Saturday, October 06, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 33: Kolchak, The Night Stalker: "The Zombie"

All I can say is, they don't make 'em like they used to. This is my favorite episode of the 1974-1975 series, Kolchak, The Night Stalker. "The Zombie," written by David Chase and Zekial Marko and directed by Alex Grasshoff, aired more than thirty-three years ago, on September 20, 1974. Shot mostly in dark hues of impenetrable night (by cinematographer Alric Edens), this remains a pretty terrifying installment of the classic seventies series, especially during the climax.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker stars Darren McGavin as quirky Carl Kolchak, an irrepressible reporter at the seedy little INS (Independent News Service) in Chicago. There, he gulps coffee by the gallon and investigates all the city big-wigs, often clashing with his editor and friend, the long-suffering Tony Vincenzo (the late, great Simon Oakland). Kolchak's cases, however, all end up with an unusual and inevitably terrifying bent. Public or government malfeasance often leads to direct evidence of...the supernatural.

Lest we forget it, Kolchak, The Night Stalker aired in the era of "hero" journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, right after the Watergate Scandal. Embedded in the series' DNA is the then-popular belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and compliant "talking points" media. Kolchak - for all his failures as a human being - is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a matter where it takes him.

"The Zombie" reveals this "man against City Hall" aesthetic in spades. While investigating a gangland "syndicate" killing, Kolchak begins to suspect that a Mamalois, a voodoo priestess, has activated a zombie to kill the mobsters who put out a hit on her grandson, Haitian Francois Edmonds. Kolchak works every angle of the case, which allows him to consult the series' colorful recurring cast members, like John Fiedler's on-the-take "Gordy the Ghoul," an enthusiastic informant who works in City Morgue. The case also puts Kolchak in direct opposition with police captain Leo Winwood (Charles Aidman), who has a dark involvement with the mob case. In voice-over, Kolchak describes his relationship with Winwood as "long and bloody; like the Crusades...only without the chivalry."

One of the episode's best moment involves Kolchak putting Captain Winwood on the spot while he conducts an official press briefing (a ritual Kolchak derides as "a foolish game.") The Helen Thomas or Sam Donaldson of his day, Kolchak pummels the evasive Winwood with facts until the dishonest police captain threatens to have him expelled. Why our White House Press couldn't push Tony Snow or Ari Fleischer this way is beyond me.

Another aspect of the episode involves Kolchak tangling with Monique Marmelstein, the new partner Vincenzo has assigned him. Monique is a pudgy, annoying presence who got her job at INS through what she calls "nespotism" (but she means nepotism.) Just as the Winwood character is found to be corrupt; so does Kolchak here find corruption in his INS office. It turns out Monique's uncle is a powerful figure in local politics, so Vincenzo has no choice but to accommodate her on his staff. At a police shoot-out, however, Kolchak finds an inventive way to keep Monique out of his way: the always loquacious Kolchak jaw-bones Monique into hiding in the trunk of his car; and then locks her in. Not very nice. But undeniably effective.

The political undercurrents of Kolchak and the pervasive context of Watergate are always fascinating elements of the series, but as a horror fan I love "The Zombie" for its spine-tingling denouement. Convinced that a zombie is being resurrected nightly for revenge killings, Kolchak researches the ways to kill it. He discovers that zombies often rest in the "places of the dead" (mortuaries, graveyards, etc.) and that to kill one he must pour salt into the mouth, and then use needle and thread to sew the lips "very tightly" together. However, that mode of execution only works if the zombie is dormant. If awake, the undead can be killed by strangulation. But ever try strangling a zombie before?

Kolchak finds his living-dead quarry at an unconventional "place of the dead," an auto junkyard (where cars go to die...). In particular, Kolchak happens across the zombie in a wrecked funeral hearse. We watch with mounting suspense as Kolchak crawls in through the back of the hearse and methodically pours salt into the zombie's mouth. He slowly takes out the needle and is about to begin sewing the lips shut when...

...the zombie's eyes open and Kolchak - terrified - shrieks like a little girl and hightails it out of the hearse. I have to admit, this is one of the things I absolutely love about this character. So often in horror movies and television lately, characters face extreme situations (like vampires, zombies and werewolves) with a bit too much composure and acceptance for my taste. In keeping with Kolchak's 1970s-vibe and "everyman" nature, the character is foolhardy, but when faced with a monster, pretty damn terrified. I'm reminded (unfortunately) of the recent Bionic Woman pilot episode, wherein Jaime Summers takes in stride the fact that she is trading martial arts fisticuffs with a psychotic superwoman. In fact, she starts trading quips with the evil bionic chick almost immediately. And she's supposed to be a 23-year old bartender!! A little fear; a little anxiety; a little surprise would have been appropriate and would have given the scene the sense of verisimilitude it lacked. I like the Kolchak solution better. Upon seeing the zombie awake, Kolchak turns tail and runs like hell. "Suspension of disbelief" is important in horror and science fiction, and if the characters don't respond in a truthful manner to the strange events around them, I found suspension of disbelief is lost. For me, anyway. A lot of movies and TV shows today can't be bothered to actually generate suspense or have characters react in a realistic way (Supernatural, j'accuse!)

So Kolchak turns tail and runs through the junkyard, the white-eyed zombie hot on his heels. With a degree of ingenuity and on the fly, Kolchak manages to trick the lunging zombie into a noose, hence the necessary strangulation of the creature. But the point is that it all looks very unplanned, very spontaneous and therefore very human. Kolchak: The Night Stalker did things in this fashion all the time, and the audience found itself rooting for the little guy not just as he battled City Hall, but as he battled terrifying monsters too (or more appropriately, a different kind of monster than he found ensconced in the hallways of power). Of course, the very nature of episodic television assures that the protagonist survives his or her travails week-to-week, but the very fallible nature of this particular protagonist actually makes the viewer forget such convention and hold on tight to that critical suspension of disbelief. Carl has heart, but he's hapless and - like most of us - not exactly courageous in the face of the unknown. That's why I love the guy; he's us.

With its roving night-time camera, hand-held moments promoting immediacy, staccato character banter, sharp writing and unforgettably individual protagonist, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is really a shining jewel in genre television's crown. It's a one-of-a-kind production, and "The Zombie" reveals why. It moves effortlessly from comedy to social commentary to monsters-on-the-loose with utter confidence, not to mention an overwhelming sense of charm and fun.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bloggy-Type Business

Hey everybody,

I just enabled blog comment moderation - sigh - which is irritating and a waste of time as far as I'm concerned, but in the last week or so the blog has gotten blasted with an ever-increasing number of advertisements/spam disguised as comments. Medical marijuana, sexual enhancements, real estate sites..and other crap. I hate to see this sort of thing and it trashes up the blog.

So readers, please keep sending those comments: positive and negative. I intend to pass everything through as soon as I've seen it, except for the damn ads. I'm not interested in keeping anyone out of the discussion, just in blocking spam. (You can see some fresh spam on my first cult tv flashback, for "This Side of Paradise" -- you guessed it: marijuana; or a real estate come on in my Hostel review.).

Sorry to have to resort to this level of screening in a venue that works best as a dialogue, a give-and-take, but as the blog continues getting bigger and more popular (and thank you for visiting!!!) I don't think the spamming is going to stop. Alas, there's no mechanism on Blogger (that I know of...) for removing the spam comments once they are sent. This is the only way.

Thanks for understanding. Now feel free to complain...

Bantha Fodder: Er Dewback Fodder?

I'm often astonished when I look back at the toys from my youth and then at the toys of today's youth. For instance, when I was a kid, the superhero Aquaman (from The Super Friends!) was a stable, short-haired all-American (and rather Aryan...) looking-fellow; a blond version of Superman (down to the hair curl). Now, he's a one-eyed, hook-handed, mangy guy with a mane of long lion-like hair.

Exhibit B: Look at the 1977 Star Wars Bantha (from Kenner) versus the 1997 Bantha from Kenner. The 1977 Bantha (above) looks like a relatively placid and happy dinosaur, whereas the more recent Bantha (below) is snarling and appears downright mean!

What's the change? Well, I don't specifically think our culture is actually meaner now (though someone may want to debate me on that...), but I do believe sincerely that childhood is shorter than it was thirty years ago. We ask our kids to grow up a lot faster, I believe now, then we did then. Just go to a department store and check out the girl's clothing section and you'll see what I mean: she's asked to be a "hottie" by age five, which is not just ridiculous, but downright creepy. I have a little boy (Joel) about to turn one year old next Tuesday, and I want him to enjoy his childhood as long as possible without being affected by negative or adult images from the culture.

And like our ever-evolving American cinema - toys have become grittier and more realistic in the last three decades. We demand accuracy for our toys today, and of course, the design of the Bantha changed after the 1997 Star Wars special edition and the advent of CGI. Also, let's face it, anything with the name Star Wars on it now has two prospective buyers: a six-year old kid and the thirty-six year old (like me!). So a balance has to be struck between the kid market and the collector's market.

I'd rather Joel play with the 1970s Bantha when he's really little, and then work up to the more angry one when he's ten or so.

Blogger's Note: My friend Chris Johnson just pointed out to me that the creature (and toy) in question is a Dewback and not a Bantha. He has revoked my geek credentials!!!! Great, now I'm on probation...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

TV REVIEW: Journeyman

I finally got around to watching the pilot of the NBC time-travel series, Journeyman and I have to say that it didn't suck. In fact, despite some problems here and there in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of time-hopping, it's the best of the three new network genre series I've watched this season (the other two being the dead-on-arrival Bionic Woman and the less-than-inspiring Moonlight). Still haven't watched Reaper. That's next, I guess.

Anyway, back to Journeyman. Created by Kevin Falls, this is the sci-fi story of a character named Dan Vassar (Rome's Lucius Vorenus, Kevin McKidd), a married reporter who works at the San Francisco Register and who boasts the network mandated cute kid (little Zack), gorgeous wife, Katie (Gretchen Egolf) and stunningly-perfect Victorian house on a hill. Vassar's brother, Jack (Reed Diamond) is a cop who once dated Dan's wife. Meanwhile, Dan still pines for an old girlfriend, Livia Beale (Day Break's Moon Bloodgood); the one that got away.

With very little preamble or fanfare, Dan suddenly begins to travel through time, taking a quantum leap of sorts back to the Reagan era of 1987. We know he's time-traveled because suddenly Dan's walking around in a world of oversized shoulder-pads, and Bryant Gumbel reports on the Today Show that the Robert Bork Supreme C
ourt confirmation hearings are underway. During his sojourn, Vassar ends up saving a man named Neal Gaines from committing suicide, and then returns to the present (though the audience doesn't get to see how he does so...) and his co-workers, brother and wife Katie all think he's nuts. In fact, they think he's on drugs and stage an intervention for him.

Before long, Dan is hopping back in time regularly, and every journey seems intent on putting him right into the path of the same person: Neal Gaines. During one venture, Dan convinces Neal's girlfriend not to have an abortion. On his final journey, Dan provides the linchpin event leading up to Neal's death (in 1997...) just as the unhappy Neil was about to kill his wife and child. Dan comes to realize he has been traveling through time not for Neal, but for Neal's son, who would one day grow up to become a doctor...and a person who would save the life of half-a-dozen school kids following a bus accident. Complicating matters for Dan, he encounters his old girlfriend Livia during his frequent time tunnelings, but not just the Livia of the past. Nope: it turns out Vassar's ex-girlfriend is time traveling too. She instructs him not to mess anything up while he's in the past; only pay heed to his instincts. This aspect of the plot is clearly the most tantalizing. Why is Livia time-traveling? Did she pick Dan to travel too? Who is behind all this?

Although it is certainly easy to make jokes about Quantum Leap and Time Tunnel, Journeyman so far seems to most closely resemble a different sort of time travel series: the Eliza Dushku venture from a few years back, Tru Calling. On Tru, as you might or might not recall, our heroine (Dushku) could do a day over and over again and help somebody in dire need of assistance and who was destined to die on that very day. In the process of helping others, however, Tru's actions had a ripple effect on the present, not the least of which occurred in her own personal and professional life. That template very much seems to be the premise here: with Dan making a mess of the present to save lives in the past. Also, Tru had to worry about another day traveler (a villainous sort played by Jason Priestley); and we still don't know whether time-traveler Livia is here a friend or a foe.

Journeyman posits a most inconvenient sort of time travel. Apparently past and present just keep rolling along, no matter what. Which means that Dan suddenly gets scooped out of his car (while driving...) into the past of 1997. In the present, his car hits a pole and two other vehicles, but he's not driving - he's not even around! (He should have a bumper sticker: Gone Time Travelin'). Someone should also make a law against time travelers holding valid driver's licenses, I guess.

Based on this pilot, the primary strength of Journeyman is neither the warmed-over time travel premise, nor the particular details of those temporal excursions. Instead, Kevin McKidd holds the screen well as the troubled and confused lead, and he's given a genuine emotional crisis to deal with. Consider that on most TV shows of this nature, a man with a wife and child would be traveling back in time and trying desperately to get back to them, his beloved family. Well here, that married man still holds a candle for his long lost love, but if he changes anything about his romantic history, he risks losing the son, Zack, he has in the present of 2007. Talk about a difficult path. Would you risk losing your child for the one true love of your life? Which would you pick? I must admit, I haven't seen this particular dilemma played out on TV that frequently, and as long as Journeyman doesn't drop the notion, and doesn't make this an obvious, cheap or easy choice for Dan, the character fireworks might offer enough of a reason to return. Already, ratings are low, so Journeyman may not have much of a future.

But again, it's refreshing to watch a new sci-fi series that is neither loaded with familiar cliches (Moonlight) nor a re-imagination posing as a bad-ass, tough-talking CGI MoFo (Bionic Woman) while recycling the worst elements of the far-superior Dark Angel. Bottom line: I'll take this journey on NBC at least for a couple of episodes to see how things develop.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Comic Book Flashback # 8: Adventures on the Planet of the Apes: "World of Captive Humans" (1975)

Marvel Comics did a terrific job in the 1970s of expanding and developing the simian universe of the Planet of the Apes films. They not only published an outstanding black-and-white magazine (replete with articles about the making of the five feature films and television series), the company also released a color comic-book line adapting the films, "Adventures on the Planet of the Apes" (presented by the ubiquitous Stan Lee). 

I remember, I always purchased my copies at a huge comic-book booth inside a building at the Englishtown flea market in New Jersey. Those were great days to be a kid. 

In this particular issue, from November 1975, the first Apes feature, Planet of the Apes, is adapted in loving detail, with even a few embellishments. The story picks up here with Taylor (who looks nothing like Charlton Heston...) shot and unconscious after the cornfield hunt. He is dragged to a truck/cage, where he will make the journey to Ape City. One of the ape hunters claims to have heard the injured man speak, but his simian cohort warns him that "attributing intelligence to a human is a sin...a very serious one." 

Unlike the filmed version, we're also made privy to Taylor's thoughts on the long ride to the simian metropolis as he comes to. "This is insane," he muses during an interior monologue, "and I can't say a word about it. My throat's been ripped open. If I lose much more blood, I'll..." And then he collapses. How's that for some exposition? 

This issue follows Taylor to Ape City and the blood transfusion with lovely Nova, as well as his first encounter with kindly chimpanzee behavioralist, Dr. Zira. "World of Captive Humans" also introduces Dr. Zaius, probably my favorite character in the entire Apes saga, and Cornelius. The issue ends with Taylor's shocking note to Zira ("My Name is Taylor.")

I've kept quite a few of these ape comics for more than thirty years ago. I remember when I was in middle school, when I stayed home sick, I would drag all the comics out of my closet, order them sequentially, and read them oe after the other, from start to finish, reliving the movies..