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Cult TV: Kolchak: The Night Stalker Episodes 11-15

July 4, 2018 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER

The Cult TV Column Issue #3: Kolchak: The Night Stalker Episodes 11-15

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest edition of Cult TV. I’m Bryan Kristopowitz.

If you missed the first two editions of Cult TV, you can check them out at the links below:

Cult TV: Issue #1
Cult TV: Issue #2

There are only ten episodes left to check out for Kolchak: The Night Stalker’s only TV season, so it’s safe to call this the half-way point of the show. So far, Kolchak is some excellent episodes, some mediocre/okay ones, and a few that aren’t all that great but are still watchable as hell. It almost sounds like every TV show ever made, doesn’t it?

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And now, without any further what have you, the next five episodes of the 1970’s thriller TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker!

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Episode 11: “Horror in the Heights”

Directed by: Michael T. Caffey
Written by: Jimmy Sangster

“Horror in the Heights” is a hard episode to like. It has an okay monster and some decent performances, but the premise of the episode and the imagery it uses are hard to accept. Even if you take into account that the episode came out in the middle of the 1970’s, times were different, and that there’s nothing technically wrong with what the episode purports, the whole thing comes off as offensive and tone deaf. At times, you get the sense that the people behind the episode would love to openly debate the “real” meaning of the N word.

Our hero Carl Kolchak is investigating a bizarre murder in Roosevelt Heights, a poor section of Chicago that has many old, Jewish residents. A building’s old man security guard was killed and then, apparently, devoured by rats, leaving only the bones behind. The building’s basement is filled with the bloody aftermath of, I guess, multiple rat attacks, where rats attacked dogs and cats and shit. What else could they be? There are bones and shit everywhere. And these old Jewish guys love to play cards in this basement, right next to the carcasses. Why the hell do they do that? Because they’re old and they want the landlord to take care of the mess? Do they not notice it because they’re old, they don’t smell things the same way they used to, and they’re too busy concentrating on their card game to notice?

And why the hell would someone kill an old man security guard and then have rats eat the corpse to the bone? Who would do that?

Well, there’s some suspicion among the residents of the Heights that it could all be the 1970’s equivalent of a hate crime, as someone is painting swastikas all over the place. At the same time, someone has opened a Hindu restaurant smack dab in the middle of the Heights. No one has anything against Indian food per se, but why would an Indian guy open that Indian restaurant in a neighborhood full of old Jewish people? Is it a front that will be used to eventually buy up the neighborhood?

So Kolchak decides to hang out in the Heights with Harry Starman (the immortal Phil Silvers), to get a better understanding of the neighborhood and its people. In the midst of fucking around with a fence, Harry is attacked, killed, and devoured by a monster that, at first, looks exactly like Kolchak. A monster that looks like Kolchak? Kolchak didn’t kill Harry or anyone else, so how is it possible that Harry’s killer looked like Kolchak?

So then some stuff happens, Kolchak finds the owner of the Hindu restaurant, and suddenly we know what the heck is going on. The monster killing people is an old Hindu monster that disguises itself as someone its victims trust, and then the monster eats its victim (everything except the bones). The owner, Ali Lakshmi (Abraham Sofaer), is an old man who has been hunting the monster for sixty years. And Lakshmi did paint all of the swastikas as the swastika is an old Hindu symbol that has nothing to do with the Nazis or Nazism (the Nazis stole the symbol for their own use) and essentially used them to bring the monster out.

Now, even if it’s true that the Nazis hijacked the swastika, why include it in a story full of Jewish characters and not have that fact figure into the story at the end? Why not just have the poor neighborhood filled with random poor people of multiple ethnicities that gets upset and uneasy about the presence of swastikas everywhere? Wouldn’t that have made more sense to do?

Yes, it might have. It also might have made more sense to bring up the whole “the swastika is an old Indian symbol” thing earlier in the story. Even in the “less sensitive” 1970’s, the swastika was a loaded symbol. There were still plenty of living veterans of World War II out and about. Wasn’t someone worried about potential audience complaints? How did this story get past the standards and practices department?

The last quarter or so of the episode generally works, with Kolchak picking up Lakshmi’s crossbow to kill the monster, as Laskshmi’s crossbow is the only weapon that can be used to kill the monster. And the monster is pretty scary. The idea of a creature that disguises itself as someone you trust so you don’t notice it coming to kill you is messed up. And the whole being devoured thing tends to freak me out. Just think about that for a minute. Even if you’re dead when it happens, would you like to have your skin and meat chewed on by, well, anything?

Yeah, it’s pretty fucking messed up.

Still, not a great episode, a little concerning. Worth watching, though.

Rating: 2.5/5

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Episode 12: “Mr. R.I.N.G.”

Directed by: Gene LeVitt
Written by: L. Ford Neale and John Huff

“Mr. R.I.N.G.” is a disturbing story about military science run amok and paranoia and mystery. Kolchak starts the story, as he tends to do, by talking into his tape recorder about his latest weird story, but this time Kolchak isn’t completely sure about what actually happened. He’s probably been drugged, maybe even interrogated by bad dudes who wanted to know what he knew back when he wasn’t groggy and confused. So what the heck happened?

Well, a new military robot, known as Mr. R.I.N.G. (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia), has apparently gone haywire and escaped a secret government lab posing as the lab for a major corporation (Tyrell), killing a scientist in the process. Kolchak is ordered by his boss Vincenzo to write the dead scientist’s obituary, something that Kolchak doesn’t want to do. Obituary writing is for losers and newbies, not seasoned journalists like Kolchak. Kolchak takes the assignment anyway, and, as usual, as soon as he starts digging into the dead scientist’s life and background there’s way more going on than anyone knew.

Now, the more Kolchak digs, the more the government pushes back against Kolchak and the Independent News Service in general. Vincenzo starts to get worried about news areas he can no longer staff because the government has pulled I.N.S.’s credentials. Vincenzo wants Kolchak t just write the dead scientist’s obituary and then leave everything else he finds out about alone. In fact, Vincenzo wants to send Kolchak to San Francisco as a sort of consolation prize for all of the work he’s done. Kolchak, of course, has no interest in backing off the story. Kolchak intends to see the whole thing through. There’s a real chance that this story of government secrets could be bigger that Watergate. Watergate!

While all of that is going on, R.I.N.G. is breaking into a funeral home and stealing the materials funeral directors use to fix up a dead body’s face, breaking into a public library and stealing philosophy audio cassettes, and running away from the cops and soldiers who are hunting him. R.I.N.G. also seeks out Dr. Leslie Dwyer (Connie Camacho), a female scientist who worked on the R.I.N.G project. She can help R.I.N.G. become more human. Maybe. That’s the hope, anyway.

R.I.N.G. is portrayed by future badass director and stunt performer Craig R. Baxley, credited as Craig Baxley, and he does a fine job. He makes the robot awkward and sympathetic, which is amazing considering the robot is basically a man in a beige body suit and jeans and a jean jacket. The robot has no face but does have a strip of some sort going from its chin to its stomach. And when it does “get a face” (it’s what the funeral home supplies are for) R.I.N.G. becomes goddamn freaky. And while R.I.N.G. doesn’t do any spectacular stunts, the cops and soldiers trying to capture him sure do some pretty awesome stunts.

The end of the episode is a tad anti-climactic, mostly because the robot doesn’t get in much offense. The robot gets shot once and that’s it. I’m just going to assume that the show didn’t have the budget or the time to do anything more elaborate than the robot getting shot on the steps. I mean, the robot doesn’t dive off the steps, bash into people, nor does it make a comeback after getting shot once. That’s what would happen nowadays, at least it would happen if I was making the show. That robot would go down swinging.

Kolchak is removed from the scene and interrogated off screen. Watching Kolchak grabbed is unsettling, as star McGavin makes Kolchak suddenly more vulnerable than in any episode up until that point. He has no idea what’s going to happen to him. He may be a member of the press and all that, but Kolchak also saw something he shouldn’t have. Why wouldn’t the military take him out to protect its secrets? Look at what it does with its goddamn robot.

Despite that anti-climactic ending, “Mr. R.I.N.G.” is one of the best episodes of the series. Terrific direction, actin, and story. The paranoia is right there for you to experience. We all know that Kolchak was an inspiration for The X-Files. I’d like to know how important this episode was to that inspiration. It could have been an X-Files episode.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Episode 13: “Primal Scream”

Directed by: Robert Scheerer
Written by: Bill S. Ballinger and David Chase

In “Primal Scream,” Kolchak looks into a strange killing at a lab run by Oceanic International Oil. The killing is strange because the dead OIO employee is a biologist, the only biologist employed by the company, and the biologist had his arm ripped off. How the hell could that happen? And who the hell would want to kill a biologist?

Kolchak starts poking around, becoming annoyed with Thomas Kitzmiller (Pat Harrington) the OIO public relations representative that tries to keep a lid on the grotesque details of the biologist’s murder. Kolchak really wants to talk to the dead biologist’s assistant Dr. Helen Lynch (Katherine Woodville), but OIO keeps her whereabouts under wraps, or at least tries to. Kolchak eventually finds her and wants to know what the hell her boss was working on.

While all of that is going on, there’s another brutal murder involving a man getting a limb ripped off, and there’s an eyewitness account of what happened. Apparently a gorilla or an ape man did it. A gorilla? An ape man? What?

OIO doesn’t want to talk. The cops refuse to cooperate with Kolchak (what’s new there, right?). And then there’s another attack. Kolchak is right there when it happens and manages to take a picture of the creature, but the cops won’t allow Kolchak to keep it. The cops want to keep the whole thing under wraps as much as possible.

So what the heck is really going on here? Why are the cops working so hard to bury this story? Are the authorities in cahoots with OIO? Just what the heck was OIO working on?

Apparently, at the OIO lab, a freezer containing core samples from an Arctic expedition broke down, a container containing one of the samples fell over, and the heat generated by the freezer malfunction causes cells in the samples to activate and multiply. Now, these cells are hundreds of thousands of years old. How could they reactivate after such a long period of time? And how could those cells then grow into a goddamn ape man?

Well, that’s a good question. It’s never happened before, as far as anyone knows, on the scale of some cells growing into an ape man. OIO has no real interest in finding out how it could happen (the company just keeps looking for a way to cover it all up), and the government is dumbfounded by the whole thing. Kolchak tries to find some experts on primates and evolutionary biology but no one will talk with him (Kolchak thinks OIO made some calls and bullied those experts into shutting him out). The only “expert” willing to talk to Kolchak is a hilariously disgruntled high school science teacher played by Jamie Farr, and Kolchak finds out that the ape man isn’t an ape man but is instead more likely to be a missing primate cousin to both humans and apes. And Kolchak figures out where the primate may be hiding out.

It’s hiding out underground, in an abandoned tunnel system that was created for a now gone sports stadium. Why do these creatures and monsters and whatnot keep hiding out underground?

So Kolchak goes into the abandoned tunnel system to find the primate and get a picture of it. That’s really all Kolchak wants, photographic proof of the primate’s existence. This is one of the few “strange” stories that Vincenzo actually gets behind and is sort of excited about. A killer ape man in Chicago? That will sell goddamn newspapers, and with a potential picture to boot? That story will sell, sell, sell!

To say that Kolchak’s underground adventure in this episode doesn’t go well would be a major understatement. The tunnel system is dank and dark and terrifying, and actually becomes scarier when Kolchak lights up some flares and throws them down the tunnels. And when the primate man shows up and goes after Kolchak, watch the hell out. You know he’s going to survive because he’s the main character but there’s a moment at the end where it seems our hero reporter might not make it out of the tunnel.

Just like the “Mr. R.I.N.G.” episode, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Primal Scream” was a specific inspiration for The X-Files. I mean, it plays like a typical “monster-of-the-week” X-Files episode. And “Primal Scream” is easily one of the best episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. An absolute must see.

Oh, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering why the heck Jamie Farr didn’t get his own show after this episode. Wouldn’t you want to watch a show where he’s teaches high school during the day and consults with the police at night? Of course you would.

Rating: 5/5

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Episode 14: “The Trevi Collection”

Directed by: Don Weis
Written by: Rudolph Borchert

“The Trevi Collection” has our hero Carl Kolchak looking into a big hooha garment union criminal scheme and, in the process of looking into that story, ends up squaring off against a mega evil black witch that wants to rule the fashion industry and, to a lesser extent, the world. Well, maybe one day. You have to rule the fashion world first in this scenario. When Kolchak tells Vincenzo about both stories, Vincenzo wants Kolchak to focus on the union story as there are scary looking mob thugs all over the place, and we all know what mob guys can do when they’re motivated to take out people they want to take out. Vincenzo has reported on the mob many times before over the years and knows what can happen. Vincenzo also doesn’t want anything to happen to Kolchak. Vincenzo may complain about Kolchak’s penchant for wacked out stories, he doesn’t want to see his ace investigative reporter killed. So, knowing all of this and the stakes involved, Kolchak wants to focus on the black witch because, well, that’s just what Kolchak does. Vincenzo is pissed, but what can he do? He can’t control his employee and friend (they really are friends). And so Kolchak keeps looking into the black witch.

Now, Kolchak assumes that the evil black witch is Madame Trevi (Nina Foch), the old woman owner of the Trevi fashion outfit. That assumption makes a kind of sense. Who else but a clothing manufacturer would want to rule the fashion world? But that assumption eventually turns out to be dead wrong when the real black witch is model Madelaine (Lara Parker). Madame Trevi does have access to witch magic of her own, but she uses it to keep Madelaine at bay. That’s what you have to do with these evil black witches. You have to know how to keep them at bay.

The final confrontation between Kolchak and Madelaine is both brutal and intense, way more intense than I would have expected. And when you couple this final confrontation with a sequence where Kolchak checks out a local coven meeting and finds out all about the power and threat of black witches, “The Trevi Collection” is a thriller of the highest order. The big “floating object” special effect in this coven sequence is impressive, and the way the scene ends, with everyone laughing at Kolchak comes out of nowhere. I mean, I had no idea that Madelaine was going to turn out to be the story’s real villain. I was expecting something a little more straight-forward.

Getting back to the final confrontation between Kolchak and Madelaine, I don’t think you could film a similar confrontation today and get away with it. Kolchak goes right at her and physically fights her and she barely gets in any offense. When was the last time you saw something like that on TV today?

And then there are the fashion mannequins that “come alive” and attack Kolchak and other people. This is another impressive special effect (there’s also a neat editing scheme here), but there is an element of “cheese” to the whole thing because it’s goddamn fashion mannequins coming to life. And this is in the 1970’s, where CGI is science fiction and everything has to be done practically and it doesn’t look as “real” as it would today. I still love the sequence, though. It’s exciting.

There isn’t much more to say about this episode. It works.

Oh, and the whole mob subplot is dealt with at the end of the episode. To say that it doesn’t end well for the mob would be a massive understatement. We don’t get to see any of this, but Kolchak does tell us about it. That is good enough to finish off the story. I would have liked to see one more face-to-face confrontation between the mob killers and Kolchak. I bet it would have been funny to see the mob guys squirm. I wonder what happened to all involved when the mob guys got out of jail. Did any of them seek revenge on Kolchak?

A great episode. A definite must watch.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Episode 15: “Chopper”

Directed by: Bruce Kessler
Written by: Steve Fisher and David Chase, based on a story by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

Based on everything I’ve read on the internets and on the Kolchak: The Night Stalker DVD set, “Chopper” seems to be considered a seminal episode of the series because Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale came up with the story. I’ll admit that “Chopper” is a good and entertaining episode, but is it really better than “The Ripper” or “The Vampire” or “Primal Scream?” Not really. So, outside of Zemeckis and Gale eventually becoming big deals in Hollywood, what the hell is so special about “Chopper”?

I don’t know. Again, I don’t get what, exactly, I’m supposed to find so mega special with this episode. It clearly isn’t the presence of the future Captain Mauser, Art Metrano, as the leader of a badass biker gang that features prominently in the story. I’m stoked by that casting because Metrano is an awesome actor and it’s always a pleasure to see him do his thing. But who the hell am I? I’m just some guy on the internets. I’m not Mr. Back to the Future.

So what the heck is “Chopper” about? Essentially, it’s about a dead, headless biker who comes back from the grave to exact revenge on the people who took his head. And the headless biker exacts his revenge by using a sword to decapitate his victims. It’s how he died, so why not take out his killer the exact same way? The headless biker is obviously a stunt rider wearing a “headless” body suit, and the upper torso is a tad too tall to be, well, believable. The rider actually looks kind of ridiculous when it’s just standing there. When it’s in motion, though, the headless rider is goddamn terrifying. The rider is relentless. When he shows up and goes after someone, watch the hell out. The rider just doesn’t stop.

Now, because this a 1970’s broadcast TV show, the decapitations are implied and happen off screen. We do see the rider go in for the attack, then the scene sort of stops, there’s loud noise and screams and whatnot, and then the scene continues on with a headless corpse somewhere. It’s kind of a cheat (when your story features a villain that cuts people’s heads off, goddamit, you want to see heads roll), but the sudden scene stop and the noise and music do work and will make you jump, at least the first time you see the rider appear.

The motorcycle stunt work is well done and exciting. Again, if you just look at the headless rider in a static shot the rider looks ridiculous. In motion, though, it’s awesome.

There’s a new police captain, a man named Jonas (Larry Linville) despises Kolchak and the media in general and basically spends most of his time trying to get the media to leave him and his crime scenes alone. Kolchak refuses to play ball with this new captain. As a result, Jonas tries to put Kolchak in jail multiple times. Captain Jonas is just a terrible person through and through, and his off-screen demotion at the end of the episode is as needed as ever. It’s too bad he didn’t get an off screen decapitation. He would have deserved it.

As for poor Vincenzo, he’s working through an ulcer. His doctor wants him to adhere to a bland diet and to drink a probably gross as hell elixir that’s supposed to soothe the pain from the ulcer. Vincenzo also needs to keep stress to a minimum, a hard thing to do with Kolchak in the newsroom. I mean, things go okay for Vincenzo right up until he finds out what kind of story Kolchak is working on. When the whole headless biker thing comes up, for Vincenzo, it’s just more of the same. Stress and craziness. That elixir isn’t going to soothe anything anymore. And Vincenzo is going to need some cheese. Man, that’s a messed up life. What the hell, man?

The way Kolchak stops the headless rider is both gruesome and hilarious. It’s gruesome because it involves a human skull, and it’s hilarious because Kolchak has to throw that skull at the rider. How often do people find themselves having to do that kind of thing? Throwing a human skull? What?

The best part of the episode is the wake for the first dead guy that’s interrupted by Metrano’s Studs and his motorcycle gang. They’re all there to pay their respects and all that, but they can’t stop themselves from acting like total assholes. And when Kolchak shows up they actually get worse. It’s exactly how you would expect a rowdy biker gang to act in a funeral parlor. Well, it’s how I would expect them to act.

“Chopper” is a good episode. It has quite a bit going for it. It isn’t as special as its reputation suggests, though. I’d watch it again.

Rating: 4/5

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Next issue: Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes 15-20!

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All Kolchak episode images from imdb.

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