Many years ago, a friend and I were driving to Atlanta for a library conference; our route took us across the northeastern corner of Alabama during a moonlit night. When we stopped for gas, she excitedly pointed out some nearby trees draped with what looked like straggling clumps of green-gray yarn that someone had attempted to knit into scarves then tossed over the branches when the results turned out badly, but were actually the outgrowths of a parasitical plant.
That stuff would be Spanish moss, and it does look rather spooky in the right kind of dramatic light even on a tree… and even more so when it’s all over Richard Kiel.
The Spanish Moss Murders sounds like the title for an Ellery Queen mystery novel, but it happens to be one of the best Kolchak episodes. It’s got a lot of humor, featuring a number of interesting and amusing characters in small roles, plus a monster that isn’t one of the commonplace vampires or werewolves.
This monster is a fabled creature from the swamps of Louisiana, used by generations of parents to frighten children into behaving themselves (although I can’t confirm whether or not it’s actually based on Cajun legends or if it was made up just for this show.) It’s brought into existence by remarkable means, through a combination of scientific research, the need to dream, and the dark world of childhood fears that lurk in the recesses of our minds even after we’re grown up.
“The visions and nightmares of childhood,” Carl Kolchak tells us in his opening narration, “are the most terrifying any human being can imagine.”
The episode begins on the sweltering evening of July 3, when a clumsy lab assistant named Michelle Kelly bumps into the equipment surrounding an unconscious subject at a sleep research clinic. She’s in a hurry because she wants to be home with her family for the holiday weekend–but as Kolchak’s as-usual pithy voice-over informs us, she’ll never get there and when her family gets together, it will be for her funeral.
Even while she’s still in the building where she works, Michelle is stalked. It’s an effectively creepy beginning: at this early point in the show, we only hear the creature’s heavy breathing and glimpse it in reflections. It’s never there when Michelle turns around to see what’s following her.
Spooked, she makes makes her way out into the street and meets her fate. Something very large, shaggy, and moss-covered leaps out at her, takes her up into its arms, and crushes her.
Since Michelle’s death is called a hit-and-run accident, it doesn’t immediately draw Kolchak’s attention. Two days later, Carl hears of the bizarre murder of a top-level chef in the kitchen of one of Chicago’s most expensive French restaurants. The man’s chest was completely crushed. This is the kind of gruesome story Carl lives for even when there are no supernatural elements involved, so he ditches a dentist appointment he doesn’t want to go to anyway and heads over to the restaurant in time to view the aftermath of the murder and get some photos.
The thing that captures his attention is the scattering of green “glop” all over the kitchen floor. The police captain in charge of the investigation (Keenan Wynn), who was formerly known as “Mad Dog” Siska before he started “I’m okay, you’re okay” anger-management therapy and learned to be more laid back, tells Carl that it’s probably salad. But if that’s so, why are the police collecting samples in evidence bags?
When the police arrest a restaurant employee recently fired, Carl’s newsman’s instincts are further roused. The suspect is a small man who doesn’t look physically capable of crushing anyone’s chest without the aid of heavy vehicle. While he’s at police headquarters, Carl manages to get a look at the autopsy report for the chef. From this, he picks up the Latin name for the green glop that was all over the kitchen–Tillandsia usneoides, which doesn’t sound like any kind of lettuce–and makes note of a reference to the similar death of Michelle Kelly.
Michelle Kelly is a common name, so it takes Carl some time to locate the right one, the dead one. He speaks briefly to Dr. Pollack at the sleep research clinic about what a klutz Michelle was, and listens to the somewhat obnoxious doctor talk about the sleep disorders they’re studying–narcolepsy, insomnia–and the mysteries of what happens inside our brains while we’re asleep.
“It consumes about a third of our lives,” Dr. Pollack says, “but we know next to nothing about it.”
Carl isn’t really interested in the subject of sleep and dreams. Not yet. He sees no connection between Ms. Kelly and the murdered chef.
His next visit is to the Chicago Botanical Garden to find out what plant that Latin name belongs to, and he gets his first look at Spanish moss in a non-crime-scene situation. He asks the botanist at the greenhouse if any of this moss has been taken lately. Weirdly, she answers No, because she checks it every morning. Now, I can see that she would notice if one of the plants in her care had large pieces cut off or it showed other signs of damage, but who would check every little gloppy strand of moss in a swamp-simulating water tank every single day?
Meanwhile, a third murder occurs, a street-musician from Louisiana named Bobby Ray Solange who pops into the basement of his apartment to smoke a joint. The creature bursts through a solid mahogany door to get at him.
By this time, Carl has put out feelers to his contacts in local hospitals be notified if there’s another chest-crushing death. Once he hears about Bobby Ray, he interviews the building’s superintendent and learns that dirty water and more Spanish moss were thrown around the basement floor.
Bobby Ray’s death finally leads Carl to his most important clues. Hanging around Chicago’s street musicians, he meets another Louisiana boy, a fiddler named Gene who only wants enough money to pay for some studio recording time; Carl gives him ten dollars for information about his friend Bobby Ray, and Gene gives him very little before jumping into a car to head for the studio.
It’s Gene’s partner, a guy who puts on a fake French accent and goes by the nom du street of Pepe LaRue–but he’s really Maurice Shapiro from the Bronx–who tells Carl what he needs to know.
According to Pepe/Maurice, Bobby Ray Solange had a short-tempered, non-too-bright roommate, Paul Langeau, who also came from the Bayou country. The two quarreled over a woman before Paul disappeared a couple of months ago.
Pepe/Maurice tells Carl that these Louisiana boys used to taunt each other about a boogeyman that frightened them in childhood, a creature known as Pere Mal-fait (which is French for something like “Father Does-Evil” or “Father Evil-Deeds.”)
“Look out for Pere Mal-fait!” says Maurice, imitating Bobby Ray and Paul. “Pere Mal-fait‘s gonna get you!”
Then Pere Mal-fait gets him.
It happens so quickly that the first time you see it, you’re not certain what just occurred. Pepe/Maurice and Carl are walking down an empty night-time street while they’re talking. They pass a tall, tumble-down wooden fence around a vacant lot. Carl is a little bit ahead, when he hears the clink of Maurice’s coin-cup dropping to the sidewalk. Carl turns to see that his companion is no longer at his side. Something’s grabbed Maurice through a gap between the broken planks of the fence. Carl ventures in through the gap to have a look around. He hears heavy breathing and sees a large shape moving around in the darkness; he tries to take a photo of it, but when the film’s developed it shows nothing useful. There’s no sign of poor Maurice Shapiro.
Carl has trouble convincing the police that there was a little man who disappeared. By the time he goes to them with the information he’s gathered, he’s become so much of a nuisance that Captain Siska forgets his “I’m okay, you’re okay” and finally snaps: “You’re not okay! The people in group therapy didn’t tell me I was ever going to meet anybody as un-okay as you are!”
Somewhere in here, it emerges that Paul Langeau had quarreled with the dead chef as well Bobby Ray. This would make him a prime suspect for both murders. Carl believes at this point that Paul did grab and kill Maurice, but when he names Paul Langeau, he finds out that the police are ahead of him. Captain Siska has already looked into Paul’s whereabouts and determined that he couldn’t possibly have killed anyone. He was asleep.
Asleep? Carl wonders incredulously. It sounds like a weird alibi, until he hears the details.
Paul Langeau is a test subject at Dr. Pollack’s sleep clinic. As part of an experiment, he’s been kept in a dreamless state and constantly monitored for more than 6 weeks. For the police, that takes Paul out of the case, but for Kolchak everything is just beginning to come together. He’s found the connection.
During a second interview with the doctor at the clinic, something strange begins to register on Paul’s EEG equipment; it looks like he’s having a nightmare, even though Dr. Pollack insists that Paul’s delta waves are being suppressed. He can’t dream. These odd and unexplained readings have happened a few times before, the doctor admits, but he can’t determine what they mean until after the experiment has concluded.
The next murder takes place at this same time, in the neighborhood where Bobby Ray Solange and Maurice Shapiro were killed. A policeman is on motorcycle patrol–when he runs smack into Pere Mal-fait in a dark street and is knocked off his bike. He fires repeatedly at the big, mossy monster towering over him.
“Ooh! Ooh! Oooh!” Pere Mal-fait grunts each time a bullet hits him.
This is the first good look we’ve had at the monster, and it’s pretty impressive–the hulking figure of Richard Kiel under a tattered, dripping curtain of moss like Marvel Comic’s Swamp Thing come to life, with one visible eye glowering through the gunk hanging down over his face. But that “Ooh!” sound makes this death scene less disturbing than the stalking of Michelle or Maurice’s abrupt disappearance, almost funny.
The bullets can’t hurt the creature, and the patrolman becomes Victim #5.
Now that he’s heard about Pere Mal-fait and suspects that the sleeping Paul Langeau has something to do with it, Carl tracks down Gene the fiddler at the studio where he records his music. Carl figures that Gene owes him more than 10 seconds of information for the 10 dollars he gave him; he wants to know all about this Cajun boogey-man.
Gene wants to get back to his recording, since studio time is expensive, but he does tell Carl the legend of Pere Mal-fait. It lives in the swamps and is made of “wet and rot and Spanish moss.” If you’re a naughty little boy, Pere Mal-fait will come and get you. “Squeeze the life right out of you!” The only way to kill it is to stab it with a spear made from the wood of the bayou gum tree.
Since a cop has been killed, Captain Siska is beginning to take Carl’s bizarre ideas about Paul Langeau more seriously. At least, he wants Paul awake for questioning, and shows up at the clinic with a warrant to override Dr. Pollack’s objections. Carl is there too.
Carl only now realizes that Paul was the sleeping patient whom Michelle Kelly bumped into and disturbed just before she was killed. When he looks over the printout sheets of Paul’s EEG records for the past month, he notices that those strange readings occurred at precisely the same times that someone was killed by Pere Mal-fait. (As he lists each date and time, Carl mentions a June date which doesn’t match up with any of the murders we’ve seen; the first we know of was on July 3. Script sloppiness? Another victim we never heard about?)
Dr. Pollack’s experiment in dreamless sleep has sent Paul’s mind into a realm of sub-consciousness that no human being has experienced before. Paul has conjured this mossy creature into existence out of his childhood fears and sent it after anyone he wishes to harm.
The best course of action is to wake Paul up and send the monster he’s created back into limbo, but Dr. Pollack has already given him two injections to bring him around. Paul isn’t responding.
The doctor can’t wake him.
The only thing Paul does respond to is a remark by Carl about sharpening a stick of bayou gum wood to dispatch Pere Mal-fait–and Carl is sure that it’s the monster that heard him, not the dreaming man.
“All his dreams and nightmares are over,” Carl murmurs. “I hope.”
But that’s not the end of Pere Mal-fait, as Carl discovers when he goes back to the INS offices that evening and finds the janitor mopping up water from the floor. A roof leak, the janitor says, but Carl finds Spanish moss on his desk, and realizes that Pere Mal-fait is existing independently of the late Paul Langeau. It’s still active, and it hasn’t forgotten that crack about the bayou gum skewer. It’s coming to get him… unless he goes after it and gets it first.
“Where would a swamp creature live?” Carl asks as he flees the INS building.
He soon answers his own question–the city’s sewer system. But before he can hunt this monster down, he has to break into the Botanical Garden greenhouse to cut a branch off their specimen of Bayou gum tree and carve a stake. Bet the botanist will notice that when she comes in in the morning.
Then Carl Kolchak ventures into Chicago’s sewers to play out his own version of the end of The Third Man, without the zither music and with a large, moss-covered dream-creature to contend with instead of Harry Lime.
We get a good, long look at the monster during this final sequence, and the only issue I have is is that the hands look too human. Kiel had no makeup or gloves on with the costume, and his bare fingers tend to stand out.
Pere Mal-fait does look particularly menacing as it first rises out of the dark water in the sewer tunnel with a bright light behind it. It’s my favorite moment in the episode. Carl looks appropriately frightened when he sees what he’s up against.
You’d think that after staking a couple vampires, frying Jack the Ripper, shooting at a werewolf, sewing a zombie’s lips shut, and rejecting a tempting offer from Satan’s candidate, Kolchak would be more cool about this kind of thing. But perhaps one never gets used to hunting monsters.
He tries to get out of there quickly, and realizes that he’s trapped; the manhole he used to enter the sewer has been shut and there’s a truck parked on it. Unable to escape, he has no choice to see this through and try to stab Pere Mal-fait through its moss-covered heart before he gets his own ribcage crushed.