Classic Television Thursday #47 – Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series) (1974 – 1975)

ns5Having spent the past couple of weeks looking back at the original made-for-television movies The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, it’s time to move on to the main event, the TV series that was spun out of them.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (the series’ official title, presumably to differentiate it from the TV movie) finds dauntless reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) and his ever put upon boss Tony Vincenzo amazingly still working for the INS or Independent News Service, though this time they’ve been shuffled around to the Chicago office.

ns013There’s a lot I could write about the show and it’s influences and its influence upon later shows, (This is, of course, one of the shows that X-Files creator Chris Carter cites as one of the main influences on his show.) and other aspects of why it’s so fondly remembered – not only is there the atmospheric narration by Kolchak as he dictates his notes for each story into his much abused tape recorder (speaking of which, one has to wonder just what INS’s budget for cameras was since it seems Carl get his destroyed in one way or another almost every episode. No wonder he always seems to be using such a cheap one. I can imagine there had to be some kind of dictate from on high that he wasn’t to be allowed anywhere near the good ones.), but there’s also the great rapport and banter between Kolchak and Vincenzo that is a highlight of each episode. Instead, however, I think I’ll take a different tack this week and give you an episode-by-episode rundown of my thoughts on each of them.

Yeah, it’s true, this is really just an excuse to binge-watch the entire run. But hey, it’s only 20 episodes, and thanks to Netfliix and other outlets, that’s the vogue nowadays isn’t it? Of course, I’m not really going to give you a detailed analysis of them,  just a paragraph or so of my thoughts as we go along. So let’s get into it, shall we

Episode 1: The Ripper -This is, of course, the set-up episode, introducing us to some of the new regulars, including Jack Grinnage as Kolchak’s rival reporter Ron Updyke whom Carl repeatedly infuriates by referring to him as “Uptight”. As noted above, the action also shifts to Chicago (It’s amazing how all the INS offices in these different cities tend to look exactly alike. Or then, maybe it isn’t.), which will be the setting for most of the series, with occasional forays to other locales. It’s a fairly decent lead-off episode, though in syndication episode four is usually shown first. As far as the Monster of the Week, this time around we’re given a seemingly immortal take on Jack the Ripper.

ns7Episode 2: The Zombie – Kolchak investigates a series of underworld murders in which various mobsters are found with their backs snapped. During his investigations he discovers that the murderer may be a… well, you saw the title. Though the zombie’s costume and makeup don’t look that great in the still pic accompanying this post, they’re actually effective onscreen. Also, the method that Kolchak initially uses to attempt to dispatch the zombie is kind of disturbing. Oh, and it’s nice to see both Antonio Fargas and Scatman Crothers in supporting roles.

Episode 3: They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be… – This is one of those episodes which makes apparent how tight the budget was on the show. Though the “monsters” this time around are aliens (of the U.F.O. type, not of the “from another country” type), we never really see said creatures or their craft, as they are invisible, which allows a wind machine to be their stand-in. This is also another episode which highlights the ability of the stuntmen in the show to jump backward and fall as if thrown by an invisible force (or in other episodes by a very strong opponent) which apparently was the number one qualification required by the show.

ns003Episode 4: The Vampire – The always entertaining Larry Storch drops by to offer a Carl a tip that leads him to Los Angeles and a sequel to the original TV movie. The twist this time is that the titular monster is a female victim of Janos Skorzeny who was apparently overlooked when the Las Vegas police went around staking all of the people who fell to his fangs. I do have to applaud the episode for a rather ingenious method of trapping the vampire so that Kolchak can apply the final blow. Also, in the wrap-up we’re given the information that three years have passed since the events of the original movie and this episode.

ns011Episode 5: The Werewolf – It seems like Carl just can’t get away from the weirdness. Even on a cruise ship. Tony Vincenzo’s been saving for this cruise forever, but at the last minute he gets a call that auditors are coming in from New York. It’s kind of a shame, really, because it might have been an interesting showcase (and change of pace) for Simon Oakland to see how he would have handled himself in such a situation. Of course, if he had witnessed what was going on, it would have been harder to carry on his complete and utter disbelief at Kolchak’s zany stories. Two pluses here: since the creators were definitely working in a low-def situation, the budget for the wolf makeup didn’t have to bee too much (plus, this is a classically designed wolfman, meaning they basically just had to apply a lot of fur to the actor’s face and hands), and there’s not a lot of time spent on building a “who is the werewolf” mystery. I’m still not sure, though, that I buy carl being able to so easily find what he needed to fabricate his silver buckshot, but we’ll just let that go.

Episode 6: Firefall – I really do miss the kind of arcade depicted at the first of this episode. And those games. And hey, for a change, since Carl’s not taking on one of the classic monster types, the title doesn’t really give anything away, so I’m not going to give everything away here either . Let’s just say that investigating multiple cases of spontaneous human combustion may have Kolchak seeing double. Oh, and David Doyle, Charlie’s Angels‘ Bosley, puts in a guest appearance.

Episode 7: The Devil’s Platform – What can I say? This episode is a real dog (pun intended). We all know the devil is usually mixed up somewhere in politics, and in this instance, the “platform” in the title is indeed a political one. It is interesting – and a sign of the difference between then and now – to see Karl spending time in the darkroom developing his own pictures as opposed to today’s ubiquitous digital pictures. And for that matter seeing Carl having to use actual books from the library to do his research as opposed to just Googling for answers. I do have to admit that I was a little surprised at the way this one ended. Oh, and Miss Emily (for whom Carl was subbing answering letters for the syndicated Dear Miss Emily advice column in the first episode) finally gets back from her vacation, bringing presents for all, including a new hat for Kolchak.

Episode 8: Bad Medicine -Another shape-shifter though this time around he’s not limited to a lupine form. Carl goes native in this one as the monster of the week is a Diablero. Yes, such a creature does exist in native American  lore, but he’s a long way from home and well out of his time. Apparently someone on the writing crew was a fan  of Carlos Castaneda Guest stars for this episode include Richard Kiel, Alice Ghostly, and Victor Jory.

ns001Episode 9: The Spanish Moss Murders -Hey, how about that! Somebody at NBC found some money in the budget for another creature costume! Not a lot of money, of course, but enough that, by delaying the full reveal of the monster until late in the episode and then only showing it at night or down in the sewer it’s effective enough. At least this time they did manage to keep the zipper out of the view of the camera. As far as the actual nature of the creature, it’s what – according to the show at least – the Cajuns call Père Malfait which apparently translates to “walking salad bar”. Oh, and Ricard Kiel returns from last episode, but nit as the same character. This time he’s the guy inside the creature suit.

Episode 10: The Energy Eater – We’re back to Native American legends this time with the invisible bear god Matchemonedo. Yep, we spent all the costuming budget last episode , so we’re back to invisible monster mode. Not much to say about this one, really, except that it’s a good thing even bear gods like to hibernate.

Episode 11: Horror in The Heights – No, the monster this week isn’t the guest-starring Phil Silvers, Instead, it’s a Rakshasa, a Hindu demon who is terrorizing the Roosevelt Heights area of Chicago, preying on the elderly Jewish residents of the neighborhood. The interesting twist to this one is that the creature appears to its victims as someone they trust thereby luring them into it’s crushing grip. So who does it yank from Carl’s mind as being perhaps the only person that he really trusts? I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t Ron Updyke. But then, it isn’t (as one might expect) Tony either.

ns006Episode 12: Mr. R.I.N.G. -This episode goes all Westworld on us, with a self-aware android on the loose. Unfortunately, since R.I.N.G. was taken over by the military during its development, it was programmed with aggression and survival instincts, but without any notion of ethics. That’s why he hunts down one of his programmers who attempts to enlighten him on the idea. Unfortunately, he’s turned off with a bullet to his artificial brain before he can perhaps calculate the answer to the question that Kolchak puts to him about the difference between right and wrong.

Episode 13: Primal Scream -Hmmm… well, no, it’s not exactly Jurassic Park, with scientists regrowing dinosaurs from dino DNA, but we do get a primordial ape-man growing from cell samples found in core samples taken from potential oil fields in the Antarctic. Yeah, the science is more than a little wonky, but the episode does feature Jamie Farr (Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H*as a biology teacher. (Hey, guess what? He apparently gets to teach about evolution without also teaching creationism or any other -ism. Oh, those unenlightened times.)

Episode 14: The Trevi Collection -Kolchak brings his seersucker suit and trademark hat to Chicago’s high fashion district where he is obviously welcomed with open arms. Hey, if nothing else being backstage at the fashion shows did give the producers an excuse to feature a few lovely young ladies in… well, let’s just say less clothing than usual for the show. There’s even a surprisingly revealing/suggestive – for TV at the time anyway – shower scene.  I mentioned the dialogue exchanges between Kolchak and Vincenzo earlier, but I haven’t quoted much of it. This episode does contain a great example however, when the two are looking at some photos taken by an informant just before he was thrown out of a fourth-floor window: Tony – “He wasn’t much of a photographer.” Carl – “Yeah, he wasn’t much of a skydiver, either.”

ns010Episode 15: Chopper -Okay, let’s just be upfront about it The entire concept for this one – a headless motorcyclist – is just a wee bit ridiculous, and if the term “jump the shark” had been around at the time it probably would have been used to describe this episode. On the other hand, it’s this complete acceptance that sometimes it’s okay to go the humor route instead of taking things completely seriously all the time that really makes the entire series work. Of course, the cyclist himself looks incredibly cheesy, and there was no way that the network was going to allow them to show actual beheadings in all their gory glory, but the workaround that the producers found for that can only be described as ingenious. Well, okay, there probably are other ways to describe it, but that’s the one I’m going with. Add in M*A*S*H*’s Larry Linville as this week’s police obstructionist and a cameo by Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Island’s Mr. Howell) and as far as I’m concerned this is one of the best worst episodes you’ll find.

ns005Episode 16: Demon in Lace – At least Chopper, with it’s over the top goofy charm made some sense. This one on the other hand which features a suck your face… umm I mean succubus, well, not so much. According to the show’s mythology, the succubus is a demon who inhabits the bodies of recently deceased women and then uses those bodies in order to seduce men so that it can then kill them by apparently scaring them to death and then… well, that’s the real problem. We’re never really told why the demon is making these healthy young men die of seeming heart attacks or what it gets out of it, other than that’s just what it does. It doesn’t really seem to be drawing life force from them, since the bodies appear to still be healthy after they die, nor does it seem like it really needs to, since it is already strong enough to reanimate the dead women. I will give the episode high marks for a really nice and gruesome makeup job for the succubus, but otherwise it really doesn’t work.

ns012Episode 17: Legacy of Terror – Well, this episode certainly gets off to a good start with a Psycho-esque attack in a stairwell that very effectively implies much more than it shows. This time out we’re dealing with an Aztec mummy. It seems that the mummy god still has a cult of followers who come out of hiding every 52 years in order to sacrifice five people by tearing their hearts out so that he can eventually arise again at the dawn of the new millennium. Unfortunately, the mummy himself only rises during the sacrifice of the last victim, so he doesn’t really get much screen time. The first four murders are carried out by the cult members who are dressed in flamboyant costumes bedecked with colorful Mexican parrot feathers. No amount of flamboyance on their part, however, can come close to matching a pre-CHiPs Erik Estrada’s pink leisure suit and deep blue flare-collared shirt.

Episode 18: The Knightly Murders – Who better to use medieval weapons to murder people than the ghost of a medieval knight animating a suit of armor? This is one of the best of the later episodes, with a nicely atmospheric climactic showdown between Carl and the Black Knight, though it may be best not to ask exactly how no one else in Chicago notices a suit of armor walking the streets as it stalks its victims. Hans Conreid, whose voice you’re as likely to know as his face has a wonderful turn here as a museum curator, as does John Dehner as this week’s police antagonist, Captain Vernon Rausch, who, following a long-winded analysis in answer to Kolchak’s question about how he explains what Carl saw drollfully sums it up thusly: “In short, I believe your brain has turned to onion dip.”

Episode 19: The Youth Killer – The lovely Cathy Lee Crosby – TV’s first Wonder Woman, and definitely not to be confused with daytime TV drunk Kathy Lee Gifford* – guest stars in this episode as Helen of Troy, sucking the life force out of  young, vigorous, “perfect” people in order to keep herself young and beautiful.One thing that’s always bugged me about episodes like this, though: It seems like while she’s in Chicago Helen needs a continuous stream of youthful bodies in order to hang onto her girlish charm, And even though it’s explained that the computer dating service that she runs to find her candidates is a recent set-up, one would think that if she’s been living like since ancient Greek times someone would have caught in to (and up with) her long before this .Ah, well, why question the logic of a rather entertaining episode? Oh, and hey, we also get the return of John Fiedler as Gordy the Ghoul, the morgue worker, who has been missing since episode three. (By the way, among his many other roles both as an onscreen actor and as a voice actor, Fiedler provided the original voice for Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh features.)

ns004Episode 20: The Sentry – And so we come to the end, and it really is a shame, because there’s a charm to this episode that is actually quite reminiscent of some of the earliest ones that made all of us fans of the show in the first place. Sure, the giant lizard suit isn’t going to win any costuming awards – there’s a good reason that the first thing the critter does whenever it enters a new place or is heading down a corridor is to trash whatever light source there is -and yeah, in essence it’s a… let’s call it an “homage” to the classic Star Trek episode “Devil in the Dark”, but nonetheless this is still a much better episode than some of the others along the way. Perhaps the only real complaint that I have about it is the somewhat ambiguous ending, but even that seems appropriate, all things considered. I suppose what I’m saying is that if the series had to be cut short, this is as good a way for it to go out as any.

And in actuality the series was cut short. There were three other scripts that were written but never produced. Two of them have since been adapted into comic book form, but the third remains unproduced in any form.

So, just a few final words and then I’m out too. I have to admit this has been a fun exercise, revisiting one of my favorite shows from my childhood. Going into it, I was nervous that it might not hold up as well as I remembered, but considering the time and the budget constraints everything else that goes with it being a year old show, I wasn’t disappointed at all. Nor do I have any hesitation – especially if you’re a fan of shows from the time period or even if you’re just looking for a good way to pass a few hours – in recommending that you check the show out.

Finally,  just for fun and to give you a taste of what the show was like here’s episode 15 – yep, it’s the infamous “Chopper”

*Okay, for legal reasons I should probably state that it’s unfair of me to use the phrase “daytime TV drunk” to characterize Ms. Gifford, as I have no factual knowledge that she is indeed an alcoholic. It may simply be that she enjoys portraying one on  TV.





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