Thriller (1973-1976): Possession, Someone at the Top of the Stairs, An Echo of Theresa, The Colour of Blood

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thriller-titleEvery now and again I post a new batch of thoughts on the 1970s suspense anthology series Thriller created by one of the great writers of British television, Brian Clemens. It’s been a while since the last one in 2015 and I only have four more episodes under my belt to write about. However, I figure it’s better to post them now rather than continue to wait until I’ve had a chance to watch some more to feel that I have ‘enough’ to collect together!

So here goes with the latest set of reviews. And don’t forget, you can still catch up with all the previous posts here on Taking the Short View:

The latest batch of episodes covered below all come the first series/season. If you’re looking for the very first episode then that was “Lady Killer”, which was reviewed in the original post I did on Thriller (a shocking seven years ago now). After that I inexplicably jumped right into season 4: I can’t remember the exact reason for doing that now, other than really wanting to see Diana Dors and Patrick Troughton in “Nurse Will Make It Better”. Come to think of it, that’s surely reason enough.

Having progressed from there right through to the end of season 6, with the last-ever episode “Death in Deep Water” covered in the previous batch of Thriller reviews, it’s now time to go back to the almost-beginning for the first time…

Possession

Series 1, Episode 2
Originally aired: 21 April 1973
Written by: Brian Clemens, Directed by: John Cooper
Starring: John Carson, Joanna Dunham, Hilary Hardiman

Synopsis
A happily married couple move into their dream home in the country, but a discovery in the cellar leads Penny to fear that the house is haunted – or worse, that her husband Ray might be possessed by evil spirits.

Comments (includes some spoilers)
This throws about every haunted house/poltergeist trope into the mix and hopes it makes for something appetising. But in fact, it’s too much of a mishmash to fully succeed.

After a ‘what a lovely dream home’ start, the heroine too quickly descends into hysteria at the slightest touch of anything odd happening, while the understanding paternalistic husband understandably rolls his eyes and humours her – although at least it turns out in the end that he has good reason to.

Gradually though it’s his behaviour that starts to alarm us as he seems to take on more and more of the traits of a murderer who lived in the house 20 years before, leading us to suspect that he’s being gradually possessed. But this is established far too quickly and after that the story doesn’t really have anywhere it can go until the final act twist, so the middle sags somewhat before a satisfying finale.

The best character by far is the highly competent medium Cecily Rafting (Hillary Hardiman), and her final face-off with the killer is a definite highlight of the episode. The climax comes up with a proper twist (although it’s one you’ll probably see coming from a distance) which pulls the rug out from under the ghostly goings-on rather neatly.

With a better director and a more atmospheric approach (rather than brightly lit studio-bound video technology) this could have been a lot stronger than it turned out. But it’s by no means bad, and is fairly gripping as it is.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Someone at the Top of the Stairs

Series 1, Episode 3
Originally aired: 28 April 1973
Written by: Brian Clemens Directed by: John Sichel
Starring: Donna Mills, David de Keyser, Judy Carne, Althea Charleton

Synopsis
College students Chrissie and Judy rent a room in an old mansion, but start to think that something is very wrong in the house and with their neighbours. But are they just being paranoid?

Comments (includes some spoilers)
A quite brilliantly bonkers instalment that goes wildly over the top, making it possibly my favourite episode of the series that I’ve watched to date.

The early part of the story plays on that unease and paranoia that we all feel when we move into some shared accommodation or communal building where we don’t know anyone and fear that we’re being watched by prying eyes. In this case, that really is happening to Chrissie (Donna Mills) and Gillian (Judy Carne), two friends who take a room at the boarding house run by the eccentric, elderly Mrs Ohxey (played by Althea Charleton).

As seems to be the trend in these 70s-made stories, the lead female character is required to go from nought to sixty on the hysteria scale far too sharply. But what’s nice here is how Donnie Mills’ character then gets a grip and steels herself, becoming an admirably self-actualising female lead which contrasts rather nicely with the feeble drippy male support on offer.

What really makes this episode such a delight it the way that it goes on from this unsettling start to let rip with a whole M&S selection basket of horror goodies. It hints at vampires, demons, a Rosemary’s Baby-style occult conspiracy, a Damien-esque devil child, full-on supernatural possession or even a serial killer hiding in the attic. It’s clearly having so much fun that it simply can’t decide between them, and so plays with them all and more as Clemens goes fully Hammer House.

It’s great that the story doesn’t hold back or labour over a way to find a rational ending to explain everything away. Only in the extended final moments of dialogue between Chrissie and the little-seen Mr C do things sag a little, which allows the absurdity of it all to leak through. The plot doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny in hindsight after the final reveal, making it feel a little camp and daffy just when the episode was within sight of the finish post. But what the heck, not too much harm is done and we’ve had so much fun getting there that we begrudge nothing.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

An Echo of Theresa

Series 1, Episode 4
Originally aired: 5 May 1973
Written by: Brian Clemens Directed by: Peter Jefferies
Starring: Polly Bergen, Paul Burke, Dinsdale Landen, Vernon Dobtcheff

Synopsis
An American businessman visiting London with his wife starts to suffer an overwhelming sense of deja vu for places he’s never been. And who is the mysterious Theresa he keeps referring to?

Comments (includes some spoilers)
This is one of those episodes that is so keen to get up and running it rather fumbles the ball in the first act, in which too many odd and puzzling things happen – but none of them as gripping or thrilling as they need to be to fully maintain our interest.

It’s certainly a shame that Brad (Paul Burke) can’t even get through one scene at the start of this episode before he starts acting oddly, zoning out or suffering from weirdly powerful deja vu almost before he’s finished his morning coffee. It means we have no idea what the character is supposed to be like normally, and therefore it’s hard to relate to.

Our sympathies are with his his wife Suzy (Polly Bergen), who is understandably upset with her husband’s continued references to the mysterious Theresa, whom she assumes is Brad’s mistress. Small wonder she engages the unfortunately named private detective Matthew Earp, played by Dinsdale Landen who is best known in the UK as a comedy star but who is actually rather good in this eccentric part, as Earp proves himself an unexpectedly talented investigator after all.

As for the central mystery, mention of Brad’s service in Korea immediately put the viewer in mind of 60s thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate, but even if you get that far then it seems hard to relate Brad’s possible brainwashing-inspired hallucinations with the fact that other people in London really do actually seem to know him, and who react to to his weird outbursts as if they were established espionage code phrases.

The solution to this takes a medium-sized pinch of salt and requires a higher level of coincidence than its perhaps good for it. I’m not sure that the solution really hangs together or explains everything we’ve seen, but it does do just enough to to leave us more or less satisfied by the time the credits role. Perhaps the best part of the whole thing is in the wonderful playing of the oddball group of characters led by Bannerheim (played by Vernon Dobtcheff) who may or may not be sleeper spies – or simply an innocent group of pensioners.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

The Colour of Blood

Series 1, Episode 5
Originally aired: 12 May 1973
Written by: Brian Clemens Directed by: Robert Tronson
Starring: Norman Eshley, Katherine Schofield, Derek Smith

Synopsis
A serial killer escapes from custody and is mistaken for a client by a solicitor’s assistant who is waiting at Waterloo Station to take him to a newly-inherited property in the countryside.

Comments (includes some spoilers)
Some of the stories in this series suffer by being overcooked or too rushed and prone to over the top hysterical reactions from their female stars. That’s not the case in this tale, however, which is one of the more slow-burn entries in the Thriller canon.

It has to be said, the basic set up is a bit ridiculous, with Julie (Katherine Schofield) just happening to be waiting at the railway station for a client whom she’s meant to recognise only by his buttonhole carnation. Sure enough, along comes newly-escaped serial killer Arthur Page (Norman Eshley, today best remembered for his role as an unctuous neighbour in 70s sitcoms Man About The House and George and Mildred but who is actually rather effective here in a more serious and intense role) whose trademark signature is – you guessed it – the buttonhole carnations he wears and invariably leaves on his victims’ bodies.

The script gets extra marks for meeting the far-fetched premise head-on, with the police team who are conducting a man-hunt for Page in London quickly dismissing the possibility that it has anything to do with the report of Julie having gone missing when the real client reports that she’s failed to show up for their planned meeting at Waterloo. That she’s also supposed to be handing over a large cash bequest at the same time makes it seem more likely that she’s simply absconded, Psycho style, with the money. Meanwhile we follow Page and Julie on their long, tense and awkward train journey and wonder just when he will strike…

To be honest this burns a little too slowly for its own good for a lengthy stretch of the running time. But gradually we come to realise that there is another story running underneath the obvious one, and while it’s not all that hard to see coming, it’s nonetheless quite a delight when the twist is sprung in the final act and we get a climax that is both a surprise and very darkly satisfying.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

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

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