Monday, April 20, 2009

Re-Discovering "Thriller"

No movie write-up this time, but rather impressions of “Thriller” a 45+-year-old TV anthology show that I’m new to.

Many thanks to the Me-Too television station in Chicago for running “Thriller” on Sunday nights. Many consider “Thriller” to be the finest horror anthology show of all time, and based on a couple of recent viewings, they may be right. Having Boris Karloff as your host is just icing on the cake.

Last night’s episode “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” (first aired on February 26, 1962) starred Mr. Karloff himself, and his portrayal of the title character deserves to be enshrined in the Horror Hall of Fame along side his more famous movie portrayals. Karloff doesn’t slum for a minute here. It’s a great performance. I tried to find a picture of him from this episode but didn’t have any luck. This is the best I could come up with.

Based on a story by August Derleth (a Lovecraft disciple) and Mark Schorer, “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” tells the story of…well, I don’t want to give too much away of the plot. But a thumbnail sketch should suffice.

A young penniless couple, Fred and Molly Bancroft (Dick York and Carolyn Kearney) arrive at the house of Fred’s uncle, Dr. Conrad Markesan, an instructor at the local college. Fred and Molly hope to stay with Uncle Conrad just long enough for them to find jobs at the college while pursuing their graduate work. Conrad’s house looks like every haunted house nightmare you’ve ever had, thick with cobwebs, dust and decay. Markesan is not happy to have them, but says they can stay in the upstairs guest room on the condition they stay in their room from dusk to dawn and not venture forth into the house at all during those hours. We later find out why.

The whole episode had me guessing as to what was happening in that house, so to say more would spoil it. All I’ll say is that Karloff has one of the great close-ups of his acting career when he tells Fred and Molly that he is no longer employed at the university “because of some experiments I was involved in.” After saying that Karloff looks at the camera and gives the ghastliest grin imaginable. I was laughing and shuddering at the same time.

This episode is beautiful to look at, with Benjamin Kline’s cinematography capturing to maximum effect every shadow in the cellar and the fog-drenched cemetery just outside the house.

It was directed by Robert Florey, best known today for directing “The Beast with Five Fingers” (1946) with Peter Lorre, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) with Bela Lugosi and almost directing Karloff in “Frankenstein” (1931). So the man knows Gothic horror and he’s ably assisted by some hideous make-up designs courtesy of Jack Barron, a nerve-wracking score by Morton Stevens and some incredible art direction in that house. I believe Barron was the main make-up man on “Thriller” and he deserves to be better known. He makes Karloff look as decayed as the house he lives in.

This is horror pulp – in the best sense - at its finest. And that last shot! Talk about the stuff of nightmares.

Two weeks ago, Me-Too gave us the “Thriller” episode titled “La Strega” (first aired January 15, 1962), which was also incredibly creepy and unsettling.

Again filmed in glorious black and white, this time by director Ida Lupino, “La Strega” was set in the 19th century Italy, where a young artist named Tonio (Alejandro Rey) finds a beautiful woman named Luana (Ursula Andress) half-drowned in a stream. He brings her home and falls in love with her. (Hey, it’s Ursula Andress. Who wouldn’t?). No pussyfooting around with this episode, Luana quickly tells Tonio she’s got to get away. Her grandmother (Jeanette Nolan) is a powerful witch who does not take kindly to her granddaughter running away from her. La Strega always finds Luana wherever she goes. Tonio scoffs at this, and tells her she can stay with him as long as she wants.

One night Tonio awakens from his sleep and hears a noise in the street outside. It’s an old woman with the ugliest, most malevolently evil face you’ve ever seen, who comes right to his building, into his room, demanding the return of Luana. He refuses, and boy, does he live to regret it.

The moral of the story is if you fall in love with some babe and her grandmother is a witch, don’t play the hero. Even if she looks like Ursula Andress, really, just give her back.

There was one great scene where Tonio paints Luana and the next morning he goes back to resume his painting, but the picture is of the haggard old witch. He screams, rips up the canvas, and throws it into a potbellied stove. The camera moves away from him and slowly tracks toward the stove. Suddenly flames burst out of the stove and the grate opens and there’s the snarling visage of the witch’s familiar, a black cat. Luana starts screaming and the artist looks at the stove in terror. Great stuff.

This was a tremendous episode, with another incredible make-up job done on Nolan. She gives us one of the scariest witch portrayals I’ve ever seen.

The only drawback to the episode was a rather silly black mass sequence, presided over by La Strega, with the extras running around in leotards and hoisting each other in the air. I know there were censorship requirements back then, but if an eighth grade class at a fundamentalist Christian school was asked to stage a black mass, it would look something like this. But the rest of the episode is so strong, it doesn’t detract from the rest of the episode.

“Thriller” only lasted two seasons, and from what I understand, the first episode was heavy on crime and mystery stories, while the second season was more horror-oriented. Me-Too is now running the horror episodes, which means Sunday night is Must-See on Me-Too. I can’t wait to see what’s up next week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My friend Tony D and Me Little Timmy think you are very harsh. i thought the movie was a 7 on a 1-10 scale...10 being the best. Johnny deep tried to be deep and complicated. The move with the cameras i thought was to give it a more 1930's style. i liked the shoot out. PUBLIC ENEMY is OK. I liked the HANGOVER better and Valkryie was also better. I will read the BOOK ON THIS ONE thanks. Your review was very Good. TIM O"CALLAGHAN and TONY D.