Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kolchak's Back: More TV Movie Terrors

Last month, in the midst of a headcold, I woke in the night and dragged myself to my computer to impulsively write about what I called the Golden Age of made for TV horror films, the 70s. Even as I posted my take on a handful of some truly scary movies, others started popping up in my head that I thought were also worthy of attention.

In the days before cable or satellite TV, the 3 major TV networks, ABC, CBS and NBC still showed movies as part of their broadcast schedules. Initially, these were films previously released theatrically. There must have been a demand in general for films, because each of the networks started producing their own relatively low budget movies, often featuring then popular stars known more for their TV series work, including Robert Culp, William Shatner, Andy Griffith, etc. At times, these flicks (even a few here) were actually pilots to possible TV series (Charlie's Angels was one). The films were often bare bones, b-movie productions (in the original sense of that designation) relying on suspense and rudimentary atmosphere to carry the story rather than special effects. Also like the B's, each film actually had pretty short running times of about 70-80 minutes minus commercials.

As a young monster movie fan, I was excited that original horror, suspense and even science fiction films would pop up in these TV movie slots, sating an appetite for such material between issues of Famous Monsters or the weekend's regular monster movie programs. In Chicago, that included Creature Features (almost always classic Universal horror films) and Screaming Yellow Theatre (the cheapest of the cheap films, hosted by Jerry G Bishop as the original Svengoolie), and Channel 7 WLS doing a regular prime time Saturday movie program, featuring mostly Hammer films, which bucked the ABC network programs on that night.

Rather than simply update my original blog column, I determined without saying so that eventually I would get around to talking about this subject again. My criteria at that time remains the same: I must have seen the film when first shown so I could provide my impressons of these low budget productions upon a very young mind. There are some worth getting attention that I didn't see until I was an adult, thus the extremely creepy Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and the laughable Killdozer as examples which are not in my list.

So, without further adieu and in no particular order, here are more of my faves:

The Dead Don't Die (1975)
George Hamilton starred in the homage to the b-movie horror films of the 30s and 40s, set in that era. It has been ages since I saw this film, but it featured a mystery, which Hamilton's character is trying to resolve in the underworld of crime and the supernatural. The absolute best part of this film which remains strongly etched in my mind was disfigured character actor Reggie Nalder, playing an extremely creepy zombie, definitely someone you didn't want to see in the night... which is what played on my youthful brain later that evening in bed.

The Norliss Tapes (1973)
Even then, I had a feeling that this film was a pilot for a TV series... which, of course, I wanted to see happen. Roy Thinnes plays the title character, who is investigating the mysterious return of a woman's dead husband as a savage, blue-skinned, yellow eyed zombie. This was a take no prisoners, fast moving zombie with a plan... including a sculpture of Sargoth, sculpted in clay mixed with blood, which comes to life. Dan Curtis served up the Carl Kolchak (if he was on tranquilizers) riff, which wasn't at all lost on me. Unfortunately, no series was to come.

The Night Strangler (1973)
Darren McGavin was back as Carl Kolchak, this time on the trail of a killer living in the Seattle underground (the first time I had ever heard of it). Though this film was more strongly tinged with humor than the original Night Stalker, it still had me on the edge of my seat as the mysterious strangler hunts for his victims, which serve in extending his unnatural long life. Once again, Carl goes into the killer's lair all alone (again!)... only to find a refined, intelligent killer played by Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man TV series) who's willing to talk even as he attempts to manuever himself into a position in which he can easily kill Kolchak. Crazed killers I could deal with, but urbane, educated deathdealers was relatively new to me. I know I hoped for more Kolchak movies after this, little realizing a TV series would be the eventual, wonderful result.

Ghost of Flight 401 (1978)
The 70s were also a time of a dubious films devoted to the paranormal, mostly in a exploitative manner (particular Sun Classic's films, including the classic Legend of Boggy Creek). This one stands out in my mind as being pretty darned creepy, because it was supposed to be true. It told the story of an ill-fated airline flight 401 that crashed in the Everglades, killing 103 people. Later, parts of the aircraft were taken and used on other aircraft... and that's when it got strange. People started seeing an unusual passenger on their flights, particularly the pilot of the craft, who died. Ernest Borgnine played the stone-faced, monotoned ghost, warning the flight crews of possible death. Okay, he was a good ghost, but, damn, he was creepy. I think I'll get off here and take the bus...

The UFO Incident (1975)
Here's a definite classic TV film featuring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons as a couple abducted by alien beings on a dark road at night. Based on the true story of Barney and Betty Hill, all the emotional bases are hit by the accomplished actors... and the alien stuff they recall is downright creepy. This is the first film to feature alien abductions and the outright fear and horror that an abductee might feel. At that time, my family lived in a house in the country removed from the safety of having neighbors close by. I don't know if I believe in that stuff these days, but I can't deny that back then I went to bed thinking of what might come calling in the night... and probably got very little sleep.

Night Gallery (1969)
Okay, okay... it's from the late 60s. I don't care. The Twilight Zone was a regular part of my TV viewing as a kid, even though it scared the hell out of me quite a few times. I remember watching this pilot film and really only the first part with Roddy McDowall as a rotten creep who killed for family inheritance money. With quick cut away and back shots, this EC Comics type story effectively ends with revenge crawling right out of the grave... as depicted in a painting of a cemetery on the wall, which changes from cut to cut showing Roddy's late victim coming back to get revenge. When the later Night Gallery TV series came on, I was so creeped by the opening title's music and distorted human faces that I could barely watch it... regardless of a lack of true scares in the stories.

The Demon Murder Case (1983)
Okay, okay, I'm really pushing it here, with a film produced much later than the Golden Age. The reason I'm doing so is just because it scared the heck out of me and is one of the few on this list or the previous one that still catches me off guard truly creeping me out big time. Basically, it's the so-called true story of a kid who's accused of murder who claims he is being told to do so by a demon. This is where it gets really creepy, gang. The kid describes the demon as looking like a kid who has been horribly burned, his skin blackened like an overdone hot dog on a grill. If my memory serves me right, the demon wears a hat and a t-shirt. In one scene, the kid is asked if he can see the demon. He points away and says he's over there, smiling. The one damned thing I never want to see is that friggin' demon sitting there all crispy, smiling at me. I haven't seen this film in awhile, so it may be awful... but it scared the shit out of me, and to this day, still does. [I start muttering the Lord's Prayer.]

Okay, you've read my take on these films. I left some faves off (Snowbeast from 1977... lots of fun but not an iota of scary). What are your faves? Am I out of line with my opinions? What films got you all creeped out? Let me know.

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