Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thriller – Masquerade – review (TV episode)

Director: Herschel Daugherty

First aired: 1961

Contains spoilers

Thriller was an anthology series hosted by icon Boris Karloff and this episode, from season 2, was the only vampire episode. It was notable also for the stars and for the twist, which to be honest was fairly obvious watching it today – certainly the clues were peppered through the episode. So, given the fact I thought it was obvious, plus the age of the show and the fact that it was kind of neat I will spoil it. The episode was perhaps a lot less horror and a lot more quirky humour than many other episodes – a direction aided by the fact that the cast was so good.

It begins with a car which has stopped before a dilapidated guest house on a back road. In the car are (second, it transpires later) honeymooners Charlie (Tom Poston) and Ros (Elizabeth Montgomery) Denham. There is a storm and the roof of the car is leaking, she feels frozen and is convinced she will perish. Charlie, a writer, thinks that the door knocker will come away when he knocks (dry rot) and then an old man will appear and regale them with tales of vampires. They go up to the door and he knocks… the knocker remains intact. However the door is opened by the wonderfully creepy looking Jed Carta (John Carradine)…

Before we get to Boris’ bit, which comes next in the show, I just have to take a moment to appreciate Elizabeth Montgomery. Can we just say babe… okay, back on track...

The knocker falls after they have entered the house and Boris appears to pick it up and do his intro. He tells us that this is about vampires and poses the question “on just such a night as this, who knows what sort of masquerade the living dead may choose?” Having introduced the players, and before letting us know that silver bullets and wooden stakes are effective against vampires (even though they are not used in the episode), we get a moment of wonderful crap bat syndrome.

Jed does tell the Denhams about vampires, as Charlie predicted, as there have been a rash of deaths, put down to vampires, in the area. His comments often seem in response to Ros who, herself, seems somewhat antagonistic. He also tells them, with a gleam in his eye, not to worry – they don’t eat their guests, just kill them and rob them! Charlie asks for dry clothes whilst Ros has mentioned that she is famished.

Charlie has had an idea for a story, hillbilly vampires rather than the dinner suited type. Ros scoffs, who’d buy that as a concept. Jed’s grandson, Lem (Jack Lambert), then appears with dry clothes for them and tells them that his ma is getting changed to come and see them. Ros is getting changed in a dark corner when Charlie hears a woman’s laughter and assumes it is Ros. It isn’t, but a bat distracts them from the laughter when it flies by and freaks Ros.

In the kitchen Lem is preparing a stew and Jed is sharpening a knife – though he won’t let Lem slit her throat, he says, you need experience for butchering. The Denhams come into the kitchen and mention Lem’s ma. Jed says that she is dead but Lem gets confused. There is more talk about the, so called, Henshaw Vampires, Jed thinking that a vampire would try and act like a normal person to hide in plain sight, but when Jed suggests they eat Lem’s stew Ros says she has lost her appetite. They discover the front door is locked and again hear laughter from upstairs.

The go up and find a woman, in a room with a barred door, chained to a wall. She is Ruthie (Dorothy Neumann), and the gist seems to be that Jed locked her up because she, allegedly, killed Lem’s ma and her husband (also a Carta) when they started carrying on. Charlie frees her but she locks her liberators in her cell and runs off, ominously promising to come back for them. It doesn’t take too long for Charlie to retrieve the key, however.

Downstairs and no one seems to be around. They discover the windows are secured and then they find a hog butchered in the pantry, the Cartas seem to be collecting its blood. They find a secret door to a cellar and discover a guest book with a detailed inventory of valuables that the previous guests had. Charlie also finds some moonshine… so what is going on?

Well, when we later discover Lem dead with fang marks at his throat, and Ros missing it should have become clear (even if the little hints given through the show haven’t given the game away) and it is not that Ruthie is a captured vampire, which is just another story idea that Charlie has. The Cartas are murderers but they are not vampires. The Denhams, of course, are the vampires. Their concern at leaving seems to be due to the sunrise the next day, the reason Ros was freezing and in danger of perishing was because she was hungry but not for the stew Lem was making. There was distaste – of eating hillbillys – but, beggars can’t be choosers and Jed would awaken (having been knocked out) to find both Lem and Ruthie dead with fang marks in their necks.

They even have a double coffin in the trailer where they are living (and can I just say Elizabeth Montgomery in a black chiffon night dress –woot). They were pretty freaked out when a simple hillbilly suggested that vampires would change and try to hide within society – which is what they have done. However Charlie thinks he might write a book on the evolution of the vampire – a limited edition for select customers only.

This was great. The idea of the masquerade in such an early show was wonderful and the performances were top notch on all scores. In some respects it was like old time radio in timbre, but that just made it all the more appealing to me. As I said the performances were great but special mention to Carradine as it was nice to see him in something worthwhile – too often we see the poorer films he made. There is very little actual vampiric action but there is a thick slice of humour running through this and it is ultimately very worthwhile. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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