Thursday, April 26, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Night Stalker (1971)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker, written by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice) originally aired in 1971. It was -- and for many years after, remained -- the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970s, where down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor Tony Vincenzo.

It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out much hope.

In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their bodies drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit...

Kolchak considers this theory but runs into a brick wall erected by the mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die. 

Finally, once the culprit is named -- Janos Skorzeny -- the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. 

Realizing it is up to him, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. 

But in order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.

In this project, writer Richard Matheson provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even an unforgettable sense of humor. McGavin does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat, staccato delivery that remains unmatched to this day. Kolchak is not your typical protagonist, but rather a persistent little irritant with a nose for news, and a penchant for annoying those in power.  The story itself, about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas, remains more interesting for what it doesn't tell you. Rather than spoon feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.

For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. There's face paint, wigs, etc, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, be well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot (by director John Llewelyn Moxey). The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze

As a set-up for the first vampire attack (in a dark alley...), it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool (a shaky cam) and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot: the hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers ourselves.

Finally, I should note that it has been about six years since I last saw this tele-film, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up today. 

For one thing, the climactic moments of the film are much scarier and much more suspenseful than I remembered. 

Watching it this time, I noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The result is that the only sound I could hear during this extended sequence was my own heart beating in anticipation and fear. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that though we say he's a hero, he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment in this tele-film when Kolchak walks to his car by pitch of black nighttime. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him. 

He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of his predicament. 

There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (and embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and realistic. Again, we see Richard Matheson's sense of the human, of the ordinary, and we recognize Kolchak in ourselves.  McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. It wouldn't work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. 

As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series...) Next week: The Night Strangler.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "The Wizard" (1976)

In “The Wizard,” the Monster Squad learns the Washington Monument and Mount Rushmore have completely vanished. Walt (Fred Grandy) worries that America will become a country “without traditions” and he sends his friends to investigate.

Behind the missing monuments, Drac, Frank, and the Werewolf discover a villain called the Wizard (Arthur Malet). The Wizard is upset with the United States government because it sold him a thousand acres of worthless land.

Now the Wizard plans on miniaturizing and stealing all the nation’s monuments -- including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building -- using his “presto changer” device. 

Then, once the treasures are in his possession, the Wizard will restore them to their normal size and offer admission to visitors…on his no-longer worthless real estate investment.

“The Wizard” is yet another high-camp goof-fest on Monster Squad (1976), a Saturday morning series that tries hard to be funny but is generally only cringe-worthy.

In this installment, the Wizard -- possessed of his “presto changer” shrinking/enlarging device -- wreaks havoc in Arizona.  The monsters defeat him, but not before Frankenstein and the Wolf Man end up in shrunken form, and Dracula is hit with laughing gas.  Also in “The Wizard,” Walt develops a “universal antidote” to al poisons to medical science…and puts it into cookie form. 

There’s not much to note here besides Monster Squad’s slavish, persistent devotion to repeating Batman’s (1966 -1968) camp formula.  On that ABC show, however, the performers were better, the production design -- while ridiculous -- was also far superior, and a lot of the material was genuinely funny.  Batman is high art compared to this program.

One point to note here: Dracula’s (Henry Polic II) white pancake make-up is a good deal lighter and more flesh-toned in “the Wizard,” and future episodes than in previous ones.

This is an indication, perhaps, that either the heavy make-up was harming Mr. Polic’s skin, or taking too much time to apply. 

But the change in Drac’s complexion is very noticeable indeed, especially when one looks back at previous segments.

Next week: “The Skull.”

Friday, April 20, 2018

Lost in Space: "The Sky is Falling" (November 17, 1965)

In “The Sky is Falling,” a strange alien probe seems to assault Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), leading him to fear that an alien invasion is imminent.

The Robinsons attempt to calm down Smith -- this cosmic Chicken Little -- but very soon humanoid aliens do beam to the planet on rays of light during a matter-transfer process, and set up a small research facility. 

Like the Robinsons, the visiting aliens are a family: a mother, a father, and a young boy.

While Smith advises murdering the aliens before more of their brethren get a foothold on the planet, Robinson (Guy Williams) argues for saner heads.  

But when Will (Bill Mumy) disappears, Smith is able to ratchet up everybody’s fear and suspicion. 

He suggests that the aliens have abducted Will, though the truth is that Will is helping the alien child, who has developed an illness from exposure to the human boy.

Heavily armed, the Robinsons lead a small assault team, consisting of John, Don (Mark Goddard) and Smith) to the alien territory, ready to kill to retrieve Will. 

But the aliens are also suspicious of the humans, and are missing their son too. Worse, they have superior weapons…

“The Sky is Falling” is another great, classic episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968).  It rises right to the top of the  series catalog (alongside “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,”) in fact.

The idea underlining the episode is that, simply, on the frontier there are no second chances. 

Danger lurks around every corner, and fear is a constant companion.  But if that fear spirals out of control, violence is inevitable.  Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to control our fears; to remain rational in the face of the unknown.

In this case, Smith is the provocative agent of fear, playing on the Robinsons’ protective instincts towards Will.  Smith wants to destroy (meaning murder…) the alien family, even though that alien family has done him no harm, and has shown no signs of aggression. 

By contrast, Robinson argues nobly and logically against war.  “There’s every chance we can live together in peace,” he suggests.

But Smith won’t surrender even though, as he acknowledge, he has no proof that the aliens are hostile in any way.  

“Evidence? What do I care about evidence?” He asks. 

In other words, he has an agenda, and the facts be damned.

Robinson also makes a cogent argument about dealing with alien life and alien morality in general.  He thinks the situation through, even though others demand immediate, violent action. 

Specifically, Robinson asks what happens if the Robinsons do start a war, and they are successful in the campaign.  What happens next, when the thousands of aliens that Smith fearfully anticipates do arrive?  
Because the Robinsons have acted violently, they truly will stand no chance of survival. 

Smith -- as Machiavellian thinkers will -- dismisses Robinson’s ideas of “universal brotherhood” as hopelessly idealistic, misguided. When a person wants a war, we see, he or she will do anything to get it, against the better angels of our human nature, and against the simple facts, even. 

“The Sky is Falling” looks at this total irrationality, this tendency to react fearfully and in a cowardly fashion, in the face of the unknown. 

And remember, Lost in Space acts universally as a space age metaphor for the American West, and the settlement of that territory in American history.  The Robinsons encountering an alien family brings up, naturally, the idea of American pioneers encountering Native Americans, and the possibilities that arise from that encounter. 

You can either choose courage and peace, or choose fear, conflict, and ultimately genocide.  Which path ennobles us? Which path damns us?

Certainly, "The Sky is Falling" is a moral story worthy of Star Trek, because it concerns mankind choosing to be better in the future than he was in his past.  We do not have to be trapped by our history. We can overcome it. 

But, importantly, this exact story could not work on Star Trek as effectively as it does within the pioneer family paradigm of Lost in Space. Here, we understand what’s at stake: parents worrying for a missing child, and therefore drawing the absolutely worst conclusion about what has happened to him.  

Where our children are concerned, we want to take no chances.  We must be their vigilant protectors. And when we fear they are in out.  I say this as a parent, myself. 

But does this sense of paternal and maternal protection mean, lacking information, we should go to war…out of ignorance?  

That’s the campaign Smith begins in “The Sky is Falling.  Finally, only Will and the alien boy -- representing the possibilities of tomorrow, or the future -- can get the adults to lay down their arms and face each other not with fear, but with humanity.

Obviously, you can’t have Smith starting a war every week, every single episode, but “The Sky is Falling” finds a worthwhile use for the oft-over-exposed character. 

If the Robinsons represent the best of humanity the rational, caring, “pioneer spirit,” Smith represents the worst qualities: cowardice, fear, hatred, prejudice.  

When push comes to shove on the final frontier, the question becomes, which “human nature” -- Smith’s or the family’s -- will prevail?

“The Sky is Falling” is just about a perfect episode of Lost in Space in this format, reminding us that when we move on to the next horizon, outer space, we will take with us not just our angels, but our demons too.  

In terms of historic/canonical importance, this episode also gives Smith his first opportunity for another memorable catchphrase: “Have no fear, Smith is here.”

It’s important in context.  Have no fear? Smith is the one who brings the fear! It is his presence that nearly leads the Robinsons into a disastrous and unnecessary war. But, in typically self-deluded fashion, he sees himself as the hero.  As Yoda himself might tell him, wars don't make anyone great, or a hero.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Lost in Space: "The Oasis" (November 10, 1965)

In “The Oasis,” a drought imperils the Robinson settlement.

Even the water conversion units that Don (Mark Goddard) has installed in the desert can’t keep up with the family’s demand for water. 

Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) makes the problem exponentially worse by taking a shower, using up all but two gallons of the water reserve.

Desperate and angry, the Robinsons go out in search of water, and find an oasis in the jungle.

There, the water tastes strange and toxic, but several moist, mango-like fruits are growing.  John (Guy Williams) insists that they test the fruit before sampling it, but Dr. Smith and Debbie both break the rules and try the fruits

Smith, believing the Robinsons have poisoned him, heads off into the desert alone. 

Back at the camp, Debbie grows to colossal size after eating the fruit. The Robinsons realize that the same thing could happen to Smith.  He will soon be a giant.

Maureen (June Lockhart) goes to the over-grown Smith and attempts to convince him to return to camp.

“The Oasis” is a not-particularly compelling episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968), and one that demonstrates the series’ propensity to veer towards outright fantasy. 

Here, Smith eats an alien fruit that transforms him into a giant.  Despite the overtly fantastic elements of the episode, the special effects are handled with remarkable aplomb, and several well-staged trick shots sell visually the concept of a giant Zachary Smith.

Additionally, this is a strong episode for Maureen Robinson, who demonstrates her forgiving and sympathetic character.  Again and again, she takes the initiative -- though always asking permission from John -- as a go-between for the two camps, the Robinsons and Dr. Smith.  Maureen acts as a peace maker and as a friend to both camps, and does so without ego or self-interest.

Less intriguing, and far less believable are the family’s reactions to Smith’s departure. Once more, Smith does something absolutely selfish -- taking a shower and using twenty-two gallons of the family’s water supply -- and when the family responds with irritation, he doesn’t even apologize. 

Then, when he believes he has been poisoned, Smith swears to kill the Robinsons.  He sabotages and steals the last water conversion unit device. If he is going to die, then they will die too, he swears.  


Yet the Robinsons all mope about the camp, and discuss how much they miss Dr. Smith. They ponder the ways they could have been nicer to him, or more accommodating to him. Maureen has a sympathetic speech here about she considers Smith an “injustice collector,” and that basically, he’s harmless.

Only he’s demonstrated time and time again that he isn’t harmless.

One episode back he tried to sell Will to fifth dimension aliens.

Several episodes back, Smith sabotaged John’s rockets (or para jets), so he would crash-land and die on the planet. 

And, as mentioned above, in this adventure Smith sabotages the family’s technology so that its members will suffer a “lingering” death.

So why are the Robinsons’ so damn blind regarding Smith?  He’s an absolute danger to the family’s survival, especially on the frontier, and it makes no sense to romanticize him, or consider his antics “cute.”  They owe him absolutely nothing.

For me, this aspect of the series is the biggest stumbling block Lost in Space features at this point, and going forward too.  It’s not like Smith bumbles into trouble, is contrite, and learns from his mistakes. 

Contrarily, he seeks out trouble, is a coward, tries to extricate himself by any selfish means possible, and never learns a thing.  He just goes out and does the same thing again.

It’s Smith’s fault he eats the berries and his fault the water is almost gone. The Robinsons are not out of line to be irritated, angry with the guy. They could die from thirst.

Still, one artfully-composed shot in the episode explains the Smith vs. Robinsons conceit perfectly. In the foreground of the frame, sits Smith, self-satisfied and facing the camera. Far behind him, in the background, is the family. They are watching him. He is ignoring them. He is not only the paramount figure here in "The Oasis," but the paramount figure in the series.

In terms of questions of believability, there’s another funny aspect of “The Oasis” to consider.  When Smith grows to giant size, his clothes and boots grow with him.  How did the chemical properties of the alien mango manage that? 

Still, it’s far preferable to ask this question than to be confronted with the specter of a giant, naked Dr. Smith.

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Brother's Keeper" (January 14, 1971)

In “Brother’s Keeper,” Ben Richards (Christopher George) tracks down a man who could be his brother, Jason (Michael Strong). Unfortunately, Jason was in an accident some years earlier, and doesn’t recall if he is Ben’s brother, or not. This fact complicates their reunion.

Although Jason’s wife (Marj Dusay) is suspicious of the newcomer at first, Ben attempts to get the couple to leave their home and flee, before Fletcher (Don Knight) can locate them.

Unfortunately, Fletcher has already tracked Jason down via the orphanage where he and Ben were raised, and he offers Jason and his wife a deal to return to Maitland’s lab. Suffering under crippling debt, Jason agrees to Fletcher’s terms. 

Ben rescues Jason and his wife from captivity, but Fletcher is soon in hot pursuit.  During a scuffle, Jason is injured, and Ben realizes that Jason does not share the same special blood as his brother. 

Ben continues on his lonely journey…

“Brother’s Keeper” -- the final episode of the short-lived 1969-1971 series The Immortal -- is largely a bust. 

First of all, the episode was apparently aired out of sequential order by its network, and so not a legitimate “final” episode. The specific details of this narrative suggest that this tale occurs in the series continuity before “The Return.” 

In that episode, Fletcher notes that he and Ben have both visited the orphanage where he was raised for a time, and this episode shows those events. This episode also notes that Ben has not yet been “home,” to the family that raised him in his teenage years.  Those events are seen in “The Return.”

Even leaving aside the out-of-order airdate, “Brother’s Keeper” is a bit confusing. “The Return” suggests that Jason and Ben were raised by Joe, together, when they were both teenagers.  Yet here Ben doesn’t recognize Jason as the brother he was raised with.  This personal detail makes absolutely zero sense.  At most, it’s been fifteen years since Ben has seen Jason.  Jason may have amnesia at this point and not recognize Ben, but Ben would certainly recognize Jason!

Also, the episode brings absolutely no closure to the series’ themes or narrative, much in keeping with TV shows of the age.  Jason, we find out, may or may not be Ben’s brother.  However, he definitely does not bear the same type of “immortal” blood. So, we get no real answers about the “real” Jason, and this is just another episode (like “The Return” or “Paradise Bay”) where Ben encounters someone named Jason Richards, whom he believes, for a time, to be his sibling.  But again, there’s no certainty.

The episode also strains credibility at points. Jason and his wife are taken back to Maitland’s National Research Institute -- the belly of the beast, and Fletcher’s HQ -- and Ben effortlessly breaks in, rescues the couple, and breaks out.  Moment like these render the Fletcher character little more than the cliché of the “hapless pursuer.” His prey comes to him, faces incredible odds at his HQ, and gets away.  This is the point, obviously, where Maitland should fire Fletcher and get someone more competent to do the job.  The series has, overall, avoided having Ben engage in such crazy, suicidal heroic campaigns.

So The Immortal ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and yet I will admit it: it was totally worth it to watch this forty-five year old series. The production values were often outstanding, and some episodes (“The Queen’s Gambit,” “Man on a Punched Card,” “To the Gods Alone”) were great treasures.  I often cover series here on the blog, or in my books, that have survived the test of time.  They have endured beyond their original context and emerged as multi-generational favorites. Pretty clearly, The Immortal is not in this cherished camp, and remains an obscure, though intriguing series.  Apparently the culture has room for one “touchstone” of the man-on-the-run format, and that series is The Fugitive.  If I’m wrong, and it isn’t The Fugitive, it may be The Invaders, instead.  But it’s not The Immortal.

Despite the good episodes, The Immortal never manages to really overcome its formulaic nature, despite the occasional bright spots. As I wrote above, however, it was a treat to actually see the series for the first time, and to see some fine work on the part of choreographers, composers, writers, and directors, and the (late) Christopher George, and Don Knight.

It would be fascinating, I believe, to go back to James Gunn’s original book, The Immortal, and adapt that dystopian story utilizing modern special effects and sensibilities.

Next week, I move to a retrospective of another one season wonder: Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974).

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lost in Space: "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension" (November 3, 1965)

The Robinson family's every move is being scrutinized “from afar by weird alien eyes.”

These inhuman observers, however, can’t remain undetected for long. Judy (Marta Kristen) believes that she has seen something unusual on a scanner, and Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) witnesses a creepy alien ship -- resembling a giant eyeball -- land in secret.

Dr. Smith is abducted by the aliens -- strange, mouth-less beings with big domed foreheads -- and on board their spaceship he learns that they require a human brain to repair their ship’s navigational computer. 

Smith convinces them that his mind wouldn’t do the job, and suggests Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) instead.

Smith tricks Will aboard the alien ship, and the boy learns that he is to be permanently separated from his family. 

Meanwhile, the Robinsons and Don West (Mark Goddard) attempt to rescue him.

Realizing that humans suffer from “emotional blockages,” the aliens decide to let Will return to his loved ones.  What seems to the aliens a “form of madness common to all” humans is just the simple emotion of…love.

“Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” is a significant entry for Lost in Space (1965--1968). 

In many ways, it is the template for many future installments. In stories of this type, aliens visit the Robinsons, want to separate the family, and take malicious action to do so.  Meanwhile, Smith proves again and again that he is a duplicitous coward...

Many stories of this type repeat on the series, but “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” -- perhaps because it is the first  in a long line -- isn’t bad. In fact, some aspects of it are downright imaginative.  

For example, the alien spaceship is, for lack of a better word, dimensionally transcendent. Like a Time Lord TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Similarly, the macabre aliens, aided by the black-and-white photography, look authentically creepy at times. They lack mouths, but also bodies, so that they seem like ambulatory heads.  

Yet the aliens, for all their strange features, are not exactly evil. They want to return to their home, and wish to repair their spaceship.  To them, Earth is but a “minor planetoid,” and they have no understanding of human beings, or human relationships.  

This fact doesn’t mitigate their creepiness. In a way, it adds to it. These aliens aren’t out to kill the Robinsons, but they regard the Robinsons as inferior and unimportant, as humans might gaze at an unusual insect.  

The aliens don’t understand the emotional horror they suggest: separation from family, and also from individual freedom. They want to enslave humans and use us as spare parts (another idea seen on Doctor Who [“The Girl in the Fireplace,” and “Deep Breath.”)  That’s a terrifying notion: to be used, against our will, as slaves to unfeeling entities.

Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” is also the first episode that reveals, at least to this degree, what a true bastard Dr. Smith truly is. Other episodes have shown him willing to sabotage the mission and kill John Robinson.  He has tried to kill the Robinsons as a group in other stories, too.  But here he targets Will, and attempts to sell the child into the horrible slavery I noted above.  All so he can save his own miserable skin.

Honestly, at this point, Smith should, at the very least, be banished from the Robinson settlement.  He manipulates and tricks an innocent (Will), and is a party to his enslavement, separation from his family, and his possible murder, even. 

I know Smith is frequently described as a buffoon or comic relief, but in these early episodes, his actions are worse than that. They are truly reprehensible.  If he attempted to trick my son, and send him off with these particular aliens, I would have no compunctions about punishing him, and possibly killing him.  

Think about it: the Robinsons have precious few resources, and even fewer defenses. An alien ship shows up, and Smith sides with those aliens, and attempts to sell them your child. He puts his well-being ahead of the family, and ahead of the community.  

The sad but logical point here is that he is untrustworthy, and worse than that, malicious.  He deserves a laser blast to his (non-existent) heart.

Once more, Lost in Space also depicts an alien craft with unique and original touches. I loved the web-encrusted alien vessel of “The Derelict,” but the ship here is even more inventive in appearance.  

It literally appears to be an eyeball surrounded by stretchy-muscle tissue.  It’s a really great contrast to the very 1960s technology of the Robinsons.  And again, the production values of this episode far outstrip those of Star Trek (1966 – 1969).

Once more the story is also on point, focusing on the conceit of family, and family coming together in times of difficulty.

Corgi Space Shuttle