Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thriller Three-Way: Tom Weaver, Special Ops Unit

Tom Weaver has interviewed pert near everyone who ever made a horror flick (or a Thriller) and he's been kind enough to share the chats with us in 20 books with titles such as I Talked With a Zombie, Earth vs. the Sci-Fi Filmmakers, and Double Feature Creature Attack. He is also co-author, with Michael Brunas and John Brunas, of Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films 1931-1946, a book that should be on every genre fan's shelf. Tom has also lent his voice and knowledge to the audio commentaries for several genre films including The Wolf Man, It Came From Outer Space, Fiend Without a Face, and our personal favorite, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. In his spare time Tom is our fact checker. Tom is currently working on five books for release in 2011, which puts a lot of pressure on John and I. Now we'll have to learn the difference between John Carradine and Keith Carradine.

PE: Based on your comments online, it seems that you have probably seen all of the Thriller episodes prior to the official DVD release.

TW: Yes, and—to be brutally honest—I'm very surprised to find myself in what looks like a very small minority. Thriller has been written about in glowing terms in the genre books and mags for decades now, and so until lately I had to ass-u-me that everyone was as familiar with the series as I was. Then this Image set gets announced, and the reaction from many (most?) fans seemed to be, "Great, I've never seen one!" WTF? How have you managed not to see Thriller? It was on in reruns for years, it was on the Sci-Fi Channel for years, good-quality bootleg box sets were around, it's got Karloff, the show is praised to the skies every time it's written about—and you've never caught up with it? This isn’t London After Midnight! Meanwhile, these are guys who somehow find time to watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man twice a month and four times every October!

My first exposure to it was through New York's WOR Channel 9, which had a program director who at some point in his life must have been warned by a gypsy fortuneteller that Channel 9 had to run monster movies morning, noon and night or he'd die. All through my teenage years, Channel 9 showed two, three, four monster movies a day, at least six days a week. And when they got their hooks into Thriller, they started running two a night, one at 7 and another at 11. Channel 9 might even have played it on the weekends too—they were just obsessed with Thriller, for a year or more I bet. They had to have shown every one of them eight times in that year. Needless to say, they were showing two a night so usually I was watching two a night. Sure, I got turned off by all the crime ones, but I'd sit through 'em anyway; in fact, when they'd come around again, I'd watch 'em again, hoping they'd be better the second time. Pffffft!

But at that age, I just ate up the horror ones—the good, the bad and the indifferent. "The Grim Reaper" I found so scary, it was almost unpleasant watching .. and yet I loved it, if that makes any sense. Most of "The Incredible Doktor Markesan," and especially the ending, the same. I was already headed down the dark road to horror nerd-dom, so I read the on-screen credits out loud, quick as I could, into a little tape recorder and then wrote 'em all out on 3x5 file cards, because I liked the idea of having that info, and none of the books had full credits for them. (Well, this was the '70s—practically all the books on horror movies and TV series were still so shallow, they were worthless except for the pictures.) When I got older, and got a job at a 16mm rental company and bought my own projector, I started collecting the horror Thrillers on 16mm, and I ran them to death. The film pirates were asking a couple hundred dollars per horror episode, and gettin' it, but for the crime ones they were asking $35. And NOT gettin' it. Well, not from me, anyway.

JS: You have a reputation of being a Thriller-Killer... someone not afraid to buck the trend of praising the show as the greatest thing ever.

TW: Welllll... it's not. I think everybody's finding that out now. Some of the individual episodes are among the all-time greats, but overall batting-average-wise... not too good.

PE: You went so far as to suggest that in lieu of a complete series, only the horror episodes should have been released on DVD.

TW: For years I used to do a lot of freelance writing for Universal, for their lasers and DVDs, and the folks at Universal used to ask me what they should release next, old-horror-wise. They'd never take my suggestions, but that didn’t stop 'em from continually asking! I didn’t want to give them bum advice, because I thought that'd be the end of our love affair, so I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them to put out the entire Thriller series, because in those days it would have cost a fortune. They once released six episodes on laser for about a hundred bucks, so at that rate, the whole series on laser would have been a thousand bucks! So I pushed and pushed for a "Best of Thriller" set, or sets. As you're watching "The Merriweather File" or "The Bride Who Died Twice" or any one of about 30 others, tell me I wasn’t trying to do the right thing.

JS: You would seem to be a natural participant in the Thriller DVD set - and yet you're only represented by way of an interview transcript. How come?

TW: 2500 miles between me and the recording booth. Image was doing the commentaries out in California as fast as they could, and working with no money, so unless I wanted to reach in my own wallet and reserve a New York City recording studio on my own and start doing 'em out of L-O-V-E, I was out of the picture. So I contented myself with helping a couple of the commentators as much as I could, info-wise, and urging Image to "recreate" my text interview with Thriller's associate producer Douglas Benton, which they did. Well, part of it. It was quite long, and could have been longer. I was getting ready to get back to Benton with an all-new list of Thriller questions about ten years ago, when suddenly he had health problems and I backed off. Which I shouldn't have. He really liked talking about the old days; he'd have done it and enjoyed doing it, sick or no. He died not too long afterwards.

PE: Is there anything you wish had made it onto the DVD set?

TW: Yes, a disclaimer saying that Universal's regularly scheduled vault fires had polished off nearly all the crime episodes, and so we bring you "The Best of Thriller"! Seriously, I did ask Image if Universal-NBC had the rights to the TV version of Arsenic and Old Lace with Karloff, that aired on NBC in 1962; I thought that'd be a great extra on one of the Thriller DVDs, maybe the one with the Arsenic and Old Lace-y "A Third for Pinochle." I also encouraged Image to have as an extra a whole bunch of Karloff TV commercials, which they thought was a great idea; I sent them two on 16mm, to get the ball rolling. But like Universal, Image would never take my suggestions, just ask for 'em!

JS: Why do you think there has been such an infatuation with such a little-seen show?

TW: Wellll, again, it was only "little-seen" because practically no one seemed to want to take the time to watch the reruns or the bootleg box sets. I'm still trying to "get" why that happened. Maybe somebody can explain it to me!

PE: Has the build-up made it impossible for new viewers to watch the show objectively?

TW: It seems like just about everybody is "a new viewer"—and so far, the reaction that I've seen, on your blog, on the Classic Horror Film Board and elsewhere is about what I expected. A lot of rhapsodizing about the great and near-great episodes... of which there are about six or eight... and a lot of faint praise for most of the rest of the horrors. Except for me and youse guys here at "A Thriller a Day," I bet no one plows through all the crime ones. Your site is great, by the way—you ought to get a Rondo for keeping Thriller "in the news" every day for months, the way you’ve been doing, with some neat insights and humor and feedback and contributor interviews and the whole nine yards.

JS: What's your favorite Thriller?

TW: "The Grim Reaper." It so "got" to me the first couple times I saw it (and kinda still does) that if somebody offered me that painting to hang in my house, I'd think twice, and might even have to turn it down.

JS: What aspect of Thriller turns you on?
TW: The fact that it was made at Universal, where Hollywood screen horror was born. Seeing European Street and the Phantom Stage and the Psycho house and other locations in the episodes, knowing that a lot of the props and costumes had probably already shown up in their vintage horror flicks—for a horror nerd, there's something a little magical about its connection to the classics of yore.

JS: What aspect of Thriller turns you off?

TW: Ummmm... the fact that only a small handful, out of 67 episodes, are really top-notch. The fact that about 35 out of 67 are practically bottom-notch. And... sue me... Karloff's intros could be a lot less hammy. There are a number of good ones, but for the most part, watching him host Thriller increases my appreciation for John Newland and Hitchcock. Heck, even Roald Dahl!

JS: What word best describes Thriller for you?

TW: Wonderfulmemory. Yes, that's one word. Check the dictionary, you'll see they've changed it. It was really exciting seeing it twice a night as a teenager on good old Channel 9, never knowing what to expect from any particular episode because they couldn't be looked up anywhere. To put it in "Mystery Date" terms, there were a lot less "Dreams" than "Duds" but I wouldn't let that deter me.

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?

TW: I don't think I could sit through "The Specialists" even once more, so an eternal continuous loop WOULD get to be a pain in the ass.
P.S. I got so burned-out on Thriller via Channel 9 and then my 16mm prints and bootleg videos... I've had this new Image set for months now and haven’t yet watched a single one. I've listened to several of the commentaries and loved them, especially Lucy Chase Williams' "Mr. George," but as for watching the episodes themselves... all the episodes I like, I know by heart, so there's no point. After "pushing" for a legit home video release for Thriller for all these years, I might be the one set owner to now never watch one... Well, me and Sara.


  1. Tom, that monster-mad programmer at Channel 9 was none other than Chris Steinbrunner, an Edgar Award-winning author, broadcaster and film historian. Chris was especially fond of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genre, which, in truth, had always performed well for WOR. He was nice enough to lend me 9's 16mm syndicated trailer to "Fear No Evil" circa 1970, so I could run down to A1 Reverso-O-Lab on 8th Avenue and have a dupe made for myself. His famous RKO General station, broadcasters of "The Thing," "Godzilla," "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," "One Million B.C." and -- best of all -- "King Kong" on legendary MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE, was just beginning a relationship with MCA-TV and Universal (it would eventually transform completely as WWOR). They had already bought some U movie packages in 1970, and when THRILLER became available in syndication again (as BORIS KARLOFF PRESENTS THRILLER), Chris pounced. And yep, these shows were run constantly, on weekends, at 11pm every night for awhile (followed by THRILLER THEATRE at midnight, I believe; Chris had also secured Universal's library of classic horror films, also available from MCA at this time). For the record, THRILLER was telecast on New York's WPIX-TV Channel 11 in its initial syndication run (mid-'60s), shown a couple nights a week, if memory serves.


  2. I obtained a bootleg set of the THRILLER episodes a few years ago and watched all the episodes. The quality of the set I have is like 9 out of 10. I still bought the official set just for the commentaries and that's what I've been watching each night as we march through the episodes. I also read the WEIRD TALES or short story version first and then watched the TV episode just to compare and often found the THRILLER version to be more effective.

    I watched Channel 9 out of NYC also and loved the horror movies. I'm friends with film buff Ed Hulse who publishes BLOOD N THUNDER magazine and he has mentioned Chris Steinbrunner and his impact on horror TV.

    By the way, I agree absolutely about UNIVERSAL HORRORS and everyone should have a copy.

  3. Wonderfulmemory! You got that right. I haven't seen these since frst broadcast and I certainly don't remember seeing them all. But I was 13 and 14 years old at the time and I've had two images burned into my head for 50 years: the face in the mirror from The Cheaters (which the DVD set ruins in their episode menu [why do they do that?], and The Grim Reaper. That means something to me!
    I know I can't possibly see these now with the same sensibilities I had back then. We're just too jaded. Heck, every episode of CSI has rotting corpses, disembodied heads and limbs - all manner of death - until it's become a ho-hum weekly experience.
    We'll just have to see these as they are. A series with some standout episodes and an iconic host.

  4. All hail Channel 9's Chris Steinbrunner indeed. (All tri-state area Baby Boomer Monster Kids, anyway.) In the 1970s, I got a big kick out of the fact that, around the country, various goobers writing for horror fanzines were forever calling certain old horror movies "ultra-rare" or even "lost movies" -- just because they weren't on TV in the area where they lived. Meanwhile, thanks to Chris Steinbrunner, Monster Kids in NY were seeing nearly all these "ultra-rare" and "lost" movies SEVERAL times a year, EVERY year -- along with hundreds of others. R.I.P.

  5. Another fun fact: It was Chris who created NY TV's first weekday horror/sci-fi/fantasy movie skein, MAD MAD MOVIE (later SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE and THRILLER THEATRE), which ran from 4:30 pm to 6, starting with "Atlantis, the Lost Continent" (circa late '60s/early '70s). Sure, the much-remembered 4:30 MOVIE on Channel 7 had "Science Fiction Week" and "Planet of the Apes" Festivals to beat the band, but MMM and its variations delivered fantastic cinema each and every day, every week, for a few years at least. Steinbrunner was also the co-author of an impressive overview book, CINEMA OF THE FANTASTIC, also sometime in the early '70s.

    BTW, I certainly agree about Image "giving away the punchline" with that close-up of "Cheaters"'s final face of horror in the menu. This was done without anyone in marketing & design asking our opinion, of course; I would have suggested a shot of Harry Townes holding the spectacles, staring at them with fear and wonder, or even wearing them in CU, just before he sees his Dorian Gray-like 'veritas' self in the mirror.

  6. As long as we're wishing for things DVD-presentation-wise, I wish the disc menus had an eerie THRILLER cue instead of that jazzy, shi**y "George Grizzard walkin' up the street"/"Mort Sahl runnin' down the hall"/whatever, crime episode-type music.

  7. I did the exact same thing Tom did with the tape recorder and the index cards for innumerable horror films, starting with DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE in 1976 when I was 13, although I eventually "matured" into typing up the index cards and then, finally, into using actual sheets of paper, which I stopped sometime around 2000. And I wrote ad nauseam at Bradley on Film about channel 9 and the other NYC independent stations and the horror films they showed. This is kinda scary. But when it comes to such shows, I'd ALWAYS advocate putting out the whole shaboodle, just for posterity. SOMEBODY must like almost every episode, and what a wonderful research tool (or blog-generator) it is.

  8. Like the graphic selections, Steve Mitchell and I had no say in the choice of menu music. "Jazzy Boris, Henry Daniell and Old Crones, perfect!" I remember rolling my eyes. Just a quick glance at the MCA syndication promo should've tipped the Image music editors off that spooky Goldsmith tracks would have been more appropriate for the product they were selling. Still and all, it IS the damn theme of THRILLER, played full-out, and this is a series famed for its split personality. At least the trip through those cobwebbed hallways was cool...