Saturday 23 April 2016

Thriller - Pigeons from Hell (1961)

Pigeons from Hell was first screened in 1961 as episode 36 from the first season of NBC’s anthology series Thriller which ran from 1960 to 1962. It’s widely considered to be one of the best, if not the very best, episode of the entire series.

It helps that it happens to be based on one of the best short stories of Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), the creator of Conan the Barbarian.

Two young men, brothers in fact, take shelter in an isolated decaying southern mansion after their car breaks down. The most sinister thing about the mansion, curiously, is the presence of the pigeons. Something seems rather wrong about the birds. 

The two brothers, Timothy (Brandon de Wilde) and Johnny (David Whorf) settle down for the night but one of them will not live until morning. When Sheriff Buckner (Crahan Denton) arrives the surviving brother, Timothy, has a strange tale to tell. Johnny tried to kill him, but Johnny was already dead. This is just the beginning of a night of terror.

There are several things that make this episode notable. The flat lighting for which television in 1961 was renowned is nowhere in evidence here. Lionel Lindon’s superb cinematography is moody and atmospheric with an extraordinarily bold use of shadows.

It also pushes the edge of the envelope as far as gore is concerned. By later standards it’s mild and it’s certainly not gratuitous or excessive but in 1961 it was pretty startling.

Director John Newland had an interesting career in television. He’s best remembered as the host of the paranormal anthology series One Step Beyond (1959-61) and he directed no less than 96 episodes of that series. Pigeons from Hell may well be the best thing he ever did.

Which brings us back to those pigeons. Making pigeons sinister and frightening isn’t easy but Newland manages the trick very effectively. There are moments that anticipate some of the most famous scenes in Hitchcock’s The Birds and while I’m not going to claim that Newland was in the same league as Hitchcock there are scenes in Pigeons from Hell that can quite legitimately be compared to Hitchcock’s film. There are also some definite thematic links to Psycho.

Newland makes masterful use of the setting. There’s a wonderful decaying staircase in the mansion. We know, and the characters know, that as long as they remain on the ground floor they’re safe. Whenever they climb that staircase they’re in danger. But they can’t solve the mystery unless they do climb that staircase. It’s almost like a bridge from the everyday world to a nightmare world and Newland exploits it to the full.

The pacing is leisurely, but deliberately so. We get one big scare early on and after that the atmosphere of menace and evil builds slowly towards further big scares that we know are certainly coming.

It’s interesting to compare this episode to the much-admired episode of The Twilight Zone I wrote about recently - The Invaders. Both episodes show that by the early 60s television was certainly coming of age. Both are ambitious and take risks stylistically. The Invaders was written by Richard Matheson. Pigeons from Hell was based on a Robert E. Howard story. These are two writers who understood the mechanism of terror very well indeed, and understood that the less obvious terrors are the most frightening.

Brandon de Wilde was only 19 at the time but gives a fine performance, ably supported by Crahan Denton. Both actors are willing to go a little over-the-top when it’s necessary.

Pigeons from Hell lives up to its reputation as one of the finest moments of the Thriller series. Great television.

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