

The quest for the elusive US Thriller finally came to an end when Image Entertainment finally released the complete series on a beautiful 14 disc set in the summer of 2010. I jumped on that opportunity immediately. Unfortunately, the set is already out of print, but the floodgates have been opened, and now Boris the Thriller host keeps popping up in places like Decades TV marathons and (for the moment) Youtube.

Based on material by such diverse writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Bloch (Psycho), and Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan), the US Thriller’s 67 episodes featured familiar actors and actresses too numerous to count. Such notable directors as John Brahm (The Lodger, Hangover Square) and actress-director Ida Lupino (The Hitch-hiker) also lent their talents.

As I noted in the last post, the US series is almost a mirror image of its UK namesake. Whereas Brian Clemens’ series specialized in such down-to-earth menaces as psychos, murderous spouses, and serial killers (with a few supernatural episodes thrown in the mix), Boris’ Thriller started out with a lineup of Alfred Hitchcock-style thriller-mysteries, then went all in for supernatural horror in the latter part of season one.

As for haunted houses, Thriller had more than its share in its two season run. Here are two of my favorite episodes. Each one starts out in the classic way with hapless or stranded travelers in an old dark house. But each house is haunted in a unique, eerie way.

Pigeons from Hell. Originally broadcast June 6, 1961

Pigeons is based on a short story by the legendary Texas pulp writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian. In this one, a pair of tourists, brothers Tim (Brandon De Wilde) and Johnny (David Whorf), get their car stuck in the swamp trying to take a shortcut.

Johnny wanders off looking for a large branch to use for leverage, and promptly stumbles upon a deserted plantation manor (the location is somewhere in the deep South). As he walks up to the ominous looking mansion, a flock of pigeons suddenly takes flight, swirling around and attacking as if to warn him not to go into the house.

Gregarious Tim laughs off Johnny’s hesitation, and, as the sun is setting, the pair fetch their sleeping bags for a stay-over in the old dark house. They get a roaring fire started in the fireplace, but Johnny is on edge over the constant rustling of the unseen pigeons.

Then, in the middle of the night, Johnny seems to sleepwalk up the grand staircase to the second floor, following the sound of the pigeons and something else, something that sounds like the eerie ululation of a human voice.

Brandon De Wilde as Tim in Pigeons from Hell, US Thriller TV episode, 1961
"Hey bro, I said I wanted to borrow your Axe body
spray, not an actual axe!"
Tim wakes up to find Johnny’s sleeping bag empty. As he gets up to see where Johnny has gone, he hears a blood-curdling scream from upstairs. Running up to the landing, he sees Johnny woodenly advancing out of the shadows toward him, his head a bloody mess and gripping a hatchet in his raised hand.

On the stairwell Johnny swings the hatchet at Tim and misses, burying it in the wall. Tim flees for his life, finally stumbling and falling unconscious near the swamp. When Tim wakes up, he finds himself in the cabin of a local hunter, who has summoned the sheriff (Crahan Denton).

Perplexed by Tim’s story that his “dead” brother tried to kill him with a hatchet, Sheriff Buckner takes Tim back to the manor to investigate. When they find Johnny’s body in front of the fireplace, still gripping the hatchet, Buckner thinks it’s an obvious case of an argument getting out of hand. Tim desperately asks the sheriff why he would make up such an unbelievable story for an alibi. When the pair cautiously make their way up to the second floor to try to figure out what happened, things get weird enough that the sheriff starts to believe Tim’s story.

At this point, the episode becomes a sort of supernatural who-done-it. There are bloody trails around the house, a piano covered with dust except for the keys (suggesting it had been played recently), and a mysterious dark room which snuffs out the light of any lantern that crosses its threshold.

And then there’s the strange history of the manor, and the three sisters -- the last of the family line -- who occupied it. There were rumors about their cruelty to the servants, and how two of the sisters disappeared under mysterious circumstances. And, this being the deep South, there are also rumors of sinister Voodoo practices.

The episode’s structure is somewhat unique, in that the biggest shock scene -- the bloodied corpse of Johnny, hatchet in hand, emerging from the shadows to go after his brother -- comes at the beginning of the episode. After that, it relies on creepy atmosphere and a slow reveal of the plantation’s dark history. Unfortunately, the final reveal is somewhat anticlimactic compared to Johnny’s debut as a murderous zombie.

Buckner (Crahan Denton) and Tim (Brandon De Wilde) investigate the old mansion in Pigeons from Hell (1961)
"Aw heck, I just had that car washed and detailed!"
Also, the titular pigeons flocking about don’t add much to the suspense -- for most of us, the biggest menace pigeons represent is being bombarded with poop. They aren’t a natural symbol of supernatural evil, but I suspect that Robert E. Howard was better able to make them forbidding in his story.

Brandon De Wilde as Tim and Crahan Denton as Sheriff Buckner are both very credible as the inadvertent paranormal sleuths -- De Wilde with his wide-eyed desperation, and Denton with his gruff skepticism that turns into bewildered acceptance as the evidence for supernatural evil piles up. De Wilde earned fame (and an Oscar nomination) as a child actor, portraying the young Joey who idolizes Alan Ladd’s Shane (1953). Tragically, he was only 30 years old when he died in a car accident in 1972. Crahan Denton was busy in the ‘50s and ‘60s, mostly in TV, but also had roles in such films as The Parent Trap (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

The director was John Newland, the host of and creative force behind One Step Beyond (1959-1961). In addition to four Thriller episodes he directed a ton of TV into the early 1980s, including episodes of the original Star Trek, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Night Gallery, and the cult favorite TV movie Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (1973) with Kim Darby. With his experience directing One Step Beyond’s “true tales” of the paranormal, Newland was a natural for Thriller’s even darker, eerier subject matter.

The Incredible Doktor Markesan. Originally broadcast February 26, 1962

Boris Karloff introducing the Thriller episode The Incredible Doktor Markesan (1962)
Host Boris seems to be afraid of his own shadow...
or his doppelganger, the sinister Dr. Markesan.
This episode is another highly-rated fan favorite, and also features a pair of travelers stuck in a spooky old house. It came late in the series’ second and last season, and was the last of the five episodes in which Boris Karloff starred in the story itself as well as supplying the introduction to the episode and the players (in his introduction, he playfully observes, “You know, there’s something vaguely familiar about that Doktor Markesan… creepy and sinister sort of chap, don’t you agree?”)

Fred and Molly Bancroft (Dick York and Carolyn Kearney), are a young married couple who intend to enroll at Penrose University as graduate students, but the two are broke and need a place to stay until they can get jobs and get back on their feet. They arrive at the estate of Fred’s favorite uncle, Conrad Markesan, a former member of the science faculty at the university, but find it in an advanced state of decay: no working lights, cobwebs and dust everywhere, and rats crawling in the cupboards.

At first they think the house is deserted, but Markesan finally emerges like a specter from the library. The good doktor (the German spelling lends an additional bit of Gothic touch to the story) is as unwelcoming as the house, with a ghostly white pallor, thick dust on his coat, dead, staring eyes, and a demeanor to match.

Markesan tells the two that he’s recently been away and will be traveling again soon, so they won’t be able to stay. He offers them money, but Molly, her pride wounded, insists they didn’t come to beg. When Markesan learns that they will be enrolling at Penrose, he changes his tune, saying that it wouldn’t do for his former colleagues at Penrose to find out he had been so uncharitable to his nephew.

Boris Karloff, Carolyn Kearney and Dick York in The Incredible Doktor Markesan (1962)
"Why uncle, what a ghastly pallor you have!"
He agrees to take them in on two conditions -- that they never disturb him for any reason and that they stay in their rooms from dusk to dawn or vacate the house completely for the night. The first night, they’re surprised to find the room bolted shut from the outside. When they check the window, they find it barred. Out the window, they see the old man shambling toward the cemetery in the back of the estate. Molly is willing to make the best of a bad situation, but just barely. Having found no edible food in the house, she wonders aloud, “how does your uncle live, what does he eat?” She insists that Fred talk to his uncle about the outside lock on the room.

The next night, they again find themselves locked in. Waiting until his wife is asleep, Fred takes a piece of coat hanger wire and manages to jimmy the outside bolt open. He cautiously tiptoes down to the first floor, where he surreptitiously witnesses a bizarre “conference” being conducted in the library. Markesan is seated at a table with two other men, while another stands, reciting some sort of rehearsed testimony in a croaking, other-worldly voice.

Markesan has an evil glint in his eye, and he seems to be controlling the guests like a diabolic puppet-master. When Fred finally gets a good look at the other men, he’s startled to find that they look like corpses fresh out of the grave. Clearly, something monstrous and infernal is going on at the good doktor’s house.

Old Boris is just the man to haunt this episode’s old dark house. The story echoes the high Gothic strangeness of the original Frankenstein, with a scientist conducting secret experiments in the middle of the night. Even though he was well into his seventies by this point, Karloff is as ominous as ever in the role: he moves noiselessly around the decrepit mansion like a ghost, and his cold, dead stare when confronting the unwanted visitors has more than a little of the Frankenstein monster in it.

Dick York and Carolyn Kearney as the down-on-their-luck couple are also very good. They are not your typical blissfully happy newlyweds. Just like any real-life couple, the lack of money is causing tensions. Even as they arrive at the Markesan house, they’re arguing about the long car trip and Fred’s Hail Mary plan to stay with his uncle.

After meeting the supremely creepy uncle and getting his consent to stay, Molly tries to make the best of it -- she goes to town to buy food and look for work at the university. But being locked in their room at night is too much, and the anxieties escalate. Little do they know that being locked in will be the least of their worries.

Zombie professors on parade in The Incredible Doktor Markesan, 1962
"Hey there Latimore, there's a special sale on
lint rollers going on at Walmart!"
A few years before her Thriller appearance, Carolyn Kearney appeared in The Thing that Couldn’t Die (1958; about a devil-worshipping conquistador who is dug up in the present day and goes on a mission to reunite his severed head with his body). Dick York is familiar to many as the original Darrin, husband to Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) in the Bewitched TV series. He left the series in 1969 due to chronic pain from a back injury he sustained on the set of a film years before. After retiring from acting he founded a charity for other actors in similar circumstances.

Another distinguished actor is the house itself. The creepy old manse, located on a Universal Studios backlot, was featured in countless films and TV shows, including the Pigeons from Hell episode. Its biggest claim to horror fame came when it was served as a backdrop to the fiery climax of The Mummy’s Tomb (1942).

The episode was directed by Robert Florey, a former contract director for Universal who was initially slated to film the original Frankenstein with Bela Lugosi from his own script, but lost the assignment when the studio reacted negatively to the test footage and Lugosi backed out of the role. By the 1950s he was directing exclusively for TV, and in addition to Thriller, helmed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits.

With episodes like Pigeons from Hell and The Incredible Doktor Markesan, Thriller represents a high point for Gothic horror on American television. In their DVD commentary on Markesan, authors Gary Gerani (Fantastic Televison; Top 100 Horror Movies) and David J. Schow (The Outer Limits Companion) compare Thriller to The Twilight Zone, which was going strong when Thriller debuted. While Rod Serling’s show often featured the bizarre and extraordinary intruding into everyday life, Thriller’s horror stories flipped the script and featured ordinary, everyday people (like lost travelers) stumbling into shadowy, bizarre netherworlds.

Where to find it: If you’re like me and know almost every Twilight Zone episode by heart, you might try looking up the Zone’s long lost companion from the early ‘60s. For right now, decent copies can be found on Youtube.

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