Thriller (1973-76): Screamer, Killer With Two Faces, A Killer In Every Corner, Where The Action Is, If It’s A Man – Hang Up, The Double Kill, Won’t Write Home Mom – I’m Dead, The Crazy Kill

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Regular readers of this blog will have noticed a strangely under-active April in terms of new reviews. Partly that was because most of the things that I was watching tended to be the tail end of series that I’ve already written about previously and that therefore didn’t need to be covered again any time soon. And another factor was that most of my DVD viewing seemed to be spent consuming additional episodes of the 1970s anthology series Thriller, which I had also already written about previously.

However, since each of the Thriller stories is entirely stand-alone and completely different in tone and content, it’s almost like each one is a separate short film and therefore worth a quick review in its own right. Here, then, are eight more reviews of entries from the Thriller canon: please note, while I don’t go all-out to detail the plot in each case, inevitably it’s necessary to say some things about the episode that give away some spoilers even when done semi-obliquely. If you’re going to watch the series any time soon, I recommend you avert your eyes …

Screamer

Originally aired: 4 January 1975
Starring: Pamela Franklin, Jim Norton, Peter Howell, Derek Smith, Wolfe Morris

A woman is left traumatised after a brutal attack. The police make an arrest and refuse to believe her when she sees her assailant again.

The first ten minutes of this episode are nightmarishly gripping and genuinely disturbing. Inevitably after that it does go off somewhat, but not by much. There are a few rough edges to things, but also some wonderful touches – such as the way that after Nicola runs down her assailant one day, the man who turns up at the door the next has a pronounced limp – making it all extremely believable and the situation something akin to the Terminator’s relentless pursuit of Sarah Conner – it’s enough to drive anyone over the edge.

The main problem with the episode is that the central premise is a direct steal from the first episode of 1950s US suspense anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the episode “Revenge”, directed by Hitch himself) and once you realise that it’s impossible to fully engage with the episode. That likely wouldn’t have been a problem to 70s British TV audiences, however, who probably would never have seen it and certainly wouldn’t remember it 15 years on – but I’m pretty sure Clemens would have known the episode in question! He does add an additional nice twist in this one related to the whereabouts of the attacker, though.

Ultimately this runs simply too long at over an hour (the Hitchcock episode is around 25 minutes by comparison and packs a lot in) and also telegraphs its plot points too clearly by modern standards: casual lines about where all the blood came from; the missing axe; the way we observe how she sees the police detective in the hospital as her assailant; her reaction when told that the rapist has been arrested mean it’s all naggingly obvious now.

But, hard to criticise for something that would have been deviously complex and satisfyingly chilling for 70s audiences simply because we’re viewing from the vantage point of 40 years hindsight.

Killer With Two Faces

Originally aired: 25 January 1975
Starring: Donna Mills, Ian Hendry

A violent psychopathic criminal escapes from jail, and through a case of mistaken identity ends up in the company of a beautiful American businesswoman.

A story with a promising premise but unfortunately a poor delivery on many fronts, the whole thing is directed very flatly (the director seems to have done mostly comedies, variety shows and soaps apart from this) with remarkably little suspense; if there’s any music in it at all then it made no impact, which doesn’t help.

It’s hard to tell whether or not the ‘twins’ aspect of this is meant to be a surprise reveal or not: on the one hand it is implied by the title, but the first act makes no mention of it and as a result is both seemingly a little confusing in terms of continuity, and simultaneously a little dull. But if it’s meant to be a surprise, then why is the ‘reveal’ in act two so comprehensively underplayed?

While Ian Hendry is revelling in the lead role(s) and does well throughout (especially as the psychotic Terry), a key mistake is made by making the portrayal of the two brothers clearly identifiably different so there’s never any tension about which one you’re dealing with an any given time. This is particularly disappointing at the denouement which is both straightforward and also very clear: you can’t help but think that the script could have had one or two more twists and a little dose of uncertainty at the end about which brother is finally slain. What seems like a major plot point (a differentiating scar, and an official ID presented to Bob by the police) are curiously unexploited.

As a whole, the episode has more lost opportunities and missteps than is good for it. On the plus side, Donna Mills is stunning and very young; and you have to love the rotary dial remote control!

A Killer In Every Corner

Originally aired: 1 February 1975
Starring: Patrick Magee, Don Henderson, Petra Markham, Eric Flynn, Joanna Pettet, Max Wall, Peter Settelen

Three psychology students go to the home of an eminent professor, and find a very odd collection of staff and a sinister purpose behind the invitation.

While as much of an artificial, staged set-up as the next story (more of which in a minute), this is far more successful – not least because it at least has some normal characters as points of identification. How do we know they are normal? Why, because they arrive via British Rail, of course!

What follows is a delightfully over-ripe piece of ‘modern gothic’ – that is, something that is set in a totally modern (well, 70s) suburban setting and yet by rights should be in a creepy old mansion house in the middle of nowhere, in black and white in the 1930s with the wind and rain crashing around. In other words, it feels most like The Old Dark House, with Don Henderson’s barking butler Boz seemingly channelling Karloff’s insane counterpart in that film, and Patrick Macgee’s Professor Carnaby very much the sort of part that should always be offered first to Charles Laughton.

Everything is wonderfully overcooked, right from the attention-grabbing scene in which Boz goes all weird and tries slicing open his master’s head with a meat cleaver. Both of them, together with veteran comedian Max Wall playing straight and chilling as timid secretary-with-a-secret George, are so far over the top that there’s no chance of subtlety here, but the three victims are all played rather well and naturally. And of course then there’s Eric Flynn as journalist Michael Slattery, so clearly normal and hero-in-waiting that surely there must be something wrong.

It’s not hard to see the twist – in fact it’s so obvious that the danger to the viewer is in massively overthinking it and coming up with far more devious outcomes. It’s a shame that the story wasn’t given an extra wind or two just to make it even more deliciously enjoyable.

Where The Action Is

Originally aired: 8 February 1975
Starring: Edd Byrnes, Ingrid Pitt, Trevor Baxter, James Berwick, George Innes

A gambler wakes up with a headache and find himself in the position of having to bet his own life on his card skills.

For the first time in the 11 (of 43) Thriller episodes I’ve seen thus far, this episode failed to work for me in a big way. A wholly implausible premise and unbelievable, unlikeable cast of characters played in an over-the-top, stilted fashion, the whole thing is so completely artificial that it’s impossible to engage. True, the previous story was hardly any less staged, but at least there were some identifiable normal characters.

Here, though, all you get is Edd Byrnes playing a bland American version of James Bond at the card table, James Berwick’s preposterous cheating, psychopathic millionaire, and Ingrid Pitt vamping it up as his morally ambivalent femme fatale – the first among equals in an absurdly betting-obsessed household.

The script tries to make almost every single scene and plot beat about some aspect of betting. It’s like an overwrought public information film about the dangers of gambling addiction, and the overall effect is of a really bad 70s paperback pulp thriller. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m not all that interested in gambling, but this one put me offside very early on and I was never inclined to jump back on board.

Right from the starting ‘teaser’ you can see where this one is headed, and so five minutes into the show proper you have everything you need and can basically fast forward to the end and bypass the war of nerves played out at interminable length. When you do get to the heavily signposted climax, the long-awaited ‘twist’ is so thuddingly dull (not to mention unworkable) that the whole thing feels like a serious waste of time.

If It’s A Man; Hang Up

Originally aired: 12 April 1975
Starring: Tom Conti, Gerald Harper, Carol Lynley, Michael Byrne, Sue Holderness, John Cater, Paul Angelis, David Gwillim

A young American model is the victim of an escalating set of sinister telephone calls. Who is behind them, and what is their aim?

A well-executed story with a plot that perfectly fits the running time and has wonderfully atmospheric direction (Sapphire & Steel’s Shaun O’Riordan again) and by the end will leave you wincing at the archetypal trilling sound of a 70s phone. Even if it’s very much a theatrical single-set stage play at heart, this story makes excellent use of its opportunities. It certainly grips and keeps you in its clutches as it twists and turns to a very satisfying conclusion.

It does rather over-egg the paranoia, to the degree that literally everyone who appears in the story has at least one moment during it where they appear to be the murderous stalker of American (inevitably) model Carol Lynley (of Poseidon Adventure fame, and rather good here.) Consequently when I say that “I did suspect the right man” it’s only because at some point I suspected literally everyone in the show – from Gerald Harper and his electronic gadgets (a seemingly important plot point that delightfully proves to be entirely a red herring) and his obsessive secretary, to the over-attentive doorman who comments on a dress just before the stalker calls with identical comments.

In the end the question of the stalker comes down to a clear-cut choice between Sicilian Bruno Something-Or-Other and smitten police constable Hal at a remote country cottage with a Bates Motel-style surprise in the pantry. The signs of guilt pointing at the two are so strong at this point that you just know … that there is another twist, and that the one person who you never had any reason to doubt at any time must instead, somehow, be the one.

It’s not a perfect story – Lynley’s character does some terrible genre-cliché stupid things, and also suffers from scene-to-scene amnesia such as being in shock for her dead brother one minute, gaily preparing to go out on a date the next; or fleeing from a man she suspects in her living room before skipping back into the room a couple of moments later without any thought of where the man she was so afraid of just minutes ago has gone. She goes from being scared witless by the calls to forgetting about them completely and even that she called the police; and the approach to stalkers and nuisance heavy breathing calls is very 70s in general.

The Double Kill

Originally aired: 19 April 1975
Starring: Peter Bowles, Gary Collins, James Villiers, John Flanagan, Griffith Davies, Gordon Salkilld, Norman Mitchell, Stuart Wilson

A man comes up with a cunning plan to kill his wealthy wife, but finds himself up against a deceitful unwilling accomplice and a suave police detective.

Clemens heads back to Hitchcock for inspiration, with the first half of this story playing very much like a variation on Dial M For Murder as a married man seeks a hapless dupe to kill his wealthy wife for him, while he himself has a cast iron alibi at a card game across town. It’s all very nicely set up, and the initial confrontation between the husband (smooth Hollywood star Gary Collins) and his unwilling accomplice (a surprisingly young and excellent Stuart Wilson) is gripping and very well played.

There are also scenes with the police investigators, but where in the later “The Crazy Kill” these scenes seemed oddly superfluous, here they’re vital to being forewarned that not everything is as it seems, as young officer Michael takes exception to the underhand tactics of his Alleyn-esque toff boss (played by the ever-suave Peter Bowles).

Everyone’s playing is excellent here, and the twists do keep on coming very nicely – with the biggest of them all completely catching me off-guard, which is no mean feat! It’s a shame that the production doesn’t manage to do a slightly better job of capturing the tension and growing sense of Collins’ character coming under ever-increasing threat from all sides, which leaves it a little flat in places where it should be utterly gripping throughout; perhaps it’s overlong, but someone like Hitch could easily have made this story sing even with an extra 30 minutes.

The biggest annoyance, though, is the sight of a fingerprint officer dusting a wine glass for a key clue: he’s holding the item in his ungloved fingers. Gil Grissom would be spinning in his TV grave.

Won’t Write Home Mom, I’m Dead

Originally aired: 26 April 1975
Starring: Pamela Franklin, Ian Bannen, Oliver Tobias, Suzanne Neve

A young American girl arrives at a remote countryside artists’ commune to check on a long-lost relation and to meet up with her boyfriend. But she starts getting a very bad feeling …

Of all the episodes of Thriller so far, this is the one most screamingly 70s. It’s not the clothes and the hairstyles (although they are definitely from the period!) so much as it’s the setting of a hippyish drop-out artists’ commune combined with the theme of ESP and the paranormal that really dates this instalment of the anthology series. The ESP angle allows for plenty of strange happenings, with telepathy, messages from the dead, mysterious visions and ghostly whispering voices all major plot points over the hour. Overlaid on this is a more down to earth story of fraud and greed – nice, understandable, everyday motives for murderous behaviour that we can all understand just fine.

From an idea by Brian Clemens but then actually delivered by Dennis Spooner (himself one of the most dependable television writers of the 1960s) this is a well written episode full of interesting themes, and also well directed with genuine unsettling eeriness where you do genuinely fear for young Abby’s life as she arrives in this strange isolated settlement that is clearly hostile to outsiders, a recurring theme during the 1970s in films such as The Wicker Man and even Deliverance stateside.

The story does well to keep us guessing between two possible prime suspects just enough to be off-balance and not be quite sure what’s going on for the first two thirds, although really once you figure out why Al (Oliver Tobias) is behaving in the way that he is, there’s only one way that this is going to end – even if there’s still a bit of a surprise about who else is in it with him to be unravelled at the very end. There’s a nice main set which includes a suitably gloomy cellar and even gloomier catacombs below which allow plenty of stylish darkness to keep things on edge, too.

It’s a good cast, and hard not to be on Abby’s (Pamela Franklin, making her second appearance in the series in a matter of months after “Screamer”) side even if the script does make her prone to some over the top histrionics and mood swings that only happen to 1970s horror movie leads. Tobias – also playing American for this story, and for once the nationality is a relevant plot point rather than just a TV sales angle – is also stand-out, playing just off-key but friendly enough in the earlier scenes to keep you guessing, leaving the role of prime suspect to the much odder and more threatening Ian Bannen forever whittling away at his carvings with a deadly-looking knife.

It’s a shame that in the end the conclusion does slide to the generally obvious and with a poorly executed game of hide and seek running down studio corridors, and that some of the hints and seemingly significant details (the ‘missing’ tree, the prevalence of sculpted busts, the contents of the underground sewer) are ultimately either left hanging as unexplained loose ends or prove to be irrelevant, which rather takes away the effectiveness of some of the preceding hour. But all in all, it’s been great fun and a satisfyingly gripping ride all the same.

The Crazy Kill

Originally aired: 3 May 1975
Starring: Denholm Elliott, Anthony Valentine, Mark Wing-Davey, Dennis Chinnery, David Horovitch, Alan Browning, John Moreno, Robert Lindsay

Two escaped convicts at the heart of a huge police manhunt take refuge in the country home of a heart surgeon and his wife, at the worst possible time.

The script is once again by Spooner from an idea by Clemens, and has a great central concept but somehow doesn’t quite deliver: once again, if only Hitchcock had directed it and there had been time for another few rewrites. As it is, it’s merely ‘above average’ and slightly frustrating for the missed opportunities it represents. Of course it would be hard to really mess up an armed hostage siege – and the episode certainly doesn’t do that – but after a while it settles down into a quirky comedy of manners and the tension ebbs away, then the police abruptly break in and it’s all over when much more could have been made of it.

The real clever idea here is the bookend murder plot, and perhaps it’s just luck that I instantly knew what was going on which meant the episode reveal didn’t pack the punch it likely has for many. Elsewhere the story structure as a whole feels off, with a lot of time spent at the police HQ on inter-office politics and a dose of malaria which is not so much a red herring as it is a complete head scratcher: all this stuff is too prolonged to be merely character development, and ultimately the police officer who features at the end of the story is someone who has hardly been in these scenes in any case.

Still, plaudits to veterans Denholm Elliott and Alan Browning for sterling performances, some good turns from both female leads (hey, one of them’s American – fancy that!) and youngsters David Horovitch, Robert Lindsay and Mark Wing-Davey as fresh-faced coppers. And most of all, huge praise for Anthony Valentine, who is fantastic: pyschotic, charming, brutal, mannered – he turns on a dime and is thoroughly believable throughout. A real show-stealing performance and thoroughly commended without reservation.

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