Sunday, March 26, 2023

TV Tangent – Kolchak: The Night Stalker


Kolchak: The Night Stalker Poster

Episode 12: “Mr. R.I.N.G.” (1975) Directed by Gene Levitt; Written by Jeffrey Grant Rice, L. Ford Neale and John Huff; Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Julie Adams and Corinne Camacho; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** (***** for the series)

“…For at least a few days, I was away, in the hands of men with no faces and no names. They broke me down, broke my story down, telling me it hadn’t happened the way I claimed. At least I think that’s what they did, between injections. Memories fade fast enough without chemical help, but if I don’t tell the story now, I don’t think I ever will...” – Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin)


Carl Kolchak

Thanks to Terence Towles Canote from A Shroud of Thoughts for hosting the 9th Annual Favorite TV Show Blogathon. Today’s post represents a landmark of sorts for this blog, which, to date, has focused exclusively on movies. Considering how Kolchak: The Night Stalker has influenced the small and big screens alike, it only seems appropriate to start with this landmark series.

Kolchak and Vincenzo

Over the course of a single, 20-episode season, Kolchak: The Nightstalker pitted its eponymous hero against supernatural forces, extraterrestrials, cryptids, and all manner of the strange and unexplained. This genre-defying mixture of mystery, comedy, science fiction and horror has made it difficult to pigeonhole the show into one easy classification. As portrayed by the inimitable Darren McGavin, intrepid Chicago-based reporter Carl Kolchak stops at nothing to get to the truth, much to the chagrin of his excitable, long-suffering editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland),** and exasperated law enforcement officials. With his rumpled light blue seersucker suit and trademark straw hat, Kolchak seems the unlikeliest of protagonists, but he's tenacious as a tick on a hound, and doesn’t care how many law enforcement officials’ feathers he rankles, or how many toes he steps on in the process of getting the scoop.   

* Fun Fact: Judging from the show’s middling review in Variety (September 18, 1974), Kolchak: The Night Stalker wasn’t considered anything particularly noteworthy, criticized for its two-dimensional characters and forced attempts at humor. The reviewer paid Kolchak a backhanded compliment, stating that the show had the “potential to survive, most likely as a marginal hit.” (Bok) 

** How Vincenzo never suffered a stroke due to Kolchak’s antics, is one of the show’s enduring mysteries.

R.I.N.G. kills Dr. Walker

“Mr. Ring” (which debuted on January 10th, 1975) starts off on a noirish note, with Kolchak sitting in his darkened office, presumably in the wee hours of the morning, dictating into a tape recorder. In typical film noir fashion, Kolchak attempts to recall the events of the past several days, through a mental fog. The story jumps to a flashback, as he receives yet another dressing down by Vincenzo. Kolchak is not too pleased to be relegated to writing an obituary about Avery Walker, a brilliant scientist, but we know there’s much more to the story than a simple death. Before long, he learns that he’s accidentally stumbled onto a top-secret project.

Kolchak visits Mrs. Walker

Kolchak’s first stop in his investigation is with the scientist’s alcoholic widow, Mrs. Walker (played by guest star Julie Adams, of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame), who seems less than heartbroken by her estranged husband’s sudden death. Although his meeting with Mrs. Walker provides few answers, it raises some tantalizing questions, including a mysterious project known as R.I.N.G. The trail leads to Dr. Walker’s colleague (and possible mistress) at the shadowy Tyrell Institute,* Dr. Leslie Dwyer (Corinne Camacho), but as he gets closer to the truth, his interviewees become more evasive. Suddenly, he finds himself under the intense scrutiny of several individuals, seen and unseen, who lean on Vincenzo to kill the story before it’s ever written. 

* Could the Tyrell Institute be the direct predecessor of Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation? While it could just be a coincidence, both organizations were involved with creating artificial people.


R.I.N.G. Lurks Around the Corner

(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD) In typical Kolchak style, the persistent reporter badgers Dr. Dwyer into revealing R.I.N.G. is an acronym (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia), describing a highly advanced android project. Ousted from Tyrell due to a difference in opinion with military priorities, Dwyer reveals that R.I.N.G.’s intellectual development was incomplete (“Ethically/emotionally, he’s still a child.”). In the interest of informing the public, he endeavors to find R.I.N.G. before the police and military have time to cover up its existence. While it’s obvious there’s a human face beneath the makeup, R.I.N.G. seems suitably intimidating, with its expressionless face, comprised of circuits and a mass of blinking lights. When R.I.N.G. fashions a crude face out of mortician’s wax, it only succeeds in making its appearance more unsettling. In addition to recalling 1973’s Westworld, the unstoppable android seems to anticipate Halloween’s similarly expressionless Michael Myers.

R.I.N.G. and Dr. Dwyer

Also in typical Kolchak fashion, what should have been the scoop of the decade is buried amidst a web of obfuscation and deceit. As we’ve come to learn with each episode, he might be down but never out, left to fight the good fight for another day. Paranoia, is a completely sane reaction in an insane world. Reflecting the early ‘70s disillusionment with the Vietnamese war, distrust of government and local law-enforcement officials is de rigueur. Kolchak’s sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong is simply a part of the checks and balances that we would expect from a just world. Unfortunately, none of Kolchak’s colleagues or antagonists share his idealism. “Mr. R.I.N.G.” is a solid entry in the series. While perhaps not one of the better-known episodes, it stands with the best of them, balancing the lighthearted moments with the dark, reminding us that the truth, for many of us, remains tantalizingly out of reach.  


Thursday, March 23, 2023

March Quick Picks and Pans

Blue Monkey Poster

Blue Monkey (aka: Insect) (1987) In this entertaining mess, an old hospital becomes ground zero for a new species of giant insect with an accelerated reproductive rate. Police detective Jim Bishop (Steve Railsback) teams up with Dr. Rachel Carson (Gwynyth Walsh) to stop the deadly infestation. John Vernon plays a hospital administrator more concerned with bad publicity than a potential health epidemic. Things get a bit muddled with too many threads about the hospital’s various patients, including parents-to-be George and Sandra Baker (played by SCTV alums Joe Flaherty and Robin Duke) and a group of  precocious little tykes (featuring a very young Sarah Polley). Quibbles aside, it’s a solid B-monster movie, albeit with updated practical effects. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and Tubi

Cowards Bend the Knee Poster

Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) Looking for a change of pace? How about some more insanity from Winnipeg-based filmmaker Guy Maddin? This dreamlike, black-and-white silent film, told in 10 chapters, follows the exploits of Maroons star hockey player Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr), as he falls into a love triangle between femme fatale Meta (Melissa Dionisio) and the ghost of his deceased girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart). In a nod to The Hands of Orlac (1924), he embarks on a murderous rampage, convinced that he’s possessed by newly transplanted hands from Meta’s father. What does it all mean? Who knows? Just roll with it. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Kanopy

The White Buffalo Poster

The White Buffalo (1977) Director J. Lee Thompson’s western fable (based on a novel by Richard Sale) had an undeserved reputation for being a box office and critical flop when it was released, but it deserves a reappraisal. What if Wild Bill Hickock (Charles Bronson) teamed up with Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) to hunt a mythical albino buffalo? While the western action (including the obligatory bar fight) is fairly standard, it features engaging performances by Bronson and Sampson as former enemies who form a bond. Kim Novak, Jack Warden, Slim Pickens and John Carradine round out the stellar cast. The eponymous buffalo (brought to life with guidance by effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi) is a force of nature, analogous to Ahab’s white whale. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Class of 1984

Class of 1984 (1982) Andrew Norris (Perry King) is a new, idealistic music teacher at one of the worst high schools in the country. This teensploitation flick ticks every box of youth-gone-bad stereotypes, but succeeds thanks to a surprisingly good performance by Timothy Van Patten as Peter Stegman, the sociopathic ringleader of a gang with a stranglehold on the rest of the students. Lisa Langlois is also compelling as his equally unscrupulous companion, Patsy. The real standout, however, is Roddy McDowell as an alcoholic science teacher who’s been pushed too far. Watch for a young Michael J. Fox (before he added the initial “J” to his name) as a band student who pays the price for cooperating with Mr. Norris. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Prime Video and Tubi

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

February Quick Picks and Pans


Cannibal Poster

Cannibal (2013) Carlos loves women… as food. He works as a tailor in the city, while indulging in his culinary hobby in a secluded mountain cabin. His rituals are thrown into disarray when a young woman (Olimpia Melinte) moves into his apartment building, plunging him into an existential crisis. Rather than dwelling on the sordid details of Carlos’ macabre lifestyle, director/co-writer Manuel Martín Cuenca presents a character study of a deeply conflicted man. Antonio de la Torre’s measured, idiosyncratic performance as Carlos is oddly mesmerizing – portraying a man who can only enjoy intimacy with women through eating them. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a fascinating, surprisingly subtle portrait of sociopathy.     

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and Kanopy

The Moviegoer Poster

The Moviegoer (2023) Filmmaker Ross Munro’s (follow him on Twitter @rossbrew)  semiautobiographical love letter to the movies (told with a combination of animation and still images) is seen through the perspective of a preadolescent boy and his cinematic crush for a fictional Venezuelan actress. Set in 1972 and narrated by Munro, The Moviegoer features an homage to the late great Raquel Welch (with a parody of Kansas City Bomber) and ‘70s sexploitation movies (with some saucy Swedish stewardesses). Running a scant 19 minutes, Munro’s short film is part tall tale/part fact, but (as Werner Herzog would likely attest) only in the service of a greater truth.  

Rating: ****. Not available (yet), but watch for it at the American Documentary & Film Festival (and hopefully a film festival near you!).


4D Man Poster

4D Man (1959) Producer Jack H. Harris’ follow-up to The Blob (also filmed in Pennsylvania), is comparatively lower key but more thoughtful. Dr. Scott Nelson (Robert Lansing) oversees a research team (including his younger brother, Tony). Meanwhile, Tony (James Congdon) spends his spare moments pursuing an invention that enables objects to pass through solid matter via the amplification of brain waves. Scott duplicates the experiment, permanently transforms his body in the process. He can walk through walls, but a side effect of the process is that he begins to rapidly age (the only way to slow his condition is to sap years of life energy from other people). 4D Man is a bit on the talky side, taking its time introducing the main characters and establishing a love triangle between the brothers and a pretty lab assistant (Lee Meriwether, in her first feature film role). Once it builds momentum, however, it grabs hold and doesn’t let go. Unfairly overshadowed by its contemporaries, 4D Man deserves to be rediscovered as a forgotten ‘50s sci-fi gem. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Crazy Love Poster 

Crazy Love (1987) Not to be confused with the 2007 documentary with the same name this story in three acts is based on the work of Charles Bukowski (the third act adapts his story, “The Copulating Mermaid of Venice Beach”). Set over a 21-year span, Belgian director/co-writer Dominique Deruddere focuses on Harry (played by Geert Hunaerts and Josse De Pauw), who’s perennially unlucky in love and life. It’s a sporadically humorous, often painful look at the perils of adolescence and the lost dreams of adulthood. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Dark Places Poster

Dark Places (1974) Edward Foster inherits an old mansion and its hidden fortune from a deceased mental patient. Unscrupulous brother and sister Ian and Sarah Mandeville (Christopher Lee and Joan Collins), along with unprincipled attorney Prescott (Herbert Lom), plot to cheat him out of his inheritance. Foster’s sanity gradually erodes, amidst a series of strange occurrences. The film enjoys a languid pace (some might just call it slow), taking its time to reach a surprise ending that probably won’t surprise anyone. It’s a mildly entertaining thriller, despite the reprehensible insinuation that mental illness correlates with homicidal behavior. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (available individually or part of The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee Collection 2)