Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on "The Werewolf"

By Mark Dawidziak

     It was a shot from "The Werewolf" that graced the cover of my 1991 book, Night Stalking: A 20th Anniversary Kolchak Companion. So you might be thinking that I have a particular fondness for this episode. And you'd be thinking right.

   Still, how well I recall producer Cy Chermak wistfully discussing the advances in makeup and special effects since the days of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And that discussion was about fifteen years ago. Just think of the computer-generated magic, camera wizardry and makeup wonders available to such horror shows of today as True Blood, Supernatural, The Walking Dead, Being Human (both versions), The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf and American Horror Story. By comparison, Chermak and his television team were struggling in the dark ages, and you just can't help but consider how much more effective a few of the Kolchak episodes would have been if armed with a few of the technological advances of today.

Cousin Lester on The Munsters
     "The Werewolf" is a prime example of this (as is "Chopper"). It is, without question, a wonderfully scary concept: the notion of being trapped on an ocean liner with a latter-day Larry Talbot. It has so many eerie possibilities -- narrow corridors and stairwells (he might be waiting around the next turn) and nowhere to go (and being out at sea under a full moon is supposed to be such a romantic setting). But the problem with "The Werewolf" is, well, the werewolf. It was difficult to keep this wayfaring werewolf in the shadows for long, and, unfortunately, when he does emerge, he's a pretty moth-eaten-looking beast. In The Night Stalker Companion, I described the episode's laughable lycanthrope as "a costume party joker" and "an animated shag carpet that needs a distemper shot." Too harsh? In truth, the werewolf lurching around that ship always reminded me of the werewolf Cousin Lester (Irwin Charone) who shows up at the end of the December 1964 "Herman's Rival" episode of The Munsters. And that was really being played for laughs.

The werewolf on "The Werewolf"
     Sorry to say, anyone I've ever shown this episode to snickers at the werewolf. Tough not to. And it's also tough to do a great werewolf story without a great werewolf. Even for its time, this werewolf is more laughable than terrifying. Again from The Night Stalker Companion: "When the fur flies, this one looks pretty flea-bitten -- more loopy than lupo." This is one Night Stalker monster who just dated very quickly.

    Now, I in no way want to see anyone pull a George Lucas on a Night Stalker episode. This series is very much of its time and, low budget and all, it has its considerable charms. But consider the great strides made in werewolf makeup and effects in the '80s (An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Fox's Werewolf series, with a lycanthrope named Janos Skorzeny) and beyond. Think of the werewolves prowling through True Blood, Being Human, MTV's reworking of Teen Wolf and the Underworld films. No doubt, this basic story could be made quite terrifying today. Lycanthropia and claustrophobia -- what a combination.

     "The Werewolf" also has one of the most abrupt endings of any of the Kolchak episodes. And yet, the episode is an enjoyable enough cruise through dark waters, and Kolchak's interplay with the other characters keeps this one afloat. Indeed, from the opening office Christmas party to Kolchak's encounters with the cruise's swinging singles, the humor in this episode remains shipshape throughout. "How come you never get sick, Kolchak?" Tony grouses. "I must live right, sir," is Kolchak's improbably reply. His encounters with Captain Wells are equally memorable.

     The episode also is enlivened by several terrific guest stars:

Henry Jones in The Bad Seed (1956)
     The original Conrad Birdie in the Broadway production of Bye, Bye Birdie, Dick Gautier was between stints as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart and as Robin Hood on ABC's When Things Were Rotten, the short-lived Sherwood Forest spoof from writer-producer Mel Brooks. The season before Kolchak: Night Stalker aired on ABC, Nita Talbot starred in Here We Go Again, a short-lived situation comedy on the Alphabet Network. One of her co-stars was Dick Gautier. Her best-known pre-Kolchak role was Marya, the Russian spy on several episodes of Hogan's Heroes.

     Captain Wells was played by well-traveled character actor Henry Jones, whose films included The Bad Seed (1956), Vertigo (1958) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). A Tony winner for the Broadway production of Sunrise at Campobello (1958), he appeared as angel J. Hardy Hempstead in 1960 "Mr. Beavis" episode of The Twilight Zone. He also appeared in two Thriller episodes penned by Robert Bloch" "The Weird Tailor" and "'Til Death Do Us Part."

     Bob Hastings, who plays one of the ship’s officers, was accustomed to naval uniforms. He had played Lieutenant Elroy Carpenter for four seasons on McHale’s Navy (ABC, 1962-66).

     And the wolf in ship’s cabins was played by Eric Braeden, who was no newcomer to fantasy. He had been Professor Forbin in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and Dr. Hasslein in Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971). Since 1980, Braden has played Victor on the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless.

     And, of course, here starts the whole Miss Emily/Edith Cowles/Cowels confusion. Ruth McDevitt makes her first appearance as a Night Stalker regular, but in one of those failures of continuity certain to keep trivia experts up nights, she's billed as Edith Cowels (note the spelling of the last name) and she writes the riddles feature. In later episodes, however, the spelling of the last name was changed and she got a new first name and a new job. She became, with no explanation, EmiIy Cowles, advice columnist and society writer. Confused? Well, in the first episode, we are told that the name of the advice columnist is Emily Fenwick. McDevitt appeared in that episode, but not as Emily Fenwick, Emily Cowles or Edith Cowels.


  1. May I be the first to say that The Munster's "Uncle Lester" looks a lot better than the Kolchak beastie? I think I just did!

    I think the worst single shot of title character in "The Werwolf" episode is when they freeze frame on him as he's attacking a victim. You can clearly see that he's literally got black grease paint smeared around his eyes.

    Oh well, I still love this episode!

  2. Re Miss Emily/Edith/Cowles/Cowels, take heart, Mark - at least it's not as bad as RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSE REINDEER. For years people debated whether the wannabe dentist elf was named Hermie or Herbie - until a Rankin/Bass book revealed that he actually DOES get called both within the one holiday special (they got confused themselves during production).

  3. I THOUGHT I always heard both HERBIE and HERMIE in RTRNR. Thank you!

  4. It's too bad they didn't put more thought into this episode, before the filming began. I think it might have been interesting if they had used far LESS make-up. Make the antagonist seem more of a wolfish or wolf-like human.

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  6. Isn’t this the episode where Carl flies out of “snowy Chicago” via a stock shot of a jet lifting off from a sun dappled Los Angeles airport? Forget the crepe paper werewolf. This is the part where a friend I showed this episode to started to laugh. This was a good one anyway. (The episode, not the friend)