Posted on September 24, 2016
More than three decades before Michael Jackson changed MTV forever with his Thriller video, Boris Karloff hosted a series that now seems like a bold, dangerous prototype for The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone that would come a few years later.
I had heard about some of these episodes for years before there was any way to actually see them. In the days before home video, the only way to see an old show like this was for your local station to show it late at night as filler. But unlike those later series, Thriller didn’t make it to the magical 100 episode mark so it occupied space in very few local TV catalogs.
Now, however, Thriller is out on Netflix (DVD) and I immediately set out to avail myself of the chance to finally see the episodes that had been whispered about by horror fans since I was just a kid.
The first one I watched was “Pigeons from Hell,” based on a short story by Robert E. Howard. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to see old media like this in the context of its time period and the bar for shock value has been set so high in the intervening years that it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for viewers in 1960 watching a character come stumbling down the stairs of an old, decrepit mansion with an axe buried in his head, but I”ll bet their dentures popped right out of their heads.
Thriller is kind of like a pre-Hays Code movie of television shows. It’s bloody and violent and characters don’t necessarily get what’s coming to them. It’s not as sentimental as Twilight Zone nor as kooky as The Outer Limits. It tells its stories with a kind of gruesome glee, reveling in what must have been quite shocking back in the day.
One thing that always gets me when I watch old TV shows is the languid pacing. They had a full 50 minutes to tell their stories (though some of the shows are actually listed as being an impossible 60 minutes long in IMDB) and they take full advantage of it. Today’s 42 minute running time has necessitated more efficient storytelling via the use of jump cuts and lots of implied action.
I have to say I prefer the modern pace. I find myself wishing they would just get on with it when they’re showing me a guy get out of a car and go into a house and then cut to the living room so we can see him come through the door and then follow him to the kitchen. I mean, come on. In “The Hungry Glass” we watch William Shatner go through the entire process of developing a photograph.
That’s all technical stuff and once you get used to it, it sort of fades away and you’re left with just the stories. And, oh, what stories they are. Writers like Robert E. Howard and Robert Bloch provided the stories and the screenwriters adapted them with the no-holds-barred enthusiasm common to young media before the grownups move in and take over.
I also watched some episodes of The Outer Limits that I had heard about but had never seen. Some, like Demon with a Glass Hand, are excellent and hold up perfectly well. Others, such as The Zanti Misfits are bizarre misfires that make little, if any, sense.
But at least I’ve finally scratched that itch and gotten closure on the long rumored shocking episodes of a legendary series.
Note: Just watched the episode “Grim Reaper” that includes a terrific scene with William Shatner waiting for the approach of the title monster. We don’t see the Reaper, but we hear his scythe whipping back and forth in the air as he approaches.