by Jon Bastian
Long-forgotten TV anthology is beautifully resurrected for its 50th anniversary.
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During the first Golden Age of Television from the late 40s through early 60s, the Anthology Series was a very popular format, having been a natural adaptation of previous radio forms. Half- and one-hour programs would bring together a different cast for a different story every week – The Kraft Television Theatre, The Philco Television Playhouse, Playhouse 90, and so on. A popular sub-genre of the form was horror/suspense, beginning with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran for ten years from 1955, The Twilight Zone, from 1959 to 1964, and The Outer Limits, 1963 to 1965.
Somewhere in the middle of all that appeared Thriller, an hour-long anthology series hosted by horror film icon Boris Karloff, quite possibly as an answer to Hitchcock’s sudden TV fame five years earlier. There was a big difference between the two, though. Hitchcock started his series just as he was also reaching the height of his fame as a director, coming off of Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, and yet to give us Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Karloff, on the other hand, hadn’t made much more than B movies since World War II, and was yet to see a minor comeback working with Roger Corman and narrating How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The contrast in purpose is nowhere more obvious in the typical openings and closings for each show. In Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Hitch offers a laconic monologue (brilliantly written for him by James B. Allardice), tailored to the evening’s story, with frequently macabre humor mixed with jokes at the sponsor’s expense. At the end of each episode, he would return for a brief recap. With Thriller, however, it feels like Karloff and the writers were phoning it in, and he just showed up to collect a paycheck. The openings invariably follow this form: brief clip from a suspenseful moment in the episode; Karloff steps in front of the footage to speak a few words about the story, assert what kind of story it is “or my name isn’t Boris Karloff” (hilarious in itself, since he was born William Henry Pratt); follow with introduction of tonight’s cast over their images (actually, a nice touch), ending with “This, my friends is a… Thriller…” There are no outros other than the closing credits. (The theme songs are equally enjoyable in their own ways, though, with the use of Gunoud’s “Funeral March for a Marionette” in Hitchcock iconic, while Stanley Wilson’s Thriller Theme, especially in the closing version, is a perfect example of space-age cocktail tiki ambience that is quite well orchestrated, especially in the restored version that accompanies the motion menus at the start of each disc.)
Beyond being a very well-done series, Thriller also serves as an interesting time capsule of its era, with nice surprises in the cast as various newcomers or minor character actors pop up long before they became much better known – Leslie Nielsen (Airplane!) in his leading man days, Rip Torn (Dodgeball) as a smug heir in a haunted house, Richard Chamberlain in his pre-Dr. Kildare days, Ursula Andress just before she exploded onto the screen as Honeychile Rider in Dr. No. Indeed a glance at the cast list reads like a “who would be who” of 60s and 70s television – Robert Vaughn, Marlo Thomas, Natalie Schafer, Mary Tyler Moore, Cloris Leachman, Elizabeth Montgomery and Marion Ross, among many others. Karloff himself even pops up in an episode as a fake psychic whose powers suddenly seem to become real. Through it all, the horror does not come so much from things that go bump in the night, but rather from the dark depths of the human psyche which is, frankly, a lot scarier, because it’s real.
So, a warning: if you come to the program as a Karloff fan, you’ll be disappointed, since his involvement is so minimal and unvaried (except as noted above). However, if you’re a fan of taut and intriguing thrillers with excellent casts and better-than-average character development, then this Thriller is most definitely worth your time.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. Watch for his upcoming play “Strange Fruit”, which he hopes will help him keep his two dogs rolling in kibble…
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