by David J. Schow
Cheese has been called “nature’s most perfect food” when there’s very little “natural” about it. Movies and television are often denigrated as “hamburger” and the big studios, as “sausage factories.” But cheese, hamburger and sausage are among the world’s staple foods (outside of a lot of Asia, anyway, where jellyfish is a side dish to everything — especially in China, don’t ask me why). Look at menus across your favorite assortment of eateries and you’ll see the principal dishes generally boil down to “some kind of meat with some kind of cheese on it.”
Speaking of a long-lost TV pilot, a friend recently told me, “It’s cheesy — but in a good way.”
We love our cheese. It may not be good for you, but it sure is tasty. “Cheesy goodness” is a selling point for a lot of food-like items, but when applied to any other arena, “cheesy” somehow came to mean inauthentic or kitschy; by one definition, “something that wants to be good but is bad.” In the gustatory realm, the usage sprang from the time-honored French tactic of covering up sub-par ingredients with the camouflage of cheese (see: French Onion Soup). In general usage it also dovetailed from sports slang, especially in regard to football and goals or plays that “stank” — just like that nasty French cheese that, according to lyric, “smells like people’s feet.”
What my pal told me, above, implies that for every “good” kind of cheese, there’s a “bad” kind of cheese … which means that in all its other slang usages, “cheese” implies something with obvious drawbacks and flaws that the fans of said cheese consciously choose to ignore.
Which brings us to most television, and indeed, most art.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker is larded with cheese … but in a good way. That cheese which makes the sub-par fast food of TV tastier.
In the pressure-cooker of series production, writers, actors and directors rarely set out to manufacture cheese intentionally, but frequently the cheese layer becomes a way of rescuing the meal, and if that doesn’t work, hey, let’s put some bacon on it! Let’s add sugar-and-spice-rich dipping sauces! Past all the glop du jour, though, most people still have a firm idea in their brains of the difference between a good hamburger and a bad one … and please don’t get me started on vegetarianism. *
(There’s a tangential argument to be made here, about how the gradual subjugation of series television by soap-operatic “arcs” has obliterated the once-honorable concept of an episode that can stand alone on its own drama, and converted the meal into an endless succession of appetizers that noodle around and never get to the main course … but that’s a whole ‘nother essay.)
(I can just hear our own Tony Vincenzo – Mr. Enfantino — protesting: “Cripes! I thought I had my wires crossed with Spatula & Ladle Magazine! Cheese?!”)
Another friend, who used to work for the primetime sausage factories that produced most of the TV hits of the 1980s, said, “Back then, you could come up with an idea for a series in the car on the way to work, and the network would give you 26 episodes just to try it out.” That seems so far away now, and unduly luxurious, but it was true. A different producer had what strikes me as a good rule of thumb, even today: If out of the pell-mell rush of sausage-making, you could yield three or four good episodes out of a season, then you were batting a thousand. And frequently, everybody knows which episodes are the good ones early on. They make the rest of the toil and frustration almost worthwhile.
The difference, today, is that the evidence is often readily available, via disc and download. With TV series (as I said in regard to The Outer Limits), it’s instructive to consider the “better” episodes in light of the episodes made around them.
You don’t have to eat everything on the platter. But some of the leftovers on the Kolchak Pu-Pu tray are still … intriguing.
Sometimes “failed” shows unerringly influence later shows. Their gold shows through, whether by Monday-morning quarterbacking or some aspect of concept that took time to surface — more time than the brief candle-flicker the show had when it was alive. This readily explains a big part of the longevity of KTNS and the Kolchak canon in general. A distinction I find curious is that ever since KTNS was cancelled, somebody, in some form, was persistently trying to breathe it back to life. The series was gone but Kolchak himself refused to die.
I had a very strange meeting at Morgan Creek in the mid-90s when that company was hellbent on doing a Kolchak feature. One of the scripts that resulted — virtually a Xerox of the first Kolchak feature — was credited as “by Steve Feke & Dan Curtis, based on the screenplay by Richard Matheson and the novel by Jeff Rice,” which certainly over-covers all the bases. Everything old was new again.
This was the script in which our hero became “Karl Kolchak,” described only as “middle forties, seedy, unshaven, bleary-eyed” and “looking only slightly better than the cheese” that molders in his fridge (I kid you not).
The producers asked, did Kolchak have to smoke? Drink? Couldn’t he be younger? Couldn’t he investigate serial killers instead of vampires?
Instead of: How can we present Kolchak as a glorious anachronism in a world that doesn’t know what an anachronism is?
X-Files creator Chris Carter had always credited KTNS as a germinal inspiration, and his initial efforts to transplant Kolchak into the X-Files realm are well documented — first as Kolchak (unsuccessfully), then as Mulder’s dad (unsuccessfully), and later (successfully) as Special Agent Arthur Dales in two episodes, “Travelers” and “Agua Mala.” Darren McGavin also filmed scenes as Dales for a third episode, “The Unnatural,” but had to withdraw due to suffering a stroke. His scenes were reshot with M. Emmet Walsh as Dales’ brother (McGavin’s scenes are available as an extra on the X-Files Season 6 DVD set).
Reportedly McGavin was originally turned off by just how much The X Files seemed like a ripoff of KTNS. In fact, there are whole web pages devoted to some of the parallels, such as:
“The Ripper” = “Teliko,” “2Shy,” “Squeeze,” “Tooms.”
“The Zombie” = “Kaddish,” “Fresh Bones.”
“They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be” = “Fallen Angel”
“Bad Medicine” = “Shapes,” “Anasazi,” “The Blessing Way”
“The Energy Eater” = “Darkness Falls,” “Conduit”
“The Spanish Moss Murders” = “Sleepless,” “The Host,” “Schizogeny”
“Horror in the Heights” = “Colony”
… and so on.
(A similar anti-synergy happened when I finally decided to sample The X Files by watching an episode titled “Little Green Men.” I felt it was too beholden to several Outer Limits episodes, and watched no more until the McGavin connection occurred. By that time, a regurgitated “new” version of The Outer Limits had pooped along to ruin whatever joy I had left in life.)
Earlier, in 1973, Dan Curtis attempted to salvage what was left of his sunken “Kolchak ship” (since he had been iced out of the TV series) by producing and directing a pilot for The Norliss Tapes in exactly the same gear, but a minor key indeed compared to the seersucker titan. Aired a little more than a month following the debut of The Night Strangler, The Norliss Tapes was scripted by Matheson’s co-writer on The Night Killers, William F. Nolan.
Screen credit insists that Nolan based his work on an unnamed story by novelist Fred Mustard Stewart, then at the height of his post-Mephisto Waltz popularity. Whether the “story by” credit reflects an arbitration or an actual written treatment, the resultant TV movie is listless and perfunctory as well as deeply beholden to Kolchak — even shoplifting the whole “tapes” idea from Jeff Rice’s original Kolchak Tapes.
Still, The Norliss Tapes is probably a pretty good barometer of what the never-filmed Night Killers might have looked like if you subtracted Matheson’s signature humor and handed the entire project off to second string players: Likable actors plod through a procedural of the strange, accented with the signature Dan Curtis’ “attack” sequences by an inarticulate, snarling menace, and culminates in a pallid climax that doesn’t amount to much of a resolution.
On paper, Roy Thinnes — veteran of The Invaders — must have seemed a terrific choice for David Norliss, tormented writer and skeptic-turned believer, but his performance is somnambulant and dull — a polar opposite to Kolchak’s verve. Norliss can’t help but seem like a failed Night Stalker scenario. At least The Night Killers would have skewed Kolchak even more firmly into X Files territory, by introducing a science fictional antagonist instead of a supernatural one.
To sample The Night Killers, see the selection from the draft dated January 15, 1974, available at darrenmcgavin.net … or check out the full teleplay in Richard Matheson’s Kolchak Scripts (Gauntlet Press, 2003), edited by our very own Mark Dawidziak.
What makes Norliss interesting in the Kolchak canon is its class reunion of much of the talent on both sides of the camera for the Kolchak telefilms. For completists only, it was still impactful enough for Gene Roddenberry to rip it off several years later with his own failed pilot about occult detectives, Spectre (1977).
In 1987, Nolan resurrected the Norliss protagonist as “David Kincaid” for a series of stories that can be found in Kincaid: A Paranormal Casebook (Rocket Ride Books, 2011).
According to Phillip Jose Farmer’s elaborate Wold Newton Universe — a vast compendium and family tree interrelating nearly every fictional sleuth and supervillain — Carl Kolchak was one of those rare individuals who was preternaturally attracted to the threats he investigated. As Matthew Isleman observed in a Wold Newton article called “Murder Magnetism: Four Case Studies” —
While murder magnetism seems to affect a number of people, there is a rarer condition I like to call monster magnetism (…) instead of being drawn to a mundane crime, the person is drawn to the supernatural. One major example of this is Carl Kolchak. Carl was a reporter who investigated supernatural cases. Though he lived in a variety of different cities (because of being repeatedly laid off), he would routinely encounter supernatural phenomena.
“From Russia with Madness,” a typically bizarre Wold Newton piece by Octavio Aragão & Carlos Martinho, posits that Fox Mulder of The X Files is the son of Tatiana Romanova (of From Russia With Love) and an unnamed American secret agent. She also had a daughter named Samantha, who was kidnapped by an outfit called MJ-12:
This kidnapping was investigated by a reporter named Carl Kolchak, who unfortunately could not produce enough evidence to blame the government for the crime. (Sound familiar? – DJS) Kolchak’s failure made Fox quite disappointed in journalism, a career the boy was considering. When Kolchak ended empty-handed, Fox decided to infiltrate the enemy. He would become an FBI investigator.
(The Wold Newton Universe is eminently searchable online, but be warned: Once you start investigating it, you may become hopelessly lost and mildly insane.)
Seeing Kolchak’s final hurrah in the form of a digital McGavin cameo in the 2005 Night Stalker series reminds us that the last time we saw our bowlegged savior, he was hightailing it away from a guy in a really ridiculous lizard suit in the no-budget closer to his single season on network TV. Nope, no closure there.
But it can be had.
There is a magical episode of Tales from the Darkside titled “Distant Signals,” which I maintain can be interpreted as a final and most satisfying chapter in the Kolchak legacy. All you need is a tiny residual sprinkle of the capacity for a sense of winder or suspension of disbelief.
“Distant Signals” was based on a short story by Andrew Weiner originally published in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1984. The teleplay was by Ted Gershuny (Mary Woronov’s ex-husband), and tells the tale of another TV series deep-sixed in mid-season: Max Paradise, a detective show loosely modeled on The Fugitive.
Its washed-up star, “Van Conway,” was played by Darren McGavin a decade after he had logged his final Kolchak episode — and 27 years after he had played tough guy Mike Hammer, another model for Max Paradise.
Because the faraway aliens have only just received our TV transmissions, and were dismayed that Max’s story just seemed to cut off in mid-stream.
If you squint just a little bit, it’s easy to read the episode as a charming metaphor that saves Carl Kolchak from the “Whatever Happened To…?” file.
As Bill Gibron observed in his incisive writeup of the KTNS DVD set at DVD Verdict:
“Since the dawn of the new millennium, we have more or less given up on monsters. The old-fashioned belief in the bogeyman and the local legends of haunted houses and ghostly apparitions have all but faded into the woodwork of modern worries. Molesters and thrill killers are the new ogres that unsettle our sleep, and we are more likely to delve into the mind of a serial slayer than argue over the existence of vampires. In this technologically complex realm, we dismiss that which does not come to us from the never-resting mantras of the mass-media machine. Today, bloodsuckers are just confused Goth kids, werewolves are painted with bizarre ethnic origins, and zombies are relegated to bit players in some first-time filmmaker’s living dead epic. Where once monsters were the major macabre movement, they have been uprooted and replaced by their far more marketable human counterparts. But boy, back in the 70s we really loved our beasts (and) Carl Kolchak, decked out in a singular set of clothes that made him part schlub, part superhero, became our divine hammer.”
* Still, among people of no depth, “cheesy” basically means “older than me,” a dismissive catch-all intended to demote any and everything to quaint, outmoded, knee-slapping oblivion. Just look at those hats! This movie sucks! And while most modern screen-watchers tend to dismiss everything that came before them as cheese — unaware that their faves will look even cheesier in record time — scratch one of ‘em until they bleed and you’ll discover they are usually talking about technical presentation, which has become venerated over story or content because it’s all many newer fables have to offer. Depth or resonance vex them.
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Stay tuned later today for Mark Dawidziak's look at Carl Kolchak in print! And come back tomorrow for David Schow's overview of the revival series!