Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Vampire

By Mark Dawidziak

     For everyone who is weary of hearing that the Night Stalker was derivative and repetitive, here's an episode that shows how you can be derivative and repetitive and still be extremely effective. I've always put "The Vampire" into my top-five episodes, and it remains firmly ensconced on that list and in my affections (although not as high as, say, the two all-time favorites, "Horror in the Heights" and "The Spanish Moss Murders"). Gary Gerani has sagely pointed out how some acclaimed TV shows (Columbo was an excellent example he used) could successfully repeat a formula, playing brilliantly within a few notes, riffing like a great jazz artist. The question never should be whether or not something is derivative and formulaic, but, "How well does it serve up variations on the formula?" Also on the mystery front, I love the Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy, and, yes, the basic structure is the same. The novels of Raymond Chandler, it could be argued, are repetitive and formulaic. Damages and 24 are two recent series that have reinvented their wheels (so to speak) each season, coming up with a new way to recycle a basic storytelling device.

     All of which brings us to "The Vampire," the fourth Night Stalker episode and one that just glides along like a vampire bat on the night air. First, it's a nifty idea to craft a vampire story that forges a link to the original Las Vegas story. Starting Catherine Rawlins in Vegas is just a nice touch. Second, although Pauline Myers' Mamalois Edmonds was a pretty scary customer in "The Zombie," Francois Edmonds (Earl Faison) was the title character, so, in "The Vampire," for the first time, the "monster" is a woman. That alone is a refreshing variation on the formula, opening the way for Lara Parker's Madeline in "The Trevi Collection" and Cathy Lee Crosby's Helen in "The Youth Killer." And third, the blend of humor and horror works extremely well, starting with Tony Vincenzo's glimpse of Jim "The Swede" Brytowski, played by Larry Storch (Corporal Agarn on F Troop).

     Speaking of Storch, ever notice how many comedians and comedic actors showed up on The Night Stalker? In this episode alone, we get Storch, Jan Murray as Ichabod Grace and Milt Kamen as Gingrich. Look over the show's entire run, and you'll see the likes of Phil Silvers, Jackie Vernon, Benny Rubin, Pat Harrington, Dick Gautier, Mary Wickes, Bernie Kopell, Art Metrano, Hans Conreid, Alice Ghostley and Jim Backus. Darren McGavin loved this kind of casting.

     A few other reasons "The Vampire" works so bloody well:

     SEARING ICONIC IMAGE: “The Vampire” certainly contains one of the series' most striking and memorable images -- that giant flaming cross that traps Catherine Rawlins. "For some reason, 'The Vampire' really works for me,” producer Cy Chermak told me in 1997. "I think it's my favorite of the episodes. I love the cross burning. There is a little bit of a controversy over whose idea that was, but that can happen after twenty-three years. I thought it was my idea. Rudy Borchert says he thinks it was his idea, and it might very well have been." Whoever fired up that idea, it's a wonderfully dramatic and cinematic moment.

     SLY SURPRISE SCENE: Knowing there's a vampire on the loose, we're treated to a fiendishly clever scene that neatly turns the tables on our expectations. Catherine Rawlins (Suzanne Charny) enters a room, followed by a dark man we just know is the vampire. We think she's the next victim. Surprise! She's the vampire. Catherine is one tough customer, later dusting off four hulking professional football players.

     GREAT COMIC MOMENT: When Kolchak thrusts a cross at a sweet-faced prostitute entering his Los Angeles hotel room, thinking she’s a vampire. "All right, which freako scene is this?" she asks.
 
     TWO GREAT GUEST STARS: Kathleen Nolan makes the most of her scenes as Faye Kruger. The year after this episode aired, Nolan began the first of her two terms as the first female president of the Screen Actors Guild. She was Wendy to Mary Martin's Peter and Cyril Ritchard's Captain Hook in the original Broadway production of the Peter Pan musical. Before The Night Stalker, she appeared in episodes of Gunsmoke, Bewitched, Ben Casey, Burke's Law and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. After "The Vampire," she appeared in episodes of Magnum, P.I., Murder, She Wrote, Crossing Jordan, Ally McBeal and Chicago Hope. And between his Tony-winning Broadway run as John Adams in 1776 and his Emmy-winning stint as Dr. Mark Craig on NBC's St. Elsewhere, William Daniels played a Los Angeles police detective increasingly annoyed by a certain reporter in this episode. It would be seventeen years before McGavin and Daniels again worked together. "That's the way it is in this business," Darren old me. They reteamed for Arthur Miller's Clara, a one-act play presented by cable's Arts & Entertainment Network in 1991 (when A&E really did stand for Arts & Entertainment). Ironically, Daniels again was cast as a world-weary detective. "I kept wanting to tell Bill how to do it," said Darren, who had played his share of world-weary detectives. Daniels enjoyed both projects with McGavin, but, obviously, the chance to work on a Miller play offered a little more dramatic bite than working on a vampire investigation.

     GREAT CARL LINE ON TONY: "You should meet my boss. He'd turn Buddha into a chain-smoker."

     GREAT TONY LINE ON CARL: "I'm tired of it, Kolchak, I am fed up! I've got a brother-in-law who's got a fourteen-year-old kid he's always bailing out of juvenile hall, but I've got you and you are worse!"

     FUN CAMEO: Legendary Hollywood columnist Army Archerd has a cameo appearance as a prospective buyer for the guru's house (a set that Universal already had used in two Columbo episodes). But Night Stalker got first use of Archerd, who didn't make his Columbo cameo until a year later (in the "Forgotten Lady" episode with Janet Leigh, John Payne and Sam Jaffe).

Don Weis directed Richard Matheson's "Steel" for The Twilight Zone.
     AND NOW, OUR DIRECTOR: This was the first of four episodes directed by TV veteran Don Weis. His long list of credits included nine episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("The Big Switch," "The Pearl Necklace," "A Secret Life" and "First-Class Honeymoon") and Richard Matheson's "Steel" episode of The Twilight Zone. Both a film and TV director in the '50s and '60s, he became one of the busiest TV directors of the ‘70s and ‘80s, helming episodes of M*A*S*H, Remington Steele, Ironside, Petrocelli, It Takes a Thief, Happy Days, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Hawaii Five-0, Mannix, The Magician, Planet of the Apes, Charlie's Angels, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and Hill Street Blues. For the big screen, he directed A Slight Case of Larcey (1953), The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), The Gene Krupa Story (1959) and Critic’s Choice (a 1963 teaming of Bob Hope and Lucille Ball). "This was a show that needed strong directors," Chermak said, "and Don Weis was perfect. He was the kind of director who didn't take any crap from anybody. I relied very heavily on Don Weis. I knew I could count on him. We had other strong directors on the show, like Mike Caffey and Vince McEveety, but they only did one episode each. Don did four." Weis worked so hard on this episode that he took a room in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel rather than drive home to Malibu. Weis also directed the 1978 film Zero to Sixty, starring Darren McGavin.

4 comments:

  1. I knew that house looked familiar. It would have been weird if Kolchak walked in and suddenly started asking everyone about their shoes!

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  2. Nice job, as always, Mark. For what it's worth (if anything), Weis also began alternating with William Asher on AIP's rapidly declining series of "Beach Party" films the year after he directed "Steel."

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  3. Matthew, yes, it's quite a resume. Both Darren McGavin and Cy Chermak had great respect for Weis and recalled him fondly.

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  4. One of the scariest episodes in my book. I've always been scared of female vampires (Blacula, Count Yorga, and this episode sealed that deal for me).

    As others have said, that opening scene with the hands crawling out of the dirt (only after the woman cuts her hand changing her tire, drawing blood, no less) is one of the most iconic images from the show. That and, as Mark pointed out, the staking in front of the giant burning cross.

    Maybe I'm gullible, but I always fell for the old switcheroo, when we think the guy is the vampire but it turns out to be Catherine.

    Speaking of Larry Storch, there's another Columbo connection. Storch played Columbo's driving instructor in the episode "Negative Reaction". That episode debuted in 1974, the same year as "The Vampire". Cool.

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