Friday, October 22, 2010

31 Days of Things That Go Bump In The Night!

Kolchak: The Night Stalker!

(Part 3 of 3)

Concluding the episode guide of the finest monster battling reporter to ever grace the TV screen!

The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler were discussed in Part One.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes 1-10 were discussed in Part Two.

And now, the thrilling conclusion:

11.) Horror in the Heights  (original airdate - 12/20/74) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
There are sections of Chicago the guidebooks don't refer to.
You can't blame them, really. The guidebooks' function is to
sell the glamour and excitement of our Windy City, and whichever
way you dress it up, old age is neither glamorous, nor exciting.
Roosevelt Heights used to be a plush neighborhood, but the plush
neighbors moved uptown, leaving the old people... and old people
don't move easily; they become set in their surroundings. Their
friends live next door, they've been going to the same store for
twenty-five years, and probably the most important of all... they
can't afford to relocate even if they wanted to. The battle of fixed
income versus galloping inflation never ends... but even inflation
took a backseat here in Roosevelt Heights, as a far greater fear
overtook the residents... a terror which effectively dwarfed everything else.

What many consider to be the finest episode of the series is a goodie, without doubt, but not my favorite. (My favorite? Maybe The Zombie. Maybe Chopper. Ask me on successive days to hear a variety of answers.) In this episode old folks are dying in a section of Chicago populated mostly by the elderly. The bodies are found partially devoured by what appears to be rats. Old age and poverty get the blame, but ol' Carl suspects the truth might be a little more out there than that. Sure enough, his investigation turns up evidence of a creature called a Rakshasa, a fearsome Hindu flesheating demon who gets close to its victims by appearing to them as the person they most trust.

And Cousin Itt as the Rakshasa.
 This episode is the closest to social commentary this monster show ever got, and it works. The plight of the elderly is addressed without too heavy a hand, and you also get some fascinating historical info, like just what the swastika was meant to be before that worthless Schikelgruber got ahold of it. The script is clever and the monster is scary. Result: a really good episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker! No high ranking police official this time out, but another corker cast: Phil Silvers (Sgt. Bilko himself!), Abraham Sofaer (The Naked Jungle), Murray Matheson (Felix on TV's Banacek), Benny Rubin (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini), Barry Gordon (Donatello's voice on the 80's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons), and Herb Vigran (Villain on seemingly about every 4th Superman episode in the 50's).

Horizontal Kolchak.

12.) Mr. R.I.N.G  (original airdate - 1/10/75) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
I don't know when I was in this office last. In some ways it feels like
I never left. No, that's not right. For a while I was away, far away, in
the hands of men with no faces. They broke me down, broke my story
down, and convinced me it hadn't happened the way I remembered.
Memories fade fast enough without chemical help. But if I don't tell this
story now, I'm afraid I never will. Now... what was that date?

While working on the obituary of a recently deceased scientist, Kolchak can't find out the exact cause of death for the man and any attempts to dig are stonewalled by government interference. Kolchak's nose for news drags him in to a crusade to find out how the man died, which leads him to a supersecret scientific experiment called Project R.I.N.G. - a robot with artificial intelligence, now escaped from the lab and on a deadly quest for humanity.

Mr. R.I.N.G. has a face only a motherboard could love.

This is another watchable episode, best in its government black ops paranoia, a little less successful in presenting its monster of the week, stuntman Craig Baxley wearing what looks like a discarded prototype face for the Fembots and featuring those weird electronic "computer" sound effects whenever he's onscreen. Guest stars this week: Bert Freed (Barracuda) as Police Captain Akins, Julie Adams (Creature from the Black Lagoon), Don 'Red' Barry (The Swarm), Myron Healy (The Incredible Melting Man) and Robert Easton (Comin' Round the Mountain).

Severn Darden and Darren McGavin in The Spanish Moss Murders

13.) Primal Scream  (original airdate 1/17/75)

Kolchak's opening narration:
During World War Two, close to this very spot, science bore a child that
changed the course of human relations, and to this day threatens to end
human history. It was called, innocuously enough, the Manhattan Project
and it grew into the terror we have all come to know as the hydrogen bomb.
But this year, only a stone's throw from here, science delivered a new child.

Core samples from an Antarctic oil drilling station are brought back to Chicago for analysis. Shortly after, cells thawed out from the frozen core exhibit unusual bioactivity. Before further study can be performed, the cells spring forth as a prehistoric apeman who kills one of the corporate scientists. And who do you think gets assigned to the story? And before it is all over, Carl finds himself up against an extremely powerful foe.

"Simian coach! I'm ready to play!"

No, not the apeman - corporate public relations and their spin machine! An interesting episode, once again more for the byplay between McGavin and the guest cast than the monster, a somewhat tatty ape suit wrapped around stuntman Paul Baxley. The rest of the guests include Angry Police Captain John Marley (The Godfather - he gets the horse head in bed!), Pat Harrington (TV's One Day at a Time), Jamie Farr (TV's M*A*S*H*), Barbara Rhoades (The Shakiest Gun in the West), Byron Morrow (King Kong vs Godzilla), and Jeannie Bell (T.N.T. Jackson herself!)

Weird side story to this episode - in the days just before the internet exploded in the 90's, I somehow got involved with this weird service you worked over your phone that was to let TV fans trade episodes on VHS to each other by posting in voice mail boxes about shows and episodes you wanted or had to trade. (I said it was weird, didn't I?) It was a subscription service, and they either gave you a couple of weeks free or a month cheap. Anyhoo, one of the ways they tried to entice you in to getting the service was by giving all the subscribers a chance to ask a question of a celebrity guest they would set up a special voice mail box for. After you left your question, a day or two later the celebrity would leave a message in your voice mailbox answering your question. Well, the celebrity during my trial period was none other than Pat Harrington! I asked him about his memories of working on this episode of Kolchak. I got an answer sure enough - but what he said - something about scary stuff with doppelgangers and a shower scene - had NOTHING to do with this story. I've always wondered what he was referring to. But at least I also got a small autographed picture from Mr. H, and shortly after that my time with this strange service ended.

Digression over!

"I hate digressions."

14.) The Trevi Collection  (original airdate - 1/24/75) 

Kolchak's opening narration:
Tuesday, May 2nd, One pm. Mickey Patchek was a dealer, a snitch, a
peddler of information. His clothes were as cheap as his reputation.
So when he phoned me with some information to sell, I was
surprised that he wanted to meet me in the heart of Chicago's chichi
high fashion district. What started out as a mild surprise culminated
in stark raving terror.

Kolchak takes on the world of high fashion to play that old game "which witch is which" after some models are murdered with supernatural methods. Who in the House of Trevi is using black magic to further their career? And why do the mannequins in the showroom seem to move out of the corner of your eye? Carl hopes no one spells it out for him as he singlehandedly brings seersucker back to the Spring Collection 1975.

We'll keep the witch's identity a secret and show off her doll
collection instead...
This is a solid episode, with the mystery of who is behind the nefarious deeds a nice twist to the usually straightforward series. We have no Steamed Policeman this episode either. We do have some fun actors stopping by though: Nina Foch (Cry of the Werewolf), Lara Parker (TV's Dark Shadows), Marvin Miller (TV's The Millionaire), Douglas V. Fowley (TV's Quark), Richard Bakalyan (frequent TV guest star from the 1950's to most recently My Name is Earl), Henry Brandon (War of the Worlds '53), and last but certainly not least - Bernie Kopell (Doc Bricker himself!)

Darren McGavin and William Daniels in Vampire.

15.) Chopper  (original airdate - 1/31/75)

Kolchak's opening narration:
The teenage years: sixteen candles, fervent passions, aimless
joyrides, and the forbidden taste of beer. A time the world allows
for sowing one's wild oats. But for some individuals I came to know in
this summer of their discontent, it had been a time when they had
sown the seeds of their own destruction.

One of my favorite episodes as a kid finds the members of a 1950's motorcyle gang literally losing their heads in ghastly decapitation murders. Kolchak's investigation uncovers their long-hidden secret: a hazing incident-turned-accident almost 20 years previously that lopped the noggin off one of the gang's members, then was covered up. Now that long dead biker has returned as a cycle riding headless specter wielding a sword with deadly precision. Can Kolchak keep his head about him and stop the murderous spirit?

Now that's a receding hairline.

This sardonic spin on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow was the first professional writing sale of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (later the writers of Back to the Future) who provided the story for this episode (fleshed out into script form by Steve Fisher and David Chase.) And it hits on almost all cylinders - it's funny and it's scary - for years after this aired whenever I was outside at night and heard a motorcycle off in the distance I would think of this episode. But the overall presentation is marred by the effects used to bring the head-challenged cyclist to the screen, as can be seen in the picture above: the built up torso used to cover the stunt cyclist's cranium just doesn't work. That said, the episode is still a lot of fun. But if anyone ever wanted to do a Kolchak special edition with jazzed up CGI effects for only one episode - it would have to be this one. Man that would be cool! Also cool - the guest stars this time out: The Ba***rd with a Badge is Larry Linville (TV's M*A*S*H*), and he's joined by Art Metrano (Police Academy(s) 3+4), Sharon Farrell (Night of the Comet), Jay Robinson (Dr. Shrinker himself!), Jesse White (our first and best Maytag repairman), Steve Franken (Transylvania Twist), and Jim Backus (the one, the only Thurston Howell III)

"If they do that CIG nonsense...don't let 'em touch the suit!
Not one wrinkle!"

16.) Demon in Lace  (original airdate - 2/7/75)

Kolchak's opening narration:
It was Goethe who said we love girls for what they are. Well,
even the great Goethe could have learned something from the
tale that took place on the campus of Illinois State Tech.

When an ancient stone tablet is brought back to America from the Middle East for study at a Chicago university, a deadly power is let loose upon the city. Kolchak follows the trail of a series of deaths where otherwise healthy young men died of heart failure, each found near the body of a woman who seemed to have died in unrelated circumstances and in different locations. Carl figures out that the murders are the work of a Succubus, a demon from ancient Sumeria that kills by assuming the form of a recently deceased woman and luring men into her deadly embrace, whereupon she reveals her hideous true form, prompting cardiac arrest and providing her sustenance.
Hey look, it's some of my nightmares as a kid!

This was one of the episodes that really scared me as a kid, with a pretty creepy monster on view briefly and with maximum atmosphere. It also got yanked from the syndication package for those fakey Night Stalker movies, but my memories of it are stronger because it scared me so badly as a kid. Definitely worth a watch and featuring the return of Keenan Wynn as Captain Joe "Mad Dog" Siska and guest artistes Andrew Prine (The Eliminators), Jackie Vernon (Frosty the Snowman's voice himself!) Carolyn Jones (Morticia Addams herself!), Kristina Holland (TV's The Courtship of Eddie's Father), Ben Masters (Mandingo) and Carmen Zapata (Telefon).

A publicity photo of Carl and the Succubus,
unused because of the double exposure
bleedover into his forehead.

17.) Legacy of Terror  (original airdate - 2/14/75)

Kolchak's opening narration:
Among the philosophers, the great thinkers, and the common
Joes of the world, no question is more controversial than truth.
Remarkable as it may seem, I can attest that the following events
did occur, whether you believe them to be true or not.

A zany Aztec cult is using their standard dull blades to cut out hearts all over Chicago and of course, you just know there's also an Aztec mummy running around too. (It is kinda nice to see ol' Aztec mummy getting some love, I must say, after his losses against all those Mexican wrestling heroes!) Chasing down the story, Kolchak meets Pepe, a young man so disillusioned with life that he's offered himself up for sacrifice to the cult. Can Kolchak change the young man's mind before the Aztecs don't sharpen their knives to send him to the next world?

Where's Santo or Mil Mascaras when you need them?

This is the fourth and last episode pulled from the syndication package for repurposing as the two ersatz Kolchak movies. Once again, a lack of seeing it in the intervening years after it aired for the first time leaves it feeling newer to me. But it's an okay episode in any case. It does have a couple of problems, though. Firstly, this is the textbook episode that shows what the show could have been, if Darren McGavin and some of the writers could have had their way. The show never would have been a "Monster of the Week" show, but instead, a series where Kolchak would investigate weird deaths and murders, government conspiracies, unexplained events, and the occasional monster. If only the network had believed in this concept! I think the show might have had a longer run. And case in point, this episode could have been improved, frankly, by leaving the out the mummy (despite my fondness for him up above) and simply having the Aztec cult as the villainous force of the hour. (Then they could have done a sequel episode the next season with the mummy included as the cult comes after Carl!) Instead, though, the network insisted on a new creature every episode which eventually sank the show near the end of its only season. C'est la vie. Second quibble? (Did you think I'd forget I said two after that long winded nattering? Nope!) they brought back Ramon Bieri for this episode, but instead of Captain Joe Baker, in this episode he plays Captain Webster. Now, there had been a Captain Webster in the episode The Energy Eater, but there he was played by Robert Yuro. Sheesh! Did it have to get that sloppy? The other actors in for the week include Erik Estrada (TV's CHIPs), Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg himself!), Pippa Scott (the great creepy TV movie Bad Ronald), Victor Campos (the fondly remembered TV movie Archer: Fugitive from the Empire), and Sondra Currie (Policewomen).

Behind the scenes on the first movie.

18.) The Knightly Murders  (original airdate - 3/7/75)

Kolchak's opening narration:
Tuesday, 11:15pm. If you know anything about Chicago politics, you'll
understand why a sixty-three year old ward captain was braving the
ungentle hour and less gentle streets. You see, ward captain Leo J.
Ramutka was returning home from a wake - an auf Wiedersehen to a
loyal registered voter he knew would one day meet him in that great polling
station in the sky. What ward captain Ramutka failed to foresee was just
how soon that meeting would be...

That ward captain is found murdered by a medieval crossbow. More murders follow, by jousting lance, arrow, and mace. It's all tied to a museum being converted into a discotheque. Suspicion falls on the museum's curator, Mendel Boggs, who the police surmise has flipped his lid and started using the museum's artifacts to kill those responsible for the museum's fate. But Kolchak soon suspects the murderer is older than Boggs. Way older. As in a knight from medieval times, back as a specter animating his old armor for a final crusade. Kolchak becomes The Knight Stalker for this one!

Sorry the picture isn't brighter; guess this is the Dark Knight. (ouch!)

Although the series had some good dark humor interlaced in the episodes, they didn't do too much with the titles, until Chopper and this one, runner up as the punniest of the series. It's also the last really good episode, with a potentially human killer using old weapons (again, if not for "Monster of the Week" it could have been a human killer!) and the whole thing is well directed by Vincent McEveety and guest starring P.O.ed Po-Po John Dehner (The Right Stuff), Hans Conreid (The Cat from Outer Space), Robert Emhardt (Roger Corman's The Intruder), Jeff Donnell (The Boogie Man Will Get You), Shug Fisher (The Giant Gila Monster), and Gregg Palmer (From Hell It Came).

19.) The Youth Killer  (original airdate - 3/14/75)

Kolchak's opening narration:
Nowhere in man's history does he display more tenacity,
more perseverance, than in his search for eternal youth.
Halting the relentless process of aging has been a
constant dream of man's...and of woman's...

The series gets a little timely and a little dated in its penultimate episode, and "dated" is a doubly apt choice of words as members of a computer dating service are found dead in a withered and aged condition. The head of the computer dating company is a beautiful woman named Helen, who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to statuary of...Helen of Troy. Could that ancient creature be in modern day Chicago, leeching the youth out of the young to keep her beauty eternal? Kolchak is forced to take on the ultimate cougar to find out.

For being reputedly the most beautiful woman in the world, there
sure is something strange happening under that right arm...
This isn't the worst idea for a monster, but the age makeups on the victims are not that great, and the second half of the episode is pretty rote. Mark this one as a near miss with John Fiedler back as Gordy the Ghoul for the last time, and a terrific guest cast (as per usual for this show): Cathy Lee Crosby (TV's first Wonder Woman) as Helen; cranky cop Dwayne Hickman (TV's Dobie Gillis himself!); Kathleen Freeman (The Blues Brothers); Eddie Firestone (The Destructors), James Murtaugh (The Howling and the face of A-1 Steak Sauce on TV for years); Reb Brown (4 years away from playing Captain America twice for CBS); and an actor credited as Demosthenes, but recognizable to viewers of TV's Kojak as Detective Stavros, aka George Savalas, Telly's brother.

20.) The Sentry  (original airdate - 3/28/75)

Kolchak's opening narration:
This is one story I may not get to file in person,
so I'll have to talk fast because it's after me...

The last episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker finds Carl poking around an underground data storage facility that has recently pushed further down into the earth to open a new storage wing. Something has killed some workers down there, and Kolchak discovers it's a prehistoric beastie unhappy at having it's subterranean lair invaded and really angry that some of its eggs have been taken as souvenirs by some of the workers. Sure, it's way down there now, but it's making its way to the surface....

Paging Sid and Marty Kroft!

This one's a little better presentation. Slightly better.

This one is sadly only just fair, with the good points the idea of a prehistoric saurian antagonist; the data storage business and it's explorations beneath the earth; and the cool sequence where the attacks are mapped out, which shows the creature is working to the surface; and lastly on the positive side, our first female frustrated flatfoot, and even better, she's played by Kathie Browne aka Mrs. Darren McGavin! Watching the married couple bicker is the high point of the episode, frankly...and then there's the bad: such as - Wow! - Could this be any more obviously a ripoff of the Star Trek episode Devil in the Dark? And the monster as presented is a top heavy big headed lizard suit (see above) worn by our ol' pal Craig Baxley (Mr. R.I.N.G. himself!) (This is runner up for a CGI special edition...) The ending is pretty rushed, too. In fact, the whole episode has a rushed feel, and not just from starting it by dropping us in on the climax and letting Kolchak catch us up. It's more like they were just trying to wrap it up. Apparently this isn't far off from the truth. More on that in a minute. Our last Kolchak guest cast doesn't disappoint at least: perennial Mission Impossible villain Albert Paulsen; John Hoyt (Attack of the Puppet People); Margaret Avery (The Color Purple); and the late great Tom Bosley (Mr. C himself!)

There were supposed to be more episodes in the single season of the series. Two more, in fact, to bring the total to 22. They had two more scripts, and one full treatment being worked on either as a backup or for Season Two, with several other pitches for that never produced second season. McGavin stated there were "ten ideas" in some stage of development when the plug was pulled. It had been a very tough season, especially for Darren McGavin. He'd been told he would be executive producer of the series, but this never happened on paper. He did a lot of the job anyway, in addition to his acting. He fought for the show to be better than it ended up, going toe to toe with a series of line producers fighting him every step of the way. By episode twenty, with the ratings slipping and tired of it all, Darren McGavin asked to be released from his contract for those last two shows. Also eyeing those dropping ratings, CBS agreed, and they shut down the series after The Sentry.
   The other two scripts would have been cool to see, no doubt a mix of really fun stuff and some not so good bits as most of the previous episodes had been. One was called Eve of Terror, and involved a female scientist working with high frequency sound waves who is transformed into a monstrous murderer by the ultrasonics in a lab accident. A little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a sex change and some jazzed up science fiction. The other full script was The Get of Belial, and would have sent Kolchak to West Virginia where some coal miners have been murdered. The creature turns out to be a spawn of the devil who also happens to be the local lady faith healer's son. Interestingly, these two scripts were published in comic book form years later.
    The treatment being worked up into a script was called The Executioners, about museum paintings that kill. For budgetary reasons David Chase was working on an episode to be shot cheaply at the end of the first season which was to be set on the Universal backlot and feature a monster lurking around the old Phantom of the Opera set. Had they shot this one one of the other two scripts would have been pushed to the second season. Other ideas pitched for the second season included The Piasa Bird, about a militant Native American activist summoning an ancient bird creature to kill; something with Bigfoot, which was apparently the creature most often pitched to the producers throughout season one; and the Medusa.


    The biggest influence Kolchak had was that it inspired a writer named Chris Carter to create a series for Fox called The X-Files, as he has stated several times in interviews. Carter tried to get Darren McGavin to reprise the character of Carl Kolchak for The X-Files, but the aging actor steadfastly refused. How I wish he would have said yes. I think I sort of understand though - I think McGavin, older and heavier, wondered how you bring back Kolchak with that terrible sense of functional clothing style when you can't have him in the seersucker suit. I know it sounds a bit silly that a matter of wardrobe cancelled out what would have been in my humble opinion the greatest crossover/character revival of all time, but really, think about it - what could you have had Carl wearing twenty years later that would have had the same effect as the seersucker without looking like a bad spoof? So it was no to Carl Kolchak; but McGavin said yes to appearing on Carter's show as "Arthur Dales - the father of the X-Files."

With that guest appearance Chris Carter got to pay tribute to the actor who'd inspired him to create a cult classic series of his own almost two decades later. Still, though, think about it - Mulder and Scully dropping by Chicago, getting mixed up with a crazy murder thing at the Independent News Service, now run by Monique Marmelstein (a returning Carol Ann Susi) and her assistant editor, Ron "Uptight" Updyke (Jack Grinnage could have come back too!). There would be pictures of Tony Vincenzo and Miss Emily on the walls. And banging through the door right before the first commercial break - Carl Kolchak, retired but unable to stay away from his old workplace when the supernatural strikes again. I don't know what he would have been wearing, but I would have loved it.

 In the 1990's and for several years afterward, there have been new adventures for everyone's favorite monster hunting reporter, this time in prose form (novels like Grave Secrets and short story collections) and comic books (or graphic novels if you prefer) like the aforementioned presentations of those two unproduced episodes Eve of Terror and The Get of Belial and dozens of others. Most of these were one-shots, but there have been some ongoing series as well. They aren't bad, at least the few I've read, but I'm not much on spending about the same money as I would for a paperback novel for a comic book I read in fifteen minutes so I own very few.

In 2005, the ever-ready-to-remake Hollywood cast its eye onto The Night Stalker, chopped off the "The" and brought the series back to ABC that same year. English Stuart Townsend played a man named Carl Kolchak, and there was a Tony Vincenzo along too, but no Uptight and no Miss Emily. Instead we had Perri (Gabrielle Union), almost a Dr. Who companion for Carl, who in this incarnation has an arc: he's searching for the answers to the mysterious murder of his wife. I gave the show a chance for three episodes, but it just wasn't The Night Stalker.

This ain't your father's Kolchak.
This Kolchak dressed well, had a British accent, and seldom torked anyone off, including Vincenzo! The mysteries and scary bits were not bad, but I just couldn't do it. Apparently no one else could either. There were ten episodes in the can, and after the sixth had aired, ABC cancelled the series and yanked it off the schedule. And to make it as mean as possible, the sixth episode was part one of a two parter, with a cliffhanger! But Sci-Fi (Syuh Fyuh before it changed its spelling) aired the other four episodes eventually, and the whole series is on DVD.
Speaking of DVD, the original two Kolchak movies have been released twice as a double feature disc (fitting, eh?), once by Anchor Bay and once by MGM. I own the Anchor Bay edition. I've read there is a loudspeaker voiceover missing from The Night Stalker on one of the discs, not sure how that happened, and it's probably on the one I own. And a couple of years ago the entire Night Stalker series was released on DVD in one box set.

Anchor Bay's.


The series.
 And that's about it. I hope this has been fun - I enjoyed looking back at the show - still one of my favorites. If you're nearby or ever drop by and want to watch some, let me know! I'd love to!

Kolchak packs up to head back home after his three day
vacation here in the blog.
Til next time...was that a howl...?...er, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. This is the most enjoyable series retrospective I've ever read.

    I didn't realize how much Kolchak I'd packed into the For Keeps part of my head until you lined out the episodes. I remember a lot of them, and I remember them fondly--images and emotions both.

    I never fell into Buffy or the other supernatural shows, but I've always been drawn to the work-a-day detective thrust into impossible circumstances. For me, I guess it ain't the monsters that make the story, so much as the man in the hat.

    Rest easy in that final night, Kolchak, knowing that for many of us, you live on.

  2. Kaijinu left a comment here, and I somehow stupidly managed to erase it while trying to view it through my smartphone. *sigh* But he said:

    " ...I want to see and Own this series NAO! Cool monsters!"

    If you come back, please leave another and I'll try not to erase it like an idiot!