Thriller (1973-1976): Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin; The Next Voice You See; Murder Motel; Sleepwalker; The Next Victim; Nightmare For A Nightingale; Dial a Deadly Number; Kill Two Birds; A Midsummer Nightmare; Death In Deep Water

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Some spoilers are inevitable, although avoided where possible.

thriller-titleA long time ago (in a galaxy … oh, never mind) I did a few reviews of episodes from the 1970s anthology series Thriller created by Brian Clemens. Over the intervening four years since I last shared any of these reviews with you, I have watched ten more from the DVD boxset and managed to keep notes as I went, so here at long last is the follow-up post that absolutely nobody was clamouring for…

Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin

Series 5, Episode 5
Originally aired: 10 May 1975
Starring: Kim Darby, James Maxwell, Julian Glover, Keith Barron

A young woman replies to a situation vacant advertisement in the paper seeking an applicant with a sense of adventure and no ties. She lands the job, says farewell to her two room mates – and is never heard from again.

A particularly strong episode of the series, with a solid, engrossing plot that’s well paced and features some great characters, excellently played by a top-notch cast. The teaser is brilliant, with a man digging in the garden and a woman told “He’s digging your grave, my dear” – but that’s a very neat piece of misdirection.

Kim Darby stars as Helen (yes, an American – see previous reviews of Thriller episodes for why this should not be a surprise for anyone watching the series) and for once the lead’s nationality is a vital part of the plot, as a visit to the US embassy leads Helen to a face to face encounter with someone who looks vaguely familiar but who clearly isn’t her friend.

Since we’ve seen the mechanics of the swap it’s not exactly deeply puzzling to watch, but instead we get the delightful interplay between the urbane, slightly foreign-sounding Carter (James Maxwell) and the rather more uncouth Gifford (Julian Glover, whose face neither melts nor pulls away to reveal writhing tentacles!) The organisation behind the plot isn’t made overt, but Carter’s accent, mentions of “degenerate” pop music and the sight of Gifford guzzling a bottle with a large label saying ‘vodka’ make it very clear that it’s a Cold War Soviet espionage operation. Meanwhile poor old Helen is left only with the company of her new husband played by a young Keith Barron, who it has to be said is not a nice character.

The first act is terrific and procedes at quite a clip, and is so meticulously put together that it’s extremely compelling. The second act dips (a brief appearance from one of the flatmate’s brother seems a bit of an after thought and rather too like padding) and it’s curious that the highly significant blue silk scarf goes all but unused in the end; but the show pulls itself together for a great climax and an unexpected reveal that I hadn’t seen coming.

Very entertaining and for once a near-perfect length and a proper conclusion that doesn’t feel either signposted or rushed, this is one of the best of the series.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

The Next Voice You See

Series 5, Episode 6
Originally aired: 17 May 1975
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Catherine Schell, Geoffrey Chater, Nigel Havers

Stan, a famous pianist playing at a high society party, recognises the voice of the man that killed his wife and blinded him in a bank robbery ten years previously. But has the killer also recognised him as well?

A simple but outstanding premise summons up a genuine sense of fear and dread as the game of cat and mouse is turned on its head and it’s Stan who finds himself alone, cornered and helpless in a wine cellar as the killer closes in to protect his secret. It’s hard not to feel scared for Stan in his disadvantaged position, and the scenes in the cellar are nicely shot, very atmospheric and tense.

Unfortunately there’s too much before this that’s not handled nearly so well, with a parade of characters who seem to be there simply to make things as difficult as possible in the most unbelievable way possible by being incoherently stupid, rude or thoughtless. Even in the less enlightened 70s, did anyone really think that manhandling a blind man this way and that was acceptable social etiquette, or that muttered comments about it being “terribly brave” for someone without sight to travel overseas wasn’t anything other than patronising twaddle? How is it that Stan can seemingly identify a corpse by touch? And does the writer really think that Stan’s blindness makes his ears so much more sensitive that smashing bottles can inflict physical pain on him when everyone else in the room is just fine? (Oh – and it’s horribly obvious that the wine cellar is full of empty bottles, with not a drop of liquid spilled.)

The ghastly cliched ‘party’ is hardly credible either; you’ve never seen a more bored bunch listening to the star guest’s recital, and of course being set in the 70s it’s a total fashion disaster. Stan himself goes from being a suave and assured international music star to immediately being an anti-social accident-prone wreck, which is at least semi-understandable given his shocking discovery but all the same pretty painful and unsubtle to watch.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the premise sets up a “Who is it?” premise and even does one-line sketches suggesting half a dozen people who suddenly lucked into money ten years previously and are therefore candidates for being the bank robber, but then does nothing more with it until the grand unveiling – and it’s someone we don’t even recognise, having been virtually anonymous and unseen for the entire episode. It’s not even a well known star, which makes it a complete anti-climax: they should just have revealed it from the start rather than built it up if that were going to be the case.

At least Bradford Dillman is a solid, charismatic lead when allowed to behave normally, Geoffrey Chater is personable as Sir Peter, and it’s always nice to see Catherine Schell get a load of screentime even if she is largely dropped out of the final act. There’s a huge number of extras serving as party guests, and I confess I simply couldn’t recognise Nigel Havers in a key role with him being that young!

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Murder Motel

Series 5, Episode 7
Originally aired: 24 May 1975
Starring: Robyn Millan, Allan McClelland, Derek Francis, Edward Judd

A nondescript motel has sets itself up as a contract killing facility for hire.

A quite spectacular misfire, despite starting with a neat little premise. As the title suggests there’s a definite Psycho vibe at first with a stabbing in the shower and blood trickling down the plug hole, but this has nothing to do with the story that follows and is never explained or referenced again. After that a dreafully mispaced and lazy script (hard to believe it’s Brian Clemens, his worst work by some way) ruins any hope of thrills with a leaden second act, the contract killers never missing a chance to foul up and leave obvious evidence, and the heroes always seem on hand to find a matchbook or intecept a vital incriminating phone call even when it makes no sense.

In fact it’s hard to know if the episode is even going for thrills at all, because mostly this plays like a botched attempt at black humour: when the heroine starts falling over one body from a wine celler immediately after stumbling across another in a freezer it plays as a less sophisticated and infinitely less funny version of Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer.

Topping it off is what can only be described as the most bizarre exaggerated performance from American guest star Robyn Millan who looks totally stoned from either booze or pills for the entire time and is utterly laughable and never convincing. There is some consolation arising from Derek Francis as the seemingly avuncular but cold hearted desk clerk and Allan McClelland’s oily turn as a sleazy private investigator, together with a nice twist in who the motel’s actual paying client is, but otherwise this has painfully little to recommend it.

Rating: ★ 1/2

Sleepwalker

Series 6, Episode 1
Originally aired: 10 April 1976
Starring: Darleen Carr, Robert Beatty, Michael Kitchen, John Challis

Kathy is sleepwalking and having nightmares of being a witness to the 19th century murder of an elderly man. She needs to find the truth before she loses her grip on her own sanity…

thriller-boxsetAfter a bit of a bumpy start – the script isn’t subtle about Kathy’s deteriorating mental state and rather lays it on with a trowel with a series of overwrought vignettes in the first act together with some terrible electronic FX to represent ‘dream state’ – the middle section of this story settles down to become a genuinely engrossing and unpredictable story.

You’re just never sure which way it’s going to jump – New Age prediction/telepathy, old school ghost story, Gaslighting or something else entirely? Even Kathy’s father’s interest in the Occult and other phenomena seems significant. You’re never sure exactly who is on the level – is Barnstapple really as nice as he seems? Is Dad as supportive as he appears? Is Esme just an eavesdropping busybody? Is Parsons up to something?

Having got all these plates spinning nicely, the script does rather start to show its hand with the arrival of Michael Kitchen (with the amazing bouffant hair!) but that still doesn’t explain why it tries to wrap everything up in three minutes at the end with everyone suddenly throwing away the careful build-up and blurting everything out in a rushed finale that lacks the punch it had earned.

Oh, and the alternative US version of the titles are particularly dreadful, both laughably put together and also blowing a major plot point in the show.

Rating: ★ ★ 1/2

The Next Victim

Series 6, Episode 2
Originally aired: 17 April 1976
Starring: Carroll Baker, Ronald Lacey, TP McKenna, Max Mason

A serial killer is stalking London, which is semi-deserted because a heatwave is sending everyone to the coast. Wheelchair-bound after a car accident, Sandy Marshall is all alone in her penthouse flat when she buzzes in a delivery man who never shows up at the door – is it the killer?

While not without its flaws (the early killings are curiously without any impact or tension, and the police scenes are laughably unconvincing and once again deliver little to the story other than exposition to the audience – the two detectives never even meet the star) this is a very effective and genuinely gripping instalment with several red herrings and a plot that neatly converges into a nailbiting conclusion in the stairwell. You’re never quite sure which way it’s going to go, and in the end Clemens manages to both have his cake and eat it.

It’s a pity that the early feint with the creepy janitor (Ronald Lacey as scene-stealing as ever) is dropped so early and without fanfare, and more could have been made of another neighbour who drops a couple of hints that he’s not all he seems but then never appears again, but all that just adds to the uncertainty of never quite being sure what is actually happening and what is just noises off. Carroll Baker is terrifically appealing and credible as Sandy, while Max Mason is just on the right side of the line as both boyishly nice and subtly unhinged as the man who comes to her rescue.

Even the US title sequences aren’t too embarrassing this time being both competently produced and a decent expansion of one of the storylines wihout giving away any spoilers.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Nightmare For A Nightingale

Series 6, Episode 3
Originally aired: 24 April 1976
Starring: Susan Flannery, Stuart Damon, Sydney Tafler, Stephen Greif

Renowned opera singer Anna Cartell is haunted by the spirit of her abusive dead husband. Is he really out for revenge from beyond the grave?

Unfortunately this is another one of those disappointing cases where it’s not the acting or directing responsible for a misfire, but Brian Clemens’ own scripting to blame where a promising story is badly injured by a writing mishap that could have been so very easily avoided.

The problem here is the entire first act: a teaser which is slow and overly literal/showing too much while at the same time too disconnected from what follows, followed by one long scene which is deathly dull and in which nothing happens and people just talk at each other. The entire thing could have been achieved just as well by a short 3-4 minute engagement party scene. Act 2 when starts way too abrubtly, but thereafter things pick up considerably and is actually pretty satisfying. Jettisoning all that Act 1 dead weight would have enabled more time and atmopshere for the later parts that do work, and an extra twist or two plus a couple of extra red herrings among the cast (the husband to be? an obsessed fan? a creepy stage manager?) would have been the icing on top to this Hitchcock/Phantom of the Opera blend.

As it is, it’s a great shame because Susan Flannery is good in the lead role, it’s always nice to see Stuart Damon, and Sydney Tafler puts in a good typical 70s impressario into the mix. A shame that Stephen Greif is so criminally underused in just the teaser and that the Italian characters and accents are so embarrassingly crudely drawn, but that’s the 70s for you.

Apart from Flannery this is a mostly English-based cast in a London setting, but in a reversal of the series’ usual situation almost all the characters are either American or Italian and it’s almost the Englishman who is the ‘token’ this time around.

Rating: ★ ★ 1/2

Dial a Deadly Number

Series 6, Episode 4
Originally aired: 1 May 1976
Starring: Gary Collins, Gemma Jones, Beth Morris

A struggling actor gets a wrong number phone call which leads him to impersonate a psychiatrist undertaking the lucrative case of a young woman plagued by nightmares in which she killed a man.

This is the second story in a row where it’s the writing that lets the side down. Everything else – the acting (especially Gemma Jones), the direction (a lovely touch sees Gemma get a halo of deadly wall-mounted knives at a crucial moment), the set design (dark and cob-webbed wine cellars) – is actually very good with hardly a weak link to it.

Unfortunately the story is poorly structured and the eventual outcome is heavily signposted, making this both slow and dull. Basically the situation presents us with a hugely “obvious” killer but then makes a fuss about never showing the killer’s face during the crime, meaning that there’s either a shock twist or else it’s going to be a terribly anti-climactic confirmation. And since there’s only one other conceivable candidate for the whodunnit, that really leaves it completely lacking in any surprise – more red herrings would have made a huge difference.

Another part of the problem is that the underlying plot (of a murdered boyfriend stabbed to death on the stairs) is revealed in full in the pre-credits sequence, leaving no mystery about what’s at heart of it. A more fragmented “recovered memory” approach would have allowed much more freedom for mightmarish visions and seeded far more doubt in the audience’s mind as to what was afoot, but instead it’s all blown in the first five minutes.

Any other mysteries are subverted by an extrordinarily literal and lateral structure: wondering who that opening credit victim is? Why, here’s a woman reporting her brother missing after having a relationship with a Miss Cook. It’s a shame we don’t see more of this woman – she’s a bit part player right to the end when suddenly she’s promoted to a major character and would have been a better focus for the piece than the odd American con-artist anti-hero we actually get, well played though he is by Gary Collins.

The final ten minutes comes to life and is very effective, but by then the damage has been done. It seems clear that Clemens’ energy for the project is fast evaporating and sadly the end is near for Thriller on this evidence.

Rating: ★ ★ 1/2

Kill Two Birds

Series 6, Episode 5
Originally aired: 8 May 1976
Starring: Dudley Sutton, David Daker, Bob Hoskins, Christopher Ellison, Steven Yardley, Susan Hampshire, Gabrielle Drake

When two young American tourists suffer a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere, they get caught up on a deadly cat and mouse dispute over the loot from a ten-year-old bank robbery

Usually, Thriller takes a particular, singular premise and then works it through to its chilling conclusion but “Kill Two Birds” is different. Instead of a single focus, this story sets up and follows multiple threads: Charlie Draper, fresh out of prison; a gang of thugs led by psycho Gadder hot in pursuit who in turn are pursued by two Scotland Yard detectives who are helped by two local Dorset constables.; a suspcious vagrant and an alcoholic doctor; a husband and wife owners of a local petrol station/cafe; and finally two American tourists.

Each goes about their own story and only gradually do they start to coalesce into the same place and the various threads fully intertwine but it’s been a long road to get to this point, and even once it finally arives at a hostage situation it seems like the episode isn’t sure that’s the story it ever wanted to tell in the first place and there’s a certain lack of energy and tension even in these scenes.

There’s a vague ironic twist at the end which is neither convincing nor terribly interesting, and the same could be said about the episode as a whole. That said, it’s a perfectly solid hour’s entertainment and it’s got a great cast: a young (ish) Dudley Sutton is terrific as Gadder and there’s also David Daker, Bob Hoskins, Christopher Ellison and Steven Yardley. And the two American girls are played by primest English actresses you could ever imagine, Susan Hampshire and Gabrielle Drake, and their accents frankly struggle to make it convincingly even to the midway point of the Atlantic.

Disappointingly they have almost nothing to do with the outcome, and indeed it’s hard to tell whose story this has all been even when the final end credits roll making the whole thing dramatically underwhelming for all its efforts.

Rating: ★ ★ 1/2

A Midsummer Nightmare

Series 6, Episode 6
Originally aired: 15 May 1976
Starring: Joanna Pettet, Brian Blessed, Freddie Jones, Tony Anholt, Norman Rodway

Jody Baxter blags her way into investigating a five-year-old murder case in the countryside where her persistence and women’s take on the case starts to bear fruit. And the killer knows it…

As a thriller, this one is a bit of a damp squib – save for some pre-teaser stalking it’s rather low on the thrills and suspense. What it is instead is a straightforward private investigator mystery story with the twist that the investigator Jody is not actually a PI at all but the frustrated wife whose husband won’t take her idea of working for him seriously – then again, nor will anyone else given the predictable 70s sexism on display. By a quirk of fate she gets mixed up in an old murder case, and inexperienced as she is her determined nature and female intuition proves very effective in opening up new avenues of investigation and ultimately revealing just who killed 17-year-old Annabella in the woods five years ago.

Joanna Pettet is believable and appealing in the lead role and the cast boasts the likes of Freddie Jones, Norman Rodway, Brian Blessed and Tony Anholt. While it might not work as a thriller there’s plenty of interesting psychological dark undercurrents and the characters are all more than usually interesting studies who feel genuinely real rather than just popping in to prop up one part of the plot. Unless you know your Shakespeare and can map your knowledge of A Midsummer Night’s Dream onto this story (in which case it’s apparently really easy) the script doesn’t really play fair on the whodunnit front as there are so many red herrings on display and key clues held back that all you can do is whittle it down to 2 or 3 candidates, but that doesn’t unduly harm the enjoyment.

If it were a bit pacier (for modern eyes) then this would be a nice backdoor pilot for a new female-led crime mystery show and everyone would be quite happy with it; it’s just a shame it sits slightly oddly here and doesn’t quite deliver fully in the normal Thriller format.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Death In Deep Water

Series 6, Episode 7
Originally aired: 22 May 1976
Starring: Bradford Dillman, Suzan Farmer, Ian Bannen

Ex-Mafia hitman Gary Stevens is in hiding from his former employers who now want him dead in turn. Is the beautiful blonde who turns up at his doorstep one stormy day a friend or a foe?

Quite engaging and well-crafted, although much like the previous story it feels like it’s wandered in from a different genre than usual. Here the feeling is very much the sort of one-act, one-set stage play like “Deathtrap”.

Initially, Gary is fearful and paranoid but is then caught off guard by the arrival of a beautiful blonde woman during a storm. He falls in love with her and then the whole thing turns a little Double Indemnity as it’s clear that she’s the one now pulling the strings while he’s starting to unravel.

Dillman is a good lead for the most part bringing a natural warmth to the part, although it starts to get away from him once he truly starts to come apart at the seams. Suzan Farmer is especially good as the blonde who goes through many personalities before settling on femme fatale with an eye to securing her aged husband’s fortunes.

Everyone else (even the redoubtable Ian Bannen) is really a bit part player in this and the interest mainly lies in what the blonde is actually after and whether she will get away with it – and what the cost will be for Gary who has quite forgotten that he’s supposed to be on the run and in fear for his life.

It’s all quite satisfying and comes to a well planned denouement, but it lags at points when it feels the need to allow time for Gary to believably drop his guard and fall in love and these sequences really needed to be pacier than they ended up being. Still, a decent finale to the series.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Previous Thriller reviews:

All 43 episodes of the six seasons of Thriller are available as a DVD boxset by Network Distributing.

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