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"This is a THRILLER!": A Story of TV's Spookiest Series

by John C. Alsedek:

As I get older, I find that my memory gets a little fuzzy when I have to connect events with dates. Sure, there are a few—my first kiss, my first bike race, the passing of my beloved maternal grandfather—where I can match said event with a date . . . but not many. But I can sure as heck tell you where I was 11:30 p.m. on March 29th, 1979. I was in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, at Gus Genetti’s Motor Lodge. My parents had sent me out of town because of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (we lived ten miles away), but I wasn’t thinking about a potential meltdown . . . I was too enthralled by a murderous scarecrow that was stalking a remote farm. For, on that night, I was watching "The Hollow Watcher," Episode 57 of the classic TV series Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff.

My first exposure to Thriller had been two years earlier, in 1977. By that point, I’d already developed a special love of the anthology format—I was a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond, and Science Fiction Theater. They were all readily available from the indie TV stations in Philadelphia and NYC, and I spent way, way, way too much of my childhood parked in front of the television watching them.

But Thriller . . . that was a very different animal.

It was sheer happenstance that I even found it at all, flipping randomly around the channels late one evening; a NY Mets game had been rain delayed, and WOR Channel 9 ran an episode as filler. That episode was entitled "The Grim Reaper." It starred William Shatner and Natalie Shaefer (from Gilligan’s Island!) in a script by Robert Bloch. From the first glimpse of the titular portrait and the first notes of Jerry Goldsmith’s magnificently overwrought musical score, I was completely hooked. As much as I loved The Twilight Zone, Thriller instantly became my new favorite program.

Just one problem: finding more episodes! For the next five years, I would pore over the TV listings, hoping to catch more episodes. Unfortunately, WOR only seemed to air it sporadically in the evening, and unless I happened to check the channel at random intervals all night, every night, I’d miss it. Finding information about the show was equally difficult; no one in my family had more than the vaguest memory of it. And in the pre-home-PC world of the late seventies, one couldn’t just do a Google search. But then, in 1981, came Danse Macabre . . .

Danse Macabre was a non-fiction written exploration of horror in print, film, and television by modern horror master Stephen King, and it FINALLY answered some of my questions about the elusive Thriller. For, as it turned out, Mr. King was as big a fan as I was, and he devoted an entire section of Danse Macabre to Thriller, which he referred to as the best horror series ever on television. Because of King, I learned that the series had run on NBC from 1960 to 1962, and that it had originally started off as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents clone before taking on an unearthly life of its own about a third of the way through its 67-episode run. He wrote in particular about a screen adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s "Pigeons from Hell," which I hadn’t managed to catch on WOR, but which King referred to as one of the most horrifying programs ever to air. So I’d found out about Thriller, but all it had done was make an itch that I couldn’t scratch, since the show wasn’t even airing on WOR anymore.

It would be nearly 20 years before I’d finally get down to scratching, when the Sci-Fi Channel (back before it became SyFy and started airing everything but sci-fi) showed the entire series in 1999—at 5 o’clock Saturday morning and absolutely butchered to make room for 1-900 phone sex commercials. Didn’t matter. The 12 year old in me finally got to see all 67 episodes, and it was even better than I could have hoped for. King was absolutely spot-on in his description of the show’s evolution. The first 20 episodes or so were, by and large, crap-crime dramas so bad that they bordered on parody (in fact, we adapted one of them for my radio drama SUSPENSE and gave it the full Airplane! treatment). But in the latter half of Season 1, the show changed and took on a supernatural Weird Tales vibe—not surprising, considering that many of the episodes were adapted from stories written for that classic magazine.

The result was a program that was as out of place among shows like My Three Sons and Dr. Kildare as a cadaver at a wedding. There were so many remarkable moments in the series: Brandon DeWilde being stalked by his dead, hatchet-wielding brother through a decaying Southern mansion in "Pigeons from Hell"; Harry Townes donning a pair of glasses that allow the wearer to see the truth in whatever he gazes upon—and then looking into a mirror—in "The Cheaters"; Henry Jones meeting his end at the hands of a dressmaker’s dummy that comes to life in "The Weird Tailor"; the Great Karloff himself as an aged doctor with a dreadful secret in "The Incredible Doktor Markesan"; and, of course, "The Hollow Watcher" with its killer scarecrow. It makes me wonder whether Thriller might not today be remembered in the same breath as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits had it run more than just two seasons. Ironically, the show that had come across as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents clone initially was cancelled because of Hitchcock—he was moving his show to NBC and didn’t want the in-network competition.

Boris Karloff had a long, storied career in film and television, but did you know that he was also a prolific radio actor? Well, that’s the subject of our next column. So, until then, thanks for tuning in!

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