Monday, March 4, 2013

Thriller - "Pigeons From Hell"

Season 1, Episode 36
Original Airdate: June 6, 1961
Writer: John Kneubuhl (adaptation), Robert E. Howard (original story)
Director: John Newland
Producers: William Frye, Maxwell Shane
Cast: Brandon De Wilde, Crahan Denton, David Whorf, Boris Karloff

“Pigeons From Hell” is a masterpiece of slow-burn horror. At first glance, its creators seem content to embrace all the usual trappings that are trotted out to achieve cheap, impact-less scares. But instead of the cheap scares, we are instead treated to slow tension building over the course of the hour, deliberately paced to get under the viewer’s skin and linger there.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Two brothers (Brandon De Wilde and David Whorf) find their car broken down on an abandoned highway in the middle of nowhere. They come upon a nearby abandoned mansion… and then the horrors begin to happen. But instead of a bunch of scares straight out of the Universal B-horrors of the 1940s, writer John Kneubuhl and director John Newland aim to create the best movie Val Lewton never produced. It is an adaptation of a great short story by Robert E. Howard (a writer who inadvertently was the cause of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career by creating “Conan the Barbarian,” but don’t hold that against him), and in his adaptation Kneubuhl makes two distinct but very smart changes.

In the original story the young men are just friends, but here they are brothers. When Whorf’s character gets an ax to the skull, there is much more emotional resonance for both the audience and De Wilde’s Timothy. The original story worked fine without it, but here it gives the death extra significance, especially considering we only have five minutes with the characters before one is murdered.

Second, the short story takes place over the course of two or three days and nights, but Kneubuhl condenses the story to a single, endless night of horrors. That way the atmosphere is relentless – the characters cannot escape the dark and neither can we.

The most overt horror in the episode comes early: The aforementioned ax murder. While his brother sleeps, Whorf’s Johnny is drawn up the stairs of the deserted mansion by ghostly singing. When Timothy goes searching, he finds Johnny’s skull cracked in two. But that doesn’t make Johnny any less mobile – his brains still bleeding all over, Johnny chases Timothy out of the mansion, waving about the ax that was used to kill him. Despite the grisliness of what I have just described, the scene is played almost entirely by suggestion. While Johnny stalks Timothy in the hallway, we never actually see the split skull or the brains… all we see are drops of blood streaming down the front of his face. Everything else is hidden by the shadows.

Timothy manages to make it a few hundred yards away from the mansion before passing out. He is brought to the nearest Sheriff (Crahan Denton) by a town hick, and when the Sheriff decides to take the boy back to the mansion to investigate, we get the single inadvertently funny moment of the episode: The hick busts out of the house they are in and rushes off into the nearby woods like the Roadrunner escaping the Coyote. De Wilde, who many will remember for saying “Shane!” a thousand times in the film classic, also has the task of attempting to explain what happened to him in the mansion while being overcome with grief for his brother, and though his line readings might come off as hackneyed in another film, his innocent looks and inability to properly articulate himself actually works in favor of the character.

The Sheriff takes Timothy back to the mansion to investigate, and instead of a bunch of boo-scares and chains rattling, Newland provides viewers with a single, indelible image. Every time the duo enter the room where Johnny died, their kerosene lantern will not stay lit. The moment they exit the room, it comes back on. Any fan of a good horror movie knows the darkness is much scarier than seeing what is in the darkness, and that is never more obvious than here. Also, because there are no silly noises or faux-climaxes in the sequence, the viewer is consistently on the edge of his seat. There is no end to the tension until they leave the house – the threat of something bad happening ensuring the viewer cannot relax.

The atmosphere is only aided by the black-and-white cinematography, shot by Lionel Lindon (who also shot the incredible “The Manchurian Candidate” and the minor noir classics “Whirlpool” and “The Blue Dahlia”). I doubt there’s a shot in the film where everything in a given set is fully lit. Lindon uses the shadows to play with our expectations of terror, especially considering a character says early that the swampland is crawling with snakes. The lighting also makes some old-man makeup that would doubtless look hackneyed in color into something downright creepy.

Kneubuhl and Newland approach the episode’s climax with the same slow-burn mentality, refusing to ratchet up the pace for no good reason. As a result, Timothy’s slow, zombie-like walk up that decrepit staircase toward his destiny becomes excruciatingly suspenseful.

It's all about those eyebrows.
I got the “Thriller” boxed set for Christmas this year and have been consistently surprised at the quality of the episodes. It’s the only hourlong anthology series I’ve seen thus far that makes good use of its entire running time (unfortunately, “The Outer Limits” often feels like a half-hour show stretched to its breaking point to fill its hour) on a regular basis. I’ve watched about half the series (the first season is 37 episodes, so it’s not like I’m being lazy) and find that even the lesser episodes are still of legitimate quality, and Jerry Goldsmith’s musical scores are feature-film worthy, even eclipsing Bernard Herrmann’s scores for “The Twilight Zone.” The show pays homage to the Universal classic horrors of the 30s, especially with its use of host Boris Karloff (whose eyebrows here are epic, matched only perhaps by Larry Hagman’s in the “Dallas” reboot), but takes most of its inspiration from Lewton’s horror films of the 40s. Still, every now and then you can see the viciousness of the 50s Hammer films sneaking in. Since I love all those eras of fright, I feel like a kid in a candy shop every time I insert a new disc. “Pigeons From Hell” is my favorite, but I could have easily chosen “The Grim Reaper,” “Parasite Mansion,” “Late Date” “The Hungry Glass” or “The Purple Room”…and that’s just from the first season. It’s such a shame this show doesn’t exist in the public consciousness in the same way “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” does, because it certainly deserves to be.

“Pigeons From Hell” is available on DVD and YouTube.

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