Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alone In The Dark

Watched almost all of a DVD set of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I have one episode left, the last one… one of my favorites. Or I recall that it was.

I remember being a kid staying up late all alone (Mom and bro already off to bed), lights out watching this program before the CBS Late Movie came on. Kolchak’s whistle and the rest of the ominous theme song usually heralded some pretty good scares for the school age kid I was back then.

I wasn’t expecting the shows to be particularly scary watching them as an adult. As a child in the mid-70s I bought into the production values, the appearance of the characters and monsters, and the various traditions and tropes in television at that time. Buying the set recently, I knew this was going to be more of a nostalgia trip and not so much to actually re-experience those old thrills.

I also had the side mission of hopefully providing more fright show fodder for my own kids. If you’re a sadist like me who wants to put their kids through the horror grist mill, you probably know that scary shows that are kid appropriate can be pretty thin on the ground. I’d been letting them watch the occasional Hammer horror film but I needed more material.

As expected, Kolchak didn’t turn out to be very scary. There were moments where I definitely could see what was scary about them… what would definitely have been frightening to a kid but were more on the level of 'creepy' now. Spoiler: Kolchak sewing up the mouth of the sleeping zombie, or the old crone demon leering out of the dark… yep, those would have a kid lying awake in bed. But some of the monsters are dumb or crippled by bad makeup and effects. I might not have rolled my eyes at the time (there wasn’t much that was a lot better) but MY own kids brought up on Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter sure might. They’ll still be scared by some of it, but for them the monsters will alternate episode-to-episode between comedy and terror I think. The budgets for each episode seemed to get smaller as they went along. In early episodes there’s dudes fighting armies of cops, and invisible entities powering through concrete walls in slow motion. Later, the adversaries are all various types of ‘human’...that is, no-makeup-involved villains with various mind powers that take no money to convey on screen.

Couple the okay scares with the limits television programs had in terms of what they could show and this probably is a good go-to series to show my kids. I really only found some prostitution and massage parlor references in one or two episodes that might be objectionable.

What DID surprise me was how good all the rest of the show was. McGavin’s work as Carl Kolchak and all the other regulars on the show are excellent. I mean REALLY good. It is kind of a given that when you watch an older show, you are going to have to accept certain conventions of the time if you want to get any enjoyment out of it. This includes character types and a lot of the humor that goes with them. Watch an old Jerry Lewis show and you probably will find that a lot of what was funny then isn’t so funny now. I didn’t find that to be the case with Kolchak at all. The shit still plays. It still comes across as well acted and genuinely funny. This show is a really good case for a certain something… charm maybe… that is all but lost in modern film and television. Carl Kolchak is an everyman schlub, but a reporter with balls of steel, too. He brazens his way into everyone’s business, makes enemies all around… yet you can’t help but like him. And McGavin pulls this all off almost effortlessly.

Although aspects of the show make it a good window into the period, it is amazing how much has stayed the same in contemporary life between then and now. Even the clothes and hair in some episodes doesn’t give too much away, like the producers almost shot them with timelessness in mind. In those installments, if you just gave everyone cell phones it could have happened today. Chicago, setting for the series, doesn’t look much different in the present. There are quite a few references to, and use of computers (or workstations). Kolchak comes off as something of a luddite even at that time, so his use of a typewriter and old cameras doesn’t really date the show all that much to me. Sometimes the automobiles are the biggest visual clue to the show’s airdates.

I’m going to have to round up the two movies to go along with this set. I saw them as a child and remember them being more frightening (and being made for TV movies, slightly more ambitious) than the series. I’ve read some buyer reviews for this set saying the picture is dark and nigh unwatchable. I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Thank goodness I didn't listen to them. It obviously hasn’t been meticulously restored… it looks like ‘old show film stock’… but the color was pretty vibrant, and I didn’t lose any action in the shadows. I didn’t fart around with the settings on my TV either, a 48inch Panasonic plasma screen. Customers at Amazon need to upgrade their damn televisions or something.

There are only twenty-two episodes. And the two movies. The last episode that I haven’t watched here yet goes back to being more ambitious with the effects and such, if I remember correctly. Like they blew a final wad on the final installment. Can’t wait to watch it, but it’ll be sad when I’m done.

Until I re-watch it when I force it on the children.

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