BORIS KARLOFF’S THRILLER (1960-1962): EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS, PART THREE

Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here. Part II is here.

“A Good Imagination” (directed by John Brahm and written by Robert Bloch) benefits from Bloch’s narrative about fatal bookworm Frank Logan (Edward Andrews) who accesses literary classics for inspiration to dispose of his unfaithful wife’s numerous lovers. With blackened humor and erudite irony, this episode evokes both Hitchcock and Poe. Andrews’s winning portrayal has us rooting for a ruthless antagonist with an alarmingly high body count who practically whistles while he works.

“Mr. George” (directed by and written by Donald S. Sanford) is an episode that’s greater than the sum of its parts. A superb Jerry Goldsmith score, assured direction by Lupino, and good performances elevate a conventional script about a young child named Priscilla (Gina Gillespie, who would become best known as the young Blanche Hudson in 1962’s Whatever Happened To Baby Jane) whose guardian Mr. George has recently died. Now in the custody of three cousins plotting her death for the inheritance money, Priscilla is guided and protected by Mr. George’s spirit. Contemporary audiences may balk at the idea of finding humor in attempted murder of a child (as they did with Addams Family Values), but Lupino’s direction deftly balances humor with a sense of threat.

Paul Henried redeems his previous effort (season one‘s bland “Mark of the Hand”) with effective direction in “The Terror in Teakwood” (written by Alan Callow). It’s an episode in the tradition of Hands of Orlac (1924) and Mad Love (1935). Vladimir Vicek ( Guy Rolfe) severs the hands of a dead pianist to assist him in tackling an overly complicated piece composed by Alexander Borodin. Hazel Court (a Hammer scream queen who would co-star with Karloff in ‘s The Raven two years later), as Vicek’s wife Leonie, leads a strong ensemble. Though subdued, the sexual tones are startling for the period and this bizarre thriller is all the more atmospheric due to Goldsmith’s skilled use of preexisting music combined with his own work, making it a near-classic episode.

Still from Thriller, "The Prisoner in the Mirror"“The Prisoner in the Mirror” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Arthur) is another prime thriller. Professor Langham (Lloyd Bochner) literally uncovers the mirror of the evil Count Cagliostro (Henry Daniell). Possessed by the infamous Cagliostro, Langham brings the mirror home and…. needless to say, the body count will pile up. A young Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham from “Happy Days”) plays Lagham’s fiancee and even makes a toast to “happy days,” which do not arrive for the poor girl. The fantasy element is in full flower, which could also be said of the performances by both Bochner and Daniell. Interestingly, Karloff himself was once cast to play Cagliostro for Universal in the mid thirties, but the production imploded for various reasons. This episode almost makes up for the loss.

“Dark Legacy” (directed by John Brahm and written by John Tomerlin) is a grim, noirish episode with minimal dialogue and heavy-laden with the supernatural. Oddly, this is rarely mentioned as a superior example of the series, and that is unfortunate.  A hack nightclub magician (Harry Townes) inherits an occult book from his warlock uncle (also played by Harry Townes) and conjures up the demon Astaroth, which leads to delusions of grandeur and a supernatural comeuppance. Villainous favorite Henry Silva co-stars with Alan Napier, but, per the norm, it’s Townes who proves to be one of the most underrated of character actors. Although the demon could have been better executed with contemporary CGI, this is a well-shot episode that only pales after watching…

“Pigeons from Hell” (directed by John Newland and written by John Kneubuhl from a story by Robert E. Howard), which makes just about everyone’s “Greatest Thriller Episode” list,—although I am tempted to abstain from that “Greatest” moniker. In addition to being written by the author of “Conan,” it’s almost faultlessly directed by the creator of cult TV series “One Step Beyond” (which someday we should cover, even if only its first season has received an official DVD release. There are countless cheap, public domain editions, which should be avoided at all costs). All this adds up to an episode whose reputation may be impossible to fully justify, although it is undoubtedly a vastly superior thriller.

It begins in “old dark house” mode when two brothers (Brandon de Wilde and David Worf) get their car stuck in the mud. Coming upon an old dark house, they encounter vibrating pigeons from hell that contain departed souls who will inspire Wilde to do… things. There’s an authentic sense of unbearable dread,  a murdered sibling, a zombie, a mystery, and an evil house with a past. Fortunately, much of it is never explained, and the terror is keenly felt. It goes without saying that Goldsmith’s score is an inspired one, but this episode falters in less than stellar acting (Newland was usually best working with veterans, which freed him to polish his superb narrative skills).

“The Grim Reaper” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Bloch) stars and, briefly, Henry Daniell. It’s almost as legendary as “Pigeons from Hell,” and is overall an even better episode. Renowned author Beatrice Graves (Natalie Schafer) has purchased a painting of the Grim Reaper by the artist Radin, who committed suicide after finishing the canvas. Legend has it that the painting is cursed and blood will mysteriously appear on the Reaper’s blade just before its owner dies. Nephew Paul (Shatner) arrives at Beatrice’ mansion to warn her. She scoffs, until… Effectively lit and expert in it’s use of Shatner’s sweaty histrionics (let’s be honest, he is the most entertaining aspect of “Trek”), this episode literally will raise the hairs on the nape of your neck, and has one helluva an ending that could only be written by Bloch.

Season Two opens with “What Beckoning Ghost?” (directed by Ida Lupino and written by Donald S. Sanford) utilizes the well-worn Gaslight plot of a woman (Judith Evelyn) being driven insane—or not—by a scheming husband (Tom Helmore). Although stylishly directed, there’s no surprises here, and it’s ultimately a disappointment.

“Guillotine” (directed by Ida Lupino and written by Charles Beaumont) concerns convicted murderer Robert Lamont (Alejandro Rey) who has been sentenced to the guillotine for murdering his wife’s lover. His only chance for reprieve is if the executioner  (Robert Middleton) dies before the execution date. Out of guilt, apparently, Lamont’s wife (Danielle DeMetz) seeks to make that custom’s loophole come to pass. Naturally, there is a twist. Middleton is good as always and although hardly top-notch thriller, this is a marked improvement over the second season’s opener.

“The Premature Burial” (directed by Douglas Heyes, written by William Gordon and Heyes, based on the Edgar Alan Poe short story) has Karloff returning to an actual acting role, in addition to his hosting duties. The allure of Poe was obviously an influence in the casting, but the writing team can’t do full justice to the 19th century author. The cataleptic Edward Stapleton (Sydney Blacker) has an obsessive fear of being buried alive. His fiancée Victorine (Patricia Medina) plots to use the phobia against him so she can run off with her lover Julian (Scott Marlowe). Stapleton’s friend and protector Doctor Thorne (Karloff) plays an integral part in the narrative and proves to be a force to be reckoned with, bringing out the sadistic avenger in him. Unsurprisingly, Karloff steals everything but the kitchen sink, and this episode’s considerable value lies in his portrayal, making one wish he had acted in more episodes.

Thriller, "The Weird Tailor"“The Weird Tailor” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Bloch from his own story for “Weird Tales”) makes all the difference with superior writing, producing the first authentically classic episode of season two. During a Satanic mass, the son (Gary Clarke) of Mr. Smith (George Macready) is accidentally killed when impaled by a pentagram. Within the space of fifty minutes, the narrative moves like a whirlwind and takes the viewer to an encounter at a used car lot between Madame Roberti (Iphigenia Castiglione) and the weird tailor Erik Borg (Henry Jones) whom Mr. Smith hires to resurrect the deceased son. Bankrupt, Borg takes the commission and constructs a special suit, that needless to say has dire consequences. There’s even a hint of something sexual between Borg’s much abused wife (Sondra Blake) and a sleazy looking mannequin, which is a lot of perversity for 1961.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.