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Posts Tagged ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’

I look at the news today and it is stuffed to the gills with all sorts of goings on in Washington DC concerning the dismissed FBI director and the British nation holding its breath ahead of its second general election in three years. The embarassment of Trump is something to crack a smile over, I suppose, but I find I can muster little hope for the situation here in the UK. How to take one’s mind off such things? Back to the TV of the 1970s, I suppose; it can usually provide something appropriate to any situation.

It’s easy to demonise a certain type of politician as a heartless, soulless, callous, grasping, self-interested monster – so let’s get on with it. The Devil’s Platform is the seventh episode of the weekly Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, written by Donn Mullally (with, probably, help from David Chase of Sopranos fame), and directed by Allen Baron – the episode first aired in November 1974. Kolchak is a fairly obscure show these days, probably most famous for being the proto-X-Files: every week, old-school Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) stumbles upon a series of crimes (usually murders) carried out by an otherworldly or supernatural menace, and has to resolve the situation despite the hostility of the authorities and his own boss Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland).

The episode opens with a senatorial race in full swing in Illinois, with the running being made by little-known newcomer Robert Palmer (Tom Skerritt, probably best known these days for playing Captain Dallas in the original Alien) – although Palmer’s cause has been helped by a string of mysterious deaths. Palmer’s campaign manager has managed to turn up some serious dirt on his man, and is so outraged that he is about to go to the police about it. Not notably concerned by this, it would seem, Palmer steps into an elevator with his soon-to-be-ex-manager – which then crashes thirteen floors to the bottom of the shaft, after a freak failure of the machinery.

Kolchak, as luck would have it, is on the scene to meet Palmer, and joins the first responders when the elevator is opened up. Everyone inside has been killed, but there’s no sign of Palmer – and also in the car is a huge black dog which forces its way past everyone on the scene, knocking over our hero in the process. Kolchak manages to grab the dog’s collar ornament off it, though, which has an interesting pentagram motif.

No-one can seem to find Palmer anywhere, and so Kolchak goes on about his day, unaware that his steps are (literally) being dogged by the chunky canine from the lift disaster. Eventually Vincenzo packs him off to the Palmer residence to try and get a new angle on the story, where he encounters Palmer’s supremely unhelpful wife in one of the episode’s funniest scenes (‘Expletive deleted,’ mutters Kolchak after she gives him the brush-off). On his way back to his car, he is attacked by the black dog, which only seems interested in ripping open his jacket and retrieving the pentagram amulet. Seconds later, Robert Palmer reappears, as unruffled as he was to begin with.

It’s a nicely put together opening act, somewhat more subtle than is usually Kolchak‘s wont, but still managing to put across its main idea effectively – Palmer is a bad ‘un, with the ability to transform himself into an indestructible hellhound, provided he has access to his amulet. Without the amulet, he’s stuck as the dog, hence his not turning up for TV election debates (well, ‘I can’t debate you as I transformed into a dog and unexpectedly can’t change back’ is not the worst excuse for refusing to engage in a debate that we’ve heard recently, is it).

The rest of the episode isn’t quite up to the same standard, and it does struggle to find things that to fill up its middle act with – Palmer ends up doing another couple of murders while Kolchak is trying to persuade Vincenzo to run his story (‘Why does our political expose have to have a dog in it?!?’ wails Vincenzo) and generally figure out what’s going on.

Naturally, Kolchak works it out just in time to confront Palmer within the fifty minute duration of a network drama show: the candidate is, of course, a warlock who has sold his soul to Satan in return for various interesting faculties – as well as being able to turn into the hellhound, he seems able to cause disastrous accidents, and also to have a degree of clairvoyance. Now he is intent on rising to the very top of American politics, where he will no doubt impose his own brand of strong and stable leadership. Or am I getting my nightmarish real-world dystopias jumbled up again? Hmmm.

Few TV shows are quite as formulaic and thinly characterised as Kolchak: The Night Stalker – if anyone started behaving like a real human being it would instantly expose how preposterous the format of this series is – but this is probably the best episode of the weekly series, not least because it departs further from the format than most. The fact that no-one but Kolchak is aware that the deaths are anything other than a series of accidents means the episode omits the routine stuff with Kolchak getting on the nerves of the cop investigating the case, while the scene where Kolchak engages in some cross-talk with a local expert in order to get the information he needs to kill the monster is also missing – he just looks it all up in a book.

More significantly, I think, this is one of the very few Kolchaks to escape the pitfalls of building the story to climax with a tussle between McGavin and some guy in an unconvincing monster suit. The black dog is unsurprisingly quite convincing, given it is realised using (you guessed it) a black dog, and Tom Skerritt underplays Palmer rather effectively – and, by the way, absolutely straight. (One thing Kolchak is normally pretty good at is shifting back and forth between comedy and horror.) The moment when Palmer attempts to recruit Kolchak to his cause, drily listing Carl’s various ambitions and foibles and offering the assistance of his, er, patron, is genuinely creepy and as close to a moment of actual character drama as the series ever gets – Kolchak almost seems swayed for a moment.

Of course, it’s Kolchak, so it’s never going to be perfect – there’s the mid-story muddle I mentioned, plus the resolution of the plot is telegraphed very early on when one of Kolchak and Vincenzo’s co-workers returns from a trip to Rome with a bottle of holy water. There’s also something funny going on with the climax – having had his offer turned down, Palmer decides Kolchak is prime human sacrifice material and goes for him with a dagger – but the sequence appears to have fallen foul of network censors, for it’s been bafflingly edited to the point of incoherence.

Still, it all concludes with the forces of darkness vanquished, and the election left open for a politician with a soul to win. Yeah, the past is a different country, isn’t it? Pass the holy water.

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Is 1994 really so long ago? I remember it so well (bits of it anyway), and yet now I am reliably informed it was 22 years ago, and that this figure will most likely rise in future. How different the world seemed then. There were only four widely-available TV channels in the UK, for one thing, which meant that the major broadcasters were still in the habit of routinely buying and showing imported American series, even genre ones. BBC1 bought Lois and Clark, which became a fairly mainstream hit. Channel 4 bought Babylon 5, which never quite escaped the ghetto of being a cult rave, for all that it’s arguably one of the most influential SF shows of all time. And perhaps most significantly of all, BBC2 bought The X Files, which didn’t just build an audience, it eventually ended up on the more mainstream channel (for a bit anyway).

The X Files

I got into the habit of watching the X Files revival when it aired over here a few weeks ago, and while I feel the idea of revisiting the series was mostly better than its actual execution, it did get me back into the habit of watching it regularly, and helped me remember that this is one of my absolute favourite TV series of all time – top five, without a shadow of a doubt, maybe even top three. So when the new series concluded, I laid my hands on a complete box set of the original nine seasons, cleared my social schedule for the rest of the year, and prepared to get very nostalgic.

There’s always that odd disconnect when a programme you remember as being very cutting edge suddenly looks a bit dated, but on the whole the very beginnings of The X Files stand up really well. Of the initial six episodes, there’s one which is admittedly a little bit duff (Jersey Devil), a couple which are on the whole serviceable-to-good (the pilot and Conduit), one which is strong (Squeeze) and two which are outstanding (Deep Throat and Shadows). This is an impressive strike rate, especially when you consider that the received wisdom is that US TV shows only really it their stride in their second year.

This is still not quite the X-Files of popular legend – the series which the revival did such an accurate job of capturing the style of, with its mixture of heavy-going and impenetrable ‘mythology’ episodes, off-the-wall horror, baffling science-philosophy lectures, sparkling comedy instalments, and sheer tonal goofiness. This is much more of a straightforward procedural show, with the contents page of a typical issue of Fortean Times stirred into the mix. All the great battles and discoveries still lie in Mulder and Scully’s future at this point, the mythology is still all beneath the surface.

One of the reasons why I like the first season of The X Files so much is partly because it is so ready to deal with the ‘classic’ topics of parapsychology, cryptozoology, and ufology, rather than inventing new threats and stories out of whole cloth. In these first six there are three UFO-themed stories, one about ghosts, one about a cryptid, and one which is… hmm, well, we’ll come back to that.

I was originally thinking I’d just write about one of these early episodes, expecting it to be Deep Throat. I still vividly remember the first time I saw this one – had just moved house, was feeling a little uncertain about my place in the world, and it was such a pleasure to see something so intelligent and atmospheric and well-made. Not yet encumbered by all that business with the oil and the colonists and what-have-you, this story’s atmosphere is otherworldly enough to be captivating, but close enough to reality to give it real weight. The last couple of lines have stayed with me since that first viewing. If I had to pick one episode that encapsulated everything The X Files was about and showed off the series at its best, it would probably be this one.

Squeeze grabbed my attention in another way entirely. First of all, it’s the episode which answers the ‘is it going to be about UFOs every week?’ question. Secondly, and more personally, it’s the episode which laid the roots of The X Files as an updating of Kolchak: The Night Stalker bare. This story of an ageless, inhuman serial killer who commits five murders every thirty years bears such a resemblence to the second Kolchak movie (about an ageless, inhuman serial killer who commits five murders every thirty years) that it virtually qualifies as a remake. In retrospect I think the series did this kind of monster-of-the-week episode better later on, but as the first of its kind this is still notable.

On reflection, Jersey Devil also feels like a Kolchak episode, just not necessarily in a good way: this rather implausible tale of the authorities attempting to cover up the activities of a man-eating hominid definitely recalls the 70s show at its most formulaic. I don’t recall The X Files attempting another ‘bigfoot’ episode throughout its run, which seems like an odd omission – even odder when you consider the ‘real’ Jersey Devil folktale concerns a winged creature, not a hominid. Also notable for a somewhat pedestrian subplot about Scully’s lovelife (I can imagine a friend of mine, a dedicated M/S ‘shipper and a much more serious X Files fan than I, screaming at her TV) – you can see why they dropped this sort of thing almost at once as the series went on.

And then there’s Shadows, a genuinely creepy ghost story inserted with great skill into another FBI procedural episode. The writers don’t seem to rate this one very highly, but then that’s writers for you. Another one to show people who are vaguely aware of the series but don’t quite get what all the fuss is about.

I haven’t sat down and watched The X Files seriously since, well, it finished running on TV (does watching the boxed set of The Lone Gunmen ten years ago count? Probably not). The revived version of the show was, I would say, a qualified success at best, but even if nothing else comes of it, I’m very glad it impelled me to revisit the series properly. The next few months are looking very promising.

 

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It is, I think we can all agree, increasingly difficult to Keep Up With Stuff these days. I suppose this is partly because we have such high expectations in the Stuff department – modern technology gives us such massively elevated access to information, so naturally we assume we’re going to hear all the important news straight away. Instead I suspect what we end up with is most of the key stuff along with a vast amount of spam emails and some videos of cats doing some supposedly cute stuff.

Along the way Stuff sneaks past, especially if it’s unexpected Stuff we’re not actually looking for. I have been vaguely intending to write something about Kolchak: The Night Stalker for many months now, but only today when I sat down to prep this, Googled the name of the series and was treated to many photos of a particular, very bankable actor did I have any inkling that a Kolchak movie starring Johnny Depp was in any way in the works.

I suspect many younger people today heard of Johnny Depp long before Kolchak; no doubt huge numbers, especially outside the US, have no idea who or what Kolchak: The Night Stalker is. For me it was the other way around – I’ve been a Kolchak fan since the very early 90s, and the prospect of Johnny Depp trying to be Kolchak strikes me as a rather dubious one. Well, at least he’s bound to be better than Stuart Townsend, I suppose, but even so for me there is only one real Carl Kolchak and that’s Darren McGavin.

kolchak

All right, all right: some background. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a TV series from the mid 70s in which McGavin starred in the title role. He plays Carl Kolchak, an old-school investigative reporter with a particular interest in crime and mayhem-related stories, who finds himself stumbling across supernatural happenings on an almost weekly basis. Actually, scratch that – on an exactly weekly basis.

Yes, every week some new horrific menace manifests itself somewhere in the greater Chicago area, and Carl ends up as the only one capable of sorting it all out. The series ran for only twenty episodes, but even so by the end you can sense the writers really scrabbling around for new ideas for monsters – the series kicks off with an immortal Jack the Ripper, a zombie, a hostile extraterrestrial and a vampire, which are all fair enough, but by the final episodes Kolchak finds himself grappling with headless motorcyclists, Aztec mummies, animated suits of armour, and subterranean lizard-men.

It all gets a bit goofy and even I, who really like it, would have say this is a series with a very modest hit-rate. American TV series have evolved massively in the last twenty years or so (largely, I would say, thanks to the influence of Babylon 5, but that’s just my opinion) and to watch Night Stalker now is to be transported back to a world where the storytelling is very, very different. It’d be a bold and radical step, for instance, to mount a series today in which you would be able to throw all the episodes in the air and then show them in whatever order they landed, but this is the case with Kolchak – there are no ongoing plot threads, no references to previous stories, no character development of any kind.

In fact, it’s almost like an anthology series, but one featuring the same characters and (give or take) situations on a weekly basis. It is, in short, an incredibly formulaic series, and the formula goes like this:

  1. We see Kolchak in some location beginning to dictate an account of his latest exploit into his trusty tape recorder. (It will later become clear that Carl has recently despatched this week’s monster and is often still on the scene of his victory, but this does vary slightly.)
  2. A character is economically introduced via Kolchak’s terse voiceover, which usually goes along the lines of ‘April 20th. Joe Gundersson had spent the last twenty years working for the Acme Plot Device company. He always told co-workers he’d have to be carried out of the company in a wooden box. Joe didn’t know how right he was!’ We then see the character being offed by that week’s monster.
  3. Kolchak turns up at the scene of the crime and starts winding up the chief investigating detective. All the police hate Kolchak. He notices some odd features of the death which the police are either ignoring or refuse to comment on (massive blood loss, strange injuries, spontaneous combustion, or whatever).
  4. Several more people are usually murdered in various cutaway sequences.
  5. Carl investigates as best he can while avoiding the police and eventually figures out that the killer is an Iranian devil/Native American spirit/Helen of Troy. He often has a brief encounter with the monster, which he manages to escape from.
  6. Carl’s editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) drags him over the coals for annoying the police and not working on his assigned story.
  7. Kolchak has an off-beat encounter with an expert on this week’s arcane phenomenon and learns how to counter it. (These last two points are often genuinely funny and usually the best parts of the show.)
  8. With the police refusing to listen, Carl is obliged to track down the monster and deal with it himself. For a reporter he proves unusually effective with mystic crossbows, high-voltage death traps and elephant guns.
  9. Kolchak wraps up the episode, revealing that all the evidence that would prove his story is true was destroyed in the final battle, and signs off with a few pithy observations of his own (he is frequently addressing the camera directly by this point.)

The series sticks to the formula with remarkable fidelity, with only a handful of exceptions – and some of these simply take the form of the monster turning up somewhere other than Chicago, such as on a cruise for singletons (The Werewolf) or Los Angeles (The Vampire). It’s very rare for there to be much more innovation, though it does happen – The Sentry rejigs the opening, with the monster actively pursuing Kolchak, who hurriedly records his story while waiting for the final confrontation with it, while in The Energy Eater (one of the best episodes, which even vaguely recalls some parts of Quatermass) the authorities prove to be quite aware of the problem and it’s only Carl’s pursuit of a story that puts him in harm’s way.

The thing about the Kolchak formula is that it’s not a bad formula per se. Most of it is derived from the original TV movies the series is based on, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, in which our hero takes on a vampire in Las Vegas and an immortal mad scientist in Seattle respectively. It’s straining credibility a bit for the same reporter to have such similar experiences purely by chance, but it’s ripping credibility into tiny pieces for the same reporter to have the same adventure in the same city on a weekly basis, and this is the main problem with Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The format is sort of supernatural-investigative-procedural but it never comes close to explaining why a new monster is coming to town every week, why the authorities are such a bunch of dumb clucks when it comes to dealing with them, and why it’s always, always Kolchak who ends up saving the day and why he never, ever gets any proof of his adventures. The sheer repetitiveness of the stories is only part of the problem; the really big question, the elephant in the room that is never addressed, is why none of the regular characters ever comment on or even appear to notice they are playing out the same series of events week in, week out?

For a while Kolchak: The Night Stalker achieved a sort of second wind of fame when Chris Carter acknowledged it as the direct inspiration for The X Files. He wasn’t kidding, either: the third episode of that show, Squeeze, is essentially a loose and uncredited adaptation of The Night Strangler. The X Files, crucially, manages to fix most of the problems with the Kolchak format, firstly by making the characters professional supernatural-investigators operating on a national basis, and secondly by including the idea of a high-level conspiracy intent on keeping the public in the dark. It also seems to me that Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes a lot to Kolchak’s comedy-horror premise, and it takes a different approach by positing the Hellmouth as the explanation as to why just so many demons and monsters congregate in the same region and the idea of the Slayer as to why it’s the responsibility of one seemingly unlikely person to take them on. But all of these solutions would require Kolchak: The Night Stalker to operate as something other than a series of standalone, Monster of the Week episodes, and that was never going to happen in 1974 and 1975. I’m not saying this show was ahead of its time, but it was arguably a victim of it.

But, as I say, I’m still very fond of it. The hopeful monster suits often have a certain charm to them, the plots are occasionally genuinely inventive (I suppose they have to be, given the overall tyranny of the formula), and Darren McGavin consistently gives a terrific performance as Kolchak, nailing the light comedy scenes and the more ominous moments with equal aplomb. It’s funny more consistently than it is scary, and there are the crippling narrative problems across the series I’ve outlined above, but it’s still a series I find it very hard to seriously criticise. If the glamour of Depp gives it another moment in the spotlight, then that’s only for the best.

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