Friday, November 19, 2010

This Is a Thriller: “The Hungry Glass”

New Feature!

I’m currently watching the Boris Karloff-hosted horror anthology “Thriller” for the first time and will be writing about stand-out episodes as I step over their graves…

Episode 16: "The Hungry Glass" (original air date: January 3, 1961)

Because it was never in regular rerun rotation, the early ‘60s horror anthology “Thriller” has long flown way over my radar. I had heard of “Thriller”, but for some reason it never quite lodged in my head. I even read Stephen King’s superior tome on all things horrific, Danse Macabre, in which the maestro declares the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology “Probably the best horror series ever put non TV…” That recommendation still wasn’t enough to keep me from failing to even mention “Thriller” in the brief history of horror TV I posted last year (for some reason, the same goes for pretty much every witch-related program, so my apologies to “Bewitched”, “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, and “Charmed”).

Now that “Thriller” is officially available on DVD for the first time, my brain-cloud has finally been lifted, and with a little help from Netflix, I’m rolling up my sleeves and diving in to its two seasons of murder, mystery, and monster tales. Well, not so much “mystery.” For its debut fourteen episodes, “Thriller” was basically a so-so “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” rip off, albeit one bolstered by good direction and strong guest-star spots from the likes of Mary Astor, Everett Sloan, Rip Torn, Alan Napier, and a pre-buffoon Leslie Nielsen. The stories are rarely exceptional, though, and the fact that they’re stretched out to an often interminable 50 minutes makes them all the more of a chore to get through. I’m also not a huge fan of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”-style mysteries, so that bias may be a factor in my lack of enthusiasm for those early “Thriller” episodes.

Things start to pick up in episode 15, when “Thriller” finally dips its toes in supernatural swamps. “The Cheaters” seems to be regarded as a classic episode of the show. I’ve read a lot of references to this adaptation of Robert Bloch’s yarn about a pair of monstrous spectacles in reviews of the “Thriller” DVD set. King gives it special mention in Danse Macabre. I certainly liked “The Cheaters” more than the shows that preceded it, but the first “Thriller” that really thrilled me is episode 16, “The Hungry Glass”.

As a “Twilight Zone” fanatic, I was tickled by the cast as Karloff announced each actor during his inimitable introduction, all of whom did time in the zone: William Shatner (“Nick of Time”, “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet”), Elizabeth Allen (“The After Hours”), Russell Johnson (“Back There”, “Execution”). I can’t really be blamed for not recognizing Joanna Heyes since she played one of the hideous and heavily made-up alien nurses in the “Eye of the Beholder” episode of “The Twilight Zone”. Her resume is pretty short, which doesn’t really surprise me since her primary acting decision in “The Hungry Glass” is to shout all her lines. I wonder if the fact that Douglas Heyes directed this “Thriller” had anything to do with her casting. Although Karloff doesn’t mention her in his intro, Donna Douglas (also “Eye of the Beholder) features prominently in this episode as well, inspiring further “Twilight Zone”-stoked glee. Director Heyes did a lot of time in the twilight trenches, as well, directing nine episodes including the absolute classics “The Invaders”, “Eye of the Beholder” (ah-ha!), “The Howling Man”, “The After Hours”, and “The Chaser”. With so many fine “Twilight Zones” under his belt it’s no wonder that Heyes is the MVP of “The Hungry Mirror”.

Karloff introduces Shatner in "The Hungry Glass"

Like “The Cheaters”, “The Hungry Glass” is based on a Bloch story. Also like “The Cheaters”, it’s a bit on the flimsy side: vane Laura Bellman (Douglas) becomes so enamored with her own reflection that she is sucked into the glass. All who subsequently stand before her massive collection of mirrors suffer grisly fates. A young couple (Shatner and Joanna Heyes) moves into the woman’s old dark house, and much creepiness ensues. Bloch’s story is actually a nice, little ghost story, but probably more appropriate for a half-hour program. Brevity is key to the campfire yarn, but Heyes handles the tale so deftly that this episode only occasionally drags. His script (which he adapted himself) smartly crosses time, giving us a break from Shatner and shrill Joanna Hayes and their contemporary setting to see how Laura Bellman’s initial tragedy went down all those years ago. Had the episode only been 30 minutes, Heyes might not have had the time to give us these flashbacks (“The Cheaters” spans generations similarly). The flashbacks break up the episode nicely, but it’s still the time spent in 1961 that provide the most unnerving moments when the couple envision ghostly figures reaching out for them from the house’s mirrors. Brilliantly, Heyes only gives us impressionistic views of these figures, which play on the imagination far more effectively than the graphically depicted, and rather silly looking, monster from “The Cheaters”. The final minutes of the show—which entail a genuinely tragic mistake and a character’s utterly haunting exit—creeped me out as much as the scariest “Twilight Zones”. My initial viewings of “Thriller” felt a little like homework; I’m a horror-nut who writes about horror and adores Karloff, so I felt obligated to watch “Thriller” even though it had yet to really grab me. Looking into “The Hungry Mirror” has made me genuinely excited to see what’s next.
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