Thursday, October 21, 2010

31 Days of Monsters!

Kolchak: The Night Stalker
(Part 2 of 3)

Kolchak's back, baby! Chicago's got him! And this time it's every week!

The series actually premiered under the title The Night Stalker, and kept that title for four episodes before adding the word Kolchak in order to let the audience know it was McGavin's character who was doing the nocturnal prowling in new episodes and not a repeat of the TV movie airing. The series quickly established a formula: Kolchak, now working for Tony Vincenzo and the Independent News Service (INS) in Chicago, investigates after someone or something bumps some people off. The brash reporter comes into conflict with the police captain assigned to the case; argues with Vincenzo; and annoys nearly everyone else he comes into contact with. Eventually, he discovers who or what is killing people; it's most usually the what, and because no one will believe him, Kolchak takes it upon himself to stop whatever horrible monster threatens the lives of Chicago's denizens. He writes up the story, and the story is squashed, with only Kolchak and the audience knowing the truth about what happened. In addition to the returning duo, the series added Jack Grinnage as Carl's office antagonist Ron "Uptight" Updyke, who appears in all but a couple of episodes, and in episode five, Emily McDevitt as Miss Emily Cowles, who is the only person who believes in Carl, and who got her place in the cast through an interesting turn of events, as chronicled below.

Ron "Uptight" Updyke and Tony Vincenzo

Miss Emily Cowles

The Episodes

1.) The Ripper (original airdate - 9/13/74) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
If by chance you happened to be in the Windy City between
May 25 and May 29 of this year, you would have had good
reason to be terrified. During this time Chicago was stalked
by a horror so frightening, so fascinating, that it ranks with
the great unsolved mysteries of all time. It's been the fictional
subject of films, plays, even an opera. Now, here, are the true facts.

The first episode is entertaining, but it's weird to me that they went with it first, as it seems to be a boiled down mini version of both of the TV movies - guy in cape, series of murders going back decades - plus there was the whole "not using Jack the Ripper for the second movie" thing. But then, it was a whole new ballgame without Dan Curtis or Richard Matheson involved. I'm not going to lay out all the behind the scenes battles that went on - those stories are easily found elsewhere - but here at least is the foundation - there were several producers across the run of the season, most leaving due to mental bruising and abrasions from dealing with Darren McGavin, who didn't get the Executive Producer credit onscreen, but who might as well have had it off camera and who had very definite ideas about what this series was supposed to be. He didn't win all or even most of the arguments, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

Mickey Gilbert as The Ripper.

 Guest star Ruth McDevitt here plays an old woman who watches her neighbors with binoculars and writes to the INS "Advice to the Lovelorn" columnist about a creepy man in her neighborhood, which leads Kolchak to her and provides him with some important info on the Ripper. She proved so popular with the crew they added her to the show as a regular with the fifth episode, playing a different character - the very advice columnist she wrote to in this episode! Ken Lynch (Willie Dynamite) plays the first of a long line of police captains infuriated by the irascible Kolchak. Also with Beatrice Colen (TV's Happy Days) and veteran stuntman Mickey Gilbert as the Ripper.


 2.) The Zombie (original airdate - 9/20/74)

Kolchak's opening narration:
Popular folklore would have us believe that deep in
the underworld there are ruthless men who fear nothing.
This story should debunk that myth.

The series really kicks into high gear with this episode. When several mobsters turn up dead with their spines snapped, Carl digs in and finds someone has brought back a man killed by the mafia as a zombie to get revenge. This episode has one of the scariest climaxes ever on television. 
The zombie (Earl Faison) goes off his low sodium diet.
Some neat trivia - this episode involving mobsters was written by none other than David Chase (creator of The Sopranos)! Our Angry Cop this episode is Charles Aidman (narrator of the 80's Twilight Zone!). Also among the familiar faces in the guest cast for this episode: J. Pat O'Malley (frequent TV guest star), Antonio (Huggy Bear) Fargas, Scatman Crothers (The Shining), and John Fiedler (the voice of Piglet himself!) as Kolchak's three times recurring pal in the city morgue Gordy "The Ghoul" Spangler. This episode also marks the first of three episode appearances by Carole Ann Susi as Monique Marmelstein, the obnoxious daughter of the INS top dog. Ms. Susi now supplies the voice of Howard's unseen mother on The Big Bang Theory!


3.) They Have Been They Are They Will Be (original airdate - 9/27/74)

Kolchak's opening narration:
I knew this one would be more than the biggest story of my career.
It was the biggest story in the lives of everyone on this planet. I
fought for the story, fought harder than ever before. I wanted
people to know, to be prepared... if you can be prepared for
something like this.

Carl investigates when strange thefts and deaths are occuring all over the city. The stolen items include a load of lead ingots and other strange items, and the bodies (human and animal) have all of the bone marrow sucked out. Eventually, Carl sees one of these crimes happen. Wait, I mean, he doesn't see it, as the perpetrator is an unseen force, and all signs begin to point to an extraterrestrial origin.
Of course an invisible alien has a visible spaceship! How else would he know where he parked?

Not a gem, but perfectly watchable, with James Gregory (TV's Barney Miller) as the Frustrated Flatfoot, and support from guests Mary Wickes (Sister Act), Dick Van Patten (TV's Eight is Enough), Len Lesser (Uncle Leo from TV's Seinfeld!), and the second appearance of three for both Carole Ann Susi and John Fiedler.

4.) Vampire (original airdate - 10/4/74)

Kolchak's opening narration:
They were tearing up an old road to lay more freeway
a few miles south of Las Vegas. The State of Nevada's
Department of Highway's digging would be a help to
thousands of motorists. But to one other person, it would
turn out to be a nightmare.

In the series' only sequel, one of Janos Skorzeny's vampiric victims in Vegas is dug up by a night working construction crew, and not having been destroyed by the sun or a stake through the heart, she promptly takes off to Los Angeles, leaving a series of bloodless bodies in her wake. When Carl gets wind of the vampiric slayings, he cons Tony into sending him to LA to interview a spiritual guru, but Kolchak's really out to finish what he started in Las Vegas once and for all.

Carl finds his trip to Los Angeles is about to really start sucking.
 This is a solid episode, well worth repeating a monster, with some good creepy moments (see pic). Guest Cop for this outing is William Daniels (TV's Boy Meets World, and the original voice of KITT!), and the guest stars include Jan Murray (borscht belt comedian, frequent talk show guest in the 70's), Larry Storch (TV's F Troop), Milt Kamen (Mother, Jugs, and Speed), and Suzanne Charny (Hollywood Harry) as the vampire.

Something has Ron flustered, something has Tony's ulcer acting up.
One and the same, sharing the name: Carl Kolchak.

5.) The Werewolf (original airdate - 11/1/74) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
Admittedly the story you are about to read is bizarre, incredible.
Those of you who wish to avoid being unsettled, who wish to
avoid thinking, will label it insane. And though you the reader
would find these facts almost impossible to substantiate, that does
not change their nature. Facts they are. I know. I saw them happen.

A month off, and the show returns on the day after Halloween with Miss Emily now played by Ruth McDevitt and an extra word in the title. When Tony can't go on a singles cruise because of a surprise tax audit, he sends Kolchak in his place to write an expose of the singles scene. Instead, Carl finds himself in the middle of yet another monster mystery as slashed bodies start turning up.

No spoilers here!  ??? as the werewolf.
 When all the evidence starts to point to lycanthropy, Carl goes after the story with his usual zeal, much to the consternation of police captain...er, I mean, ship's captain Henry Jones (Support Your Local Sheriff!), standing in for the usual P.O.ed Policeman. But Carl has bigger fish to fry, like which passenger is the one turning hairy and getting scary? This episode features the familiar faces of Dick Gautier (Hymie the Robot on TV's Get Smart), Nita Talbot (Puppet Master II), Bob Hastings (McHale's Navy and the voice of Commissioner Gordon in Batman the Animated Series), and Eric Braeden (TV's Young and the Restless). It's not a perfect episode, but you know they were going to bring a werewolf in to the series at some point, and there are a couple of clever twists about being on a ship in the middle of the sea and the full moon that make this episode stand out, even if the monster is a little iffy in effects and appearance.

6.) Firefall  (original airdate - 11/8/74)  

Kolchak's opening narration:
Remember the penny arcades that used to be so much fun
when you were a kid? For a handful of coins you could test
your strength, your skill at a pinball machine. Those arcades
were a lot of things to a lot of kids, but there was one particular
arcade that represented something special for me. It was here
that began one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

When several bodies turn up charred from spontaneous combustion, Carl jumps into the fray and finds a strange fact about all of the deaths. Apparently the apparition of a famous orchestra conductor was seen at the scenes of the deaths, but in a twist the conductor isn't dead. Kolchak eventually learns that a vengeful ghost known as a 'doppelganger' is behind it all, appearing as the conductor as a part of taking over the man's life. When Kolchak himself is marked for a hot time in the old town tonight, he must stay awake until he can find a way to stop the ghost once and for all.

Is this the real guy, or the murderous apparition? Whew, scary!
This episode was hard to see after its initial airing, due to the fact that Universal removed it and three other episodes from the syndication package and edited them into rarely seen fake Kolchak sequel movies. (See next paragraph for more info on these) As a result I've seen this episode far fewer times than pretty much any other. For that reason, that it seems almost new to me, and combined with the unusual aspect of the "monster of the week" and some great creepy shots of the doppelganger leering at Kolchak from a distance, this episode is a keeper. Our police antagonist for this episode is Philip Carey (TV's One Life to Live). The other guest players include David Doyle (Bosley himself!) and Fred Beir and Madlyn Rhue (two more familar faces all over television in guest spots in the 60's and 70's.)

After the series was out of production, Universal cobbled together two more Kolchak movies by taking the episodes Firefall and The Energy Eater, which combined into Kolchak-The Night Stalker: Crackle of Death, and Demon in Lace and Legacy of Terror were mashed up into Kolchak-The Night Stalker: The Demon and the Mummy. They were released to television syndication in the United States, but I don't ever remember ever seeing them. I did run across a VHS tape of at least one of the two "movies," and I wish now that I'd made the purchase as they do feature some new linking narration from McGavin. The episodes in their original form were unseen until a Columbia House VHS video release of all the episodes as the 'collector's edition.' (Which I bought, laying out almost $300 for the whole set with shipping and handling. Whew. The DVD set cost me less than $30. *sigh*)

These guys had enough chemistry to start a new periodic table.

7.) The Devil's Platform (original airdate - 11/15/74) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
The old cliche that politics makes strange bedfellows is only
too true. At one time or another, various and sundry politicians
have found themselves, when it proved expedient, of course,
sharing a blanket with the military, organized crime, disgruntled,
gun-toting dairy farmers, the church, famous athletes, the
comedians - the list is endless. But there was a senatorial race
not so long ago right here in Illinois where the strangest bedfellow
of all was found under the sheets. The strangest... and certainly
the most terrifying.

As we have long suspected, politics have gone to hell in this country, and this episode gleefully takes that to its zenith. While working on a profile of senatorial candidate Robert Palmer (Tom Skerritt) Kolchak starts to notice that people who are potential obstacles to Palmer's campaign suddenly meet with fatal "accidents" and there's always a huge black dog spotted at the scene. 
Robert Palmer, preparing to bang a gong and get it on.
Suspecting Palmer might have made a very specific and special "deal" to get elected, Carl digs to find out if Robert Palmer is one of those who likes it hot and if he sweats when the heat is on; and why he's starting to be simply irresistible to voters. The answer is, of course, Robert Palmer is addicted to love! Loving the devil that is! Along with a well cast Skerritt, this episode features no supervisory police representation but does have actors like Julie Gregg (The Godfather), Robert DoQui (Robocop 3), Jeanne Cooper (TV's The Young and the Restless and Corbin Bernsen's mom!), Dick Patterson (The Strongest Man in the World) and Stanley Adams (Star Trek's Cyrano Jones himself!)

One of the twenty-two monsters Kolchak met up with believed a man could fly.

8.) Bad Medicine  (original airdate - 11/29/74) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "The rich are different than
you and me." They sure are. They got more money. But there
wasn't enough money in the world to save some of the members
 of Chicago's upper crust from a fiendish force so dark, it can
only be called diabolic.

Jewel thefts plague Chicago, and the robbed are also ending up dead. Carl's investigation turns up evidence that a "diablero" is at work. A diablero is a shapeshifting Native American shaman in spirit form who owes a metaphysical debt that must be paid with physical riches in order for the creature to escape his earthly confinement. He's played here by big ol' Richard Kiel, which is very cool.
A big man gets a big picture.
Kolchak must find a different way to stop this creature or more people will die. We get a cranky cop in the welcome person of Ramon Bieri (Emilio's dad in Pat...Going on Seventeen...Going on Nowhere) and additional fun spotting Alice Ghostley (Bewitched's Esmerelda), Victor Jory (one of the go-to men for Native American guest spots in the 60's and 70's), David Lewis (TV's General Hospital), and Marvin Kaplan (Henry the Lineman on TV's Alice and dozens of cartoon voices) in the episode.

Tony Vincenzo and Monique Marmelstein.

9.) The Spanish Moss Murders  (original airdate - 12/6/74) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
Maybe you have to brush with death before you can really reflect
on life... on the people and times that really meant something
to you, like childhood, dreams of sailing on silver seas and wooden
shoes, visions of sugar plums dancing. Silver seas, sugar plums.
The visions, the nightmares of a child are perhaps the most frightening
and horrifying. Some people who were in Chiacgo during the first
stifling hot weeks of July would say that were so... if they were still alive.

Two seemingly unrelated deaths are connected when it's discovered there is a small amount of Spanish Moss on each body. When more deaths occur, Kolchak determines that each victim is somehow connected to a comatose man from Louisiana who is part of a sleep experiment where he is prevented from dreaming. The man's subconscious is physically manifesting the Paramafait, a legendary Cajun monster who is now murdering anybody who crossed the sleeping man.

The Paramafait in all of its murky glory.

Kolchak's mission to put a stop to the Paramafait's rampage makes him a target for extermination too. For the monster in this one, they kept Richard Kiel around for a second week's work and slapped him into the costume. You don't see him all that well, but he's big and scary (duh!) when he does appear. And the guest cast is especially good here. In addition to Kiel, there's Severn Darden (Battle for the Planet of the Apes), Randy Boone (Terminal Island), Virginia Gregg (Momma Bates's voice in parts of Psycho and all of Psychos II + III), Elisabeth Brooks (Marsha Quist in The Howling), and last but certainly not least, you've got Keenan Wynn (Piranha '78) as Police Captain Joe "Mad Dog" Siska, who worked so well not working so well with Kolchak he came back later in the season!

Carl Kolchak. He's my first pick if I'm ever captain of
a monster fighting team.

10.) The Energy Eater  (original airdate - 12/13/74)

Kolchak's opening narration:
The city of Chicago sparkles with architectural monuments to
man's achievement, his artistic aspirations, his quest for the truth,
his respect for the law... now a different sort of monument...
There is a theory that dying institutions erect their own mausoleums
before they die. This particular monument was to be a hospital and
research center dedicated to extending the life of man, improving the
quality of that life. It succeeded instead in introducing a new horror,
a new way of death, a mystery.

When he learns of a series of mishaps taking place in a newly opened hospital, Kolchak goes up against another Native American monster just two episodes after the previous one, this time something called the Matchemonedo. The hospital is being built right over sacred ground, and that has awakened Matchemonedo, a mostly unseen manifestation that causes cracks in the building's foundation, poltergeist-like rumbles and quakes, and electrical flareups that kill. Kolchak is forced to seek the help of an equally reluctant Indian shaman to combat the supernatural force.

Scariest photo montage EVER.
As this was another episode yanked from the syndication package for the two fake Kolchak movies, this episode also feels newer and fresher, so I automatically have a fondness for it. But I would like it anyway. A lot of people complain about the two "unseen force" Kolchaks; I don't. They both are solid episodes and have their creepy moments. This time out the angry policeman is one of the lesser lights in that worthy group: Robert Yuro (lots of 60's and 70's TV). But check out the rest of the guest cast: William Smith (Any Which Way You Can), Elaine Giftos (The Student Nurses), Tom Drake (The Cyclops), Michael Strong (Dr. Korby - What Are Little Girls Made Of? episode of TV's Star Trek), Joyce Jillson (Superchick), John Mitchum (DiGiorgio from the Dirty Harry movies), Michael Fox (TV's Perry Mason and the reason Michael J. Fox has the J) and Robert Cornthwaite (The Thing '51)

And we will leave Carl Kolchak there, and pick up the second half of his single television season next time.


Don't be upset, Carl. We won't leave you alone for long.

Til then, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!

1 comment:

  1. I've always enjoyed being a little off the beam in terms of my taste in music, film and lit.

    So imagine my frustration when I find that not one but two of my favorite science-fiction/fantasy TV show episodes are fan favorites.

    Classic Trek's City on the Edge of Forever changed the way I saw that show, and how I viewed its potential. Years later, I'd find out that was the case for a lot of Trek fans.

    I have shadowy recollections of 70s TV, but The Night Stalker has stuck with me better than most. Of all the episodes, the one I remember most fondly: The one with the monster who appears as someone you trust. In part, I think it was Emily that made this episode so enjoyable for me.

    Loved the zombie episode, too. As I recall, the means of dispatching the monster aren't what Carl initially had in mind.

    And the Spanish Moss critter: I remember that episode doing a fine job of communicating the oppressive heat, and the horror of a thing locked in dreams.