Why 17 days? Because 17 is my favorite number.
Then the fall came. Back to school we went, but some of this misery was tempered by a new kind of horror, one that filled me with unrestrained joy. In the second week of September, when the networks’ new fall line-ups were premiered, nestled on ABC every Friday at 10:00 p.m. (9:00 p.m. Central) was Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a wonderful but short-lived series about a rumpled news reporter who made it his mission to rid the world of monsters.
I’m not saying every episode was great, however. Some of them kind of sucked and were only held together by excellent cast, especially McGavin as Kolchak. Still, those mediocre-to-bad episodes are essential viewing to truly grasp the vision of this series. That is why I am assigning the entire Kolchak series to my readers on a Saturday because its 20 episodes consist of roughly 17 hours and 6 minutes of air time, something you can easily watch in one sitting on a weekend if you stock up on Coke Zero and forgo college football.
I myself have never attempted a Kolchak marathon, although God knows I’ve wanted to, but if I were to do so, I would not take the series chronologically. Over the years, Kolchak’s 20 short adventures have been the subject of much debate among my friends, and we have often tried to rank them from worst to first, our preferred way to view the series. You can watch them any way you like, but if you want my opinion, the series will gradually improve to perfection if you watch the episodes in the following order, from the weakest to the strongest. You will notice that for purists I include in parenthesis each episode's actual place in the chronology as well as its original date of broadcast:
My Bottom 5 Kolchak Episodes:
“Legacy of Terror” (ep. 17, February 14, 1975) - An Aztec cult seeks to resurrect the mummy of their god by murdering perfect people, one of them being Erik Estrada. This episode jockeys with “The Devil’s Platform” for worst in my book because the bad guys are the Aztec cultists--in other words, people! No monsters here, not until the end when the mummy comes to life, and it only chases Kolchak for all of 30 seconds, if I remember right (I may want to watch again and time it). Overall, this episode was not terribly scary, just … boring.
“The Energy Eater” (ep. 10, December 13, 1974) - A hospital is built on reclaimed land inhabited by the Native American bear-spirit legend Matchemonedo which threatens to destroy anyone who inhabits it. Of course, the Matchemonedo is invisible, so we never see it, but it eats energy, so there are plenty of light bulbs exploding, power going out, and sparks flying. In the end, Kolchak gets an infrared picture of a giant eye, I think, but that’s about it. No cool monsters, so … again, dull.
“They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be ...” (ep. 3, September 27, 1974) - An invisible alien sucks down the bone marrow of its victims while it makes repairs on its ship and looks for directions home in a local planetarium. Note the word “invisible.” This is the reason why this episode is ranked so low in my book. We need to see the monster! Also, this is the only story where Kolchak fails to stop the threat. He simply uses the motor of his camera to annoy the alien so it does not suck out his bone marrow too, but in the end, the alien gets its ship fixed and leaves on its own accord. It is kind of weird that this was only the third episode in the series, a rather weak entry considering the two prior episodes, “The Ripper” and “The Zombie” are so effective. One cool piece of trivia: Sportscaster Dick Enberg can be heard on Kolchak's car radio calling Game One of a fictional World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, considered the two most cursed teams of the MLB at the time.
“The Sentry” (ep. 20, March 28, 1975) - A lizardman creature kills subterranean workers who have stolen its eggs. This one may be ranked in my bottom five, but it is kind of a guilty pleasure for its unapologetic goofiness. It loosely follows the story of the “Devil In the Dark” episode of Star Trek (the one with the fire creature called a Horta), but once we finally do see the lizard creature with its tumescent alligator head, all we can do is laugh. The series was canceled after this episode, which makes it a crappy way for Kolchak to go out.
My Next-To-Bottom 5 Kolchak Episodes:
“The Youth Killer” (ep. 19, March 14, 1975) - Cathy Lee Crosby stars as Helen of Troy, who drains the youth out of unsuspecting perfect victims. This one didn’t thrill me terribly as a kid, and watching it again as an adult, I am almost compelled to agree with Stephen King about the facile monster-of-the-week format. As the next-to-last episode, one gets the sense that the writers were running out ideas, or that the story-runner was a fan of The Iliad. Seriously, Helen of Troy? The idea of turning “the face that launched a thousand ships” into a monster might have seemed innovative in the writers’ rooms, but in execution it falls flat.
“Primal Scream” (ep. 13, January 17, 1975) - Defrosted ancient cell samples discovered in the Arctic grow into a savage prehistoric primate, which goes on a rampage. This episode popped up shortly after the show took its Christmas break, and while I do enjoy it even today, it is kind of forgettable, especially when you consider where it fell in the chronology. Just before the break, we had witnessed two of the very best episodes in the series, “The Spanish Moss Murders” and “Horror In the Heights” (with “The Energy Eater” unfortunately sandwiched between them), so we came back from the holidays expecting bigger and better things. Granted, a crazed primate on the loose is kind of cool, but Altered States would do it better six years later.
“The Knightly Murders” (ep. 18, March 7, 1975) - To prevent the destruction of its home, the spirit of a Knight reanimates a suit of armor to kill those responsible. Looking at where this falls in the chronology, just two episodes before the end, one gets the sense that the writers were grasping at straws. Still, while this one does fall into my bottom 10, it is in the top half of that bottom 10, largely due to some atmospheric kill scenes (the lumbering suit of armor still gives me shivers) and some decent sustained suspense when Kolchak faces down the evil spirit in the final act. Not nearly as heart-pounding as “The Spanish Moss Murders” or “The Zombie,” it is still a decent little ride that only drops this far down because the concept is silly and there are at 11 better stories in the series.
“Mr. R.I.N.G.” (ep. 12, January 10, 1975) - An android's quest for survival murders anyone in its way. The reason this falls into the bottom 10 is because Mr. R.I.N.G. himself is kind of goofy, looking like Yul Brenner near the end of Westworld (at least until the robot makes a human mask for himself in an effort to fit in). The reason "Mr. R.I.N.G." lands in the top 5 of the bottom 10 is because of the post-Watergate paranoia that permeates that narrative. Every episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker begins and ends with Carl Kolchak alone with his tape recorder recounting the tale that makes up the episode. In “Mr. R.I.N.G.” Carl is groggy from a series of experimental drugs that were administered by government agents to make him forget, and he is trying to get the story committed to tape before his memory is tapped. The idea that our government was capable of such acts--unthinkable to a child in 1975--was good for a few bad dreams.
My Next-To-Top 5 Kolchak Episodes:
“Firefall” (ep. 6, November 8, 1974) - The ghost of an arsonist tries to take over the body of renowned conductor Ryder Bond (Fred Beir), appearing throughout the tale as Bond's doppelgänger. When I first saw this one in the fall of ’74, I was disappointed when I realized there would be no monster. The ubiquitous “monster scenes” consist of the doppelgänger appearing in the form of Ryder Bond mere minutes before its victim bursts into flames. What pushed this monster-less tale into top 10 territory was a series of chilling scenes where Kolchak and Bond, fearing for their lives, takes sanctuary in a church where the spirit has no power to harm them. Not to be outdone, the doppelgänger torments them by appearing in the rafters and rapping on the windows so they cannot sleep. I don’t know about you, but that was some freaky stuff when I was a kid.
“Bad Medicine” (ep. 8, November 29, 1974) - Richard Kiel stars in his first of two appearances (the second would be “The Spanish Moss Murders” the following week) as a Diablero shaman spirit who murders for jewels to pay back his debt and be released from his Earthly bonds. This story preceded “The Energy Eater” by two weeks, making it the first episode to deal with Native American legends. Kiel, of course, is a powerful presence, and even dolled up with tan body paint and some admittedly un-PC tribal accouterments, he is terrifying to behold. Kolchak’s final confrontation with the Diablero is plenty tense, and the weird tom-tom music that plays whenever the Diablero appears is stuck in my head to this day.
“Demon In Lace” (ep. 16, February 7, 1975) - An evil succubus from ancient Mesopotamia murders young men to maintain her immortality. For those who don’t know, a succubus is an evil female spirit who seduces (in some legends rapes) handsome young men. In the Kolchak universe, she appears as a young and beautiful temptress, then transforms to a terrifying hag once in the arms of her intended victim. The only reason this episode isn’t higher on the list is because the six episodes above it are better, but this one is damn scary, and the succubus herself is freaky as hell. The legendary Andrew Prine (Simon, King of the Witches) guest stars as Professor E. Evan Spate, whose work on an ancient Mesopotamian tablet awakens the demon.
“The Trevi Collection” (ep. 14, January 24, 1975) - A sexy witch (Lara Parker, Race With the Devil) desires to control the world of high fashion. This clever mystery, excellent on many levels, features Kolchak trying to track down the identity of said witch, not realizing that she is right under his nose. One of the witch’s many spells involves bringing murderous mannequins to life, and in the climax when Kolchak bravely goes to confront the threat, there is a terrifying scene in which he wanders through a roomful of mannequins and keeps seeing them move out of the corner of his eye. As a kid, I was afraid to walk past window displays for weeks.
My Top 5 Kolchak Episodes:
“The Vampire” (ep. 4, October 4, 1974) - In the first made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, a vampire terrorizing Las Vegas left a trail of bodies in his wake. In this episode, just the fourth of the series, an overlooked victim of the Vegas vampire makes her way to Los Angeles and begins killing anew. This vampire (Suzanne Charny) is a beautiful woman, and she uses her sexuality to attract her victims, but once she is ready to feed she turns into a hissing, growling monster. The great thing about this episode is that no ugly prosthetics are applied to Ms. Charny when she transforms into full vampire mode. She maintains her elegant human form yet projects such rabid ferocity that she becomes a terrifying force of nature. The scene near the beginning when she digs out of her grave will give you spine-tingles.
“The Zombie” (ep. 2, September 20, 1974) - A grandmother seeks revenge for her grandson's death by turning him into a zombie to do her bidding. Anyone who loved Kolchak: The Night Stalker will remember this episode solely for the climactic denouement when Kolchak goes to neutralize the zombie by applying traditional voodoo magic. The scene where he attempts the ritual while the zombie lies dormant is claustrophobic and nightmarish, and if you watched “The Ripper” the previous week, you just know something bad is about to happen. When the zombie's eyes roll open ... classic horror!
“The Spanish Moss Murders” (ep. 9, December 6, 1974) - Paul Langua (Don Mantooth), a subject in a sleep lab, conjures up the Creole legend of Pére Malfait, a moss-monster willing to kill anyone who threatens its survival. It’s a toss-up between this and “Horror In the Heights” as to which one is the best. “Heights” is the better story, but this one had me holding my breath until the end. The Pére Malfait (Richard Kiel) is a hulking beast covered with Spanish moss who lingers in the shadows and emits an unearthly growl. In an early scene, you can see his reflection in glass doors and even catch a glimpse of half a human face smiling. Kolchak’s descent into the sewer system to track and destroy the beast is one of the most suspenseful sequences in the series. Interesting bit of trivial here. The name of the sleep subject, Paul Langua, sounds like Parlangua, another name for Pére Malfait, the legendary Louisiana swamp monster. Par langue is French for "by language." Pére Malfait sounds like par ma foi, which means "by my faith." In this episode, the creature is conjured by language and by faith. Pére Malfait also roughly translates as "badly made father." Look for Elisabeth Brooks, the sexy werewolf in The Howling, as a lab assistant.
“Horror In The Heights” (ep. 11, December 20, 1974) - A Hindu Rakshasa terrorizes a Jewish neighborhood. What is a Rakshasa? It’s an ancient beast that traps you by reading your mind and making itself appear like the person you trust the most. One of this story's great red herrings is when Kolchak notices swastikas painted all over this Jewish neighborhood, leading him to believe that these murders are the work of neo-Nazis. Little does he realize that a Hindu priest has painted the symbols to protect the neighborhood since the swastika was originally a holy sign to ward off demons. There is real tension in the climax when Kolchak runs into sweet Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt), the person he trusts most; the scene has been wonderfully established to make even the audience question whether this is the real Miss Emily or the ravenous Rakshasa. Easily the strongest script in the series, if you can’t pull the marathon, at least watch this one and “The Spanish Moss Murders” to give yourself a taste of the best Kolchak: The Night Stalker has to offer.
Previous Days of Halloween:
Day 1 – Baby’s Breath
Day 2 – Phantom of the Paradise
Day 3 – The Shining (miniseries)
Day 4 – 28 Days Later
Day 5 – 28 Weeks Later
Day 6 – Dawn of the Dead (original)
Day 7 – Dawn of the Dead (remake)
Day 8 – The Howling
Day 9 – Saló or the 120 Days of Sodom
Day 10 – Romper Stomper
Day 11 – The Valley of Gwangi