Karloff on Television:
The ‘Other’ Thriller
A decade before Brian Clemens' Thriller, NBC in the US broadcast an identically-titled anthology show of its very own, introduced British horror legend, Boris Karloff. Jane Nightshade takes us back to 1962...
Thriller, the 1970s Brian Clemens-created horror omnibus show, is rightly regarded as one of the best omnibus series in television history. It’s available in multi-region box sets, and it’s currently streaming on US Amazon Prime, where it has found a new, appreciative audience. Many of the episodes aired in the 70s on a popular American show titled ABC Wide World of Mystery, but a lot of U.S. viewers aren’t aware that it’s the same show. The episodes’ titles were often changed.
What British viewers might not know about, however, is the existence of another highly-regarded horror omnibus series with the same title, which also has a British connection. This was the 1960-62 Thriller, an American series hosted by British horror legend Boris Karloff. It was the most successful of Karloff’s four sojourns into series television (the others were Colonel March of Scotland Yard, a quirky detective show; The Veil, a half-hour horror omnibus series that was never aired in its original era; and Out of This World, a short-lived sci-fi omnibus show that aired on the British ITV network, of which only one episode survives).
Like the British Thriller, the American series features hour-long stand-alone stories that are a mix of twisty crime tales and Gothic/supernatural horror. While many of the crime dramas are excellent, the supernatural episodes are the ones best-remembered by series fans — one of whom is Horrormeister Stephen King, who praised the show profusely in his 1981 non-fiction book of horror criticism, Danse Macabre. These Gothic episodes are often more European in focus than American, showcasing castles, crumbling manor houses, guillotine scaffolds, and other atmospheric locales that are in short supply in North America. Take a few of the best ones, pad them out to 90 minutes, film them in lurid Eastmancolour, and you’ve got a pretty decent collection of Hammer films. Notable of these Gothic episodes is ‘La Strega’, a spooky witchcraft tale set in Italy that stars erstwhile Bond Girl Ursula Andress, which is similar in cinematic style to Mario Bava’s masterpiece, Black Sunday (1960).
The series also features a heavy cohort of British actors, more so than was usual on other American omnibus shows of the era. (Many of these actors were likely personal friends of Karloff). They include Hammer horror queen Hazel Court; Hitchcock alumni John Williams, Ray Milland, and Tom Helmore; grande dame of the theater, Estelle Winwood; Batman’s Alan Napier; Family Affair’s Sebastian Cabot, and perennial onscreen villain Henry Daniell, who starred in no fewer than five episodes. Cabot would later host his own hour-long omnibus horror series on U.S. television, ten years after Thriller ended its run; the excellent Ghost Story/Circle of Fear.
Karloff himself stars as characters in five episodes of his own show, the most famous of which is ‘The Incredible Doktor Markesan’, where he plays the uncle of Bewitched’s Dick York. (Markesan is an old-school zombie tale that’s brilliantly creepy, and Karloff is his usual memorable self as a retired science professor who plays with the dead.)
As host of Thriller, Karloff’s job was to introduce each week’s episode with a lead-in that often included a macabre wink or nod to the audience. In the early episodes, at the end of his intro, he would say ‘as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller!’ The catchphrase was another wink to the audience, as his actual name was William Henry Pratt. He never officially changed it and signed official papers as ‘William Henry Pratt aka Boris Karloff.’
Thriller is a high-quality show with a deep horror pedigree. Many of the shows’ actors guest-starred on the other great US horror/mystery/sci-fi anthologies of the era: One Step Beyond, Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents/Alfred Hitchcock Hour. William Shatner, for instance, starred in episodes of all of them, in addition to his two Thriller episodes.
The series also drew from the same pool of writers of those other shows, which include The Big Three of 60s American horror/sci-fi tv: Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and especially Psycho creator Robert Bloch, who contributed 16 scripts or stories to the 67-episode show. Also, among the original music score composers for Thriller is the great Jerry Goldsmith, who later scored The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976) and other horror classics. The shadowy black-and-white cinematography is often Bava-esque in its atmospheric imagery and compositions, provided by such luminaries as Lionel Lindon, an Oscar-winner for Around the World in 80 Days (Michael Anderson/John Farrow, 1956).
Like those of its younger British cousin, the American Thriller episodes play more like a movie than segments of a television series. They are jam-packed with subplots, character actors, and atmospheric details. One of Bloch’s best episodes, for example, Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, features a memorable funeral service, a party in an artist colony, a visit to a strip club, and several Ripper-style murders. This episode stars John Williams (not to be confused with Steven Spielberg’s favorite film composer), a British character actor who specialized in portraying high-ranking London policemen; he’s most famous for playing the senior inspector in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). Williams plays ‘Sir Guy’ here, a Scotland Yard official sent to Los Angeles to help the LAPD with a serial killer who targets female models. The episode floats the notion that the Ripper is an immortal being who thrives on murder. Bloch would later write a Star Trek episode with the same idea, ‘Wolf in the Fold’ (aka the ‘Redjack’ episode).
Thriller lasted only two years, but network seasons were much longer in its era, so there’s a meaty amount of episodes to binge-watch (more than sixty). Like a lot of omnibus shows in which there are no continuing characters for audiences to latch onto, Thriller struggled to find an audience. Its ratings were decent, but not spectacular. Unfortunately, it’s rumored that network executives delivered the final axe under pressure from another famous Brit: none other than Alfred Hitchcock, who allegedly felt that Thriller was cutting into his audience for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, an expanded version of his popular half-hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Both shows were aired by the American network NBC.
A complete Thriller DVD set was released by Image Entertainment in 2010, in All-region and NTSC formats. The set comes loaded with extras and commentary from people who worked on the show. Sadly, the All-region version of the set isn’t currently available on UK Amazon. Many episodes of Thriller, however, are available on YouTube.
At the time of the set’s release, Karloff’s only child, Sara, noted of the actor’s television work: ‘My father fortunately was ‘a quick study’ and had had almost 10 years of repertory theater training in British Columbia prior to his arrival in Hollywood. So that all helped him in his new endeavor. He loved the challenge of television and the whole new audience it gave his work. It also brought him an entire new body of work and allowed him to show the breadth of his talent. My father had two other TV series of his own, Colonel March and The Veil, but Thriller was his favorite.’ (Editorial note: like many people, she seems to have forgotten Out of this World.)
Jane’s best Thriller Episodes to check out:
The Hungry Glass
The Grim Reaper
The Incredible Doktor Markesan
Pigeons From Hell
A Wig for Miss Devore
Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper
The Devil’s Ticket
The Premature Burial
Amazon.com: Interview With Sara Karloff