And now back to December 1974. We rejoin Darren McGavin halfway through the only season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. “Horror in the Heights” was written by Jimmy Sangster, who, as I learned from a delightful little nostalgia book called The Best of Crime and Detective TV‘s chapter on Kolchak, had written several Hammer horror films. I picked up that book in 1987 or so, and that was probably the first fact I ever absorbed about Hammer’s movies, other than Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had been in many of them. It stuck with me to the point that whenever I, much, much later on, sat down to watch a Hammer, I’d always smile when I saw Sangster’s name in the credits, knowing I was in for a good one.
I’ve seen many writers, including the authors of that book, single out “Horror in the Heights” as the very best episode of the Kolchak series, second only to the original TV movie. I honestly enjoy a few other installments much more, especially the wittier ones, but “Heights” is nevertheless a darn fine hour with some shocking moments and a very rare and very underplayed one.
Prior to this episode, Carl Kolchak has always fought alone. Even when he does pick up allies, he has to convince them what’s happening. This is the first time that our hero gets to meet anybody who’s been doing this monster-killing business already. He meets a very old man who has been hunting rakshashas for sixty years. Rakshashas are beasts who use mind control to appear to their victims as somebody that they can trust, seducing them before eating all the flesh from their bones. This is actually telegraphed in a remarkably grisly visual that opens the story, with a character entering a filthy meat packing plant and finding hordes of rats nesting in the offal that’s just been left aside for later disposal.
There’s a pretty strong cast for this dark outing. Phil Silvers is top-billed among the guests, and it’s always nice to see him in a straight dramatic role. Murray Matheson gets a chance to clown around as an antiques dealer who thinks he’s funnier than he actually is. But the show is stolen by Ruth McDevitt’s recurring character of Miss Emily. We think that Carl is going to be safe from the rakshasha when he tells the monster-hunting Ali Lakshmi that he doesn’t trust anybody. And then Miss Emily proves him wrong.
Our son had been pretending to be scared and unnerved that we were returning Kolchak to the rotation, but he didn’t hide his face away or anything, and told us afterward that this episode wasn’t really scary. Then Marie pointed out that if a rakshasha were to come after him, it would probably disguise itself as one of us. That got a funny grimace.