Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Kolchak’s Flying Saucer: In Praise of an Oft-Maligned Episode of "The Night Stalker"

“Kolchak is why I got into journalism,” –Peter L., journalist/writer/bon vivant

Back in the autumn of 1974, the American Broadcasting Company (then, as now, Channel 7 in NYC) did me a real solid. On Friday nights, ABC had scheduled The Six Million Dollar Man at 8pm; Kung Fu with David Carradine at 9pm; and then at 10pm, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It was nerd heaven!

Being allowed to stay up to see these shows was special—until 1975, my bedtime was 7:30pm! It would be summertime, I’d be lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, and the sun would still be up, shining bright, and there would be kids screaming in the streets. (I discovered that counting sheep doesn’t work; I imagine a long corridor that is never-ending….) But these shows were on a Friday night, and they were “special:” Genre TV wasn’t as prevalent as it is now—it was quite catch as catch can. And the parental units, themselves of nerdish persuasion, understood. Besides, mom, it’s Friday, and there’s no school on Saturday!

At 10 p.m. EST, Friday, September 27, 1974, the now-considered-a-cult-classic TV show, the horror-themed Kolchak: The Night Stalker, premiered its third episode as an hour-long program: a UFO-centered show titled, “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be… 

The episode’s title was inspired by lines from H.P. Lovecraft’s 1928 story “The Dunwich Horror.” {read it HERE for free!} In it, Lovecraft writes, 
“The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them. They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.”

Other segments from the show are more frightening (like “The Horror in the Heights”—written by Hammer Horror vet Jimmy Sangster, probably the best of the series’ 20 episodes), and to many “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…”  is a mess.

But I find this episode a thought-provoking low-budget B-movie mélange of neo-noir (an honest reporter in a corrupt town dealing with a cover-up), Lovecraftian elements (the inexplicable cosmic horror of an invisible alien who sucks out our bone marrow—Ewww!), and UFO/conspiracy lore (aliens, contactees, secretive government agencies, “the Men in Black”).

(And if “mélange” is too highbrow for some, perhaps “mish-mash,” if we want to be egalitarian?)

The set-up for The Night Stalker series (1974-1975) was that Carl Kolchak (wonderfully played by veteran character actor Darren McGavin), a bedraggled Chicago reporter—who wasn’t even working for a newspaper, but rather a rinky-dink news service—kept on discovering supernatural threats which the authorities routinely chose to ignore, if not belittle. (Kind of like a proto-Jaws scenario, where no one wants to believes that the danger is out there, usually for economic reasons: “Keep the beaches open!!!”)

The Night Stalker is what the show was called for its first four episodes—then it had a month-long hiatus and came back as Kolchak: The Night Stalker—which honestly only confused on-the-fence viewers even more, and was considered a vote of “no confidence” from the network by worried viewers like me! So as a point of total accuracy, the episode “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” actually premiered as an episode of The Night Stalker.

[Although originally broadcast on ABC (which is currently owned by Disney Etc. Inc.), Kolchak can now be seen on NBC-dot-com, probably because of deals with Universal, Kolchak’s original studio. You can watch THBTATWB... HERE]

This was the first Kolchak episode not to be dealing with a traditional “monster,” like a ghost or zombie, but by 1974, UFOs had been all the rage, with fiction and non-fiction films, TV shows, and TV movies flooding the market. Alien threats to humanity had already been the primary theme of Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1970) and Quinn Martin’s The Invaders (1967-1968) TV shows.

But unlike with a traditional “monster,” our much-maligned protagonist must figure out the space monster’s weaknesses (its “garlic,” say, if it were a vampire), without the benefit of anyone’s previous experience. And the authorities certainly aren’t helping! No trekking to dusty libraries to find out the unholy incantations that can repel a wendigo or a ghoul! “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” is all about the hands-on, on-the-job training, yessiree!

There are some shameless leaps of logic—but I know I enjoyed it while I watched it again—I find McGavin’s antics entrancing, so….

Like all episodes, after the always-atmospheric opening credit sequence with its haunting and very hummable theme song, “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” begins with Carl’s opening monologue, perpetually alluding hyperbolically to terrors yet unseen:

“I knew this one was more than the biggest story of my life; it was the biggest story in the lives of everyone on this planet. I fought hard for the story – fought harder than ever before, because I knew it was more than news. Much more. I felt people should know about it so they could be prepared when it happened again. If it's possible to be prepared for something like this…”

The show cuts to the cheetah cage at the zoo, where a fish-eye lens point-of-view shot stalks a shrieking jungle cat, until… freeze-frame. (Sometimes I miss the 1970s TV tropes I grew up with.)

The site Noir Encyclopedia provides this semi-hepcat synopsis that almost comes across as New Wave/Gloom Pop lyrics (Throbbing Gristle-lite, you could say):

Tree sap...

Something’s killing animals at the zoo and sucking the marrow from their bones. Something’s leaving a strange, malodorous substance lying around that appears to be halfway between asphalt and vomit. Something’s stealing electronic components from all over the city with no rhyme or reason. Radio reception’s atrocious. Watches are stopping. A two-ton stack of lead ingots just disappears into thin air in front of witnesses . . .

As World Series fever grips the rest of the city, old school reporter Kolchak manages to connect weird and disparate evidence, and comes to the conclusion that a UFO has landed somewhere in Chicago. (But he is right. In a sense, God is on his side and his cause is just. “Who cares?” asks a disinterested pathologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo about the animal murders. Kolchak, with calm resolve, replies, “I care.”)

Kolchak sneaks up on the saucer

Despite having his evidence stolen or suppressed by members of a secret government agency, Carl figures out that the alien is invisible as well, but isn’t quite invulnerable: it’s “allergic” to the high-pitched whine of his camera’s flash-battery recharging, something that saves the gonzo reporter from being eaten at one point.

At the end, after collecting the gear it needed, going to the planetarium to check the star charts, and eating a couple of guards, the alien in its relatively tiny saucer anticlimactically simply disappears in a flash of light! It came, it saw, it just splits.

Kolchak’s closing monologue comments on the episode starts off heartfelt, attempting some perspective, but soon oozes into the sardonic:
“They tried to make a little park out of the woods near Snake Rock: daffodils, tulips. But they couldn't get anything to grow. There was an area shaped like a saucer at the bottom. If you want to see it, you'll have to hurry. Our park commission decided overnight to do extensive reclamation work in that particular spot. They're filling it in with concrete.
What happened? It's all a point of view, really. A traveler has a breakdown, stops to fix it, get a bite to eat… it's happened to all of us. This traveler happened to be light-years off his course, instead of miles. As for me? Well, I haven't heard from the boys in the sedan. Yet.”

That last line is a cryptic reference to the creepy government agents who’ve been snooping around, investigating the alien’s comings and goings, and making threats and being coercive. It’s deffo “Men in Black,” although here they seem to be more US government stooges than alien or “other”-affiliated.

There’s a great conspiratorial vibe in this episode, with an emphasis on the disinformation campaigns (like goofball “contactees,” who really spread utter confusion without knowing it); and how The Man can reach into all aspects of your life—the paranoia and cosmic horror of the threat of bureaucracy!

The direction by Allan Baron (who previously helmed the much-lauded 1961 noir film Blast of Silence) is artless in that effective-but-formulaic 1970s TV show manner, but there’s a successful bit in the planetarium, when the alien is using the star projections as a road map: good use of color and shadows, with that weird-projector they use in planetariums an effective stand-in for the alien, being oddly shaped and gliding in a smooth and unearthly way. On the other hand—
Too much slow-motion in this episode, with cops flipping, flipping, flipping through the air. That does become a bit of a snooze, and it shows Peckinpah’s pernicious influence. With slo-mo a visual shorthand for extreme violence in the 1970s, action-oriented TV shows could now include fight scenes that would take up three times the space on the show, and save production dollars. Look at the aforementioned Six Million Dollar Man—total padding!

Veteran character actor
James Gregory

However, this episode resonates with me because I like to think of it as a sort of mini-movie, a B-picture (and with that cast of old school Hollywood vets—perennially perplexed stiff-necked waiter Fritz Feld! And fan fave James Gregory as the hardnosed (natch) cop! Even McGavin himself, the star of a zillion B-flicks and TV movies (including the beloved and underrated UFO-themed Hangar 18)!—with the use of cheap backlot sets, and swiped location shots, it sure feels like some sort of “grindhouse” production—all you need to do is to pad it out to 75 minutes—it’s already 52 minutes! Just add some baseball stock footage, an alien attack on a strip bar, and more shots of Carl driving around—and presto! You could have yourself a New World Pictures release from 1974.

A flying saucer from
the Larry Cohen-created show,

The Invaders

But it is not only the “schlock” vibe I like—it’s the “Big Ideas” the script throws at you. The movie-in-my-head of "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…" is essentially a collaboration between Nigel Kneale and Larry Cohen. Both are gone now unfortunately, but also left an impressive body of work, covering many genres, but primarily the SF/Horror/Fantastic vein. Kneale is probably best known as the creator of rocket researcher Professor Quatermass (investigating weird stuff, usually dealing with extraterrestrial threats). In addition to creating the previously mentioned alien-invasion TV show, The Invaders, Cohen was writer/director/producer for the original It’s Alive monster-baby franchise, as well as Q: The Winged Serpent [whose source material deffo ties into Ancient Astronaut theory] and God Told Me To [ditto, but in a much weirder, more unsettling way]. Cohen always had working-class stiffs (or lowlifes) encountering the supernatural, if not the horrifying unknown. Kneale was well-known for being able to compress complicated scientific jargon into easily understood segments of dialogue, not always in an info dump, either. Cohen had a gift for the gab that “goniffs” would gabber. All elements that "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…" has in spades.

Also: I love the concept of an invisible alien—I appreciate the cost-effectiveness of it, and the ingenuity—sure, our brain can create something scarier than an el cheapo rubber monster mask, and some have done great things with it: In his ghost story The Stone Tape (1972; URL to my review), Kneale created a very effective “invisible alien”—a term which also brings up the Krell of Forbidden Planet, or rather Morbius’ marauding Id Monster of that same movie.

There is a historical precedent, as well: In his study of the UFO phenomena, Operation Trojan Horse (originally published in 1969), John A. Keel writes, “the UFO occupants were immortal, could render themselves invisible to human eyes [italics mine], and could even take on human form and walk and work among us unnoticed.” (p34)

Then, of course, there’s the context of the H.P. Lovecraft quote: “…and to us unseen.” (And don’t forget: one of the monsters in “The Dunwich Horror” is invisible!) 

So, this broke-down motorhead flying-saucer jockey is a Great Old One?

Why not? The way the Space Being is out of here without a backward glance shows it’s not impressed. It didn’t even like eating us, barfing up after every meal. It’s near to the same chilly disdain that Lovecraft repeatedly points out the Old Ones showing us in his Mythos.

We also have to consider that this invisible Old One from outer space, killer and weird thing that it is (sucking the marrow out of several animals and about half a dozen humans), is one of the few “monsters” that Kolchak discovers that gets away! Space Critter survives! I think it is because the alien is a natural creature—it’s just from another planet, that’s all. You couldn’t blame a shark for doing what it had to do to survive if it was lost in Iowa? Vampires, witches, werewolves are all unholy beings, sometimes literally the undead. They have made deals (willing or not) with evil, sometimes Satan himself. They have chosen to act in their inhuman and inhumane manner; the alien has no choice, it is only lost, trying to get home, like any natural creature would do (don’t believe me? Look at The Incredible Journey, original novel released in 1961, first film version in 1963, followed by various remakes and sequels—and one hilarious Gary Larson reference [See attached]).

Personally, I love the title “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…,” and think its Lovecraft reference is intentional and well-applied—this show may not have a “Shadowed New England Cursed Eldritch Horror”-vibe about it, but it does create a feeling that something bigger than you, something downright different, is just lurking about, hiding a knife’s-blade-width just out of our perception, waiting to take what it wants, whenever it wants…

But I haven’t been able to find out who chose the title of this episode, or much about its particular evolution, from idea, to script, and so on. 

Unlike films, producers are the auteurs of television shows, and provide a lot of input, often heavily rewriting a property. On Kolchak, Darren McGavin was the executive producer, but uncredited. But being the exec and the star of the show meant he could change or tweak dialogue. Then TV veteran Cy Chermak was the “official” producer of the show. He’d previously written the sci-fi/horror flick The 4D Man (1959; whose “monster” could very well be one for Kolchak, or later The X-Files), but also produced TV shows like Ironsides, Columbo, and CHiPs. Meanwhile, Kolchak’s “story consultant” was David Chase, who would later hit it BIG with his The Sopranos.

Not to detract from any of these gentlemen’s contributions to the overall show, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that any initial “Show Bible” or “Template” for the character of Carl Kolchak and the events surrounding him was created by director-producer Dan Curtis (creator of Dark Shadows and others) and legendary horror novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson (adapting from Jeff Rice’s novel).

Curtis and Matheson created the first Kolchak film, the wildly successful The Night Stalker (1972), a TV movie that wound up breaking viewing records. Set in Las Vegas, the reporter fights a vampire. Despite victory, Kolchak is exiled…to Seattle, for the network-mandated sequel, The Night Strangler (1973), a title with a very William Castle vibe to it, IMHO—perhaps reflecting the Castle-esque atmosphere of tawdry but entertaining sleaze that sometimes permeates his productions—and that certainly infuses The Night Strangler. Partially set in the sewer-like Underground City of Seattle, there’s a claustrophobic griminess that saturates this production. Its color palette is a sick green, with the murders being especially lurid, like something thought up of by frequent William Castle collaborator and Matheson contemporary, Robert Bloch: “exotic dancers” and ecdysiasts are being slaughtered, with certain organs being harvested for nefarious purposes—in this case, a longevity potion concocted by a ghastly alchemist seeking immortality.

(However, in 1964, William Castle produced and directed the psychological thriller The Night Walker, scripted by Bloch, about a cruel, controlling blind husband; and 1971 saw the release of The Night Visitor, a neat murder-suspense flick, about an insane asylum escapee, starring the excellent Max von Sydow. Not only do both films have Kolchak-esque titles, but being thrillers, it would only take a little tweak to turn them into Kolchak-esque supernatural tales.)

Both Kolchak-based TV movies were successful, but ABC turned down the offer of a third TV movie (cowritten by Matheson and William F. Nolan, it was The Night Killers, about murdering androids), and instead proposed a Kolchak series. For whatever reasons, but probably money (a weekly show couldn’t afford these two pricey vets!), Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson did not join the weekly show.

That said, the script for “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” is credited to Rudolph Borchert, from a story by Dennis Clark (with probable input from Chase, McGavin, Chermak, and possibly others). Clark had a long career, but this is his only SF-related output, although Borchert (who also had a long career writing for television) did script a few more “alien”-themed writing assignments, including several episodes of The Greatest American Hero (aliens give a human a “super-suit”), and the “Sanctuary Earth” episode for The Bionic Woman (aliens seeking asylum).

Interesting that this episode takes place during the World Series: many commenters and bloggers slam on that impossibility—the Cubs didn’t reach the World Series until 2016—but that seems superfluous to me. Chicago being in the World Series is the most important thing to many of the show’s characters (and provides a running gag), but there’s something more important going on: an alien arrival. I think it’s unfortunate that the show’s production schedule was so short a script polish or rewrite couldn’t have added some dialogue about how everyone has gotten too much Baseball Fever to notice all the strange goings-on—If an alien landed in Central Park during a Yankees World Series game, it might go unnoticed as well.

(But it raises points about points of view—we call it the World Series, but it’s only open to American teams. Hardly worldwide, right? And I guess we shouldn’t even bother discussing Miss Universe…)

Of course, it was probably budget, production time constraints, and the length of the show as determined by the network that precluded this—but did you notice that at no time during “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” do the government agents (nor their servants, the cops) ever have a plan to catch the alien? Sure, they were absurdly (“…it was a heart attack…”) and frantically covering-up as much evidence as possible, but why? So no one knows of the existence of aliens? Or, because the government doesn’t want to us to know that it is utterly baffled and helpless in the face of this new knowledge?

Now, that’s scary.


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