Category Archives: kolchak: the night stalker

Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.8 – Bad Medicine

Our son hesitantly asked whether this morning’s episode of Kolchak would be a scary one or, like the UFO story, a silly one. I demurred, of course, because I think almost all of them are both scary and silly. “Bad Medicine” gave him a good case of the shivers, but he told us that he really liked it. This week’s beastie is a Diablero, a native American sorcerer who is under a centuries-long curse, and who can transform into a crow or a coyote.

But for all the scary monster business, “Bad Medicine” features two of the funniest scenes of the series. There’s a great bit in the office where Kolchak is trying to find a listing in the phone book, but every copy in the office has been vandalized, and the necessary page ripped out. It’s brilliantly funny, but it’s bettered by a hilarious scene in which Ramon Bieri, who plays this week’s cop who’s had it up to here with Kolchak, challenges our hero on the actual motive behind the strange killings, and Carl, for what must be the first time in his career, is left without a smart-aleck answer because he’s absolutely speechless.

Joining Bieri in the guest cast this week, there’s Richard Kiel as the Diablero, and of course our son still somehow failed to recognize one of the tallest actors in the business despite seeing him several times. The wonderful actors Alice Ghostley and Marvin Kaplan also have brief appearances. They definitely should have used both of them again. Kaplan plays a former fence who’s trying to go straight after seven years in the old Joliet Pen, but he still hears things, you know. If this show wanted a regular guy-who-knows-things for Carl to consult, Kaplan would have been terrific.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.7 – The Devil’s Platform

“The Devil’s Platform” deals with a devil worshipper, because it was the seventies and therefore unavoidable at the time. This one is played by Tom Skerritt and he’s running for the Illinois senate and can turn into a Rottweiler. They balanced the tone really well this time, with the main plot played more for action-adventure than horror, and all kinds of fun in the INS newsroom with the regulars sniping at each other with better zingers than you hear on most sitcoms. The office stuff is so good that I’d be happy taking an break for a week and spending an hour with no supernatural shenanigans at all, just Carl and Tony and Ron being rude to each other.

Speaking of the newsroom, our son enjoyed this a lot, in part because of the Rottweiler, but he was also confused by what it is that Carl and Tony actually do. Tony mentions getting something “on the wire,” and he asked us to explain. We’ll be lucky if any news agencies (or wire services in old-fashioned palare) still exist in twenty years. They’ll probably all be strip-mined by private equity vulture capitalists. Creatures from that industry crippled Sports Illustrated this week. Think there’ll be an AP or a Reuters in 2039? Devil worshippers aren’t as horrible.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.6 – Firefall

“Firefall” really breaks away from what’s been starting to feel like a Kolchak formula, particularly with five single-word-description supernatural beasts each week. This one is about a ghost, but in a pretty convoluted explanation, the ghost has taken the physical appearance of the living man that it plans to replace, and it also has the power to cause spontaneous human combustion in anybody who falls asleep. After three and a half days awake, our hero is running on fumes but doesn’t dare doze.

Our son told us that he really liked this one. It’s not really frightening, but it’s got some incredibly neat and occasionally freaky imagery. The most memorable visual comes when Carl and the ghost’s target are in a church for some level of protection, and the ghost, taking the form of its target, is staring at them from the windows like a malevolent imp.

One odd thing for me is that I’d misremembered which four episodes of the series had been removed from the syndication package. Remember when, once upon a silly time, production companies would make sausage-linked TV movies from two episodes of a short-lived TV show, figuring that since it was unlikely the show would be purchased for syndication, they could still make a little money back with a TV movie for UHF stations? Universal made two Kolchak TV movies that way, but I thought they used four of the later episodes. So I was scratching my head with this unfamiliar story, wondering how I missed this one, when the Sci-Fi Channel actually never showed it at all. (It was mashed up with episode ten as the movie Crackle of Death.)

Obligatory actor notes: not too many familiar-to-me-faces this time. Carol Ann Susi makes her last of three appearances, and David Doyle’s in it for one scene. Fred Beir, who guest starred in everything in the sixties and seventies, plays the man the ghost wants to become.

Postscript: Last week, I mentioned our son’s newest security plush, “Metal Bringer,” a cuddly Saturn V that he picked up at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. He’s been a little rocket-happy since our trip, as you might expect, and he quietly mentioned tonight that, in the penny arcade where some of the action takes place, he saw a Saturn. I didn’t follow it up; I figured he saw it on one of the pinball machines. I didn’t spot it until I’d posted this. There’s the rocket, on that shelf behind Carl with some other prizes. Good eye for detail, our kid!

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.5 – The Werewolf

The next time we get a glimpse of one of those godawful seventies sports jackets, I promise I’ll take the extra couple of minutes and give you good readers a screencap. Dick Gautier is in this episode, and he’s hilarious as a cruise ship swinging single, and he’s got this coat of many colors his momma made with love in every stitch. Gautier’s wonderful, and I know people used to dress like that, but my poor eyes.

Our son was also a little put out with the costume department. The werewolf in this story is less than convincing. Back in the nineties, I quietly filed this monster, and the headless biker toward the end of the run, as the show’s two failures, but since our son saw right through this one, grumbling “That werewolf costume doesn’t have a very good face,” it doesn’t look good for that biker when we get to him. On the other hand, the werewolf – fake face or not – did succeed in scaring the absolute life out of him. He was really, really worried for Carl, and when he was offered some cookies for dessert, he quietly said “Maybe those will calm my nerves.”

Anyway, joining Carl and his badly-dressed cabin mate in this story, there’s Nita Talbot as a classic film buff who can talk even Carl’s ear off, Henry Jones as the ship’s captain, and Eric Braeden as the wolfman. I think the only real flaw in David Chase’s otherwise splendid script is that we never learn why Braeden, who is very much aware of his curse, had decided to take a Pacific Ocean cruise during the full moon. Maybe he thought the werewolf curse only works on land…?

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.4 – The Vampire

The first three episodes of this show were pretty good, but also a little uneven. “The Vampire” is completely excellent, though, and I’m especially glad that our son enjoyed it, because the last several things we’ve watched over the past week have misfired with him. He says that he really liked it and it was really frightening, although he was confused by how a vampire reacts to the touch of a cross when it’s placed across the beast’s back.

We got a later start this evening and so it was straight to bed for our favorite eight year-old critic, and once tucked in, he allowed that he was honestly a little freaked out. Fortunately, in her box of keepsakes, Marie kept a small cross that we were gifted when the boy was much, much smaller. She offered to bring the cross up to his bedroom for the night and he very graciously accepted.

Looking ahead to Sunday night, we do not, however, have any silver bullets handy.

Anyway, this episode was written by David Chase and it’s a sequel to the original Night Stalker film. Larry Storch has a tiny cameo as an old pal of Carl and Tony’s who stops by Chicago on his way to a TV anchorman job in Cincinnati and calmly offers a tip about some odd murders between Vegas and Los Angeles. There’s lots of beautiful location filming in the city and the hills and some interesting real estate prices. You could get an amazing eight bedroom mansion, big enough for a guru and his retinue, for under 600k in 1974.

This week’s cop who’s had it up to here with Kolchak is a lieutenant played by William Daniels, and I think about the only flaw in this fabulous script is that when the two have a quiet moment to hear Carl’s crazy story about vampires, Carl doesn’t suggest that he phone Captain So-and-So in Vegas and ask him whether the name Janos Skorzeny means anything to him. This is otherwise an incredibly witty and dramatic hour with some great lines, delightful misdirection, a whole room full of reporters who don’t know Kolchak and therefore aren’t embarrassed to take his lead and ask a lot of pointed questions, and this one sleazy dude in a bar who’s wearing some kind of camouflage sports jacket. Geez, the things that people used to wear to pick up girls in bars…

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.3 – They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…

This past weekend, we took advantage of the Smithsonian’s free museum day and drove down to Huntsville, where we enjoyed several hours at the US Space & Rocket Center. There, our son picked up a fourth member of his comfort menagerie, a plush Saturn rocket that he’s named Metal Bringer.

Since we’ve returned, he’s changed his routine for the movie and the two programs we’ve watched. Since none of those were frightening, his security blanket and the three plush cuddlies all wait for him on the other couch. But now that we’re watching another episode of Kolchak, he wanted all four to hold during the scary bits. There was a brief delay while Pal # 3, the beanie named Tigey, couldn’t be found. I told him to knock it off; he was perfectly capable of handing scary TV with only one blanket, surely three out of the four would suffice.

Then the episode, Rudolph Borchert’s “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…,” proved to be decidedly not frightening. “Weird, but unsatisfying?” I asked him. “Yeah,” he grumbled. “Very unsatisfying.” Although the cute finger of coincidence crossed our paths again. The highlight of our trip to Huntsville was an hour enjoying a splendid show in their planetarium. That’s where tonight’s episode reaches its strange climax, as an invisible force moves the observatory around, like a lost traveller consulting a map.

For posterity, tonight’s story features return visits from the recurring players Carol Ann Susi and John Fiedler, along with guest roles for Mary Wickes and Len Lesser, and blustery James Gregory as the police captain of the week. I’m not looking ahead, but I swear I remember that one of these cops appears twice.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.2 – The Zombie

I once had a discussion with an old friend about the original Night Stalker film. I say it’s arguably the best vampire film ever made, and he didn’t agree, because it wasn’t frightening to him. I never said it was the scariest vampire movie, I said it was the best.

With that in mind, “The Zombie” is downright horrifying. I remember watching it in 1993 or so and it getting right under my skin, and tonight it burrowed right under there once more. It’s that scene where Carl goes into the junkyard to shut his zombie opponent down, and finds him comatose in a hearse, so he crawls in beside him, armed with candles and salt and a needle and thread, to fill the undead man’s mouth and sew his lips shut.

I don’t know how many seersucker suits this production went through – and I don’t know how in the world the insurance company agreed to let Darren McGavin hop from car to car in a scrapyard after dark – but McGavin is filthy and sweating and covered in dirt and more believably unglamorous than any TV hero you can imagine as this breath-holding nightmare of a scene plays out. Our son was wrapped up tightly around Mom’s arm, his blanket and his dog and a new member of his menagerie, a little beanie-sized tiger, all crushed against his face. This one’s completely amazing. Although, once we could relax after the horror ended, our son did grumble that he prefers zombie apocalypses with bazookas and explosions. We told him that’s a much more modern invention.

Behind the scenes, “The Zombie” was co-written by David Chase, who’d move over to Switch and The Rockford Files after Kolchak ended . It’s one of eight stories that he would contribute, and it introduces two recurring characters, the publisher’s annoying niece, played by Carol Ann Susi, and morgue attendant Gordy, played by John Fiedler. Charles Aidman is the police captain who’s sick of Kolchak this week, and Scatman Crothers gets a short scene. It’s a terrific guest cast for a fine episode, one of the show’s best and most frightening.

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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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