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.
“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.
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.
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.