March 24, 2023

William Shatner's Early Exploration of the Unknown: "The Grim Reaper"

It’s time once again for Films From Beyond to turn its attention to great TV of the past, inspired by Terence Towles Canote’s Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon at A Shroud of Thoughts (tune in to Terence’s site for more posts on classic television from an impressive list of bloggers).

Years before William Shatner embarked on his five year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations as captain of the starship Enterprise, he explored the darkest recesses of the human mind (not to mention the paranormal) in a succession of sci-fi, fantasy and horror-related TV roles.

One of Shatner’s better known pre-Star Trek appearances is as jittery airline passenger Bob Wilson in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963). I’ve covered it before on this blog but for those who missed it the first time: I was about eight or nine years old when I first encountered “Nightmare,” watching it in a darkened basement with my brother. When Wilson pulls back the window curtain next to his seat to see the gremlin goggling at him with his ugly mug pressed up against the pane, the two of us ran up the stairs yelling at the top of our lungs. (Somehow, that incident only fueled my fascination with the bizarre and grotesque. It must have been the adrenaline rush.)

Shatner had appeared in another classic Twilight Zone episode several years before. “Nick of Time,” (like "Nightmare," scripted by Richard Matheson), is a clever and uncanny examination of the power of suggestion. Don Carter (Shatner) and his wife are passing the time at a small town diner waiting for their car to be fixed. They start feeding coins into a fortune-telling machine, and discover that the gadget seems to have a chilling knack for predicting their near future. Soon, the couple are afraid to leave the diner as the diabolical machine holds them in its thrall through the “fortunes” it dispenses.

Screenshot - William Shatner in "Nick of Time," The Twilight Zone, 1960
-"Am I going to enjoy this episode of The Twilight Zone?"
-"Without a doubt."

The future starship captain also appeared in another sci-fi/fantasy series beloved by ‘60s monster kids, The Outer Limits. Shatner guest-starred in the episode “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” (1964) as an astronaut who, after returning from a mission to Venus, is having disturbing visions and undergoing strange physiological changes. Although the episode is slow-paced and one of the weaker of the series, it was still a harbinger of TV space missions to come.

Another couple of Shatner appearances in early ‘60s macabre TV are perhaps less well-known but are must-sees for discriminating fans. Back in October 2019, I wrote about my pleasure in finally securing the DVD box set of the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller TV series (1960-1962), and reviewed two notable episodes, “Pigeons from Hell” (based on the eerie Robert E. Howard story) and “The Incredible Doktor Markesan,” featuring Boris himself as the titular character. This creepy and atmospheric series, still underrated to this day, started out specializing in Alfred Hitchcockian thriller stories, then quickly turned to supernatural horror mid-way through the first season.

Fortunately for Shatner fans, the actor guest-starred in two of the series’ more memorable supernatural episodes. In fact, his second appearance in Thriller came in “The Grim Reaper,” which is the second highest rated episode of the entire series in IMDb (an impressive 8.4 out of 10 stars).

Now Playing: "The Grim Reaper" (Episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller TV Series, first aired June 13, 1961)

Pros: Competent cast delivers an excellent mid-century Gothic tale with a twist of black humor; Writing, direction, photography and music score are top-notch
Cons: May be a bit slow-moving and talky for 21st century sensibilities

“The Grim Reaper” tells the tale of a cursed painting by a mad artist that brings sudden, violent death to anyone who owns it. In a prologue sequence set in the 19th century, a grim-faced gentleman, M. Pierre Redin (Henry Daniell), is trying to convince the landlady of a run-down boarding house to let him into the room where his son, the artist Henri Redin, is staying. The landlady is spooked by her boarder, calling his work “evil,” and telling the elder Redin that Henri would often go to the cemetery to do his sketching.

When they finally open the door, they’re startled to find Henri's lifeless body hanging from the rafters, his latest masterpiece, a depiction of the Grim Reaper with grinning skull face and wicked-looking scythe, sitting on an easel as if in mute witness to its creator’s suicide.

Screenshot - Fifi D'Orsay and Henry Daniell in "The Grim Reaper," Thriller TV series, 1961
Henry Daniell was a mainstay of the Thriller series, appearing in 5 episodes.

After Boris Karloff’s signature introduction of the story and the players, we cut to the present day (1961 that is), where young, dapper Paul Graves (Shatner) is arriving at his aunt’s country estate. He does a double-take when he sees a shiny black hearse parked near one of the garages, and a name plate, “Graves-End” attached to the front entrance.

We soon learn that Beatrice Graves (Natalie Schafer) is a celebrated mystery writer with all the usual eccentricities, and that she came up with the hearse and tongue-in-cheek estate name to reinforce her public image.

Aunt Bea likes her martinis, her new part-time actor/full-time gigolo husband Gerald (Scott Merrill), her attractive personal secretary Dorothy (Elizabeth Allen) and her other possessions. But it’s Bea’s latest acquisition that has cast a pall around the house and prompted Paul's visit.

Sure enough, staring out from its place of honor on the wall of the library with its dead eye sockets is the Grim Reaper, as if patiently waiting to use its scythe on the inhabitants of its latest abode. To Bea, the painting is just another piece she got overseas to accentuate her house and her image.

But the painting is the reason for Paul’s visit; he’s worried for his aunt. Standing dramatically in front of the painting, and with the fireplace casting eerie shadows on the walls, Paul tells the assembled household residents that since the artist’s suicide, 15 of the painting’s owners have met unexpected and violent deaths. In every case, blood was seen on the blade of the Reaper’s scythe before the deaths. The group pooh-poohs the story, but right on cue, Paul hesitates, turns to look at the painting and haltingly touches it. With ominous violin music swelling, his hand emerges from the shadows, his fingers covered with blood!

Screenshot - William Shatner standing in front of the painting of the Grim Reaper, "The Grim Reaper," Thriller TV series, 1961
Paul pauses for dramatic emphasis in front of the cursed painting.

Of course, the curse is going to be fulfilled and someone is going to die. But what will be the engine of doom? Paul insists that he’s not concerned about his aunt’s money, but is he hiding his true motivations? Or will it be Gerald’s wandering eye for the beautiful Dorothy?

“The Grim Reaper” is one of 10 Thriller adaptations and/or stories credited to esteemed master of the macabre Robert Bloch, best known for his novel Psycho, which Alfred Hitchcock notoriously adapted to the screen in 1960. In the DVD commentary, one of the contributors observes that the episode is exemplary of the series’ best offerings that were “about the intrusion of some normal character into a remote location where something’s been wrong for a very long time.” [Commentary: Ernest Dickerson, Gary Gerani, Tim Lucas & David J. Schow, Thriller, Image Entertainment, NBC Universal, 2010, episode 37]

From Psycho to “The Grim Reaper” to “The Hungry Glass” (the other Bloch-Shatner Thriller  “collaboration”; see below), Bloch was all over the theme of denizens of the brightly-lit normal world stumbling into a very dark abnormal one, with dire consequences.

The commentators also mention that Bloch’s Reaper script was adapted from Harold Lawlor’s 1947 story “The Black Madonna” (Lawlor, like Bloch, was a frequent contributor to Weird Tales in the ‘30s and ‘40s.) In the original story, the cursed painting is of an eerie Madonna and Child. There is a scar on the Madonna’s face, and when it bleeds, it spells doom for whoever owns the painting.

Screenshot - Boris Karloff's introduction to "The Grim Reaper," Thriller TV series, 1961
"Someone is in mortal danger as sure as my name is Boris Karloff!" says William Henry Pratt.

Bloch’s adaptation ups the creepiness factor, changing the subject of the painting to Death itself, and logically making blood on the scythe the harbinger of doom (although there’s something to be said for the off-kilter eeriness of a Madonna image not just shedding tears, but bleeding stigmata-like).

Bloch also added the prologue of M. Redin finding the body of his son hanging in the loft. Not only does the prologue provide a creepy cameo for the venerable character actor Henry Daniell (whose own gaunt, death-mask of a face would be featured in 5 Thriller episodes), but it also sets the stage for Bloch’s mordant black humor.

After discovering the body of the young artist, M. Redin and the Landlady stare at the painting of the Grim Reaper. Redin solemnly remarks, “His last picture… and he finished it.” The landlady’s rejoinder: “Perhaps it finished him!”

Bloch inserts a number of quips into the first couple of acts, allowing the viewer to whistle past the graveyard (or the Grim Reaper) so to speak, as he sets up the suspense to follow.

When Paul first arrives, Beatrice airily invites him to “come in, we mustn’t let fresh air into the house!” Then, as Bea is leading him on a tour of the house, he quips, “Who designed this, Charles Addams?” (At this point the original Addams Family TV show was only a gleam in some TV executive’s eye, but the cartoons on which it was based were hugely popular.)

Gradually the witticisms fade away as the moods of the four main characters darken (a bleeding painting of Death will do that to you). Natalie Schafer as Beatrice is particularly notable. Vintage TV fans will recognize her as Mrs. Howell from Gilligan’s Island, who was always trying to bring a touch of class to the tropical island on which she was marooned.

Beatrice’s situation isn’t that far off from Mrs. Howell’s: she too is isolated (although voluntarily, and at a sprawling country estate with all the amenities), and deals with her boredom by collecting expensive art objects and husbands. At the beginning she is all frivolity, but by the end of the 2nd act she is morosely nursing a drink, telling Paul that “Death has no terrors for me,” and that as a mystery writer, “Death is just a business partner.”

Screenshot - William Shatner and Natalie Schafer in "The Grim Reaper," Thriller TV series, 1961
Beatrice contemplates her long-time business partner, Death.

It’s quite a performance, and wearing an elegant, black sequined evening dress, she comes off as a sort of anti-matter, dark universe doppelganger of the eternally entitled and optimistic Mrs. Howell.

The other three main cast members all have their moments as well. William Shatner gives a largely restrained and nuanced performance as Paul, who we quickly realize is holding something close to the vest. He does go over the top, Shatner-style, at two crucial moments, but hey, maybe the painting made him do it!

Scott Merrill as the husband doesn’t have much to do except be lounge-lizardy, but towards the end he has what the DVD commentators describe as one of the better acting moments of its type in the whole series (you’ll have to watch the episode to see what they mean).

Similarly, Elizabeth Allen is not much more than an attractive accessory (and possible red herring) until the climax, when she gets to show how convincingly horrified she can be.

The other stars of the episode are director Herschel Daugherty and director of photography Bud Thackery, who do a great job of methodically hemming in the characters and steering them to their fates with dramatic tight shots and growing shadows and darkness.

And then there’s Jerry Goldsmith, whose score effectively employs violins that serve at various key moments as a somber, moaning Greek chorus.

With “The Grim Reaper,” the Thriller series was at the top of its game, employing some of its very best talents to deliver one of the most chilling TV episodes of the era.

Screenshot - Elizabeth Allen in "The Grim Reaper," Thriller TV series, 1961
Dorothy is horrified by her employer's decorating tastes.

Where to find it: Streaming

Bonus mini-review: “The Hungry Glass,” first broadcast January 3, 1961

The first Thriller episode guest-starring William Shatner has several things in common with “The Grim Reaper”: It too features a haunted object (or in this case, objects); Robert Bloch had a hand in the writing (providing the story for Douglas Heyes to adapt); and Elizabeth Allen -- Dorothy in “The Grim Reaper” -- guest stars as well.

Shatner plays Gil Thrasher, a professional photographer who with his wife Marcia (Joanna Heyes), has quit the rat race of the big city and bought an old house on the New England coast. In typical ghost story fashion, the grizzled locals at the general store cryptically warn the couple of the place’s malignant reputation.

The gregarious real estate agent who sold the place to the Thrashers, Adam Talmadge (Russell Johnson) tells the couple of the house’s original resident, a young girl who had become addicted to looking at herself in the mirror. After a lifetime spent admiring her reflection, a nephew finally intervened and locked her away without her precious mirrors, where she died a raging madwoman. Since then, people have come to bad ends at the house in encounters with mirrors and glass. As a consequence, all the mirrors have been removed.

On cue, Gil sees a mysterious apparition in a window. The mystery deepens when Gil discovers an eerie, phantom-like face of a little girl in one of the photographs he took of the house. Gil and Marcia soon discover a secret room off of the attic in which all the missing mirrors are stored. When Talmadge and his wife Liz (Elizabeth Allen) join the Thrashers for a house-warming party on a dark and stormy night, you know all hell is going to break loose.

Screenshot - scene from "The Hungry Glass," Thriller TV series, 1961
Marcia takes a moment to reflect on the wisdom of buying a creepy haunted house.

Like “The Grim Reaper,” “The Hungry Glass” focuses on a handful of people grappling with a malignant supernatural force in an old dark house. There is a striking prologue featuring the reflection of a beautiful young girl in 19th century formal dress prancing and preening in a succession of ornate mirrors. The scene turns nightmarish when the camera pulls back to reveal that the source of the reflection is a hideous old crone.

The mirrors make another remarkable appearance mid-way through the episode, when the secret room is discovered. A shot of Marcia’s multiple reflections in dozens of old mirrors is both dazzling and ominous.

“The Hungry Glass” is one of a number of ghost stories that effectively plays on the uncanny nature of mirrors, especially in creepy old houses, and our ability to imagine dark forces that lurk behind the glass.

Where to find it: Streaming


  1. Brian, I also have the Thriller box set. and I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't dug into it very much. I loved the show back in the day. There were some moments that stayed in my mind forever, such as Pigeons From Hell. That's one I made sure to rewatch when I got the box set. The two episodes you describe sound familiar, The Hungry Glass more than The Grim Reaper, and I need to check them out again soon. Thriller was truly frightening television. It's a wonder we all survived! Shatner was always a good actor. I don't remember the name Scott Merrill at all. Natalie Shafer is always good to watch. Great write-up, Brian!

    1. Thanks Mike! Somehow, I never caught Thriller when it was originally broadcast or in reruns. I had heard of its reputation, but only saw episodes for the first time when I got the DVD set. I still can't believe it's not more well known or celebrated!

  2. I knew there was a THRILLER show hosted by Boris Karloff but I had never seen it. Sounds in a similar vein to ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

    This episode doesn’t sound too bad if one is a Shatner fan looking for early work of his. Boy, does he look young!

    1. Hi Rich! Thriller started out as a sort of Alfred Hitchcock Presents imitator, then veered into the supernatural about mid-way through the first season (presumably the supernatural tested better with audiences). When the series went with straight horror, it was very, very good!

  3. Oh, William shatner rarely fails to entertain on some level!

    I've heard of Thriller, but I've never seen a single episode. This one sounds like a good one to start with.

    1. The series is well worth checking out, and The Grim Reaper is a great place to start. It's frustrating that the Image Entertainment set is out of print and other sources are hit or miss, but at least YouTube is there for the moment as a streamer of last resort.

  4. KRCG showed reruns of Thriller for much of my childhood and then several years ago I was able to rediscover it as an adult on ME-TV. The show could be truly disturbing, and The Grim Reaper is one of its best episodes. It, along with "Pigeons from Hell" still stands out in my mind. I will have to start watching it again (supposedly it's available on Freevee). Anyway, thanks for a great post and taking part in the blogathon!

    1. Thank you for hosting another great blogathon Terence! Pigeons from Hell is another episode that a lot of people remember as one of the creepier of the series. Thriller was a great vehicle for showcasing fantasy writers like Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, veteran actors like Boris and Henry Daniell, and of course, "newcomers" like William Shatner.

  5. Great post, as always, and a creepy-sounding episode. It seems a bit Dorian-Grayish is how the painting will reflect or foreshadow incidents in the real world, and may even influence them. Interesting that fellow Gilligan Island performers Natalie Schafer and Russell Johnson both made appearances on Thriller (early TV gave so many acting opportunities). Schafer was an underrated actress; she was wonderful in comedy, but also skilled as a dramatic performer. Also interesting is the appearance(s) of Henry Daniell in this and other episodes; he had co-starred with Karloff in The Body Snatcher. Did other Karloff alumni also appear in his series (I know Angela Lansbury did the same with her former co-stars on Murder, She Wrote)?

    1. Thank you! I'm not sure about former co-stars of Karloff, but Thriller was a cornucopia of former and up-and-coming stars, and lots of familiar faces for Monster Kids. It also featured some well-known directors too - for example, John Brahm of The Lodger and Hangover Square fame directed 12 episodes, and Ida Lupino directed 9!

  6. Excellent write-up, Brian! Your article reminded me that "Thriller" remains one of my genre blind spots. Thanks for sharing your childhood experience with the Twilight Zone - I'm glad it nudged you in the right direction. I had a similar moment, watching a rerun of the Outer Limits episode, "Cold Hands, Warm Heart." That Venusian really freaked me out as a kid (now, not so much).

    1. Thanks Barry! Thriller deserves a Blu-ray re-issue, but there's probably some obscure rights issue in the way. It's interesting that we both freaked out over early Shatner TV. The Outer Limits could usually be depended on for some truly freaky monsters, including that skinny Venusian! 😲

  7. I'm so glad this is on streaming--it's always fun to see Mr. Shatner.

    1. Yes, I get a kick out of seeing actors like this in early roles, especially in beloved fantasy, horror and sci-fi shows!