Saturday, May 19, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad "Albert/Alberta" (1976)

In “Albert/Alberta” the Monster Squad combats a villain who is half-man/half-woman: Albert/Alberta (Vito Scotti).

This nefarious fiend is using a highly-advanced laser weapon to melt the polar ice and cause a second great flood. 

Meanwhile, he plans to convert his ship, the Mezzo-Mezzo, into an ark carrying two of every animal species…including vampire bats and werewolves.

Dracula and the Wolf Man sneak aboard Albert/Alberta’s ship and attempt to reverse the melting of the ice, but they are captured and Albert/Alberta plans to tear them asunder inside his weird device, “The Great Divider.”

Fortunately, it’s Frankenstein to the rescue…

Monster Squad (1976) comes to an end with Victor/Victoria…er “Albert/Alberta.”  The episode is the same sort of nonsense we have been treated to in previous weeks: an unimaginative, thoroughly derivative regurgitation of Batman’s high-camp TV adventures, right down to the threat of the week (in this case, the Great Divider), the notable villain, and the final tussle.

I’ll be honest, re-watching all thirteen episodes of Monster Squad in 2014 has been a bit of a chore, but I wanted to do it because I loved the show in 1976, and felt it was great that the long-forgotten Saturday morning series was getting a DVD release. 

I appreciate all the performers on the show -- particularly the actors who play the monsters -- because they gave the production their all, even when the props department, the sets, and the writers let them down.  I especially like Henry Polic II as Dracula.  He’s always been my favorite performer on the series, and despite the high camp, his take as the count is indeed memorable.

If you watched Monster Squad back in the 1970s, I recommend that instead of watching the series from start to finish, you instead rely on your no-doubt foggy memories and affection of the series. Pick out two shows, perhaps, to revisit.  I would recommend “Ultra Witch” (with Julie Newmar) and perhaps “The Tickler.”  If you’ve seen one episode of Monster Squad, you’ve pretty much seen them all, so try to pick the top of the formulaic heap…

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "The Ripper" (September 13, 1974)

From May 25 to June 2nd 1974, Chicago is terrorized by a brutal murderer of women. A stripper and masseuse are among the victims.

Idiosyncratic INS reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) itches to investigate the ripper-style homicides, but has been tasked by his boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) with a different assignment. Kolchak has been ordered to fill in for the vacationing Miss Emily, and answer her “Dear Emily” letters.

Worse, a journalistic competitor, Jane Plum (Beatrice Colen) is reporting on the ripper crimes.

Kolchak disobeys Tony’s orders and begins to investigate the shadowy killer who seems to evade police (and bullet-fire) with ease. 

He soon realizes that over seventy women have been killed in the last 80 years, all over the world.  

They have all been murdered in the exact fashion of the Chicago deaths. Even more disturbingly, they trace their origin to Jack the Ripper, in London.

Oddly enough, Kolchak is able to determine the Ripper’s hide-out from a Dear Emily letter he remembers reading...

The first regular hour-long episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 – 1975) is a bit of a disappointment, in part due to the nature of its titular monster.  

The Ripper is a shadowy figure with a cane and cape, who leaps across city roofs like a superhero, evades bullets easily, and isn’t seen to vet any bloody handiwork.  I understand that TV of the 1970’s could not show extreme -- or even moderate -- violence, but this monster comes across, at least visually, as toothless. Energetic, for certain, but toothless.  He’s a running, fighting, indestructible force, but not at all scary. He throws police men and innocent bystanders around, but is never seen to stab or cut, or or gut anyone.

Still, in some way, “The Ripper” is an important influence in TV history, not for re-telling yet another variation of the Jack the Ripper tale, but for anticipating the idea of a killer who lives for decades, and reappears in modern times after a long absence. This facet of the killer forecasts the Tooms monster-of-the-week on The X-Files (1993-2002), though both “Squeeze” and “Tooms” are, frankly, superior to “The Ripper” both in terms of writing and execution. 

In terms of a Jack the Ripper story, Kolchak: The Night Stalker,  in 1974 ,was a late comer to the party. Boris Karloff’s Thriller in 1961 (“Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,”), The Sixth Sense in 1972 (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper”) and even Star Trek in 1967 (“Wolf in the Fold”) had already featured the murderer, and some supernatural or paranormal element.

Where “The Ripper” shines is in the arena where the series always proves remarkable, frankly: in diagramming the sleaze of the 1970’s urban government and bureaucracy. 

For lack of a better term, one might conclude that Kolchak is reckoning with “The Swamp” as he hunts his monsters, though resolutely unable to drain it. 

Instead, Kolchak must, well, negotiate the swamp.  Watching him do so, week after week, is one of the continual joys of this forty-four year-old series. In “The Ripper,” Kolchak attends a police press conference where he is stonewalled with euphemisms and lies that obfuscate the truth. Sarah Huckabee Sanders would be proud at the way that Captain Warren (Ken Lynch) manages to stand in front of a podium, and provide non-answers to every single question that the public has the right to know the answers about. He denies facts, and spins lies with the best of them. But Kolchak's skills for pushing and prodding, for needling,  are incomparable.

Many weeks on the series, we will see Kolchak bribe civil servants, flatter obsequious gatekeepers, and grapple with politicians and policemen who want to keep him -- and the people -- in the dark.  The quality that makes Kolchak (and indeed, many journalists) so admirable is the fact that he knows what his job is.  

It's reporting the truth, so people will be informed.

His duty is to follow the facts, wherever they lead.  

The spin-artists, liars, and mouthpieces for entrenched power, have forgotten that it is their job to serve the public, not their masters. “The Ripper” diagrams this aspect of Kolchak’s character, and professional life brilliantly.  He speaks truth to Power. And the Powers that be hate him for it.

I also enjoy how the series makes Kolchak a reluctant hero, when it comes to battling monsters not of human nature. Here, he scares himself while in the Ripper’s house, and shrieks with terror. Kolchak is a hero, but not a traditional one. He is brave, but also very fallible, and human. When he faces monsters, it is usually with a keen sense of not just responsibility, but terror.  There's no joy or satisfaction hunting monsters in the dark.  The satisfaction comes from discovering (and at least attempting to...) report the truth about them.

Next week, a look at perhaps the greatest episode of the series: “The Zombie.”

Kolchak Blogging: Series Intro (1974)

A horror TV cult-classic from the 1970s, Kolchak: The Night Stalker remains the great grandfather of the "monster of the week" genre in some crucial ways.  The series follows the adventures of a rumpled reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) as he uncovers evidence of monsters in plain sight. 

But -- because the series was produced concurrently with the Watergate Scandal that felled President Nixon -- there's a strong Man versus City Hall aspect to the series, in addition to the monsters. 

In short, Kolchak the truth-seeking journalist must not only contend with vampires, werewolves, zombies and the like, but politicians and civil servants as well, and that's a key aspect of this series.

Kolchak -- in the spirit of the era's Woodward and Bernstein -- seeks to get the truth to his readership, but is stymied by power and corruption at many turns.  

The series' opening montage is brief, but also beautifully-done.  The following montage captures very nicely Kolchak's singular -- or is it solitary? -- presence, and prepares us for the chills and thrills to come.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker's introductory montage begins, quite literally, with a whisper in the dark. Late at night, Carl enters the office of the INS, the news service he writes for, and whistles a pleasant tune.  At first, as Kolchak enters the office, his space in the frame is abbreviated or cut-off.  On both sides of him are darkness, and this is a crucial metaphor. On one side, monsters.  On the other...avaricious politicians.

After a moment, we see that we are gazing at Kolchak through a book shelf (which accounts for the blackness bracketing him...) and the camera tracks him as he pours himself a cup of coffee.

Next, a pan follows Kolchak as he moves to his desk.  He throws his hat on a rack, and it falls off.  He doesn't notice, and that's a key indicator that his mind is not exactly on what he is doing, but on bigger issues instead.

Next, Kolchak reveals his vocation as a writer or journalist to us.  

After sitting down at his desk, he gets out a blank sheet of paper, inserts it into the typewriter and begins typing.  Importantly, the montage cuts to several insert shots of the type-writer mechanism at this juncture. We see the keys clicking and other details.  

These close-up shots inform us that mechanics are indeed going to be important in the following tales.  We are going to be asking -- like Kolchak the journalist -- who, what, when, where, how and why?

The focus on the typewriter mechanism hints at the actual "mechanisms" Kolchak's reports as he assembles his impossible tales.

Next, we are introduced to our series lead, Darren McGavin.

What remains so intriguing here is that the credit with his name on it is followed up by a close-up of the typewriter keys pounding out the word "victim."  

This seems an almost subconscious indicator of further danger.  In seeking a story, Kolchak could become part of the story, and an unfortunate part as well.

The final section of Kolchak: The Night Stalker's opening montage moves purposefully from the mechanics of Kolchak's vocation to the horror vibe of the series.  to wit, Kolchak looks up from his typewriter as if he has heard something, or as if he is aware of some malevolent presence nearby.

We move quickly from his quizzical face to extreme close-up insert shots of a clock, and then a fan spinning.

There's a definite sense of building momentum here, as a kind of tension-based metronome ticks faster.  

At first, that metronome is the beat of the clacking keys.  

Then it is represented by the pace of the seconds hand on the clock.  

Finally, we are at top speed, watching the spinning blades of a fan.

Suddenly, we zoom in on Kolchak's face, and he pivots towards us, detecting out of the corner of his eyes the previously hidden terror.  

He turns towards us (and we are in the position of that unseen terror), and the image freeze-frames on his inquisitive but terrified orbs.  

As we zoom in on the freeze frame, we fade to black.  The monster is confronted.

Without ever revealing a monster, a crime scene, blood, or any other tell-tale element of the horror genre, Kolchak: The Night Stalker's opening montage (accompanied by Gil Melle's at first pleasant and then driving title composition....) reveals a man alone, in darkness, reckoning with something terrifying and, at least at first unseen.

Commendably, the entire montage plays as a representation of a journalist's life.  He or she walks alone,until a story literally seems to attack, galvanizing the attention.