Kolchak: The Zombie

The second episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker breaks away from the template established by the two made-for-TV movies that the show was based upon. And it’s educational as well!  Zombie on a crosstown busNo exotic dancers, massage-parlor employees,  or anybody  dressed like Barbara Eden get  murdered this time; it’s a clash between Italian mobsters and a black numbers-running syndicate that drives the plot of this episode. All the victims are men.

This story was co-written by David Chase, who would go on later in his career to write a great deal more about mobsters, but sadly very little about the living dead coming back to take revenge on those who killed them.

The episode begins with Carl Kolchak’s pithy voiceover narration introducing us to a trio  of low-level mooks counting up the receipts from their small-change racket in the otherwise empty back section of a parked semi-truck. Their work is interrupted when someone starts banging on the barred truck doors–the cops, they think as they scramble to destroy incriminating evidence, but the unseen person who bursts in on them proves more dangerous. After firing some ineffective shots, two of the men jump out of the trunk and escape. The third man, named Willie Pike, gets tossed around like a rag doll and ends up dead.

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Kolchak: The Ripper

Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, now and for always) is riding on an El train through Chicago and talking into his little pocket tape-recorder. Although his lip movements don’t match the narrative voice-over, this is what he says to get our story started on the right note:

“If by chance you happened to be in the Windy City between May 28 and June 2 of this year, you would have had very good reason to be terrified. During this period, Chicago was being stalked by a horror so frightening, so fascinating, that it ranks with the great mysteries of all times. It’s been the fictional subject of novels, plays, films, and even an opera. Now, here are the true facts…”

The first episodes of the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker aired in September of 1974, a little less than 2 years after The Night Strangler.

Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson were no longer involved in Kolchak‘s production, but the template for the episodes that followed was already established by the two hugely successful made-for-TV movies created by these two: world weary and wise-cracking reporter Carl Kolchak will continue to have brushes with the occult in the course of his regular newspaper work, and end up doing battle with supernatural creatures both traditional and bizarre. His boss, editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) will object strenuously to just about everything Carl does, as will the local police or other authorities involved in investigating the matter.
The Ripper
The worst I can say about this first episode is that it adheres too closely to the template established by the two movies: A number of attractive young women are murdered by a man with supernatural powers. Only, it’s not a vampire, nor a mad doctor looking for the elixir of eternal life. This time, it’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.

The idea that the famous-but-never-identified prototype serial killer was somehow immortal had already put forward in a short story with the above title by Robert Bloch, and also converted into an alien entity that jumps from body to body in an original Star Trek episode.

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DVD Review: The Night Strangler

Murder in Pioneer Square area

Both this movie and The Night Stalker are on the same DVD. I was originally planning to do both as one review, then cut it into two pieces at the last minute.

After the enormous success of The Night Stalker, a sequel was inevitable. This second movie aired on ABC in 1973, about a year after the first. The plot follows the same general outline as its predecessor: newshound Carl Kolchak investigates the bizarre murders of a number of women and discovers that the killer is a man with supernatural powers, but Carl has trouble getting the truth published due to the efforts of the city’s officials and his own newspaper’s management. But there are several differences that make me prefer this sequel to the original. First, the city where this second series of murders occurs is Seattle instead of Las Vegas, and the story makes use of an interesting historical attraction. And while I like movies about vampires and werewolves, I like it more when the monster is something a little more out of the usual.

In addition, the tone of this sequel is lighter, less cynical and more comical, and the story sets up tropes that will be part of the television series that eventually followed.

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DVD Review: The Night Stalker

Now that I’m finished with Dark Shadows, I’ve decided to go on to another short-lived but influential series that began life as a Dan Curtis production and the movie that started it off.

The Night Stalker, screenplay by Richard Matheson, aired on ABC in 1972. According to the interview with Dan Curtis on this DVD, it was a huge success, hitting the highest ratings for any made-for-TV movie up that point. Different from Curtis’s previous work with its gothic settings and trappings, this was a thoroughly modern and cynical horror movie that let a vampire loose to hunt in a big and brash city, and introduced a vampire hunter who was nothing like Van Helsing.

We first see Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), not in what would become his trademark seersuckerCarl Kolchak suit and battered straw hat, but as a guy in a T-shirt in a small and shabby apartment.  He pushes the Play button on his pocket tape-recorder, then gets a beer from a tiny fridge, and wanders around in the background before settling down on the bed to listen to his own recorded voice saying:

“This is the story behind one of the greatest manhunts in history. Maybe you read about  it–what they let you read about it, probably some item on a back page. However, what happened in that city between May 16 and May 28 of this year was so incredible that to this day the facts have been suppressed to save certain political careers from disaster and law enforcement officials from embarrassment.

This will be the last time I will ever discuss these events with anyone. So when you’ve finished this bizarre account, judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here…”


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Dark Shadows: The Very End

We’ve seen the last of Barnabas Collins, Julia Hoffman, and the Collins family of the 1960s/70s.

Back in 1840, Desmond Collins tears down the transdimensional stairway built by his cousin Quentin. He tells his fiancee Leticia Faye what Barnabas told him about the room in Collinwood’s east wing that intersects with an alternate reality, then they go upstairs to take a peek into the room.

Desmond and Leticia watch as the alt-Flora and alt-Julia discover the body of Lamar Trask on the carpet. The two alt-ladies have no idea who this person could be, but assume that he must have been stabbed by Flora’s mad husband, Justin; Justin is “the problem” alluded to earlier, the reason these Collinses lock their bedroom doors at night.

Flora and Julia quickly dispose of Lamar’s body by taking it out to the woods and burying it.

The focus now shifts to the alternate Collinses. We’ve seen the last of Desmond, Leticia, and the 1840s Collins family too. The final episodes of Dark Shadows play out in the other reality with a bunch of people we barely know.

The Lottery (not by Shirley Jackson)

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Dark Shadows: Leaving 1840

And leaving behind Dark Shadows in the 1970s too…

I stopped the last time with Daphne and Quentin finding themselves in that alternate reality that intersects with an empty room in the abandoned east wing of Collinwood.

They don’t stay there very long–only a few minutes, enough to witness Catherine accepting Morgan’s proposal and hear the alt-Samantha’s advice that the couple live somewhere else once they’re married. Alt-Samantha takes care of someone named Justin, who apparently isn’t able to talk but the family hopes will speak again someday. Then the alt-Daphne comes in, and Quentin and Daphne are suddenly back in the empty room in their own reality.

What’s amusing about this is when Daphne tries to explain to Quentin what’s just happened, repeating what Professor Stokes told her about “parallel time”. Quentin responds, “Yes, of course! The Weitzman Principle!”

Because a man who builds trans-dimensional staircases would immediately grasp these complicated concepts.  “But that was only a theory…” He’s read about the possibility of alternate universes and is fascinated at being in one, however briefly.

Desmond and Quentin face execution“This is the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me,” says the man who’s been accused of witchcraft by his best friend, who happens to be possessed by the severed head of a 150-year-old warlock in a glass box.

Once he’s back in his own Collinwood, however, Quentin is in danger of being recaptured and executed.

Gerard has been following the comings and goings of Daphne, her sister Joanna, and Dr. Julia Hoffman (who is going by “Julia Collins” in this time period) to the warehouse by the docks,  where Quentin and his wounded cousin Desmond have been hiding since they escaped from jail. Julia has patched up Desmond and says that he’ll able to travel soon. Quentin wants Daphne to come with them.

But Gerard has other plans. He puts a spell on Daphne so that she accepts his proposal and the wedding ceremony is performed right away in the drawing room. When Quentin hears about this, he falls into the trap set for him and rushes back to Collinwood to put a stop to it. He’s too late. Gerard and Daphne are married.  She’s free of the spell once she’s his wife; she knows that Gerard is really the warlock Judah Zachary, but she’s helpless to do anything about it.

Lamar Trask was waiting for Quentin behind the drawing-room door with a gun.  Not only is Quentin taken back to jail, but the police get Desmond too.

Poor Desmond never had a trial, but since he’s been consorting with a convicted warlock, the judges decide summarily that he must also be guilty.  Both men will be executed the next day.

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Dark Shadows: Daphne Discovers the Alternate Dimension

In the aftermath of his elder brother Quentin being found guilty of witchcraft and the family estate subsequently coming under the control of Gerard Stiles, Gabriel Collins seethes with resentment. Gerard, who is the real warlock around here, set Quentin up–but Gabriel doesn’t know that. He only knows that he hates Gerard almost as much as he hates Quentin.

Gabriel pretends he’s unable to leave his wheelchair, but he can walk well enough when he’s up to something. Increasingly jealous of his wife Edith’s relationship with Gerard and outraged at her constant insults to him about her preference for the other man, he waits until he is alone with her at Collinwood. He leaves his chair and sneaks around the house to jump out and strangle her.

Edith dead? Continuity problem: If Edith is dead in 1840, then she can’t be  the Granny Collins we saw on on her deathbed in 1897. Then who is? It’s not Samantha, Quentin’s wife, and there don’t seem to be any other options among the present female Collinses.

There have been other apparent discrepancies lately. Do the writers just not care about matching up their timelines as the show heads toward its final episodes?

Gabriel conceals his wife’s body in the abandoned east wing (since the house was only built in the 1790s, I begin to wonder if the east wing was ever occupied). The governess Daphne, wandering upstairs, makes her way into the empty corridors in that part of the house and eventually stumbles on that room that intersects with an alternate dimension.

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Dark Shadows: Warlocks and Witchcraft Trials

In 1840, Gerard Stiles, possessed by the warlock Judah Zachary, wants revenge against the Collins family since a Collins was among the judges who condemned Zachary 150 years earlier. He’s setting up Quentin Collins to be accused, convicted, and beheaded for witchcraft, just as Zachary was himself executed.

Desmond chokingTo start with, Gerard throttles Quentin’s cousin and best friend, Desmond, using Desmond’s cravat and one of those voodoo dolls so popular with the Dark Shadows witch community.

Gerard leaves the “strangled” doll on the trans-dimensional stairway that Quentin is constructing in his basement workshop / laboratory at Collinwood. Quentin displayed  the stairs to his supposed friend earlier and tried to explain his theories about the mutable properties of time and space–ideas which would sound more like magic than science to people who aren’t Time Lords.

Lamar Trask finds the voodoo doll on the stairs in time to untie the knot and save Desmond from choking to death, but the location makes him highly suspicious that Quentin’s work is satanic.

Lamar has also been extremely suspicious of Barnabas since the girl they were both in love with, Roxanne Drew, became a vampire, but whether he believes that Barnabas is a vampire himself or allied in witchcraft with Quentin fluctuates. Lamar’s the kind of guy who thinks that anybody he doesn’t like simply must be evil.

Quentin shows off his transdimenstional stairwayTo pile up the evidence against Quentin, Gerard has made a neighboring farmer’s cattle die; after the neighbor blames the Collinses, he is stalked and threatened in the woods.

Quentin’s wife Samantha’s and the vampiric Roxanne’s brother Randall is also attacked and killed in the woods. A note left beside Randall’s body bears the same circle-and-cross symbol as Quentin’s signet ring. Since Quentin is the one who stumbles over the body, he’s arrested for the murder.

When it comes to the inquest, Quentin is cleared of this murder charge, but it seems that the great state of Maine still has laws against witchcraft on its books as late as 1840. Lamar brings his accusations to the court and instead of laughing in his face and sending this looney on his way, the judge* has Quentin bound over to be tried as a warlock.

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DVD Review: Crowhaven Farm

John Carradine carries the old door This was one of those spooky made-for-TV movies that I watched in my childhood during the 1970s. Over the long years between now and then, I’d forgotten almost all of it except for the title and a handful of images:

  • A woman being crushed beneath a large, wooden door weighted with stones.
  • The same woman seeing that same door being carried and reacting in horror to it.
  • A little girl toying with a wedding ring.

It had something to do with a 17th-century witchcraft trial.

So, when I was buying a bunch of DVDs on Amazon recently and saw that this title was inexpensively available, I thought “Why not?” and added it to my cart.

Crowhaven witches Watching Crowhaven Farm again as an adult, the first thing that strikes me is how clunky and expositional most of the dialog is.

The second thing is that the story is a takeoff on Rosemary’s Baby; it involves a woman who wants to be/becomes pregnant and is menaced by a coven of witches. Some characters and plot-points are similar, even if they misdirect one’s expectations. But the key difference is that this coven’s focus isn’t on the baby, and the heroine isn’t as much of an innocent victim of happenstance as Rosemary.
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Dark Shadows: The Head

Barnabas Collins and Julia Hoffman are time traveling again, this time to 1840 to prevent events that will lead to the destruction of Collinwood in 1970. Aside from preventing Quentin’s murder in 1897, they really don’t have a good track record in changing the past, but they have to keep trying.

Since their arrival in 1840, the two have witnessed a variety of goings-on at Collinwood, some of it involving Gerard Stiles, the man who will become the evil ghost who destroys the Collins family and their home. But there’s one item they haven’t yet seen, and it will prove to be the most important clue to the future disaster.

Desmond and the Head Cousin Desmond Collins has brought back a curious souvenir from his travels: A severed head in a glass box. He doesn’t think it’s real at first, but after a couple of people die, he begins to realize he has something truly awful on his hands. Researching some old newspapers, he also discovers that the Head has a history in the neighboring town of Bedford as well as a connection to his own family.

The Head belonged to a powerful warlock named Judah Zachary, who was beheaded in 1692 for witchcraft. One of the judges at the trial was Amadeus Collins. Zachary’s body was buried separately and secretly, and the Head was displayed for a time in the glass case before it was stolen. Legend has it that if the head and body are reunited, Zachary will rise and regain his powers.

Wasn’t this the plot of The Thing That Couldn’t Die? A fine, goofy B-movie, but not the sort of literary classic the Dark Shadows writers normally borrow from.

By the time Desmond has learned all this, however, the Head has already exerted its influence over him and he’s compelled to search for its body.

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