Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Episode 9: The Spanish Moss Murders

Episode 9: The Spanish Moss Murders
Original Airdate: 12/6/74
Guest Starring: Keenan Wynn, Severn Darden
and Richard Kiel as Peremalfait
Written by Al Friedman and David Chase from a story by Al Friedman
Directed by Gordon Hessler

Bodies are turning up in Chicago with bits of Spanish Moss sprinkled on them. The number one suspect has been involved in a six-week sleep study. Kolchak is convinced that a Bayou Boogeyman is springing forth from the sleeping man's subconscious.

PE: I gotta tell ya that I'm not happy with this startling trend. The best looking girls in the show end up being quick monster meat. We only get about three minutes of the very pretty Roberta Dean before she has her chest caved in by a seven foot tall mossman.

JS: That's the least of the trends we have to worry about. I was really looking forward to a Man-Thing from the swamp episode, and instead I got what looked like a homeless guy in dreadlocks and a sweater. I see scarier people on the streets of San Francisco every day. I'm going to chalk your love of this one up to sentimental recollections of seeing it as a child.

PE: Our cop du jour is Captain Joe Siska, who evidently has history with Carl. When we first meet up with Siska, he's just come back from forced group therapy (forced by his suffering wife) and he's quite a bit more mellow than Kolchak remembers him. It throws the reporter for a loop.

JS: As soon as he's introduced, you realize that Keenan Wynn is just the breath of fresh air we needed. Just when you think Kolchak is going to get tossed out on his ear, he's invited to stay, provided he plays nice and follows the rules.

PE: The mellow mood doesn't last however as, later in the episode as the body count grows higher around the Captain, he runs into the ever-inquisitive Carl Kolchak in a precinct hallway and is a tad flustered:
Carl: What ever happened to "I'm Okay, You're Okay"?
Siska: Well, to tell you the truth, you're not okay! The people in group therapy didn't tell me I was ever gonna meet anybody as un-okay as you are! Carl, singlehandedly you have the strange ability to take a year and a half of group therapy and send it right down the drain!
PE: Is Wynn chewing tobacco in this scene? It looks like he avoids opening his mouth fully and, unless it's my black and white TV, he seems to have some black gunk on his teeth (if this were my first viewing, I'd suspect that Siska was the mossman!). His meltdown in the lab near the climax  is hilarious, capped by the equally funny soothing tone of "relax, relax" and a firm hand on his shoulder from Carl. Though the cop chews Kolchak a new one every time they meet up, you get the feeling that he's not completely dismissing the reporter's wild claims. Mark may correct me but I believe that Captain Joe Siska is the only cop to be re-elected on Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He'll be back in a few episodes for a "Demon in Lace."

JS: I look forward to seeing what kind of mood he's in.

PE: Kiel gets about as many lines here as he did in "Bad Medicine" but it's all about quality rather than quantity anyway, right?  I'm not sure of the spelling but I believe he says "Uhhh Uhhh Uhhh Uhhh," but at least it's not the next verse of Old MacDonald.

JS: I wasn't expecting a lot out of the Mossman's costume, and while I'm willing to stipulate that in 1974 he was probably very creepy, it honestly looked to me like he was just a guy in a big wool sweater with dreadlocks. He was rightfully kept in the dark for the bulk of the show (a single eye notwithstanding), but once we got a decent look at him in the sewer, it was clear he was not the monster I was hoping for.

PE: We don't get a good look at the big mossy feller with the white hands, which is probably a good thing, but I suspect the inspiration for Peremalfait would have to be the two comic swamp creatures who were, at the time, quite popular: DC's Swamp Thing and Marvel's Man-Thing. Going even further back, you could cite the influence on both those comic characters, The Heap, which appeared in Hillman's Airboy Comics of the mid-1940s. Other notable muck monsters include Theodore Sturgeon's "It" and "Brenda" by Margaret St. Clair (adapted by Thriller's Douglas Heyes for Night Gallery in 1971).

JS: I think the prop guys had one instruction in the script when it came to dressing the murder victims: Garnish liberally with moss.

PE: Lots of genre ties in this episode. Character actor extraordinaire Keenan Wynn would go on to do Orca, Laserblast, Piranha, and The Dark to name just a few. Severn Darden, who plays the arrogant Dr. Pollack, will forever be known as Kolp, Governor Breck's right-hand man in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and later a Governor himself, of a band of mutants, in the sequel, Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Darden also appeared in the cult classic, Werewolves on Wheels.

JS: Darden is another favorite of mine. He's right up there with Anthony Zerbe as an early 70s villain I love to hate. Great presence, unique delivery—perfect for a creepy character actor. I love his response to Kolchak's quip:
Dr. Pollack: I try to be a nice guy.
Kolchak: How's that working out?
Dr. Pollack: (Pause) I don't know.
PE: Virginia Gregg (Dr. Hollenbeck) was the voice of Norma Bates in PsychoPsycho II and Psycho III. Elisabeth Brooks (who plays Pretty Lab Assistant #2) went on to become the reason why God invented rewind when she played the very sexy (and very naked) werewolf, Marsha, in The Howling. "The Spanish Moss Murders" was her first role. Tragically, she died of cancer at age 46. Director Gordon Hessler helmed several horror and fantasy flicks: The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again,  Cry of the Banshee, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I'm sure it was this healthy resume that convinced genre fan (and KISS bassist) Gene Simmons to hire Hessler to direct the vanity project, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.

JS: Gordon Hessler will always hold a special place in my heart for being the one responsible for the film that introduced me to Caroline Munro. While not an A-lister by any stretch of the imagination, he's responsible for quite a few fun, memorable genre flicks. And yes, that includes the KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park TV movie, thank you very much.

PE: There are a few very vivid "blips" of memory I have from this series: the burning cross from "The Vampire," the reveal of "The Sentry," and the headless motorcycle rider known as "Chopper,"are as fresh in my brain today as they were nearly forty years ago, but the one scene that scared me more than anything on this show when I saw it on its first run was moss-covered Richard Kiel rising from the waters of the sewer in front of Carl. That scene still gives me a nice tingle. The show itself is a winner as well. Dr. Pollack doesn't really give a damn about Paul Langeis, his sleeping subject, other than how the man can further the scientist's career. It's a creepy scene when Siska asks the Pollack if Langeis is going to die and the doctor looks at him and says "Well, that's a bit premature but I'll tell you this... I can't wake him up." Five seconds later, the guinea pig flatlines.

JS: The finale in the sewer is cool, particularly if you squint so as not to see the monster too clearly. But that said, I felt this episode was just okay, and not one of Carl's high points.

PE Rating:

JS Rating:

Next up, Kolchak faces Matchemonedo!


  1. This is, hands down, my favorite Kolchak tale - period. Great story, great supporting cast (Keenan Wynn, Ned Glass, Severn Darden), and great scenes between Carl and Tony ("What's this? Salvador Dali's Bar Mitzvah picture?"). I hadn't scene Forbidden Planet yet so the idea of creating a monster from one's dreams was original and way-cool. And there's that great scene where Carl realizes the monster has come looking for him! Interestingly, the worst episode of the series, which comes next, is sandwiched between the two best episodes. But more on Horror in the Heights later.

  2. After "Horror In The Heights", this my favorite episode (so that would make it my second favorite episode, wouldn't it, then? I got a D in math class). Great monster (yes, you can see Kiel's pants, shirt, and what appears to be a bee-keepers helmet under the monster suit at the end), but that doesn't bother me a bit. The story and the performances far outweigh the budgetary limitations here. This episode scared me to death as a kid and still gives me the chills just talking about it.

    I love the Pepe LaRue (Morris Shapiro from The Bronx) character and the way he "gets it" the moment he starts spilling the beans on Peremalfait. Also love the street musicians scenes and the great scene when Kolchak interrupts the recording session to get the lowdown on the swamp monster ("Can you believe this? I'm tryin' to cut a bullet and this guy wants me to tell him bedtime stories!").

    TRIVIA - I have always maintained that the sewer set used at the end of this episode is the exact same tunnel set (sans water) used for the showdown at the end of the "PRIMAL SCREAM" aka "The Humanoids") episode. If you've never noticed or thought about it, check out both episodes and take note of those two sets. Pretty sure they are one in the same.

  3. Definitely one of THE best of the Kolchaks John, "just okay"? Turn in your reviewer badge! And consider yourself "pigeon-holed" (from Hell, that is).

    And props to The Night Stalker show for coming up with the literal "monster from your nightmares" YEARS before Freddy!

  4. An excellent, well-remembered episode from KOLCHAK's "hot" period (Okay, the sub-par "Energy Eater" is next, but "Horror in the Heights" and "Mr. R.I.N.G." are just around the corner). And, yeah, I've always gotten a kick out of Severn Darden's fussy-smart persona; he's quite wonderful in Spielberg's LA 2017, the extraordinary sci-fi episode of THE NAME OF THE GAME. And, in case anyone hasn't mentioned this yet, Richard Kiel was originally cast as TV's INCREDIBLE HULK (a few long shots of Kiel in character remain in the Kenneth Johnson pilot), but was ultimately deemed "too thin" and replaced with the considerably wider Lou Ferrigno.

  5. Under no circumstances should our daily posts be considered 'the right answer' when it comes to any of the shows we blog about (case in point, just look at Pete's rating for this episode). We're offering a starting point for the discussion. What we offer up on a daily basis are just our opinions.

    The rules of the game are as follows — everyone is encouraged to share why they think a particular episode is the best, the worst, or (in this case for me) right down the middle. Trust us, that's what makes the blog entertaining for everyone.

    So tell me why you love the Spanish Moss so much, and perhaps I'll develop an appreciation for some aspect of the show that I overlooked.

    And keep in mind, if the best you can do is, "Definitely one of THE best of the Kolchaks," then I win. ;) As your teachers told you, gotta show your work if you want to get credit.

    We now return to our regularly scheduled programming, already in progress.

  6. As grgstv338 has pointed out, the basic premise of "Spanish Moss Murders" is extremely powerful and fresh, pre-dating NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's dream-monster by a full ten years. The other pleasures of this episode (Darden, Wynn, etc.) have been touched on, but Mark's essay will undoubtedly go into more specific detail and critical analysis, so I'm content to wait for that. If we "Moss" fans feel he's left out something critical, we'll overcome our natural shyness and post some additional observations... not to worry, John!

  7. Is everyone in such a Moss-induced haze that you all missed that Caroline Munro Sinbad shot? Yowza!

  8. Try this -

    1. Great monster (if not totally in execution, than at least in idea). As Richard Matheson worried, how would the show come up with an effective monster week after week? When they didn't fall back on a traditional vampire or zombie or werewolf, sometimes the result could be really scattershot (invisible aliens, invisible energy eaters, etc., Big Indians), but here they came up aces. Okay, with big-screen TVs and remastered DVDs, freezing on the Peremalfait (sp?) might make you wonder what the fuss was about, but try to imagine yourself as a 10-year old viewer watching a 20-inch standard definition TV. Also, the creature is kept in the shadows and then doesn't get a full reveal until we're in a dark, dank sewer, so I still think Ol' Swampie came off exceedingly well, dreadlocks or no.

    And the idea for the monster IS great. Instead of searching for some ancient legend and trying to rationalize a reason for him/her/it to still exist in our modern world, this creature needs no such explanation. It literally springs from our nightmares. And why the arbitrary weakness to some element (like the mirror for Diablero)? Well, because that's part of the legend, too, and if the monster is created out of the dreamer's childhood nightmares, it comes complete with the imaginary creature's weakness as well.

    2. Great guest cast - as mentioned, Keenan Wynn doesn't just get to play yet another irate police captain, he's one complete with a backstory. Seeing him lose his grip after repeated exposure to Kolchak shows just what a toll our intrepid reporter takes on Chicago's finest!

    Severn Darden playing a scientist - but with a difference, one who uses words like schlump ("Is that s-c-h-l-u-m-p or s-h-l-u-m-p?" "You know, I can't be sure") and who's wise to the ways of Kolchak when he tries to bamboozle him.

    Even Virginia Gregg, the annoyed botanist, gets some good lines ("this inflation is killing me and THESE are my tomatoes").

    3. Great supporting characters - from the acerbic hospital attendee ("Was he covered in Spanish Moss?" "No, he was garnished in parsley.") to the diminutive Pepe (Pepe Schmeppy, he's Maurice from New York - who came to Chicago to get into organized crime but "didn't meet the height requirement"! :-) And I love how Pepe is simply walking along with Kolchak and then - almost without the viewer noticing - simply disappears, literally plucked right off the street by Big Boggy.

    4. A real reversal. Just when it looks like the threat is over - the dreamer dreams no more - Kolchak (and we) get a REAL jolt when he discovers Spanish moss in his drawers (ewwwwww....). Now the beasty isn't just after anybody, he's after Carl, literally coming into the reporter's "home" to find him.

    5. Tense finale. Carl doesn't just wander into the creature's lair, he even finds himself trapped there when a truck parks right on top of the manhole cover. Loved Carl having to submerge himself in the slimy, rat-infested sewer water in order to slip past the Peremalfait and get back to the bag of spears.

    Also throw in the customary Kolchak wit (when told the sleep study patient would fall asleep in the middle of conversations, even sex, Carl suggests "Maybe it's his partner" - and watch for Elisabeth Brooks/Lab Tech #2/Dr. Pollack's love interest's reaction). Add it all up and you've got a winner of an episode, at least in my book.

  9. Thanks, grgstv338 -

    Now those are some comments I can sink my teeth into!

    I actually agree with the majority of the points you make. The one in which we disagree pretty much accounts for the difference in my view (and so far, everyone else's) of Spanish Moss Murders: "try to imagine yourself as a 10-year old viewer watching a 20-inch standard definition TV"

    I think if I did that, it would be akin to saying, "well sure, it was good for it's time, but you can't expect it to hold up today." I think we're all in agreement that these shows can and do hold up today. But just like I can't expect Peter to forget the impression this episode had on him when he saw it as a kid, I don't think I'm doing anyone any favors if I set aside my current thoughts and apply a 'nostalgia filter' that isn't there.

    And my two star review (which puts this on par with Pigeons from Hell, in my book) isn't saying it's a bad episode—it's just not one of my favorites.

  10. My students at Kent State weary (I'm sure) of hearing me emphasize how individual responses to humor and horror are, and, let's face it, "Kolchak" tests both what scares us and what makes us laugh. So disagreement is both inevitable and welcomed.
    This is strictly anecdotal, but, last year, I showed the entire Kolchak run (two movies and 20 episodes) to may daughter, who was then 15 (not quite the 10-year-old viewer and not quite a 20-inch standard definition TV). I was careful not to prejudice her before each episode (on this or anything else we've watched for the entire run, like "The Twilight Zone," "Night Gallery" and "Thriller"). Independently, she picked "Horror in the Heights" and "The Spanish Moss Murders" as the two best episodes of the series. It might well be genetic, but something there still works, even if it's never going to work for everybody.

  11. Much to Doug's horror, my companion in re-watching many of the Kolchak episodes has been my 3- (soon to be 4-) year old daughter, who loves Disney, princesses... and monsters. So far, she's loved The Vampire, The Werewolf and Spanish Moss Murders ("What's Para-mowffy?")... and bizarrely doesn't get nightmares from them. (Of course, now and then she says one of her Disney princess dolls has turned into "a bampire" and now has to be staked. ;-)

    Re horror then vs. now, I'd hope modern viewers would make at least SOME allowance for the more limited resources of the time, or else we're left with the myopia of "Yeah, the '33 King Kong was okay, but it's FX sucked compared to Peter Jackson's version, so I can only give it 2 1/2 banana peels."

  12. >>Re horror then vs. now, I'd hope modern viewers would make at least SOME allowance for the more limited resources of the time, or else we're left with the myopia of "Yeah, the '33 King Kong was okay, but it's FX sucked compared to Peter Jackson's version, so I can only give it 2 1/2 banana peels."

    I'm not sure if that's directed at John and I but there hasn't been an episode yet that was tromped on because of the special effects. We mention them sometimes as an amusement but if we were grading this show based on the SPFX, they'd all suck (that goes for the TV movies as well). First and foremost to me is the story. My enjoyment of Spanish Moss has nothing to do with nostalgia either. The show creeps me out, the dialogue is crisp, and the acting (especially Wynn) is top-notch. To reemphasize what John has said, this is our opinion of each episode, what we think. Not something based on reading a fan's TOP 10 episode list.

  13. >>>Much to Doug's horror, my companion in re-watching many of the Kolchak episodes has been my 3- (soon to be 4-) year old daughter, who loves Disney, princesses... and monsters<<<<

    LOL ~ I actually think that's great! As long as she seems to be handling them well and isn't as terrified out of her mind as I was at age seven (!).

  14. I would have to say that this is one of the better episodes. The Spanish Moss monster is not your usual vampire, zombie, Jack the Ripper guy. The sleep research scenes were a nice touch and the underground Chicago sewer ending was well done.

    I saw on TV today that the rats are taking over the NYC subways, so the rats swimming in the sewer was a nice touch.

  15. Look close at several episodes of KTNS and you’ll spot re-purposed lab sets and consoles from THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN all over the place. Those glorious stainless steel sets were long a part of the Universal tour through the early 1970s, and nowhere are they more apparent than in “The Spanish Moss Murders.”

    Severn Darden absolutely owns this episode: “Natalie, my pet …”

  16. "You think I'm some...wooly-headed scientist..."

  17. Or was it "Wooly-headed intellectual"? I need a drink, dammit...

  18. PE: "To reemphasize what John has said, this is our opinion of each episode, what we think. Not something based on reading a fan's TOP 10 episode list."

    I never for a moment thought this wasn't John's honest opinion...

    ... and so more's the pity! ;-)

    (I keed, I keed!)

  19. A less gracious host might take this opportunity to say, HEY EVERYBODY — REMEMBER HOW GARY DIDN'T LOVE "The Vampire"!

    But I would never stoop to that level. ;)

  20. Or was it a "Woolly-headed mammoth"? Hello? Is this thing on?

  21. I only know one thing, Scoleri... You'd better kneel at the altar of "Horror in the Heights"! Heh-heh-heh, the groveling begins tomorrow...

  22. Hello! I enjoyed the THRILLER and OUTER LIMITS blogs and as KOLCHAK is one of my all time childhood favorites,i figured enough lurking was enough.

    One of my favorite episodes as well and one genre connection that i've noticed (and never really seen mentioned)is how its a spiritual cousin to C.H.U.D.(1984)and ALLIGATOR (1980). I always think of this episode whenever i watch them and C.H.U.D. in particular hits many of the same elements,with it's street people,sewer bred monstrosities,missing persons cases and many similar sequences,right down to the protagonist trying to save his hide in the sewer tunnels while a vehicle has parked it's carcass on top of the manhole they've chosen to escape out of. Too bad Robert Forsters beleaguered and balding cop from ALLIGATOR couldn't have had his own weekly monster bashing endeavor,would have been pure gold.

  23. You're right, that exact shot of the car tire parking right over the manhole cover (trapping the hero in the sewer with the monster) is used in ALLIGATOR! Good call, Tommyrot!

  24. I liked this episode for a lot of the same reasons others did. Capt. Joe Siska should be on every week. Wynn's performance was one of the best things about this episode. The ending scene in the sewer was pretty awesome, if only to show how fearless our hero is. I liked the concept of the dream monster, I just wish the dreamer had been dreaming of something scarier than the boogeyman. I don't have so much a problem with his mossy dreadlocks as I do with his performance. This monster seemed like a bumbling idiot to me. Kolchak didn't seem to be under much threat down in the sewer, as mossman gropes around in the nasty water, unable to catch him. Even the killing didn't take much effort on CK's part, as it looks like he was skewering a hot dog for a weenie roast. I liked the snappy dialogue in this episode, too. I just didn't find that what I liked about it could make up for a weak monster. It may still make my top ten list, but it won't be at the top. It's okay if we like different episodes, though, right? I'm Okay, You're Okay.

  25. A Top Ten list for KTNS would be HALF THE SHOWS ...

    We're going to have to find another way to address this perpetual "greatest hits" topic.

  26. Of course, you just KNOW I have to point out that Hessler also directed one of Richard Matheson's admittedly lesser TV-movies, THE STRANGE POSSESSION OF MRS. OLIVER. And, while we're at it, Wynn was the playwright who could conjure characters into existence by describing them into his Dictaphone in Matheson's delightful TWILIGHT ZONE first-season ender, "A World of His Own."

    Wynn, Darden's excellent characterization, and the unusual nature of the monster (warts and all) definitely help put this one in the top Kolchak ranks.

  27. And in compiling top-whatever lists, do we include the two movies? Even making those eligible, there are only 22 Kolchak adventures and a top-10 list wouldn't be all that telling. Just a suggestion: how about restricting it to the 20 episodes and asking for top-5 lists. That would be much more telling and challenging, although everyone knows what's occupying my top two spots as far as the series goes.

  28. If I thought the two movies were going to occupy the top two slots on everyone's favorites list, then I would agree the top 5 TV episodes would suffice. Since I know that's not the case for everyone, I encourage folks to pick their top 7 Kolchak adventures, as I'm particularly interested in seeing where the movies (okay let's face it - The Night Strangler) falls when going head to head against fans favorite series episodes...

  29. One of the best episodes: well done, the monster's origins are strange, and it's well-structured so everything comes as a genuine surprise. And speaking of genuine, McGavin's reaction when finding Spanish Moss in Carl's desk is perfect. The misdirection that scene with the leaking roof and Vincenzo's party make it especially effective. Along with poor Morris being abducted right in front of Kolchak. Nice and creepy!

  30. It's too bad KTNS could not have continued as a Movie of the Week kind of thing; a few entries per year instead of the rushed production of a weekly series. The idea of a different city and its personality, a different news-based b-plot and a monster a-plot (or vice versa) with the added benefit of 22 more minutes per entry would have probably made this show even MORE memorable.

    Like the other commenters, the revelation that the monster showed up at Carl's desk just added a great level of suspense when we got to the bumblin' stumblin' "Carl confronts the monster" scene.

    Re-watching these episodes on MeTV in 2017 is still fun. Knowing David Chase cut his teeth on this show makes it somewhat significant.