Sunday, October 3, 2010

Thriller Three-Way: Alan Brennert, Commentator

Alan Brennert wrote for anthology series Darkroom, the eighties Twilight Zone and nineties Outer Limits, as well as writing and executive producing an unsold/unaired pilot for a fantasy anthology show, Love is Strange, for the Fox Network. Alan also wrote and/or produced for Simon & Simon, China Beach, L.A. Law (Emmy Award, Best Dramatic Series, 1991), and Odyssey 5. He co-wrote (with J.D. Feigelson) an NBC horror telepic, The Lake. The winner of three Writers Guild Award nominations for Best Teleplay of the Year (one for Darkroom, another for TZ), an Emmy nomination for L.A. Law, and a Nebula Award for Best Short Story, "Ma Qui" in 1992. He is currently a full-time novelist and author of two bestselling historical novels, Moloka'i and Honolulu, the latter named one of the best books of 2009 by The Washington Post.

JS: What was your first exposure to Thriller?

Alan Brennert: I don't recall ever seeing it in first-run, as I did Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, but in syndication. One of the local New York channels "stripped" it, showed it daily in the afternoons—around 4 PM, if I recall correctly—and as a budding author myself one of the things that impressed me most about the show was that (like TZ) so many episodes were either written by or based on published stories by writers I had actually heard of if not read: August Derleth, Robert Bloch, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Cornell Woolrich, Robert E. Howard, Barre Lyndon, et al. So it had a certain literary appeal to me. I'm afraid the more crime-oriented shows of the first season mostly left me cold.

PE: How did you become involved with the DVD project?

AB: My buddy Steve Mitchell called and asked me to contribute with a commentary, so I did. Also so I could get a free set of the DVD, let's be honest.

JS: Why did you choose "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper?"

AB: I picked "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper" because I remembered it as being a fine episode, especially that killer (literally) ending, in which the Ripper gets away—unusual in those days when Hitchcock had to append a postscript to his episodes informing the audience that the bad guys were, contrary to what we'd just seen, caught by the cops just as they were rounding the bend of the last commercial.

JS: Were there any other episodes you would have liked to add a commentary to?

AB: I only had time to do one episode, but if I'd had more time I might've asked to do "A Wig for Miss Devore," a Derleth adaptation I'd enjoyed.

PE: You were involved in the short-lived but (almost in a Thriller-esque way, I would add -PE) fondly-remembered ABC-TV show, Darkroom. Darkroom could almost be called a Thriller for the 1980s. How did you get involved with the show?

AB: In 1981 I was fortunate to write two scripts (though only one, "Closed Circuit," was produced) for Darkroom. It was produced by Universal Television, and the series' producers, Peter S. Fischer, Medora Heilbron, Jeff Bloom, and Chris Crowe—all of whom were not only very talented, they were absolutely terrific to me as a freelancer—wanted to draw on some Thriller episodes for possible remakes. I think only one of them, "Guillotine," actually got made, but I know they had plans to do more. And like Thriller, they weren't averse to adapting short stories (they used some by Davis Grubb, William F. Nolan, Robert R. McCammon, Robert Bloch, and I got to adapt a very prescient story about computer-generated imagery written by my old friend Carter Scholz). So I felt like we were part of a little legacy there. But ABC pulled the plug after only seven episodes.

JS: And then you became involved in an actual revival, that of The Twilight Zone.

AB: At the time I thought Darkroom would probably be my one and only shot at doing an anthology show, and had no idea that three years later I'd be working on a revival of The Twilight Zone. By the way, after all these years Darkroom has just been released on DVD in Australia, the only video release of any kind it's ever had. I have one on my shelf, though I can't watch it since I don't own a multi-standard DVD player. 

Years later I pitched the idea of a revived Thriller series for syndication to a pre-Battlestar Galactica David Eick, then an executive at Universal, but no one was interested in doing anthology series anymore, and so a great franchise continues to lie fallow. Nice, at least, to finally have it preserved on DVD; I was happy to be associated with it, however peripherally.

JS: And now to our standard questionnaire. What's your favorite Thriller?

AB: "Yours Truly," probably, for the reasons cited above.

JS: What aspect of Thriller turns you on?

AB: I liked its literary roots, and the fact that it carved out its own territory—horror, both Gothic and urban—at a time when there were two other major fantasy anthologies series on the air, and held its own pretty well. Also, you've gotta love Boris Karloff and the hammy way he seemed to enjoy parodying his own reputation in the introductions: "Why, this is a most peculiar turn of events... as sure as my name is Boris Karloff!" What other TV show had that going for it?

JS:What aspect of Thriller turns you off?

AB: Some of the hokier horror clich├ęs, such as in "The Incredible Doctor Markesan": Here's Dick York and his wife walking through what looks like the Haunted Mansion, they finally meet his uncle and he looks even worse, like something Herbert West just reanimated... and not only do they not run the hell away, but after he locks them in their room at night they still say, Well, it's cheaper than staying at a Holiday Inn, let's give it another couple days. As my wife Paulette put it while we were watching it on DVD, "They can't think this is a good idea?"

JS: If Hell exists, what episode of Thriller would you expect to see shown on a continuous loop to people who arrive at the fiery gates?

AB: I've only gotten through the first fifteen minutes of "The Hollow Watcher," but so far it seems like it could be a contender.


  1. There's a DVD set of DARKROOM?! In Australia? So maybe Universal can get off their duffs and do an R1 of this (along with year 3 of NIGHT GALLERY)!

  2. Great having Mr. Brennert here, though I couldn't disagree more with him on his summary dismissal of THE INCREDIBLE DOCTOR MARKESON, one of the show's most horrifying and atmospheric hours. The final scene certainly is as ghoulishly terrifying as the one that concludes THE WEIRD TAILOR.

    The gothic atmosphere and Robert Florey's disjointed, expressionist visuals make MARKESON of the genre's proudest achievements, and Karloff gives his finest performance in the show.

  3. Yes, I do agree that THE HOLLOW WATCHER could well be the "hell" episode. It's the silliest show of them all.

  4. Aww, c'mon Alan... "Doktor Markesan" is not only a thoroughly enjoyable episode, it's one of the Top Ten THRILLER greats! Trivia: When the series went back into syndication in the '70s, MCA-TV actually acknowledged the weakness of the mystery shows, and recommended to local stations that certain horror episodes be telecast first. "Markesan" topped this list, and was utilized as the "unofficial pilot" of the series across America (I saw it on WOR Ch. 9 in NY), so THRILLER could be perceived as a supernatural show instantly. And a great one, too, with a richly-textured episode like this to start things off with... Here was Boris Karloff at his delicious best, in an iconic role that stands very nicely alongside his greatest big screen "horror" portrayals. And he's not camping it up, either, at least not in the "oh so precious" way he traded on for years; there's tragedy and dark poetry in his reading of the line "...then Eternity must be madness, for I am Eternity!" Add to this the Doktor's entourage of suffering zombies -- amazingly sick stuff for '61 -- the wonderful cinematography and art direction, Morton Steven's unforgettable score, the cool contrast between modern, mad-science lab equipment and gothic surroundings, and of course, the final horrific reveal.

    So, on balance, where's the problem? They've even covered their butts by injecting just enough of a "wink" into this show's tonal DNA, so that illogical behavior on the part of the "dumb young couple" (anticipating ROCKY HORROR SHOW, perhaps?) almost seems deliberate, and therefore not a flaw.

    "Yours Truly," on the other hand, is relatively mild stuff to me, more of a case of "what could have been."

    Now that I've started this, don't you think it's about time we had lunch at Fab's again? There's a copy of BRAM STOKER'S DEATH SHIP waiting for you. And the true inventor of the telephone? Nobody gave a damn, Alan, had to give it up and start another horror project. Sigh.

    For the record, the other "scary" episodes MCA recommended to get THRILLER off on the right hoof included "Well of Doom," "Waxworks," "The Hungry Glass," "Parasite Mansion," "Terror in Teakwood," "Pigeons from Hell" and "The Cheaters" (no other Karloffs, interestingly; but obviously somebody at Big U knew how to pick 'em).

  5. I think you guys need to re-read the question I was asked, which was "What *aspect* of THRILLER turn you off?" And my answer was the kind of cliched set-ups that were on display in the opening of MARKESAN. It's just one aspect of the story -- doesn't mean the rest of the episode doesn't have its virtues -- but that first act is pretty hoary stuff.

    Gary, give me a call anytime and we'll do that lunch at Fab's.

  6. Don't you think it's in the least bit rude the two of you making lunch arrangements without inviting the rest of us?

  7. It's my birthday today. I can do anything I want.

    Alan -- heading to NY next week, I'll be back November 1st. Talk to you then, and we'll figure out the Fab's thing...

    Julie -- with you in a second.

    DJS -- I've always been envious of your extraordinary word skills and sentence-structure ingenuity. Still, I'm the one with the "Sixth Finger" storyboards (John Chambers).

  8. Okay, see you all tomorrow at noon at Fab's! I guess this means we have to invite Schow, too...

  9. Happy Birthday Gary! We all chipped in for your gift. We just need to know if you want your 150 Musical Classics on vinyl, cassette, or 8-track?

  10. Ahh, it's a priceless introduction to the classics, which will enrich every home...


    Okay, it's time to out poster Sam Juliano as a longtime Thriller booster:

    (... in case his enthusiasm wasn't obvious.)