Thursday, November 09, 2023

THRILLER Thursday: An Attractive Family


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

Season: 2, Episode: 15.
Airdate: January 1, 1962

Director: John Brahm.
Writer: Robert Arthur.
Cast: Richard Long, Otto Kruger, Leo G. Carroll, Joyce Bulifant, Joan Tetzel.
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: Henry Freulich.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “What you have witnessed, my friends, was of course a dream. But was it a fearful dream of self destruction? A dark premonition of murder? Or was it one of those nightmares which means just the opposite of what they seem? Well, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, you’re going to find out, And in doing so, you’ll meet an attractive family named Farrington. Marian, Bert, and Dick Farrington. In fact, that’s the title of our story: An Attractive Family. There’s nothing one could dislike about them, unless you object to the fact that they occasionally commit a casual murder. Of course, you really shouldn’t object to that. Afterall, they only do it when it’s absolutely necessary. But then, I’ll let you form your own opinion. And now, permit me to introduce our players. They are: Richard Long, Joan Tetzel, Otto Kruger, Leo G. Carroll, and Joyce Bulifant. Remember, no hasty judgments! I’m sure there are several attractive families living on the same block... right there with you. That’s a shocking thought, wouldn’t you say?

Synopsis: Virginia Wells (Joyce Bulifant - Marie from the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) runs up to a gated old mansion with a sculpture garden and... the statues tell her to come up to the house! The Bates House from PSYCHO. She climbs the stairs, enters the house... which is filled with cobwebs and vacant. The statues inside tell her to go up the stairs... to do what she has to do, what she came to do... She climbs the spooky stairs, covered with cobwebs, to a door. Inside the room - a noose hangs from the ceiling with a chair underneath it... waiting for her. The voices tell her to do what she came here to do. A trio of shadows on the wall tell her she must do it. The shadows tell her that if she does it she will be at peace, like Alice. And she hangs herself!

New England: 1947. On a beautiful lake, new bride Marian Drake (Joan Tetzel) and her wealthy new husband George (William Mims) and Marian’s brother Dicky Farrington (Richard Long from THE BIG VALLEY in super sleazy mode) decide to take a canoe ride to a picnic spot. George is afraid of the water, can’t swim, and Marian makes a joke about he even shied away from Niagra Falls on their honeymoon. The local guy who rents them the canoe mentions that, although the lake is supposed to be bottomless, it’s actually 800 feet deep. This doesn’t make George any less afraid of the water. Marian jokes that they plan to stay on the surface, and row across the lake...

She drops her paddle in the water, asks George to grab it for her.. And he tips over the canoe in the process. Marian and Dicky grab the canoe - George panics and drowns. Well, there’s a moment where it looks like George might keep his head above water until they are rescued, so Dicky makes sure his head is below water - holding him down until he drowns.

Mexico: 1955. Dicky is the newlywed this time, his new bride is the quiet and studious Alice Wells (Diedre Owens) and they are on honeymoon, with Dicky’s Uncle Bert (Otto Kruger from MURDER MY SWEET) tagging along. Some conversation about how Alice is a lonely girl who never had a date and never expected to get married... and that she and her sister are wealthy orphans with a bank in charge of their estate. Oh, and they just made new wills and took out life insurance policies on each other - with double indemnity for accidental deaths.

Uncle Bert wants to take a picture of Dicky and Alice on the edge of a cliff with a beautiful view of the mountains in the background. Has her take off her glasses - sun glare, you know. Take a step back... another step... and she’s off the edge of the cliff and Dicky has just inherited and collected on the life insurance.

New England: Present Day (1962). In their luxurious family home, Dicky, Marian and Uncle Bert discuss their need for cash. They are broke. The liquor store won’t take their credit and Uncle Bert is down to his last bottle of booze. It seems that when Alice met her tragic death in Mexico, half of her estate went to her little sister Virginia - Jinny - and Dicky became the executor. Well, Dicky embezzled a bit, and when Virginia reaches 21 the money is all hers... and she will discover that some of it is missing. So Virginia has become their house guest over summer, and they plan on making sure that she dies before her upcoming 21st birthday. That way the embezzled money is never discovered and they inherit Virginia’s money as well. Win, win!

Major Downey (Leo G. Carroll) comes to pick up Virginia to go bird watching, and they stumble upon the old Merriview House (the Psycho house) with it’s spooky sculpture garden - from the opening scene. Downey tells her the history of the place - Merriview hung himself in an upstairs room and the house has been vacant ever since. Rumor is, the house is haunted. On the way back, Downey spots some mushrooms, “Nature’s bounty!”, and Virginia picks them.

Back at the house, Virginia shows Marian the mushrooms and Marian says that Virginia can have them for dinner. Not enough to share. When Virginia leaves the room, Marian tells Dicky and Uncle Bert that the mushrooms are poison - this solves all of their problems!

At dinner, Virginia tries to get Dicky to eat a mushroom - and he has to find a way out of it. Every time Virginia starts to put a mushroom in her mouth, someone says something that she responds to... and doesn’t eat the mushroom. Some mild tension is built here, but they don’t build it very well. Before Virginia can take a bite of the mushrooms, she accidentally spills her plate and the mushrooms go into the trash.

On to plan B - a picnic near a cliff. When Virginia goes to bed, the rest of our attractive family begins planning her death.

Virginia wakes up screaming from a nightmare - the show’s teaser - and tells Mariam and Dicky about the dream where she hangs herself in the old Merriview House.

The next morning, before the picnic by the cliff, Marian calls the local doctor to ask if there’s a psychiatric specialist who can help Virginia, because she has been having suicidal thoughts.

Dicky and Virginia go out on the picnic, Marian and Uncle Bert will join them later. Dicky takes her to the cliff and tries everything to get her to go to the edge - but nothing works. Virginia tells Dicky that her sister Alice wrote her a letter the day she died... a letter about Dicky. Dicky worries that the letter might be incriminating, wants to know what it said...

Since the cliff isn’t working, Dicky takes Virginia to the old Merriview House. She’s afraid, but he tells her that she must confront her fear... And drags her up the spooky stairs to the room from her dream... the room with the noose and the chair. Marian and Uncle Bert join them, encouraging her to face her fears - stand on the chair, put the noose around her neck. Virginia does this (WTF?) and then she says that Marian and Dicky and Uncle Bert are just trying to kill her... the way they killed her sister Alice! The three admit that this is true, and get ready to kick out the chair...

When Major Downey and the town Sheriff burst into the room and arrest the three. This whole time, Virginia and Major Downey have been trying to trick them into confessing - it’s been a sting operation all along!

Review: The sting operation makes no sense.

The twist ending in this story is completely out of left field to the point that it’s obvious that the writer didn’t know it was coming. The thing about any plot twist like this is that it was there all along. If Virginia and Major Downey were doing all of this to get them to confess to murdering Virginia’s sister, then those characters knew that is what they were doing and when we see them together they should be working out their next step in the sting... but instead, they are acting as if they have no idea that there is a sting.

But instead we open with the hanging nightmare - which she shouldn’t be having if the old house and the hanging ending is part of the plan. Isn’t the purpose of the nightmare to steer them towards trying to kill her in the old house - where the Major and Sheriff can be hidden with recording equipment to over hear the confession? Why would she have this nightmare if she was in control of the sting? And why would we have the scene where Major Downey takes her on the birdwatching hike to the old house and explains the whole backstory to her? Wouldn’t she know the backstory if she were part of the sting? This twist end makes no sense at all! The story doesn’t ,match the twist!

Many writers don’t outline their short stories - heck, they’re *short*. But usually they have the whole story in their minds before they sit down to write it. Both of the “Crime Time” short stories that I’ve published on Kindle have twist ends, and I actually began with the twist ends on both and then working backwards to the beginning. I’m pretty sure that’s how most writers do it, because you have to set up the twist end’s reality at the very beginning and then have that reality exist while diverting the reader’s attention away from that reality in the rest of the story. If Norman Bates and his mother are the same person, you can’t have a bunch of scenes in the beginning showing them both together having a conversation - that’s impossible.

And having Virginia actually put her neck in the noose which standing on that rickety chair makes no sense as part of any plan.

Of course, there’s an odd possibility that there were some script notes involved here - the episode opens with the dream sequence - which doesn’t make any sense if Virginia is part of the sting and trying to get revenge for her sister... but the point in the story where she has the nightmare and then tells Marian about it is much later in the story. So a decision was made to move that upfront so that the episode could start strong. Without the strange dream sequence, this episode is a standard thriller - and maybe they were trying to make it seem more like a horror story? There’s also the possibility that Major Downey was originally a villain and there wasn’t a sting, which would make Virginia not in on it... but that’s a whole bunch of major conjecture. The writer, Robert Arthur, also wrote THE PRISONER IN THE MIRROR and DIALOGUES WITH DEATH, two pretty good episodes... so I’m trying to figure out how he would end up with this nonsensical twist ending.

One of the things that works with the episode are the murders - each is well planned with the boat rental guy as a witness in George’s drowning: they make sure to talk about George being unable to swim in front of him, and Uncle Bert actually takes a picture of Alice stepping off the edge of the cliff with no one around her.. And the call to the psychiatrist about Virginia’s suicidal dreams. So you can see how they have managed to get away with it for all of these years. There was a woman in Marin, CA who had a dozen wealthy husbands die of natural causes and it took forever for police to become suspicious.

Richard Long, the nice guy lawyer on THE BIG VALLEY is great here are a super charismatic, slick, and sleazy - he seems to be having a great time playing a villain. There’s also a really creepy incestuous scene where he makes out with sister Marian that must have had the censors worried. Joyce Bulifant, who played Ted’s airhead girlfriend on MTM and the mother of the dying girl on her way to the Mayo in AIRPLANE! seems like an odd choice - unless it was all about the twist end sting. She’s playing naive to the point of stupid. It’s always great to see Otto Kruger, and he gets to play a charming con man.

The birdwatching allows an amusing last line... about spotting a trio of vultures.

Not one of the best episodes in the series, but still kind of fun... as long as you don’t think about that twist ending for over a second.

- Bill

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