The Night Strangler (1973)

The second of ABC’s two TV movies about Carl Kolchak seems to suffer by comparison to the original in the public mind, but it’s still a truly fine and creepy movie. Our son certainly suffered. He was so strung out by the murders in Seattle that when I quietly pointed out that one actress was the Wicked Witch of the West, even that set him behind the sofa.

The Night Strangler reunited Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland with writer Richard Matheson and producer Dan Curtis, who directed this time out, in a story about another series of killings. These strangulations – six of them – happen over an 18-day range every 21 years. Time is ticking. If the murderer isn’t found, he’ll vanish without trace until 1994.

As much as I love the original Night Stalker, I think this movie is almost as good. True, some of the set pieces are very familiar. There’s a repetition, not just of tone, but of incidents. But the setting is delightfully unusual, which gives the movie a really interesting angle. Television just didn’t go to Seattle in the 1970s, and so the story finds a reason for Kolchak to ride the monorail, and to take his girlfriend-of-the-story to lunch at the revolving restaurant atop the Space Needle.

But the draw is the Seattle Underground, which had just opened to the public a couple of years before this was filmed. The historian who started the tour and led the public fight to get the old streets opened again, Bill Speidel, even gets a cameo to talk about it before Kolchak joins a tour. I don’t know about you, but I can just imagine Curtis or Matheson reading a newspaper story about how all these eighty year-old boarded-up storefronts and muddy cobblestone streets had been unearthed and thinking what an amazing place that would be for some supernatural killer to hide out.

The film clearly takes some liberties with just how much old Seattle might be underneath Pioneer Square – a little visual effects trickery around a heck of a good set makes the final confrontation look more like Judge Dredd’s Undercity than what tourists will really find – but I love the symmetry between Kolchak’s long, edge-of-your-seat look through a boarded-up house in the first movie and the just-as-long, just-as-tense search through a boarded-up city block, complete with skeletons posed around a dinner table and cobwebs everywhere. Nightmare fuel.

Anyway, joining Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland for this adventure are Richard Anderson as the mysterious killer, along with the aforementioned Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, and John Carradine, Wally Cox, Al Lewis, and Jo Ann Pflug. Sadly, Pflug wasn’t asked back when the weekly series started about a year and a half later, although she is last seen joining our fired heroes on a cross-country drive to New York to start fresh. Kolchak and Vincenzo would be setting up shop in Chicago, and when I told our son that we’ll be watching that show next month, he winced, grimaced, and gulped. He said that this story wasn’t so much “scary” as it was “insane.” I wished him pleasant dreams.

The Night Stalker (1972)

I wished my son pleasant dreams tonight and got an earful. “I am NOT going to have pleasant dreams! You showed me a vampire movie and I am NINETY-NINE POINT FOUR PER CENT CERTAIN that I’m going to have nightmares tonight!”

Yes, our son did not like tonight’s movie one little bit. He made his feelings very clear by telling us that his favorite scene was when our hero, Carl Kolchak, puts a cassette in his little tape player about ten seconds into the picture and presses play. It was all downhill from there. He didn’t like the fights, he didn’t like the shootouts, he didn’t like the car tires squealing on the roads around Las Vegas, because he was freaked out, frightened, and scared out of his wits by this great, great TV movie.

I sometimes wonder how ABC promoted this movie back then, because they did something right. It’s not like vampires couldn’t have been seen in dozens of films over the previous decade, and as much as we all like the great Darren McGavin, it’s honestly not like he was television’s biggest draw. But the stars lined up and I guess that CBS and NBC had a lousy evening, because when the Nielsens came in, The Night Stalker proved to be the highest-rated TV movie the industry had ever seen to that point, with a mammoth 48 share. The film was produced by Dan Curtis, directed by John Llewelyn Moxey, and scripted by Richard Matheson from a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice.

I think it’s one of the very best, and sometimes I think it’s the all-time greatest vampire movie ever made. Sometimes I pick this and sometimes I pick Christopher Lee’s first Dracula movie for Hammer. But I love the way that Carl Kolchak is the hero here, and the vampire is a dark, silent killer. And Carl Kolchak is one of television’s greatest characters, a ten-time loser who’s too proud and too smug to play by the rules and is the architect of his own undoing. We aren’t told what got him fired from papers in Washington, Chicago, New York, and Boston, but we see it here: his attitude. Kolchak’s been fighting City Hall, and losing, for years, and this time, when City Hall is covering up a vampire, City Hall isn’t going to take prisoners.

Joining McGavin in this debut adventure, there’s Simon Oakland as his long-suffering editor Vincenzo, and Claude Akins as the first of many policemen to have had it up to here with this nosy reporter. Carol Lynley plays Carl’s doomed girlfriend – but not doomed in the way that girlfriends in vampire movies are typically doomed – and there are small roles for Larry Linville and Elisha Cook Jr.

He protested that he hated this, but our son did come to life when the vampire – named “Janos Skorzeny,” unforgettably, and played by Barry Atwater – started throwing around orderlies in a hospital. “He’s as strong as a dozen men!” he marvelled, and he wowed when one man is thrown through a window to his apparent death. The vampire stuff is incredibly well done, with the climactic search through the home where Skorzeny has holed up going on for what feels like forever since the tension is so incredible. Yes, our son was behind the sofa. I didn’t think he was ever coming out.

My copy of the two Kolchak TV movies is Anchor Bay’s old double-sided release, and both my player and my laptop are unhappy with it. The player stretched it into widescreen – even the Anchor Bay logo and the menu – and no setting would restore it, and the laptop’s navigation slider was disabled. The films have since been given a new 4K restoration and the editions that were released last October have a lot of positive reviews. I might upgrade them, but I may have some expenses this month and so our next visit with Carl will be on the same edition. I assured our son that when we meet Carl again, there will not be a vampire. “Well, who does he fight? Frankenstein?” I said we’ll see.

The Twilight Zone 5.19 – Night Call

And so back to The Twilight Zone for six more stories, and boy, did I ever pick a great one. I hadn’t heard of Richard Matheson’s “Night Call” before, but since we’d seen Gladys Cooper in a couple of other Zone stories, I figured we might as well enjoy the hat trick.

“Night Call” is amazing. It probably started a flaming epidemic of kids making prank calls and quietly saying “…hell….oh…?” at two in the morning back in ’63, because it’s that darn good and that creepy. It shouldn’t be this way; it just sounds like pure hokum, an old lady getting increasingly panicked by a disembodied voice on her phone at all hours, but Cooper really sells both the panic and the character’s loneliness. Nora Marlowe plays the old lady’s home health nurse, and while long-suffering isn’t quite the right term, you’d think that her charge would listen to her very sensible advice to just hang up and leave the receiver off the hook.

Our son thought it was so creepy that he was grumbling and hiding before the commercial break. And he’s right. It’s just delicious. The twist was a terrific punch in the gut… and then Cooper decides to pick up the receiver and start talking to her caller. I about died. Mom had to lie down in bed with our son for a few minutes and cuddle him. If any of the next few we’re going to watch are half this good, I’ll be satisfied.

Related: You have seen The Phone, right?

The Twilight Zone 5.3 – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

In 1983, there was a film of The Twilight Zone, and the accompanying novelization was the first bit of the program that I ever encountered. I must have read it seven times before the movie came on HBO, and teenage me enjoyed each segment more than the previous one. The remake of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which starred John Lithgow, was my favorite, in part because of how “cool” the gremlin on the wing was. I saw the original a few months later and scoffed at the TV show’s gremlin, which was just some dude in a teddy bear costume.

But, oh, to be seven. To be sure, when I stopped being a teen idiot and became instead an ordinary idiot, I grew to enjoy this segment greatly. It’s just so darn fun. But I never enjoyed it half as much as I did tonight, when the gremlin scared the almighty heck out of our son. When William Shatner pulled that curtain back, our kid jumped out of his skin.

It has been so fun to enjoy all the programs and movies that we’ve watched together before he starts becoming jaded by dated special effects. He didn’t see anything threadbare in this adventure. He took this at face value and babbled to make himself brave and hid behind his balled-up security blanket.

And speaking of face value, the flight engineer, played by Edward Kemmer, fibs to his frantic passenger and tries to reassure him by saying the pilots are aware of the beast and wish that he would please keep it down and not cause a panic. Our son concluded that gremlins can’t be seen by women, since this one only jumps away when a woman looks out at the wing. We still had to give him an after-show explanation of what a gremlin is. And speaking of movies from 1983-84, he’s far too young to meet Gizmo and Stripe, so we left those gremlins out of the explanation!

The Twilight Zone 4.6 – Death Ship

And so back to The Twilight Zone for its peculiar fourth season. I’ve picked just five installments from this year, which was held back as a midseason replacement and given instructions to expand from thirty minutes to an hour. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the stories from this season. It may not have been in the syndicated package that we got in Atlanta in the early eighties, unless some wiseguy decided to break them into two-parters.

Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship” is really good, although amusingly dated in design. It’s set in the far-flung future of 1997, with humanity looking for colony planets. Oddly enough, I was thinking about how television in the sixties kept using the image of flying saucers as what Earth ships would look like, such as the Jupiter 2 in Lost in Space, which would begin production a couple of years after this story, and looked it up. Would you believe that show was also set in 1997? Did people then really think we’d be colonizing other worlds in flying saucers in just thirty years?

The crew, played by Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Fred Beir, find a crashed saucer on a distant planet, and learn to their horror that it is their own ship, and their dead bodies are in the control cabin. I think the hour-long format worked really well for this premise. I was thinking ahead of how they’d resolve this problem in time travel, fitting everything that I could into the expected Twilight Zone boxes, and was pleasantly surprised by new complications as they emerged, including a wild moment where Ross Martin’s character not only hallucinates that he’s back home with his wife, played by Mary Webster, but his body completely vanishes from the flying saucer.

We enjoyed talking with our son about the plot complications. He’s savvy enough with science fiction to have understood the problem probably better than some of the teevee audience in 1963, and we thought we had some good ideas for the characters to avoid their grisly fates. Then the script went and messed with our solutions, almost as though Richard Matheson wanted to make certain nobody was going to second-guess him!

The Twilight Zone 3.34 – Young Man’s Fancy and 3.35 – I Sing the Body Electric

When we watched the last episode of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling invited us back for an episode set in a “battleground” and our son insisted on watching it. We tried to dissuade him, knowing that he meant an emotional battleground, and assured him that it wouldn’t have any explosions, but he wouldn’t back down. So we watched “Young Man’s Fancy,” in which Richard Matheson weaves a tale, as if there weren’t enough in this show already, of a tedious, emotionally stunted manchild lost in nostalgia, and everybody hated it. Most of the grownups’ loathing was directed at the dummy who refuses to grow up and move on, but I had to spare a mean thought for the idiot woman who waited thirteen years for him to marry her. If we’re meant to believe this clown ever gave this sad, desperate woman any reason whatever to fall in love with him, the episode didn’t show it. It was an awful story, one of the very worst we’ve sat through.

Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” on the other hand, was magical. A really good actress named Josephine Hutchinson plays the robot Grandma in this fantasy set in a world where a company called Facsimile Ltd. can bring love and guidance to people in need. David White and Veronica Cartwright also star.

Cartwright, by the way, is also completely excellent in this. She plays the sibling who rejects the grandmother, using her heartbreak over her mother’s death to justify closing her heart to anyone else. It’s powerful stuff, and I was riveted watching these two play what could have been a mawkish scene about everyone leaving the young girl. But it’s not all deep and serious. We get a twinkling of whimsy at the strange offices of Facsimile Ltd., and a kite-flying scene is absolutely charming. It’s a great, great little half-hour.

Bradbury himself was really dissatisfied with the production. The Twilight Zone Vortex went deep, deep into the reasons why in a post a few months ago. I was sorry to learn that Bradbury was so unhappy with it. A scene that he considered critical was removed, in which the grandmother and David White’s character, the children’s father, discuss the differences between humanity and her electronic approximation of it. It led to the end of Bradbury’s friendship and working relationship with Rod Serling. The writer turned his teleplay into a short story in 1969, and it later became a short TV movie for NBC in 1982.

But with all respect, I thought the story was magical and sweet and very well made. It led to a fun discussion about whether we might build some older or younger siblings for our son, and it didn’t require three pauses to explain the emotional battleground of the first story that we watched!

That’s all from The Twilight Zone for this run, but stick around! We’ll be watching a short selection from season four in May. Stay tuned!

The Twilight Zone 3.26 – Little Girl Lost

Thumbs down from our son this morning, as Richard Matheson’s “Little Girl Lost” dumps a six year-old girl named Tina into a portal in her bedroom wall, and only her disembodied voice can be heard. Robert Sampson and Sarah Marshall play her terrified parents, and Charles Aidman is either a family friend or an uncle, a physicist who theorizes that Tina is trapped in the fourth or the fifth dimension.

I had the feeling this might hit a little close to home, but a safe fright here and there is what television’s for at this age. But this was “too crazy” and he wasn’t happy with the story at all. Just as well I’m not planning to show him Poltergeist anytime soon. But I cautioned him to not fall into any walls as he went to get dressed, and his mother chided me for trying to make him afraid of things that aren’t there.

Some other things of interest this morning: Tina’s parents share a bed, which you didn’t see on television all that often in 1962. And speaking of beds, not only is Tina’s bed insanely high off the floor – all the better for the cameras to capture Sampson and Marshall looking under it – but despite having enough room under there to store a wagon, a two-story dollhouse, a clothes trunk, a basketball, and every plush animal that’s ever been stuffed, there’s nothing under this bed at all. I know television in the classic days was almost always likely to present us with spotlessly clean homes, otherwise the judgmental jerks in the 1960s audience would sneer at the housewife tasked with keeping them uncluttered, but I’ve chosen to believe that the portal ate all the toys that Tina kept under her bed. When the portal made its way to a “Treehouse of Horror” on The Simpsons about thirty years later, Homer was probably tripping over Tina’s long-lost shoes.

The Twilight Zone 3.13 – Once Upon a Time

If I might risk being accused of echoing the same good-ole-days-isms that Rod Serling kept coming back to in season one of The Twilight Zone, the audiences of 1961 had one big advantage over the audiences of 2018. Just about everybody who sat down to watch Richard Matheson’s “Once Upon a Time” knew who Buster Keaton was. And it’s not as though he’s unknown today, but I think that even when I was six years old in 1977-78, I knew who Keaton was, if by stunts and not necessarily by name, and what silent films were. But since time has marched on, and since there’s simply so much more film and television being made today than in the 1970s, audiences have to make more of an effort to go back and see something old. When there were only eight channels, you’d run into older stuff without trying.

My son needed a crash course, so before we watched this morning’s episode, we spent nine minutes watching a 2015 episode of Every Frame a Painting on YouTube. He enjoyed a few good chuckles and got a quick handle on the title cards and player piano language of silent movies. I had never seen this particular episode of Zone, so I wasn’t sure what specifically to emphasize. I was right to point out the physicality of Keaton’s work. He was 65 years old when this episode was made, and still pulled pratfalls and stumbles that looked like they really could have hurt, and he ran down the streets of the backlot chasing one fellow or another with the energy of a man in his twenties.

The episode is a charming delight, and our son really got into it. He loved the slapstick and the physical humor, and got amusingly outraged when some juvenile delinquent on roller skates pilfers Keaton’s Time Helmet. His character, who’s sent on a half-hour trip seventy years into his future, even gets to do some Catweazle-like gags about the baffling technology of the modern day, and our son had definitely seen those sort of yuks before.

One final note just to praise the co-star: casting Stanley Adams was a stroke of genius, because when the episode goes from silent movie to noisy modern day, who better to cast than an actor with as deep and booming a voice as Adams? It makes the juxtaposition even funnier. And one thing I didn’t specifically point out to my son when we watched the YouTube episode was that in Keaton’s old movies, the characters within the frame could only see what the audience could see. There’s a terrific set of gags that require Keaton to hide behind Adams’ larger body, making him completely invisible to a policeman who in reality would certainly have seen him. But it works so well because everybody making this comedy is telling a classic, well-worn joke to an appreciative audience. Since our son likes silly things much more than serious things, except when there are explosions, he certainly appreciated this one.

The Twilight Zone 2.15 – The Invaders

How good is this? It’s so good that when one of the invaders puts that knife out so that Agnes Moorehead grabs the blade, I jumped out of my skin. This should not have been a surprise. I guess I’ve seen maybe forty or so episodes of The Twilight Zone over the years, enough to claim two favorite installments – this is one – and seen some of those forty, like this one, many, many times. Richard Matheson’s story hasn’t lost any of its power to frighten and startle. Our son stayed under a blanket for minutes at a time, babbling quietly to reassure himself. It’s just a perfect half-hour of TV.