Thriller: DVD Box Set Preview

Thriller graphic

Classic television show, hosted by Boris Karloff, finally comes to DVD

For fans of classic horror on television, this is big news: THRILLER, the spooky anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN), finally arrives on home video, in a lovely DVD box set, this Tuesday, August 27 – almost exactly 50 years after its premier on NBC way back in September of 1960.
THRILLER ran for two seasons, offering up 67 hour-long episodes of macabre entertainment. (If that sounds like a lot of episodes for two seasons, this was back when television shows typically ran for nine months, taking only the summer off.) Although less well known than THE TWILIGHT ZONE or THE OUTER LIMITS, THRILLER offered similar high-quality episodes, with wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white photography; some great scripts based on classic horror literature, including episodes scripted by or based on Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, and others; a menagerie of familiar faces and guest stars, including William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, Mary Tyler Moore, Elizabeth Montgomery, Rip Torn, Richard Chamberlain, Cloris Leachman, Robert Vaughn, Marlo Thomas, Ursula Andress, and more.
Like Rod Serling with THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Boris Karloff introduced each episode, but unlike Serling, he offered no wrap-up at the end. The intros are nicely done, often tongue in cheek (“Don’t be alarmed – the woman who screamed is perfectly quiet now,” he intones playfully in the familiar lisp. “After all, she’s been dead over 100 years.”) On top of his duties as host, Karloff himself starred in more than one episode, putting his familiar sinister-gentleman persona to good use.

Wearing the "Cheaters," a man has the misfortune to see the ugly truth about himself.
Wearing the "Cheaters," a man sees the ugly truth about himself.

As the title suggests, THRILLER began more in a mystery-thriller vein, a la ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, with lots of creepy skulduggery going on in old dark houses and the like; however, it soon morphed into more of a Gothic horror show, with ghosts and other supernatural beings making frequent appearances. The crime stories are nicely done, but the horror episodes stand out in memory, such as “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” (in which the infamous serial killer is revealed to be an immortal, still at work in the 20th Century) and “The Cheaters” (in which a mysterious pair of spectacles reveal the often ugly truth lurking behind every day reality).
The conflict between the two approaches left the show feeling a bit schizophrenic: if you wanted a monster of the week, you were not going to get it, and the main theme (heard prominently on the DVD’s menu) has a jazzy feel more appropriate to film noir than Gothic horror. However, the nice thing about the format was that, because THRILLER was not dedicated to supernatural explanations, the scripts could play with audience expectations (e.g., was the painting in “The Grim Reaper” episode really cursed, or was that a ruse used by a murder to conceal his crimes – or was it both?).
click to purchase
click to purchase

Image Entertainment’s box set collects all 67 episodes onto 14 discs , remastered and uncut. Bonus features include extensive galleries or production and promotion stills,  promotional clips, isolated music and effects tracks for select episodes, and 27 new audio commentaries. (Since many of the people associated with the series are long gone, most of the commentaries are provided by fans, scholars, and filmmakers: Ernest Dickerson, David Schow, Tim Lucas, Gary Gerani, Marc Scott Zicree, etc.)
If the single screener disc we received is any indication of the overall quality, then the THRILLER box set is a must-have. The full-screen transfers are clear and sharp, perfectly capturing the low-key photography (which is even more impressive when you recall that these episodes were filmed at a time when most shows avoided high-contrast lighting because of the limitations of then-current television monitors, which might render dark areas of the screen as completely black).
The familiar graphic design of criss-crossed lines
The familiar graphic design of criss-crossed lines

The two episodes on the provided disc, “The Grim Reaper” and “Pigeons from Hell” (Episodes 36 and 37, the last of Season 1) offer mystery and suspense, bordering on horror, keeping the audience guess as to what is really happening. “Pigeons from Hell,” scripted by John Kneubuhl from the story by Robert E. Howard, and directed by John Newland (ONE STEP BEYOND) plays things a bit too close to the vest: although intriguing and eerie, with hints of voodoo, it comes to a conclusion that leaves one wondering exactly what was going on and just why were the pigeons from Hell?
“The Grim Reaper” is equally spooky but with a more satisfying twist ending, thanks to a script by Robert Bloch (PSYCHO) from a story by Harold Lawlor.William Shatner stars as a newphew who shows up at his aunt’s mansion to warn her about the eponymous painting she recently purchased, which has a reputation for bringing death to its owners. However, Aunt Beatric (Natalie Schafer, Mrs. Howell on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND) is a best-selling mystery author who believes the “curse” is good publicity – until she ends up dead.
Thriller: William Shatner in The Grim Reaper
William Shatner stands before the titular painting of The Grim Reaper

Under Herschel Daugherty’s direction, the performances are so broadly melodramatic that “The Grim Reaper” borders on camp: watch Shatner as he extends his hand, after touching the painting, to reveal his blood-stained fingers, and then watch the equally overdone reactions of those watching him. (Shafer in particular matches Shatner note for note in the histrionics department.) Fortunately, the performances are thoroughly enjoyable, helping to set up the correct playful tone that justifies the blackly comic finale, in which villain finds himself hoist on his own petard. Also of note: genre faves Robert Cornthwaite (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) and Henry Daniel (THE BODY SNATCHER) show up in cameos.
The audio commentaries by Gary Gerani and/or Ernest Dickerson are informative and interesting. The photos galleries truly deserve the adjective “extensive,” stretching throughout the show’s run (not just the two episodes included on this disc). And the promotional clip is a truly novel bonus item: clearly designed not for audiences but for television station owners, the lengthy montage of scenes features Karloff both on-screen and narrating, extolling the virtues of the series that are guaranteed to attract audiences and guaranteeing thrills “natural, unnatural, and supernatural.”
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