Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Boris Karloff's Thriller: The Cheaters

In 1960, fans of horror got their own television show with the hour-long anthology series Boris Karloff's Thriller, hosted, appropriately, by the venerable bogeyman himself and produced by classic horror empire Universal Studios. Unfortunately, the show's producers were so keen to compete with the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, featuring mostly crime stories with a dark climactic twist, that the first 14 episodes of the show were listless imitations of Hitchcock's long-running television franchise--lacking even a hint of supernatural mayhem. It soon became apparent that audiences didn't want a show hosted by Boris Karloff to be just another hour of Hitchcockian storylines, and Universal was finally pressured to retool the show to feature stories of gothic horror, starting with episode #15 The Cheaters.

A story by Psycho author Robert Bloch, The Cheaters concerns a pair of old-fashioned spectacles with very special yellow-tinted lenses that allow the wearer to see "the truth" around them, and the strange tragic circumstances that invariably ensue. The story opens as the reclusive 19-th century inventor of the titular glasses, Dirk Vann Prin (played by Thriller regular Henry Daniell) puts them on for the first time--to his immediate regret. From there, the story continues to the present-day where junk-man Joe Henshaw (Paul Newlan, another Thriller regular) finds the Cheaters while cleaning out the ancient ruins of the Vann Prin house. When he puts on the glasses he finds that they clear up his vision in more ways than one, as the grim designs of his harpy wife (Linda Watkins) and young hired hand (Ed Nelson) are laid bare. The glasses change hands three more times in The Cheaters, until finally a scoundrel intellectual (Harry Townes), thinking he's unlocked the true purpose of the Cheaters, uses the deadly specs to view his own image in the mirror. What follows is a scene regarded by some as the scariest moment in 1960's network television--a category in which the show Thriller appears prominently.

As you might have guessed, the best part of The Cheaters are the moments where it's hapless owners are gazing through it's glass. The Cheaters effect is pulled off through a simple change in lighting and a voice-over to represent the inner dialogue of the viewed subject, but this works quite effectively. The performances of all involved are excellent, as well, and the story is taut enough to sustain interest until the terrifying conclusion at the wonderfully gloomy Vann Prin house. Thriller benefitted greatly by Universal's flair for spooky sets and horror lighting, as well as the vast pool of acting and writing talent it could draw on. Few of the Thriller episodes that followed are at the level of The Cheaters in overall execution, and sadly it only ran for two seasons, but there are enough memorable episodes to testify to it's untapped potential. 9/10


Estancia De La Ding Dong said...

Love those shades.

Steve Ring said...

It's a great episode. Interesting idea for a horror story. There's something like it in John Carpenter's They Live, of course.