Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Childhood Frights

The photograph to the right is of actor William Richardson, better known to the world by his stage name, Darren McGavin, in probably his most famous role (at least among people of a certain age), that of reporter Carl Kolchak from the 1974-1975 TV series named after him, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I have a copy of this very photo, autographed by McGavin himself, still hanging on the wall of my old bedroom at my parents' place in Baltimore -- "To Jimmy, Darren McGavin." I was probably six or seven years-old when my favorite aunt wrote to McGavin via ABC about my love of the series, which I watched in reruns a couple of years after it had been canceled. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to receive it and it's been one of the prize possessions of my childhood ever since, right up there with my French language edition of the D&D Basic Rules autographed by Gary Gygax.

A couple of years ago, a friend bought me the entire run of the TV series on DVD as a birthday gift. I already owned a cheaply made (and double-sided) DVD containing the two Kolchak TV movies that preceded the series, the original The Night Stalker and its follow-up The Night Strangler. Both are quite good and hold up surprisingly well after nearly 40 years, though The Night Strangler is clearly the weaker of the two films, owing at least in part to the similarity of its plot structure to that of its predecessor. Still, they're both excellent examples of American television movies from the early 1970s, when the form was still vigorous and occasionally groundbreaking. (The Night Stalker was also a popular success, earning the highest rating of any TV movie up to the time of its release)

I don't ever recall seeing the TV movies until I was much older, but I adored the TV series. After receiving my birthday gift, I watched the entirety of the series -- all 20 episodes -- over the course of several days, the first time I'd seen many of them in over two decades, maybe longer. Sad though it is to say, the vast majority of the episodes are simply terrible in almost every respect. Certainly McGavin and co-star Simon Oakland always give engaging performances and many of the special guest stars -- a veritable who's who of '70s era actors -- were obviously having fun with their roles, but the stories themselves are, with a few exceptions, awful B-movie level plots that don't hold up to even the most minimal scrutiny.

But, as a kid, I loved this show, probably because I found it just frightening enough. The episodes rarely showed much of anything gory or grotesque, partially due to their limited budgets and partially due to the constraints on TV in that era. While unsatisfying to my adult self nowadays, it was perfect for me as a child back then. My mind filled in all the details, resulting in some lasting impressions of how much more scary some of these episodes were than they actually are. A favorite of mine was "The Spanish Moss Murders," which dealt with a swamp monster from Cajun legend called Père Malfait. The episode give me the willies as a kid. Many of its scenes, such as the monster rising up out of the water in the sewers beneath Chicago, scared me a great deal in my youth. They seem almost laughable now.

My fondness for the show is nevertheless undiminished, as it was an early cobblestone on the path that led me to my lifelong love of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Though I'd never claim Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a good show in any absolute sense, it was a good show for me. It was a superb propaedeutic for an elementary school student fascinated by scary stuff even as he was frightened by it. And, for all its faults, the show had an impact on D&D. Gary Gygax admitted on more than one occasion that the inclusion of the rakshasa was due to his having seen the episode "The Horror in the Heights," in which the demon from Hindu legend figures prominently. That's got to count for something.


  1. For it's time, it was a great show. It also inspired Chris Carter to create The X-Files, so you and I aren't alone in our love for it.

    I had to go into the back room, on the old TV, and wiggle the rabbit ears (kids, ask your parents what that means) to watch it, but it was totally worth it.

    Still haven't seen the movies, but they're in my Netflix queue. I'm looking forward to them.

    BTW, I thought the reimagining of the show was crap.

  2. I'm with you in my enjoyment of the series and, while I wasn't fond of The Night Strangler, I thought (and still do think) the Night Stalker movie was great fun.

    Another show that molded my RPG future was Dark Shadows. Hokey, melodramatic, and with cheap production values (you could hear stage doors slamming in the background), I loved it and I think it's one reason I try to include a horror element in all my games.

    "Reimaginings" generally suck, because they get torpedoed by the show-runner's misperceptions of his own genius.

    security word: "Ethea," yet another Elf sorceress.

  3. I rather suspect that McGavin's most famous turn as far as most people is concerned is in the movie "A Christmas Story" as Ralphie Parker's Old Man. Sort of roughly in the category of "What? You mean he was in a band before Wings?", but still... 8/

  4. This ties with The Rockford Files as my favorite all time shows. If NS had the writing talents that worked on Rockford, it would have been insanely good. Still, loved it as a kid, and having not seen any of it for around 10 years or so, I would love to revisit.

    I remember being in elementary school, in Venice which was pretty tough place to live in the 70's. Even little kids, half of them latino, were little tough guys. When the teacher asked us to talk about the shows we loved, I got ridiculed for bringing this up. Most of the kids loved "That's My Momma" with Clevon Little or "Sanford and Son." I was shocked nobody else would at least admit they liked it.

    I guess the "geek gene" doesn't fully come up for some until Jr. High. That is where I met friends who loved Kolchak, Star Trek, and other sci fi and fantasy.

    Just an FYI, McGavin made an appearance in The XFiles, and he was originally supposed to be playing and aged and wisened Karl Kolchak. McGavin decided he did not want to revisit the character, mores the pity. Would have been a hella cool toss out to us fanboys, but maybe the old guy was just too out of touch to know what a fanboy is.

  5. Easily my most favorite show growing up in the 70's. McGavin, with his straw hat and pin striped seersucker suit, was alwasy enjoyable to watch.

    I remember the episode, "Chopper" was the first episode I ever saw as a kid and I've been a motorcycle junkie ever since.

    Aside from the series being released on DVD back in 2005, the original two movies that started the whole thing came together on a DVD back in 1998, released by Anchor Bay. There's also a great Kolchak: The Night Stalker Companion book that I own that breaks down each episode in depth that's nice for fans of the show.

    *The Spanish Moss Murders was one of my favorite episodes, as well. I remember Kolchak had to kill it with a special limb from some sort of gum tree, if memory serves.

    Good times!

  6. The Headless Biker episode is one of those episodes you watch with pure guilty delight. The story is alright, but whenever the biker shows up in his state of art (for 1975 TV) headless makeup effect, one must clutch the chest tightly to avoid breaking a rib from laughing too loud.

    Although I was inducted into the Kolchak Konclave until college, when I caught the series in reruns on Sci-Fi, I experienced a similiar childhood fright experience that stemmed from the 1972 made-for-TV movie, Gargoyles. I was rather nonplussed upon watching it again in my late twenties: How did this movie become so bad since I last saw it?

  7. I bought the movies pretty much on the day they came out. The show I watched last year on Netflix and pretty have to agree that it's mostly awful. Cheap sets and thin stories. The ones that scared me senseless as a kid were still fun (rakshasha and the American Indian spirit) but it's pretty poor. And, yet, I still love it and would watch in a heartbeat.

  8. @Michael Curtis:

    I experienced a similiar childhood fright experience that stemmed from the 1972 made-for-TV movie, Gargoyles.

    Good Lord, I thought I was the only one who remembered that made-for-TV movie! I loved it back then; it was another of my inspirations. I finally watched it again about a year ago ... and wished I had left it as a memory. :/

    Forgive the tangent, but I have to ask: does anyone else remember another made-for-TV horror film, roughly contemporaneous to Gargoyles, about a young couple that inherits a house, and the wife is stalked by the subterranean creatures who gain access through an old, sealed fireplace that (of course) should never have been unsealed? I've been wracking my brain for the title.

  9. While dated and hokey by today standards, I agree with you. Tonally this show scared me more than any other. But then again, I was only seven or eight years old.

    I also believe that this show, with it's monster of the week format, and Leonard Nimoy's "In Search Of" fired my prepubescent imagination up to no end, laying the ground work for a lifetime love of the uncanny, monsters in general, and dark fantasy.

  10. Ugh. I think I'm in the minority here. I remember watching The Night Stalker as a little boy with my mother. Nowadays I just wonder, "What on Earth was she thinking?" I was horrified. As an adult I rented the shows and watched a few. I can see why people would have liked it, but there are just too many negative for me to enjoy it.

  11. @ Anthony: I thought I was the only one who remembered that made-for-TV movie!

    No matter how obscure the title, I've found that someone in the gaming tribe has likely seen the same things you have.

    I've been wracking my brain for the title.

    You're not thinking of Bad Ronald by any chance?

  12. @Michael Curtis:

    You're not thinking of Bad Ronald by any chance?

    Nope, that's not the one, though it sounds like something I would have liked back then.

  13. CBS played Gargoyles a couple of times a year at night. I think they alternated it with "Night of the Lupis" about giant rabbits..starring Doctor McCoy!

    Bad Ronald was pretty good. A dorky guy's mom dies, and he still lives in the walls when a new family (with hot daughter) moves in.

    Does anyone remember (in a similar vain) "Twisted Brain," about a high school geek who is picked on, and takes some chemicals to become a super strong mutant at night. One victim gets cut up by one of those large paper cutters. I'm very sure this inspired Toxic Avenger.

  14. @Anthony: I think you're thinking of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark".

  15. @Jones

    That's it! Thanks. I always mixed that title up with Audrey Hepburn's "Wait until dark."

    Good heavens. There's a remake of "Don't be afraid..." coming out this year, written by Benicio del Toro.

  16. Take heart that the modern remake was much worse than the original could ever be!

  17. I loved this show as a kid, although I recognized a certain level of slapstick in McGavin's frenetic performance. But it did creep me out in a good way.

  18. Karl Kolchak was great. I was older than you, James, but I loved it just as much.

    I also loved Dark Shadows, Gargoyles, Bad Ronald, and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (which freaked me out).

    Wow, too nostalgic.

  19. Awesome post. I remember staying up late to watch The Night Stalker when I was a kid. I even used to run around the house with my dads old camera pretending to be Kolchak. My sisters took the roles of the vampires and other creatures from the show. Even though it's cheesy I still enjoy the show these days.

  20. I've only recently gained access to the show. I find that in limited doses it's very enjoyable. My wife and I enjoyed the movies quite a bit. I still haven't watched all the episodes of the show, though.

  21. I have to say, I am more than a little indignant that the rakshasa does not merit his own label (also my favorite Kolchak episode!).

  22. Loved the Night STalker! I would watch it with my dad on CBS Late Night. Got the DVDs too.

    I think that Kolchak: the Night Stalker and HPL's works have one thing in common: how they showed horror.

    James hit on it in his blog: you only got a glimpse at times. And sometimes that's all you need. They only opened the door, just enough...

    Imagination does the rest.

  23. Great Show.

    On a gaming note, check out the reporter mini from Bob Murch's Pulp Figures line: http://tinyurl.com/32dewua

  24. I loved this in reruns (must have been late 70s, while I was in jr. high) but I am not sure if I would enjoy it now. I guess I can put one on my netflix queue. I always meant to check it out when X-Files was on but never did.

  25. Well, I just went to Amazon to order the DVD set. I loved the show a young whipper-snapper! I'm sure it won't be the same for me now, but I'm sure my daughter will love it! Still, I'm looking forward to it! Time to share the love!! :o)

  26. Wow, are you guys taking me back. Gargoyles!

    James you know what part of Kolchak scared the bejeezus out of me every episode? The opener where the fan stops running - totally creeped me out, every frickin' time.

    Ah the 70s! Now I'm remembering Home Box Office repeats of The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Burnt Offerings ....

  27. Ok, another Kolchak fan...I vaguely remember this series but it was too distriubing and my parents would not let me watch it. I still have vague memories of sneaking downstairs when I was sick to watch it. As you and I are roughly the same age...so we would have been 4 or 5.

    But my memories of Kolchak was that he was a bald man and battled near the CN Tower...although, I could be confusing that with The New Avengers which I remember from about the same time...