Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Energy Eater

By Mark Dawidziak


Stuck in the basement.
     And so we plummet from one of the very best episodes ("The Spanish Moss Murders") to one of the very worst. But, not to worry, as poor as "The Energy Eater" is, Kolchak: The Night Stalker magnificently rebounded from the depths of this lakefront hospital's crumbling basement, airing what many consider its finest hour, "Horror in the Heights." So, hold on to your bird-feeder hat, the lurches in quality during this middle stretch could give you a nasty case of whiplash.

    To be fair, though, "The Energy Eater" looks all the more inept because it is hammocked between "The Spanish Moss Murders" and "Horror in the Heights." Even a slightly better episode would suffer in comparison. And even third-rate Kolchak is going to be worthwhile on some levels (subbasement included) if Darren McGavin is the actor underneath that pork-pie straw hat. But, to be fair to the rest of the episodes, this is about as far off its game as the series got.

     The evaluation from The Night Stalker Companion:

     One of the weakest Kolchak episodes, "The Energy Eater" is repetitious, derivative and badly paced. The mixture of legend and electricity is anything but shocking. And the ending is sudden and unsatisfying.

     The whole choppy, patched-together episode is pretty unsatisfying. Even elements that usually lift a lesser Kolchak episode are sadly lacking here. The exchanges between Carl and Tony fail to provide much in the way of sparks. Carl's run-ins with authority figures seem more by-the-book than usual. And even the guest cast, almost always a fun feature on this series, doesn't match up well with the Matchemonedo story. The one promising guest-star (and this doesn't amount to much) is William Smith's womanizing construction crew chief Jim Elkhorn. He and Kolchak briefly make an intriguing team battling the powerful, ancient and invisible bear god awakened from its slumber in an incredibly grumpy mood. Smith shows sly glimpses as the charming ladies man, able crew chief and reluctant shaman. Best known as Joe Riley on Laredo (NBC, 1965-67), Smith later mixed it up with Clint Eastwood for the climactic bare-fisted brawl of Any Which Way You Can (1980). But he's stuck in a Kolchak caper that doesn't have much a of a paranormal punch.


The incredibly subtle poster for Joyce Jillson's Superchick (1973)
     Joyce Jillson, who achieved a different kind of fame in the '80s as Nancy and Ronald Reagan's astrologer, appears as Diana Lanier The year before this episode aired, she had the title role in the action-comedy Superchick and played Joan Stacey, fiancee of the murder victim in the excellent Columbo mystery, "Any Old Port in a Storm." Michael Fox, who plays Frank Wesley, appeared in two second-season Columbo mysteries, "Etude in Black" and "The Most Dangerous Match." But even Columbo would have a tough time solving the case of the ailing hospital story.  


     "What would you say if I told you there was a force beyond your comprehension trying to destroy this hospital?" Carl asks at one point. I'd say it might be the script, Carl, which is anything but forceful.

     Perhaps there's something fitting about the schizophrenic quality of these episodes. By this point, after all, there were creative differences that ran deeper and wider than the cracks in the basement of the doomed hospital. It is no secret that once veteran show runner Cy Chermak took over as producer of the series, divisions developed behind the cameras. Denied the executive producer title he felt would be his, Darren McGavin doggedly fought for his vision of the show while Universal's able producer, Chermak, fought to keep the series on track.


     Chermak presided over story conferences, production meetings, rewrites, scoring and the editing process. McGavin took the lead on the set. Chermak fought to impose his vision for the series. McGavin fought back, certain that the studio was heading down the wrong path for Kolchak.


     "Yes, one of the reasons tensions ran so high on the show was because the relationship between me and Darren deteriorated rapidly," the gracious and candid Chermak told me when interviewed for The Night Stalker Companion. "And everybody knew it. When we were in my office, I was the boss. When they were on the set and I wasn't there, Darren had them doing what he wanted. He never accepted that I was running the show.


     "So, aside from the long hours, the people working on this show were torn. It was very tough on them. It really wasn't two camps. That's not quite right. There was one camp, mine, and one actor -- a major star -- down on the set while I'm frantically preparing the next show."


     McGavin and David Chase described the same set of tense of circumstances. For all the battles, Chermak refused to cast McGavin in the role of vainglorious villain or temperamental star.  

     "He was not altogether to blame for the situation," Chermak said. "If we were doing this show today, he would be the executive producer in fact and in title, and he would do it the way he wanted. That's just not the way Universal did things in 1974. But you can't blame him for fighting for what he believed was right. Nobody's questioning Darren's sincerity and dedication, or his standing as a star . . . and he was ideal for that role."


     In fact, Chermak, in an industry not known for honest self-appraisal, placed much of the blame on himself. 


     "I was brought in on Ironside during the first season when it was in trouble,” Chermak said. "I subsequently did the same thing on CHiPs. I took over that show as executive producer when it was in trouble. I'm something of a play doctor, so I wanted to do the same thing on Night Stalker.


     "As tough as The Night Stalker was, I didn't want to give up on it. I think I let the show down by not being able to get along with Darren. It's as much my fault as his. In those days, I thought it was enough to be talented and you didn't have to get along. That was the biggest mistake I made on The Night Stalker. Retrospectively, I realize that my job was to get everyone on the same page. It was my job to make sure we were getting along. I never did that, and it hurt the show. I went in and said I'm the boss. Universal needed evolution. I gave them revolution."


     And despite the battles, Chermak hoped the series would get a second season so he could truly get it on track.


    Still, with a young David Chase as his story editor, Chermak did bring a direction to the show that allowed it to produce such superior episodes as "The Spanish Moss Murders" and "Horror in the Heights."


     One of the first things changed was the spirit of the humor on the series.


     "You absolutely need humor to relieve the tension of horror,” Chermak said. "All tension is no tension, just as all pacing is no pacing. I wasn't against humor. I was against situation comedy for this show. We wanted to change from Darren's concept of comedy to my concept of humor. The networks, then as well as today, have a tough time understanding the difference between comedy and humor. We thought we understood the difference very well. And I think we brought in more of the black humor and the inside humor that the college crowd got. That was primarily what I thought would help the show."


     Chermak also changed the approach to the supernatural stories. He felt that it was important that the scripts vary the established formula as much as possible, creating moods that suited the individual plots.


Mystery Movie stars Peter Falk and Jessica Walter pick up Emmys in 1975.
     When first producer Paul Playdon left the series early on, The Night Stalker became a Universal series "produced in association with Francy Productions, Inc." Francy was the production company owned by Chermak and his wife, writer-producer Francine Carroll: Francy for Fran and Cy. Also at this point, Francy was producing Amy Prentiss. Created by Carroll, Amy Prentiss was a series far ahead of its time. Part of NBC's Sunday Mystery Movie package for the 1974-75 season (with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife), the police drama boldly moved into prime time with the title character, a thirty-five-year-old widow played by Jessica Walter, as San Francisco's chief of detectives. Although viewers did not immediately respond to a woman in command, Walter's performance was recognized with an Emmy. Also in the cast was an eleven-year-old Helen Hunt, about twenty years before starring in NBC's Mad About You.

     Despite the creative differences, or maybe because of them, the Chermak-led team produced some remarkable moments. "The Energy Eater," the last of three episodes directed by Alex Grasshoff (and his second based on a Native American legend), clearly isn't one of them, but wait till you see what's lurking around the corner, in a neighborhood known as Roosevelt Heights. Get ready to roll with the Rakshasa.

6 comments:

  1. Great interview snippets, Mark. I've always wondered if, in your discussions with Darren McGavin, if he ever spoke about/commented on any specific episodes or stories from the series, or if what you present by him in your book is pretty much everything he had to say. I guess I'm wondering if there's anything else at all he may have said about the show than what is already included in your book?

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  2. There was a bit, on the record and off, that didn't make it into the book. Couldn't get everything in. But nothing about specific episodes. Darren didn't go into details on specific stories or episodes, and that's probably because he wasn't happy with the series and he wasn't happy doing the series. His affection was for the character, the original movie, Jeff Rice's book and his fellow actors. There, he could get rapturous. But remember, he even was pretty rough on "The Night Strangler." He was unfailingly kind and flattered when people recalled Kolchak with great fondness. I got the impression that he viewed the series as one big entity that didn't come anywhere close the the original movie. But if there was one episode that charted higher for him, it probably was (in anticipating of the upcoming discussion), "Horror in the Heights." I think he liked the idea that Miss Emily was the only one Carl trusted and that the Rakshasa would take her form.

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  3. Not-So-Special-Effects

    Wiser heads can correct me if I err, but I’m pretty sure the closest thing to an “optical effect” in all the Kolchak canon is the opening titles of the series. As for conventional monsterish off-camera effects, these were usually achieved with wind machines, scissors arcs and smoke – all practical. And how ironic it is, that during a period the Westmore tribe was claiming dominion over Universal in the category of makeup effects, the only things SADDER than the onscreen cosmetology were the threadbare, spookhouse monster suits. I don’t even think there was a credited makeup man for the entire run-of-show. Mark, can you shed some light?

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  4. David, almost everyone who worked on the show agreed that "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" was treated as the poor stepchild on the Universal lot. The budgets were notoriously low, and, you're right, there was no credited makeup artist on the series, and the production meetings typically were exercises in how to make do with little or nothing. As Cy Chermak, David Chase and others have related, the budgets were so tight, these discussions often wandered into the realm of the ridiculous. Chase still laughs when recalling the production meeting when, with no money in the budget for makeup one week, Chermak asked, "Do we still have the chicken suit from last week? Let's rework that and use it this week." Chase said that "production meetings were just great because what we were talking about was so silly" and because there was never any money for what they wanted to do. “I remember the ‘chicken suit’ production meeting David describes," Chermak said. "But the truth is that David and Rudy (Borchert) didn’t make it to too many production meetings. They were too busy writing and rewriting scripts. They spent most of their time at story conferences or at their typewriters.” Universal, of course, was producing heaps of television during that period, and the big money was being lavished on "Columbo," a show reaping Emmys, high ratings and staggering licensing fee from NBC. Some wonderfully talented writers ended up working on "Night Stalker," but like Chase, Michael Kozoll and Robert Zemeckis, they were youngsters at the beginning of their careers. That gave "Night Stalker" an edge and energy in the writing department, but did nothing for the near non-existent makeup and special effects.

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  5. My impulse is to always go for the "writer solution" in the face of budget shortfalls. You see this happening even today, as shows go through multiple seasons: The network or production entity's mandate is always "now do the same thing but for less money." So the last bastion of defense in terms of lack of resources (or denial of those same resources) is ALWAYS the writer. Generally the KTNS teleplay factory did exemplary work, given all the resources they were denied -- character eccentricisms cost less than physical effects, use already-shot footage whenever possible (which also allowed the recycling of the Chicago-shot footage to absorb time when episodes came in short), and most importantly in the case of KTNS, keep the main character in the same set of clothes for most of the series run so you don't have to match shots later. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during some of those story meetings ...

    And there were rudimentary opticals, now that I think of it: Transparent Ryder Bond in "Firefall;" vanishing devil-dog in "The Devil's Platform," and thuslike. Which leaves some of the makeups on view (as in "Demon in Lace" and "The Youth Killer") tantalizingly unattributed. I wonder who did them?

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    Replies
    1. I don't get it, does the lab assistant who helps Carl, is she the same one who dies in the lab? I don't get it she just disappears and Carl does not care.

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