Movies & TV

Cult TV: Kolchak: The Night Stalker Episodes 1-5

June 20, 2018 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER

Cult TV Issue #1: Kolchak: The Night Stalker Episodes 1-5

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the first ever issue of Cult TV, an occasional enterprise I hope to engage in here at 411. It’s not meant to replace either Douchebag of the Week or The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, although, obviously, this week and next, it is “replacing” the B-Movie Column. I’m also not sure how often the column will appear (maybe once every two months?). We’ll see how it all works out. Doing a column devoted to “cult” TV shows is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while now, especially after seeing just how many cult TV shows are still out there. Now, in the context of this column, what, exactly, is “cult” TV?

Essentially, Cult TV is a TV show that only lasted a season or two but still has some kind of fan base, like Firefly or Manimal, or is an old TV show that deserves some kind of re-watch/reevaluation, like The Six Million Dollar Man, which lasted for five seasons. Did the show deserve to be cancelled, or was it unjustly taken from the TV viewing public by shortsighted programmers who just couldn’t see the genius in the show? Now, the majority of the shows I hope to cover only lasted one or two seasons, but, on occasion, I hope to look at something that lasted a little longer than two seasons, like Knight Rider. And, yeah, in general, I’m likely going to focus on genre shows (can’t stray away from that B-Movie sensibility, even when it comes to television) but there is room for comedies and dramas, too. We’ll see how it all works out.

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The first set of Cult TV Columns are going to focus on the classic thriller show Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which aired for one season on the ABC television network from September 13th, 1974, to March 28th, 1975. After the mega success of the Kolchak TV movies The Night Stalker (check out my review of that flick here) and The Night Strangler (check out my review of that flick ), ABC had a choice; make another movie and complete the “Kolchak Trilogy” or make a TV show featuring star Darren McGavin as intrepid investigative reporter Carl Kolchak? The potential third movie, The Night Killers, had a script by Richard Matheson and William F. Nolan and was set to be a story about aliens replacing important people with android replicas, but for whatever reason ABC, along with Universal Television, wanted to do a weekly TV show instead.

Now, despite the pedigree and the popularity of the two Kolchak TV movies, the Kolchak TV show wasn’t very popular. According to Wikipedia, the show’s ratings were mediocre at best. The show originally aired on Friday nights at 10, then was moved to 8 where it apparently stayed until it was cancelled. Star McGavin, who was also working as the show’s uncredited executive producer and reworked the show’s scripts, wasn’t happy with the show and wanted out before the end of the first and only season. I would assume that, had the show been a hit McGavin would have stuck around for however long the show would have lasted, but who knows? The Wikipedia article claims that McGavin didn’t like the “monster of the week” format of the show or its filming schedule, which was “brutal.” Would those conditions have changed with a second season? Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Who the heck knows?

So the show was cancelled towards the end of 1975, although two more TV movies were developed from mashing together four episodes of the show, The Demon and the Mummy and The Crackle of Death. These movies haven’t been released on home video but have been shown on TV (there’s a thing on YouTube that shows the movies aired on the Sci Fi Channel at some point in the past). These movies do have additional footage added to them along with narration by McGavin to make the episodes “fit together” but, based on everything I’ve read, these movies are basically just two episodes run back-to-back. I’ve never seen them, so the Wikipedia info is the only info I can go on. Has anyone out there seen these two additional movies?

The general premise of Kolchak: The Night Stalker has McGavin’s Carl Kolchak working for the Independent News Service bureau in Chicago. Kolchak’s boss is his old pal Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), the only other actor besides McGavin to do the show that was also in the movies. And Kolchak seems to run into very strange goings on with each episode. Seemingly immortal serial killers. Vampires. Aliens. Kolchak seems to find them everywhere. No one really believes him, of course, but that doesn’t stop Kolchak from tracking down leads, talking to people, and figuring out just what sort of weird stuff is going on. And over the show’s twenty episodes, man, Kolchak runs into some pretty weird stuff.

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So how is the show? Is it worth checking out Kolchak: The Night Stalker?

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Show opening

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Each of the show’s twenty episodes begins in exactly the same way, with Kolchak walking into the INS Chicago office, whistling the show’s theme song, and grabbing a cup of coffee from the coffee maker that shouldn’t be there (there’s a sign on the wall that says “no food or drink allowed,” so why the hell is there a coffee maker in the office?). He then walks over to his desk, attempts to throw his hat on a hook on the wall (he never makes it), and then sits at his typewriter to type up his latest story. The show’s opening titles appear over a much louder theme song, which then leads to, suddenly, the room getting dark. Kolchak stops typing, a fan stops, and Kolchak jerks his head left. And then the show begins,

So what the hell is Kolchak looking at when he jerks his head left? As far as I know it’s never been explained what, exactly, is suddenly in the room with Kolchak, but the whole thing is weird and spooky enough to give you a little shiver.

What do I think it is going on in the opening? I’d like to think it’s a supernatural occurrence, like he’s being visited in the newsroom by a ghost/evil spirit or some sort of monster that can control electricity and machines with its mind. I mean, the room lights go dim, the fan on the wall stops, and Kolchak is essentially alone in the dark. And as he looks to his left, the creature/monster/spirit/whatever the hell is going on, enters the room. But what is more likely to be happening? The power goes out in the building, Kolchak notices the sudden darkness around, and then is about to talk with a janitor or electrician or some such because that maintenance person enters the room, quietly. It’s a good as ab explanation that I can come up with. I mean, look at the sequence that plays over the end credits. Kolchak is still in the newsroom, typing up his story. He stops, takes his article out of his typewriter, looks at it, crumples it up, and then gets up to leave. Would he be doing that during the end credits if he were attacked by anything?

No, I don’t think so. Now, if you know what’s really going on, let me know. I’d like to know what you think is happening.

I also want to point out that, according to Wikipedia, the show was originally known simply as The Night Stalker but was changed to Kolchak: The Night Stalker starting with episode five. Why was it changed? Maybe people thought that ABC was running an hour long version of the first movie for four weeks and ABC just decided it was time to change it? I don’t know.

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Episode 1: “The Ripper”

Director: Allen Baron
Writer: Rudolph Borchert

The first episode has Kolchak investigating a series of strange murders in Chicago, murders that may have been committed by Jack the Ripper. Now, Jack the Ripper was a real person, so how the heck could he still be alive in 1974 when he butchered five prostitutes in Whitechapel back in 1888? Well, Jack the Ripper might not be exactly human. In fact, he may be some sort of immortal being that has existed since the 1880’s and has been killing women since then all over the world. That’s what Kolchak suspects, anyway, when he figures out that it may, in fact, be “the real” Ripper. Of course, no one believes Kolchak’s theory because, well, it seems ridiculous. If there is any sort of Ripper connection, it’s more likely that they’re dealing with a killer who is imitating Jack the Ripper in some way. And besides, Kolchak isn’t supposed to be looking into the Ripper murders anyway. Vincenzo assigned Kolchak to the “Dear Emily” advice column, as that person is on vacation. Kolchak’s “colleague,” Updyke (Jack Grinnage), is the reporter assigned to the Ripper murders. He isn’t very experienced with stories like the Ripper murders, but Vincenzo wants Updyke on the story anyway. Vincenzo believes that, with Updyke, the INS will actually get a “just the facts” story and not a bunch of wild speculation, which is what Kolchak would provide. Well, Kolchak may not officially have the Ripper murders, but he’s going to look into it, track down all of the leads and eventually write that goddamn story. He isn’t going to type out advice to a bunch of hopeless people. Fuck that. He’s Carl goddamn Kolchak.

And that becomes a common theme throughout the show’s run. Vincenzo wants Kolchak to write something specific and Kolchak completely ignores his boss and writes about whatever the hell he wants anyway. It happens every single episode. It makes you wonder how Kolchak kept his job with the INS. Did he ever write about what he was assigned to write about? Did his byline ever appear once in an INS story that was printed in an actual newspaper? He either writes up what he actually found out only to have the story kicked back to him by Vincenzo because it’s too insane, or he doesn’t write up the story, he just talks about it into his tape recorder. So did Kolchak ever get paid for a story?

So Kolchak investigates the Ripper murders, sometimes hanging out with rival reporter Jane Plumm (Beatrice Colen), a woman who likes to eat tongue sandwiches, is considered fat by just about everyone around her, and who carries a .38 revolver with her just in case the shit goes down. In fact, she thinks the gun will protect her in the event she runs into the actual Ripper killer while talking to people, especially people who have written in claiming to be the killer. Kolchak doesn’t want her to confront anyone because he’s sure that the Ripper will kill her. Too bad no one, especially Plumm, listened to him.

The Ripper, or the guy Kolchak thinks is the Ripper, is a guy who wears a cape, shiny shoes, and carries around a cane sword. He also has superhuman strength, can run and jump like a superhero, and can take on multiple armed men at once. You can shoot him in the face and it won’t matter one goddamn bit. The only thing that seems to slow the Ripper down is electricity. So Kolchak, as he tends to do, devises a plan to stop the Ripper and maybe, just maybe, get the killings to stop.
And that’s another thing that happens in just about every episode; Kolchak has to find a way to stop the killer/monster/whatever it is because no one else will do it. The cops/authorities are always completely clueless/unwilling to believe that the weird shit happening is, in fact, the weird shit Kolchak says it is. And often when he does kill the bad guy he gets no credit for it. The story then gets covered up. You’d think, especially in Chicago, that the cops would eventually listen to Kolchak and take his, for the lack of a better word, expertise, in the strange and weird, seriously. That doesn’t happen, though. Kolchak is always wrong, even when he’s dead fucking right.

“The Ripper” episode plays very much like the two TV movies and feels like it could be a third movie. It obviously moves along quickly since the episode is only 50 minutes or so (every episode runs 50-51 minutes), but that “TV movie” rhythm is sort of there. And the Ripper character is very similar to the vampire in The Night Stalker and the alchemist in The Night Strangler, at least in the way he’s presented. The only major difference is the Ripper character doesn’t get a big scene at the end of the episode where he explains who he is and what he’s really doing (nor do we ever get a good look at him). It almost seems like, had there been future episodes, that the Ripper killer would have returned and Kolchak would have gone after him again.

What’s also fascinating about this episode is how the INS newsroom is barely staffed. There are plenty of desks in the old bullpen, so where the hell is everyone? It’s not like Kolchak only works the night shift and he’s the only reporter there on the night shift. So, again, where the hell is everyone?

“The Ripper” is a very good episode and is a terrific way to start the series.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Episode 2: “The Zombie”

Director: Alex Grasshoff
Writers: Zekial Marko and David Chase, based on a story by Zekial Marko

Episode 2 has Kolchak looking into a strange series of mob murders. Now, these murders aren’t being committed by the mob, but they are being committed on the mob. Is it all the result of some violent mobster rivalry, or is something else going on? On a “normal” TV show, that’s exactly what would be happening. But this is Kolchak: The Night Stalker, goddamit, so you know that there’s some weird shit going on that has nothing to do with a mob war. The mob killings are actually being committed by a zombie brought to life via voodoo.

Now, there is some mob rivalry shit in the episode between the Italian mob, or “the Syndicate,” and the black mob, which apparently “runs the numbers racket,” as both sides assume that the other side is responsible for what’s happening. The immortal Antonio “Huggy Bear/Flyguy” Vargas shows up as the lead black mobster, and he’s just as cool as always. Scatman Crothers also shows up, but he isn’t a mobster (he runs some sort of voodoo store or something). There’s also a bit of police corruption afoot, with the police captain in charge of this case involved in some capacity.

“The Zombie” is a scary episode, mostly due to the atmosphere in the scene in the junkyard. I’d imagine that if and when this series is remastered this episode won’t be as scary or as atmospheric simply because the muddy darkness in the junkyard sequence will be cleaned up and we’ll be able to see everything. The zombie makeup is also pretty gnarly. The zombie, played by Earl Faison, is wet and gooey and nasty, just as you expect him to be. However, he is a voodoo zombie, not a George A. Romero zombie, so this zombie isn’t eating anyone, he’s just beating the shit out of them.

Until I looked at the episode’s credits I thought the zombie was played by Yaphet Kotto because, well, he really looks like Yaphet Kotto. It’s not him, though.

This episode introduces us to two more recurring characters in Gordon Spangler (John Fiedler), the coroner who likes to get paid for doling out information. Spangler is also running some sort of gambling scheme in the coroner’s office, a scheme that I still don’t quite understand. We also meet Monique Marmelstein, a young female reporter who just got her journalism degree. She also happens to be a relative of a high ranking INS board member. Vincenzo wants Kolchak to work with her, something he doesn’t want to do at all. Monique is played by the future voice of Wendy Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, Carol Ann Susi, and she’s delightful. She’s a bit ditzy, sure, but she’s trying hard to do a good job. It’s a damn shame that the police shootout that Kolchak takes her to is a “no females allowed” place. How is she supposed to learn the ropes of reporting on stories like police shootouts if she can’t be there to witness them first hand? It’s messed up, man. Even if it is the 1970’s and all that, it’s still messed up.

Another terrific episode with a great cast and a great monster. Just remember, that zombie isn’t Yaphet Kotto. It’s Earl Faison.

Rating: 4/5

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Episode 3: “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…”

Director: Allen Baron
Writer: Rudolph Borchert, based on a story by Dennis Clark

“They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” is a great idea, or at least it seems like a great idea. It’s an episode about an invisible alien (essentially it’s an invisible alien) who is in Chicago, trying to figure out how to get back to its home planet, and when it’s not doing that the alien is killing people and sucking out their bone marrow in order to survive. Just thinking about that gives me the goddamn willies. You can’t see the killer in front of you. You can probably sense it, but by the time you do sense it it’s already too late. The thing is going to kill you and suck out your marrow. Yes, you’re dead when that’s happening, but it’s still creepy as hell.

“They Have Been” also features some excellent special effects, including a crumbling wall effect and some nifty “people flying through the air in almost slow motion” stunt work. The crumbling wall is also scary because you can’t see what is causing the wall to fall apart, all you see is the wall falling apart. Think about how freaked out you get when something near you falls over and you have no idea how it happened and then multiply it by about ten.

What “They Have Been” doesn’t feature is compelling direction, which makes chunks of the episode hard to sit through. Not being able to see the alien, at least in passing, is annoying. Yes, part of the story is that humans are unable to see the alien in question due to different light spectrums, and while we do see a sort of shadow of the alien, that really isn’t enough. I’m guessing that the episode makes up for the lack of a physical alien with the flying saucer we see towards the end of the story, but I would have rather seen what was inside the saucer.

And, yes, I know, the show probably didn’t have the budget for any kind of elaborate alien makeup or creature effect, and there’s a good chance that if the producers did try to make some sort of alien thing that it would have looked “cheesy” and suspended the disbelief of the audience, but I still would have wanted to see an alien creature of some sort. The whole “the alien doesn’t like the flashes from Kolchak’s camera” thing also could have been expanded.

And I don’t know about all of you, but I have a real problem with Dick Van Patten when he’s playing an intense character. I can’t stop thinking of him as the understanding father on Eight is Enough and the goofy King of Druidia in Spaceballs. When I see him as a character outside of those two things I am disturbed by the experience. Am I the only one who experiences this? Am I the only one who has this problem with Dick Van Patten?

This episode is sort of famous for having Kolchak listening to the World Series on his car radio, with the Chicago Cubs playing for the first time in decades. They eventually win the series, something the team wouldn’t do in real life for several more decades. Was this wishful thinking from the writers, some sort of inside joke? Anyone out there know anything about this?

I may have to watch this episode again one day, just to see if it’s as bad as I think it is at this very moment. I mean, it isn’t bad in the sense that it isn’t watchable and entertaining. It is. But, really, of the first five episodes of the show, “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” is the least of them.

Rating: 3/5

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Episode 4: “The Vampire”

Director: Don Weis
Writer: David Chase, based on a story by Bill Stratton

“The Vampire” acts as a kind of sequel to The Night Stalker, with our hero Kolchak travelling to Los Angeles to interview some sort of transcendental meditation guru and instead getting caught up in a murder investigation where it seems obvious only to Kolchak that the killer is a vampire. This vampire, a woman named Catherine Rawlins (Suzanne Charny), came up out of the ground in Las Vegas, and made her way to LA to, I guess, kill people and drink blood and whatnot. You know, the stuff vampires do.

Of course, as soon as Kolchak arrives in Los Angeles and starts poking around the various crime scenes he pisses off the local cops, especially Lt. Jack Matteo (the immortal William Daniels). Matteo doesn’t like Kolchak at all, and doesn’t want Kolchak either stepping all over his crime scenes or coming up with wild ass theories about what’s going on. Matteo wants Kolchak to leave Los Angeles as soon as possible, meaning right now. Kolchak, as you’d expect, fails to heed Matteo’s warning and keeps investigating.

Kolchak does enlist the help of local real estate agent Faye Kruger (Kathleen Nolan), a woman who would love to be a writer one day. It’s funny how Kolchak cons her into writing up the interview he’s supposed to be doing. She knows the guru in question, and, hey, who better to write up that interview? Kolchak clearly doesn’t want to do the interview.

Kolchak’s phone calls from Los Angeles with Vincenzo are hilarious. The first one completely fools and exasperates poor Vincenzo, as Kolchak uses his electric razor to create interference in the phone while he’s talking. By the second call Vincenzo has figured out what Kolchak is doing and tells him to knock it off. Vincenzo wants to know why the hell Kolchak isn’t doing the interview he was explicitly sent to Los Angeles to do. You’d think that Vincenzo would have figured out that Kolchak isn’t going to do a story he doesn’t want to do, and it’s a fruitless endeavor to try to change that fact. Either fire Kolchak or just let him do whatever he wants anyway. It would certainly save Vincenzo a ton of yelling and meltdowns, wouldn’t it?

Eh, maybe Vincenzo likes to yell at Kolchak. It helps break up the general monotony of his day. That could be possible, right?

The episode ends with Kolchak having to devise a plan of attack against the vampire and then hammering a wooden stake into her heart. Matteo sees the aftermath of this and ends up charging Kolchak with murder. The charges are quickly dropped and Kolchak is told that he can never return to Los Angeles. That makes two major cities he can’t go to anymore. How do you think Vincenzo took the news that Kolchak was charged with murder and couldn’t go back to LA? Vincenzo knows what really went down in Vegas. How do you think he took the idea that there was another vampire out there?

With the way this episode ends it suggests to me that there would have been more vampire stories in future seasons. Kolchak certainly would have run into a few more, and I bet at some point the show would have done an episode where vampires come to Chicago to attack Kolchak. I mean, why wouldn’t that story happen in a later season? It would make sense, it would be different, and above all else it would have been cool.

Has David Chase, of The Sopranos fame, ever talked about what was planned for future Kolchak seasons? He wrote this episode and several episodes and acted as a “story consultant” for the entire Kolchak run, so he had to know what was in the cards for later episodes. Would there have been more vampire stuff?

Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Chase used his clout and reputation to do a Kolchak reboot? It’ll never happen, but, still, if anyone out there could do it and get people excited about a reboot it would be him. I know I would watch that new show.

“The Vampire” is awesome and one of the best episodes in the series. Highly recommended.

Oh, and be on the lookout for the great Larry Storch, who shows up as one of Kolchak’s old journalism friends. It’s Larry Storch, man. Larry goddamn Storch.

Rating: 5/5

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Episode 5: “The Werewolf”

Director: Allen Baron
Writer: David Chase and Paul Playdon, with uncredited work by Dirk Wayne Summers

This episode, the first one actually called Kolchak: The Night Stalker, has Kolchak on a singles cruise ship, doing a story about the whole older singles scene, and he ends up doing a story about a goddamn werewolf on board. How does this stuff keep happening to Kolchak?

And what the hell would have happened if Vincenzo had been allowed to take the cruise in the first place? Because that is what was supposed to happen. The cruise was supposed to be his first real vacation in years. If Vincenzo had gone on the cruise and the werewolf had shown up what would he have done? Would he have went with the story and annoyed the ship’s captain and gotten in the way, exactly like Kolchak does/would do?

So the cruise is a freak show before the werewolf shows up, with Kolchak’s roommate, the sleazy Mel Tarter (Dick Gautier), trying to fix Kolchak up with a talkative cinephile named Paula (Nina Talbot). There’s no real chemistry between Kolchak and Paula, but Mel and his squeeze Wendy (Jackie Russell) really try to get them together. I don’t Kolchak is the kind of guy who wants romantic entanglements, at least not anymore. He had a girlfriend in The Night Stalker but she went away at the end of the movie. And while he’s worked with plenty of women over the years, how many of them are potential romantic partners? And I mean, really, how many? Kolchak is married to his work.

The werewolf turns out to be Bernhardt Stieglitz, played by Eric Braeden, a revelation that isn’t all the surprising because, well, it’s Eric Braeden. Even back in 1974 there’s no way in hell he was going to be a good guy. He’s a slimy piece of shit as soon as you see him, and while you sort of admire him for trying to stop the werewolf from appearing (he chains himself to his bed when the full moon shows up), you can’t really ever like him. You wish that one of the ship’s crew blasted him with a shotgun or something and cut him in half. That would never happen on a weekly TV show in the 1970’s, but you still want to see it happen.

It’s interesting how the werewolf is portrayed as this unstoppable force of nature once it appears. The damn thing just runs around the ship, killing everyone in its path. And the werewolf kills everyone, man and woman, in brutal fashion. The werewolf makeup isn’t the greatest looking (it just looks like a hairy mask and hands) but the werewolf moves quickly, which is what makes the creature scary. If it can’t be stopped, man, what the hell is the plan?

The ship’s crew tries very hard to blast the werewolf, but they’re all terrible shots and refuse to accept the reality of what’s happening to them. Yes, werewolves are ridiculous, but there’s one on the ship. Get some blessed silver bullets and shoot the bastard. How hard is that to accept, especially when it’s obvious that the thing running around can’t possibly be anything else?

Kolchak isn’t very successful shooting the werewolf, either. He does manage to shoot it and incapacitate the creature and knock it off the ship, but there’s no skill involved in what happens.

Now what the hell is Kolchak doing with his tape recordings? Do they function as his story notes, or are they meant to help him eventually write a book about his experiences? It’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit since I started this Kolchak thing. What do you guys think? Are the recordings just Kolchak’s notes or does he plan to do something else with them? Is there a book in his future, a non-fiction book no one will believe?

Another great episode. Check it out.

Rating: 4.5/5

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All episode images from imdb.

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Things to Watch Out For This Week

PacificRimUprising

Pacific Rim: Uprising: I missed this when it was in theatres, a fact that I’m still bummed about. Yes, the reviews for Uprising were pretty scathing, but I loved the first one and wanted to see what a sequel would involve. And I’m always a sucker for a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters. How could I not be a sucker for that kind of thing? Who out there saw this?

Unsane

Unsane: Director Steven Soderbergh apparently shot this entire movie on his phone, a gimmick usually reserved for the mega low budget movie world, and from what I’ve read about the movie he did a pretty good job with it. It doesn’t sound like it’s necessarily scary, but it does sound unsettling on some level. Definitely worth a rental. Anyone out there see this?

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The Humanity Bureau: Another week, another low budget Nicolas Cage movie. This one is apparently some sort of post-apocalyptic deal, where Nicolas Cage’s character works for a sort of fascist government that kills people for some reason. This is another very rentable movie. Man, I really need to do some sort of low budget Nicolas Cage movie marathon. There are so many movies out there to choose from. I believe this movie had a small theatrical run of some sort. Anyone out there get to see this in a movie theatre?

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Next issue: Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes 6-10!

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