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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.16 – Demon in Lace

“Demon in Lace,” another episode that features David Chase among its co-writers, begins with a moment that shocked the daylights out of our son. It never recovered its potency as it played out, but this week’s beast is a succubus that reanimates the corpses of recently deceased women in order to seduce men. Right before it kills them, the creature’s real face – a hideous, ancient monstrosity – is revealed. Our kid leapt out of his seat, and spent the whole hour moving restlessly. In fairness, he was also excited because he’s spending the night with a pal and he was really looking forward to that!

Anyway, this was another fine, creepy, and witty outing. I’d never seen it before. This episode and the next one were combined into a TV movie called The Demon and the Mummy and removed from the syndication package. It features the second appearance of Keenan Wynn as Captain “Mad Dog” Siska, who we saw before in “The Spanish Moss Murders.” Carolyn Jones has a pretty small, but very funny scene as the registrar of a small college, Illinois State Tech, which sounds like one of those mook schools nobody ever heard of until an SEC team pays them to come get whipped in the first game of the football season.

Actually, the college was probably the weakest part of the story. They really didn’t use a student reporter, played by Kristina Holland, anywhere near as effectively as they should. It also seems like a very strange technical school when the only classes and professors we hear about are the ones dealing with archaeology, dead cultures, demonology, and ancient languages. Shouldn’t all these undergrads be programming in COBOL instead of reading Sanskrit?

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.15 – Chopper

The reality is that no television episode that credits David Chase, Bob Gale, and Robert Zemeckis among its co-writers can possibly be a flop, but “Chopper” sports such a flat resolution that it disappointed me massively all those years ago and never recovered. I just remember it as the one with the credibility-straining monster of the week.

But for younger viewers… “Chopper” scared the wits out of our kid from the headless biker’s first appearance and never relaxed. “I am scared out of my skull,” he bellowed early on. I said “That’s funny, because he doesn’t have one.” He protested that he knew, and that was the problem. Afterward, when asked whether this was the most frightening episode of Kolchak, he not only insisted that it is, but it occupies a rare position alongside the New Avengers installment “Gnaws” as the scariest thing he’s ever seen, and he was similarly emphatic tonight that he will never, ever watch this story again.

Joining the frights this week, Jay Robinson and Jim Backus both have single-scene roles. Robinson is as amusingly over-the-top as ever, but Backus, who had such a reputation of scenery chewing, is pleasantly restrained and human as a Navy vet working as a motorcycle salesman. And the story deserves more than its “woeful effects” reputation because it ranks as Kolchak’s biggest win yet. Not only does he defeat his supernatural foe, but this week’s cop who’s had it up to here with our hero, played by Larry Linville, gets busted down to sergeant and reassigned to traffic for bungling the case so badly. Sure, he didn’t get a story on the wire, but two out of three’s great for Kolchak.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.14 – The Trevi Collection

On the casting front alone, Rudolph Borchert’s “The Trevi Collection” would be worth a spotlight for all the great actors and actresses who appear in it. Familiar faces that we’ve seen and heard before include Richard Bakalyan, Bernie Kopell, and Marvin Miller, who’d be providing the voice of the Zarn a few months later for Sid and Marty Krofft. They provide some background color for Nina Foch and Lara Parker, who I don’t believe that we’ve seen before at our blog, and who are playing a pair of witches locked in a magical struggle that’s leaving a lot of corpses around Chicago.

Lara Parker had played the witch Angelique in the popular Dark Shadows for a few years prior to this episode. Maybe that was obvious casting, but she knew how to cackle and laugh like she’d lost her mind. I remember thinking that she went over the top in a couple of scenes when I watched this ages ago, but she scared the pants off our kid. She ends the episode screaming and laughing maniacally while charging after Karl, and I could feel the poor fellow tense up so much that he was shifting the sofa.

But it wasn’t all terrors from the witchcraft story. Bakalyan is in only one scene, as a hood who wants Carl to turn over some evidence about a union shakedown, but the heavies come back to the INS offices after hours to smash up the place, write threats on the windows, and, just to be obnoxious, smear peanut butter all over Tony’s homburg. Poor Tony complains “My favorite hat smells like a kid’s lunchbox,” and our son laughed so hard that he begged me to pause and wind it back so he could hear it again.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.13 – Primal Scream

Score another one for Marie tonight. She correctly spotted that the old tunnel set from this episode’s climax is the same sewer set from “The Spanish Moss Murders,” mildly redressed, with a lot less water running through it, and radically relit in the bright red of some flares. I didn’t notice it at all, which pleased her that she caught a production thing that I missed. On the other hand, she was a lot less taken with the very, very silly science in this story. Our old pal Doctor Science was not impressed.

This is the second episode in a row where the monsters are humans. A lab accident with some millions-of-years-old cells found frozen in the Arctic has resulted in the cells doing a real leap of faith into some prehistoric, carnivorous hominids that hunt at night. The story, by David Chase and Bill S. Ballinger, is about the unscrupulous corporation that is keeping a lid on it, with the police willingly assisting in the coverup. Barbara Rhoades and Jamie Farr have small parts in the episode, which I really enjoyed, regardless of how far-fetched the premise was.

And our son? After bravely facing down the rakshasha in “Horror in the Heights,” which everybody says is one of the scariest Kolchaks, this one left him a mess, pronouncing it both creepy and terrifying. The biggest hide-behind-his-blanket moment comes when Carl realizes that the oil company has another prehistoric ape-creature growing in a small tank, a pink, slimy embryo in a big, fat thermos. That’s fair; that shot was a little icky.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.12 – Mr. R.I.N.G.

Stories about robots that are learning the difference between right and wrong and are forced to defend themselves are as old as science fiction itself, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that similar stories are being told on TV on each side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, I was amused when I realized that “Mr. R.I.N.G.” first aired on ABC at the same time that Tom Baker’s first serial as Doctor Who, “Robot” was being shown. Maybe Professor Kettlewell’s robot and R.I.N.G. could sadly commiserate about how awful soldiers are.

“Mr. R.I.N.G.” is very much a story of its time. It’s more than just the design – he reminds me of some other classic seventies robots, like the Fembots from Universal’s Bionic shows and the Kraal androids from the next season of Who – this is a story about a government coverup. It’s very unlike the usual Kolchak formula. The robot isn’t the monster-of-the-week; the military-industrial complex is. Corrine Michaels isn’t playing a damsel in distress as we’re led to believe. Having killed one of its creators in a bid for survival, R.I.N.G. has found the other one so that it can continue learning.

The inevitable ending – no, our hero doesn’t win this one – really sank our son’s spirits. He couldn’t quite explain why it made him sad, so he and I hashed it out over dessert. It made him unhappy to learn that American soldiers were the bad guys and they killed R.I.N.G. To make this even more of a stark finale, we learn that this time, Carl’s been narrating this story from a drug-induced haze. They’ve pumped him full of brain-wiping chemicals, leaving him to hesitantly dictate his story onto one of his tapes before his last memory of the event slips away. I hope that when they reactivated the dormant R.I.N.G. a few months later, he murdered them all, killed the senator who covered it up, and burned the top secret research establishment to the ground. That would serve them right.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.11 – Horror in the Heights

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.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.10 – The Energy Eater

I did promise you good readers a look at the unbelievably awful sports coats that you can see in this show, and tonight, guest star William Smith is wearing an eyeball-bruising doozy. It was 1974. What could you do?

I had never seen “The Energy Eater,” co-written by Rudolph Borchert and Arthur Rowe, before tonight. It wasn’t syndicated; it was paired with “Firefall” as a sausage-linked TV movie. We all really enjoyed it, but I liked it best because it’s really unlike the usual format for a Kolchak story.

Our hero isn’t alone this time. When he realizes that a new hospital is covering up some strange deaths on the property and some absolutely bizarre structural failures, Kolchak starts gathering experts to investigate. Eventually, the hospital muckity-mucks have to admit – privately – that the story Kolchak has brought them must be true. There is a powerful, invisible force on the land where the hospital was built, and they have no choice but to deal with it in the way Carl prescribes. For once, our hero isn’t standing alone in a sewer or in a junkyard. Not that he’ll get the credit for it, of course.

Our son was most creeped out by a fabulous scene where Kolchak and William Smith’s character assemble a stack of X-rays that – without rational logic but with plenty of coolness factor for the TV – each caught a glimpse of the invisible beast. They assemble the X-rays like a jigsaw puzzle, revealing the size and the face of the beast. Well, part of its face, anyway.

And with that, we’ll return Kolchak: The Night Stalker to the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh, and to give our son a break from the scary stuff. But Carl will be back with more monsters in Chicago in mid-November, so stay tuned!

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.9 – The Spanish Moss Murders

David Chase co-wrote “The Spanish Moss Murders” with Al Friedman, and I’ve always really enjoyed it, because this week’s cop who’s had it up to here with Kolchak is played by Keenan Wynn and he’s completely hilarious. Therapy has brought this former “mad dog” of a captain to a calm place, because this is the seventies, the era of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Casting Wynn is a stroke of genius, because the man could rant and bellow better than just about anybody, and the inevitable moment when Kolchak undoes a year and a half of therapy and has Wynn completely losing his mind is wonderful. Wynn is joined by Severn Darden as a sleep researcher, and Richard Kiel as the monster for a second week running.

I remembered “The Spanish Moss Murders” so fondly that I watched it with my older children around 2005, when they were about eight and six. My friend David, who passed away a few months ago, had purchased the set and I asked if we could watch this episode after we had dinner at one of his favorite nearby places, Pasta Bella. My older son fell asleep. My daughter screamed bloody murder at the end. The scenes of Richard Kiel’s swamp monster rising out of the waters of the storm drains just did her in, and she bawled for hours and had to sleep in my bed when we got home. And no, she didn’t wake her older brother. He could have slept through a tornado.

Tonight, our favorite eight year-old critic split the difference and pronounced it “Terrifying, but I kind of liked it.” It’s a really memorable hour. Even that former client at my last job remembered Kolchak in the sewers… even if she misremembered the monster as being a vampire, she remembered that sewer.

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