Tuesday, October 15, 2019


The Mad Doctor
Today on The MonsterGrrls’ Thir13een For Halloween, we are discussing Thriller. No, not the Michael Jackson album (although we know you drag it out around this time of year for Halloween parties), but instead, the greatest horror anthology show you never saw. Created for NBC Television by Hubbell Robinson and hosted by Boris Karloff, Thriller debuted in 1960 and ran for two seasons during a peak period for anthology shows.

Thriller title card
Beginning initially as a crime and suspense series in the mold of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller hit its stride in horror with its sixth episode, “The Purple Room,” featuring Rip Torn as the inheritor of a house and property with a condition: he must spend the night there and live in the house for a year, or his cousins (Richard Anderson and Patricia Barry) will inherit the property. And of course, the house has a little problem with ghosts...

The success of “The Purple Room” made the producers realize that audiences had more taste for gothic and supernatural horror than run-of-the-mill crime stories, and Thriller soon filled its plate with spook tales. Many of these were based on works by authors who were giants in the genre, including Edgar Allan Poe, Cornell Woolrich, Robert Bloch (who contributed a number of teleplays), Robert E. Howard (the episode “Pigeons From Hell” became the first televised adaptation of Howard’s story), August Derleth, and Twilight Zone alumni Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Its distinguished roster of “major players” included Leslie Nielsen, William Shatner (who starred to great effect in "The Hungry Glass" and "The Grim Reaper"), Mary Tyler Moore, Henry Daniell (a woefully underrated actor in the vein of Price and Karloff himself), Richard Chamberlain, Elisha Cook, Russell Johnson and Natalie Schafer (both of who would later be marooned on Gilligan’s Island), Marlo Thomas, Robert Vaughn, Marion Ross (who went on to Happy Days), George Kennedy, Cloris Leachman, Dick York and Elizabeth Montgomery (who went on to star in Bewitched), Tom Poston (Newhart) and Richard Carlson.

Filmed in black and white,
Thriller made the most of that medium: Alfred Hitchcock had already proved, both with the movie Psycho and his own series, that black-and-white film emphasized the gloomy settings, shadowy dread and horror of these stories better than color ever could. Thriller quickly became a must-see program during the 1960’s.

Our distinguished host
Karloff, who enjoyed his status as a horror star and had no problems moving into a small-screen medium, was the perfect host for Thriller. With his rich, sonorous voice and deadpan delivery, Karloff inserted himself into the beginning of each episode, introducing its title and “major players” and then would intone, “As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller!” Karloff also acted in five episodes of the series, perhaps his most morbid appearance being the title character in “The Incredible Doktor Markesan,” an August Derleth story about a mad doctor who has turned most of his rivals into zombies. Karloff also displayed a talent for black humor, and frequently appeared to enjoy his introductions, drawing the viewer into each episode. Though Thriller had made itself on horror stories, it still mixed some non-supernatural mystery tales into its oeuvre, and even created some humorous episodes such as “Masquerade” (based on a Robert Bloch tale, a honeymooning couple (Tom Poston and Elizabeth Montgomery) is temporarily detained at a “hotel” run by a group of deranged characters (among them John Carradine (!)) who may or may not be vampires).

The comic
Gold Key Comics published a comic-book version of Thriller, which went on to last until the very end of 1979; after Thriller itself went off the air, the series title was changed to Boris Karloff Tales Of Mystery. Some of these comics were republished in an archive series by Dark Horse Comics, beginning in 2009.

Though ratings for Thriller were still strong after the second season, complaints were raised about the violence and morbid tone of the series, and the producers battled constantly to keep the dark tone they were striving for. Thriller’s final death blow came when Alfred Hitchcock, who had just signed a deal with NBC to have a one-hour version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, demanded that Thriller be canceled so there would be no confusion (or competition) with his show. NBC bowed to the clout of Hitchcock, and Thriller was cancelled after 2 seasons and 67 episodes.

However, no less a horror luminary than Stephen King declared Thriller to be “the best horror series ever put on TV” in his 1981 cultural overview of the genre, Danse Macabre. Thriller was never forgotten by those who had seen it, and its cult following eventually paved the way for a 14-disc DVD release of the entire series in 2010, containing all 67 uncut episodes with new commentary tracks and separate music tracks. Cable channel MeTV also added the show to its broadcast lineup, and episodes can also be found on YouTube. Most likely, Thriller will continue to be discovered and rediscovered by new and old horror fans in perpetuity.

Be sure to return soon for the next installment of The MonsterGrrls’ Thir13en For Halloween. Next time around, you may just get goosebumps…

MAD DOCTOR’S NOTE: For an extra Halloween treat, click the links throughout the post to see the episodes we mentioned on YouTube.