From the show’s opening iconic musical score, you know something deliciously sinister is about to occur. The word THRILLER appears 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.”
Boris Karloff’s THRILLER was an anthology series that ran from 1960-1962. It included 60 minute B&W episodes, 67 in all, that were expected to compete with The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
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 Cheaters as well as adapting his story The Weird Tailor.
Other contributing writers were Donald S. Sanford, Richard Matheson, Barré Lyndon and August Derleth John Kneubuhl, Alan Caillou, Robert Hardy Andrews, Charles Beaumont, Robert Arthur, William D. Gordon, Jay Simms and Wilkie Collins.
THRILLER had 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, Hazel Court, 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.
The series drew much of its artist edge because of the directors who contributed their stylistic observations of the storytelling like Robert Florey, a French Screenwriter who was responsible for contributing to The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone as well as assistant director on Murders In The Rue Morgue and the 1946 film The Beast With 5 Fingers yet another take of the Orlac saga. John Brahm directed the 1944 version of The Lodger and Hangover Square. Much of the overall tone of the series combined elements of film noir and classical horror. The shadowy gray-toned cinematography created so much of the atmospherics for some of the most memorable episodes in the series. Pigeons From Hell is yet another story adapted from Weird Tales Magazine. This episode was directed by John Newland of One Step Beyond, a television series consisting of half-hour episodes that were purported to be based on true paranormal events. Some other notable directors who contributed their work to the series were the ever-versatile Ida Lupino, Arthur Hiller, Lazlo Benedak, (The Wild One ’53) Hershel Daugherty, Paul Henreid, Douglas Heyes, and Jules Bricken.
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.
Jerry Goldsmith, Morton Stevens & Pete Rugolo wrote some of the most vivid and beautiful melodies for the series. I was inspired by the episode God Grante That She Lye Stille, to name a song on my album Fools and Orphans after it.
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 in 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 its time in terms of the serious and artful risk-taking of the various directors on board, the incredibly spellbinding storytelling 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 1960s television series. Its moody, compelling, and haunting quality, has not been duplicated on any other anthology series of its type to date. Although I also feel passionate 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 THRILLER holds a special fascination for me, partly due to my enduring love for Boris Karloff.
Somehow THRILLER seemed to encapsulate its 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 responses in me even after having watched these episodes a hundred times over.
Also notable is Jack Barron’s make-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!