Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pigeons From Hell (1961, Thriller)

"Thriller" was an anthology TV-series, dealing in stories of suspense and the supernatural, that aired for only two seasons, from 1961-1962. Hosted by horror icon Boris Karloff, who introduced each episode with the quiet, captivating tone of a master teller of ghost stories, "Thriller" has been described by Stephen King as "...the best horror series ever put on TV." (Danse Macabre, 1981).

"Thriller" featured stories of grave-robbing and ghosts, bleeding paintings and haunted mirrors. Several stories were penned by genre author Robert Bloch (The Hungry Glass, Till Death Do Us Part, et al.)

But the episode I want to share with you now was based on a short story that Stephen King has called "one of the finest horror stories of our century". Novelist Joe R. Lansdale, who adapted the same story for a graphic novel in 2008, has written of this "Thriller" episode that it was "...for many years the most terrifying thing ever shown on television."

It's Robert E. Howard's 1938 short story for Weird Tales magazine, "Pigeons From Hell." If you haven't already read this taut chiller about the evil thing hiding in a decrepit mansion that stands in ruin among the New England forest pines, (later adaptations relocate the story to the bayous of Louisiana), click on over here and check it out. Even though its over 70 years old, it doesn't show its age at all, and remains a quick and chilling read.

The adaptation for "Thriller" changes some names and tweaks the chronology, but its an otherwise faithful adaptation of the original story, which you will definitely want to have read before proceeding further, as there are SPOILERS AHEAD.

Brothers John (David Whorf, dark hair) and Tim Branner (Brandon deWilde, blond) get their car stuck in a gorge while driving down an old country road in Louisiana's swampy backwoods.

Drawn by an otherworldy howling that sounds like a cross between a cat and a baby's cry, Jim wanders into the forest towards a ruined old mansion.

The grounds are swarming with pigeons, which are startled when a second howling cry erupts from the house.

Entering the mansion, the brothers call up to see if anyone is home.

No one responds, but the audience gets to see something the brothers don't... an upstairs door being slowly pulled shut (left side).

The brothers decide to stay the night in the house. They bed down in a neighboring room with a fireplace, and an old portrait of a former resident.

John is awakened in the middle of the night by a hypnotic whistling, accompanied by the rumbling sound of cooing pigeons. He appears to be in a trance as he stalks methodically up the stairs.

Moments later, he lets out a horrific scream, which wakes Tim. Tim runs up the stairs in pursuit of John, only to encounter his brother in a zombie-like state, his head bleeding from what should be a mortal wound, and a hatchet in his hand.

John attacks Tim with the axe, but he manages to get away, fleeing the mansion, only to hit his head while navigating the night-black forest.

He revives in the custody of Sheriff Buckner (Crahan Denton), who had found Tim's catatonic body in the forest and moved him to a nearby shack. Tim explains the baffling story as best he can. Buckner finds it highly suspect, but perceives just enough truth in Tim's fear to give him some benefit of doubt.

They return to the mansion to investigate.

Once upstairs, they find a splash of blood and an old diary.

Buckner explains that the mansion was the property of three sisters, the Blassenville's, who had lived there since the Civil War era, but had left one by one over fifty years ago. The diary appears to be that of the last sister to leave, Elizabeth Blassenville, and has entries describing her fear of some kind of supernatural monster stalking her throughout the house.

Buckner takes Tim to a man he knows, Jacob Blount (Ken Renard), who may know more about the Blassenville's.

Jacob tells of a monster that may be haunting the Blassenville's mansion, a zuvembie, a human who, through voodoo magic, is turned into an undead creature that can hypnotize the living with the sound of its voice, and command a lifeless body until its flesh is cold!

He also reveals that there was a fourth sister, a half-sister who was mistreated by the other Blassenvilles, and who lived as a servant at the house. Buckner and Tim return to the house, planning to wait until morning to perform a thorough search. But they get separated, and Tim is beckoned upstairs by the whistling sound.

Finally we see a glimpse of what is waiting for him upstairs... the fourth sister, the zuvembie!

She approaches the entranced Tim with her hatchet raised to strike!

Meanwhile, Buckner has discovered a secret door to a hidden chamber that is housing what's left of the other three Bassenvilles, who hadn't left the mansion after all.

I won't completely give the ending away here, and instead encourage you to read the original text.

"Thriller" has not been officially released to DVD yet, but there is a placeholder entry for it on Amazon.com where you can sign up to be notified, a promising sign.


The Headless Werewolf said...

Great screen caps! "Pigeons from Hell" is one of the greatest haunted house stories ever written, and we NEED that Thriller adaptation on DVD NOW!

Kevin Kidney said...

Oh my gosh, I have GOT to see this!

ormon said...

I have been trying to get a copy of this from netflix for sometime. Never have seen this series but can't wait to check it out.

Jim said...

Under no circumstances should ANYONE watch this by themselves, especially at night.

This will scare the you-know-what out of you!

It will make you say your Sunday School lesson BACKWARDS!

I saw the original back in 1961. Had to sleep with a light on in my room for about the next year.

Lee Hartsfeld said...

I first saw "Pigeons" as a re-run, circa 1970. Later, I was stunned to discover that John Newland of "One Step Beyond" had directed. I still have a hard time believing that he was behind something this scary.

jeanlass said...

Uh oh, I'm watching this right now... in the middle of the night... in the dark... alone!! I'm doomed. Just wanted to let everyone know that this and every other episode of Thriller is available on Netflix streaming now- enjoy!

CARL001 said...

Sorry,terrible adaptation.Some of the changes were good but not better than the original.I felt the producers never got the full story.
The lamp instead of te torch was a classic example.The darkness was so thick the torch could not penetrate whereas the lamp just kept going off & coming back on.
Could have been good...