Wednesday, December 26, 2007

For The Thousandth Time: Part II (Gone To Bed Series)

KOLCHAK'S COMIN' BACK...IN STYLE!!!! I am continuing my "Gone to Bed" column with a personal favorite that has always, and I do mean ALWAYS kept me company, cheered me up, commiserated with me, had a drink or two with me, consoled me, and gently put me to bed on ____ occasions (that information is at the bottom of the post). I speak of the massively influential (see "The X-Files, "Supernatural" etc.) and beloved 1972 made for TV thriller "The Night Stalker". It may sound like I've described a substitute spouse above, and well, to be frank, the "Gone to Bed" series is essentially just that - a media surrogate spouse. I'm sure that uses and gratifications scholars would be happy to hear that.

The Night Stalker was based on Jeff Rice's novel of the same name. The teleplay, adapted by the legendary Richard Matheson is certainly an economic and faithful adaption to Rice's original work, but I had read over the years that Matheson essentially turned water into wine with Rice's novel and after reading the novel several years ago, I feel that a good deal of credit must go to Rice for his work, which was exceptional and not in dire need of "saving" for the translation process to large or small screen. Matheson, as ever, turned in a very polished adaption and added his usual standard of excellence to what was, in my opinion, an already exceptional source work.

I first saw The Night Stalker when I was around seven years old (so, sometime around 1976 or 1977) and it made a huge impact on me. If I'm not mistaken, I saw it on the "4 O'Clock Movie" on WYXZ (Detroit) one day after school. Already scarred in a profoundly positive way by Universal's canon of horror and more importantly (from a psycho-sexual development standpoint - see pic just above if you please) Hammer's Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula, I found myself on the edge of my bed - gobbling milk and cookies, getting crumbs all over the place, eyes GLUED to the TV screen - especially during the showdown with Janos Skorzeny in that rickety, decrepit old home. I had trouble sleeping that night, and for a few nights after too. But, notwithstanding my excitement and fear, I made a friend that day. His name was Carl Kolchak.

Bill Gibron over at DVD Verdict stated ever so nicely:
"Carl Kolchak left that kind of impression on us highly suggestible youth. Ever since we saw him, an everyday Joe in a joke of a suit and a lark of a hat, we loved this demented, disheveled conqueror of the creepy. Whether it was battling a fierce and frightening vampire in The Night Stalker, and later taking on a sinister Civil War doctor with the secret to immortality in The Night Strangler, Kolchak was our Mulder. He was our Frank Black, a supernatural slayer like Buffy in a bad suit. He represented a retro revival of pure horror successfully meshed into the modern mindset."

Bill comes very readily to the point. Kolchak was a hero to me and countless others, a first- amendment, type-writer toting, bad suit-wearing, fearless slayer of monsters (usually however, the corporate entities were more fearsome than the "monsters"). Regardless, his unwavering courage was inspiring and his obsession with discovering and exposing "the truth" was a fine value on display to this young lad, whose world-view was constantly evolving at this tender age. Yes, warts and all, Kolchak was a fine role-model and remains one of Television's most enduring and faceted characters.

A few years later I was treated to the sequel to The Night Stalker, 1973's The Night Strangler. I can easily say that I am just as enamored with Strangler as I am Stalker. In fact, I quickly developed a crush on Jo Ann Pflug (which has lasted to this day). Oh brother, am I a sucker for beautiful eyes and a large toothy grin - both of which the lovely Jo Ann has in spades (this also explains my current fascination with Billie Piper, talk about eyes and smile, Eaaaaaaasy Wilbur...) As I was saying, The Night Strangler is every bit the movie it's predecessor was, and delivers a great deal more character development - especially between Carl and his ulcer-ridden grouchy counterpart, editor Athony Vincenzo (played brilliantly by Simon Oakland). The Seattle setting is picturesque as well as being tightly linked to the plot of the film, much in the same way Las Vegas was an integral part of The Night Stalker. First, Skorzeny's preying on showgirls was, as Carl puts it, not quite strong enough to "cause ripples" amongst the law enforcement community or citizens in general (at least not at first). Second, the industry/ownership/consumer interests of Las Vegas versus the public's right to know of potential dangers and threats, like a vampire on the loose, make for good sub-plot drama (which Peter Benchly would make good use of in JAWS, recall Amity Island's reluctance to share with the citizens the threat of the shark or the fatality of the first victim, Christine Watkins). In the same fashion, Vegas officials squash Kolchak's efforts to inform readers that there is a murderer on the loose for fear of ailing commerce as a result.

Now then, I had a VHS copy of The Night Stalker that I recorded off the telly for years, followed by the store-bought copy, followed by the Anchor Bay DVD release of the double feature Night Stalker/Night Strangler - now out of print (pictured at far right). However, MGM released the same double-feature a year or two ago - I didn't bother to buy it as I am quite satisfied with the Anchor Bay release. The two VHS tapes were completely worn out with massive drop out on both. The DVD has seen extensive use with both films being screened about twice to four times a month each. They took a back-seat for awhile when Universal released...

KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER. Finally. I did not see the Television show near as much as the films growing up, but I did catch the occasional re-run and LOVED them. Again, I would direct you to Bill Gibron's excellent review of the first and only season of KOLCHAK as I am more or less discussing my bedtime viewing habits and have neither the energy or inclination to add anything when Bill has already said it all. The TV series is flawed in some ways, but severely undervalued and underrated - I showed an episode in my TV Crit class and was overjoyed to read many journal entries that found it influential, refreshingly honest, quirky, well-written and, of course, funny. Kolchak and Vincenzo, what a team! That's about it for this "Gone to Bed" entry. Many more to come. LUCKY YOU! I'd like to dedicate this particular post to my good friend in Chicago, Darnell Grossberger.

Approx. 500 times


Ross Horsley said...

Wow, you really have seen The Night Stalker hundreds of times! I'm intrigued by this "Gone to bed" concept... The fact that many people watch certain films over and over again resonates with me somehow, even though I can't do it myself (I'm always craving the new). I hope to interview people and research the "phenomenon" at some point. Really enjoying your blog anyway - thanks!

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