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Thriller turned classic pulp stories into terrifying television

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

“As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!” was the catchphrase associated with Thriller, the horror anthology hosted by the craggy, silver-haired Englishman who in 1960 was still the world’s most emblematic scary-movie star. Rod Serling’s nervous energy animated The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock’s laconic drawl set the tone for his eponymous suspense series. Karloff was a natural choice to join their ranks: He let viewers know what they were in for just by saying his name.

At least in retrospect, the scary anthology was a crowded field in the early ’60s. Along with titans Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits, there were lesser entries like One Step Beyond, Way Out, and Great Ghost Tales. Each of them jockeyed to establish a flavor different from the others. Hitchcock Presents, run mostly by expatriate Brits, trafficked in droll English understatement and last-second plot twists. The Twilight Zone offered grand irony and allegory. The Outer Limits pushed neo-Gothic fantasy to the eccentric max. Thriller took an unexpected path—one that its creator hadn’t originally planned.

Although Karloff’s presence linked the series to Universal’s monster movie cycle of the ’30s and ’40s, which had its roots in the 19th century novels of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells, Thriller had less in common with the Universal monsters than with the moody ’40s horror films of Val Lewton—where the supernatural lurked placidly in plain sight, jumping out of the shadows now and then with a tactile jolt. (Karloff had starred in some of Lewton’s films, too.) By the same token, Thriller found its identity in a newer wave of literary horror. The “shudder pulps” were lurid fiction magazines that enjoyed a brief popularity in the late ’30s and early ’40s, publishing adventure and fantasy stories with an emphasis on sex and violence. They were the first evolutionary leap beyond the “Victorian-Edwardian ghost-story channel” of horror fiction, as Thriller fan Stephen King described it. And if the quality of the weird pulps’ prose varied, it fostered some writers who are still widely read today, chiefly H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan The Barbarian).

Sold without a pilot, Thriller fumbled haphazardly toward its weird fiction niche. It began as a vague pitch from network-executive-turned-independent-producer Hubbell Robinson, the driving force behind CBS’ acclaimed Playhouse 90: “A quality anthology drama drawing on the whole rich field of suspense literature.” The implication was that Robinson’s name promised success. The outcome was that Robinson’s choice as producer, B-movie director Fletcher Markle, delivered an initial eight segments that were so disappointing the sponsor insisted on a personnel changes, as well as a clear definition of what, exactly, constituted a “thriller.” Markle was replaced with two alternating producers who were given a somewhat narrower mandate. Maxwell Shane, whose credits were similar to Markle’s, would succeed him in delivering what Shane described as “the action story of a tremendously rapid and violent kind.” William Frye would tackle (in Robinson’s words) “the chiller or shocker type of the weird, eerie school.” But Shane, too, was shown the door after a few episodes, and Frye’s horror formula won out. A detail-oriented showrunner with good taste in actors, directors, and especially music, Frye made Thriller his own—so much so that he later complained about having to share credit with Robinson, an absentee landlord whom Frye claimed to have met only once.

Here is the prosaic chain of events by which Thriller came to meet Weird Tales: Frye’s associate producer, Doug Benton, asked writer Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone) for his ideas on material to adapt for Thriller. Beaumont suggested the pulp magazine and steered Benton to superfan Forrest J. Ackerman, who owned a complete set. Ackerman wouldn’t part with his trunk of back issues but agreed to loan them to Benton, a few at a time. Benton set out to track down authors and rights, and so Thriller began to offer relatively authentic screen versions of many key Weird Tales authors: August Derleth, Harold Lawlor, Margaret St. Clair, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, and Robert Bloch. Only Lovecraft was missing.

But Thriller’s revamp was too little, too late for the critics, most of whom had panned the premiere (TV Guide: “pretty rumpled show”) and checked in again, if at all, on another of Markle’s early duds. “Even considered as a straight teleplay, discounting the chiller aspiration, ‘Worse Than Murder’ was worse than average,” sniffed Variety. Even Dorothy Parker got in a dig, dismissing Thriller as “obnoxious” (relative to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, of which she approved) and quipping: “And there is Boris Karloff up there saying, ‘As sure as my name is Boris Karloff...’ Actually his name is not Boris Karloff.” (The actor was born William Henry Pratt.) Thriller was neither a critical nor a popular hit, and it was quietly canceled in the spring of 1962, a victim of low ratings as well as network and studio politics.

Had the show existed in the era of weekly recaps, Frye’s most exciting hours might have gotten enough attention to extend its life. But in truth, Thriller wouldn’t have been creatively sustainable for much longer. Juicy as they were, the Weird Tales stories were short, and often slight; the measure of a good Thriller writer was his skill at devising an original first act that could set up the pulp material as its denouement. The final 10 or so episodes were almost as undistinguished as the first batch, and a few segments consisted of two or three vignettes instead of one-hour stories—a sign of desperation and perhaps more than one could ask of an audience that had already tired of the anthology format. Like producer Joseph Stefano’s fever-dream first season of The Outer Limits, the Frye era of Thriller burned bright and flickered out fast, like a candle in a drafty hallway. Here are 10 picks to help guide the way through that old dark house.

“The Twisted Image” (season one, episode one): Hapless corporate executive Leslie Nielsen has not one but two deranged employees who are fixated on him: a secretary who wants his bod, and an unctuous mailroom striver (George Grizzard) who wants his life. Two of ’60s television’s most talented leading men go head to head as what read, in hindsight, like vintage Mad Men archetypes: Nielsen as a has-it-all Don Draper and Grizzard as a Pete Campbell-type interloper. Crisply directed by Arthur Hiller, “The Twisted Image” is the best of the Markle-produced shows and the closest thing we have to a blueprint for the kind of cerebral (but violent!) psychological chiller Thriller would not become. That the Freudian logic in James P. Cavanagh’s teleplay doesn’t make much sense has to be classified as a flaw—but it makes the episode all the more unsettling. Clumsy as a narrative device, the doubling of Nielsen’s stalkers posits modern office life as a seething mass of class resentment, lunging forth to swallow up an oblivious one-percenter—who triumphs in the end, of course.

“The Hungry Glass” (season one, episode 16): A young couple buys New England cliffside mansion for cheap, and wonders why all the mirrors have been removed from the house. Surprise: Ghosts! This most basic of setups sets the stage for writer-director Douglas Heyes (The Twilight Zone) to slow-build tension through careful optical and lighting effects. (Check out the amazing shot in which one character discovers an attic full of mirrors: a dozen tiny reflections amid a sea of darkness.) A Korean War PTSD backstory provides the motivation for some signature William Shatner histrionics, while Gilligan’s Island’s Russell Johnson counterbalances him by delivering lucid exposition as only The Professor could. Apart from the misogyny—everything would’ve worked out fine if only women weren’t looking in the mirror all the time!—it’s the first classic of the Frye era.

“Late Date” (season one, episode 27): One of Thriller’s three successful adaptations of Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window), a seminal pulp writer whose florid prose was hard to translate into cinematic terms, this minimalist entry follows its short-sleeved beefcake hero (Larry Pennell) through a nail-biting evening of corpse disposal. A censor-imposed ending kills the mood in the final seconds, but no matter: “Late Date” is a plot engine, a series of unexpected obstacles and solutions that build suspense through meticulous detail. “Late Date” is propelled less by dialogue than by Jerry Goldsmith’s coffee house-jazz score, one of the finest in a series that numbers among the most musically rich of its era: Thriller’s three key composers (Goldsmith, Pete Rugolo, and Morton Stevens) contributed diverse, album-quality scores to nearly every episode.

“Pigeons From Hell” (season one, episode 36): The title alone all but guarantees pantheon status, right? This lean and mean version of a famous Robert E. Howard story pits two stranded motorists and a resourceful sheriff in the path of an implacable voodoo spirit, which pursues them via ghostly animals and re-animated corpses through mansion, plantation, and swamp. Steered through the shadows by director John Newland (one of many journeymen inspired to first-rate work on Thriller) and scored with creepy chorus-of-the-dead voices by Morton Stevens, this is not only the series’ best episode by a country mile, it’s one of the scariest things ever created for television. And did those massing passenger pigeons inspire images in Hitchcock’s The Birds, two years hence?

“Guillotine” (season two, episode two): This Beaumont-scripted adaptation of another Woolrich story spins off of the (entirely fabricated?) folk legend that a man sentenced to death will go free if his executioner precedes him to the grave. Thus: desperate convict, pretty wife, lonely guillotine man, slow-acting poison. Ida Lupino, the only woman director working in ’60s prime time, crafted her most sustained body of work for Thriller; many of her episodes are staid, but in this one Lupino excels, getting grounded performances from lesser actors and muting the inauthenticity (accents; backlot) that was inevitable in Thriller’s many period European outings. The climax is as well directed as anything in Lupino’s highly regarded ’50s films noir: The executioner spasms and craws across a hot, harshly sunlit courtyard, racing against death to pull the lever that will drop the blade.

“The Weird Tailor” (season two, episode four): No single writer set the tone for Thriller more than Robert Bloch (author of the novel Psycho), who supplied the teleplay and/or story basis for 10 out of 67 episodes. Characteristic of Bloch’s penchant for ideas so morbid they teeter on the brink of comedy, “The Weird Tailor” is his strangest and best script. It begins as the story of a practitioner of black magic who needs a coat sewn just so for a Satanic ritual—but it doesn’t it get really twisted until it turns its attention to the tailor’s young wife, who is in love with a mannequin. Frye, whose budget didn’t always permit the hiring of A-list guest stars, took that limitation as an opportunity to cast some of the best oddball actors to populate his odd stories; like many episodes, “The Weird Tailor,” which stars the icy George Macready and the creepy Henry Jones, plays out as a ripe character actor showdown.

“A Third For Pinochle” (season two, episode nine): Something Thriller did surprisingly well—certainly better than The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits—was humor. Co-written by Boris Sobelman, an obscure talent responsible for a handful of wry, intricate black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “Pinochle” stars Edward Andrews (another character actor VIP, at his absolute smarmiest in his three Thrillers) as an irrepressible wife murderer. The smug killer’s comeuppance at the hands of a pair of would-be Arsenic And Old Lace biddies is a gem, but the high point is Andrews’ egomaniacal confession to a bemused homicide detective. Some Thriller diehards disown all but the supernatural episodes, which is too stringent; that it would’ve been a better fit for Hitchcock hardly rescinds this diabolically clever hour’s legitimacy as a masterpiece.

“The Return Of Andrew Bentley” (season two, episode 12): In his only Thriller teleplay, Twilight Zone genius Richard Matheson conjures chills from the most basic of ingredients: the nerve-jangling screech of an organ, the expression of terror on a servant’s face. A story of a curious novice’s initial exposure to black magic, this episode—based on a story co-written by H.P. Lovecraft acolyte August Derleth—is as close as Thriller would come to depicting the Lovecraftian notion of a vast, barely glimpsed evil, ever-present and held at bay only by lines in musty old books. Bottled-up and talky for its first two acts, “Return” bursts out into corporeal scares once the characters confront a spectre (played by spooky movie villain Reggie Nalder) and his faceless “familiar,” an apparition as freakish as any Outer Limits monster.

“The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk” (season two, episode 13): Just what became of the Greek gods? Like, say, Circe, who turned men into beasts? Three parts humor and one part horror, this odd episode locates a macabre answer at Mrs. Cissy Hawk’s Home Of The Pampered Pig, where visitors are welcome but drifters tend to disappear at the same rate that the pigs in the pen out back multiply. Thriller’s most prolific writer, the lugubrious Donald S. Sanford lacked the deft touch of Bloch, Beaumont, or Matheson, but here his dialogue comes to delightful life in the byplay between Jo Van Fleet (as Hawk) and John Carradine (as an erudite tramp), two hammy actors who were somehow persuaded to deliver sprightly, witty performances.

“A Wig For Miss Devore” (season two, episode 19): This turgid backstage-Hollywood melodrama wheels out all the Sunset Boulevard cliches surrounding the pathetic comeback of a faded movie star (Patricia Barry) and arranges them in as flat and uninvolved a tableau as possible. Which is precisely the point: The grafted-on horror elements, concerning a hanged witch’s wig that Miss Devore dons for a period movie, stand out in the starkest possible contrast to the banality of the plot and characters. Historian David J. Schow called it “Thriller as EC Comics,” drawing a vital comparison to the lurid ’50s comic books that were probably too low-culture to have influenced Frye and company, but nonetheless paralleled Thriller’s particular brand of thrills. The pulpiest entry in television’s most gloriously pulpy series.

As sure as this is TV Club 10, these are also (pretty good) Thrillers: “The Fatal Impulse” (season one, episode 11); “The Cheaters” (season one, episode 15); “Well Of Doom” (season one, episode 23); “Mr. George” (season one, episode 32); “The Terror In Teakwood” (season one, episode 33); “The Grim Reaper” (season one, episode 37); “Dialogues With Death” (season two, episode 11); “La Strega” (season two, episode 17); “The Hollow Watcher” (season two, episode 20); “Cousin Tundifer” (season two, episode 21).

Availability: A complete DVD set includes audio commentaries from scholars and a few of the show’s directors and actors.

Next time: Genevieve Valentine sinks her teeth into 10 prime examples of vampires on TV.