Friday, January 6, 2012

Universal TV's Supernatural Sleuths: Part 1

How Hollywood’s fear factory tried to conjure ‘Mannix in a cemetery’ for network TV

By Gary Gerani

THE ANTI-KOLCHAKS: Brett Kingsford (Leslie Nielsen, The Black Cloak), Dr. David Sorell (Louis Jourdan, Bedeviled),  Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins, The Sixth Sense).

Part One of Three: The Black Cloak

As every fan of golden age cinema knows, Universal Studios specialized in bone-chilling horror, giving the world Karloff, Lugosi, both Chaneys in iconic monster make-up, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and countless other seminal bogeymen.  Big U was no slouch on the small screen, either; 1961’s Thriller is generally considered the greatest classical horror anthology of all time, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour also delivered its share of notable terror-tales, especially in the last few years of its run.

But Universal wasn’t satisfied with this; TV in its most characteristic form meant ongoing characters week-to-week.  Cops, detectives, lawyers, doctors… choose the profession that fits your genre.  So the first big question for U/MCA in their decade-long crusade for a prime-time horror “hero” was, what kind of protagonist makes logical sense?  Since monsters, phantoms and magic are generally considered unreal and inexplicable, an intellectual detective-type seemed to fit the bill… but he needed to be a True Believer, someone with arcane knowledge and contacts, a sleuth who begins when the traditional gumshoe or cop throws his hands up in total frustration.

Enter Brett Kingsford, sophisticated man-about-town who moonlights as a special investigator for the police in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.  Kingsford is an expert on the occult, and a series of weird Jack the Ripper-style slayings practically begs for his unique services.  Aided by a diminutive manservant, a secret lab that enables him to change his appearance via make-up, a la Sherlock Holmes, whenever necessary, and secretly sponsored by grounded, no-nonsense Inspector Misbach, Kingsford tracks down a misshapen monster named Malaki, who is trying to swap bodies with his perfectly formed twin brother.  Calling upon Lovecraftian-like Sumerian Gods, this creature manages to accomplish his nefarious goal, but is ultimately foiled by Kingsford in time for a nifty, JEKYLL AND HYDE-like transformation sequence.

The Black Cloak was intended to be a weekly series on NBC for its 1965/1966 season.  The hour pilot, produced by Jack (Night Gallery) Laird, cast dashing Leslie Nielsen as Kingsford, Gilbert Green as Inspector Harvey Misbach, and little person Charles Bolender as manservant Nikola – these were Cloak’s regular characters.  Guest stars for the pilot included Mark Richman, Judi Merideth, and a pre-Hogan's Heroes Werner Klemperer as the monstrous Malaki.  As the series was period-based, a reasonably plausible turn-of-the-century San Francisco was required; fortunately, fog-shrouded streets would hide less-than-stellar production values.  Indeed, Laird wisely spent the lion’s share of his initial budget on Malaki’s showcased monster make-up, a magnificent creation realized by John Chambers, Jack Barron, and the usual Bud Westmore team at Universal.

His pilot finished, Laird sat and waited.  But not for too long, because U decided that the best way to push their scary new product was to introduce Black Cloak as an installment of NBC’s The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, under the enigmatic title “Something with Claws” (Malaki’s pseudo-Ripper uses demon talons, rather than a knife, to slaughter victims).  Actually, the Hitchcock/Black Cloak relationship had already been forged, with Hitch Executive Producer Norman Lloyd providing the monster’s eerie voice.  Later, Lloyd would pooh-pooh Laird’s film, declaring how proud he was that, in all the years that Hitchcock’s show ran on network TV, it never lowered itself to showcasing a pilot for somebody else’s weekly series.

But destined for the Hitchcock Hour “Claws” was, and at least one announcement appeared in TV Guide discussing the ambitious episode and possible weekly series.  Laird’s little film was even given a Hitchcock Hour production number, and the opening titles were prepared using fonts associated with H’s program (still visible underneath the current credits).

Then, somewhat unexpectedly, NBC and Universal got cold feet.  Just as they feared Don Siegel’s TV movie The Killers might be too violent for the small screen, prompting a theatrical release of the picture instead, the powers that be pretty much did the same thing with Black Cloak, or “Something with Claws” if you prefer.  Renaming the entire affair Dark Intruder, Universal exploited this 59-minute pilot as a supporting ‘feature’ for William Castle’s I Saw What You Did in 1965.  It was seen by relatively few (I caught the double-bill as a kid at Brooklyn’s Marboro Theater, thank you, gawking at Joan Crawford on a publicity tour in the process) before entering 16mm TV syndication a few years later in an MCA movie package.

So, in what ways other than the obvious was Black Cloak a pre-Night Stalker?  Well to begin with, all of U’s supernatural sleuths prior to David Chase’s series might be described as anti-Kolchaks: these were handsome, mature, sophisticated leading men, as if Universal were casting a show like The Name of the Game or The Bold Ones.  Carl’s wacky Van Helsing-like antics almost play as a parody of what the studio was initially trying to accomplish.  Although Kingsford pretends to be a carefree playboy a la Bruce Wayne, he is a dynamic action character when required… and this is significant, because so is his supernatural adversary.  It’s actually rather startling to watch the “stuntman monster” approach popularized by Curtis in his Night Stalker efforts on full display here, almost a decade earlier.  Demonoid Malaki attacks with primal fury, and these memorable scenes are shot for maximum excitement, employing hand-held photography, quick editing and fight choreography worthy of the best ‘60s action films (Intruder actually received better reviews than Castle’s top-billed movie).  Indeed, the semi-acrobatic, made for TV stuntman monster was born right here, folks, thanks primarily to audacious producer Laird and scripter Barre Lyndon (The Lodger, War of the Worlds).

Today, Dark Intruder is something of a lost film (U claims to have misplaced the original neg two decades ago), although dupey 16mm-derived incarnations can be found at Sinister Cinema and other PD video outlets.  Tidbit #1: Lalo Schifrin’s dandy music score—lots of occult “gongs” and massive organ notes, anticipating Billy Goldenberg’s work—turned up in “The Monkey’s Paw – A Retelling” and other Hitchcock Hour shows in ’65, as “Something with Claws” was intended to be just another episode, with its music cues available for other Hitch installments.  It also resurfaces in Laird’s Night Gallery series some eight years later (the better than usual John Newland-directed episode “There Aren’t Any More MacBanes” makes excellent use of it).  Tidbit #2: Period sleuths who investigate spooky serial killers must have been the rage in the mid-‘60s; Warners practically mirrored Universal’s Black Cloak trajectory one year later with Chambers of Horrors, the theatrically-released pilot for their proposed (but unsold) House of Wax series.  This time it was Cesare (Valley of the Dragons) Danova doing the snooping, with cleaver-handed Patrick O’Neal as the pilot’s “monster of the week” guest star.
Yep, that’s Colonel Klink himself underneath John Chambers’
monster make-up; both Werner Klemperer and Mark Richman
donned the mask, with Richman going through an extensive
Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation at film’s end.

Robert Vandenburg (Mark Richman) is about to be possessed
by his demonic twin brother Professor Malaki (Klemperer),
“something with claws.”

COMING TOMORROW: Richard Alan Simmons and Paul Wendkos introduce Louis Jourdan as Dr. David Sorell, Doctor to the BEDEVILED!


  1. Thanks, Gary - I really wish this had gone forward as a series. Even though the quality isn't great, the gray-market tapes/DVDs that circulate are something I'd heartily recommend that people check out. I was very impressed.

  2. Really enjoyed this, Gary. Terrific reading.

  3. Thanks, guys! It's been A LONG time since I thought about this little gem. I really hope the missing 35mm negative will reappear at some point, so we can all enjoy a quality version... no reason why this shouldn't look as good as Image's THRILLER episodes. Coincidentally, Universal's FEAR NO EVIL, the subject of Part 2, is also something of a missing film; it hasn't been presented in its original 35mm format since 1970!

  4. Gary, bravo on this heavy research! Did you discuss this in Fantastic Television, or is it something you discovered later?

  5. Actually, I was going to include a chapter in FANTASTIC TELEVISION about proposed series that never saw the light of day; unfortunately, my editor considered that frivolous ("If the show wasn't good enough to sell, why would anyone care?"). I was always aware that DARK INTRUDER was a theatrically-released TV pilot, and, as mentioned in the essay, I was lucky enough to see it when it was first released with I SAW WHAT YOU DID. I kinda picked up bits and pieces of background data over the years, chatting with Leslie Nielsen and Mark Richman at conventions, etc. I just recently asked TV historian extraordinaire Stephen Bowie about CLOAK, as he had interviewed Norman Lloyd a few times; those comments about Lloyd having little use for Laird's pilot, despite the fact that Lloyd himself provided the demon's voice, were derived from Bowie's research. Anyway... glad you found all this interesting!

  6. I'm sure someone here can describe it, but there has to be a connection between this and "Chamber of Horrors" with Cesar Danova and Patrick O'Neal. It was also a period movie with a character a little like a supernatural detective, who has a little person assistant. And I've heard that it was meant as a TV movie and even a pilot, before it became a theatrical one instead.

    1. The show you refer to was indeed a pilot, and actually announced for ABC's 1966 fall schedule.
      But it was a Warner Bros production, titled HOUSE OF WAX, after the Vincent Price pic of the same name.
      The series would have starred Cesare Danova and Wilfrid Hyde-White as the proprietors of the eponymous HOUSE, who would solve murders in 1890s Baltimore between museum tours; nothing supernatural, just good old fashioned violence.
      The little person sidekick was played by Tun Tun, a popular Mexican comedian who bore a disquieting facial resemblance to William Shatner. At least, I think it's disquieting (I've got this one on DVD).

      As I said above, HOUSE OF WAX was announced for Fridays at 10 (9 central), but was dropped suddenly when ABC had one of their frequent executive shakeups; a number of planned series were yanked at literally the last minute.
      The Warner Bros Brass decided to shoot a little extra footage and pass off the retitled CHAMBER OF HORRORS as a theatrical feature. It got some surprisingly favorable reviews and did business, but not enough to merit a followup in either theaters or TV.

      Why I didn't notice this coment before .. but hey, I noticed it now.

  7. That comment of Norman Lloyd's has had me wondering about something since I read it months ago. I'm not sure whether or not he was referring to the half-hour show alone, but there are two episodes of The Alfred Hicthcock HOUR that have always looked to me like SOMEONE mean them as pilots.
    One is called "Diagnosis : Danger" and is about a heroic doctor played by Michael Parks, and when you see it, it looks like he was being set up to be one of those early ' 60s "young doctor" characters like Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey.
    The other is called "Nothing Ever Happens In Linvale." It has a regular Hitchcock type crime story, but it also has a homespun small town sheriff (who solves the crime at the end) and his comical nervous deputy. Of course, most people would say "Andy Griffith Show rip-off!" after reading that, but they were played by Fess Parker and George Furth, so they gave the characters their own personalities.
    Again, I don't know whether Lloyd's comment was meant to include the hour show or not, but does ayone know whether these two were meant as pilots?

  8. I just now saw Mike Doran's answer to my question, and it was very helpful. CHAMBER OF HORRORS is very entertaining, and it really walks a line between "campiness" and a genuine morbid streak. It also has one of the oddest cameos that you'll see in a horror film.