Tuesday, June 16, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #78: Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "Horror in the Heights"

"I've seen more corpses than you've eaten TV dinners..."

- Kolchak, to a metro cop, in "Horror in the Heights."

On December 20, 1974, the short-lived ABC supernatural TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker aired one of its creepiest and most memorable installments.

In "Horror in the Heights," our Watergate-Era, crusading investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) combats a devilish creature who can appear to an unwary victim as that person's most trusted friend or relative.

Penned by Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein [1970], Fear in the Night [1972]), "Horror in the Heights" specifically concerns a mythical Indian beast called a "Rakshasa" preying on Jewish senior citizens in Roosevelt Heights, a section of Chicago that Kolchak (Darren McGavin) reports doesn't "appear in the city guidebook." That's probably so because municipal authorities don't want to draw attention to the poverty-ridden slum. It's a place, in the INS reporter's words, where "fixed incomes" battle "galloping inflation."

Lately, there have been a rash of deaths in the Heights, and the non-plussed police officers blame hungry rats for the corpses -- stripped of skin -- that seem to be popping up at an alarming rate. Senior citizen Harry Starman (Phil Silvers) has a different opinion, however. He believes that the owner of a local Indian Restaurant is actually a Nazi, and that this foreigner is behind the killings of the elderly locals. As his evidence Harry shows Kolchak the swastika graffiti painted all over the Heights, and particularly in the Hindu's backyard.

What Kolchak discovers, however, is that the Swastika is actually a Hindu symbol, one often deployed to "ward off evil spirits." And it isn't the rats doing the killing either, but rather the demonic Rakshasa or "flesh-eater."

Far from being a Nazi, the old Hindu has devoted sixty years of his life to hunting the Rakshasas, beasts who "send emissaries into the living world" to see if the time is ripe for a re-appearance.

And when, precisely is the time ripe for the Rakshasa's return? The old Indian confides in Kolchak that it will be an epoch of "mistrust," "moral decline" and "decadence."

In other words...now.

The only weapon that can destroy a Rakshasa is a crossbow loaded with steel bolts, but the Hindu warns Kolchak that the Rakshasa is fiendishly clever...that it can appear to its enemy in the guise of a person most trusted and most beloved.

Kolchak isn't certain he believes all this, but then-- in darkest night -- he spots his dear friend, elderly Miss Emily, alone in the dark before him. Kolchak tells her not to approach, but she reaches out for him gently, saying that she's frightened...

Like virtually all episodes of this exquisite old horror series, there's a seedy, twilight, slightly unhinged aura to "Horror in the Heights." Early in the episode, for instance, an old Jewish man named Buck is confronted by the Rakshasa after playing an illicit game of poker on Friday night. Gambling on Friday is against Hebrew edict, and the Rakshasa takes the form of Buck's guilt: as his disapproving rabbi. Caught in the act, the repentent old man confesses to his rabbi, and the beast...takes him.

In a clever composition, the monster appears as the smiling rabbi when Buck's back is to the camera. But when Buck's front is facing the camera (in the reverse angle...) we see the back of an inhuman, hulking creature...moving into an embrace of death.

Another creepy scene involves a sweet, bickering, elderly couple taking a detour through a dark alley by nightfall, and encountering the Rakshasa. The camera goes wobbly in an immediacy-provoking first-person subjective shot, and the blighted urban location is convincing...and menacing.

The underlying theme of the show is that, in modern society, the elderly are preyed upon by all sorts of "monsters." In real life, those monsters are called poverty or crime. In the twilight world of Kolchak, the monster is a Rakshasa, a living embodiment of an old man's fear that he doesn't know "who to trust" in a world that has passed him by. Kolchak and his boss, Vincenzo, argue about the reliability of Harry's beliefs and Kolchak points out that "Old doesn't have to be synonymous with senility."

Old Age is an issue also affecting the Hindu Rakshasa hunter, who has grown so infirm that he can no longer complete his life's work: destroying the monster. He says to Kolchak, in a line I love (and I'm afraid that we will all eventually relate to, over the years): "I never thought I would be old, but look at me now..."

Kolchak: The Night Stalker often traded in ethnic myth and lore, and "Horror of the Heights" is no exception to that rule. There's some nice misdirection in the use of the Swastika, a symbol which has come to be associated with Nazis, hate-crime, racism and anti-Semitism. Here, the symbol -- in a Hindu incarnation -- represents the "Sun" and "groundedness." Similarly, the episode gets the ghoulish details of the Rakshasa mythology right: According to Wikipedia, "Rakshasas are notorious for disturbing sacrifices, desecrating graves, harassing priests, possessing human beings, and so on. Their fingernails are venomous, and they feed on human flesh and spoiled food. They are shapechangers, illusionists, and magicians."

Kolchak: The Night Stalker often made for rewarding viewing not merely because of the scary scenarios, or the seedy texture, but because of the colorful performances and overraching sense of gallows or black humor. That trait is in evidence here, too. Phil Silvers is terrific as the frightened Harry Starman, and there's a scene involving an obnoxious exterminator who eats a sandwich while spraying toxic chemicals on a yard. And Kolchak's inteview of a bored waiter at the Indian Restaurant is droll to say the least. And of course, McGavin always made Kolchak a true individual, not the cookie-cutter style "investigator" we see populating so many police procedurals or crime shows in the twenty-first century.

Finally, "Horror in the Heights" ends in the manner of all truly chilling campfire stories; by explicitly reminding us that the terror is still out there. As Kolchak dictates the tale of the Rakshasa and Roosevelt Heights into his tape recorder, he looks up -- almost at us -- and reminds travelers to be wary should they ever be walking alone at night on a "lonely country road"... and happen to see their "favorite aunt" coming towards them in the moonlight.



  1. Mr. Muir,
    Thanks for this write-up of a great episode.
    One of the hooks of this episode was that when warned that the Rakshasa appears as a dear friend, Kolchak declares he has no friends. So it's a pleasant discovery that Kolchak, in his heart of hearts (that the Rakshasa peers into to find your weakness), thinks of Emily as a true friend.
    Which makes the ending doubly insane when he fires the arrow into her!
    (BTW, I love the way the Rakshasa falls over dead, like a felled tree.)
    Keep up the good work/thanks again!

  2. Hey Ivan,

    Call me John! And thanks for writing. I could review Kolchak episodes everyday...they're so much fun. It's also a show which my wife, Kathryn adores. It's a great combination of quirky dialogue, odd characters, and creepy stories.


  3. Anonymous3:40 AM

    I've always felt that the supporting guest cast was wonderful on this show. Small parts but wonderfully detailed characters, usually with smart and witty dialogue.

    I've tracked down many of the locations of this show. HITH in particular. Much was filmed in downtown L.A. around 4th and Main (blocks away from the location filming of The Night Strangler). The theater the old couple come out of used to be an old adult film theater. What it was in the early 70s, I don't know. The Indian restaurant was all backlot, though.


  4. Anonymous3:44 AM

    Oh yeah, and the building where the old guys are playing cards is on Second Street in the "Arts District" of L.A. "Artsy-Fartsy District" if you ask me.