“The things that scared the shit out of when you were a child now make you an object of ridicule.”
That was the first sentence I wrote down when I started to write the Kolchak blog. It wasn’t until I talked about it with Lori that I realized that it wasn’t entirely accurate. A more accurate statement might read:
“Everything you hold dear can and will be ridiculed by somebody at some point in your life.”
So why not you?
When bars close, they usually do so with a “Last Call!” or “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” For existentialists and pretentious bars, you’ll hear “Hurry up please it’s time!” The late, lamented Samurai Club in Oklahoma City had a tape they would play with Muzak in the background and various celebrity impersonators saying it was time to go. I heard that tape about a hundred times in my life. Damned good times.
At my place, I didn’t tell people it was time to go when movie night got too late for my consciousness level – I simply put on an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Except for 1-2 exceptions, Kolchak would get people out of the apartment faster than a police raid (foreshadowing for next time’s entry on Jay Hilburn?). Now, I love Kolchak, it was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid, and became almost mythological in its magnitude when it disappeared from TV, to reappear in the late 90’s as a cult favorite, which is another way of saying “Geek Favorite”. Aside from four exceptions, the scariest things I ever saw on TV before the age of 10 came out of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (which will be referred to as The Night Stalker from now on – the name was changed to that after 4-5 episodes and just sounds cooler). I watched it sparingly when it premiered on ABC in 1974, and missed the first TV movie completely, but watched it closely and IN THE FREAKIN’ DARK when they re-ran it on CBS as part of the "Friday Night Late Night" line-up a couple of years later. At midnight, everything’s scary to a 6-7 year-old. Everything. Clock chimes? Scary. Random floorboard creak? Scary. Mothra? Scary.
It still holds up pretty well, in my opinion, but that’s MY opinion. The show starred the late, fucking great Darren McGavin, he with the slightly raspy conversational voice and the ultra-enunciating rage voice as almost has-been reporter Carl Kolchak, who would stumble onto something evil, the authorities would try and cover it up, shit would hit fan, various peoples would be thrown about by monster, and Kolchak would eventually figure out was necessary to save the day, but usually wind up in trouble in the process. It’s that way in every episode, including the two TV movies that introduced the character. In the first, Kolchak is caught by the cops mid-mallet as he drives a stake into a vampire’s heart. Awkward? Much.
In fact, that first “movie”, The Night Stalker , still holds up fantastically. It’s a low budget attempt to make a vampire movie that’s scary, smart, and mildly artistic. The ending’s a downer, too: Kolchak kills the vampire, but is driven out of town by the authorities, his hooker girlfriend leaves without him, and he has to hole up in two-bit motels to work on his story. The second TV movie starts to set up the series, and is a bit more tongue-in-cheek, but does introduce viewers to the Seattle underground, and co-stars the awesomeness that is Jo Ann Pflug: a hottie who didn’t change her name for stardom.
ASIDE: Jo Ann Pflug was one of those “TV Guest Stars” that used to bounce from show to show, without any employment but as a Guest Star in a TV show or movie. These people would find their greatest success in the 1970’s, when anthology shows like The Love Boat would continually employ them as different characters, sometimes within the same season, or TV movies, where they might play an econ student who gets caught up with a supernatural horror, or a woman who finds that she has to get a job to feed her family (ah, the days when a woman with the high paying job in the family was still thought of as being fucked up (it’s still thought of that way in some parts of the country)). Game shows used to employ them – hell, Match Game lived off the TV Guest Star racket, and employed many people way beyond their shelf date (Charles Nelson Reilly, I’m talking to you!!) As cable began to flourish in the 1980’s, these areas dried up, and many of them went off to Branson to build theaters or invented devices to sell at fairs. Mrs. Pflug is a born-again Christian who presents seminars on manners and business protocol, and is still the hottie. Check out http://www.joannpflug.com/ for the quick fix.
DIGRESSION: And they also showed up on various Sid and Marty Krofft productions, such as Land of the Lost (that guy who parachutes in), or Lidsville (Charles Nelson Reilly!). The Kroffts and Land of the Lost are responsible for one of those four things that scared the shit out of me as a youngster, watching Sat. morning shows in the darkened den. No, not the Sleestak – The Zarn! -- a semi-transparent being with lights all over its body that react to emotions. It doesn’t work at all now, but at 6 years old, the episodes where the Marshalls are skulking around his ship in the dark were creepy as hell – and then the Zarn would detach itself from the wall and completely freak you out. For the record, here’s the other 3 non-Night Stalker scary things:
1. The Horta from the "Devil in the Dark" episode of Star Trek. Big blob with great background music and scuttling noises. Lava for blood. Scary, even with Leonard Nimoy saying things like “Pain! PAIN!” in a voice that sounds slowed down and sped up at the same time.
2. That damned Zuni hunter doll from Trilogy of Terror, an ABC TV movie starring Karen Black in a triptych of stories, the first two of which don’t matter, because they suck. The third is the scariest thing ever shown on TV: a little fetish doll with a knife and large, sharp teeth runs around after Ms. Black and proceeds to scare the shit out of every child who watched it – traumatically. In fact, the TV-movie was so scary that they showed it a bit later in the evening, so the kiddies couldn’t watch it – I mean, so the kids would stay up and get the shit scared out of them by a puppet. The voice of the doll was the late, great, Walker Edmiston, who played Enik on Land of the Lost. And that weird Confederate soldier they run into, who sounds just like Coily from the Squirm episode of MST3K. Seriously scary stuff. Still is.
3. Charles Nelson Reilly on Lidsville. No hidden meaning in any of that.
4. The “invisible” monster from the Jonny Quest episode of the same name. Jonny Quest still holds up as one the best, most racist cartoons ever. It hits you on all fronts, from its free-jazz opening music, to the exciting adventures with the browner peoples of the world. Sometimes the show is cringe-inducing for all the wrong reasons, but this episode is one of the best. A scientist accidentally creates an invisible monster, which proceeds to wreak havoc on a small island until Dr. Quest destroys it. When made visible, it’s a giant, pastel blob with one big eye. Scary as fuck. It helps that the Jonny Quest background music is still some of the scariest out there, but what really works is the fact that a cartoon on Saturday morning featured the deaths of characters by various methods (it was originally a primetime show), giving it a real-world terror that kids could grab onto. The question that remains? How did the damned invisible monster leave footprints when – once made visible – it very obviously has no feet?
ASIDE: We once had dog named Bandit.
Okay, a real No. 5 – The TV-Movie Horror at 37000 Feet, by Richard Matheson, he of I Am Legend and Duel fame. A demon, through various means, is resurrected aboard an overseas flight, kills a dog, and freezes some people to death. The passengers go nuts, and think sacrificing a stewardess will appease it. Nope. William Shatner stars as the de-faithed priest who finds enough faith to defeat the thing, and then is thrown out of the plane. We assume, to his death, but it’s Shatner. Who knows? Matheson is responsible for a lot of good-to-great sci-fi and horror: Legend of Hell House, Duel, and, of course, The Night Stalker.
The limitations of the series are obvious, and sometimes the show doesn’t overcome them: low budget, “different-monster-every-week” syndrome, non-sci-fi/horror writers writing sci-fi/horror, and an inability or unwillingness to change up the formula. The show was cancelled right before the end of the first and only season, partially because Darren McGavin had tired of the role, partially because of ratings. However, a lot of more creative people than me were also scared shitless by it, and the basic outline – skeptic in supernatural situation must find way out – is the set up to The X-Files. They even tried a remake a couple of years ago that the Sci-Fi Channel still broadcasts. It sucks. End of story. Piece of shit. Horrible fucking thing. I’ve never seen it.
The reasons The Night Stalker works so well is the reason why so much 70’s TV still holds up. The main character is an anti-hero: selfish, boorish, not overly athletic. When Kolchak is in danger, he is in DANGER. He doesn’t know how to shoot a gun well, can’t fight, and that makes his attempts to take these “things” on more believable. His outfit – light blue polyester suit with omnipresent pork-pie hat and sneakers – marks him as an outsider, even to outsiders. He’s a dick, and gets involved in these affairs because of selfishness more often than righteousness, although that does show up every once in a while. He’s more of a “there’s nobody else who’s gonna do this, so it might as well be me” hero, like the great PI’s of TV: Jim Rockford, and Mannix. They’d much rather drink than fight crime.
There’s also a realism to the show that the budget sometimes worked for, not against. Instead of fantastic effects, the stunts were usually one person, in costume, throwing a bunch of people around. No over-the-top blood or gore here, just cops being tossed around like so many professional football players (see “The Vampire” episode).
The music for the show is still scary. The theme starts off with McGavin whistling the title theme – and interrupting his whistle while he takes a sip of coffee (diagetic/non-diagetic sound for you!), which is a nice, almost light-heartened tune that suddenly steers itself into the heart of darkness when the typewriting starts and the strings play the counter-point melody at full volume, creating the SCARIEST THEME MUSIC EVER. No whistling here. Many children wet their pants at the mere mention of the title sequence and its music alone. They are what we call “infants”. For the rest of us, it was just a very frightening introduction to one hour of Darren McGavin doing what he did best: killing monsters and getting arrested. The background music was also some nice, experimental stuff, with early synths and Theremins along with the free-jazz behind the “throwing people about” scenes.
The structure of every episode of the show follows the same formula, which I shall re-regurgitate in poetic form:
weird thing happens,
cops are called.
newspaper office characters act as themselves
while Kolchak tries to get story published.
Kolchak chases down leads
(all of which are played by TV movie guest stars)
and finds out how to stop “thing” or “things”.
the every-nothing heart that opens and closes is felt in the hands of
Or something like that.
It’s that last bit, the “Kolchakgoesmanoamanowith”thing”untilhedefeatsit” section, where the show veers away from formula TV, and gets into art. The last segment of the show, from next-to-last to last commercial break is almost always Kolchak, alone, tracking the creature to its lair, and killing it/figuring out what’s it after, so the terror stops. There’s usually not much dialogue, just music and visuals along with whatever gigantic, weird weapon Kolchak has on him to stop the whatever. Here, anti-hero Kolchak rises to the challenge for various reasons and turns into actual-hero: he’s alone, much weaker than whatever he’s fighting, and that makes the evil more dangerous. This last section is best described via my personal fave episode: "The Werewolf".
Kolchak manages to finagle his way onto a singles cruise, since the ocean liner they’re using is set to be scrapped, and he has a human interest piece and a vacation, to boot. Many TV guest stars are there, including cabin mate Dick Shawn (Hitler in the original The Producers), love interest (there’s no love interest on the show) Nita Talbot (Marya from Hogan’s Heroes), and Eric Braeden (then, Dr. Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes. now, Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless) as the werewolf. The werewolf runs amok on the ship, and the crew tries to cover it up by cleaning things up quickly after the werewolf attacks. Kolchak figures it out, gets a shotgun, steals the captain’s silver cufflinks to make ammo, and then tracks the thing down. He’s by himself for this – Dick Shawn is eaten, and his non-girlfriend is locked in his cabin – and off he goes. Kolchak has to walk the length of the ship to get to where the werewolf is fighting the crew. As he does this, various broken, injured crewmembers are going the opposite way: some running, some carried. Kolchak’s movement towards the monster is like watching someone catch up to the frontlines from the back end in a war movie. There’s almost a solid 10 minutes of visuals without dialogue (Kolchak does tell one drunk to get back to his cabin) as he makes his way towards the chaos, his point-of-view blocked by various parts of the ship. Eventually, the werewolf finds him, he shoots, misses, runs away to reload, shoots, hits it, the werewolf tries to throw him off the ship, Kolchak dangles from the side, and finally pulls the thing overboard. God’s eye view of the ship, and we’re out.
It should end there, with Kolchak’s delivering of a brief observation brusquely over a shot of the boat, but we still have to finish the wraparound segment. Almost all Night Stalker episodes have a wraparound story that is Kolchak dictating the story that will never be published into his cumbersome 70’s portable tape recorder.
Outside of the “Hush” episode of Buffy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less-dialogue-y sequence in a normally dialogue-full show. The last 10 minutes of the Werewolf episode play like a great silent film. Beautiful stuff. Oh, and the episode has this exchange, which I include because it shows how the series assumed you were smart, unlike a lot of television. It’s between Karl and his cabin mate, Mel:
Carl: I'm a reporter.
Mel: A reporter...oh, like the Fifth Column.
Carl: That’s the Fourth Estate.
And it always runs people off whenever I play it: never fails. Is it because of the incredible “70’s-TV-ness” of the production? The lack of gore and decent effects? The asshole of a character we’re supposed to identify with? Couldn’t tell you. I don’t ask. I go to sleep. When I was a kid, watching The Night Stalker would keep me up at night.
I sleep better now that I’m older.
(By the way: SPOILER ALERT!)