Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.1 – The Ripper

Shortly after we moved to Chattanooga three years ago, I got a part-time job at a good non-profit agency, and one afternoon, I was bringing some of our clients back to the house. One of the clients mentioned she’d received a gift of a season of Justified. By chance, I’d been in Walmart earlier picking up something my boss had ordered and noticed a rack of ’70s TV comedies, just about all of Norman Lear’s and Garry Marshall’s hits, all dirt cheap. (Sadly it was Walmart and sadly it was only the hits. We’ll never see Hot L Baltimore on DVD, will we?)

So I mentioned my trip to the store, just in a “TV on DVD is so cheap these days” way, and another client started reminiscing about McCloud, of all things, which was one of her favorite shows as a girl. Then she said “But my favorite show was one nobody ever heard of. It was called Night Stalker.”

I said “Kolchak: The Night Stalker! I know that show. It was a great one.”

She exploded. “That was the best show ever! Nobody ever believed him and he was all up to everything! He’d be down in the sewers and all by himself because nobody believed him! He was always wearing that hat and looking for vampires in the sewers. That was my favorite show! I had nightmares for weeks and weeks watching Night Stalker! I never met anybody who knew the Night Stalker before!”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, you must have been very small when the Night Stalker was on TV.”

“I was! That’s why I had nightmares! I didn’t sleep right the whole time that show was on. You know when Matlock started, I said ‘That man’s got a seersucker suit like the Night Stalker,’ and he did, didn’t he? And nobody knew who the Night Stalker was!”

I’d like to meet that client’s mother and ask her what in the name of heaven she was thinking letting that poor little girl watch that show.

* * *

But as a weekly series, I feel like The Night Stalker – they didn’t add the Kolchak: until week five, I think – led with one of its weakest installments. Rudolph Borchert wrote or co-wrote five of the twenty episodes, including some very fun ones, but this one is too much of a retread of the two movies, which wouldn’t have been quite so obvious had the second one not been a retread of the first anyway.

Our son thought it was creepy, but not particularly scary. A lot of the context sailed over his head. We had to explain that our heroes have landed in a very low-rent news agency with a lousy location next to Chicago’s elevated – and noisy – train, and that Carl’s most recent incident of aggravating the cops has had him demoted to writing the news agency’s “Dear Emily” column. I enjoyed the characterisation, the humor, and the direction, even if the plot was nothing new.

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The New Avengers 2.2 – Angels of Death

Another sleeper agent, another super-TV-hypnosis, another one of Steed’s best friends, played by Terence Alexander, bites the dust. Nothing in “Angels of Death,” written by Terence Feely and Brian Clemens, is really all that new, but I still thought it was pretty entertaining. Purdey is as odd and weird as ever, and as Marie pointed out, only Purdey would break into the villains’ secret base at night wearing neon.

Our son was very, very restless for the first half, and I can’t say that I blame him. It is a bit by-the-numbers for a spy show, with perhaps the added bonus that these particular villains – led by Dinsdale Landen and Caroline Munro – have been breathtakingly, irrationally, effective for superspy bad guys. Their body count before our heroes start looking into the possibility that many recent deaths-by-natural-causes have an unnatural origin: 47.

I did think there were a couple of missed opportunities. Part of the bad guys’ programming is a huge, white, indoor labyrinth with locking doors and closing walls. Unfortunately, I think the studio simply wasn’t large enough to give a proper overhead shot looking down into the maze, which I kept waiting to see.

I also think they could have linked to the past of the show in a fun way. Dinsdale Landen had played a veteran agent called Watney in a very good Tara King adventure called “All Done With Mirrors.” Obviously the character he plays this time, Coldstream, is just a new-to-the-series villain who’s been killing people in the government and the military for years. But I kind of wish that once Landen was cast, they had changed his name to Watney, so he could be that guy from “Mirrors,” gone bad.

The episode opens in Paris, with the show’s first use of overseas filming. We’ll see a good bit more of France in the weeks to come.

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Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Well, here’s what I learned this morning: Shout! Factory has about a hundred installments of Mystery Science Theater 3000 available for streaming, absolutely free, along with a few Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanics and other like-minded spinoffs. I’ve been saying for some time now that I wanted to introduce our son to this delightful show via their mauling of a see-it-to-believe-it 1964 children’s film called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, based on a novel by Eudora Welty, and there it was.

Most of the riffing, you’d think, would go straight over our boy’s eight year-old head. The kid doesn’t know who Patrick Swayze was, never mind what all those references to Roadhouse were about, but it’s funny to him anyway because he can tell that even the things he doesn’t quite get are gags and his old man is chuckling over many of them. Plus the film itself is so brain-dead that there was plenty to hoot about. And the hosts are so engaging that kids can latch on and figure things out pretty quickly. Easy to figure out that Crow’s got nobody’s best interests at heart when all he wants for Christmas is “to decide who lives and who dies.”

I don’t plan to blog about this show, particularly because even with the Bots and Joel and Mike and the Mads, the thought of deliberately watching a really stupid movie doesn’t appeal to Marie very much at all. But we’ll probably look at Robot Monster and Mighty Jack and Time of the Apes in the near future…

Shout!’s also got ten episodes of Movie Macabre, by the way, but they don’t have Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! They’ve got her doing the Gamera compilation movie, but not Killer Tomatoes. They need to get on that, I say.

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The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.18 – Voodoo Doll (part two)

I’ve been giving Ray Milland a hard time for as long as I can remember, which may not be fair, but when you look at anything the actor did in the seventies, I don’t think you can blame me too much. At one time an Oscar-winning cinema icon, he spent the decade sleepwalking through projects, whether classy or not, speaking in precisely the same clipped, grouchy monotone. Absolutely none of his characters – and I don’t care whether you’re talking about a guest star role in a decent show like Ellery Queen or Columbo or The Hardy Boys, or a villain in Escape to Witch Mountain or Love Story, or in Elvira-level D-movie schlock like Frogs or The Thing With Two Heads – seem like characters at all. They seem like Ray Milland being pissed off that his agent can’t get him better work.

So I’ve often pretended to be incredibly impressed by Milland and acted like his biggest champion – he has a nickname that I won’t use in this family-oriented blog – and sung his praises, very loudly and very unconvincingly. To be fair, I think I’ve seen only one of his roles from his cinema heyday – Dial M For Murder, of course – and he’s not bad in that, but for being blustery and bored in everything else I’ve seen him in, I just think the guy was pure ham, and nothing in “Voodoo Doll” suggests I’m being unfair or unkind. Man, he’s annoying.

There wasn’t much about this one that I liked, apart from a genuinely weird moment where the Hardy Boys get the clerk of the nice hotel to unlock the missing Nancy Drew’s room to find the crazy, dirty, old fortune telling lady camped out on her bed and cackling. Everything wraps up in a predictably Scooby Doo way, but the villains’ motivation was so nebulous and odd that our son didn’t understand a lick of it, and his mother had to spend about five minutes trying to make sense of it.

Speaking of Elvira-level D-movie schlock, come back by in a few hours. I’m about to show our son something wonderful…

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The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.17 – Voodoo Doll (part one)

I continue to be more impressed by the complex production of The Hardy Boys than by the complex schemes devised by the show’s villains. “Voodoo Doll” recreates a big New Orleans Mardi Gras on the Universal backlot, with dozens and dozens of costumed extras and floats engaged for both daytime and night filming. This must have been a huge undertaking. But the villainous plot is downright idiotic.

I bet that it’s all going to eventually boil down to this: a criminal, posing as a stage magician, needs the fleabag hotel room where our heroes are staying in order to plant an assassin. But instead of just getting them another room in a nicer hotel, he arranges to have their wallets stolen and then tries spooking them out of town with voodoo and black magic. Dominating the screen as the magician, it’s Julius Smith, with Kim Cattrall as his not-entirely-willing accomplice, and Ray Milland as a British professor who tells our heroes very sternly that voodoo is nothing to laugh at, young man, I assure you.

Also in town, probably working the potential-assassination-of-the-ambassador angle, it’s Nancy Drew, now played by Janet Louise Johnson. Johnson only appeared in three storylines before the character was written out, and I hope that she has more to do in this story’s second half, because she doesn’t have anything of note to do in the first. She’s onscreen for so little time here that she barely has time to register as a new actress in the part at all. I wonder whether that was deliberate.

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Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.26 – The Ghost Talks

I was explaining to our son that one reason British TV shows typically make fewer episodes per year than American shows is that American shows have crews that work lots and lots of overtime hours. Sixteen hour days are not uncommon. That usually doesn’t happen in Great Britain. It took ITC something like fourteen months to shoot 26 episodes of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and then during the production of the 25th, Mike Pratt went and broke his legs.

So to get one last episode in the can, they didn’t do a clip show, mercifully, but had Marty tell Jeff a flashback story from back when he was still alive, and worked a case with Jeannie while Jeff was in Scotland. This meant that Kenneth Cope and Annette Andre actually got to actually interact in front of the cameras for the first time in more than a year. That must be unique in television, mustn’t it? I can’t think of another case where you go to work five days a week and are actually onstage with an actor for much of that time and not actually make eye contact with each other for more than twelve months.

“The Ghost Talks” is pretty amusing. Our son grumbled that this one wouldn’t be fun without Marty being supernatural, but there were some surprises and a few moments of good humor. Marty takes a hush-hush assignment from a government type played by Alan McNaughtan who is not entirely honest about the job and things go very amusingly wrong. It may not have been the sort of “final episode” that modern TV viewers might hope for, but it pleased us.

Sadly, Lew Grade wasn’t able to sell the series to an American network. Retitled My Partner the Ghost, it appeared in a few markets in direct-to-station syndication, but it didn’t clear enough of the country to warrant resuming production. That’s a darn shame, because I’d have loved to have seen more of this.

But we WILL see more of it… sort of. Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) – now with an ampersand in the title card – returned as a remake thirty-some years later, and we’ll be looking at its first series next month. And for ITC fans in our audience, there’s another show from that great gang that we’ll watch several months from now. Look out for our take on Department S in 2020!

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The New Avengers 2.1 – Dead Men are Dangerous

And now back to 1977, for the second and final series of The New Avengers. Believe it or not, I’m really flying blind with this run. I’ve only seen five of these thirteen episodes, and didn’t enjoy them very much. Brian Clemens’ “Dead Men are Dangerous” isn’t bad at all, though. I liked it much better than the ones I’ve seen before. At least as far as I remember.

I do have a quibble with one intensely silly flaw, though. Like “The Last of the Cybernauts…??”, this begins with a pre-title sequence that the narrative later tells us happened in the past, in this case “ten years ago,” so call it 1967. Then, Steed drove his old school chum and rival, played by Clive Revill, over to a prepared breach in the border so Revill could smuggle himself into East Germany. But Revill is a double agent and guards were waiting to kill Steed. Revill took a bullet in the chest but was dragged away, and spent the next decade being a top spy for the other side while the bullet pressed closer and closer against his heart.

So with days left to live, Revill decides to avenge all of his old jealousies and second-place finishes behind Steed, their school’s “Victor Ludorum.” Gambit’s girlfriend-of-the-week, a teacher played by Gabrielle Drake, identifies Revill as being in his mid-forties. Which, admittedly, Revill himself was at the time, but come on, his character and Steed have to be at least ten years older than that. Were they trying to pretend that the star of the show wasn’t middle-aged?

Our son enjoyed it and thought it was really exciting in places. I liked it just fine, but I might have liked it a little more had we not seen at least three of Steed’s oldest friends die in this show already. Incidentally, Steed has a lovely new home in this series. It’s Fulmer Hall in Buckinghamshire, and it appears in at least four episodes. One of his old aunts must have left it to him, because I just don’t believe the Ministry pays nearly enough for the mortgage on it.

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The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries 2.16 – Sole Survivor

There’s a pretty good chase in this story that our son really liked. Joe and guest star Jean Marie Hon are hiding from a villain in a huge storeroom full of mannequins and disembodied plastic arms. “That would be pretty creepy,” I said, in my foreshadowingly dopey Dad way. “I know,” our son replied, and then he leaned over and hissed in my ear, “Especially if they were Autons!” None of you rats told him, did you?

So the villains this evening – some East German spies operating in Hong Kong and hoping to snatch a defector, who include James Hong and a not-evil-enough Diana Muldaur – have convinced Joe that he’s been in a coma for almost a year and that Frank and their dad were killed. Joe figures out their scheme pretty quickly, and of course the dopes spoiled it all in the pre-titles clips anyway, but it’s an entertainingly complex and only-on-TV scheme, with the bad guys going to an insane amount of extra work to convince Joe that a year has passed, even faking the handwriting of his friends and family on some “letters from home.”

My favorite part of their plot: a hidden VCR that plays the spies’ news from the far-flung future of 1979. Among the current events being reported in Hong Kong that January: the collapse of the Ugandan government following the death of Idi Amin, and the surprise marriage of Prince Charles to Princess Caroline. Those East Germans were having far too much fun making this stuff up.

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