In the early years of television, there were several genres of programming that were immensely popular with the viewing audience that today have become all but extinct. These include the western, the variety show, and the anthology series. The anthology series was unique in that it had no regular cast of characters or actors. Each week promised a new miniature play of sorts linked by only a common theme and, often, a series host. Shocking or ironic plot twists to end the episode with a flourish were also quite common for this genre. Perhaps the most successful and famous of the classic anthology series were The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, both available on DVD. However, other series have gained strong cult followings over the decades due to their intriguing themes and strong scripts. One such series was The Outer Limits, a two season anthology with a science fiction bent, which has likewise been released on DVD. Another is a series, also lasting only two seasons, that is finally set to be released on Tuesday, August 31 – Thriller – telling stories of suspense, horror, and the supernatural, hosted by horror icon, Boris Karloff.
Boris Karloff, born William Pratt in London, arrived in Hollywood during the early years of film and appeared irregularly in many movies during the silent era. However, he didn't become a star until the sound era where he played the monster in the classic Universal horror flick, Frankenstein in 1931. He followed that up in 1932 by starring in Universal's The Mummy. Karloff, along with fellow star, Bela Lugosi, became the most famous and popular horror actors of the 1930s and 1940s. During the television era, Karloff was able to parlay that success into numerous appearances on the small screen including hosting gigs on series such as 1958's The Veil (an unreleased series not actually seen by the public until the 1990s on home video), 1962's Out of This World for British television, and, of course, Thriller, which ran from 1960 to 1962 on NBC.
Although it has become a cult classic thanks to its resurrection on cable television, Thriller was not a hit during its initial run despite having such notable writers as Robert Bloch (the author of the novel Psycho among many other accomplishments) on its roster. During its first season from 1960-1961, it followed Alfred Hitchcock Presents Tuesday nights on NBC, but while that may have seemed like an ideal pairing, Thriller was no match for The Red Skelton Show on CBS. A timeslot change to Mondays for its second season sealed its fate as it went up against ABC's freshman hit, the medical drama Ben Casey.
Now, thanks to Image Entertainment, who has also released the complete series of The Twilight Zone to DVD, fans of classic television will be able to enjoy all 67 one-hour episodes of Thriller restored and remastered with tons of bonus features in one complete DVD box set of 14 discs. For our review, Image Entertainment supplied us with a check disc containing two sample episodes, "Pigeons from Hell" and "The Grim Reaper," and we'll base our review on those.
Our impressions of the DVD are as follows:
Video: Thirteen of the fourteen discs contain five episodes with each clocking in at approximately 50 minutes. Episode promos for "next week's" story are not included with the episode, but when available, are included as a bonus feature attached to the episode they preview. These promos come from video collectors and are unrestored.
As for the episodes themselves, we were quite impressed with the video restoration work undertaken to bring these classic shows back to nearly-pristine quality. Episodes of this age are bound to have some scratches and dirt marks on them, and the restoration process can only remove so much without spending a prohibitive amount of money. Overall, the episodes from the check disc look really nice, and if we were to assign a numerical value to them, we'd grade the restored episodes a solid 9 out of 10. Thriller was shot very differently from most television series at the time as episodes made extensive use of day-for-night photography in exterior scenes, and the interiors were wonderfully photographed by some of the best cinematographers to work in television to create environments that were full of foreboding shadows – no sitcomish flat lighting here. Shadows and light, and the interplay between the two, were integral elements in Thriller. The restoration work done on these episodes, which must have been difficult given the complexity of the photography at work here, brings the picture into sharp focus, allowing the shadows to appear luxuriously black while still enabling all the detail of the scene to come through.
Each episode is presented in its original 1:1.33 aspect ratio, which as we've stated in other DVD reviews, is something we are fans of. Yes, this means that if you're watching the series on a widescreen television, there will be black bars on the left and right sides of the picture, but changing the aspect ratio to fit a widescreen would cut material off the top and bottom of the episodes. In general, we feel that video material must be presented unchanged from its intended aspect ratio in order for the audience to get the most authentic experience.
The two episodes presented on the check disc we received, "Pigeons from Hell" and "The Grim Reaper" are both quite good and quite different. "Pigeons," one of the more famous episodes of the series, concerns itself with decrepit old plantation mansions, gloomy atmosphere, and "zuvembies" (female zombies) who hypnotize their victims before splitting their skulls open with a hatchet. This cheery little ditty was adapted from famed pulp fiction author Robert E. Howard's story from the May 1938 issue of Weird Tales magazine. Howard is also notable for basically having created the story genre known as "sword and sorcery" and the character of Conan the Barbarian. In his non-fiction book of essays, Danse Macabre, author Stephen King gives special praise to both the series Thriller and to Howard's story "Pigeons from Hell."
The other episode on the disc, "The Grim Reaper" stars 1960s icons William Shatner and Natalie Schafer (neither of whom are pictured above, unfortunately) before they achieved their biggest successes as the stars of Star Trek and Gilligan's Island, respectively. In "Reaper," Shatner visits his aunt, played by Schafer, and warns her that a painting of the Grim Reaper that she purchased is cursed with many of the previous owners ending up dead under mysterious circumstances. Shatner is quite good here in an uncharacteristic role, but Schafer really turns in a bravura performance that, in addition to showing off her off-kilter comedic line delivery so evident later in Gilligan's Island, is layered with an undercurrent of sadness and melancholy as she portrays a 50-something woman married to a much younger man who is clearly only interested in her money. A twist ending, that frankly we saw coming about a half-hour before it arrived, ends the story on a still-satisfying note.
Audio: With audio, we're not quite as strict with changes as we are with video, and if the DVD producers can take an old mono track and properly transform it into a multi-channel track, the results can lead to an enhanced experience. With Thriller, the episodes are presented in stereo, and the soundtrack is very crisp and clean with no hissing or popping to betray the age of the underlying material. A scene at the beginning of "Pigeons from Hell," where a car is driving over gravel is highly detailed and one can clearly hear the pebbles crunch under the tires rolling over them. Dialogue is bright and distinct throughout with none of the muddiness that often plagues unrestored – or badly restored – material. The soundtracks from such notable composers as Jerry Goldsmith are presented in all their shrill glory with lots of goosebump-inducing shrieking violins. From what we could tell, all the original music is presented intact, and no music substitutions were made.
Menu selections: A video sequence takes us through spooky corridors before stopping at the episode titles where the viewer can select a particular episode or use the "play all" feature. Episodes are selected by clicking on its title. There are no video thumbnails of the episodes in the menu.
Foreign language tracks: None on the check disc
Subtitles / Closed Captions: None on the check disc
Special Features: Tons of audio-only material and lots of nice video clips including episode promos (i.e. scenes from "next week's" episode) and an overall promo for the series itself hosted by Boris Karloff. The audio material consists of music-only tracks by series composers Jerry Goldsmith or Morton Stevens and is available for more than half the episodes of the series. Jerry Goldsmith was an important composer for both television and movies from about 1950 until his death in 2004. His early television work included scoring series for CBS including episodes of The Twilight Zone. When he joined Revue Studios in 1960, his work could be heard on a number of its series such as The Man from UNCLE and, of course, Thriller. His work in film scoring was legendary, appearing in such hit movies as Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Poltergeist, Star Trek, Alien, Logan's Run, The Omen, and many others. Therefore, it is a particular treat for any serious fan of television or film to be able to study some of this master's early work in isolation unencumbered by dialogue. Morton Stevens, the series' other composer, studied under Jerry Goldsmith, and they collaborated often. Stevens composed almost exclusively for television, and is probably best known as the composer of the theme for the television series, Hawaii Five-O.
More than two dozen of the episodes have audio commentaries by knowledgeable writers for television or magazines or actors who appeared in the episodes themselves and provide useful nuggets of trivia, critique, and insight into the filming of the particular episode and the series in general.
In conclusion: For fans of classic black-and-white television programs or stories of suspense and terror, getting this series is a no-brainer. However, we feel that the quality of the writing and acting evident throughout Thriller's two season run will be of interest to fans of great television overall. There is a reason why this series continues to win new fans with each passing decade: moody and evocative scripts coupled with Karloff's campy-creepy opening narrations make for an irresistible and highly entertaining combination.
This!...is a THRILLER!