Monday, October 10, 2016

Season of Horror: Pigeons from Hell (1961)

It's time to revisit one of Thriller's most highly rated episodes, Pigeons from Hell. Just to put things in context, check out what folks were watching during the 1960-61 season.

Our show opens with a car driving off-road in a vehicle not made for off-road driving. The driver sideswipes a tree and then gets stuck in a sump. Two young guys step out of the car to check their predicament. While one guy notes the joys of the south, including the swamps, and blames the other for taking a shortcut, the other fella is not feeling in much of a joking mood about it. He comes up with a brilliant plan to locate a big pole in the middle of nowhere to jam under the front wheels to try and get some traction. Since it's his plan, his buddy suggests he go find the pole. Turns out they're not going to need it.

While searching the woods, a yowling sound grabs his attention. He walks toward the sound and sees a group of pigeons congregated on the grounds of a run down estate. The yowling sound happens again as he stands among them, causing the pigeons to fly up in his face. He freaks out and yells for Tim, who suggests they go check out the old house. He is still spooked but follows Tim into the creepy old place.

We cut to Karloff in a foggy wood, who describes the many frightening creatures of the swamp, and notes that our young friend is alarmed by seemingly harmless pigeons, but that he has cause for alarm because they are the pigeons from hell. He relates how spirits come back from the dead to guard their ancestral home from intruders, who in life fed on evil but in death return to feed upon the living, driven by the spell of a terrible curse. He also lets us know the two boys are brothers, but his intro gave no indication of the horrifying event that follows.

"You mean he can turn women into zombies?"

The boys investigate the old house, which appears deserted, though they call out to see if anyone is home. Though they are unaware, those of us in the audience see a door swing shut upstairs. Creepy! They enter a large drawing room and Tim suggests they get their sleeping bags and spend the night. His brother seems apprehensive, and Tim reminds him of the warning they received about snakes from a gas station attendant. His brother stays and looks closely at a portrait of a woman hanging over the fireplace.

Night has fallen, but the pigeons are cooing and are giving Tim's bro the heebie-jeebies. The boys snuggle up in their sleeping bags and drift off to sleep. Some time later, Tim's brother awakens and we hear the sound of a woman's eerie vocalizing as the coos of the pigeons become louder, and he ascends the stairs toward the sound. Tim wakes up and sees that he is gone and gets up to look for him when he hears his anguished, terrifying cry. If that wasn't enough to scare the daylights out of kids in 1961, then what follows surely caused them to wait until the commercial break to change their wet pants.

Tim runs upstairs and we see his brother's silhouette coming out of a doorway holding a hatchet. As he moves into the light, we can see that both his head and the hatchet are bloodied, and we finally learn his name is John as Tim calls to him questioningly. John comes toward him in zombie trance and raises the hatchet to split his head likewise, but Tim's not having it and takes off running outside. He runs until his little legs give out and he falls and passes out on the ground. Typical horror victim.

In the days before Night of the Living Dead, this bloody zombie kid had to be one of the most frightening things imaginable on TV. It's still a pretty freaky scene. The thought that he could be roaming the woods with his bloody hatchet, looking to bury it in his brother's noggin, had to have put kids on edge. Sadly, that's not what happens.

Tim is found and brought to an old ramshackle cabin by one of the locals, who has enlisted the help of Sheriff Buckner. The Sheriff examines the kid's bruised head, and as he returns his ID to his pocket, Tim suddenly wakes and screams for Johnny. The Sheriff asks him to relate what happened and Tim, who has clearly been through a traumatic experience, tells how his brother tried to kill him, despite having his head split open. If you are caught up in the horror of the events, you hardly notice the bad acting, and can just chalk it up to the kid seeming like he's in shock. 

When Sheriff Buckner says that the only deserted house around there is the Blassenville plantation and tells Howard to get his shotgun to go back there, old Howard beats a fast track outta there like his pants are on fire. So the plucky Sheriff decides to take the traumatized kid back to the house, rather than getting him medical care.

Tim points out the stairs that Johnny came down and the Sheriff uses his lantern to examine the gruesome trail of blood tracking down the stairs. They go into the drawing room and stop short as they see John's corpse laying face down on his sleeping bag, hatchet still grasped in his hand. Tim reiterates that his brother tried to kill him, and the Sheriff turns him slightly to get a better look at his crushed skull before letting the body drop back down and resume it's grip on the hatchet.

Tim is sobbing unconvincingly as the Sheriff goes through John's pocket for his ID and then covers him with the sleeping bag. Tim keeps repeating that John tried to kill him and then relates how Johnny seemed to be listening to something ever since they saw the house, and then the pigeons started. The Sheriff, who has lived there all his life, has never seen any pigeons, and begins to suspect Tim. Poor anguished Tim is flabbergasted that Sheriff Buckner is yelling about having to hold him on suspicion of murder without any kind of evidence or reason to suspect him. Or maybe he's just stunned that the Sheriff is speaking all his words very loudly.

Sheriff Buckner decides to go upstairs to attempt an investigation and tells Tim to stay behind him, but warns him that he can shoot faster than a cat can jump, and he should forget any ideas about trying to put him away from behind. They follow Johnny's bloody trail and find where the initial gusher occurred. The Sheriff helpfully notes it's where he was hit and realizes he must have somehow been alive when he went downstairs, though he doesn't say how he knows, and we can only assume it was by the way the blood was spattered on the stairs, rather than smeared.

They enter the upstairs room and as they begin to explore, the lantern goes out, despite being full of kerosene and having a good wick. The Sheriff gets spooked and they leave the room. As they descend the stairs, the lamp mysteriously relights. Brave Buckner claims he's not going to tackle whatever is up there in the dark, and he yells at Tim when he asks what made the lantern die down and flare up again.

When Tim asks the Sheriff if he still believes he killed his brother, he says he doesn't, but that they can't bring his dead brother's body back to town because no one will believe the cockamamie story. He suggests they put Johnny in his wagon, and find out what is in the house that is probably laughing at them right now. His clever plan is for them to wait until something happens.

The Sheriff loads Johnny into his wagon and they go to the drawing room to wait for something to happen, which gives them time to discuss the history of the Blassenville sisters. Tim asks who is in the portrait that John was gawping at before his head was cleaved, and Sheriff Buckner says he thinks it's Miss Elizabeth, the last one to live on the plantation. Her other sisters disappeared and it was rumored Miss Elizabeth went to San Fran and got married about 50 years prior.

After all the chit chat, the Sheriff decides he's ready to go look upstairs again. Tim seems to have gotten over his shock and is cool with following the trail of his brother's blood back up the stairs to investigate whatever strange thing may be upstairs applying hatchets to the head. On the way the Sheriff tells him that it was hard for the sisters to keep the help around because they were mean, which made all the plantation workers run away except for Jacob Blount, who is still alive, old, and half out of his mind. The sisters beat Jacob and Eula Lee, a servant girl who finally ran away.

While looking around upstairs, they note that the piano keyboard is free of dust, as though someone had been playing it. The Sheriff finds Elizabeth's diary and asks Tim to read it. She writes that she senses someone prowling the house at night, fumbling at the door. The Sheriff concludes "the thing" was after her too. She also writes that the help has left and her sisters are gone and that if someone murdered her sisters, then Eula Lee named Jacob Blount.

As they leave the room, the Sheriff notices a door that was open when they had passed it is now shut. When they try to enter the room, the lantern extinguishes itself again and relights when they close the door back up. They decide to go see Jacob Blount.

They go to his house and let themselves in without knocking and wake the poor old guy. The Sheriff explains that a boy was murdered at the Blassenville place. Jacob says they're all dead but they come back at night--the pigeons. The Sheriff asks why the sisters beat Eula Lee, a poor servant girl, and Jacob corrects him, saying she was a lady of quali-tee, a Blassenville who had the same mother but a different father. Buckner works out that that was why the sisters were so mean to her and asks Jacob if Eula Lee is the one in the house.

Jacob says it's no human and the big serpent will send a little brother to kill him if he tells, that he promised never to tell when they made him a maker of zuvembies. Sheriff Buckner explains that a zuvembie is voodoo superstition, women that are not human any more. Jacob explains that they live forever and can command the dead, the snakes, the birds and that only a lead bullet can kill them. They start hearing the pigeons and Jacob says he can tell no more or they will come. Then he grabs a snake from the fireplace and starts screaming and shaking before collapsing. The Sheriff intends to make an incision and bleed the poison out, but Jacob is already dead. When Tim reminds him about the serpent sending a little brother, Buckner starts screaming again.

When they return to the plantation, they see that the Sheriff's wagon is covered with pigeons on the roof and hood. Inside, Tim asks what they'll do if nothing happens and the Sheriff explains they'll have to take in dead Johnny and hope they are believed. Buckner thinks it must be Eula Lee but can't work it out because she'd be so old. He didn't believe what Jacob said about the zuvembies. Tim tries to sleep and awakes with a start, crying out for Johnny, when he realizes the Sheriff is gone and he is alone.

He ascends the stairs, calling out to the Sheriff. He changes his mind and runs back downstairs when he hears the call of the pigeons and the same eerie vocalizing that puts him in a trance. We see an old woman appear, who comes toward him with a cleaver, but good old Sheriff Buckner finally makes himself useful and puts some lead bullets into the old girl, causing her to scamper off into the other room.

He gives Tim a good shake and tells him to stay put while he opens a secret passage behind a fireplace and discovers the skeletons of the three Blassenville sisters that Eula Lee murdered. Tim has followed and gives a gasp when he sees them. Sheriff Buckner and Tim find Eula Lee slumped in her chair and stand looking over her.

to be continued...

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