Sunday, February 2, 2014

Appreciations: Boris Karloff’s ‘Thriller’

I have been meaning to write this post for the last several months. Today—the 45th anniversary of the death of Boris Karloff—provides the occasion to meditate on one of the most interesting old series I’ve come across, either on cable TV or DVD, in recent years—one that prominently featured the star of Frankenstein, The Mummy and other classics.

Say the title “Thriller” and Gen-Xers and younger are likely to think of the 1983 pathbreaking Michael Jackson music video, featuring horror-film veteran Vincent Price. But TV viewers of a certain age are more likely to recall a series hosted by another horror icon—Karloff, who, with Bela Lugosi, helped make Universal Studios a fortune several times over.

Movie fans know all about these latter movies: They’ve aired constantly on television (and have established themselves equally strongly in the DNA of the horror-flick fan by being studied intensely in film schools by budding auteurs who go on to pay homage—i.e., steal the best ideas—for their own movies).

But they are less likely to be familiar with this series. It lasted only from September 1960 through the summer of 1962, and the 67 episodes in these two seasons did not make it ideal for syndication, where 100 shows were usually viewed as the minimum required. I was a mere toddler in the show’s original run, and I only recall seeing one episode from the series—“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”—nearly 30 years ago. Believe me, the show was gone from my market in no time.

Which brings me to Memorable Television, or MeTV. It’s a trip into vintage television, both old favorites (Perry Mason) and shows not seen anywhere on the dial since maybe the first time it aired, such as Rod Serling’s follow-up to The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery. To my astonishment, over the last several months on Sunday night, I’ve taken to following Thriller—or, as I’ve come to think of it, “Boris Karloff’s Thriller.”

Karloff started the series when his career was in its home stretch.  At age 73, suffering from considerable back pains (incurred while filming Frankenstein nearly 30 years before), the days when he could appear a terrifying menace simply through his physical presence were over. Yet, with his films being shown constantly on television, he remained a familiar name—what we might call a “brand” today—to millions of viewers.

The show that Karloff was invited to host was an anthology series, a writer-dominated outgrowth of radio theater, with episodes linked not by common characters or actors so much as a common mood or, even more important, a common host. At first an occasional waystation for aging screen idols transitioning out of lead roles (e.g., Robert Montgomery, Loretta Young), the format soon featured hosts who developed their own personas. John Newland would calmly assure viewers of One Step Beyond that the tales of the uncanny they were about to watch all really happened; Alfred Hitchcock displayed a taste for the macabre as marked as his rotund frame seen in silhouette; and Rod Serling invited viewers, in a sonorous voice that managed only barely to check the chaos about to be unleashed, to step into “a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man… between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge… an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”

The presence of Karloff may have been even more essential than these other hosts in holding the series together, for at its inception Thriller had not yet found its sea legs. The title itself reflected this ambiguity. Did the title refer to crime—TV’s low-budget answer to film noir—or horror and the supernatural? After one of the early episodes, “The Twisted Image,” brought down cries of sensationalism for depicting a serial killer kidnapping a child, the show, at the insistence of CBS, had a different producer focused on each genre.

Had I come in on the series during its MeTV run on one of these crime melodramas, I might have given up at how inferior they were to the show’s inspiration and competitor, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Luckily, I watched one of the better hours in the show’s run, “The Terror in Teakwood,” about a concert pianist who desecrates the grave of an archrival, and I was hooked.

CBS programmers quickly noticed that the crime episodes were neither well done nor well received. The horror episodes, on the other hand, were usually written by (or based on works by) some of the finest short-story practitioners of the genre (many contributors to the fantasy and horror fiction pulp magazine Weird Tales), including Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson and August Derleth.

At the beginning of the show’s run, Karloff stated that he was glad that the show’s title was broad enough to accommodate either the crime or horror genre, and that it was better to entertain the audience than to shock it with violence. Nevertheless, when programmer preferences shifted the show, at least somewhat, toward horror, he was ideally positioned as a link to an earlier age of classic horror.

Karloff appeared in five of the nearly 70 episodes as an actor, and they are among the great fan favorites in the series, in much the same way that Hitchcock-directed episodes of his own show are among the most prized. He continued to display his versatility in these—from a fake but genuinely paternal magician to a crazed scientist intent on resurrecting the dead (a nod to the Frankenstein films that had made his reputation).

But even his eerie introductions came to be prized by fans. After a short scene that hinted at what was to come, he would suddenly appear, usually with a prop--a candle in hand, a skeleton in the background--slightly arching his heavy eyebrows. With a gentle but decidedly wintry smile, he would introduce the actors for the night’s entertainment, then announce, in sepulchral tones with a slight hint of a lisp: “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!” Altogether he looked, in the words of Lucy Chase Williams, author of The Complete Films of Vincent Price, like “a sinister Father Christmas.”

At its best, in the last 50 episodes or so, Thriller became, according to Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, “probably the best horror series ever put on TV.” For anyone interested in the work of particular actors, the series represented an interesting assortment of longtime screen vets (Mary Astor, Henry Daniell), younger actors headed for future fame (Marlo Thomas, Leslie Nielsen, Ursula Andress, Elizabeth Montgomery), and actors who did much fine TV work but never achieved the level of fame that their talents deserved (Patricia Barry, Jeannette Nolan). It also afforded a different creative avenue for longtime actors desiring to branch out into directing, such as Ray Milland and Ida Lupino. (The latter was at the helm for nine episodes, including some deemed the best in the series: “La Strega” and “Trio for Terror.”)

Occasionally, particularly early in the show’s run, an episode might be slightly marred by an ending obviously meant to keep the network censors at bay. But as time went on, the series managed the neat trick for that time of avoiding violence while leaving viewers, at fade-out, with the distinct feeling that—through, say, the successful ministrations of a malevolent ghost (or Karloff’s mad scientist)—the order of the universe had been profoundly shaken. It lived up to what Karloff expressed about the films he made prior to the series:

“Horror means something revolting. Anybody can show you a pailful of innards. But the object of the roles I played is not to turn your stomach - but merely to make your hair stand on end.”

The 14-disc DVD set of Thriller is a must for TV and film aficionados. The shows can be appreciated for being the apprentice work of stars and directors (e.g., Arthur Hiller) who went on to bigger and better things, for the eerie, jazzy score by Jerry Goldsmith--or simply, as its host would surely prefer, a short, hit-or-miss, but often glorious attempt to provide gore-free but chill-drenched gothic horror.

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