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.
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…?
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…
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.