You want to know how long these hallways are? If Darren McGavin rides that golf cart any further down that incredibly long corridor, he’s probably going to end up in London and bump into Tom Baker and Louise Jameson filming “The Sun Makers” on the other end of it.
So “The Sentry” was the final episode of Kolchak. They were supposed to shoot two more installments, and lore has it that a few more story ideas were kicking around for a second season. Author Mark Dawidziak – whose essential The Columbo Phile is back in print for the first time in about twenty years – wrote a book on Kolchak for a couple of publishers. I have the Pomegranate Press edition (for a while there, that company was behind some absolutely excellent books about teevee), and was amazed to read that it was McGavin himself who orchestrated the early ax, phoning both the heads of Universal and ABC and yelling at them to talk to each other and shut this show down.
I wouldn’t argue that the show went out on a high note. The final monster of the week is a lizard creature that lives a couple of miles underground and starts rampaging through the endless corridors of a deep storage archive company after a geologist steals some of its eggs. The monster, sadly, moves nothing at all like an animal, but precisely like an underpaid actor wearing a hundred pound costume with a huge head. But was it effective for kids? You bet it was. Our son declared the creature to be “a scary monster, but a good monster, because it was just trying to be a good parent!” He also got a kick out of the police giving Kolchak’s convertible Mustang a great nickname: the yellow submarine.
Kolchak rarely made it out of the bottom ten shows on the weekly ratings reports while it was on, but it became one of the great cult shows in American TV history. Horror lovers who missed it in 1974-75 found it on The CBS Late Movie and kept tapes circulating where so many other bottom ten shows were just forgotten, and the show then influenced a new wave of supernatural conspiracy television twenty years later. There wouldn’t have been an X Files without Carl Kolchak, and while I thought it was a shame that Darren McGavin turned down the chance to reprise the role of Carl opposite David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in that series, the producers did find another part for him to play. It was the least they could do.
By the time they filmed Rudolph Borchert’s “The Youth Killer,” Kolchak was running behind in production and ranking near the bottom of the weekly Nielsen ratings. They pulled in their usual mob of interesting guest stars, including television’s first Captain America and first Wonder Woman, Reb Brown and Cathy Lee Crosby. They’re joined by John Fiedler, making his last appearance as Gordy the morgue attendant, and by Dwayne Hickman, who weirdly enough Marie and I just saw two nights ago in an Ellery Queen made the following season, as the new cop of the week. This one starts out being nice to Kolchak, figuring that our hero can’t possibly be as much of a “pinwheel” as his fellow cops claim, only to find that Kolchak just helps himself to evidence and personal effects from the morgue.
But the whole affair is a rushed Kolchak by the numbers. Our kid was impressed, and mildly creeped out by the young twentysomethings being aged to death, but my favorite scene is a nice little location shot where Kolchak gets some info about ancient Greek demigods from a cab driver played by George “Demosthenes” Savalas. And that moment’s enlivened by an old Bell Telephone van driving by, prompting me to say “Hey, I remember that color scheme!”
Tonight’s episode was “The Knightly Murders,” and David Chase was one of three co-writers, and it proved that while I may have said that I had seen sixteen of the twenty episodes, I really hadn’t. Not in full, anyway.
If you, dear reader, are in your fifties or older, then it’s possible that you first ran into this program on the The CBS Late Movie, which ran edited repeats of this series in the late seventies and early eighties. I first found the show on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Series Collection from around 1994. These were also edited, cut down to about 42 minutes to accommodate both commercials and the anthology show’s bumpers, which included soundbites from an interview with Darren McGavin. I wonder whether that full interview has ever been released.
Anyway, the Sci-Fi Channel’s editors had to chop out about six minutes from each installment, and I guarantee that they excised almost all of this wonderful scene between McGavin and guest star John Dehner, because I’m certain I would have remembered anything this delightful. Dehner is playing the police official of the week, but magically, this one hasn’t had it up to here with Kolchak. His captain is a slow and thoughtful fellow, prone to long speeches and long pauses, somewhere between Maigret and indolence, and he drives Kolchak bananas simply by talking too much about nothing at all. When a reporter presses him on what killed a fellow in his car, the answer isn’t “a jousting lance,” it’s “society.” As hilarious as Keenan Wynn’s yelling guy is, Dehner should have had this job almost every week, because Kolchak has almost no idea how to combat him.
The other amazing guest star this week is Hans Conreid, who plays a museum curator and who has the more typical task of bellowing at Carl. Conreid, as always, is completely wonderful to watch, but Kolchak knows how to handle loudmouths like him. It’s when somebody isn’t mad at Kolchak that our hero is out at sea.
Arthur Rowe’s “Legacy of Terror” probably isn’t anybody’s favorite episode of Kolchak, but I thought it was huge fun. It starts with our hero narrating “I promised I’d show up with a haircut, new hat and pressed suit, but I lie a lot,” and I chuckled through the whole thing. Tony gets a zinger when Carl sets himself up with a question about why a rich hotel magnate would hire a dummy like Erik Estrada’s character for his VP. Whenever I set myself up for a burn like the one Tony throws back, I need some aloe.
Estrada has two costumes in this story. Given the choice of going out in public in a pink Saturday Night Fever disco suit with seven-inch lapels or the bare-chested bird suit shown above, I’d have to think about it a while. Ramon Bieri is back as this week’s cop who’s had it up to here with Kolchak, only by this point in the show’s troubled and rushed production, nobody seems to have noticed that the last captain that Bieri played had a different name. Nor did anybody seem to notice that they’d already done a story about a killer who sleeps for decades and wakes up to kill a set number of victims before vanishing again.
Despite the plot holes and repetitions, I did enjoy the hour, but my favorite part might have been noticing the setting of the final sacrifice. It’s set in a sports arena, and while I haven’t been able to figure where it was filmed – possibly on the USC campus? – it was so refreshing to see the camera show us this huge, empty, maybe 2500 seat arena and not a single corporate logo anywhere in sight. See, the seventies weren’t all bad.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!