Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Five Scariest Episodes of Cult Television, 1970 - 1980

In the macabre spirit of the nearing holiday, today I present another horror TV-themed list.  Hope this will tide you over until the bewitching hour arrives... 

Today, I select my candidates for the five scariest episodes of cult television, circa 1970 - 1980.  The blanket descriptor "cult television" means that these choices can emerge either from straight-up horror TV, or -- non-traditionally -- from sci-fi TV. 

And for some reason, there were some really scary sci-fi TV episodes in the ten year span from 1970 to 1980.  Maybe it was just the times, since art mirrors life.  All the problems roiling in the culture -- the energy crisis, Watergate, The Vietnam War, etc. -- meant that perhaps even "safe" TV wasn't quite so safe anymore.

As I was compiling this list of five, I realized that I had written about many of these individual installments before -- as individual cult-tv flashbacks -- which just goes to prove their effectiveness, I suppose. 

These shows continue to startle, scare and generate shivers even today, when disco itself  feels like a long ago national nightmare.

All right, let's go...

5. Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "The Zombie"

Shot mostly in dark hues of nighttime by cinematographer Alric Edens, this episode of Kolchak remains terrifying, especially during the tense, unforgettable climax.

As I mentioned the other day, Kolchak, The Night Stalker aired in the era of "hero" journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, during 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....

"The Zombie" reveals this "man against City Hall" aesthetic in spades. While investigating a gangland syndicate killing, investigative report Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) begins to suspect that a Mamalois, a Haitian voodoo priestess, has activated a zombie to kill the mobsters who put out a hit on her grandson, 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."

The political undercurrents of Kolchak and the pervasive context of Watergate are always fascinating elements of the series, but as a horror fan I especially 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 a sweat-drenched 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. Upon seeing the zombie awake, Kolchak turns tail and runs like hell, the white-eyed zombie hot on his heels. With a degree of ingenuity, 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 (and very dangerous).  Of course, the very nature of episodic television assures viewers 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.  His fear augments our fear, and when that zombie rises in the back of that hearse...the pulse races.
4. Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "The Caterpillar"

This classic Night Gallery episode concerns a "little beastie" called an earwig.

This tiny insect from Borneo boasts a fondness for the warmth of a human ear., but -- as host Rod Serling reminds viewers -- it doesn't exactly "whisper sweet nothings" once inside.

Nope. It does something...horrifying.

"The Caterpillar," directed by Jeannot Szwarc) aired in March of 1972 and is based on the famous short story by Oscar Cook (1888-1952), a former civil servant who actually served in Borneo from 1911-1919.

"The Caterpillar" (adapted by Rod Serling) follows the arrival in Borneo of one extremely prickly British civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey). This cruel, nasty, arrogant man moves into the home of two other Brits, sixty-sixty year-old Mr. Warwick (Tom Helmore) and his gorgeous young wife ("an absolute knock-out"), Rhona (Joanna Pettet).

As you might suspect, Macy soon makes trouble. He is disturbed by the incessant rain in the tropical location, and -- battling cabin-fever -- turns his obsessive eyes towards Rhona.

Macy is convinced that Rhona should be with him rather than the kindly old man, and meets with a local rogue, Tommy Robinson (Don Knight), in a bar. Robinson suggests not an assassination, but rather an "act of destiny." For a price, Tommy will send one of his native friends to deposit an earwig on Mr. Warwick's pillow.

These bugs are so light, so small, that they are practically unnoticeable. And, according to Robinson, earwigs have this "decided liking" for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand to one. They can't turn around you see, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route.

The pain caused by these "stealthy chaps" is agonizing, horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Still, this sadistic plan appeals to Macy. He feels that after her antiquated husband dies, 28-year old Rhona will turn her affections to him. With little shame, Macy authorizes the plan. However, Robinson's thug makes a fatal mistake that very night...and puts the earwig on Macy's pillow instead of Mr. Warwick's.

Macy wakes up the following morning with a bloody ear and immediately realizes what has occurred. The earwig is inside his ear! In the ensuing two weeks, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands have to be bound to his bed-posts so Macy doesn't claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the skittering bug chewing a path through his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an "agonizing, driving, itching pain," and the earwig exits his ear. An unrepentant Macy tells the Warwicks that what he did, he did "for love," and that he paid the price with two weeks of Hell.

Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy; a fact you will recall if you remember the segment's final punch-line before the fade-out (one revealed in intense, declarative close-up). I won't spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that "The Caterpillar" boasts one of the nastiest and most macabre twists ever featured on Night Gallery (and likely network television, for that matter.)

There's no real gore in "The Caterpillar," and the titular insect is never glimpsed, even for a second. Instead, we simply see what the bloody thing does from the outside: a torture painted on Harvey's expressive, gaunt face. And we listen as a physician (John Williams), Robinson, and a survivor describe the pain experienced...and more significantly, the pain yet to come.

Despite a lack of overt horrific visuals, the episode proves utterly harrowing in its suggestion of a fate worse than death, an itch you just can't scratch.  "The Caterpillar" is probably Night Gallery's most famous episode; and for very good reason. Next time you have an ear ache, I defy you not to think of this episode. And of earwigs.
3. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Space Vampire"

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights.

It is unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled.

This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.  Who says camp can't be scary?

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right: The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I really dig is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, tacky sets and occasionally callow characterizations, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story and history of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the relentless Monster.

Similarly, a slow pan marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent, hungry eyes.

There's also a great shot (above) in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a bright flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

What makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody believes that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerless here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works. 

As children, we all believe in the monster under the bed or in the closet, and just know that it will stop at nothing to get us.  In some way, "Space Vampire" exemplifies that childhood fear in very potent fashion.  As a grown-up, you may laugh at this episode's depiction of evil...but will be nervous laughter.

2. The Evil Touch: "The Trial"

This episode of the Australian-made horror anthology (syndicated in the U.S. in 1973 and 1974) was written by Michael Fisher and directed by Mende Brown, also the series producer.   "The Trial" concerns a nasty millionaire, Lon Zachary (Ray Walston) who is abducted by the angry circus freaks who took him in twenty years ago and treated him as family. 

Since his upbringing, Lon (once known as "Elmo the Geek") has scorned the carnies and gone so far as to sell their home at the old amusement park so that condominiums can go up in its place.  The circus denizens "hold" Zachary for trial for his evil, selfish deeds, but the circus's tattoo artist -- once a brain surgeon -- suggests a unique plea bargain that could save Zachary's life.  At least after a fashion.

Filmed on location in a run-down, ocean-side amusement park, and in shades of impenetrable night, "The Trial" is one of the most terrifying, insane things ever aired on TV.  The episode is populated by an assortment of dwarfs, strong men and "freaks" of nature, and somehow, the installment manages to recall the danger and uncertainty of the exploitation, grind house cinema of the day.  You are never exactly how far the episode will go, or what you will be forced to see (and endure).  For horror fans, that's good stuff.

As I wrote in my book, Terror Television, this episode of The Evil Touch asks the question, "how does feel to be really afraid?" 

The late Ray Walston -- in character as selfish Lon Zachary -- is forced to answer that question in hard-hitting, fear-inducing terms.  The coda of this story, after Lon's punishment is served, remains one of the most chilling things you'll ever see on television.

(And here's a hint: it involves a lobotomy and a return to the carnie family.)

1. Space:1999: "Dragon's Domain"

In so many ways, this remarkable episode of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson sci-fi spectacular (written by Christopher Penfold) is a direct precursor to 1979's Alien.

The important thing, however, is that the installment remains incredibly horrific even today. I guarantee you, if you watch it in the dark you'll be creeped out.

"Dragon's Domain" is an episode recounted by Moonbase Alpha's chief medical officer, Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain). She reports in voice-over narration that her tale occurs on the errant moon's "877th" day wandering in deep space, when the lost natural satellite is "between galaxies" and "three months eagle's flight time from the nearest solar system."  

In other words, they're alone, in the middle of nowhere...a perfect setting for terror.

It was during this span that one astronaut, Tony Cellini (Gianno Garko) began to feel convinced that "he was closing for a second time" on his "mortal enemy."

In flashbacks, the episode further reveals the details of Tony's first encounter with this unusual nemesis. In years past, he led a (doomed...) space mission to a newly discovered planet named Ultra on the fringes of the solar system. Upon nearing the planet, Tony and his crew pinpointed several unexpected metallic contacts at one orbital reference point. These turned out to be ancient but highly advanced derelict and alien spaceships trapped in a cosmic graveyard. After docking with one vessel, Tony and his crew opened an airlock and encountered a flurry of "wind, noise," and "light."

Then something much, much worse appeared aboard their vessel: a cyclopean, tentacled alien creature; one which didn't register at all on their instruments. This monstrous, screeching thing materialized on the Ultra Probe and killed Tony's three crew members, first by hypnotizing them and then by dragging them into its grotesque, orange-hued gullet...and rapidly devouring them.

After eating the astronauts alive, the monster then quickly regurgitated their steaming, dessicated skeletons.

This macabre image -- of steaming, skeletal astronaut corpses sliding across a pristine spaceship floor, jaws open in terror and pain -- is one that I have never in all my years forgotten. 

The monstrous creature featured here could be a beast straight out of H.P. Lovecraft's writings. The monster of "Dragon's Domain" is a mysterious, hideous thing, an ancient killer -- an Old One -- that ensnares aliens of all races in a trap that resembles a "spider's web" (in Victor Bergman's words). It can't be quantified by our science, and it seems to breach our reality by transporting in and out of it by will.

The creepy thing about this monster is indeed the very thing upon which Helena elaborates in the finale: we don't know where it originated, what it is, or anything about it's life-cycle.  This is the Bogeyman personified, a monster not responsive to our science or technology, that is free to appear and disappear, to terrorize at will. 

If we never could say it was alive, how do we know it's really dead?

That's the shiver-inducing note we leave "Dragon's Domain" (and this post...) on, and it's pure nightmare fodder. 


  1. The only one for sure that I watched was the agonizing THE CATERPILLAR with the great Laurence Harvey. Man, was that chilling. I think I saw THE ZOMBIE, but I'm not sure. All the others I've missed, but they sound quite good. Thanks, John.

  2. Anonymous4:29 AM

    Hmmm...decisions decisions....I love Kolchak, but that bug in the ear thing, I have to choose Night Gallery's The Caterpillar! Getting a bug in your ear is completely possible and that freaks me out to no end!
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

  3. John,
    Loved your overview on these episodes. I really look forward to revisitng Buck Rogers someday. You've always been a proponent of the series, in particular Season One, and I look forward to re-evaluating it. Glen Larson did some good things for a time.

    I know Space Vampire was ranked as one of the best in a Top 5 I read somewhere. I just need to get that box set someday. Heck, seeing Erin Gray in spandex may well be worth the price of re-admission.

    I also look forward to that Space:1999 Blu-Ray which is when I plan on revisiting the series where I left off including this fine episode. Can't wait. HH!

  4. Hi everyone -- Happy Halloween!

    Le0pard13: I totally agree with you regarding "The Caterpillar" and the contributions of Laurence Harvey. Chilling...terrifying, disturbing as hell! I think you might get a kick out of The Zombie, especially the climax.

    Trick or Treat Pete: I agree with you that, conceptually, it's tough to beat "The Caterpillar." My wife still can't watch the last half of that show!

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: Space Vampire is cheesy, but that's okay. It's also fun, and unnerving (oddly). And of course, we both love Dragon's Domain. I'm with you: I can't wait for the Space:1999 blu ray!

    best to all,

  5. Great list John - that episode of Kolchak really stuck in my mind.

    I'd nominate the episode Baby from Nigel Kneale's Beasts as the most terrifying tv broadcast of the era that I've seen. It has a shrill tone, constantly ratcheting tension, an underlying intelligence and a strange sadness that I can't shake. It's wonderful.

  6. Angela4:26 AM

    Hello! Found your site thanks to a link from another person, been really enjoying reading your essays, your take on cult/sci-fi/horror TV and movies is quite fascinating.

    I love this list. The only one I've seen is "The Caterpillar", whose ending actually made me gasp out loud and cover my mouth in horror and feel all squrimy for a good long while afterward. But you have me incredibly curious to see the other ones, particularly your number 1 and 2 choices. I'll have to find a way to search them out sometime.

    Excellent choices. Amazing how simple it is sometimes to scare the living daylights out of people, isn't it?

  7. Hi Angela,

    Thank you for your kind words and welcome to the blog!

    "The Caterpillar" is indeed creepy and "squirmy" (great word...)and that ending sticks with you...forever! The other shows are great too, and I recommend you seek them out, though "the Trial" is tough since Evil Touch isn't out on DVD yet. I watched it on an old grainy VHS copy, but never forgot it!


  8. How about the telefilm "don't be afraid of the dark" remake was blah, but as child it literally scared the ____ out of me and with advent of Internet found I was amongst MANY other kids of era. Creatures that live in basement and come out at night and want to PULL you into the basement sure as adult rewatched and not the same but those are PRIMAL fears for kids and this tv film really messed with me. Why was it in the 70s the networks had great made for tv horror like this and Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and now all we get is 4 channels of Who Wants to Pretend they Have Talent? Miss those days.