Supernal Dreams: Boris Karloff on THRILLER

Image Entertainment’s new 14-DVD set of 67 episodes of THRILLER is quite a marvelous treat, and it fits in perfectly with Cinefantastique’s celebration of  movies released in that seminal year for terror, 1960.

Among the impressive authors who wrote episodes for THRILLER were Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Donald S. Sandford and Barre Lyndon.  The directors included such experienced hands as John Brahm, Laszlo Benedek, Ted Post, Douglas Heyes, Ray Milland, Herschel Daugherty and Ida Lupino.

Yet, what I find truly amazing about the series is the cornucopia of great Hollywood character actors who were featured on the show. Actors who were never “stars.” As Boris Karloff notes, “Isn’t it quite wonderful to use actors instead of ‘stars’ ” Indeed, it is and Thriller featured among many others, these fine actors, nearly all of whom had important roles in at least one classic horror movie:

  • John Carradine, Torin Thatcher, Beverly Garland, Vladimir Sokoloff and Martita Hunt
  • Jack Carson, Estelle Winwood, Everett Sloane, Edward Andrews and Mary Astor
  • Jeanette Nolan, Guy Rolfe, Judith Evelyn, John Williams and Hazel Court
  • Jane Greer, Henry Jones, Oscar Homolka, Warren Oates and Patrica Medina
  • Otto Kruger, Nancy Kelly, Eduardo Cianelli, Richard Carlson and Jo Van Fleet
  • Sidney Blackmer, William Windom, George Kennedy, Ann Todd and Henry Daniell

All of these people were truly wonderful character actors, but none of them were ever really “stars” so it was no surprise to find not one of them listed among the 20 actors featured on the back of the THRILLER box set.  I guess the PR “experts” think Donna Douglas, Tom Poston and Natalie Schafer are more exciting to genre fans, than John Carradine, Mary Astor and Henry Daniell!

Of course, since Henry Daniell nearly stole the show from Boris Karloff when the two actors appeared together in Val Lewton’s THE BODY SNATCHER, I’d like to make a special note of Daniell’s work on THRILLER here.

Mr. Daniell made five memorable appearances on Thriller,  playing among others, Count Cagliostro, Vicar Weatherford and Squire Moloch.  Sadly, Daniell and Karloff were not reunited in any episode of THRILLER, but since both Karloff and Daniell appeared in five episodes,  it’s interesting to note that Daniell’s episodes are of better quality than Karloff’s!  That certainly doesn’t mean the five episodes Karloff appeared in were bad, simply that most of them were less exciting than such classics at The Cheaters and The Well of Doom.

Boris Karloff in "The Incredible Dr. Markesan"

Boris Karloff in "The Incredible Dr. Markesan"

Actually, all of the five episodes Karloff appeared in were quite good. They included, The Prediction, The Premature Burial, The Last of the Sommervilles, Dialogues with Death and The Incredible Doktor Markesan. Dr. Markesan was beautifully directed by Robert Florey, who ironically, had been scheduled to direct Frankenstein before he was replaced by James Whale. If  Florey had directed Frankenstein, it’s quite possible he might easily have cast an actor other than Karloff as the monster!

To introduce Boris Karloff’s comments on THRILLER, here are some of Stephen King’s remarks from his book Danse Macabre. King calls Thriller the best horror series ever made for TV, but in reading his comments, anyone with knowledge of the genre may notice the staggering number of  factual mistakes he makes, which tend to mar his otherwise  intriguing observations: 

STEPHEN KING on THRILLER:

Probably the best horror series ever put on TV was Thriller. It ran on NBC from September of 1960 until the summer of 1962—really only two seasons plus reruns. It was a period before television began to face up to an increasing barrage of criticism about its depiction of violence, a barrage that really began with the JFK assassination, grew heavier following the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King and finally caused the medium to dissolve into a sticky syrup of situation comedies—history may record that dramatic television finally gave up the ghost and slid down the tubes with a hearty cry of “Na-noo, na-noo!”

The contemporaries of Thriller were also weekly bloodbaths; the time of The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as the unflappable Eliot Ness and featuring the gruesome deaths of hoodlums without number (1959-1963); Peter Gunn (1958-1961); and Cain’s Hundred (1961-1962), to name just a few. It was TV’s violent era. As a result, after a slow first thirteen weeks, Thriller was able to become something other than the stock imitation of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that it was apparently meant to be (early episodes dealt with cheating husbands trying to hypnotize their wives into walking over high cliffs, poisoning Aunt Martha to inherit her fortune so that the gambling debts could be paid off, and all that tiresome sort of thing) and took on a tenebrous life of its own. For the brief period of its run between January of 1961 and April of 1962—perhaps fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes—it really was one of a kind, and its like was never seen on TV again.

Thriller was an anthology-format show (as all of the supernatural-terror TV programs which have enjoyed even a modicum of success have been) hosted by Boris Karloff. Karloff had appeared on TV before, after the Universal horror wave of the early to mid-thirties finally ran weakly out in that series of comedies in the late forties. This program, telecast on the fledgling ABC-TV network, had a brief run in the autumn of 1949. It was originally titled Starring Boris Karloff, fared no better following a title change to Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff, and was canceled. In feeling and tone, however, it was startlingly similar to Thriller, which came along eleven years later.

…Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run, and not in the best of health; he suffered from a chronically bad back and had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932. He no longer starred in all the programs—many of the guest stars on the Thriller program were nonentities who went on to become full-fledged nobodies (one of those guest stars, Reggie Nalder, went on to play the vampire Barlow in the CBS-TV film version of ‘Salem’s Lot)—but fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (“The Strange Door,” for instance). The old magic was still there, still intact. Lugosi might have finished his career in misery and poverty but Karloff, despite a few embarrassments like Frankenstein 1970, went out as he came in:  as a gentleman.

Produced by William Frye, Thriller was the first television program to discover the goldmine in those back issues of Weird Tales, the memory of which had been kept alive up until then mostly in the hearts of fans, a few quickie paperback anthologies, and, of course, in those limited-edition Arkham House anthologies. One of the most significant things about the Thriller series from the standpoint of the horror fan was that it began to depend more and more upon the work of writers who had published in those “shudder pulps” …the writers who, in the period of the twenties, thirties, and forties, had begun to guide horror out of the Victorian-Edwardian ghost-story channel it had been in for so long, and toward our modern perception of what the horror story is and what it should do. Robert Bloch was represented by “The Hungry Glass,” a story in which the mirrors of an old house harbor a grisly secret; Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell,” one of the finest horror stories of our century, was adapted, and remains the favorite of many who remember Thriller with fondness. Other episodes include “A Wig for Miss DeVore,” in which a red wig keeps an actress eternally young  …until the final five minutes of the program, when she loses it—and everything else.

Miss DeVore’s lined, sunken face; the young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (”Pigeons from Hell”); the fellow who sees the faces of his fellow men and women turned into hideous monstrosities when he puts on a special pair of glasses (”The Cheaters,” from another Bloch story)—these may not have constituted fine art, but in Thriller’s run, we find those qualities coveted above all others by fans of the genre: a literate story coupled with the genuine desire to frighten viewers into spasms.

____________________________

BORIS KARLOFF on THRILLER:

These comments were compiled from various interviews Boris Karloff has given over the years for a special tribute program I put together in 2006  for a retrospective program of  Karloff films, for which Sara Karloff was the guest of honor. The Karloff retrospective was organized in San Francisco by Gary Meyer, currently the director of the Telluride Film Festival.


How do you determine what parts you’ll accept?

BORIS KARLOFF: I am quite shameless. If I am offered a part, I’ll have a go at it. I do not go seriously around trying to pick my own parts. That is dangerous. I could fancy myself playing all sorts of things. I could read a book and think, “I would be great in that,” but I don’t think you know what is best. I think it’s much better for somebody outside of yourself to choose the part. You can always say no, if it’s a bad part.

You did a TV series in which you played quite another type or role, didn’t you?

BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, yes, that was Colonel March of Scotland Yard. It was made in England during the winter of 1953 and ‘54.

Were they made for American audiences?

BORIS KARLOFF: Yes, they were made for the American market.

Did you enjoying making the TV series Thriller?

BORIS KARLOFF: Very much, indeed. The man who produced it, Bill Frye, is a very good friend of my wife and I.  I have great respect for him. I think he’s a wonderful producer and it’s a great loss to television, because he’s gone to Columbia to make films.

How did you initially get involved in doing Thriller?

thriller karloff hostBORIS KARLOFF: I just happened along, and they made this test film, which was called The Twisted Image. I do hope you won’t confuse me with the title. I wasn’t in it,  I just did the emceeing. I appear as myself, which is a frightful thing to do to an audience. They do it quite simply. I sort of intrude into the first scene and explain for example, that this nice looking couple is really in for quite a terrifying day, as you shall soon see and then I quietly slip out again. The producers then suggested that I might like to appear in some of the episodes, to which I was most agreeable, because it has been set up quite sensibly I think, as there is no set number of shows which I must do, you see. And it is quite wonderful to use actors instead of “stars”—that abused word that has ceased to have any meaning. It is a sad thing—the awful waste of potential talent you find today.

You have actually done quite a range of things outside of the horror category, haven’t you?

BORIS KARLOFF: That’s a dreadful word…  it’s the wrong word…

What term besides “horror” would you like to be applied to the films you work in?

BORIS KARLOFF: Well, I think the trapping was, in the early days when they first made these films, they were trying to get one word to express it, and they chose the word “horror.”  But the word “horror” has a connotation of revulsion. That’s what the word really means. Well the aim certainly is not to repel you, or to revolt you. It is to attract you. It’s to excite you. It’s to alarm you, perhaps. It’s excitement. I think the word should be thriller, really, or shock, but certainly not horror. So I think “Thriller” is quite the best word for this sort of thing, as the word “horror” has come to mean something else altogether. I mean, if it’s to be a horror show, they put some guts in a bucket and show it to you. That sort of thing, but a thriller, you see, can go anywhere. It’s not tied down to pure mystery, or violence, or murder. That’s one thing you won’t find on Thriller—violence for the sake of violence, shock for the sake of shock. The two skillful men who are in charge of this operation are going to prove that you can have all the suspense, mystery, adventure and excitement you could want, without resorting to violence.  I’m quite delighted with the whole thing.

You don’t live in Hollywood now, do you?

BORIS KARLOFF: No, I live in London.

In London, that’s right.

BORIS KARLOFF: And in airplanes! (Laughs).

Oh yes, commuting across the Atlantic.

BORIS KARLOFF: I flew a total of 12,000 miles (on a round-trip from London to Hollywood) to do one day’s work filming six of  the lead-in’s to Thriller. I thought it would take at least three days, and I must say I was flabbergasted that it only took one. It was filmed at Universal, on the same lot where 30 years earlier I played Frankenstein’s monster. In a way, it was like coming home again. The first season I only appeared in one episode, but it was a little tiresome to fly 12,000 miles just to read the teleprompter, so during the second season I appeared in four shows.

In 1953 you made an Italian film on the island of Ischia, called The Island Monster.

BORIS KARLOFF: Oh God, yes.

Do you remember much about it?

BORIS KARLOFF: No, I haven’t the least idea what it was like. Incredible! Dreadful! No one in the outfit spoke English, and I don’t speak Italian. Just hopeless. I had a very good time, but that’s beside the point.

Most of your recent films have been done for American International Pictures. How do you like working for them?

Boris Karloff with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in AIP's THE RAVEN

Boris Karloff with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in AIP's THE RAVEN

BORIS KARLOFF: Oh, they (James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff, the heads of AIP) have been extremely considerate to me. They are very successful and intelligent men. They know their market and they know their field very well. I’m most grateful to them. Their films are beautifully mounted and photographed. They shoot them in about three weeks. How can they do them in that short amount of time? The answer is in the immense amount of preparation, the homework that is done before you ever get on the set and start shooting. That’s when all the money starts to roll out, the moment you assemble the whole thing on the set. Then, if you’re not ready, you’re throwing money out the window. They rent space at a studio, they have assembled one of the finest crews that I’ve ever known, and the crews in the studios out there are really marvelous. They anticipate everything, they are ahead of you, they take a pride in what they are doing, and believe me it makes a difference. Everything is there and ready right down to the last button so that there is no pressure on me as an actor. If I’ve played a scene badly and want to do it again, they say, “sure,” not, “oh, Christ we haven’t got the time.”

______

Obviously, Stephen King is a masterful writer of horror fiction, but one wishes he had done a little more fact checking for his book, Danse Macabre, since it is filled with an incredible number of  factual errors.  Here are just a few from the short text I’ve quoted  from, above:

KING: …fifty-six of its seventy-eight total episodes…

Mr. King obviously got the total number of Thriller episodes wrong, since it was 67 episodes, not 78.

KING:  Karloff was sixty-four at the beginning of Thriller’s two-year run

When Karloff began Thriller, he was 71  and in fairly good health.  His major health problems came in 1963 after Thriller was off the air.

KING:  Karloff had to wear weights to stand upright. Some of these infirmities dated back to his original film appearance as Frankenstein’s monster in 1932.

Frankenstein, as most everyone knows appeared in 1931.  Karloff did not have to wear weights to stand upright, but needed leg braces to walk in his final years.

KING: Fans will remember a few memorable occasions when he did (appear on the show)   “The Strange Door,” for instance.

Fans will remember The Strange Door, but not because it was an episode of Thriller. It was a Universal feature film starring Karloff and Charles Laughton.

KING:  The young man staggering blindly down the stairs of the decaying bayou mansion with a hatchet buried in his head (”Pigeons from Hell”).

Mr. King’s memory is faulty, as the scene he describes does not appear in “Pigeons from Hell.”  The young man is carrying a hatchet with which he attempts to kill his brother, it is not buried in his head.

Thriller graphic

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About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, Wellesnet.com. His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

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