Saturday, August 01, 2015

Whistling Past the Graveyard with Kolchak

My memories of this series, starring Darren McGavin as Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak, are spotty but intense. So let’s skip straight to them by examining each of the entries in the series, starting with a quick background.
The series grew out of two TV movies written by the masterful Richard Matheson. The first Movie-of-the-Week, The Night Stalker, was based on a novel by Jeff Rice, The Kolchak Papers. (The novel was re-released under the title Kolchak: The Night Stalker to tie in to the movie.) Produced by Dan Curtis (creator of Dark Shadows) and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, it had Carol Lynley (one of the survivors of The Poseidon Adventure) as Kolchak’s love interest, and Simon Oakland as his irritable editor, and Barry Atwater as Janos Skorzeny, a vampire loose in Las Vegas. Some of the other names on the bill included Claude Akins, Elisha Cook Jr., and Larry Linville.
According to Internet sources, The Night Stalker was the highest-rated TV movie of the year (it aired Jan. 11, 1972), and Matheson won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1973 for Best TV Feature or Miniseries Teleplay. Theme music composer Gil Mellé also scored The Questor Tapes (and you can hear similar themes there).
I first saw the original movie on its initial broadcast, watching it on a small black-and-white TV in my Uncle Joe’s room at the Massey home until it got to be too spooky, and I moved to the family room for the last act, where I could safely stand in the kitchen door to keep an eye on the set. I was 7, and already had been traumatized by watching the original Bela Lugosi Dracula on an afternoon broadcast when I was 6; that viewing made me wander the halls of our house at night, afraid the vampire was inside (I know, it was stupid for a kid to guard his home against Dracula, but did you notice the use of the word “traumatized”?).
This time, I was carrying fear of Skorzeny around when we moved into a new house and my Uncle Joe thought it would be hilarious to make noises outside my window the night we moved in; I looked out, and he jumped up to scare me, and I ran screaming down the hallway to where the adults were in the living room. I seem to recall Joe (who was about 14 years old) getting a sound spanking as a result.
Matheson also wrote the sequel telefilm, The Night Strangler, which broadcast a year later, Jan. 16, 1973. (This time, Rice wrote a novelization of the Matheson script.) This was the tale of a serial murderer in Seattle who drained the blood of his victims to feed his immortality. The cast included Jo Ann Pflug as Kolchak’s new love interest, and Simon Oakland as his still long-suffering editor. Others in the cast included Richard Anderson (known for The Six-Million Dollar Man), Wally Cox, Margaret (Wicked Witch of the West) Hamilton, John Carradine, and Al (Grandpa Munster) Lewis.
I remember watching this one from behind the kitchen counter at my Aunt Dot and Uncle Edgar Croley’s house. (Apparently, "comfort food" means something different to me than most people.) Again, the adults were in the living room, or possibly at the dining room table playing cards. I wasn’t as terrified by this one, and the idea of Kolchak discovering clues that exposed the immortal’s long life (like photos of him from different time periods) was chilling and compelling. (Too bad it has been overdone in genre films and movies since then.)
(Many years later, I had the weird experience one night in my teens of watching TV when Star Trek was being shown in a late time slot, followed by a scary movie — and first, the local station showed a news program looking at the “known facts” of the Ripper murders; the Star Trek episode that night was “Wolf in the Fold,” about a non-physical entity called “Redjac” that was responsible for the Ripper murders; followed by The Night Strangler. The news program mentioned other, later killings that were similar to those attributed to Jack the Ripper; Trek listed “Redjac” killings at various times throughout history; and then Strangler played with the same “periodic resurgence of murder” concept. I have often wondered if anyone else noticed the same synchronicity that night.)
At any rate, ABC recognized a hit, and rather than order up another TV movie (apparently Matheson and William F. Nolan (co-creator of the original Logan’s Run novel) had already written a script for The Night Killers, which would have pit Kolchak against androids), the network ordered a series.
Here’s a personal episode guide:
The Ripper — Director Allen Baron, writer Rudolph Borchert; aired Sept. 13, 1974. Another serial killer, this time actually Jack the Ripper.
The Zombie — Director Alex Grasshoff, writers Zekial Marko and David Chase (who would later create the HBO series The Sopranos); aired Sept. 20, 1974. A woman turns her grandson into a voodoo-style zombie slave.
They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be... — Director Allen Baron, writer Rudolph Borchert (story by Dennis Clark); aired Sept. 27, 1974. In what ABC beancounters must have seen as a brilliant move, no makeup effects are needed after a UFO lands and an invisible alien attacks, draining the bone marrow of victims. (I was 10 and knew they were getting off easy. It’s one thing to “hide” a monster in the dark, and another thing altogether to make “invisibility” frightening. They failed.) Unlike every other episode, which finds our hero somehow foiling the monster, Kolchak fails and the alien returns to the stars.
The Vampire — Director Don Weis, writer David Chase (story by Bill Stratton); aired         October 4, 1974. Kolchak discovers that one of Skorzeny’s victims survived as a vampire; she has made the mistake of moving to L.A., where he gets on her trail. I recall this one being as creepy in many ways as the original telefilm.
(After this episode aired, the series, originally titled “The Night Stalker,” went on a hiatus, and when it returned, it had a new title, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”)
The Werewolf — Director Allen Baron, writers David Chase and Paul Playdon; aired Nov. 1, 1974. Kolchak goes on a sea cruise and discovers a werewolf killing passengers under the pretty moon. Watched this at the Massey house, which means it was at least memorable, but even as a 10-year-old I knew it was a goofy premise. Caught it on a rerun at home on my old black-and-white TV.
Firefall — Director Don Weis, writer Bill S. Ballinger; aired Nov. 8, 1974. Not too sure I even remember this one. I know I watched it, but it left no impression. It involved a ghost who tries to possess a conductor’s body.
The Devil’s Platform — Director Allen Baron, writer Donn Mullally, story by Tim Maschler; aired Nov. 15, 1974. This one gave me chills for a different reason. Yes, I have always been scared silly by stories about Satan or demons, but this one introduced me to the idea that politicians and authority figures might have an evil agenda; it’s a lesson I’ve learned over and over again in adult life.
Bad Medicine — Director Alex Grasshoff, writers L. Ford Neale and John Huff; aired Nov. 29, 1974. A Native American shaman spirit is committing murders to settle a debt so his spirit can move on. Looking back, it was a precursor for other Indian-legend scares, like The Manitou, and it stoked my interest in Native American beliefs.
The Spanish Moss Murders — Director Gordon Hessler, writers Al Friedman and David Chase, story by Friedman; aired Dec. 6, 1974. I remember this as the “Swamp Thing” episode, as I had read Uncle Joe's few issues of the early Swamp Thing comic by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, and the moss-encrusted creature birthed from nightmares in this episode seemed to originate from the same region of our collective unconscious.
The Energy Eater — Director Alex Grasshoff, writers Arthur Rowe and Rudolph Bochert, story by Rowe; aired Dec. 13, 1974. Another Native American legend comes to life after a hospital is constructed on land that originally belonged to a tribe. I remember watching this one on a TV in our family room in the “new” house, the one my parents built when I was in second grade (the same one where Uncle Joe scared me).
Horror In The Heights — Director Michael T. Caffey, writer Jimmy Sangster; aired Dec. 20, 1974. I don’t think I understood what this one was about at the time, as it involved a Jewish community being attacked by a Hindu demon and somehow also worked in the swastika (which is a Hindu symbol meant to invite the goddess Lakshmi to visit a home during festival time). A bit confusing for a 10-year-old watching this in the family room.
Mr. R.I.N.G. — Director Gene Levitt, writers L. Ford Neale and John Huff; aired Jan. 10, 1975. The anti-Questor kills whoever it feels threatened by. Kind of a straight-up story, much easier for me to digest. Still didn’t stop me from wanting to be an android.
Primal Scream — Director Robert Scheerer, writers Bill S. Ballinger and David Chase; aired Jan. 17, 1975. Cells discovered in the arctic ice result in deformed homicidal hominids. In my brain, it exists as a precursor to “A Cold Night’s Death,” a 1977 TV movie starring Robert Culp, and even the recent Syfy series Helix.
The Trevi Collection — Director Don Weis, writer Rudolph Borchert; aired Jan. 24, 1975. High fashion meets witchcraft in another tale I have little memory of.
Chopper — Director Bruce Kessler, writers Steve Fisher and David Chase, from a story by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale (the first professional writing credit for the guys who created Back to the Future); aired Jan. 31, 1975. The Headless Horseman legend becomes a story of a headless motorcyclist bent on vengeance.
Demon In Lace — Director Don Weis, writers Stephen Lord, Michael Kozoll and David Chase, from a story by Lord; aired Feb. 7, 1975. A Sumerian succubus stays young by murdering young men; a story that never gets old, as it has cropped up innumerable times over the years.
Legacy of Terror — Director Don McDougall, writer Arthur Rowe; aired Feb. 14, 1975. Not much of a Valentine's Day episode, this time Kolchak fights an Aztec cult trying to resurrect the mummy of their god.
 The Knightly Murders — Director Vincent McEveety, writers Michael Kozoll and David Chase, story by Paul Magistretti; aired March 7, 1975. The ghost of a knight inhabits its former suit of armor and kills people.
The Youth Killer — Director Don McDougall, writer Rudolph Borchert; aired March 14, 1975. Cathy Lee Crosby (who also starred as Wonder Woman in a contemporary pilot) plays Helen of Troy, who sacrifices victims to Hecate to maintain her eternal youth.
The Sentry — Director Seymour Robbie, writers L. Ford Neale and John Huff; aired March 28, 1975. The Star Trek Gorn is takes the place of the Horta in a reworked version of the classic Trekisode "Devil in the Dark." This time it's a lizard creature that kills men working underground because they've stolen its eggs. I watched this on in my friend Randy's house, on a black-and-white set in his parent's room.
Although its stories seemed derivative, it's interesting to me how many modern series have dipped into Kolchak's well, such as The X-Files, where Darren McGavin played a character that supposedly founded the X-Files division. (McGavin also returned in a digital cameo in the pilot for the remade (and doomed) Night Stalker series in 2005, but that's another story.)

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