Saturday, April 21, 2012

Kolchak Knows

When I was a kid I used to babysit to make money.  It’s what kids did back in the day.  Rarely a weekend passed that I wasn’t left in charge of someone’s children at a rate of a dollar an hour, which, by the way, was enough to keep me in records and clothes and movies and stuff.  I didn’t have much of a social life, but I did have money and I did get to watch a lot of late night TV.

A well-dressed werewolf terrorizes Chicago.  
Late night TV consisted of Saturday Night Live and Midnight Special, followed by B horror films like The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston (the movie’s only redeeming quality, I might add).  It took me three years and at least a half-dozen tries to get through the entire movie, because the people I babysat for kept coming home before it ended.  Each time it came on, it came on later and later.  Obviously it was filler for those hours between the better B movies and sign off.  Possibly, it was designed to assist insomniacs in getting back to sleep.

The Energy Eater lived on
Spanish Moss
There were, however, a few gems among the shows that were broadcast.  One of them was Kolchak: the Night Stalker.  Twenty of the contracted 26 episodes were aired during the 1974-75 season before it was cancelled for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom.  It was – and still is! – a great show.

I recently watched all 20 episodes again on Netflix (the best thing to happen to television viewing since… Well, since it was invented!).  From the first episode, The Ripper, to the last episode, The Sentry, reliving those hours of my youth was just as fun now as it was back then.  Though this time around the element of terror was somewhat reduced.  To nil, in fact.

I remember watching wide-eyed as giant lizards and voluptuous vampires wreaked havoc throughout the fictional United States as the equally fictional INS reporter, Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin) courageously tried to expose them.  Inevitably, the evidence he always found was always destroyed and his long-suffering editor, Anthony Vincenzo narrowly escaped a stress-induced heart attack attempting to rein him in.   Every light in the house was on, ‘cause, you know, that kept the scary monsters at bay!

A guy in a modified leather jacket - pre-CG - played the
 headless motorcyclists out for revenge in Chopper.
By today’s standards, Kolchak: the Night Stalker is barely even a B-grade horror show.  The creatures wore rubber suits.  The Vampires sported plastic teeth.  The violence was implied rather than explicit.  There were no special effects, no CG animation, no life-like animatronics and very little make-up artistry.  What there was was imagination.  You didn’t have to see the gore to understand that dude was just beheaded by a headless motorcyclist wielding a razor-sharp sword!  And you still checked under the bed and in the closet and slept with the lights on when you got home.

Even scarier than those wicked plastic
fangs was this vampire's hoarse screech.
I have been unable to determine exactly why Kolchak was cancelled in 1975.  (Then again I am unable to determine why Firefly was cancelled in 2002.)  There’s just no rhyme or reason to it.  Kolchak was resurrected for an even briefer stint in 2005 when 10 new episodes were aired and was cancelled due to low ratings.  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.  But from all that I can find about it, it’s just as well. Apparently, the 2005 series lacked all the charm and wit of the original show, trying and failing to be a 21st century X-files, which, it is claimed, but also unconfirmed, was inspired by Kolchak.

The paranormal isn’t an easy sell.  Those who believe find fault in the dramatization and/or poorly-researched story lines.  Those who don’t believe just think it’s foolish.  The X-files was successful because it somehow managed to remain neutral in its presentation of super-natural and alien possibilities.  Until, that is, it stopped being neutral and Mulder was taken away on a UFO.  It was the beginning of the end for the show.  And the new guy just didn’t cut it as the sceptic any more than Scully cut it as the believer.  But, all good things come to an end, like Kolchak, even if it was premature.

Tom Skerrit made a deal with the Devil.
Kolchak made sure that  the deal fell apart.
I have to admit that I am a bit of a fan of these off-beat and unconventional programs and movies.  I’ve seen Rocky Horror Picture Show at least 10 times.  And while that may not give me cult fan status, I dare say I’ve seen it more than most people, for who once is often more than enough.  I even own the DVD. 

Kolchak was always prepared.  Items like this crucifix
were kept in his handy satchel.
Odd-ball characters intrigue me.  And Carl Kolchak is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever come across.  A hard-nosed crime reporter, Kolchak is an endearing mixture of cowardice and courage, overcoming his inherent fears to serve the greater good.  If he isn’t pouring salt into the mouth of a zombie and sewing its lips closed, he’s destroying Hecates’ temple to prevent Helen of Troy from sucking the life out of youth in order to stay forever young.  His satchel, filled with crucifix, holy water and wooden stakes is as dear to him as his rumpled, sear-sucker suit, pastel yellow Mustang and consummate bachelorhood.  He follows the facts.  He’s resourceful and cunning, in a bumbling and comical way, always skirting the attempts by the police to foil his search for the truth. 

Kolchak's long-suffering editor, Toni Vincenzo
Like Fox Mulder, Kolchak never quite manages to bring the truth to light.  Something always conspires to keep him from exposing the werewolves and witches and sinister, ghostly knights for what they really are.  People never find out that swamp things and shape-shifters and even the Devil, himself, really do walk among them.   But Kolchak knows.

Kolchak, with his trusty camera and tape recorder, knows.

 I am about to retire for the night.  The doors are locked.  The windows are latched.  And I’ve checked under the bed and in the closet.  I may even leave a light or two on…

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for stopping by! Please feel free to comment or leave feed back. I look forward to hearing from you!