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Thrilling Crime

Image Entertainment’s 14-disc set of all sixty-seven black-and-white, one-hour episodes of the NBC series Thriller (1960–62) officially hit the streets on August 31.

Why should you care?

Because Thriller provided several of the best telefilms-noir nobody has ever seen. Existing in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock—who actively sought to undermine what he rightly saw as competition with Alfred Hitchcock Presents—and hobbled by its own bifurcated structure (crime shows one week and supernatural horror the next, with little rhyme or reason), Thriller became the redheaded stepchild of a subgenre to which no one could put a definitive label. History rendered the verdict that while some of the out-and-out “horror” episodes were among the best television had to offer (“The Grim Reaper,” “The Cheaters,” and the immortal “Pigeons from Hell,” for example), Thriller’s crime episodes were thin beer indeed when compared to the stuff coming from the Master of Suspense (or, at least, under his imprimatur). Worse, they paled next to Thriller’s own forays into the ghostly and horrific.

And so they were largely forgotten. When Thriller popped up in syndication, most aficionados videotaped the horror episodes and didn’t bother with most of the crime shows . . . which is a shame, since many of them sprang from stories by the likes of Robert Bloch or Cornell Woolrich. The stinkers quickly outweighed the noteworthy nonsupernatural episodes in public memory, with the result that Thriller’s crime episodes all got tarred with the same brush: Forget ’em. Watch the scary ones instead.

Don’t blame Stephen King, who wrote in Danse Macabre that Thriller was “Probably the best horror series ever put on TV,” (emphasis mine; people giddy at the prospect of Steve’s endorsement always leave off the “probably”), and as a result, he got quoted on the top of the Thriller box, on the front of each of the seven DVD snap cases, and several times within the audio commentaries for various episodes, in a kind of frantic panegyric. Steve knew the score, and reserved his lengthiest reflection (in 1981) for “Guillotine” (adapted from Woolrich), a non-supernatural tale rich enough in atmospherics to count as “horror” . . . just not the supernatural kind.

Confused yet?

A lot of people don’t know the difference between an anthology and a collection either. Thriller was an anthology series—that is, no continuing characters, save Boris Karloff as host entity. A different story every week. As a book, a horror anthology might contain ghost stories side-by-side with zombie munch-fests, wafting-curtain unsettlement, and balls-out gross-out, serial killers and unwilling murderers, or monsters from both the Id and the swamp. Crime anthologies might incorporate heist capers, tea-cozy mystery, deductive sleuthing, tarnished-knight private dicks, crimes of passion or profit, tightropes of tension or John Woo-esque bullet ballet. It all fits. And it all fit into Thriller, which defied the simplicity of a catchall tagline as to “what it was about” . . .  and thus doomed it for viewers who could not wrap their brains around the idea that a television show could be about more than one thing.

(Aside: During the first season, a paperback anthology of the best of Thriller’s source stories was planned but never made it to the printed page.)

Let’s run some numbers: Of those sixty-seven episodes, supernatural happenstance claims about a third. But the two-to-one ratio of nonsupernatural episodes features many installments top-loaded with the rich, gothic eccentricism that would help define the look of Thriller at its best. Despite the Old Dark House trappings, episodes like “The Purple Room,” “The Premature Burial,” “Waxworks” or “Well of Doom” are not supernatural . . . yet can easily classify as horror.

Confused now?

Consider “Well of Doom,” festooned with more gnarled foliage and choking fog than a dozen Universal creature classics. A crumbling dungeon. Rusty manacles. Sorcery. A menacing brute-man commanded by a living dead master who is a dead ringer for Lon Chaney in London After Midnight. Horror territory, for sure . . . but no one remembers “Well of Doom” for its attributes as a crime show, because the crime element is what makes the whole delirious netherworld fall to pieces in Act Four.

That’s all it took to catapult an episode from Column A (“Crime,” aka “Less than Hitchcock”) to Column B (“Horror,” as long as it looks horrific enough).

It turns out that the mostly ignored crime sprees got a bad rap. In the eyes of self-appointed arbiters of classic TV, one mediocre crime episode was enough to poison them all. But now, with the evidence of the nicely remastered DVDs in front of you, comes the opportunity for the genuinely worthy crime episodes to shine anew.

Here’s the “full disclosure” part: I was invited to participate in Thriller’s DVD resurrection by special features producers Steve Mitchell and Gary Gerani. Due to schedule constraints, I would have time to do audio commentaries on only one or two episodes, and wham, two of the biggest horror ragouts landed right in my lap (“The Incredible Doktor Markesan” and “The Return of Andrew Bentley”). When Image got a whiff of what we were cooking up for supplements, we won more time . . . and I wound up doing eleven audio commentaries in total. Since Thriller was the closest Weird Tales ever came to having its own TV show (due to the preponderance of source stories by, among others, Bloch, Woolrich, Harold Lawlor, and August Derleth, a man of many pseudonyms), I contacted my colleague Stefan Dziemianowicz to supply the purest pulp so I would sound like I knew what I was talking about. The only book solely about Thriller to date was by Alan Warren (This Is a Thriller, McFarland, 1996), so I made sure to give him at least two shout-outs while audio-commentator-ing. The Thriller crew, for whatever reason, was unable to engage Alan’s input for DVD posterity. Not only that, but they didn’t even have a copy of the only book about the series they were documenting.

I would not have attempted to rattle on about these shows without that book, and if Alan gets no credit on the DVD, he damned well is going to get it here.

Just as I would not have considered the crime shows without the counsel of Larry Blamire. I dragged Larry into the Thriller fold because I knew several episodes featured the much-used western back-lot sets in Universal Studios’ neighborhood, and Larry is a stone fool for westerns on TV. He’s a stone fool, in fact, for nearly any 1960s television, and hence the ideal man to extrapolate trends from one show to another, or to consult on a recurrent and oddball little wiggle in the staid landscape of horse opera—the “Weird Western.”

Nearly every series, from Rawhide to Cimarron Strip (said Larry), had several shows that could classify as horror. Some were fake-outs of the ghost-revealed-as-a-blackmail-plot variety. Some were . . . otherwise. And while we were prepping commentary on “The Hollow Watcher” (Weird Western due to time frame; genuine horror due to homicidal ambulatory scarecrow), Larry said, “What do you think of ‘Late Date’?”

“Haven’t seen it,” I said. “Not horror.”

“Well, then, you’re missing one of the coolest hours of TV suspense ever filmed.”

And I’ll be damned if he wasn’t totally right.

The source material for “Late Date” was a Cornell Woolrich short story, first published in Dime Detective (September 1935) as “The Corpse and the Kid,” and later as “Boy with Body” and “Blind Date.” The teleplay adaptation by Thriller mainstay Donald Sanford hewed rigorously to the Woolrich beats, and that distinction alone qualifies it as a must-see for noir fans, not to mention the moody cinematography by the legendary Ray Rennahan, under the rachet-tight direction of Herschel Daugherty.*

Hungry for more? By now you should be eager to plunk down and watch this episode. No excuses.

Then Larry said, with an elfin grin, “So, what did you think of ‘The Storm’?”

(Those of you who fail to perceive a pattern here are now free to go jump into the nearest polluted reservoir.)

After “Late Date” and “The Storm,” Larry and I had the pleasure of audio-commentator-ing “Man of Mystery”—not so much “crime” as the “mystery” of the title, yet with a substantial body count.

No fewer than ten Thrillers were sourced from Bloch, starting with “The Hungry Glass” (adapted by Douglas Heyes from Bloch’s “The Hungry House”) and “The Cheaters” (adapted by Donald S. Sanford). Bloch graduated to Thriller teleplay scenarist, first as adapter of “The Grim Reaper” (from a 1947 story by his Weird Tales cohort, Harold Lawlor), then with his own script for his own story “The Devil’s Ticket.” Thriller producers could have taken a cue from the way Bloch effortlessly seesawed in his own career—between humor and horror, novels and short stories, TV and movies, supernatural and non. Bob’s final teleplay for the series was “Man of Mystery”—not horror per se, and his only wholly original script for Thriller.

“Man of Mystery” was about untangling the web of deceit surrounding a Howard Hughes–types control freak. “The Storm” was about a woman trapped far from help, trying to evade a murderer. “Late Date” was a nail-biter about not getting caught. Finding three such suspenseful tales all lumped beneath the “crime” umbrella was thrilling enough.

And you should be duly thrilled for the opportunity to watch them for the first time. Right now.

Several reviewers have lamented the lack of a proper documentary on the DVD “to tie it all together.” Such a documentary would have been a redundant parade of talking heads (since most of the principals are deceased) and motion-control shots of still pictures. Even that was impossible, given the severe time frame and tight budgeting of the supplemental material. But—since you are reading this online (also right now), you can have all this, and more, thanks to the Thriller-a-Day blog hosted by Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri:

http://athrilleraday.blogspot.com/

Taking on the Sisyphean task of reviewing one Thriller per day, the blog quickly became a repository for anything and everything peripheral to Thriller—an ever-evolving “book” of sorts, featuring feedback, photos, and rarities uncollectible in any other forum—even links to past web coverage of the series. Bookmark it now and visit it often.

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As a Technicolor Associate on Gone with the Wind, Rennahan won the Oscar for Best Color Cinematography at the 12th annual Academy Awards in 1939. You may know his work from Dr. X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Blood and Sand, or Duel in the Sun. Look him up.

DAVID J. SCHOW is the author of the celebrated shoot-’em-up Gun Work (Hard Case Crime, 2008) and the black ops thriller Internicine (St. Martin’s, 2010), as well as the Hunt Among the Killers of Men entry in Charles Ardai’s Gabriel Hunt adventure series (Leisure Books, 2010) and Bullets of Rain (HarperCollins, 2003). His 1987 novel The Kill Riff is still the high bar when it comes to mixing sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and gunplay. His work is seen frequently in films (The Crow) and television (Masters of Horror). His next novel is called Upgunned.