Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Welcome to my childhood nightmare.

Goblins behind books

I first saw this 1973 made-for-TV movie when I was 9, and it haunted me for years. I had nightmares related to it as late as 17, even after I’d seen the movie again and was old enough to realize that its special effects were on the cheap side.

Even now, as a grown-up who’s seen it multiple times, something of that childhood fear still lingers in the back of my mind, impossible to shake. Just last year, when I pulled open an access panel in the wall for one my house utilities and gazed down into the black space between the walls, I couldn’t help thinking, “I hope there aren’t any little goblins living down in there.”

I’ve been considering on and off for years acquiring this movie on DVD and reviewing it; when I was purchasing Trilogy of Terror recently and Amazon thought I might like this too, I finally took the plunge. And here we are.

The movie starts with a hissing black cat, who has nothing to do with the story and will never be seen again. Over a shot of a large and handsome old Victorian house looking spooky in the night-time, we hear a number of creepy whispered voices having a conversation. The one who answers the others’ questions appears to be in charge:

“Will she come?”

“Do you think she’ll come?”

“She will. You know she will.”

“But when? When?”

“Very soon. It’s just a matter of time, of waiting for awhile. All we have to do is bide our time. Bide our time.”

“But it’s been so long. So many years. We wish she’d come and set us free. Set us free.”

“Patience, please. Patience. We’ve all the time in the world. All the time in the world.”

“In the world! All the time, to set us free in the world!”

Then they all laugh in a diabolical kind of way.

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Trilogy of Terror

In the mid-1970s, Karen Black was at the height of her career. She had worked with those directors and actors–Francis Ford Coppola, Waiting for MomJack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper–who were changing American film during that era, as well as established film-makers like Alfred Hitchcock. She’d won two Golden Globe awards, and would be nominated for another. She had also received one Oscar nomination and was even up for a shared Grammy for her song work in Robert Altman’s Nashville.

But when her name comes up among people of my generation, the words that we automatically associate with it are “Zuni fetish doll.”

No one who saw this 1975 made-for-TV movie, directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, when they were a child has ever forgotten the final segment.

While I can’t call the first two segments of this trilogy terrifying, I do think they’ve been unjustly disregarded. Along with the third segment, they provide Black with a rare opportunity for a young actress to showcase her talent by playing 4-to-6 different characters (depending on how you want to count them), from meek to menacing. One might assume that she chose this TV movie as a vanity project, but she always said that, when it was first offered to her, she didn’t want to do it.

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Kolchak: The Energy Eater

Matchemonedo In spite of the not terribly descriptive title, this is an episode I’m fond of. It features one of those extremely low-budget invisible monsters–but it’s a interesting invisible monster, when the viewer does sort of see it.

The episode begins with Carl Kolchak writing, and narrating, from a hospital bed, about the  construction of Chicago’s new Lakefront Hospital. The dedication ceremony to open the place officially and show off the up-to-date medical equipment was a major press event, but once we go to flashback we see that Carl attends only grudgingly. This isn’t the kind of news story he’s interested in.

He rejects the standard press packet–and is very condescending to the young woman who offers it to him (“That’s very good. You remembered that all by yourself?”)–and gets sulky when he misses the opportunity to get a drink before the hospital administrators make their speeches.

Then the lights flicker; that rouses Carl’s curiosity. The building is brand new, so why is it having electrical problems already?

Unbeknownst to Carl (at that time, but since it features in his voice-over narrative, we can be sure that he learned all about it later), a man has just been electrocuted in the basement. There’s some sort of tremor that cracks the walls, and a high-voltage breaker panel behind him explodes in a shower of sparks.

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Kolchak: The Spanish Moss Murders

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.

Kolchak and some Spanish Moss “Look,” she said, “it’s that stuff you see growing on trees in movies about the South.”

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.”

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Kolchak: Two episodes

The Devil’s Platform

Devil doggie. Are the fangs fake?“Palmer is evil incarnate! He’s going to go all the way to the White House, to the Oval Office!”

Not one of my favorites, but I suppose it was inevitable in the immediate post-Watergate era.

In brief, a Chicago politician (Tom Skerrit) has sold his soul to the Devil. (I know, I know — Just the one?) To facilitate his meteoric rise from obscurity to the Senate, and perhaps beyond, Bob Palmer gets rid of all who oppose him by killing them off in horrific and somewhat flamboyant ways. Occasionally, he accomplishes these matters personally in the form of a big woofums doggie, which is kind of cute when it’s not snarling ferociously.

Carl Kolchak gets in Palmer’s way while waiting for an elevator at a high-rise building. The elevator is coming down much too fast, since Palmer and his about-to-be-late campaign manager are inside, along with a number of other unfortunate people. Carl hears their screams as the elevator drops and, after it crashes into the basement, rushes downstairs to get a photo.

In addition to all the now-dead people in the elevator, there is also the doggie wearing a pentagram on a chain around its neck. No sign of Palmer. As the dog leaps past Carl, the chain catches on his coat sleeve and he winds up in possession of the pentagram–and pursued by the dog.

When Palmer’s opponent for the Senate dies in a car crash that evening, it occurs to Carl that there’ve been a lot of weird deaths surrounding Palmer’s campaign. Then he notices a photograph of Palmer wearing the same pentagram.

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Kolchak: Firefall

I’ve always been fond of this episode, in spite of its flaws. It shows a certain originality in merging the phenomena of spontaneous human combustion with the ages-old myths and legends of the double spirit, fetch, or doppelganger; the only similar supernatural story I’ve seen occurred in the Dark Shadows Phoenix plotline. I  mentioned this episode when I reviewed that and wondered if both might’ve been written by the same person (they weren’t).

Crossing the hearseIt’s a bad idea to cut off a hearse en route to a funeral. That’s the lesson famed Chicago Symphony conductor Ryder Bond (Fred Beir) will learn after he does precisely this to avoid being late for a rehearsal at the very beginning of the episode. The spirit of the deceased man, a convicted arsonist and cheap hood with thwarted musical ambitions by the name of Frankie Markoff, decides that the life Bond is living is much better than the one he recently departed from in a hail of mob bullets. He sets about taking over Bond’s life.

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DVD Review: The Legend of Lizzie Borden

LizzieLizzie Borden took an axe
Gave her father 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
Gave her mother 41.

Now that that’s out of the way, I must point out that most of the details in this famous poem are wrong.

Abby Borden was killed at least an hour before her husband, not long after 9:30 on the morning of August 4, 1892; she was last seen alive going up to the guest room of her home in Fall River, Massachusetts, to put fresh pillowcases on the bed. Her husband Andrew was murdered around 11:00 that same morning. Although both were struck multiple times with an axe or hatchet, the number of blows in each case was much less than 40/1.

And even though general opinion over the last century is that Lizzie Borden is the most likely person to have killed her stepmother and father, she was acquitted at her trial.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden was a made-for-TV movie that first aired ABC early in 1975 as a vehicle for Elizabeth Montgomery. In the years following Bewitched, Montgomery chose to play a series of serious and critically acclaimed roles in controversial dramas–in this case, America’s most well-known probable axe murderer.*

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Kolchak: The Werewolf

Werewolf on a cruise ship (I know, I know, it’s serious)

Kolchak and the cruise ship There’s a lot I really like in this episode, and one thing that really lets it down. But we’ll save that for later.

After the usual introductory framing narration, which has Carl Kolchak sitting on a dock with the cruise ship he’s just disembarked from visible behind him, this week’s episode begins in snowy Chicago shortly before Christmas. The staff at INS is throwing a holiday party that doubles as a bon voyage for editor Tony Vincenzo, who is headed out for an all expenses paid working vacation aboard the passenger liner Hanover, a “floating anachronism” that’s been in service since the 1930s and has finally been run out of business by the jet age.

For those observing the evolution of the character Miss Emily, Ruth McDevitt appears briefly here for the first time as the INS staff  “office mother,” but the name of her character isn’t Emily; it’s Edith Cowells.

Unfortunately for poor Tony, a phone call in the middle of the party puts an end to his vacation plans. Accountants from the New York INS offices are coming to audit the Chicago INS office partyoffice’s accounts and Tony has to be there to pick them up at the airport–the same airport he was going to fly out of.  Since he can’t go and half the office staff are down with flu, Tony gives Carl his tickets and an assignment to write a nostalgia piece about the Hanover’s final journey, which happens to be a swinging singles cruise. Carl is also expected to deliver some personal interest stories about his fellow passengers.

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Kolchak: The Vampire

The Vampire

“This vampire didn’t come from Transylvania. It came from Las Vegas!”

Although no one says so distinctly–probably for copyright reasons–this episode is a sequel to the original Night Stalker movie.

Catherine Rawlins, the eponymous vampire, is another victim of Janos Skorzeny, never found during the time he stalked Las Vegas. Now, she returns from her unmarked grave.

The story begins one night about three years after the events of The Night Stalker in the desert just outside Las Vegas. A lone driver takes a wrong turn and finds herself on a dead-end road that’s closed for repairs, then she a flat tire. She gets out to change it, cutting her hand in the process and dripping a small amount of blood on the ground just off the road near her car.

While she changes her tire, she doesn’t immediately notice an upheaval in the sandy ground behind her. Two slightly out-of-focus hands emerge from the earth.

Hands!Unexpectedly for the beginning of a Kolchak episode, the car’s driver doesn’t become the newly-risen vampire’s first victim. When she finally sees the hands reaching up out of the ground, she abandons her car and runs away screaming into the night. Civilization mustn’t be very far away. Carl Kolchak’s narrative informs us that by the time the woman returned with the police, there was no sign of a body, dead or undead, by the roadside. The police dismissed the report as coming from an hysterical and over-imaginative kook.

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Kolchak: They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…

This isn’t one of my favorite episodes; I usually skip over it on the DVD. But I’ll bet that Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, likes it more than I do. He’s always attributed the inspiration for his own show to his teenaged watching of the Kolchak series, and you can certainly see some inspiring points in this particular episode.

Carl Kolchak sits at his desk in the INS offices, speaking into his pocket tape recorder:

SpaceshipI knew this would be more than the biggest story of my career. It was the biggest story in the lives of everyone on this planet. I fought for the story, fought harder than ever before.

I wanted people to know, to be prepared–if you can be prepared for something like this…

As usual, Carl’s story of bizarre happenings in the Chicago area begins with a murder–not a woman or a man this time, but a cheetah at the Lincoln Park Zoo. The big cat is attacked by some unseen menace in its cage one night (and I wonder what they were really doing to the poor thing to make it look so agitated).

When his editor Tony Vincenzo tells Carl about the cheetah being “missing” the next morning, he says that this is old news. He’s confused it with a “missing” panther from the day before. When Tony corrects him, Carl recalls that a panda died at the same zoo last week, and this pattern interests him enough to pursue the story.

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