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The “Thriller” at the Packard Campus Theater

The following is a guest post by Cary O’Dell, Assistant to the National Recording Preservation Board.

Sometimes TV comes full circle.

Certainly this is true among certain small screen genres. For example, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, which debuted over the tube on December 6, 1948 and picked its weekly winning singer/comic/dancer via an in-studio applause-o-meter, was reborn for the digital, Twitter and internet age in the 2000s as America’s Got Talent, American Idol, The Voice, So You Think You Can Dance and a host of other on-air competition shows.

Certainly this is also true with so-called “reality TV” which did not first arrive via CBS’s Survivor in 2000 or MTV’s The Real World in 1992 or even with PBS’s An American Family back in 1973. Its unique origins can actually be traced all the way back to Allen Funt’s Candid Camera and its unscripted hijinks which first aired on TV in 1948.

Thriller opening credit

And now this Friday, I’m coming full circle with a favorite TV series of my youth. The series Thriller was produced in England between 1973 and 1976 and was first imported into America via ABC in the fall of 1973 for a late-night programming block. The show–not to be confused with the Boris Karloff-hosted series of the same name from the 1960s–consisted of 43 short (about 80 minutes each) films all written by British TV and movie writer Brian Clemens, most famous for his work on the original Avengers TV series and its sequel, The New Avengers.

I first encountered Thriller in the 1980s, when I was in high school and living in Galesburg, Illinois. An avowed TV addict, I used to pore over each week’s TV Guide like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls. One time I came across a listing that piqued my curiosity:

 

 “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” (English; 1974). TV-movie with Lynda Day George as an American tourist in Britain who becomes fearful over her cousin’s disappearance. Arthur: John Carson. (90 min.)

 I had never heard of this peculiar little film that would be airing that evening at 12:30am on Channel 8/WQAD out of the Quad Cities, one of the two ABC affiliates that we got down in our little town of 37,000. But I decided to stay up and watch it.

That Saturday evening, easily fighting off sleep, I stayed up and watched “Come Out, Come Out,” a made-for-TV movie shot on videotape (!), starring an American actress supported by an entirely British cast and featuring a musical score by Laurie Johnson that was one of the most avant-garde and eerie I had ever heard.

The movie was, indeed, an inventive little thriller. George’s character had checked into an English country inn with her cousin, but in the morning the cousin was gone. Where’d she go? And how come no one in the hotel remembered seeing the cousin the night before, insisting that George had checked in alone? Who do we believe? Along with that intriguing premise, the installment, interestingly, seemed to be shot almost like a stage play, giving the work a deeply claustrophobic feeling.

“In the Steps of a Dead Man” (ITV, 1974)

The next week, another title and description appeared in TV Guide that also sounded interesting. It was also airing on Saturday night, on Channel 8 and started at 12:30am. It too was described as “English” and from ’74.  I tuned into it too. It was another nifty thriller. And to my surprise, it was written by the same screenwriter as “Come Out, Come Out”–Brian Clemens.

For weeks, then months afterward, Channel 8 continued to air this string of movies–all inventive, Hitchcockian-like stories; all at 12:30am on a Saturday night; all shot on videotape; all from the early ’70s; all written by Brian Clemens; all very English but almost always featuring at least one recognizable US actor (among them: Carroll Baker, Donna Mills, Barbara Feldon, Christopher George, Polly Bergen and, one of my favorite actors, Bradford Dillman).

Sadly, this was before the internet brought endless information and cat videos to our fingertips. We didn’t have IMDb or Google. We had a building in town called a “library” but even its well-stocked stacks did little to educate me about this group of films–I didn’t yet know they were part of a larger series titled Thriller–or about Brian Clemens.

I continued to watch the movies every week, often frustratingly failing to stay awake until the very end and sadly missing out of the action-packed finale or the big twist that I never saw coming.

Finally, I saved up enough of my paperboy money (thank you Galesburg Register-Mail!) to buy my first VCR. It was an RCA unit with a corded “remote” control and six-day timer! It got permanently programmed to tape WQAD on Saturday nights. With time, I built up quite the little VHS library of these late-night Clemens movies. The installments “Screamer” with Pamela Franklin and “The Eyes Have It” with Sinead Cusack were two early favorites.

I loved these movies! I got rabid! I couldn’t keep them to myself; I had to share them! I eventually began inviting friends over to watch them with me, on Friday evenings or even Sunday nights during the summer.

Together, we sat in the red-carpeted basement of my parents’ house. We loaded down the coffee table with plates of nachos and cheese melted in the microwave as well as a big plastic bowl of Kitchen Cooked potato chips, a Midwestern favorite. We watched these movies, sometimes two or three of them in a row; I like to think we were pioneers in the binge-watching movement of today.

“I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill” (ITV, 1974)

It wasn’t until many years later–probably post-college–that I finally found out a little more about this Clemens series which, after their initial airing in the early 1970s, got sold off to local US stations in the 1980s as “movies,” which is how I found them. In the 1980s, some were packaged as individual VHS rental releases and were put on the shelves of the many locally-owned places that preceded Blockbuster and bore names like Star-Time Video or Beta To The Max. In 2006, the ten episodes of season one were released on DVD by A&E Home Video.

With great pleasure, I can tell you that all of season one of Thriller has been acquired for the Library’s collections. I’ve watched a lot of them recently. They are still damn good.

This Friday the Packard Campus Theater will be screening two Thriller episodes from the Library’s collection–“In the Steps of a Dead Man” and “I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill.” Once again, just like in the ’80’s, I’ll be “hosting” the evening, introducing these underrated works to new audiences. Only, this time, the screen will be much bigger and the environment will be much nicer than my parents’ basement. Like I said, full circle.

Now if I could only get some Kitchen Cooked potato chips.

3 Comments

  1. Garold
    October 25, 2014 at 10:31 am

    I love those 80 times movies movies

  2. Deidre Lockyer
    April 12, 2017 at 8:23 am

    I grew up watching the “Thriller” TV shows in Australia, where it was on weekly. Such vibrant memories! Remember the one with Diana Dors as the warty housekeeper/nanny, and the one with the house full of occupants that were really only one BAD tenant? Donna Mills reminded me a lot of Olivia Newton-John ( at that time), and I loved seeing who would guest star each week. How about the show “The Evil Touch”, introduced by Anthony Quale?
    Great seventies TV! No wonder I’m strange.

  3. Deidre Lockyer
    April 12, 2017 at 8:29 am

    Hi, me again. “The Evil Touch” was an Australasian produced show, wondering if it got to the USA or UK? It would be worth checking out for people into these creep fests. Great stuff.

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