Thursday, January 19, 2012

Episode 11: Horror in the Heights

Episode 11: Horror in the Heights aka The Rakshasa
Original Airdate: 12/20/74
Guest Starring: Phil Silvers, Abraham Sofaer
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Michael T. Caffey

Kolchak is convinced that the Rakshasa, an evil spirit, is loose in Roosevelt Heights and killing off the town's elderly residents by disguising itself as someone its victim will trust. Carl quickly realizes that it's a good time to be someone who trusts no one.

PE: Wow! They can show that nasty opening scene involving discarded animal bones and rats at a meat-packing plant but absolutely no blood on the body of a werewolf victim? That crew down at Television Standards were a screwed up bunch.

JS: It makes for a great opening sequence, particularly with the rats gnawing on the meaty bones. I can only imagine what that set smelled like.

PE: LOL-dialogue this episode comes courtesy of Vincenzo and straight man Ron Updyke, who's reacting to Carl's report of narrowly escaping death by crossbow:
Ron: You know, in the year 1066, the Saxons lost the Battle of Hastings because their crossbows were no match for the Norman longbows in terms of range and accuracy, and in that way two disparate cultures were melded.
Tony (long pause, looks at Carl): Y'know Ron, in your own quiet way, you're... (pauses) well, thank you, thank you very much, Ron.
and later, after Ron and Kolchak leave his office, he sighs and plops down into his desk chair and utters the single funniest line so far in the series:
Tony: Indian Swastikas, Norman conquest. Am I supposed to see God's design in all this?
JS: What a nice surprise to have Phil Silvers wander through the episode. I thought he was going to be a major character, so when he meets his, um, The Rakshasa, it came as a surprise.

PE: It's a shame we don't get more Phil Silvers here. He's dispatched fairly quickly. Silvers kept me up every night when I was in my early teens. A local station (KTVU, Channel 2, from Oakland) used to run The Phil Silvers Show (advertised as The Sgt Bilko Show) at 11 pm every night and I'd stay up religiously to watch it. Haaaaaay-up! They don't make 'em like that anymore.

JS: Those early glimpses of The Rakshasa certainly piqued my interest. Is it a yeti? A werewolf? An unshaven Ernest Borgnine? Who was that hairy man? I'm assuming if it were Richard Kiel (which would put him in four in a row!), he would have received a screen credit.

PE: That's a genuinely creepy scene with the two cops in the alley. One sees Sergeant DeVito while the other sees his mother. "Mom?" the cop asks, incredulously. "What d'ya mean, your mother? That's Sgt. DeVito" his partner corrects him.

JS: Agreed. That was more frightening in that the audience knows that a nasty monster is lurking beyond the facade. Very effective.

PE: The climactic scene, where Carl must decide if the little old lady in front of him is sweet Miss Emily or the flesh-munching Rakshasa, seems to be a bit of a cheat to me. In the previous scenes, the monster doesn't speak as the person it's imitating, it just sort of grunts. With Emily, it's doing a full impersonation. Carl chooses well though and shoots the thing in the gut. I think the make-up department might have been able to find a more realistic way of rigging up Ruth McDevitt for the shot. She could pass for six months along.

JS: I thought exactly the same thing. Not only was the Rakshasa silent in the earlier appearances, it seemed to specifically avoid speaking to the others, which comes across as a limitation of the creature when in disguise. And yet here we get a lengthy soliloquy. Sad thing is, this major inconsistency could have been avoided with a few lines of dialogue before any of the other murders. I guess giving one more actor a line, and a screen credit, was more than the budget could bear.

PE: We ran into Murray Matheson twice at the Thriller blog, as the snooty title character in "The Poisoner" and in one of the worst Thrillers ever, "Letter to a Lover." He could have just walked off that Poisoner set here as he's just as British, as Lane Marriot, as he was back in 1961. He's trying on a very Frasier-esque pun on a couple of browsers in his Indian museum: "I like to say, that the third century is when the Kali flowered." In his scene with Marriott, Kolchak does his best Inspector Clouseau impersonation, breaking expensive clocks and getting on the curator's nerves. After inquiring about the Rakshasa, Carl explains that the old Hindu had taken a shot at him with a crossbow. Marriott comes back with "The chap's action seems understandable to me, somehow."

JS: I found Matheson to be a fun addition to the episode. He's the perfect choice to portray a snooty antiques dealer.

PE: Abraham Sofaer is probably best remembered by genre fans as one of the aliens in black eye make-up and propeller beanie in the wildly over-rated "Demon with a Glass Hand" episode of Outer Limits. Sofaer also appeared in a couple of Thrillers: "The Weird Tailor" and "The Prediction." Ali Lakshmi was his last role.

JS: It was nice to see Miss Emily given a little more dimension this time out (as herself and The Rakshasa). I'm convinced that her detective novel would have been of the hard-boiled variety, and not some cozy mystery. She also gets a great line when Vincenzo declares that the old folks are senile.
Miss Emily: Just a minute! You may be my employer, but you're walking on eggs when you talk that way, buster!
Which is followed by Vincenzo walking out on Carl, who calls after him in a humorous role reversal.

PE: If not at the top, this episode is near the top of every "Best Kolchak" list I've ever seen (I'm sure some of the die-hard fanatics have compiled a Top Twenty Episodes list!). It's got tons of atmosphere and a decent boogeyman and a scripter to make any horror fan do a double take. Jimmy Sangster?! Writer of Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, X The Unknown, and countless other Hammer classics? If anyone could bring a breath of fresh air to a monster-of-the-week format, it would be Sangster.

JS: While the build-up was there, I felt the climax was a disappointment. We've already discussed the Miss Emily cheat, and when we finally get our full-on shot of the monster (looking like a cross between Wolfman Jack and Rob Zombie), I'd like to think we earned a protracted, violent death scene. Instead, we get 'ouch!' and it falls out of frame. Dead. Are we to understand that it disappeared? Did Kolchak finally have physical proof to back up one of his wild stories? I was quite surprised that it wasn't even addressed in an off-hand fashion as Carl records his story wrap-up.

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Next up... Kolchak faces Mr. R.I.N.G.!


  1. It's demise is the same as Peremalfait's -- poke it with a stick and it falls right over; maybe deflates. Although I guess you could say the same about vampires, too.

  2. Jimmy Sangster has to be one of the main reasons for the quality of this episode. The Hammer films had well written scripts and broke new ground in the horror field. Maybe we could do AHammerADay and really drive each other crazy.

  3. I, too, was bothered by the lapse in logic of the suddenly loquacious Rakshasa-as-Emily, but it's such an otherwise excellent scene in an otherwise excellent episode that I'm willing to forgive it. It's always struck me that for all of the genre veterans in front of the camera in this series, the most widely revered episodes are also the only two that had a genre film vet as director (Hessler) or writer (Sangster). The rest were primarily either up-and-comers (e.g., Chase, Zemeckis/Gale) or, for lack of a better phrase, TV people.

    For all his association with Hammer, Sangster later had a busy career in American television, both episodic (CIRCLE OF FEAR and various crime shows) and TV-movies (A TASTE OF EVIL; SCREAM, PRETTY PEGGY). He was very pleasant when we met him briefly at a Fanex years ago, and I recommend his splendidly titled memoir, DO YOU WANT IT GOOD OR TUESDAY?

  4. So just a half-typewriter better than "The Energy Eater"? Uh-huh. Why do I suddenly hear the sound of... pigeons cooing outside?

    Okay, item #1 from the You Didn't Ask Me But I'm Gonna Tell You Anyway Department: history expert Ron Updyke cites the Battle of Hastings as an example of a battle in which crossbows were outperformed by longbows, but... that's actually a pretty poor example. While Hastings is the first battle on English soil in which crossbows were known to have been used, its performance vs. the longbow never became an issue. A much better & more noted example would have been the Battle of Crécy in which the English longbowmen outperformed the French (and their mercenaries') crossbows. Now, don't you feel better for knowing this?

    More on the Rakshasa (aka... Doug!) later (best Tony description of a monster: "It looks like Bongo the Chimp with fangs"). :-O

  5. Y'know, grgstv338, in your own quiet way, you're...well, thank you, thank you very much. :-)

  6. As others have pointed out, there's a cheat when the Rakshasa speaks when disguised as Emily. It should've spoken to all the victims, luring them to their death. In my opinion, the viewer knows what's going on way too early. In the first instance, we should only see Rabbi Shulman, presumably tracking down the four errant card players. In the second instance we should only see the cop. At that point we still wouldn't be completely sure of what was happening.

    When Harry Starman sees Kolchak, when we know the real Kolchak is inside the restaurant, we'd know what we've suspected, that the menace is a shape shifter, and we'd definitely know when the cops see two different people. We should only find out what the Rakshasa really looks like when we see the illustration in the gallery, and only see the “real” Rakshasa when Kolchak kills it.

    One of the recurring themes when watching vintage TV shows is the obvious battle the creative staff wage against tight budgets and even tighter production schedules, meaning shows regularly go into production with unpolished scripts, and no money for special effects. The best series of the era manage to overcome those limitations with strong performances, and great stories.

    And, that's what we've got here. Throw in a great guest cast of talented veterans and plenty of imagination, and you end up with one of the best episodes of The Night Stalker.

    All the best,

    Glenn :)

  7. I never saw it as any kind of a "cheat" that the Rakshasa speaks in Miss Emily's voice. I assumed that The Rakshasa had to pull out all the stops to not only find the one person Carl trusted but to *convince* Carl, a guy who KNOWS what the Rakshasa is and what it does, that this was really Miss Emily. I mean, Carl is holding the crossbow loaded with blessed arrows, for cryin' out loud! The Rakshasa knows this and tosses in Miss Emily's voice to pour it on as thick as possible to confuse Carl.

    I just find it presumptuous that everybody is so quick to point this out as a "cheat". How do YOU GUYS know what The Rakshasa is and isn't capable of pulling out of it's bag of tricks, especially when it's very life is on the line? Sheesh!

    GREAT episode. The best.

    1. Doug, have to say I never saw this as a "cheat," either. In fact, when the Rakshasha starts talking to Carl in Miss Emily's voice, it has always been all the more chilling to me precisely because it hasn't had to communicate through words with the previous victims. There's an upping-the-ante quality to the trust factor here that's pushing Carl to the wall -- trust your instincts and put that against the kindly image of the person you trust the most. For me, it adds to the scene and it doesn't detract from the episode. I wouldn't have changed it, but that's me.

    2. "I just find it presumptuous that everybody is so quick to point this out as a "cheat". How do YOU GUYS know what The Rakshasa is and isn't capable of pulling out of it's bag of tricks, especially when it's very life is on the line? Sheesh!"

      It's most definitely not a cheat; I'm a practicing Hindu, and in all of our stories and scriptures, the Rakshasas (and their female counterparts, Rakshasis) are capable of using "maya" (the powers of illusion) to the highest degree.

      Theoretically, that Rakshasa could've showed Carl an illusion of every person from the INS at the same space, talking to him, and unnerving him long enough to grab him. He could've shown Carl anything at all. "Maya" is a full illusion--all five senses can be fooled by it.

      All in all, the episode nailed the Rakshasa's power of "maya" dead-on. Well, that, and their eating habits...

      What did bother me about that scene was that I'd been hoping that the Rakshasa would've shown himself as Tony. Also, the glaring mistake of having a Hindu-owned restaurant serving beef curry. *facepalm* The writing staff must've forgotten the whole "cows are revered in Hinduism and that beef is expressly forbidden" detail...

      But, other than that, it was an incredible episode.

      --Crystal Rose (the Hindu half of this co-owned account. XD)

  8. Strictly speaking ...

    We have no evidence that the Rak DIDN'T speak to its other victims, since the kills are seen in hindsight from Kolchak's point of view, reported via voice-over. When it becomes personal for Kolchak, we see perhaps a little more of what the earlier victims saw/heard.

  9. I'd like some of what everybody's smokin' 'round here!

  10. >>So just a half-typewriter better than "The Energy Eater"?

    I prefer to think of it as just a half-typewriter shy of "The Spanish Moss Murders."

  11. DJS is Mark and my new best friend.

  12. Boy, the conversations die out quick around here. I always wake up hoping to see a new batch of comments from other readers, but after the seven or so of us say what we have to say, it's over. *snif*

  13. When it's an episode a day (or weekday), there's always the pull to move along to the next episode for trading comments.

    Re Horror in the Heights, I was looking for my copy of Sangster's autobiography (he's got two, actually, but the later one focuses primarily on his Hammer days) to see if he had anything specific to say, but right now it's M.I.A. (still searching, though). I'd be very interested to read his 1st draft and see what parts of the episode were added by Chase or the other staff writers.

    Re the Emily "cheat" - geez, picky-picky. Since the other victims readily bought into the illusion (except the 2nd cop, but HE wasn't armed with a crossbow!), there's not much NEED for the Rakshasa to converse with his victims (and potentially draw more attention).

    Agree with Mark, Doug, et. al. - this is pretty much as good as the show was gonna get, and, in this instance, that was pretty damned good. It would have been difficult for them to maintain this level of quality - and, sadly, they didn't. But still some good stuff to come, so don't give up! :-)

  14. I'm no Kolchak hater like John and Peter (must be why they spend all their time blogging about it), and I enjoyed this episode, but it's not my number one favorite Kolchak episode as it is for some of you. As Mark commented over on SMM review, we each have our own individual responses to humor and horror and disagreement is inevitable. I do understand that it is hard to hear criticism about your most cherished episodes, so I hope I'll be forgiven.

    I could have done without all the chitchat about the Goldsteins' sexual repression, and rather would have had a few more lines of dialogue go to the Rakshasa in convincing the victims it was someone they knew. I also felt it was grossly inconsistent to hear the Rakshasa grunt from behind and be silent on approach with all the victims until it suddenly found its eloquence as Miss Emily. I'm glad to know there's another way of looking at it (through rose colored glasses), but I didn't see it that way.

    But this is minor quibbling compared to the real flaw that John brought up:

    I'd like to hear an explanation for that, and so far nobody but John has addressed it. Didn't anyone else find this problematic? The best I can come up with is that the alley rats converged on it and devoured it within half an hour, destroying the evidence. I'd still expect to hear an account of this from our intrepid reporter.

    For such a highly rated episode, I would have expected more conversation on why folks love it so much. Is it just the fearsome concept of the Rakshasa that people enjoy? Is it the senior empowerment theme? There are some great scenes here as there are in every Kolchak episode.

    I enjoyed the scene where Vincenzo thinks that Carl is being brutalized by the police, and he storms in to defend him. It might seem out of character for Vincenzo, but I like to think his true regard for Carl came out when he feared for his well being.

    I also find the closing scene amusing when Carl wishes Miss Emily luck when he realizes she has tarted herself up for a business meeting with the hormonally enhanced Mr. Cartwright. Gray Power, indeed!

    1. Christine, I would in no way try to push someone from one opinion to another on a particular episode (or the whole Kolchak universe, for that matter). Love it, hate, ambivalent -- everything is up for grabs and fair game. But on the matter of what happened to the Rakshasa's body, no, this is another aspect of the episode I did not find at all problematic. I took it that the Rakshasa was a shape-shifting demon spirit, and in many of the legends about shape-shifting spirits that can take on physical forms, often through summoning spells (including the Eastern European one I researched for a Moonstone Kolchak story), the demon does indeed disappear when impaled and staked in some way (in many European legends, the favored method is a silver or blessed nail -- spike -- and the idea is that the demonic entity is pinned to the earth, prevented from roaming; same idea behind the wooden stake with vampires). Legends about demonic spirits and shape-shifting monsters vary greatly, so this was an area where the latitude, for me, easily allowed for the Rakshasa's disappearance.

    2. Thanks for your explanation, Mark, which is completely plausible, although the Rakshasa also could have been eaten by rats, or turned to dust like Doug says, or the Men in Black could have come and carted it off in an evidence box. We'll never know for sure. I think I should have asked instead why Kolchak didn't report what happened to the Rakshasa's body, because that's what really bothered me. It could have been his Pulitzer Prize winning story, so to wrap up without any explanation didn't provide proper closure to this story.

  15. Christine, great point about Tony's unnecessary defense of Carl at the police station. I rank that with his "You're one hell of a reporter" line in the original, evidence of why he keeps hiring Carl despite their superficial daily animosity.

  16. Most all the Kolchak monsters turn to ashes when killed, so I never had any doubt that the Rakshasa followed suit and turned to dust.

    I LOVE that scene where Tony demands the names and badge numbers of the cops who may have roughed Kolchak up. Go Tony!

  17. One of my all time favorites,right up there with "SPANISH MOSS MURDERS" (top tier episode) and "CHOPPER" (my all time favorite nostalgia tainted episode). Fires on all cylinders and i can't really add much more than has already been illuminated.

    Has anybody else ever noticed how the film "THE DARK" (1979) totally plays like a feature length KOLCHAK episode,minus the fun character interplay,fun one liners Otherworldly creature stalks the city streets late at night and picks the citizenry off one by one. You've got the narration,you got the reporter,you got the cops flying around at the climax,you got Keenan Wynn for crying out loud! I would have paid good money to see Richard Jaeckel's hardened police captain and Kolchak butt heads repeatedly.

    Maybe someone with some free time and quality editing skills could tackle that mashup.

    I also think by the looks of it,the Rakshasha/Emily photo at the top is in the throes of the flaming sword dance by way of the colon.

  18. #1 of 20 (I have yet to get the 2 movies), 4 out of 4, great episode in every respect, great monster, the hindu Rak killer is great, the settings are unusual and great, loved seeing Phil Silvers again. I haven't read the book or anything about the production yet, but it seems really impressive to me that someone not involved with the weekly series like Jimmy Sangster could come in and be familiar enough with the show to use Ruth McDevitt as the only person in the world Carl trusts (when he says he trusts no one you believe he's forgetting her), McDevitt as usual is great. Only the minorist of quibbles- it seems whenever Carl needs to break upon a door, he seems to find a crowbar right outside the door, I'm sure this has happened twice, and pretty sure it happened a third time.

  19. Of course, the most important thing about Rakshasa/Emily talking (besides the realism within the narrative) is the crux of the episode and series: Emily was the only one who would believe or at least go along with Kolchak, so the Rakshasa picked wisely.