Thursday, October 06, 2011

Pre-Jackson Thriller

I spend a good amount of time watch old media. I find it entertaining and enlightening. Entertaining, because storytelling techniques have evolved, and while a situation may resolve in a certain fashion in a modern drama, there's no guarantee that it will turn out the same way in an older show -- different times, different mores.

I've been watching "Thriller," an anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff from 1960-1962 on NBC. A different time, indeed -- anthologies are no longer considered a viable TV genre. Although the series sort of trades on Karloff's reputation as a master of horror (he originate the screen role of Frankenstein's monster), these aren't really horror stories.

But they are indeed thrillers, stories that feature suspense, action, and tension.

When the series premiered, Time said it was an "hour-long bloodmobile." A contemporary viewer might be puzzled by that review. While modern audiences are used to realistic depictions of violent death and bodily trauma, it was far different in the early 1960's. There was a lot of murder and mayhem depicted, but it was all very sanitized (kids might be watching, you know).

"Thriller" may have had more "blood" than other programs, but it was still constrained by the values of the day. When someone got shot, they fell down. There was no indication of the damage the bullet did to the body. But because the program couldn't shock its audiences with graphic violence, it had to do it by other means.

And that's probably what made the Time reviewer so uncomfortable -- and me as well. Because "Thriller's" stories are indeed suspenseful. The central character is thrown into a situation where they don't know what's going on, but need to find out quickly or someone (usually themselves) will die. And because each story was self-contained (unlike drama series today), there was no guarantee the hero would survive. Or any of the supporting characters.

The stories took many twists and turns, often with a strong psychological element. And because most of the gory stuff happened off-screen, the viewer's imagination had to fill in the details (which often makes it more disturbing).

For me, "Thriller" is like watching a well-produced short play. The stories have a different slant than modern TV shows, told in a different way and often resolve in a different way, too. And for the reasons outlined above, they're more engaging, too.

So I'm enjoying this old TV show. For me, it's solid entertainment.

Here's an opening to one of the shows. The violence can't be shown onscreen, so look what they do instead. We meet all the entire cast of characters in a series of quick cuts reacting to the shot, and close in on the most disturbing image of the child with the gun. Who wouldn't want to watch more?

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