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

Part I of “Boris Karloff’s Thriller” episode guide is here, part II is here, part III is here, and part IV is here.

How could “Waxworks” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Bloch) go wrong with this subject matter—wax museums are usually rich fodder for the horror genre—and this writer? Unfortunately, a promising opening teeters into an elongated dull stretch, partially redeemed by its stylish “twist” ending. The flaws here seem more to be in the direction than in the writing as the story was filmed again, to better effect, in the 1971 Amicus production The House That Dripped Blood (starring the best and most underrated of Hammer actors, ). Colonel Andre Bertroux (Martin Kosleck) believes the wax figures of Pierre Jacqueline’s Waxworks Museum have committed a series of murders. Antoinette Bower gives a good performance as Annette Jacquelin, and she’s the center of that twist, which reveals a unimaginable truth.

Still from "La Strega" from "Thriller"“La Strega”(directed by and written by Alan Caillou) is “Thriller” (and Lupino) at its near-best. In 19th century Italy, a young girl named Luana (Ursula Andress) is nearly drowned by the village idiots, who believe her to be La Strega (“the witch”). She is rescued by artist Tonio (Alejandro Rey). Tonio takes Luana in, protects her, and eventually becomes her lover. Soon, he encounters Luana’s grandmother (Jeanette Nolan) who is the actual La Strega. When Tonio refuses to divulge Luana’s whereabouts, the grandmother places a curse upon him. Toni turns to Maestro Giuliano (Ramon Novarro) for help, but Giuliano is soon murdered. Tonio’s only recourse is to beg for release from the curse, which leads to a downright grim finale. Nolan is superb as La Strega and Novarro (from the silent Ben-Hur) makes a rare and effective television appearance—chilling in hindsight, given that he is a mere six years away from becoming the victim of one of Hollywood’s most brutal murders. Later in the year, Andrews would become the first and most famous of the Bond girls in Dr. No. This episode moves like quicksilver and is almost flawlessly written and directed.

“The Storm” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by William D. Gordon) also deals with superstition, albeit in a more privatized setting. Newlywed Janet (Nancy Kelly, best known for The Bad Seed) is unsettled by an eccentric taxi driver, but goes home to await the arrival of husband (David McLean). When the power goes out in the middle of a storm, Janet envisions herself subjected to virtually every known horror cliche, until an authentic threat and another impending storm make for a jolting climax. The pacing is not as sterling as the previous episode, but  Kelly’s performance is a tour-de-force and renders this an effective, albeit flawed thriller.

“A Wig for Miss Devore” (directed by John Brahm and written by Donald S. Sanford) again deals with witchcraft. Before being executed for sorcery in 18th century England, wicked courtesan Meg Peyton requests the hangman to allow her to die wearing her wig. Of course, there is a motive for doing so: the hairpiece is magically enchanted to grant the wearer eternal youth as long as it is worn. Two centuries later, aging Hollywood sex symbol Sheila Devore (Patricia Barry) hopes to make her comeback playing Peyton in a big-budget production. After blackmailing the studio head to secure the coveted role, Devore dons Peyton’s actual wig. Coming soon: a trail of bodies. This episode frequently makes lists of “Thriller” favorites, most likely because of Berry’s over-the-top performance. There are a lot of nasty jokes about Hollywood egos and rivalry, mixing both humor and horror, but it’s hardly innovative.

“The Hollow Watcher” (directed by William F. Claxton and written by Jay Simms) begins with Black Hollow resident Hugo Wheeler () taking an Irish mail-order bride in Meg O’Danagh (Audrey Dalton), which infuriates Hugo’s religious fanatic pappy Ortho (Denver Pyle). After beating the tar out of Hugo, Ortho is murdered by Meg, who then stuffs her father-in-law’s corpse into a rustic scarecrow. The local rabble soon come to believe that Hugo and Meg have jointly murdered their patriarch for his money, and things get more complicated when a man claiming to be Meg’s brother Sean (Sean McClory) arrives. Actually, he’s Meg’s lover. There’s a lot of creepy sides to this, including Meg’s abnormal fixation on a toy doll, the town’s fear of a demon called “the Hollow Watcher,” and that scarecrow lurking in the fields at night, edging ever closer to the Wheeler estate. It all ends bloodily, and while short on genuine surprises, it is a superior oddity in the “Thriller” canon.

“Cousin Tundifer” (directed by John Brahm and written by Boris Sobelman) again finds”Thriller” producers attempting a change of pace. It doesn’t work in this feeble effort, which stars Edward Andrews as Miles Tundifer attempting to off rich uncle Pontifex (Vaughn Taylor) for a promised inheritance. There’s a subdued science fiction element in Pontifex’s mansion teleporting Miles back to 1890. A murderous ancestor happens to be Miles’s double, and this thriller inevitably concludes with a twist ending. It plays like a black comedy “Twilight Zone” episode, and although Andrews gives a typically animated performance and the narrative includes a gold-digging stripper, it’s a dull effort.

“The Incredible Doktor Markesan” (directed by and written by Donald S. Sanford) has a solid reputation as “Thriller” at its straight-up horror best. Florey had been the original choice to direct Frankenstein (1931), which was to have starred as the monster. Myth has it that Lugosi did not want the part, due to his face being hidden by makeup and and the lack of dialogue. In fact, Florey had made test footage with Lugosi and, upon seeing it, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. fired both director and star, handing the film over to and new star . As an appeasement, Laemmle gave Florey and Lugosi Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932), which proved that the producer was right to have fired them both. After Murders, Florey was mostly relegated to “B” budget projects with occasional standouts, such as The Face Behind the Mask (1941) starring Peter Lorre. However, the bulk of Florey’s work was mediocre: San Antonio (1945) with , The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)  with Lorre, and Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951) with Flynn. With the advent of television, Florey kept busy directing episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Outer Limits,” among others. Like scriptwriter Sanford, Florey was only as good as the material handed him. An adaptation of a short story by August Derleth (a protege of ), “The Incredible Doktor Markeson” is probably the best work of both Florey and Sanford. Thirty-one years after being booted off a Universal project that eventually starred Karloff, Florey now directs the actor. The result is a classic Karloff performance that ranks with his Monster, Fu Manchu, Imhotep, Poelzig, and Cabman Gray.

Still from Thriller, "The Incredible Doktor Markesan"Fred Bancroft (Dick York) and his wife Molly (Carolyn Kearney) have twelve dollars to their name when they show up at the dilapidated estate of Bancroft’s uncle, Dr. Konrad Markesan. Although Fred has not seen his uncle for years, he is banking on his once having been Konrad’s favorite nephew in order to have a rent-free place to stay while searching for post-grad work. After snooping around the seemingly abandoned Gothic mansion (at the edge of a swamp, of course), Fred and Molly encounter Uncle Konrad who appears suddenly, claiming to have been in the library. Konrad seems to be a tad on the dead side, and reluctantly allows them to stay, under the condition that they never leave the house at night and never enter the library. Molly finds it odd that Konrad has no food in the mansion, but that’s because, as she’s about to find out, he’s in the zombie-making business, with his victims being former rival professors. The undead here predate ‘s, and he certainly got his inspiration for the white dust look of his walking cadavers from this episode. Unlike the bulk of the zombie boom, which seems to be never-ending, this is an imaginative take on the subject. We root for the “bad guy” over the bland, wholesome protagonists.

The previous episode was almost impossible to top. “Flowers of Evil” (directed by John Brahm and written by Barre Lyndon) doesn’t even try. Following “Thriller”‘s typical bipolar batting average, one of its best episodes is followed by one of the worst in this hopelessly silly narrative about a psycho skeleton who happens to have once been the husband of another future Bond girl (Luciana Paluzzi), as the murderess Madalena. After the faithless hussy and her lover kill hubby, they sell his skeleton to a medical school, but the students return it because of its constant screaming. Naturally, there is a student who can add two and two and, after he deduces the identity of the skeleton, Madalena kills off Dr. Sherlock Holmes as well. That laughing hyena of a skeleton keeps popping up, however, until karma rears its ugly head.

“Til Death Do Us Part” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Robert Bloch) ventures into the wild west, with a spin that’s pure Bloch. Carl Somers (Henry Jones) has a pen pal named Celia (Reta Shaw) who is both beautiful and rich. Unfortunately, he is already married. Being an undertaker, that’s only a minor annoyance. After killing his wife, whom he didn’t like anyway, Somers heads west, only to find that Celia is grossly overweight and considerably older than she is in her doctored photograph. Still, since she’s extremely wealthy, Somers marries her anyway, only to find that he cannot inherit her fortune. Now saddled with yet another unwanted wife, Somers plots Celia’s death, but because this is a thriller penned by Bloch, the narrative is hardly wrapped up in a convenient, pretty package. Karloff excels in his hosting role, having fun joking about death. This episode is also rich with familiar character actors, including Edgar Buchanan as the town doctor and Jim Davis as the marshal.

“The Bride Who Died Twice” (directed by Ida Lupino and written by Robert Hardy Andrews) is a variation on the Biblical legend of David and Bathsheba mixed with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Unfortunately, the title gives away its “surprise” ending, and the script is a pedestrian attempt at variety. Col Sangriento (Joe De Santis) sends his army against General De La Verra (Eduardo Ciannelli) because he wants his superior’s daughter, Consuelo (Mala Powers). To complicate matters, Consuelo is in love with Capt. Bartolomeo (Robert Colbert) and Sangriento orders De La Verra  to send Fernandez to the front lines and a certain death and…  indeed, “the bride dies twice.” Lupine squeezes every noir shadow she can into the torture chamber, and a strong, bleak finale supersedes everything before it—although the payoff proves a long time coming.

“Kill My Love” (directed by Herschel Daugherty and written by Donald S. Sanford) stars Richard Carlson in a rare villainous role as “Bluebeard” Guy Guthrie. Guy’s son Julian (David Kent) soon becomes suspicious of daddy’s homicidal tendencies, and soon finds himself in danger. Yet another mediocre crime melodrama is made worse by a woefully miscast Carlson.

“Man Of Mystery” (directed by John Newland and written by Robert Bloch) marks Bloch’s final work for “Thriller,” and many fans of the series claim it’s the last classic “Thriller.” Nightclub singer and gold digger Sherry Smith (Mary Tyler Moore) falls for a man of mystery, a reclusive billionaire (clearly modeled after Howard Hughes) named Joel Stone (John Van Dreelen). Stone’s only living friend seems to be his mute servant, Lucas (Walter Burke), and Smith begins to suspect that the object of her affections may be a tad eccentric when he invites her to a dinner party… with mannequins (which, smartly, Bloch never explains). A comedian from the nightclub (William Windon), in love with Sherry and overly jealous, investigates his rival. Stone’s ex-lover (Mercedes Shirley) has the key to many of his secrets and winds up in the morgue, as do many of Stone’s former acquaintances, along with an author who attempts to publish a book about the billionaire. Burke steals the episode in a wining portrayal and, naturally, a narrative twist is on the horizon in this overwritten but uniquely effective thriller.

“The Innocent Bystanders” (directed by John English and written by Robert Hardy Andrews) again finds Karloff associated with a narrative based on the infamous Burke and Hare case, although he is confined to hosting duties here. That turns out for the better, since this is no production. Carl Benton Reid plays the Dr. Robert Knox role (here named Dr. Marcus Graham). John Anderson and George Kennedy fill in for the murdering duo. The subject was better handled by in 1945’s The Body Snatcher (starring Karloff) and in 1959’s Flesh and the Fiends (Starring Peter Cushing). Comparatively, “The Innocent Bystanders” is a pale imitation.

“The Lethal Ladies” (directed by Ida Lupino and written by Boris Sobelman) finds this director again tackling dual stories, both of which are improvements over the series’s immediate predecessor. Howard Morris and Rosemary Murphy star in both tales. It’s really an acting showcase, with Murphy taking top honors. In “Murder on the Rocks” Myron Sills (Morris) is a cheating husband who attempts to rid himself of his wealthy geologist wife Lavinia (Murphy) by pushing her off a cliff but, like a certain bumble, she bounces back, and it’s revenge she has in mind. Lupino solicits an intense, standout performance out of the actress in an unexceptional narrative. “Goodbye, Dr. Bliss” is the better entry, with Morris in the title role. Dr. Bliss is an eternally constipated cutthroat who is hired as the new chief librarian who quickly fires a longtime employee, the mild-mannered Miss Quimbly (Murphy). Again, a dish of revenge is served with an over-the-top finale, with the bastard trapped in the library vault. While neither episode would win any writing awards, Lupino works well with her lead actress.

Unfortunately, “Thriller” bows out with the dull crime melodrama “The Specialists” (directed by Ted Post and written by John Kneubuhl). It’s about specialists who track down terrorists and stars Lin McCarthy, Robert Douglas and Suzanne Lloyd (as the final “Thriller” babe-of-the-week in a bathing suit). Post milks the script visually, but it’s not enough to raise a pulse.

After the cancellation of “Thriller,” Karloff hosted one final anthology series, UK’s “Out of This World,” which was a limited run of thirteen episodes. It has never been made available on the home video market and is rarely seen.

Because of its hit/miss ratio, “Thriller” never seems to make anyone’s list of  “Best Horror Series” (except Stephen King’s). However, these types of populist assessments are ultimately sophomoric. When the right teams were involved, “Thriller” delivered episodes on a par with anything from “Twilight Zone,” “Outer Limits.” etc. The cult reputation of “Thriller” has only grown since its release on DVD.

“This has been a thriller.”

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