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.

Doctor Who 1.9 – The Empty Child

I’ve just discovered a terrific way to annoy everybody in the house!

What you need to do is, around about 1996, buy an old 1940s gas mask from Hodges Army & Navy Store in Marietta GA for a Golden Age Sandman costume. Hold on to the gas mask for 23 years. After you watch “The Empty Child,” Steven Moffat’s first proper TV episode of Who, with the lights out, pop behind the sofa, don the mask and raise your head over the back of the couch to ask your petrified eight year-old “Are you my mummy?”

A few moments, some tears, some hugs, and an apology or three later, our son, who cannot stand giant rats, heights, speed, collard greens, the concept of whitewater rafting, hot sauce, mustard, or children wearing gas masks, explained that he “would eat a turkey mustard hot sauce apple tofu sandwich if it would give me a memory wipe of this episode.”

House on Haunted Hill (1959) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Yesterday, we were back in Atlanta for another trip into the past with the boys and ghouls of the Silver Scream Spook Show, although our son was wishing for another monster movie. They always promise that they’re going to scare the yell out of us, and this time, they delivered. The film was William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price, Elisha Cook Jr., and Carol Ohmart. I’d never seen it before, and I just had a ball. It’s a terrific haunted house movie, and I enjoyed every frame of it.

I told our son that it was an old horror movie, and probably not all that scary. Boy, was I mistaken.

So this one’s about a creepy party held by an eccentric millionaire at his even more eccentric wife’s behest. If any of the five guests can stay the night in this spooky old mansion – the exteriors were filmed at the downright bizarre Ennis House, which Frank Lloyd Wright designed to look like a Mayan temple – they will earn $10,000. The five guests were chosen because they are all strangers who need the money. The windows are barred, there is only one door, made of steel, and after the caretakers leave at midnight, there is no escape, and no way to phone the police when the eccentric wife hangs herself to death.

So yes, I thought it was great, and really enjoyed a startling reveal about twenty-five minutes in, when the camera lets us know that there’s somebody else in a room with actress Carolyn Craig. From there, it was half an hour of solid shocks for our kid, who was without comfort blankets and the rest of his menagerie and curled up in a tight ball next to me.

He missed the last fifteen minutes. Craig gets the wits scared out of her again when a rope somehow enters her room and she looks outside to see that on the other end of it, the ghost of the wife is outside, lit by the lightning, still with the noose around her neck. I heard a whimper and a moan and I leaned over to hear him tell me “I am really, really, super scared,” and told him to head for the lobby. I didn’t need to tell him twice. So Marie went to join him, and, after the hosts had provided one little interactive element of the movie, Professor Morte commiserated with the otherwise heroic eight year-old. Turns out when you’re that age, this really is a tremendously terrifying film.

I knew this was going to be a great presentation, because I was betting that the Spook Show gang was going to incorporate a famous element of the movie’s original release. Now, if you’ve Googled your way here without knowing anything about the Silver Scream Spook Show, quickly pop back and read our story about our first Atlanta trip for the show. This time, the show started with a silly bit of business about a haunted mirror. I’m still chuckling about Atlanta’s beloved Jim Stacy, dressed as a pirate ghost, bellowing “Turns out I’ve got a fetish for Alice in Wonderland fightin’ like Popeye!”

When House on Haunted Hill was originally released, it was with the promise that it was made in EMERGO, which meant that at a critical moment in the climax, a pulley system in the theater would activate and a skeleton would swing out from the rafters above the crowd. Well, the Plaza Theater didn’t have a pulley system, but they did have the next best thing, which was Professor Morte and one of his pals using a big wire puppet setup using the two aisles of the room. They raised a skeleton from a box placed below the screen, and with Morte in one aisle and his assistant in the other, they stalked the length of the room, with the skeleton dangling over the audience.

To say that the crowd loved this is an understatement. This was the most packed we’ve ever seen the Spook Show, with the room very nearly filled with classic film lovers. Let’s be fair: a whole lot more people want to see Vincent Price than Gorgo. And as for this film? I remember reading about EMERGO in middle school and never, ever thought I’d get the chance to actually see it played out in person.

It’s a shame that our kid missed out on the skeleton, but we visited friends and had barbecue and ice cream and got to see the dolphin show at the Georgia Aquarium and he otherwise had a great day. He’ll be telling his friends down the line that this sixty year-old movie was the scariest film he’s ever seen, but he had a great day. This was the Spook Show’s last performance of 2019, but we thanked Professor Morte in the lobby and said that we’d see him again next year.

Image credit: LyricDiscorde

The New Avengers 1.10 – Gnaws

The first thing I was planning to say tonight was that, in the same way that it pleased me to introduce our son to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) with him having absolutely no idea that one of the characters was a ghost, it pleased me hugely to show my family the most infamous episode of the Avengers franchise, wherein our heroes hunt a giant rat in the sewers. They may have been the only people to have seen this episode to have no idea what writer Dennis Spooner was going to throw at them.

The second thing I was planning to say tonight was that, in much the same way that Spooner bent the Avengers format farther than it had ever gone before with his masterpiece “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…”, Spooner again took the format in a wild new direction with this story. Even with a familiar guest star like Jeremy Young at work here, this does not look or feel like The Avengers. There’s very little humor, and Steed doesn’t even don his bowler. This is a monster movie with three familiar characters in it.

And the third thing that I was planning to say tonight was that this is the episode where Purdey goes down in the sewers wearing the most hilariously unsuitable outfit for sewer-stalking that you’ve ever seen. Find yourself a woman who hunts giant rats in a Laura Ashley skirt, lads. She’ll never stop surprising you.

But then our son actually saw the story, or most of it anyway, and whatever I had to say stopped mattering so much. There’s a reason why everybody who saw this one as a kid remembers it. From the cold eyes of teenagerhood, this was “proof” that seventies Avengers was nowhere near as cool as sixties Avengers. From the colder eyes of adulthood, this was blah blah critical dissertation blah blah boring.

To a kid, this is the most terrifying hour of television ever made. Our son was scared out of his mind. Maybe when you’re an adult waiting for the rat, it’s just forty-five minutes of yeah, yeah, get on with it. When you don’t know what the heck the monster is – they tried to give the kids in the audience a billion clues, really, they did – then the director’s choices of reaction shots and screaming men about to get eaten are gobstompingly effective. At one point toward the end, Steed makes the decision between Purdey and a shotgun-wielding man he’s never seen before. Steed immediately sentences the man to death by throwing rat bait at him. By this point, our kid had already tried hiding in Mom’s lap, and behind the sofa, and leaving the room entirely. Knowing that guy’s fate was sealed was just about the living end for our son.

“That was NOT Godzilla-monster-scary, because that is a GOOD scary,” he told us. “That was a BAD-monster-scary. I will not watch ‘Gnaws’ again, not even for ten million dollars.” I assured him that none of the other sixteen episodes yet to come are anything even remotely as frightening as this. Marie sagely noted that even after he’s forgotten every other episode of this show, he will remember this one.

A few minutes later, safely tucked in for a good night’s sleep, a truck on the highway behind us let out a belching engine noise and our son rocketed out of bed and turned on every light in his room.

The Six Million Dollar Man 4.1 – The Return of Bigfoot (part one)

The pre-credits scene revealed that Bigfoot was back, and things looked good. Our son glowed. “He caused so much destruction last time! Don’t you remember all that destruction that he caused?!” But before the hour was up, things would fall apart.

So, famously, the 1976-77 season of the Bionic series opened with a very celebrated crossover, the seventies ABC equivalent of the annual Arrowverse get-together on the CW. The aliens who control Bigfoot have had an uprising, and a gang of them have stolen both the Sasquatch and their wonder drug, and are now pilfering top secret facilities to get the parts they need to build a force field. One of the aliens restores Steve’s memory, he tries to stop Bigfoot alone, fails, finally tells his co-stars, including Jaime, what’s going on, nobody believes him, and he makes another attempt as they go for the last isotope they need.

And Steve Austin gets his ass handed to him. It is a beatdown to remember.

But first, let’s look at just how forward-looking Kenneth Johnson’s story is. This episode is more than just simply crossing over the two shows with the extremely popular Bigfoot. It’s done with some really impressive guest casting. Severn Darden and Stefanie Powers are back from the first Bigfoot story, and they’ve brought Sandy Duncan along as a newly-introduced alien, and the leader of the villains is that omnipresent baddie of seventies teevee, John Saxon. That’s a great cast, and everybody is working hard to sell this silliness. I love the way that the plot of the story is simplicity itself, but explaining all this stuff about hidden aliens and time-dilation devices and Bigfoot is so convoluted and ridiculous that Steve looks completely crazy telling his friends about it. I really like Lindsay Wagner’s acting in this scene; her life is already unbelievable, but this tall tale is pushing it.

Our son was enjoying it even more than I was until that second fight. Again, you have to consider the time and the audience. Television superheroes suffer a lot worse these days with all sorts of blood and bruising, but for a seventies show, in the eyes of a six year old, this is horrifying. Bigfoot’s been amped up by John Saxon, and Steve doesn’t have a prayer. Andre the Giant did not return to the role; Ted Cassidy plays Bigfoot this time out, and he just makes mincemeat of our hero. It finally ends with Steve’s bionic legs being crushed underneath some huge thing or other, which made even me gasp, and that’s with me knowing the grievous injury that we’re going to see Jaime suffer in a few days’ time.

Our son couldn’t bear to watch. He left the room completely with his security blanket, and came back shaking. He was a mess. He curled up on the couch as Dr. Wells gave Steve less than 24 hours to live, and Steve whispered instructions to Jaime, to get help from the aliens. We did our best to assure him that Jaime will save the day. Man, I hope so…

The Bionic Woman 1.14 – The Ghosthunter

I wonder how the producers of this show decided what would be acceptable fantasy elements and what would be outlandish enough to make the characters question it. Bionics, robots, space aliens, psychic powers, those are all okay and understandable, but ghosts? Admittedly, by this point in the two shows, it’s Steve who has seen all the really bizarre stuff, but if there is a ghost in Essexville, Massachusetts haunting a descendant of a woman who was executed in nearby Salem, are you honestly going to tell me it’s that much more wild than those aliens with the toxic skin who crashed on Earth?

This isn’t a bad story at all. It’s the first season finale, written and directed by the show’s producer, Kenneth Johnson, and it looks like an end-of-season cheapie, with only four guest speaking parts, but it’s well-made and effective. Especially so for our son, who, for the first time in ages, got really upset by the frights. About a half an hour after we finished watching it, he started weeping because he was “freaked out” and didn’t want to get ready for bed!

But before the frights, he was absolutely outraged by another moment. Jaime and her boyfriend-of-the-week take a canoe into the lake for some grown-up time away from the boyfriend’s daughter, who looks to be about twelve or so. He suggests that she take a nap. Our son didn’t appreciate that at all. “You should never leave a kid alone! Never!” he shouted. We don’t even joke about going in to pay for our gasoline without him. I almost told him that forty years ago, parents did leave their kids alone like that, but I decided against it. The world’s insane enough now without letting him know what degenerates we were in the seventies.

We’ll be taking a short break from the two Bionic series, but will resume with seasons four and two at the end of the month!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

This was by no means Daniel’s favorite film, and boy, is it ever long, but I think it’s a terrific and silly fantasy. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is based on the children’s novel by Ian Fleming, and, since Albert Broccoli and his company were making the Bond films from Fleming’s books, it seemed like a good investment. Also since, in 1967, they had Roald Dahl on their Rolodex – he had written the screenplay for You Only Live Twice – they had somebody to phone who had lots of experience in writing good children’s fiction to turn Fleming’s novel into a good script.

Dick Van Dyke had been in the habit of making films in between seasons of his sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early sixties. Of these, of course, Mary Poppins is the best-known. He was hugely in demand after the series ended and regularly in front of cameras. I suspect that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had a very long shoot. It filmed across three countries and required the use of those gigantic stages on Pinewood that the 007 people were typically using for bases inside volcanoes, and was released in time for Christmas 1968.

Cast opposite Van Dyke was Sally Ann Howes, who was principally a stage actress, with dozens of hugely successful roles on Broadway and the West End over her career. Also in the cast, a few names familiar from the 1960s Bond films, including Gert Frobe and Desmond Llewellyn, and, just to show there were no hard feelings for Columbia not returning the rights to Casino Royale and making that very silly spoof film instead, Broccoli hired one of Casino‘s five credited directors, Ken Hughes, to shoot this.

Like Casino, this is a movie that really could use some scissors taken to it. It’s in two sections with an intermission, about 84 and 60 minutes each. Those first 84 could have been trimmed by a good fifteen minutes, if not more. Our son has really started to rebel against songs in movies, and there are some really long numbers in the first section. He got restless and fidgety and, on a couple of occasions, got up to lie down behind the sofa just to put an end to all this nonsense and wait for this car to fly like I told him would happen.

Then he met the Child Catcher and it wasn’t boredom that sent him behind the sofa. See, if you’ve never seen this movie, its central conflict is a long fantasy story that Dick Van Dyke’s eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, tells, in which he and his children and his new friend (and, possibly, fiancée) are beset by agents from the country of Vulgaria who want his magical car. They have to fly to Vulgaria after Potts’ father, played by Lionel Jeffries, is accidentally abducted by the baron’s agents.

In Vulgaria, children are forbidden because the baroness, played by Anna Quayle, is afraid of them. She has employed this really freaky dude to capture them. The Child Catcher is played with bizarre energy by the late Robert Helpmann, a celebrated Australian dancer, director of that country’s national ballet theater, with a list of honors and awards as long as your arm, and he’s best known for less than fifteen minutes onscreen luring children into cages with lollipops. He is absolutely horrifying to little ones. There were so many tears welled up in my son’s eyes that I teared up a little just looking at how shaken he was!

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is flawed, but it’s aged extremely well and we were mostly entertained by it, even if our son’s restlessness during the longer sections got pretty exasperating. We probably should have taken more advantage of the movie’s intermission, but four is a little young for this one and we would have done better to wait another year or so. For adults, you’ve got the sumptuous production and giant sets and wonderful chemistry between the leads, and if their romance seems just a little too inevitable, well, you need to have your heart polished up a little bit.

Now, about getting the darn theme tune out of my head…

Land of the Lost 1.13 – Follow That Dinosaur

It’s been so long ago, an incident whose reality has been corrupted by its telling, but the first time that television scared me out of my wits was the first time I saw this episode. It was such a long time back that I don’t remember whether I was familiar with Land of the Lost already, or whether I’d ever seen Sleestak before, but the reality is that the incredibly brief scene in which the Marshalls escape through the Lost City while the dormant Sleestak twitch slowly back into life absolutely horrified me to the point that I did not watch Saturday morning television again for weeks.

My father later told me that I didn’t watch television, period, for at least a month after my screaming fit ended (“You woke the whole house,” he shared, reminding me that my uncle lived with us then and worked a late job Friday nights), and that my parents had to turn off the black and white set in the kitchen whenever I was in the house. They would turn on the TV in the den just to get me to run, yelling, to my room and get ready for bed. Eventually, this turned into enough of a game that I began to have fun with it, and the television lost its immediate power to frighten me, and, eventually, I began to trust that Sleestak wouldn’t show up on every other show on the tube. Mercifully, the producers of CHiPs borrowed a different Krofft character a few years later.

No, it’s not that scary from adult eyes. Childhood TV traumas never are, in the cold light of day, but Dick Morgan’s “Follow That Dinosaur,” which answers the question of who wrote “BEWARE OF SLEESTAK” on the Lost City pillars, retains its amazing power to shock children. Around 2002 or so, it sent big sister Ivy screaming from the room as well, and while Daniel didn’t quite exercise his leatherlungs, his eyes welled with tears and he fled, security blanket bunched tightly in his mouth.

Part of the horror is this: outside the Lost City, Grumpy the tyrannosaur has followed the humans into Big Alice’s territory. There, in the plaza, they fight, and seriously, the special effects team still deserves a round of applause forty-two years later. That is an amazing piece of stop-motion photography, better than anybody else in 1974 had managed, and I include Ray Harryhausen’s remarkable work in that assessment. So outside, you’ve got two killer dinosaurs, and inside you’ve got Sleestak which are not merely dormant but covered in spider webs, which is incredibly creepy, and then the trail of an old diary leads them into a dead-end pit room with the skeletal remains of Peter Koenig, who died there years before, overcome by the heat and fumes of a rising lava pit… which, of course, inevitably, wakes the Sleestak.

It is the bleakest, most terrifying trap ever, the tension ratcheted up by the slow exploration of the tunnels and the resigned sorrow of the actors, realizing that this is not the way out, just before the real revelation hits them: they have to get out of the tunnels before the heat wakes the Sleestak.

Daniel recovered quickly, a whole lot quicker than I did at his age, and has been talking excitedly about lava with Mommy ever since we finished. I did have to assure him that the next episode is nowhere as frightening. It’s the one after the next one…

Land of the Lost 1.11 – The Search

We’re hitting the run of absolutely amazing and child-traumatizing episodes of Land of the Lost, and this one is a complete nightmare. It’s written by novelist Ben Bova, whose only other TV credits were as a scientific adviser on the allegedly horrible Canadian SF drama The Starlost – I say “allegedly” because I’ve never seen it myself, but nor have I ever seen a good word written about it anywhere – and Bova just packed the horrors into this one. It’s not just Big Alice nearly getting Will, and Grumpy nearly getting Dad and Holly, this time the technology is really dangerous.

Experimenting with the crystals in an outdoor alcove near the Lost City, Rick Marshall receives a near-fatal shock. This would never, ever pass muster in today’s antiseptic environment of kid’s TV. Spencer Milligan screams in absolute agony and is weak and helpless for the rest of the show, accepting his fate and quietly urging his children to save themselves. Holy freaking anna, this is completely horrifying, and then it gets worse.

Holly drags her father back to the cave, and Kathy Coleman acquits herself as the show’s unsung heroine and an engineer-in-training, using a counterbalance on the baskets to raise her dad up to safety. She is awesome. Meanwhile, Will goes to Enik’s cave to try to convince the emotionless scientist – making his second appearance this season – to help them. Enik’s time doorway briefly opens to the Grand Canyon, giving Will a way home.

Already freaked out by the father’s injury and two near-misses with dinosaurs and Enik refusing to help them, Daniel just about completely lost it here, afraid that Will was going to abandon his family. We gave him some extra cuddling and attention, and he’s says that he’s ready for episode twelve now. Or so he thinks.

Technology note: A red and a yellow crystal, together, will cause a small explosion. We actually saw this two episodes previously, suggesting that the production order for the program might have been different than the broadcast one. Red and blue do nothing, but adding a yellow to the pair causes the near-lethal shock to the nervous system.