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Thriller: The Complete Series (DVD Review)

3 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$149.98 14-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Boris Karloff.

Any thoughts of some $150 Michael Jackson set will have to await another day. This time, we’re talking TV host Boris Karloff wearing glasses (at least some of the time) — and not just in glasses but being introduced via a DVD menu that employs a bongo-backed musical score. Boris and Bongos — it sounds like a concept album.

And the 1960-62 anthology series “Thriller” was a pretty good concept, derivative as it was, when it ran on NBC opposite “The Red Skelton Show” (or, as the Goldwater Republicans used to say, “a choice, not an echo”). Premiering a year after “The Twilight Zone” and well after anthology series such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Suspicion” (for which Hitch once directed a class called “4:00”), it dealt heavily but not exclusively in the supernatural but would sometimes venture into melodrama or psychological suspense drama.

A very good example of the last is “The Twisted Image,” the first of 67 remastered and uncut episodes on seven double discs in a boxed set that contains frequent commentaries by living participants plus fans with legitimate knowledge of the show. In a very good cast, Leslie Nielsen (decent enough here to make you ignore the beloved baggage of his subsequent screen persona) is a corporation exec who’s obsessed upon by a female flake who works in his office (Natalie Trundy, with just the right mix of looks and creepiness). His wife (Dianne Foster) disapproves, but Les has other problems. Another creep at work (George Grizzard) harbors professional illusions of grandeur despite a shabby apartment that makes Don Draper’s current digs in Mad Men look like some potentate’s honeymoon suite at the Plaza.

Despite having originated the “Nick” role in the stage version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Grizzard never had much of a big-screen career other than as the ethical pipsqueak of a U.S. senator he played in Otto Preminger’s film of Advise and Consent a couple years later. So it’s fun to see actors like him early in their careers, pre-stardom, though other episodes provide showcases for great ’40s veterans like Jane Greer and Jack Carson (a fine one for him on episode 12, about two years before his death, casting him as a recovered alcoholic).

In terms of then youngsters on the cusp, we see Mary Tyler Moore (just before “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) as a nightclub singer who’s kind of a brunette alternative to the blonde one Lola Albright played in Peter Gunn; Richard Chamberlain, a year before Dr. Kildare, getting stalked; Elizabeth Allen (at least two episodes) before John Wayne, Lee Marvin and that beer bottle tied to Lee’s wrist tried to melt her ice in John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef; Ursula Andress, a couple years pre-Dr. No, as an Italian beauty accused of being a witch (Thunderball’s Lucianna Paluzzi — a real Italian — gets her own episode); and Elizabeth Montgomery, pre-“Bewitched,” in a rare comical show. And then there’s William Shatner.

The future James T. Kirk stars in two of the collections’ highlights — and opposite future Gilligan’s Island alums at that. In “The Hungry Glass,” Shatner buys a haunted house from a real estate agent played by Russell Johnson (later The Professor), and in “The Grim Reaper,” a painting does some haunting of its own in a home owned by Shatner’s slightly batty aunt (Natalie Schafer, aka “Island’s” Lovey Howell).

Generally speaking, the supernatural episodes are the set’s strongest, and my favorite of the ones I’ve seen is “The Devil’s Ticket” with MacDonald Carey as an impoverished painter who finds a way to prosper. There’s an interesting twist on the Faust-ian legend in that Carey pawns his soul instead of selling it.

Psycho’s Robert Bloch wrote multiple scripts here, and Jerry Goldsmith composed a lot of the scores. In most appealing fashion, every intro by Karloff (who appears in some the shows himself) introduces the actors who will appear — though sometimes, there are surprises. At the beginning of 1961’s “Choose a Victim,” Karloff notes four or five actors to be featured in the subsequent show — but not singer Guy Mitchell, who shows up as a detective at the 41-minute mark. The career of this prodigious ’50s hit maker was on the wane by this time, yet Mitchell had still scored a No. 1 with “Heartaches by the Number” just a sliver over a year before the program aired. Strange. Of course, there are surprises just in the casting-for-casting’s sake, as when the great topically acidic comedian Mort Sahl plays an innocent bystander who gets mixed up in a socialite’s abduction.

Sometimes, shows become provocative through no contribution of their own — but because of events that transpired (in some cases, long transpired) after their airings. Thus, in “The Purple Room” — set in the famous Psycho house on the Universal lot — it’s a little discomforting in light of current events to watch Rip Torn get unhinged and start waving a gun.


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