Thursday, March 24, 2016

THRILLER Thursday: The Grim Reaper

Best Of THRILLER Thursday: The Grim Reaper

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 37.
Airdate: June 13, 1961

Director: Herschel Daugherty
Writer: Robert Block from a story by Harold Lawlor
Cast: William Shatner, Natalie Schafer, Elizabeth Allen, Scott Merrill, Henry Daniell, Paul Newlan.
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cinematography: Bud Thackery
Producer: William Frye



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Yes, the painting did finish it’s morbid creator, but I can assure you that our story is not finished. Oh, no... it’s only just begun.”
(He swipes his hand over the scythe in the painting...)
“Blood! Think of that. This painting is over 100 years old, yet real blood still glistens on the scythe of the Grim Reaper, which by no mere coincidence is the title of our story tonight. How strange indeed that the immortality sought by a mad artist would assume the form of death. But even stranger are the fearful consequences of these others whenever the Grim Reaper’s scythe drips blood. Our principal players are: William Shatner, Natalie Schafer, Elizabeth Allen, Scott Merrill, Fifi D’Orsay, and Henry Daniell. You’ve seen the harbinger of evil, someone is in mortal danger as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. Ah, ah, ah! Stay where you are! I’ll join you as we wait... and watch.”



Synopsis: 1848.... Henry Daniell shows up in the middle of the night looking for an artist named Henri Rodin, the maid shows him upstairs. Rodin is crazy, evil, a drug addict, and has been painting his “masterpiece” behind locked doors. Daniell gets her to unlock the door... because he is Rodin’s father. They find him hanging from the rafters. His “masterpiece”? A painting of the Grim Reaper! Did he finish the painting, or did the painting finish him?

Present day: A mansion in the hills named Graves End. Paul Graves (Shatner!) drives up in a sports car, spots a hearse parked out front. His Aunt Beatrice Graves (Natalie Schafer, Mrs. Howell!) greets him with a hug and explains that she bought the hearse for publicity, and drives it around town. She’s a famous mystery writer and has decorated the mansion to look like something out of a Charles Adams cartoon. The public expects her to be a bit of a character and a kook. Aunt Beatrice uses her maiden name Graves as well, much easier than using any of the names of her extensive list of exhusbands... or the name of her new one!



Gerald Keller (Scott Merrill) is half Aunt Beatrice’s age, and very pretty. He shakes Paul’s hand. Gerald is a hunk actor rapidly approaching his pull date. Paul asks for his autograph for a friend’s ten year old daughter who has a crush on him. While Aunt B is giving him the house tour, she asks why he’s visiting... does he need money? Paul says no, he’s concerned about her. Before he can explain why, Aunt B’s attractive young secretary Dorothy Lindon (Elizabeth Allen) enters. “Dorothy does all of my typing and most of my spelling as well.” Seems the cook has quit because of that thing in the library...

In the library: The Grim Reaper painting.... that’s why Paul came. He read that she had bought it, and was concerned. Since it was painted in 1848 it has had 17 owners, and 15 of them have met with violent and mysterious deaths. The painting is cursed. Everyone who owns it... dies. Aunt B says that’s exactly why she bought it! Look at all of the publicity she has gotten from it already! She doesn’t believe in the curse: the people who owned it previously were military leaders and European nobility, the kind of people who sometimes die suddenly and mysteriously. Everybody dies. Paul argues that everyone who died was warned first... the scythe in the painting began to bleed! That’s the legend. Aunt B thinks it’s just superstitious nonsense...



That’s when Paul notices that the blade is bleeding now!

Later, Dorothy starts to make a phone call to Aunt B’s shrink when Gerald stops her. Gerald hits on her, tries to kiss her... not knowing that Aunt B is in the next room watching them. Dorothy races out the balcony... where she runs into Paul. Paul tries to convince Dorothy to help him destroy the painting before it destroys his Aunt.

Paul finds his Aunt B sitting in front of the painting, drinking... drunk. She thinks Gerald and Dorothy are having an affair and hope the painting’s curse is true so that she will die and they can be together. Or maybe ship her off to an alcohol rehab clinic so that they have time together. Paul says he doesn’t think Dorothy is plotting against her, but does think the bleeding painting is a warning. But everything Paul says is a cliche from a murder mystery or horror tale, Aunt B calls him on each line! She says that Death is her business partner... she’s a mystery writer. She tells Paul to leave her alone and drinks a toast to the Grim Reaper...



In the middle of the night, a noise. Paul, Dorothy and Gerald run to the top of the stairs... and see Aunt B laying dead at the base of the stairs!

The Detective (M SQUAD’s Paul Newlan) says it’s accidental death.

Dorothy tells Paul that she suspects Gerald may have something to do with Aunt B’s death. Just as she decides to leave... Aunt B’s lawyer shows up to read the will. *Everything* was left to Gerald. Paul gets nothing, and Dorothy doesn’t even get a few thousand for doing Aunt B’s spelling. The lawyer is creeped out by the Grim Reaper painting and says he felt the that entire time he was reading the will it was watching him. But the Reaper has no eyes... just a skull.

Later: Dorothy has packed and is leaving and Paul says his goodbyes... he’s staying over the weekend. She warns him that Gerald can not be trusted.



That night: Paul is typing something when Gerald enters. He couldn’t sleep. Paul gives him a sleeping pill. Gerald says he hasn’t been able to sleep since Aunt B died. The cursed painting is his now... will the scythe drip blood again? Twist: Paul says there never was any blood, it was his trick. He was broke, needed a reason to see Aunt B again so that he could hit her up for some cash. The cursed painting was a great excuse... to inherit all of her money. *He* pushed Aunt B down the stairs, hoping to inherit a fortune. Gerald notes that Paul wasn’t even in the will, he inherited nothing. Paul counters that when Gerald dies he’ll inherit it all as Aunt B’s only remaining relative. What? Paul pulls the page from the typewriter and says it’s Gerald’s confession to the police saying that he pushed Aunt B down the stairs and killed her. Remember that “autograph” he signed? And that sleeping pill? The confession is also a suicide note. Poison. Paul watches as Gerald slowly and painfully dies.



Gerald makes it to the phone, dials the police... and before he can say anything dies. Paul grabs the phone and tells the police that he has discovered Gerald’s body...

The Detective says the confession wraps it all up, but he did some research on that painting, and there’s a pretty good case for that curse being believable. He’s a cop, but that painting is freaky. He asks if Paul plans to stay in the house, now. Paul says he’s headed back to his apartment tonight. The Detective leaves.

Paul hears a noise from the library...



When he looks at the Grim Reaper painting he hallucinates Aunt B’s face over the skull, and then Gerald’s face... this freaks him out! He runs out of the library, upstairs, grabs his suitcase and starts to leave, when there is a knock at the door. The Detective???

Dorothy. She heard on her car radio about Gerald’s death and came back. She realized that they MUST destroy that painting before more people die. Paul is the owner, now, right? She wants to burn it. In the library, Paul stops her from burning the painting, admits that he the blood was just a trick. There is no curse. Dorothy realizes that Paul killed Aunt B and Gerald... and Paul offers to share all of his new fortune with her. They can be rich together! She points to the painting and screams that the arm is moving. When Paul turns to look at it, she runs out of the library and locks him inside!



Paul pounds on the door, then walks across the library to the doors leading out to the patio... notices something strange halfway there. The painting has changed. The Grim Reaper is no longer in the painting. What? How is that possible? Then he hears the wooshing of the scythe!

Dorothy comes back with the Detective... and they find Paul sliced to pieces. How is that possible, he was locked into the room... alone! But the painting? The scythe is now dripping blood!



Review: Shatner *and* Mrs. Howell from GILLIAN’S ISLAND! This episode makes you wish that Robert Bloch had adapted last week’s PIGEONS FROM HELL, because aside from Bloch being one of the greatest horror writers of the time period, he was also a damned *clever* writer (I know I’ve mentioned his wicked wordplay in previous entries). He makes words *dance*. Here he adapts a story that reminds me of a Levinson & Link script (those guys created COLUMBO) where a mystery writer ends up at the center of a mystery. The first episode of COLUMBO, MURDER BY THE BOOK, was a corker about a mystery writing team played by Martin Milner & Jack Cassidy... and when Milner dies somewhat mysteriously his partner Cassidy becomes prime suspect... but as a mystery writer he thinks he knows how to outsmart Columbo. Some kid named Spielberg directed that one.

This one was directed by Herschel Daugherty, who did some good work here on THRILLER and next door on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. His work isn’t as inventive as Lupino’s, but is competent (unlike last week’s director). This is a clever mystery with a supernatural twist end, witty and stylish and offers the perfect part for a hambone like Shatner.



The plotting is great, and after the spooky supernatural opening with Henry Daniell I expected the rest of the story to be horror based... but as it unfolds, I began to suspect that Aunt Beatrice’s mystery writer character wasn’t an accidental choice. All of the characters are scheming against each other! This is a mystery *disguised* as a horror tale! I wonder what the audience in 1961 thought of this older woman with a husband half her age? That was before “cougar” was part of our vocabulary.

When the young husband makes a move on the young secretary, and we get the feeling Shatner is thinking about inheriting everything from his Aunt and maybe hooking up with that attractive secretary; that we begin to see this as a crime scene waiting to happen. But the story keeps us guessing! Even when we suspect Shatner may have pushed Auntie down the stairs, the story is *presented* to us in a way that seems like the cursed painting is behind her death. It keeps us guessing what the genre is: horror or mystery... and Bloch does a great job of making sure we are never quite sure.



Also unlike last week’s PIGEONS, all of the actors sparkle. Merrill, who was a Broadway star with only 3 TV credits, manages to be slick and sleazy and charming all at the same time. Natalie Schafer manages to be kooky and cute and then turns sad and morose after she spies on her husband making a pass at her secretary... she *acts*! There’s a good drunk scene where this eccentric and powerful woman shows how vulnerable she is beneath her armor. That’s a combination of good acting, good writing, and good directing. There’s a swell scene between Shatner and the young husband where the conversation is about having trouble sleeping but the subtext is all about Shatner not inheriting a cent. *This* is where the reveal finally comes that this is a mystery rather than a horror story, and the clever bit of plotting with the autograph *in one of the first scenes* being the signature on the suicide note is brilliant! Shatner hambones it up, smug and clever and superior. He calmly watches the man die, giving off this vibe that he wishes the guy would hurry it up... he doesn’t have all day.



And the final twist, where the story goes from mystery disguised as horror to actual horror is brilliant. When we see that the Grim Reaper has exited the painting, instead of *showing* the Grim Reaper, we only see the shadow of the scythe and hear it wooshing through the air as we slowly more closer and closer to the trapped Shatner. That shadow is more frightening than some dude in a hoodie.

There couldn’t be a better final episode of a mixed bag first season. What began as a crime show, then added horror, ends with an episode that is both crime *and* horror. Now that the show has found its footing and morphed into a horror show, season two will focus on terror. But just as the real TV show took a break for summer, THRILLER Thursday will also take a break for summer and return to the blog when Autumn warns us that Halloween is just around the corner...

Bill

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