Monday, November 21, 2011

Weird Tales on Film


Descended from radio drama, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962) and The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) paved the way for anthology series on television. The Outer Limits (1963-1965) was probably the most well known of the anthology series to come along in the early 1960s, but there were others. Hosted by Boris Karloff, Thriller (1960-1962) combined tales of crime with tales of fantasy and horror. That uneven mix is blamed for the short run of the show. Nonetheless, Thriller benefitted from a first-rate assembly of writers, including Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. The show's casts read like a who's who of television and movie stars and character actors: Mary Astor, MacDonald Carey, John Carradine, Oscar Homolka, William Shatner, Leslie Nielson, Everett Sloan, Cloris Leachman, Mary Tyler Moore, Mort Sahl, Robert Vaughn, and many, many more appeared on Thriller during its two-year run.

Thriller drew many of its stories from pulp fiction, including weird tales by Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, and Margaret St. Clair. In their book, Fantastic Television (1977), authors Gary Gerani and Paul H. Schulman give special attention to adaptations of "The Cheaters" by Robert Bloch and "Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard, calling "The Cheaters," "one of the finest horror tales ever aired."

The host and a sometime cast member of Thriller was Boris Karloff (1887-1969). Karloff had of course made a name for himself as the monster in Universal's Frankenstein (1931). He played in many more horror and fantasy films over the years, including four low-budget Mexican productions released after his death. His role as a horror host was an interesting one. Karloff hosted three horror/fantasy TV series altogether. The first, called The Veil (1958), consisted of only twelve episodes and never aired, while the third, Out of This World (1962), was made for British television and lasted only thirteen episodes. Thriller, with 67 episodes, was more successful.

It's hard to say what ingredients went into the mix, but the horror host appears to have been a character type developed for 1950s television. According to Wikipedia, Vampira, played by Maila Nurmi and based on Charles Addams' cartoon femme fatale (later named Morticia), is accepted as the first TV horror host. She began her career on KABC-TV in Los Angeles in 1954. Soon, with the release of packages of horror movies into syndication, horror hosts were raising their ugly heads everywhere on local television. (Sammy Terry played the part in Indianapolis where I grew up.) But what was the origin of the horror host? You can make the case that comic books beat television to the punch with such characters as the Crypt-Keeper, the Vault-Keeper, and the Old Witch from EC Comics.

Thriller inspired a return to comics for the horror host. In October 1962--after the last television episode upon which it was based had aired--Gold Key introduced Boris Karloff Thriller, an 80-page comic book with Karloff's picture on the cover. After only two issues, the book was retitled Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery and ran for 95 more issues, finally to give up the ghost in February 1980. By then few would have remembered the television show that gave rise to the comic book.

In any case, here's a list of Thriller episodes based on stories from Weird Tales. There may be omissions: some episodes sound suspiciously weird--by title, author, or plot--but I couldn't make a definite connection to "The Unique Magazine." If anyone has any changes to make, feel free to submit them.

Season 1 (1960-1961)
"The Cheaters" by Robert Bloch, adapted by Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales, Nov. 1947)
"Trio for Terror," three stories including "The Extra Passenger" by August Derleth, adapted by Barré Lyndon (Weird Tales, Jan. 1947)
"Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" by Robert Bloch, adapted by Barré Lyndon (Weird Tales, July 1943)
"The Devil's Ticket" by Robert Bloch, adapted by Bloch (Weird Tales, Sept. 1944)
"Parasite Mansion" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman, adapted by Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales [?])
"Mr. George" by August Derleth, adapted by Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales, Mar. 1947)
"The Terror in Teakwood" by Harold Lawlor, adapted by Alan Caillou (Weird Tales, Mar. 1947)
"Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard, adapted by John Kneubuhl (Weird Tales, Mar. 1938, reprinted Nov. 1951)
"The Grim Reaper" by Harold Lawlor, adapted by Robert Bloch (Weird Tales [?] )

Season 2 (1961-1962)
"What Beckoning Ghost?" by Harold Lawlor, adapted by Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales, July 1948)
"The Premature Burial" by Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by William D. Gordon (Weird Tales, Nov. 1933)
"The Weird Tailor" by Robert Bloch, adapted by Bloch (Weird Tales, July 1950)
"Masquerade" by Henry Kuttner, adapted by Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales, May 1942)
"The Return of Andrew Bentley" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer, adapted by Richard Matheson (Weird Tales, Sept. 1933)
"The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk" by Margaret St. Clair, adapted by Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales, July 1950 as "Mrs. Haek" [?])
"Waxworks" by Robert Bloch, adapted by Bloch (Weird Tales, Jan. 1939)
"A Wig for Miss Devore" by August Derleth, adapted by Derleth and Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales, May 1943)
"The Incredible Doktor Markesan" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer, adapted by Donald S. Sanford (Weird Tales, June 1934, as "Colonel Markeson")

Boris Karloff as the monster in an iconic still photo from Universal Pictures' Frankenstein (1931). The story that inspired the movie, written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was serialized in Weird Tales in May-December 1932, probably to capitalize on the release of the film. According to the Internet Movie Database, the premiere of Frankenstein occurred on November 21, 1931, making today the eightieth anniversary of the movie monster. Happy Birthday, Frankenstein's Monster!
Nearly three decades later, Karloff began his stint as host of Thriller, an NBC-TV anthology series of crime and horror stories. Here's the cover of the first issue of Gold Key's comic book adaptation of the show, released after the last episode had aired.
The title of Thriller was changed to Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery after the first two issues. Gold Key was known for its great painted covers, not only for this title, but also for Dr. Solar, Star Trek, Space Family Robinson, and others. Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery ran until 1980.
Finally, a still from the Thriller episode "Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard, a story that first appeared in Weird Tales in May 1938. The photo is from the book Fantastic Television by Gary Gerani and Paul H. Schulman (1977). 
Text and captions copyright 2011 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Chris Jarocha-ErnstOctober 28, 2013 at 6:41 AM

    "But what was the origin of the horror host?" Radio. Raymond, from "Inner Sanctum", may have been the first, but he was an outgrowth of mystery hosts like "The Whistler" and "The Shadow" (before Orson Welles came on the scene).

    I suppose one might claim that these hosts were themselves outgrowths of the anthology editors who put comments before their stories.

  2. Chris,

    I suppose the horror host is a kind of framing device, which is an old literary device. I guess the difference is that the horror host is a supernatural or outre character rather than a simple narrator. If that's the case, then there has to have been a first. In doing a quick search just now, I came up with a candidate: Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem, hostess of The Witch's Tale, on the radio from 1931 to 1938. Alonzo Deen Cole, who also contributed to Weird Tales, was the creator, writer, and director of the show.

    Thanks for writing.