Directed by John Brahm, and adapted by Donald S Sanford from the short story by Robert Bloch which appeared in Weird Tales Magazine, The Cheaters concerns an odd pair of spectacles which allow the wearer to read people’s thoughts. Inscribed on the inside is VeritasThe Latin word for The Truth.
In Roman mythology Veritas (meaning truth) was the goddess of truth, a daughter of Saturn and the mother of Virtue. It was believed that she hid in the bottom of a holy well because she was so elusive.
“The Cheaters” also lay bare the frightening and often hideous true nature of someone’s soul hidden behind their façade. Their Anima Sola or The Lonely Soul, as Jungian psychology considered it.
a. The unconscious or true inner self of an individual, as opposed to the persona, or outer aspect of the personality.
The Anima Sola or Lonely Soul is a Catholic depiction of a suffering person — almost always a woman — in chains amidst the barred prison doors and flames of Purgatory, the place where sinners go while awaiting final judgment.The Anima Sola is taken to represent a soul suffering in purgatory, usually, if not always, a woman. The woman has broken free from her chains in the midst of a prison (barred doors) and is surrounded by flames, representing purgatory. She appears penitent and reverent, and her chains have been broken, an indication that, after her temporary suffering, she is destined for heaven.
In the case of The Cheaters, I think that the soul’s chains are the corporeal body that binds the true inner self. The funny yellow glass that van Prinn has invented through alchemy allows the boundaries to be crossed over in order to see the actual soul suffering in it’s physical purgatory.
Karloff introduces this memorable episode, his words linger on the edge of air so melodically like a soft sermon as the preamble to The Cheaters
“When a man shuts himself off from his neighbors, when he conducts mysterious experiments… there’s bound to be talk. There were those that whispered that Old Dirk van Prinn was a sorcerer or worse… He might not have been remembered at all had not his research led him to the discovery of a most unusual formula for making glass.”
Fade in Henry Daniell’swho makes a brief appearance as Dirk Van Prinn, the alchemist/inventor of the spectacles or “the cheaters” Locked away in his primitively rustic laboratory, we see him tinkering amongst the flasks of liquid and scales, a pair of pliers in his hand as he finishes setting the “yellowed old lenses” in the wire frames. He has discovered a peculiar formula for making glass!
The house keeper Mrs. Ames brings him a package annoying him with an offer of some nourishing soup since he hasn’t had a bite all day. Irritated by the intrusion he just wants her to leave him alone. Mrs. Ames keeps peaking around him trying to catch sight of his mysterious room. He tells her goodnight.
Jerry Goldsmith’s evocative score teems with eerie delight as the strings pluck and trill out macabre musical strokes and a piano tinkles with flute embellishments that flutter as after thoughts as he sits himself in front of the large mirror by candle light.
He tries on the spectacles and stares at his own reflection the camera blurs our vision momentarily. van Prinn is horrified by the image he is gazing at. As we view his face in close up, it distorts as he becomes more frightened by what he sees looking back at him in the mirror. The camera closes in on his tinted spectacles and the look of abject fear in his eyes.
The music becomes a frenzied climax as the scene trades with a black background and a few low piano notes held as Boris Karloff walks on screen to tell us about the evening’s terror tale.
I’ve always been struck by Henry Daniell’s unusual facial features that often lend to many of the sinister roles he’s played in the horror film genre. He’s somewhat like a Faustian marionette, with a wooden like grimace frozen in extreme sardonic glee. I particularly loved him in one of my favorite classic campy films of 1959 The 4 Skullsof Jonathon DrakeDaniell’s make-up for the Well of Doom episode bears a striking similarity to Lon Chaney’s character in Tod Brownings, London After Midnight 1927
One hundred years later the spectacles are found by Joe Henshaw junk man, in a hidden compartment of an old rotting,dust covered desk in Prinn’s abandoned house.
The Cheaters includes wonderful performances by Paul Newlan as Joe Henshaw, the down on his luck junk dealer who discovers the cheaters in more ways than one, when he stumbles onto the spectacles at the old Bleaker Place where van Prinn did his experiments.
From the show’s opening iconic musical score, you know something deliciously sinister is about to occur. The word THRILLERappears against a fractured white web like graphic title design quite a bit in the style of Saul Bass. The discordant piano and horn stabs of modern jazz already bring you into the inner sanctum of menacing story telling. As Boris would often say as a precursory welcome,“Let me assure you ladies and gentlemen, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller”
The series was developed by Executive Producer Hubbell Robinson and producers William Frye, Fletcher Markle & Maxwell Shane for MCA’s Revue Studios. The format was somewhat plagued by two ambivalent themes, leaving the show’s narrative straddling both crime melodrama and tales of the macabre genres. But… either atmospheres created by some of the best writers, directors and players delivered a highly intoxicating blend of both.
“I think the title leaves the stories wide open to be based on melodrama not violence or shock. They’ll be stories about people in ordinary surroundings and something happened to them. The whole thing boils down to taste. Anybody can show you a bucket of blood and say-‘This is a bucket of blood’, but not everyone can produce a skilful story”-Boris Karloff (1960)
Karloff starred in five episodes: The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Somervilles, Dialogues With Death, and The Incredible Doctor Markesan.
Many of the stories were based on writing taken from Weird Tales and scripted by that magazine’s contributors such as Robert Bloch (author of the novel Psycho) who wrote one of my favorite episodes The Cheatersas well as adapting his story The Weird Tailor.
THRILLERhad an incredible line up of serious dramatic players.Leslie Nielsen, Mary Astor, Rip Torn, Patricia Barry, Richard Anderson, Martin Gabel, Cloris Leachman, Fay Bainter, Victor Buono, Audrey Dalton, Alan Caillou, Elisha Cook, Robert Lansing, Mary Tyler Moore, Beverly Garland,Warren Oates, Werner Klemperer, Harry Townes, Jack Weston, Paul Newlan, Ed Nelson, Mildred Dunnock, Phyllis Thaxter,William Shatner, Elizabeth Allen, Guy Stockwell, Susan Oliver, Nehemiah Persoff, Torin Thatcher, Marlo Thomas, Robert Vaughn, John Ireland, Pippa Scott, Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, HazelCourt, Lloyd Bochner, Brandon DeWilde, Sidney Blackmer, George Macready, Tom Poston, Constance Ford, Elizabeth Montgomery, John Carradine, Edward Andrews, Estelle Windwood, Bruce Dern, Jo Van Fleet, Jane Greer, Richard Long, Ursula Andress, Lillian Bronson, Reta Shaw, Dick York, Howard McNear, Richard Carlson, Nancy Kelly, John Fiedler, Linda Watkins, Martita Hunt, George Grizzard, Robert Middleton, Natalie Schafer, James Griffith, Bethel Leslie, Patricia Medina, Richard Chamberlain, Sarah Marshall, Conrad Nagel, Reggie Nalder, Henry Jones, Russell Johnson, Natalie Trundy, Diana Millay, Philip Carey, Kathleen Crowley, Susan Oliver, J. Pat O’Malley, Judith Evelyn, Tom Helmore, Robert Vaughn, Virginia Gregg, Scott Marlowe, Judson Pratt, Marion Ross, Antoinette Bower, Jocelyn Brando, William Windom, George Kennedy, Abraham Sofaer, Monte Markham, Patricia Breslin, Charles Aidman and so many other great character actors.
THRILLER’S musical compositions seemed to be sculpted perfectly for each episode, underscoring the haunting and poignant quality of each story in such an evocative way that the music itself became integral to the narrative. The subtly intrinsic emotional quality in each of the arrangements help forge a climate of the distinctive theater of dramatic and unearthly chills.
Henry Daniell, who in addition to his marvelous face, had a wonderfully theatrical voice, plays the 17th century reincarnation of his ancestor Vicar Weatherford in God Grante She Lye Stille.He condemns the witch Elsbeth Clewer to be damned to the fires of hell and burn at the stake. Memorable is his invocation “God Grant That She Lye Still.” in that measured and lucidly flowing tone of his.”Thou shall not suffer a witch to live!”
Daniell would inhabit several striking characters on the series, including Dirk van Prinn the alchemist in The Cheaters.
I’ll be writing about some of my favorite episodes in depth because THRILLER was so ahead of it’s time in terms of the serious and artful risk taking of the various directors on board, the incredibly spellbinding story telling and dialogue, inspired set & art design, experimental cinematography, dramatic performances and evocative musical scoring.
Together the confluence of all these elements contributed to a show that often pushed the boundaries of what you might expect from a 1960’s television series. It’s moody, compelling and haunting quality, have not been duplicated on any other anthology series of it’s type to date. Although I also feel passionately about The Outer Limits for much of the same reasons, a show philosophizing on morality with a very science fiction lens. I plan on covering that series in depth as well. Alfred Hitchcock Presents & The Alfred Hitchcock Hour was a fabulous mystery series that also merged noir with suspense. This is another show I’ll be talking about in the future. Yet THRILLERholds a special fascination for me, partly due to my enduring love for Boris Karloff.
Somehow THRILLER seemed to encapsulate it’s own Gothic methodology and mythos.
The sets had a uniquely eerie landscape and their own vitally uncanny, bizarre and shadowy environment. Not unlike the way Val Lewton seemed to create his own unique cycle of supernaturally themed shadow plays for RKO.
The show still evokes chills and Gestalt response in me even after having watched these episodes a hundred times over.
Also notable isJack Barron’smake-up on the series, including The Incredible Doktor Markesan~
So please stay tuned as I journey back to Boris Karloff’s Thriller and wander through some of my most treasured episodes I’d love to share with you!
a few scenes from a most groundbreaking & thrilling series!