Monday, October 11, 2010

Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36

Originally aired 6/6/61
Starring Brandon De Wilde, Crahan Denton, David Whorf.
Written by John Kneubuhl, based on the story by Robert E. Howard.
Directed by John Newland.

Two brothers (De Wilde & Whorf) are stranded in a swamp and luck upon the old Blassenville plantation, now long decayed and empty. The boys camp out inside the creepy old mansion, but soon discover that the house isn't as empty as they thought.

PE: So we finally get to use all the notes we made for "Pigeons" when we were scheduled to do the commentary before we were shoved aside by Gerani at the last minute. I'm still kinda pissed. "The Fatal Impulse" was a better episode anyway.

JS: You realize that everyone is waiting to see if we fall in with the 'this is the greatest episode, bar none' group, or take this opportunity to take it down a notch.

PE: Well, we're treated to that patented Thriller atmosphere right off the bat in a nice shot, tracking Whorf through the swamp until he stumbles on the mansion (looking like something out of an apocalyptic epic) and the titular beasts. We get the fabulously creepy interior of the Blassenville house and some eerie camerawork, quietly closing doors (as opposed to the loud creaking kind), and bloody headed zuvembies with hatchets.

JS: And you didn't even mention either of the bits that made my wife jump. First, when Jacob (Ken Renard) picks up the snake—oops, I mean when the snake leaps out of the fireplace to bite him. Second, when Sheriff Buckner (Denton) is in the house and leans back in the chair to go to sleep, she thought the shadow on the wall behind him was another snake! So Newland was definitely doing something right.

PE: For all that, I think "Pigeons" is a slightly above average episode, certainly not the most terrifying television show of all time and certainly not the creepiest Thriller. Its acting is its downer. The two male leads (De Wilde and Denton) annoyed the hell out of me. De Wilde reminded me of a 1960s version of Christian Slater, whiny and blank-faced while Denton (as the laid-back sheriff you'd expect in a swamp) gives to changing his mind every other scene ("Let's go upstairs" "I'm not going in that room" "Let's go upstairs and see what's in the room") and subscribes to the "shout the lines so they'll hear you in the back" school of method acting. Man, am I in trouble. I can just see the Thriller boys dropping their "Ten Karloffs or Die" picket signs in Griffith Park and plastering billboards in Phoenix with "Brandon's Our Boy/Denton's a Joy!"

JS: Pete - don't encourage them. I didn't think Denton was so bad, but that could be due to the fact that I thought DeWilde and Whorf were both awful in this. Obviously the love surrounding this episode is for its horrific elements, and not the performances. But those negatives cannot be overlooked in an honest appraisal of it.

PE: Contrary to popular belief, Stephen King never said that "Pigeons" was the scariest show of all time (he didn't even say it was the second nor did he even opine his feelings about the show). He's been misquoted so many times it's become legend. Here's what he writes about some of the highlights of Thriller:
Robert E. Howard's "Pigeons from Hell," one of the finest horror stories of our century, was adapted, and remains the favorite of many who remember Thriller with fondness.
(Danse Macabre, pg. 219)
King goes on to say in a footnote:
And some say it was the single most frightening story ever done on TV. I would disagree with that... Robert Bloch's adaptation of his own story "I Kiss Your Shadow" (from the short-lived TV show, Bus Stop -PE) has never been beaten on TV - and rarely anywhere else - for eerie, mounting horror.
(Ibid)
JS: Nice of you to clarify that King didn't say it was the greatest. But even if he had, I would respectfully disagree. I enjoy a hatchet murder as much as the next guy (heck, perhaps moreso), and I still feel comfortable saying this is not one of the better Thriller episodes, let alone the best. And perhaps while cutting edge when released (sorry, I couldn't resist), that doesn't make it a better episode then than it is today. Now allow me to settle in to my easy chair to be schooled as to why "Pigeons From Hell" is the greatest episode ever.

PE: "Pigeons from Hell," one of Robert E. Howard's most celebrated horror stories first appeared in Weird Tales, May 1938 and was reprinted in the Pyramid paperback Weird Tales collection published in 1964. It's also been reprinted in several of Howard's short story collections. Though Howard is remembered as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, he was equally as popular in the 1930s pulps for his horror stories.

JS: As noted several weeks back, I've not been focusing on the audio/video quality unless anything stood apart from the pack. We watched this one on the 100" big screen, and the first thing I noticed during the pre-credits sequence was that it appeared as if it were transferred through cheese cloth. I haven't been watching most episodes at this size, but even when pulling the screen caps, this was the first episode where the transfer itself left me wanting.

THE COMMENTARY
PE: I've become very fond of Gary Gerani's voice, so much so that I've been bugging him for his unlisted number (I'll get it, Gary, don't you worry!). His track on "Pigeons" is full of great trivia and author notes. I find that Gerani points out the most obvious things that somehow I missed but, most of all, he never commits the cardinal sin of some commentators: a dry, boring lecture. And good call drawing parallels between "Pigeons from Hell" and John Landis' An American Werewolf in London.

OUR RATING:

71 comments:

  1. Wow -- a higher rating for "Prisoner in the Mirror" et al. than "Pigeons." The fit is going to hit the shan! ... but I agree with ya. The poop-out ending is the icing on the "I thought this was supposed to be so great!" cake. And thanks for debunking the Stephen King thing. I "love" the number of set-in-store, written-1000-times "facts" about the old horror movies and TV shows ..... that turn out to be wrong the first time anybody with 90 seconds to spare looks at them more closely.

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  2. Perhaps it's because I've always been a journey's-more-important-than-destination guy (what's creepier; a seemingly unfathomable mystery, or the usually mundane solution?) but for me there is no place more dangerous in all of THRILLER than this. All those other THRILLER mansions pale, with their relatively safe "haunted house" atmosphere. You can feel the fetid rot here, the powerful suggestion of something truly nasty lurking, in somewhere we just ain't supposed to go. As much as I like, say, something like "Prisoner in the Mirror", it takes place in a relatively predictable universe--it keeps its distance. This house and swamp do not. "Pigeons", thanks in large part to Newland, plucks at my imagination like no other episode.

    Acting, shmacting--honestly, I've never noticed (though I enjoy Denton's work, particularly in the horrific HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL "Sweet Lady of the Moon"). Maybe I come to THRILLER for something very specific. This delivers the goods for me, with dread that continues to resonate, long after the "explanation".

    PS: I think "I Kiss Your Shadow" is pretty good, not great.

    PPS: Haven't heard Gary's commentary yet, but looking forward to it.

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  3. Part 1-

    I watched it..on June 6, 1961 and was scared witless. I watched it on October 10, 2010, and was absolutely mesmerized by what is undoubtedly one (if not THE) most horrific things ever created for the small screen---50 YEARS AGO when such things simply WERE NOT DONE on TV!

    When I acquired a 16 mil. print in 1983, I showed it to my wife (who is definitely not a horror-genre fan; she sat through Alien ('79) at the theater, after which she said "I don;t see what's so scary about that"). We watched "Pigeons" on an old projector in our darkened apartment, and when she saw the 2nd-floor door silently close when the brothers first enter the house, she was visibly unnerved, and within another 10 minutes she asked that I stop the film so that she could calm herself down; the experience was that powerful. Any other excellent "Thriller" that I show her always elicits the same repsonse: "Good...but it's no Pigeons!"

    Still, it takes all kinds to make the world go 'round; I've shown it to other people who feel it doesn't live up to its reputation.

    I don't know where to begin in my praise for this show, so why blather on?--- it speaks for itself. Yes, I see its few flaws, but they pale in compariosn to the stunning overall achievement. I am by NO MEANS knowledgeable (nor overly enthusiatsic) about horror genre as a whole, but I know an incredibly good piece of work when I see it.

    Ummm...well, maybe I WILL blather on a bit.
    Brandon DeWilde's performance begins to rise above mediocrity as Act 1 gets going. Crahan Denton is solid as a rock--here's a common rube, who's tough and duty-bound--who knows that he's got to 1.) shake, rattle, or slap the truth out of Tim---thus his aggressive questioning to decide for himself where the truth lies, and 2.) try, through repeated trips up that Stairway to Hell, to get a handle on the nature of the crime so that he can defend young Tim when he hauls him into town. Excellent, first-rate performance by Denton--an actor totally in command of his craft.

    The cinematography, lighting and set design...all of which set a new standard for visual horror in its day...need no comment from me; again, they speak for themselves.

    There are those who feel that the middle portion of "Pigeons" is slow; not for me--not AT ALL! As Gary Gerani points out, the episode
    follows a continuous narrative, in a compressed real-time fashion. Whenever DeWilde and Denton are sitting by the fireplace discussing their situation, I feel that, as a viewer, I am caught with them in their nightmare world--silently crying out "Don't go back up there; For God's sake, STAY downstairs where you are (relatively) safe; TALK some more--kill some more time!" Seriously--it's that powerful an experience for me--every time I watch it.

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  4. I don't know what Universal movie it was built for, but "Pigeons"'s interior set sure got a lot of use. Watch Abbott and Costello clown around in it (and Costello take pratfalls) in A&C MEET JEKYLL & HYDE.

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  5. Part 2-

    The Act 3 Jacob Blount scene adds another amazingly bizarre element to this most daring show. Here's the big scene that answers most of the gnawing questions---the Sheriff AND the viewers hanging on every word---and the Thriller guys go way out on ANOTHER limb and entrust the crucial dialogue to a heavily-accented old dude from Barbados; it's absolutely brilliant in its execution and faithfulness to the setting and plot, and Ken Renard's performance is simply beyond exceptional, as is the haunting, surreal look and feel of this entire scene (though Denton could have given that nasty snake a more convincing whack). Remarakbly effective make-up and fire-place illumination on Renard.

    The climatic scene is awesome in staging and visual style, and the shots of the three Blassenville skeletons are truly, astoundingly creepy...each of the 3 close-ups a work of art in itself, with cracked skulls, cobwebs, decaying lacy dresses, ornate headresses, strings of jewelry, etc; who the hell designed THOSE shots!!?

    Morton Stevens reaches the pinnacle of his Thriller work here; as Gary G points out, THIS is the quintessential "Thriller" sound; as each and every musical cue began, I said to myself "that's it! that's absolutely the exact moment for the music to enter, and exactly the right sound!' And it's all accomplished with a string orchestra and a single percussionist, (playing tympani, vibraphone, marimba and suspended cymbal). And of course, the alluring, wailing zuvembie voice. Stevens manages to capture an OLD, 19th-Century, decrepit, incredibly SAD sound as the brothers stare as if hypnotized at the mouldering portrait of Miss Elizabeth, an effect that is as unsettling and creepy as anything in this great show. I would suggest that Stevens' "Pigeons" score tops them all in the series....were it not for the very next entry. But is is fabulous.

    TEN KARLOFFS....and THEN SOME!

    LR

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  6. Excellent review: I haven't watched even the barest fraction of Thriller, but I did enjoy "Pigeons from Hell" immensely as a Robert E. Howard fan. It's immensely frustrating that, with all Howard's fantastic horror stories, only one has been adapted.

    "Pigeons from Hell" is the best Robert E. Howard adaptation to film or television. Scratch that, "Pigeons from Hell" is the only Howard adaptation to film or television. Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conquerer, Solomon Kane et al are all original stories onstensibly "inspired" by Howard. "Pigeons from Hell" shows you can take a Howard story and adapt it with minimum alteration to make a damn good show.

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  7. "Pigeons from Hell" was widely regarded as the most significant episode of THRILLER even before Stephen King blessed it with his comments (more about what King said and didn't say later on). Ron Borst was one of the first movie historians to compare the show's ingeniously-staged climax to Mother's dramatic appearance in PSYCHO; since then, new generations of horror critics and filmmakers have voiced similar opinions. Those who ask "what's all the fuss about?" must first contend with the undeniable fact that there IS a fuss, one that's impossible to ignore without feeling a bit pompous. When fans, pros, critics, fiction writers and artistic filmmakers all pretty much feel the same way about a piece of creative work, one cannot deny that SOMETHING about this work seems to have transcended conventional reaction and categorization.

    To those of us who "get it," it's pretty obvious why "Pigeons" enjoys its legendary status. This little film is simply in a class by itself, far more challenging, sophisticated and subtle than any of the other THRILLERs, even the great ones, which rely on more-or-less conventional plot structuring and devices to engage their audience. "Pigeons" is unique. It's a feverdream more than a story, replicating the anxious, uncertain feelings we all experience when sleep enables our generally contained personal demons and abstract fears to run rampant. This notion is actually dramatized throughout the story, with characters falling asleep, only to "awaken" in a reality that approximates nightmare state (de Wilde bolts into consciousness to find himself inexplicably alone, his steadfast guardian angel sheriff somehow swallowed up by the darkness. I've sure every professional psychiatrist tuning in applauded the moment).

    Director Newland clearly understood the strong psychological power of "Pigeons," and tapped into these creative riches again with "I Kiss Your Shadow." Which brings us to Stephen King's comments, and where his sensibilities truly are in this regard. If memory serves, he gives high marks to THRILLER in general, then zeros in on "Pigeons" as a classic short story and a cherished episode to many, who consider it perhaps the scariest hour ever produced for network television. He then opines that "Shadow" ultimately edges out "Pigeons" as the most frightening show, in his estimation. Fair enough. Both b/w early '60s dramas were helmed by the same director, captured dream-state anxiety magnificently, even made use of the identical "pigeon cooing" sound to subtly unhinge viewers (no actual pigeons in evidence for "Shadow," but Newland knew a brilliantly disturbing sound effect when he heard one). Judging from all this, one can easily conclude that "PFH" fits neatly into King's theories of what makes a scary tale of this type effective, even without specifically saying it's Number Two or Number Three or Number Whatever. To draw a different conclusion ("He didn't actually call "Pigeons" one of his favorites -- gotcha!") is to capriciously ignore SK's very sound observations about the genre that automatically elevate "PFH" to its highest ranks.

    Bottom line: four Karloff heads out of four, ten out of ten. Anything less misses the point, in my opinion.

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  8. Gary---

    I couldn't have said it better myself---which explains why I didn't.

    larry

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  9. Though I can't say this is a great episode, I still think it is very effective and well done. I give it 10 out of 10 Karloffs, probably thanks to the talent of John Newland. The last several shows have been superb and gone are the days when we griped about the mediocre crime plots. These horror shows are the reason that THRILLER is remembered today and why we are discussing this dvd box set. Thanks Peter and John for giving us the forum to complain and bitch.

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  10. >>The last several shows have been superb and gone are the days when we griped about the mediocre crime plots.

    I'd certainly agree with that. It seems like months ago that we watched a dog (well, other than the Thriller attack dogs, that is!).

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  11. Thanks so much, Peter, for your kind response to my audio commentary. Hope the points I made earlier today didn't come across as shrill, but that two-Karloff rating for "Pigeons" pretty much guaranteed that 'the fit was going to hit the shan,' as Tom Weaver colorfully predicted. And yep, THRILLER really was on a roll at this point, with "The Grim Reaper" coming up next. Incidentally, my voice is available for your ear any time you need it, pal.

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  12. Gary-
    No offense taken. As John and I have said from the beginning, we welcome the diverse opinions. We know we are right and the rest of you are wrong (well, obviously Weaver is right in this instance) but we're still the fairest blog in the land and we offer a pedestal for all to espouse from. I've got a feeling we're all going to be pretty much in agreement on the next one. Y'all will probably skip tomorrow's program.

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  13. Peter--

    "...other than Thriller's attack dogs, that is.."

    I assume, of course, that you are referring to Pete the Pup from "Dark Legacy" and that sweet black pooch who saved the day in "Hayfork."

    re: "Pigeons" -- it's too bad that, out of the landmark Image dvd set, "Thriller's" greatest achievement "("Pigeons", that is) has featured the absolute WORST print/transfer thus far.

    LR

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  14. Pigeons, schmigeons. Bring on "The Grim Reaper."

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  15. Schmigeons. Just kidding.

    Watching these THRILLERs, some for the first time, made me think: all those remote, decrepit houses. Some with conveniently-adjacent graveyards. So much extravagant decay and abandonment. All those lovely fog-enshrouded woods. "The nearest neighbors are furlongs away."

    What if those houses were all really on the same block?

    After the turnoff, you get the remote manse from "Dark Legacy," and a little further down the road, "Parasite Mansion," and road starts twisty-turning and you come to the joint from "The Purple Room," and beyond that, Doktor Markesan's place ... and the crumbling Southern Gothic with all the pigeons, well, that's REALLY out where the buses don't run.

    Which is part of the reason for "Pigeons'" appeal, I think — few other, if any, THRILLERs are so removed from the real world. The all-bets-off remoteness helps sell the entire scenario, and in "Pigeons" there is no relief, no back-and-forth to a more civilized environment, no cutaway to something going on elsewhere in a city, no coda in a cozy drawing room. You stuck in the swamp from frame one, you can't backtrack to a trading post, and you can only go in deeper.

    It may be difficult for some to assess "Pigeons" divorced from its vaunted reputation, and on its own values. (I usually find when one single episode is spotlit, away from the pack, as the best-ever, hands-down superior episode of a series ... that rep is usually the result of someone involved with the episode itself, thumping their own tub.) No one episode can globally encompass the "best" of THRILLER, if you will, and it shouldn't. Newcomers would think it represents the entire series, and be disappointed when they viewed other episodes. Veterans would misremember the show as being better than it was, and be disappointed. "Pigeons" can only reside in the top echelon of THRILLER shows, if you will, if it is accompanied by several other episodes to lend it a context and provide breadth-of-view.

    (I come to this highfaluting attitude by virtue of dealing with the same sort of "absolutes" in regard to THE OUTER LIMITS. A handful of shows, yes. A single episode for the desert island, no.)

    For instance, over the years, many people who recalled "Pigeons" claimed that David Whorf did his zombie-walk down the stairs not only bloodied, but with the hatchet STICKING OUT OF HIS HEAD ... which is a triumph of suggestion, seeded (as far as I can tell) only by Brandon De Wilde's DESCRIPTION of what he saw, and fueled by the overactive imaginations of viewers enthralled to the fever-dream. Never mind that Standards & Practices would never have allowed it; an image that never existed has somehow managed to become indelible ... and it blithely overlooks all the OTHER shit the show was getting away with, onscreen. Remember the TV climate: TWILIGHT ZONE did O. Henry snaps, safe and sound; Hitchcock occasionally turned down the lights; sitcoms and westerns were conventionally-framed and brightly-lit ... and THRILLER — when it worked — managed to port overwhelming despair right into the living room.

    Its letdowns (the middle two acts; inadequate leads) are negligible. Far worse has been endured in other episodes for far less payoff.

    Its assets ... ahh! Enough suffocating atmosphere and lowering menace to choke a whole platoon of club Goths. Rock-solid Crahan Denton. A satisfying detour into the otherworldly, where lantern-light ebbs because ... well ... because YOU SHOULDN'T FUCKING GO IN THERE. Tightened, the episode would not work nearly as well. At an hour, despite some repetition and padding, you live in the otherworld long enough to emerge feeling vaguely infected by it.

    And that's the aim of all lasting horror stories — the persistence of unease and dread.

    Nine Borises.

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  16. Dave-

    The impression/memory of the axe-in-Whorf's-head that was probably created by DeWilde's description of it reminds me of the friend (of mine) who ASBOLUTELY recalled in grim, gory detail the gaping hole in the chest of Sasha Harden (Lt. Krug) in OL's "Nightmare", the result of the Ebonites having removed his heart.

    We all know, of course, that the impression was created in this viewer's mind (and probably in the minds of many others) by Bill Gunn's bloodcurdlingly effective description of the horrific scene in his big speech.

    Larry

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  17. "Schmigeons from Hell." Nice ring to it...

    And add an extra Boris.

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  18. What could live up to the kind of build up PFH has had? Maybe a fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwich, but few TV shows, thats my guess.
    I loved many elements of it, from Boris' as-usual great schtick foretelling ("the living, I mean, the actors") to the boggy, downright musty photography and set. The acting was solid, the pacing perfect for its 60s' shock sensibility, and the twists, at least until the end, quite engrossing.
    I wasn't so caught up with the 'old lady hiding out with the dead corpses' as everyone else here, but not to say it ruined it for me. I've got a lot of time for axe-wielding insanity wrapped up in a 1930s era nightgown... Eight Karloffs -- but bewarned, this taste was just a sampling of even better feasts ahead. Next up, you'll have the Shatner scared right out of you in 'The Grim Reaper'...

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  19. "Yes! The figure had moved into the bar of moonlight now, and Griswell recognized it. Then he saw Branner's face, and a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!"

    Anybody who wishes to read a free download of the Howard story, RIGHT NOW, may do so via:

    http://manybooks.net/titles/howardrother07pigeons_from_hell.html

    "Griswell," in the story, was changed to John Branner's brother "Tim" for the TV version. In the story, they are not brothers. They are (ahem) "companions" who arrive "in search of vacation pleasure," which is really all the exposition you need, right?

    There is a terrific movie about Howard, THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD (1996), based on Novalyne Price's memoir ONE WHO WALKED ALONE (1985). Vincent D'Onofrio plays Howard; Renee Zellweger, Novalyne.

    One more superfluous note: If you dig "Pigeons," check out WILD WILD WEST's "The Night of the Man-Eating House," written by John Kneubuhl, directed by Alan Crosland, Jr. — aka "THRILLER Meets Jim & Artie."

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    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who saw the parallels between "Pigeons" and "Man-Eating House". Very similar in feel, even if the plots are far apart.

      When I was recently posting something about THRILLER, I even started to do frame grabs of the houses from "Pigeons" and "Man-Eating", because I was going to show that the same house was used in both episodes. I soon discovered that I was wrong, but rewatching the shows I can see why I made the false connection. The houses, the surroundings, even how the directors shot the initial approach to both dwellings; all were very similar.

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  20. "It's a feverdream more than a story, replicating the anxious, uncertain feelings we all experience when sleep enables our generally contained personal demons and abstract fears to run rampant."

    Beautifully said and I quite agree. This is also my own personal favorite THRILLER of them all.

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  21. Re: the Stephen King thing----I'm frankly not concerned with his exact comments, especially since he admits that he was going largely on his memory in critiquing these shows. I've watched "I Kiss Your Shadow" a number of times; not bad, but certainly not in a class with "Pigeons". [I wish Alfred Ryder had done a "Thriller"; he's another one of the greats from the era.]

    Besides, if King (or anyone else) thinks that "Shadow" is the scariest thing in the annals of old TV, I would bet they've never seen the episode "Dissolve to Black" from Roald Dahl's 1961 "Way Out"; its one of the 5 or 6 available episodes from the series (and it premiered FOUR DAYS BEFORE "Pigeons", on June 2nd,'61). And whereas "Pigeons" plays like a classic, "idealized", gothic-style nightmare, "Dissolve" seems like a REAL nightmare--the kind that I think we've all actually experienced. It is profoundly, deliriously and inexplicably scary to me.
    Watch with caution, especially the women-folk.

    LR

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  22. Afraid I have to agree with PE and JS. This is nicely creepy, but not the best of THRILLER by a long way. For me too, the performances - notably Brandon De Wilde's - marred its credibility. De Wilde persistently gave the impression of someone PRETENDING to be anguished, rather than being genuinely affected by the horrible happenings. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention, but the Evil also seemed to be overcome too easily in the end. Were we told in advance that the creatures could be disposed of as simply as we saw?

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  23. I just finished watching Smidgeons from Hell and agree with Peter and John that this is a "close but no cigar" episode for me. Admittedly alot of great atmosphere, and I love the initial axe/hatchet sequence etc. but the ending is a letdown. I guess it's all a matter of perspective from either a "younger viewpoint" when first seen in the sixties vs. today with a more "jaded" perspective. Hey, and what's up with that fireplace in the mansion always have a firegoing? That fireplace never went out it would seem...

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  24. I loved the photography and atmosphere, great set design. Acting was just mediocre. The ending was a bit of a letdown, but most endings to horror tales are. Most great horror fiction is about the build-up of atmosphere and dread, not the payoff (look at almost any Lovecraft story).

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  25. I was unnerved and unsettled within the first minute of this Thriller, its all-time BEST episode, beautifully scripted, lit, photographed, scored, designed, acted, directed, even the Karloff intro is superlative. I concur with Gary Gerani's 10/11 comments (an astounding commentator on these discs, incidentally). Don't miss it - 4 Karloffs, 4 stars, etc. (To Saltwell - the character Jacob explains the Zuvembie can be killed by a lead bullet).

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  26. Pigeons is one of my top three or four Thrillers, maybe the most perfectly made of all. It takes place entirely during the course of one night. The setting is extremely remote, Deep South, a hundred (maybe hundreds) of miles from civilization, a perfect set up for a horror story.

    de Wilde and Denton are fine in my book, and Ken Renard is as fine a Jacob Blunt as I can imagine, as good here as Abraham Sofaer in many similar roles he played over the years. For television horror, it doesn't get any better than this in my book. John Newland, like the story's author, Robert E. Howard, was a genius.

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  27. I really enjoyed this episode, but what's with the pigeons? Who or what exactly are they? If they are damned souls, there sure are a lot of them hopping around. And is the old lady a zombie or a zuvembie or just an old lady? And what is the difference between a zombie and a zuvembie? Gender? And why does Brandon DeWilde always look like a blind person? Not good to think too much about these!

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    1. I have to agree w/ Jack Seabrook. The single biggest element missing here is... RESOLUTION. Yes, the atmosphere was better than average, but we need to know what happened or else be told, perhaps by a head-scratching sheriff, that "we'll never know what happened" which is 60's-speak for "the place really was haunted".

      If Eula had enough anger and voodoo in her to take revenge against her sisters, that (almost) makes sense. But why would she, human or zombie, be killing intruders 50+ years later? (Even if they were gay?) She should have no sense of wanting to defend the plantation? If she were alive, how was she living there? (Maybe the pigeons were all that was left of 50 years of pizza delivery boys...) If she were a really old lady, how did she take 3 bullets and still walk back and die in her chair? If she was an undead creature energized by pure evil, why did 3 bullets bother her?

      Maybe for some, they vagueness and mystery is part of the appeal.

      The titular birds had no real role other than a creepy sound effect. This ep could have been titled the "Squeaky Shutter Hinge of Satan" with equal effect.

      I thought the on-again, off-again lantern and the final appearance of Eula's hand were the only truly scary parts.

      2 Karloffs is "dead-on" accurate. If you want to talk about "best ever", the discussion for me ends with "La Strega" and "Dr. Markesan", or perhaps "Masquerade".

      I agree that this is a nice lead-in to "Wild Wild West"'s "TNot Man-Eating House" episode, another showplace for John Knuebuhl's work.

      Whenever a pigeons poops on my car, I eat a plate of scrambled eggs on the front porch to show them what I'm capable of...

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  28. Just watched (for the first time) "The Mountebank (aka "The Puppeteer") from the 4th season of "Have Gun Will Travel", starring Crahan Denton. I think anyone who's not convinced of the man's abilities should check out this show. It's one of those "cutting edge", experimental entries in the series that Richard Boone obviously favored (he also directed this one), with Denton as an enigmatic, embittered, literature-spouting travelling puppeteer who's on a mission of vengeance. Mr. Boone really blows the final minute or so of this otherwise unpredictable, intense, and engrossing show.

    Word has it that Red Skelton was originally considered for the title role, but was unavailable. From Skelton to Crahan Denton is a pretty big leap...but obviously Boone thought very highly of Denton's ability to entrust the part to him. You would never imagine the gruff, determined, no-nonsense Sheriff Buckner from "Pigeons" in a flamboyant, virtuosic performance dressed as a jester, playing the drums and cymbals with his feet, and carrying on cryptic, hushed, slightly unhinged conversations with a "Punch" puppet carved in his own image. Fascinating actor and performance.

    Check it out.

    LR

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  29. This sucked, pure and simple. You know what they say about hype and build-up... yep... it's true. I can imagine totally ignoring this while making out at the drive-in. Ahhh, the golden age of drive-ins! I don't remember them because I am too young, but still... Ahhhhh!

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  30. Late to the party but enjoying the THRILLER set and love the opinions here since it helps me to be selective.

    Thanks, John S., for making mention of the poor visual quality since it was the first one I've noticed that was so crummy.

    Happily, I corresponded for many years with Robert Bloch and he invited me to his home one afternoon. As delightful as you've heard and it's wonderful to see some of his work adapted.

    As for PFH, I'd never seen it and enjoyed it a great deal, especially if you consider that there really nothing as horrific on TV or really in many films at the time. Of course, I wish it had moved along just a LITTLE faster, but appreciated the time it was done. And, as others have mentioned, the mystery is always better than the solution--this solution didn't make a whole lot of sense, but they tried. I think 3 out of 4 Karloff's is about right!

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  31. Welcome to the party, Anonymous! Glad to have you aboard. I knew Bloch the last five or six years of his life (though I'm jealous since I never made it out to his house) and he was one of the greatest guys I ever met. He always held his hand out to perfect strangers, never refused a request. One of a kind. I miss the guy quite a bit and wish he were around to soak up the love around here.

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  32. Ahhh, at last I get to review the much admired PIGEONS FROM HELL.

    It's a good solid creepy THRILLER, but certainly not the best. The acting was adequate. I thought DeWilde and Whorf did a decent job as two scared and somewhat confused teens. Could they have done a better job? Certainly. It was like watching the Hardy Boys get in some really deep doo-doo. I loved the sheriff's role. His indecisons portray an authority figure who is also very frightened of the house and it's possible occupants. He comes across weak (until the end) which only adds to the uneasiness of the surroundings.

    The episode has all the things we want in a THRILLER... atmosphere, a creepy house, great musical score, and a fairly bloody violent sequence for 1960's television.

    I think the bloody hatchet murder storyline is the key to what makes this episode so fondly remembered by those who saw it as child or young teen. I recall my older brothers telling me this was the coolest THRILLER episode they ever saw (I was too young to see THRILLER during its initial release). Even by today's standards, the scenes of Whorf walking down the staircase, hatchet in hand, and dark blood running down his head is quite gruesome. DeWilde's description of this is quite memorable too.

    This was a time when ax murders, psycho killers, and blood & guts was becoming available to viewing audiences, primarily targeting young teen boys. The new taboo in movies had begun to cross the line into television. The bloody violence of this episode is a stark contrast to previous episodes. Just think how different it must have seemed from the previous week's installment of DARK LEGACY with its cheesy floating eyes and wizardry.

    I propose that viewing this "hatchet to the head" story made a huge impression on teens back then... like a first kiss.  That impression far outweighted all other elements of this episode, good or bad. Anyways, this is no 4 Karloff floating head episode, nor is it a 2 head episode either.

    "3 Karloffs" for PIGEONS FROM HELL.

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  33. Was I the only one bothered when the sheriff held up the lantern so the diary could be read and he held it beneath the diary so no light from the lantern would shine on the written page?!

    Great episode.

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  34. Pigeons From Hell is the episode that is referred to the most. I've shied away from reading any spoilers before I got a chance to sit down on the park bench and feed them pigeons.

    Our story begins in the same cajun gothic atmosphere as Parasite Mansion. Great! I love the mystique that the deep old south brings to the haunted house genre.

    The deep south in the early 1960s was on the cusp of a civil rights revolution. The situation of two young men with a broken down car in the deep south in 1960 immediately stirred thoughts of some type of impending KKK killing.

    As always, the seemingly abandoned mansion is creepy. The pigeons are mildly frightening. After all, they are only pigeons. On cue, spooky things start to happen and before we know it one of the brothers has a hatchet to the head and is looking to commit fratricide. Hatchetless bro escapes and is awoken the next morning by the town sheriff.

    The middle part of the episode is devoted to the slow unraveling of the mysteries of the Blassenville Plantation. As some commentators have noted, none of the actors are top notch, but I believe that the amateurism doesn't detract, but works as a finely crafted B movie or a really kick ass Scooby Doo episode!

    The ventures back into the plantation mansion are deliciously spooky, but the scene where Tim and the Sheriff visit Jacob the old plantation hand perfectly conveys an erie vibe of disturbing secrets. This scene was very reminscent of when Kay visited Madame Queen Zimba in Son of Dracula. Special effects weren't quite that special back in the day, so Pigeons gave us a cheesy snake to replace the cheesy bat in Drac...

    We all know that the big showdown will be at Blassenville Plantation and once we get there even the pigeons are assembled to view the action. I thought the lead up to the unveiling of Eula played out very nicely. I got goose bumps as an adult. If I was a kid I'd been under the covers. There are complaints about the visual quality of the print, but when Eula's hand appeared on my 50" Kuro, it was crystal clear creepy. As typical with many of the top Thrillers, the shoot out ending is somewhat a disappointment, but things are somewhat redeemed when the cameras focuses in on the expired Blassenville babes.

    I really enjoyed this episode. As I said before, I agree that the acting wasn't tops, but there was a near perfect synchronicity between the sets, score and plot which created a really unique and eire vibe. Right now it's in my top three.

    One thing that threw me off was that I thought the grand finale would involve a massive swarm of pigeons...

    Three and a half pigeon droppings on the head of Boris.

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  35. Say what you will but over all these years - 50, right? - having never seen them since, the episode that made the most lasting impression on me was "Pigeons from Hell". I have thought of it many times over the years. Not to say I'm dismissing the bleeding painting in "The Grim Reaper", or the crawling hands from "Terror in the Teakwood" (they too scared the bejesus out of me), but there is something about taking something that is inherently not frightening and making something frightening out of it that is intriguing - ala Stephen King's "Christine". As a boy, the kid and the sheriff walking outside and the pigeons all lined up creeped me out.

    Whether it's the best or the worst, that's kind of subjective. But since PFH has garnered this much cyber-ink, I dare say it is certainly one of the most memorable episodes.

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  36. Personally, I really enjoyed this ep.
    Although as with all thrillers it left alot of unresolved issues such as WHY she did it.


    A bit of trivia: The 'blood' used for the hatchet scene was actually hersheys chocolate.
    Hey,the show was black and white
    who's gonna know?

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  37. I was a little let down. I loved the atmosphere, yes, but the lengthy trips to the room didn't add to any sense of impending dread. They threatened to put me to sleep. And as a city dweller all my life, I thought the actual pigeons rather silly. They really didn't do anything and had no real relationship to the plot. The Aristotelian in me was not pleased.

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  38. Two for Pigeons and Three for Guilty Men?
    Enough said....

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  39. I thought deWilde was great in this episode. His style fit the affair wonderfully.

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  40. This is second only to Markesan in my book. The Cheaters is close third for my favorite episde.

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  41. The story "Pigeons From Hell" is available in the fairly recent collection edited by Otto Penzler titled "Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!." In this book it says the first appearance of this story was in the November 1951 issue of "Weird Tales"-15 years after the author's self-inflicted death at the age of 30. "Z!Z!Z!" mentions that Robert E. Howard had a lot of unpublished material at the time of his death. If November of '51 is correct, I wonder why it took so long to publish? Did Howard have that much backlogged material?

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    1. I enjoyed reading Howard's story, and I paid particular attention to the fact tht the identity of the zombie was changed when the story went from print to TV.

      I would like to see the printed version of "Dr. Markesan," but it seems to be out of print and a rare collector's item, or something.

      Delete
  42. Shatner's Grim ReaperJanuary 23, 2013 at 9:41 AM

    Loved this episode and believe it to be Thriller's finest...with "Grim Reaper" a close 2nd. Loved the southern Cajun plantation haunted horror house. Thought Crahan Denton was terrific as the sheriff and Brandon De Wilde was outstanding in his role. Very atmospheric...certainly deserving as an entry as one of top ten fan favorites on DVD.

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  43. O.K. I couldn't wait to see this episode on ME TV several months from now. I first saw it when it was shown on NBC in the 1960s on a small potable TV-the atmosphere was suffocating. I viewed it on a Website yesterday. No cigar--this would be great on a big screen TV with a resonating audio system in a dark room--even though it was in black and white. More to come as I found the definitive blow-by-blow review. Disturbing racial overtones circa 1960? Yes-I first saw this as an escapee from the great metropolis of NY, Queens to a swampy Florida locale near St Petersburg-a finger fill froggy, swampy alligator place near the beaches--the doors were open as well as the windows since we didn't have air conditioning back then. I can relate to the Louisiana locale.

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    1. Here is the website--was this the director's script?

      http://thelastdrivein.com/2008/08/07/pigeons-from-hell-essay-on-boris-karloffs-thriller/

      Original Thriller Script http://www.geocities.com/emruf7/pigeons.html

      Here’s an excerpt from the original story that didn’t make it into the Thriller script: The name Griswell had been the original last name for Tim and Johnny.


      Sheriff Buckner:

      “They say the pigeons are the souls of the Blassenvilles, let out of hell at sunset. The Negroes say the red glare in the west is the light from hell, because then the gates of hell are open, and the Blassenvilles fly out.

      Was that thing a woman once?” whispered Griswell(Tim). “God, look at that face, even in death. Look at those claw-like hands, with black talons like those of a beast. Yes, it was human, though — even the rags of an old ballroom gown. Why should a mulatto maid wear such a dress, I wonder?” “This has been her lair for over forty years,” muttered Buckner, brooding over the grinning grisly thing sprawling in the corner. “This clears you, Griswell (TIm) — a crazy woman with a hatchet — that’s all the authorities need to know. God, what a revenge! — what a foul revenge! Yet what a bestial nature she must have had, in the beginnin’, to delve into voodoo as she must have done———” (“Pigeons From Hell” by Robert E. Howard)


      Delete
  44. A little late, but I have finally spoken my piece on Peter Enfantino's bizarre take down of the episode, and Gary Gerani's brilliant defense in my own essay as part of an ongoing series on THRILLER and television anthology episodes from the period:

    http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/anthology-heaven-thrillers-pigeons-from-hell/

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    Replies
    1. Boy, Sam, my eyebrows are singed. In a perfect world, everyone would rate Pigeons 10 out of 10 but then that's why we have opinions. To differ, right? I'm sure there's some guilty pleasure of yours that everyone hates and vice versa. Why do I have to proclaim "Pigeons" the greatest horror show of all time or be wrong? Tell me... was my opinion wrong on every episode?
      (Shaking my head)

      Delete
    2. Oh, and not to beat a dead horse (especially since this horse has been dead for a couple years now) but my (in your words):
      " bitchy and baseless put-down by the blog’s incessantly contrarian co-proctor Peter Enfantino"
      actually included the words:"I think "Pigeons" is a slightly above average episode, certainly not the most terrifying television show of all time and certainly not the creepiest Thriller. "
      Why not post that sentence on your blog?


      Delete
    3. Wow. No hate for me? What am I, chopped Pigeon?

      Oh well. I knew Peter was everyone's favorite "bitchy and baseless... incessantly contrarian co-proctor"...

      Fortunately, as the comments above demonstrate, we weren't alone in our lack of enthusiasm for this particular episode. Yes, it's a favorite of the majority, but it's classic status is certainly not a universally held opinion...

      Delete
    4. Peter my deepest apologies for coming off the way I did. I re-read what i said and yes I was indeed way over the top. It has much to do with my own sacred cow regard for this episode. I had no right to speak the way I did, especially as I continued to regard this blog highly and have been referencing it back and forth to assist with my research. I'm really sorry, and know you have done nothing but state an opinion, and eloquently at that. I am actually going to remove that "bitchy" sentence and will re-word the post far more respectfully. I will do it right now in fact.

      John, you were exempt for criticism because you were my "go to" guy when I corresponded by email, and I had burned enough bridges. But I will try to repair the damage now and I do indeed acknowledge that while PIGEONS may be the most revered episode by most it does have some detractors, of which a number are here on this thread.

      I am really sorry Peter.

      Delete
    5. I just completed my revision which now reads as follows at my site:

      "On the Top 25 list of most requested titles sent to the Thriller fan club "Pigeons" holds down poll position. Stephen King too chimed in to acknowledge the show's unmatched reverence among Thriller's fans, and the highly-esteemed author Gary Gerani (who included the series prominently in his seminal volume Fantastic Television, and delivered the excellent running commentary on the Image DVD set) sized up Thriller with brilliant insight and scholarly heft on the popular 'A Thriller A Day' blog in response to a less enthused co-proctor Peter Enfantino, who did opine: "I think "Pigeons" is a slightly above average episode, certainly not the most terrifying television show of all time and certainly not the creepiest Thriller. " His colleague John Scoleri was pretty much in agreement. In any case both Peter and John did a fabulous job with the still traveled and commented upon blog, a real oasis for Thriller fans. Said Gerani:"

      Again I want to say I am very sorry for the unintended but clearly-defined slur, and hope at some point you can look beyond it. I like both of you guys a lot, and continue to come back to this great place.

      Delete
    6. Sam-

      I did think your attack on me was a bit odd since you didn't say one word about my opinion when the post first hit! But feel free to use me as a spittoon anytime.

      I'm not sure how to take it that the only reason you thought to apologize is because your pen-pal jumped to my defense. Odd also that the reason John was exempt from your criticism is because he was your go-to guy and answered e-mails. I guess if I'd been the one answering e-mails, John would have gotten the brunt of your ire, no?

      Oh, and I did some reading on your enjoyable blog. Lots of great info there but one thing stood out. Your omission of The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country on your list of "Best Movies of the 1960s" (not even on your list of, what, 1000 honorable mentions?) shows that you're just as unknowledgeable about classic films as I am of classic horror television. Can't wait to jump into the 1970s.

      No hard feelings, Sam.

      Delete
  45. Hi Sam - No worries on my end! I for one would love the chance to revisit a remastered Pigeons some day, since I don't think the transfer of that episode did it justice, particularly for such a fan favorite.

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    1. To clarify-
      I think you're just as bitchy but much more baseless than me.

      Delete
  46. Peter, I most assuredly did NOT apologize in response to John's e mail but to yours. My reply appears to be to John (and it is in part) but it was spurred on by your first response and by the realization that I was way out of line. I am admittedly unreasonable at time when someone doesn't like something I love, but I am rarely problematic when it's the other way around. I never said anything about your opinion when the first post hit because I saw there was a good pro and con argument going there. But yes, to bring it up well after the fact was in poor taste and I am willing to admit that now and for all-time. When I saw your response here, I also saw your follow-up and John's addition all at the same time.

    As far as THE WILD BUNCH, I did not leave it out at all, as I have seen it multiple times and have never warmed out to it. I have taken my lumps from many friends and associates over the years, perhaps just as many as I have received in response to my indifference to CHINATOWN. I like RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY though, and it narrowly missed my list. Thanks very much for checking out the blog and for the very kind words.

    I am very sorry for what I had originally posted. It really was lame what I did there.

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  47. John, I completely agree on the need for another PIGEONS FROM HELL transfer. It is probably the weakest in the set, which is most ironic considering it's one of the most celebrated episodes. I was hoping it would have been included on that gorgeous laserdisc set of the late 90's, but alas the six episodes including the lame THE PREDICTION left out several of the greats. That LD set for many is still regarded as containing the best transfers of the series (in part) even better than the DVD set. I'm not sure myself but I think MARKESAN looks even better on the LD. But I'm still very happy for the Image set, and can only dream about a blu-ray set coming to the rescue of PIGEONS. Even an old VHS bootie off e bay transferred directly from the 35 mm print eclipses the Image transfer.

    Thanks again!

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  48. "Your opinion is your opinion, your perception is your perception--do not confuse them with 'facts' or 'truth'. Wars have been fought and millions have been killed because of the inability of men to understand the idea that EVERYBODY has a different viewpoint."

    JOHN MOORE, Quotations for Martial Artists


    I think it's time for you guys to do another something-a-day blog.

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    1. barsh1956@sbcglobal.net

      Nitpick time--The bayou law enforcement officer- no Cajun accent? Maybe he was from Shreveport? Think about the late Justin Wilson, the CAJUN chief-onyons!

      The old man said, only lead bullets can kill the Zoombi.

      Anthony Perkins and let's say Gen Corbett or Martin Milner would have been better cast as the brothers or "friends."

      Still, the most socially relevant, albeit contrived commentary on parts of the Old South-recent Supreme court decision notwithstanding.


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  49. white men would and did refer to older black men as “boy” when they were not actually using the “N” wordl. It was not only racist but it kept the black men “not grown”, not a “real man” in the Whites’ eyes. Like a child who must bend to the white man’s authority.

    And any time a woman is not “mindful” of her place (black or white or Asian), she is not considered human like men are human. How many times have you heard a woman of any colour referred to as a wildcat, a fox, a chick, a tomato, a skirt, a piece of ass (property), a dog (if she’s not pretty) and how about that common term for women now — bitch.

    Good article.


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  50. Anonymous said...They arrive at Jacobs shack. He’s an old raggedy man lying in his cot. Buckner starts shaking Jacob and says “I’ve got some questions I wanna ask you, Come on boy get up. (I was very offended at this gesture, Jacob was a very old southern black man and the use of the term ” boy” was a very racist remark. I don’t believe he would have referred to an old white male this way).

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  51. Wow, I've really enjoyed the controversy here, and the comments defending the 'classic' designation of the episode speak for me. It has many flaws -- too many contrivances, and a too-cluttered story, which made it hard for the actors to seem credible. De Wilde never seems upset enough about losing his brother, and wouldn't he want to contact their parents immediately? The voodoo bit was obviously part of the original story, but was a needless complication for a fifty-some-odd minute episode. Couldn't Eula simply be the bitter, mixed-race, much-beaten madwoman in the attic? Wasn't that horrific enough?

    It is and would have been, because the fever-dream aspect of the episode which was so well described in a couple of comments above, comes partly because of the implications of a horrible, bitter history of unhappy people, a misery that lives on to poison the present day. And yes, the sudden violence of John's demise, the bloody head and the bloody hatchet (just a year after PSYCHO shocked America, and here it was on our TV screens) -- this is an episode with lots of echos and resonance. Not least racial ones -- Hynek above nails that -- I too thought about the ill-fated white college boys who went south in 1963 to enroll black voters only to be horribly murdered and dumped in shallow graves. Though the tangled racial and sexual legacies of the story were barely touched on, audiences had recently seen RAINTREE COUNTY and BAND OF ANGELS, two best-sellers about miscegenation that had been made into movies. Audiences then could fill in the blanks.

    And a word defending Brandon De Wilde. Viewers in 1961 would have remembered him fondly as a child actor in A MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and SHANE, and he scarcely looked any different, even as a young man. That open, childlike all-American face was the perfect foil for the unspeakable evil that he and his brother couldn't begin to grasp, a horrible legacy of a slavery and the south.

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    1. All points voiced above well taken. The most horrific real grisly murder, not Texas Chain Saw Massacre exploitation hype. The black man dragged behind a pickup truck and dismembered by good awful good ole boys not far from 'GWB;s home in E Texas. Texas-a whole nuther country.

      Say when--not many years ago.

      Delete
  52. Not the best episode, but definitely in the top five. I can't give a "Best Episode" to one that doesn't actually have Karloff in it, so I pick MARKESON.
    It's also not as good as Howard's original story--it's rare that I find a live action chiller as effective as the written word. "What you can imagination is scarier blah blah blah and all that" I guess . . . . . .

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  53. I mean "What you can imagine...." I wish we could edit these thins post-post! (If not post-haste!)

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  54. I watched Pigeons From Hell the other night, waited for the sheriff's referring to Jacob Blount as boy when he went to wake him up and either I'm losing my hearing OR they edited the b word out. Otherwise, the ep played pretty much the same as before. I paid closer attention to the pigeon sounds this time and they only made noise when something "was up". Jacob heard them outside his shack just prior to the little brudder serpent bite.

    Brandon de Wilde's rising and going upstairs alone in a trance was well done but either there was an edit or maybe they wanted an element of surprise but it wasn't clear that Buckner was up there till he shot Eula Lee. He got four shots off at her when she came at the young boy, ought to have been lying on the floor but apparently (magically?) was (conveniently) "sitting dead" in a chair in the final moments of the episode. Did they move her? No matter. The dream-like nature of the episode makes it all okay.

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  55. Yes. JS--in retrospect-I agree with your take on this episode, and Grim Reaper is all alone at the top of the heap. The ME TV reruns start to dilute the original runs--even with the embedded commercials.

    JS: Nice of you to clarify that King didn't say it was the greatest. But even if he had, I would respectfully disagree. I enjoy a hatchet murder as much as the next guy (heck, perhaps moreso), and I still feel comfortable saying this is not one of the better Thriller episodes, let alone the best. And perhaps while cutting edge when released (sorry, I couldn't resist), that doesn't make it a better episode then than it is today.

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  56. This is a very entertaining episode, except for the fact that they changed the actual ending, robbing it of a really satisfying twist of an end. The REH story's ending is much more powerful than this rather tepid ending, which spoils an otherwise excellent adaptation.

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  57. Horrific episode! All-time best.

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