Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Youth Killer

By Mark Dawidziak

Pre-Kolchak Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman.
     The series kind of fizzled out, and "The Youth Killer" definitely was a case of infinitely more fizzle than sizzle. The evaluation from The Night Stalker Companion:
     Despite some nice touches, like the lap dissolve sequence that ages a runner from twenty-two to ninety, the episode runs out of gas. The buildup is good. The payoff is weak. And some of the age makeup is poor, even by 1975 standards.

      The most notable aspect of this episode was that it marked the third and final appearance of John Fiedler's Gordon "Gordy the Ghoul" Spangler.  After enduring Gordy the Ghoul wannabes in "Chopper" and "The Knightly Murders," we are treated to Fiedler's long-awaited return as our favorite morgue attendant. With Fiedler back in the fold, this is one of the two episodes that comes closest to having the entire cast of regulars and semi-regulars. Only Carol Ann Susi's Monique Marmelstein is missing. In "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be . . . ", only Ruth McDevitt's Miss Emily is missing.

     And the guest cast, as always, is intriguing:
     Cathy Lee Crosby,  moving from the realm of the incredible in "The Youth Killer," became one of the hosts of ABC's That's Incredible! (1980-84). The year before this episode ran, she was the pre-Lynda Carter Wonder Woman in a TV movie based on the DC comic book. It was directed by Vincent McEveety, the director of "The Knightly Murders" and featured Andrew Prine (Professor C. Evan Spate of "Demon in Lace").

Dwayne Hickman in Dobie days with Bob Denver.
     Dwayne Hickman, best known as television's Dobie Gillis, became a successful programming executive at CBS. In Cat Ballou (1965), he shared scenes with John Marley (Captain Molnar in "Primal Scream"). On Dobie Gillis, he shared scenes with Steve Franken (the morgue attendent in "Chopper").

     The actor billed as Demosthenes was playing Detective Stavros on Kojak at the time of this Kolchak episode. His real name was George Savalas, brother of series star Telly Savalas.

     Busy character actress Kathleen Freeman had been a guest star on dozens of situation comedies. She also has been a regular on several series, including Sandy Duncan's Funny Face (CBS, 1971). One of her co-stars was Henry Beckman, Senator Stephens in "Mr. R.I.N.G."

      Freeman, Fiedler, Demosthenes and the mayonaisse and Hickman's change-of-pace police sergeant provide some lighthearted diversion throughout "The Youth Killer," but the weak script, plodding pace and many logic lapses relegate this one to the realm of lesser Kolchak.

     So, instead of dwelling on the episode's many failings, let us now praise Jack Grinnage, making his last of eighteen appearances as uptight Ron Updyke. Only Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland appeared in more episodes, of course, so, even though rarely given much to do, Ron was an integral part of Carl's Chicago world.

    What follows are excperts from the profile of Jack that appears in The Night Stalker Companion. Let me set this up by assuring Kolchak fans that while Jack was Ron in eighteen episodes, Ron is not Jack. Hardly. Jack couldn't be more gracious and congenial, and he remained a devoted friend to Darren McGavin and Kathie Browne after the series left the air. You've also got to love the scope of Jack's career. He worked with James Dean, Elvis Presley, Bob Newhart, Rod Serling and the Smothers Brothers. He appeared in episodes of Father Knows Best, Playhouse 90, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (with future Kolchak guest star Dwayne Hickman), The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Post-Kolchak, Jack has appeared in episodes of Lou Grant, Six Feet Under and Scrubs. This interview was done in 1997:

     "Actually, I was just supposed to do the first episode," Grinnage says. "Ron was introduced in 'The Ripper' as a character who throws up at the sight of blood. I think the character was Darren's idea. Well, they liked the character and wanted to keep him, but my grandmother was ninety at the time and I was taking her to Europe. Now I never had turned down a job in my life, but I told them that I had already planned the trip and was going."

     Universal enticed Grinnage to stay by offering him a firm commitment for three episodes.

    "Fine," he replied, "but I'm still going to Europe."

     Then they offered him seven episodes. Then thirteen. He kept saying no until they offered him a guarantee of every episode for the season. And, if they failed to write his character into an episode, Grinnage still would get paid. It was a run-of-the-series contract, and only McGavin and Oakland had that distinction.

     "When I told my grandmother," Grinnage recalls, "she said, 'Dear, I'm not dead yet, we'll go next year.' "

     Born and raised in Southern California, Grinnage attended Los Angeles City College, where he became an active member of the drama department. A friend recommended him to an agent, who got him a job on Father Knows Best. He played Bud’s friend, Claude, for about five episodes, then learned that the role had been recast. Welcome to show business.

     But he soon found cause for celebration. Director Nicholas Ray cast him as one of the young hoods in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which starred James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and future Kolchak: The Night Stalker guest star Jim Backus. Three years later, he had another supporting role in another film starring a rebel icon of the ‘50s, King Creole, with Elvis Presley and future Kolchak: The Night Stalker guest star Carolyn Jones. The director was Michael Curtiz, whose credits included The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942).

     "And when I worked with Elvis Presley," Grinnage says, "he just wanted to know about James Dean."

     In 1961, Grinnage was a regular on NBC's The Bob Newhart Show. That same year, he appeared in "The Mind and the Matter," a second-season episode of The Twilight Zone. Seven years and several TV roles later, he was playing a gay hairdresser trying to pick up Darren McGavin's David Ross on NBC's The Outsider. So Grinnage had been an actor for about twenty years when the role of Ron Updyke came his way.

     "One of the two casting people at Universal was Ralph Winters, who had once been my agent," Grinnage says. "I think he was instrumental in getting me the role on Night Stalker. There were six people reading for Ron when I auditioned. I have to think that knowing Ralph helped. That and the fact that Darren and I had had such a great time working on The Outsider. Both those things had to help."

     When cast as Ron, Grinnage was working for the Los Angeles Board of Education. Running the board’s drama unit, he took various programs into schools.

     "I went to my supervisor and told him I had a series," Grinnage remembers, "and he said, 'Well, let's see what happens.' And what happened was that most of my scenes were shot at night, so I was able to keep my full-time day job while doing the series. That turned out to be a good thing because the series went off the air and I still had to make a living."

     Grinnage views his Night Stalker experience with great fondness. His co-stars are what made the show special for him.

     "Darren couldn't have been nicer," he says. "He'd help you with your lines or anything. He was always there for you. Ruth McDevitt was a dear, as was Carol Ann Susi. I still see Carol Ann, who doesn't live too far from me. We get together for lunch every now and then. She's very funny. We'd get our fan mail delivered on the set, and Carol Ann and I would open our two letters.

     "And it was a great honor to work with Simon Oakland. When I was in college, I saw a play called The Great Sebastian, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. And Simon Oakland was in the cast. That was really my introduction to theater. So it was an incredible thrill to be actually working with him."

     Ron Updyke was supposed to appear in the final episode. Scenes were written for the character, but Grinnage had an offer to do another series. Sure they were going to lose him, the writers cut him out of "The Sentry."

     "Then I ended up turning down the other series, anyway," Grinnage says. "After the show left the air, I remained with the Board of Education until Proposition 13 took that job away. But I'd always made props, and I was offered a job at prop house. So now I do a couple of soap episodes, a commercial, voice-overs, go out on auditions, and then go back to making props. If you saw In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood and remember the rabbit's foot with the bullets in it, well, I made that!

     "I’ve worked a lot, and I've been lucky that many of the things I was in became cult favorites, like Rebel Without a Cause or an Elvis Presley picture. So The Night Stalker fits right in with that.

Episode 19: The Youth Killer

Episode 19: The Youth Killer
Original Airdate: 3/14/75
Guest Starring: John Fiedler, Cathy Lee Crosby
Written by Rudolph Borchert
Directed by Don McDougall

Kolchak's assignment to write a swinging-singles article just happens to coincide with a series of mysterious deaths in Chicago, where bodies of young folks are not just turning up dead, they're turning up old.

JS: In this episode, we find out a little more about Carl when it becomes clear that the thought of marriage is more terrifying to him than any of the monsters he has faced.

PE: One wonders: if Carl had stayed on the Swingin' Singles Scene story like Tony Vincenzo had ordered him to do, would he have worked his way around to uncovering Helen of Troy anyway?

JS: Unfortunately things get off to a bad start with the jogger. Dissolves were not the best way to go to establish the instant aging. It just didn't work. I did like how the guys who came to collect the dead body the next morning basically picked it up like a bag of trash and threw it onto the gurney. No respect for old folks in this episode, that's for sure (with our apologies to Miss Emily).

PE: For an old-timer, Cynthia Tibbs does a fabulous half-gainer off her balcony. The three judges below rated Tibbs an average of 9. But, other than the fact that a future Olympic diver is no more, I'm mystified as to why the entire police force of Chicago had to show up to the scene.

JS: I thought her aging scene was handled brilliantly. As she dipped in and out of frame during her exercise routine,  she went through a number of interesting make-up transitions before going over the edge (Since this scene was obviously filmed without cuts, I thought it was brilliant that the make-up man was able to apply each prosthesis in a matter of seconds!-PE). Make note of this, because it's an indication that they weren't without the skills or budget to do decent old-age make-ups.

PE: Lance (Michael Richardson) comes to his computer dating interview dressed to the nines. I've never tried one of these dating services but I can tell I wouldn't go far. I don't own a Chuck Norris jacket or Elvis belt buckle and I've never worn lipstick. Well, not that shade at least. Later, when he's getting dressed (as Bobby Riggs, if I'm not mistaken), there's some queasy stuff going on with Lance's domineering mother. I'm not sure I'd want my mom checking out the fur on my legs and, if she was, I'd appreciate it if she'd keep it to herself.

JS: I have to imagine that for the computer nerds of 1975, there was nothing quite like seeing Cathy Lee Crosby fondle a punch card. My question is this: by giving Helen in toga gear curly hair, and Helen in the office Farrah-hair, were they trying to imply that these were two different women?

PE: The stretching of credibility this episode doesn't stem from a goddess with bad make-up who gets rid of the sandbags under her eyes by stealing the youth of men but the fact that Carl Kolchak was able to match that key to an apartment.

JS: While I guess we owe the writer our appreciation for not spinning another 'every 69 years Helen has to suck the life out of attractive young men and women' yarn, wouldn't it make sense that in her aged state, Helen look more like the aged state of her victims (and, is that Cathy's nose or a leftover prop from Twilight Zone's "Eye of the Beholder"?-PE)?

PE: Other than those monstrous potato sacks under Cathy Lee's eyes, she looks like she's doin' pretty good to me. Now, if the make-up man had rigged up some grey in that beautiful blonde hair, some wrinkles on those perfect hands, and some of those down-to-the-knees breasts I've seen in the clubs I frequent, I'd have found it a little easier to believe that this Helen was a few thousand years old.

JS: Perhaps Crosby had it in her contract that she could never look worse than could be hidden by a pair of sunglasses when she wasn't needed on set.

PE: Watching Lance's last few minutes as he staggers through the park, I sure called that Bobby Riggs resemblance on the nose, didn't I?

JS: It's a reasonable trick at some point during an age-transformation scene to replace your young actor with an older actor, but if you're going to do that, you should at least try and find actors who look remotely alike. I can only imagine how bad this would have looked if the only old timer central casting could come up with on that day had been black. One thing I'm curious about is where this episode fell in production order. Carl made a reference to Tony doing Yoga in "The Knightly Murders," however his weight-loss regimen appears to originate here.

PE: What's the story with the Greek cab driver? Carl run out of museum curators? That's Telly Savalas' brother, George (who used his middle name, Demosthenes, for his TV roles), moonlighting as the brilliant Greek scholar/cabbie.

JS: Not only did I think he was fine, I actually preferred him to a number of the 'museum curators' that can only serve the plot of the particular episode they appear in. I assumed he's just one of the many connections that Carl has made through the years (like last episode's pawn shop owner who Carl was collaborating with on his biography). Had the show continued, I like to think that Carl would have been back the next time Pandora's Box was opened.

PE: Not much to say about this one. Definitely the worst episode of the series in my book, with the only plus being its obvious message, that we've become too wrapped up in beauty for our own good.  Obviously, in the 35 years since this was first aired, that facet of our society has only gotten worse. Is Helen the stand-in for the average woman who'll do anything, including human sacrifice, to stay young and beautiful? I'd have sacrificed a few goats to get some laughs with Tony Vincenzo. The only "humor" we get here is a drunk who keeps butting in to Carl's conversation with the cabbie. It's an awful sequence, smelling like some of the worst Foster Brooks routines, and stands out from the humor in past episodes like a Star Trek fan at Helen of Troy's Mix and Match dating service. I doubt you'd have found a scene like this in a David Chase script. One half a typewriter for Crosby's wet toga.

JS: For me, a few interesting old-age make-ups and the lovely contemporary Crosby (you can have the toga version - wet or dry) raise this one above the near UF-Zero of "They Have Been..."

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Next up... Kolchak faces The Lizard People!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Knightly Murders

By Mark Dawidziak

The Dehner Factor
Maybe we've stumbled on something wonderfully mystical here, and I don't mean the plot. I'm calling it the Dehner Factor. Think about this. Late in the fifth season, The Twilight Zone clearly was out of gas. Some of the classic anthology show's weakest episodes are in this wheezy home stretch. For the most part, the scripts are repetitive, uninspired and not all that imaginative for a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. But in the midst of this mediocrity, one delightful episode stands out: "Mr. Garrity and the Graves," with John Dehner as an Old West con man who claims he can bring back the departed citizens in a town cemetery. It's not a great episode. It has a few basic problems, and certainly no one would rank it with the very finest Twilight Zone gems. You wouldn't even mention it in the same breath as the early fifth-season episodes penned by Richard Matheson, notably "Steel" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." But "Mr. Garrity and the Graves" does show that the dying series still had some kick, and much of that kick is provided by Dehner's magnificently droll performance while surrounded by several other future Kolchak players: Stanley Adams (Fred Hurley in The Night Stalker and Louie the Bartender in "The Devil's Platform"), Kate Murtaugh (Janie Watkins in The Night Strangler), J. Pat O'Malley (the cemetery caretaker in "The Zombie"), John Mitchum (the janitor in "The Energy Eater"). It stands out in this last batch of Zone stories, and it's that rarity among Rod Serling scripts -- a comedy that works.

"Mr. Garrity and the Graves" aired in May 1964. Flash forward about eleven years, to March 1975. Here again is John Dehner giving a magnificently droll performance in a final batch of otherwise uninspired episodes. Preceded by "Legacy of Terror" and followed by "The Youth Killer," "The Knightly Murders" charts way up and demonstrates in high-spirited fashion that Kolchak still had some kick left as the end was drawing near. And, again, Dehner is a tremendous part of that kick. He is in typically fine form as the flattering, grandiloquent Captain Vernon Rausch, a police officer who is all style and no substance. And there you have it: the Dehner Factor.

But, to be sure, many things go splendidly right in this knight stalker caper, which, if not in the same class as "Horror in the Heights" and "The Spanish Moss Murders," ranks with "Chopper" and "The Vampire" in the second tier of memorable episodes (those with some obvious flaws, and yet, the fright-and-fun elements far outweigh the flaws). This remains one of my favorite episodes . . . because of Dehner, because of Dehner and McGavin working together so well, because of Hans Conried, because of Conried and McGavin working together so well, and because the Michael Kozoll-David Chase script, despite the familiar ending, gleams like a freshly polished suit of armor. The boys were having a good time, and it shows in scene after scene.

Dehner's television resume is a packed one, of course, but he got his Hollywood start as a Disney animator, working on both Fantasia and Bambi. His mellifluous voice yielded jobs as a disc jockey, and the versatile Dehner also was a good enough musician to work as a professional pianist. Just a few of his memorable TV credits: two more episodes of The Twilight Zone (Captain Allenby in "The Lonely" and engineer Alan Richards in "The Jungle"), two Columbo mysteries (aviation investigator Roland Pangborn in "Swan Song" and the title murder victim in "Last Salute to the Commodore"), four episodes of The Rifelman, two episodes of Bonanza, twelves episodes of Gunsmoke, three episodes of Hogan's Heroes, one of The Andy Griffith Show (con man Colonel Harvey in “Aunt Bee’s Medicine Man”) and a  Mission: Impossible two-parter (“The Contender”). Between 1960 and 1983, he was a regular on ten network series.

Hans Conried in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
Conried also adds several moments of fun, making the most of his screen time as museum curator Mendel Boggs (a name that might be suggesting mental and bugs as possible character traits). TV fans know Conried as Uncle Tonoose on The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), the English tutor and aspiring songwriter in a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy and Wrongway Feldman on two episodes of Gilligan's Island, . Animation fans know him as the voice behind Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan (1953) and Snidley Whiplash on Rocky and His Friends. Dr. Seuss fans know him as the cruel music teacher in the film version of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) and the narrator of the TV version of Horton Hears a Who.

And it was in this episode that Carl Kolchak made his most definite statements about being Polish. In Jeff Rice's original book, Kolchak tells us that his paternal grandfather, Anton Mihail Kolchak (nicknmaed Mike), was Rumanian with an endless supply of folk tales. Darren McGavin decided that Kolchak was a Polish name, and moved the Kolchak family point of origin in north-westerly direction. Strolling into a coat-of-arms store, Carl is attacked by the smooth-talking proprietors. Oh, they say after he tells them that Kolchak is Polish, "you must be descended from Archbishop Kolchak of Cracow." Kolchak doesn't think that's likely. Well, they say, maybe you're a descendant of Baron Kolchak, "the Lion of Warsaw." He ends up buying a "Kolchak" coat of arms. Polish or Rumanian, it's one of several mirthful scenes (given a merry push by busy character actor Robert Emhardt).

This was the only episode directed by Vincent McEveety, the television veteran whose long list of credits includes several episodes of The Untouchables, Star Trek, Gunsmoke and Murder, She Wrote. He was the helm of seven of the twenty-four Columbo mysteries that Peter Falk did for ABC between 1989 and 2003. He also directed such Disney comedies as The Strongest Man in the World (1975), Gus (1976) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). His cast for The Strongest Man in the World included Phil Silvers, Dick Van Patten and James Gregory, all of whom appeared in episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. 

"The Knightly Murders" also contains one of my favorite Tony Vincenzo lines, perfectly delivered by Simon Oakland. Surveying the madness that is the INS bureau, Tony asks, "Why do I always feel like I don't belong here?"

Episode 18: The Knightly Murders

Episode 18: The Knightly Murders
Original Airdate: 3/7/75
Guest Starring: John Dehner, Hans Conried
Written by Michael Kozoll and David Chase
(from a story by Paul Magistretti)
Directed by Vincent McEveety

A string of murders in Chicago have a strangely similar trait—they're all carried out with medieval weaponry. Kolchak is convinced he's found the suit of armor responsible; leaving him to find out who fits inside.

JS: My new favorite crime scene image—a chalk outline on a door!

PE: Well, now I've got a problem: do I like Keenan Wynn's animal growl or John Dehner's New Age psychobabble better? This is a tough one. Dehner slips right into the role of Captain Rausch, a cop so different from any other this show has seen before. He happily gives Carl information about the murders he's investigating and then mulls over the murders in a very un-policeman like way. When Carl asks what killed one of the victims, the Captain answers in a melancholy tone: "Society." In the same conversation, Rausch asks Carl, "Did you know that there were one-seventh as many ice-pick killings last year as there were in 1942? Technology, Carl." For once, it seems as though Carl would prefer the bellow of Captain Siska.
Rausch: Negative! Last night's statement is no longer functionally descriptive and the negative is also appropriate to the second part of the second question you asked. There is no, I repeat no, reason to believe that the death of (unintelligible)... Homicide is a very democratic institution. One more question.
Reporter: Allow me to rephrase that, Captain...
Rausch: Negative. Any more questions?
JS: Particularly compared to Siska's last appearance, Rausch wins hands down. Every time Kolchak finds himself in front of the captain, you can't wait to hear what direction he's going to go next. And I loved the way they introduced the concept. As he begins pontificating, Kolchak asks him to start over so he can record it. Rather than be annoyed, he's soon got Kolchak hanging by the strap of the recorder and won't let go as he rambles on and on. What a refreshing twist after so many similarly written captains.

PE: Minerva Musso (Lieux Dressler) is about as risque as Standards would let you get in 1975 primetime. When Carl invites himself into Musso's house and then into her bedroom while she's talking on the phone, she asks Carl "Robbery or rape?" When Carl answers "Neither one, so don't get excited". She looks very disappointed. Then later, when Carl hears the knight shambling in the hall, Kolchak asks the woman, "you got bad pipes or something?" Musso, outraged, exclaims "I beg your pardon?!"

JS:  That was a great exchange. I thought it was interesting that David Bowie got a shout-out in a Kolchak episode. I wouldn't have thought that of all the possible celebs to plug-in as Minerva's next redecorating client, Bowie would have been a prime contender in 1975.

PE: When the knight bashes in the front door, Carl tells Minerva to run into the bathroom and lock the door, she again questions him "I beg your pardon?" Kolchak yells at her "Get in the bathroom, you dumb broad, and lock the door!"

JS: Nice that they used the episode as an opportunity to teach the audience all about small arms of medieval times. In case anyone didn't know the difference between a crossbow bolt, lance, mace, or axe before the episode, they certainly did by the time they were through. It might have been nice if there was some story point explaining why each victim was dispatched using a different method, but I'm willing to accept that it was likely done for the sake of keeping things interesting.

PE: I don't blame the knight for the drastic measures he employed. If my house was being renovated for a discotheque, I'd be brandishing a crossbow myself. While not quite as energetic as Lancelot, I did paste a DISCO SUCKS bumper sticker on my Maverick as a high schooler. I couldn't imagine someone coming into my domicile and playing "We Are Family" or "Float On" every night.

JS: So are we supposed to assume that the spirit of the knight attends city council meetings? Or has ghost friends on the planning commission? I personally thought it was a silly motive for the killings, but assuming he somehow had the awareness of what was to come, can't blame him for wanting to stop it before it was too late.

PE: One more time: John Dehner does the unthinkable, he steals every scene he's in with Darren McGavin. Could Captain Rausch be the cop that Siska might have been had he stuck with his group therapy? It's either zen or Michoacan. Hans Conried is aces as well as the mysterious museum curator, Mendel Boggs. Could he have something to do with the killings? He comes off very believable as insulted the police would consider him a suspect.

JS: I loved when the cops tried to squeeze the armor onto Boggs. Even if not the killer, he probably felt the same way as the offended knight. I'm a big fan of Conried, who portrayed Dr. Terwilliker in the Dr. Seuss film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, as well as numerous cartoon voices including one of my favorite characters, Snidely Whiplash from Dudley Do-Right. Here's Conried interviewing Rod Serling from Fractured Flickers a show he hosted from the people behind Rocky and Bullwinkle:

PE: If I was Carl Kolchak and my editor refused to run any of my articles, I'd stop risking my life for a story. After 20 supernatural and scientifically challenging adventures, our intrepid reporter must have an idea, while chasing alligator men across a swamp, that no one will ever know this happened and it becomes  something you do for, as Paul Revere once phrased it, "Kicks."

JS: Between Conried and Dehner, we can forgive the lack of classic bits between McGavin and Oakland in this outing. After a lengthy scene where Carl uses his normal trickery to determine precisely how much pressure it takes to crush a telephone, he realizes the weight of a man in a suit of armor is sufficient. By that time, I think most of the audience is thinking what Tony says:
Vincenzo: All my life I wanted to know a medieval knight could crush a telephone.
Indeed. Despite being very entertaining thanks to the contributions of a number of great supporting characters and a unique monster of the week, it also falls victim to the show's Achilles heel. The vanquishing of the knight is all too easy. I'm not looking for a long, protracted swordfight with Kolchak—he is who he is—but once again the ending felt rushed. I wanted something more substantial.

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Next up... Kolchak faces The Youth Killer!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on Legacy of Terror

By Mark Dawidziak

     Preparing for a convention appearance in "Legacy of Terror," Carl Kolchak tells us, "I promised I'd show up with a haircut, new hat and pressed suit . . . but I lie a lot." The truth is, he should have showed up with a better script.

     Each Kolchak episode has its share of frightening and funny moments, and this one is no exception, but, overall, "Legacy of Terror" is poorly structured and paced. Suffering from a patched-together quality, it sort of clunks along like the Mummy played by Lon Chaney Jr. in those 1940s Universal horror films. Despite such entertaining interludes as Kolchak's encounter with Mr. Eddy, the taxidermist sensitive about the image of his profession, "Legacy of Terror," to borrow a line from The Night Stalker Companion, "unravels like a loosely wrapped mummy."

Erik Estrada as Ponch on CHiPs.
     Even Kolchak's opening narration seems trite and tired and wearily routine:  "Among the philosophers, the great thinkers and the common Joes of this world, no question is more controversial than truth. Remarkable as it may seem, I can attest to the following events did occur, whether you believe them to be true or not." Cut the gab, Carl, and get me rewrite. We need a punchier lead.

     Well, everybody probably was getting pretty punchy at this point in the first and only season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Like "The Werewolf," "Legacy of Terror" squanders a fairly promising idea: a 500-year-old Aztec warrior rising every 52 years to claim five victims. Richard Malcolm required six victims every 21 years, so this Aztec model can go much longer between terror tuneups.

     On the list of Kolchak capers, this one ranks near the bottom, although it does feature several notable guest stars and supporting players:

     Erik Estrada's presence as Pepe Torres is particularly intriguing, since he'll go on to star as Ponch in CHiPs, and Cy Chermak would later produce, yes, CHiPs.

Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard.
     Sorrell Booke, who plays the touchy taxidermist, went on to play Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard. The Boss Hogg persona was so strong, it tended to overshadow Booke's versatility. The Buffalo native's film credits included Fail-Safe, Black Like Me, Bye Bye Braverman, What's Up, Doc? and Slaughterhouse Five. Between Kolchak and Hazzard, he appeared in two episodes of Columbo ("Swan Song" and "The Bye-Bye Sky I.Q. Murder Case") and five episodes of All in the Family.

      Ramon Bieri makes his second appearance as a police captain, but, this time he's playing Captain Webster, not Captain Joe Baker, the role he played in "Bad Medicine." But, of course, there had been a Captain Webster in "The Energy Eater," but he was played by Robert Yuro. Go figure. Why not just have Bieri return as Captain Baker?

     Victor Campos, who plays Professor Jamie Rodriguez, has appeared in episodes of Dexter, ER, Six Feet Under and Arrested Development. The Kolchak guest star was making appearances on Kojak as Detective Gomez.

     Pippa Scott, who plays Tillie Jones, had appeared as Laura in "The Trouble With Templeton," a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, and as Marcia in "Parasite Manor," a 1961 episode of Thriller. Her films include John Ford's The Searchers and Auntie Mame.

Captain Webster? Captain Baker?
     Mickey Gilbert, who played "The Ripper" in the first Kolchak episode, returns to play the mummy. That earns him a tie for most appearances as a Kolchak creature. Also with two monsters apiece are Richard Kiel (in "Bad Medicine" and "The Spanish Moss Murders") and Craig Baxley (the title roles of "Mr. R.I.N.G." and "The Sentry"). But Craig Baxley also appears in "Legacy of Terror" -- as Rolf Anderson, the Green Beret who becomes one of the sacrificial victims. The stunt specialist appeared in a fourth Kolchak episode, "Primal Scream," but not as the monster. That distinction fell to another member of the flying Baxley family, Gary. Another Baxley, Paul, played Dr. Jules Copenik in "Primal Scream."

     Look closely at the final few seconds of "Legacy of Terror." Gilbert's dormant mummy opens its eyes during the fade-out. Intentional? Either way, it's a spooky moment.

     And as most Kolchak fans well know, "Legacy of Terror" is one of four episodes that Universal pulled out and edited into two TV movies for syndication. That was in 1976, a year after the series left the air. With Kolchak bouncing between two cases, the sixteenth and seventeenth episodes --"Demon in Lace" and "Legacy of Terror" -- became Demon and the Mummy. The sixth and tenth episodes -- "Firefall" and "The Energy Eater" -- became Crackle of Death. Darren McGavin was called in to loop connecting dialogue. Jack Grinnage and Simon Oakland were called back to overdub a few lines of dialogue. With no other bridging material, however, the films never seem more than precisely what they are: two hastily slapped-together movies. The editing at times is sloppy. The dubbing frequently is poor. And the cutting between two cases often is confusing. In Demon and the Mummy, for instance, the action shifts between heart attacks on the campus and hearts cut out near the hotel. "They were made for the same reason all pictures are made," said Harry Tatelman, vice president of Universal Pictures Television, "to make money." Yet the syndicated presence of these two movies yanked the four episodes out of Universal's Kolchak package for local stations and cable channels. They were not seen when CBS made Kolchak: The Night Stalker part of its late-night lineup. They were not seen when cable’s Sci-Fi Channel aired the series (although Sci-Fi did pick up the two 1976 movies for occasional showings). They would remain "lost episodes" until the Columbia House Video Library put out all twenty episodes -- complete and uncut -- in its Collector's Edition series. They've been restored with the other sixteen episodes ever since, and, of course, are included in Universal's box set for Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Episode 17: Legacy of Terror

Episode 17: Legacy of Terror aka Lord of the Smoking Mirror
Original Airdate: 2/14/75
Guest Starring: Erik Estrada, Ramon Bieri and Mickey Gilbert as The Mummy
Written by Arthur Rowe
Directed by Don McDougall

Bodies are turning up around Chicago with their hearts cut out. It doesn't take Kolchak long to figure out that an ancient Aztec plot to revive a mummy is underway, and only he can stop it.

JS: It's important to point out, right off the bat, that this episode is not titled "The Mummy." If it were, it might be fair to criticize it for the lack of a traditional, linen-wrapped monster-of-the-week. I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I realized that I wasn't going to see Carl chased by a classic step-drag-step mummy. This is more of a Carl Kolchak versus the Aztec Mummy.

PE: Weird way to begin a show. Lenny Strahan, one of the best linebackers in the NFL and owner of a very big heart, has that prized organ cut right out with a dull kitchen knife. But never mind that... how about that sweaty Green Beret who got his shirt torn to shreds? Was the budget too small for one more extra to play Lennie's attack scene or did we run out of time for that?

JS: Our Green Beret is assaulted by men in giant bird costumes (at this point we're hoping they're costumes, and not a case where the monster-of-the-week is a flock of giant man-eating parrots). It doesn't exactly instill confidence in the episode.

PE: LOL dialogue that, I assume, is not meant to be funny when the two dopes disguised as detectives are investigating the de-hearted Green Beret:
Detective #1: Looks like the heart was cut out with a dull blade again. Pretty messy.
Detective #2: Yeah. You know, it's been seven days since the football player got it. You notice the heart is... (counts) seven steps below the body. That could mean something.
After that exchange, I had to check the credits again to make sure this wasn't written by Larry Buchanan. Later on, we find out the number seven does indeed mean something special to The Aztec Heart Association, but why would this cop make the connection? Laughably, Kolchak enters the scene, is discovered and then makes his way down the blood-spattered stairway. Nope, no evidence at that crime scene, I guess.

JS: It's a nice subtle touch when Carl lowers his cassette recorder into the stairwell to catch the conversation.

PE: The case of the giant Indian who recited Old MacDonald was such an embarrassment to Police Captain Joe Baker (Ramon Bieri) that he changed his name to Captain Webster (Ramon Bieri). He didn't move out of town though and Kolchak's nice enough not to rub in their previous meeting. But then, Kolchak has amnesia when it comes to his past stories, doesn't he?

JS: I liked it when Tille Jones calls Vincenzo and the Air Force major out on the carpet for not letting the young female Air Force captain (Udana Power) get a word in edgewise. There's nothing like introducing an empowered woman, putting her in a nightgown in the next scene, and then proceeding to cut her heart out.

PE: LOL-dialogue, when Carl goes to interview a taxidermist, the man goes nuts when Kolchak identifies himself as a reporter: 
Taxidermist: Get out! I know the attitude of the press towards taxidermy! Always ridiculing us. Always using the term "stuffed animals" as if we make toys for children to chew on!
Carl (flustered): No! You have exactly the wrong attitude! That's not what I think at all! 
Taxidermist: If you were a wild creature, Mr. Kolchak... would you rather end up like this (points at a stuffed vulture)... glorified, eternal... or dumped on some trash heap?
Carl: There's no question how I'd like to end up... uh, like this (points to the vulture)!
JS: I thought Erik Estrada was a perfectly reasonable choice for the aloof Pepe (but then I watched CHiPs religiously growing up). His intro was great—thinking the Air Force major was his airport shuttle driver. And I thought his performance makes sense once we fully understand Pepe's situation.

PE: I'm surprised that Estrada didn't hang up his acting career after watching the airing of "Legacy of Terror" on national TV. Cast as a flute-playing jerk named Pepe Torres and wearing a pink three piece suit couldn't have helped him win any plum roles (I doubt it advanced the cause of "Hispanic role models on television" either). The only consolation, I guess, is that by this time the Night Stalker ratings were so low, no one saw him. But what do I know? Two years after this aired, he was the Fonz-caliber star of CHimPs, which inexplicably lasted six seasons. His stand-out dialogue here, when Carl interrupts his flute playing: "Friend, you're bending my mind off my music!"

JS: You no like the Tony Montana collection? Are you telling me you didn't catch your share of fish on sharp collars like that in the 70s? Perhaps you weren't paying attention, but the lovely ladies couldn't seem to get enough of Pepe's charm in this episode. Let's meet our bachelorettes...

Dorrie Thomson as Lona - Pepe's 'Secretary'
Merrie Lynn Ross as Nina - Pepe's 'Art Department'
Sondra Currie as Vicky - Pepe's 'Executive Assistant'
PE: This doesn't sound like such a great life, even for a mummy. Every 52 years you wake up to make sure you've had five hearts cut out then you go back to sleep for another 52 years. Those Aztecs sure were nutty!

JS: Time out, Green Bay—did someone think we wouldn't notice that this is the same old story, same old song and dance struck from the original Night Stalker/Strangler/Ripper mold?

PE: Carl just wanders into the Chicago Sports Arena at midnight and it's fully lit! No one's aware this is going on in such a popular facility? And, I'm no expert in Chicago architecture but could the nose bleeds in a basketball arena really be the highest staircase in that city? They've got skyscrapers, don't they, or were those built after 1975?

JS: In preparation for the final sacrifice, Estrada dons an outfit that looked a hell of a lot better on Gina Gershon in Showgirls. Well, a little bit better, anyway.

PE: Deadly dull episode, with a snail's pace, gawdawful acting (whose idea was it to give Estrada a monologue about how he'd have ended up had he not taken the bargain?), and a criminally anticlimactic ending. The mummy, about to cleave Carl in two, simply falls on him, back to sleep. I know just how he felt. And what's with the opening of the mummy's eyes seconds before our end credits begin to roll?

JS: There's a bit of a Beneath the Planet of the Apes mutant-look to the mummy, which is more effective than some of the other monsters Carl has faced. And forgetting about the mummy's eyes opening... what's with Carl speaking right to the audience at the end?

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Next up... Kolchak faces the Black Cross Knight!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on Demon in Lace

By Mark Dawidziak
     ITEM: This report is being posted later than usual because, like Carl Kolchak, I still inhabit a world of deadlines and editors and breaking stories. No, I wasn't waylaid by a Rakshasa or Peremalfait. I got sandbagged by some breaking stories on my way to "Demon in Lace," so apologies for checking in, as Bob Cratchit says to Scrooge, "behind my time." The Tony Vincenzos in my newspaper life were quite correctly wondering, "Where's that story?" Yes, those conversations really go on, just as they were depicted in The Night Stalker. Although I've never had the pleasure of delivering a newsroom line anywhere close to Carl's "Demon in Lace" exclamation: "Another vanishing corpse, Tony. I tell you, we’re in luck! It's terrific!"

     ITEM: This is another episode I've always rather enjoyed, if not quite as much as "Chopper." The presence of Keenan Wynn, making his second appearance as Captain Joe Siska, also invites comparison with the previous Siska story, "The Spanish Moss Murders." Obviously, "Demon in Lace" is not in the "Spanish" class. But if not top-of-the-line Kolchak, it does have creepy moments that hit you with all the impact of a midtown succubus. I'll stick by the evaluation in The Night Stalker Companion: "Good scares. Good sense of humor. Good atmosphere. Good fun. Good episode." That pretty much sums up the succubus odyssey for me.

Carolyn Jones as a blonde in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
     ITEM:  Kolchak's interaction with the guest players is great fun in this episode, from his roaring reunion with Siska to his encounters with the tuna-touting coach played by comedian Jackie Vernon and the registrar played by Morticia Addams herself (or Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, if you prefer), Carolyn Jones (whose pre-Kolchak credits included not only The Addams Family but the Vincent Price version of House of Wax and the original film version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Even like Carl's scenes with Kristina Holland as college newspaper reporter Rosalind Winters. Wynn's TV credits have been well documented. His many films include The Hucksters (1947), The Three Musketeers (1948), Angels in the Outfield (1951), Kiss Me Kate (1953), The Great Man (1956), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Nashville (1975) and Piranha (1978). Vernon, the voice of Frosty the Snowman, played the inept genie Chatterje in Rod Serling's 1971 "Make Me Laugh" segment of Night Gallery. College student Mike Thompson was an early TV role for Ben Masters, later to co-star with Kate Mulgrew (later Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager) in ABC's 1988 medical drama, Heartbeat. And Andrew Prine's post-Kolchak genre credits include episodes of Darkroom, V, Freddy's Nightmares, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Carolyn Jones plays Morticia to John Astin's Gomez.

     ITEM: You can't write off an episode that starts with Kolchak quoting a leader of the Weimar Classicism movement: “It was Goethe who said we love girls for what they are. Well, even the great Goethe could have learned something from the tale that took place on the campus of Illinois State Tech.” You can't write off an episode with Tony revealing that in college he played drums in a group called Tony Vincenzo and his Neopolitans (in real life, Simon Oakland was an accomplished violinist). Goethe, the Neopolitans and a succubus in the same episode?

     ITEM: This was the last of four episodes directed by Don Weis (following "The Vampire," "Firefall" and "The Trevi Collection"). All in all, not a bad Kolchak quartet.

    ITEM: Carolyn Jones and Darren McGavin co-starred in "The Cheney Vase," a 1955 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. 

      ITEM: Editors screaming for more copy. Grabbing my porkpie hat and heading for the next deadline. Don't let anyone tell you, it couldn't happen here. 
Take one tablet and call me in the morning.