Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Night Stalker: Classic Kolchak

Science fiction, fantasy & horror aficionados all have their favorite films & television shows, and will discuss their merits and weaknesses for hours. During the 60s & 70s, many TV movies with “fantastic” themes were produced. You might remember films like Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark, Duel, Gargoyles, Salem’s Lot, and one of my favorites, The Night Stalker. Originally aired in 1972, the movie was produced by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Trilogy of Terror) and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. It stars Darren McGavin as down & out reporter Carl Kolchak, who is covering a series of murders in Las Vegas by a serial killer who seems to think he’s a vampire. Or is there more to the story? As Kolchak investigates the murders, he begins to suspect that the killer might actually be a vampire. Of course, the police don’t believe him, and Kolchak follows the killer’s trail, leading to a memorable confrontation. Barry Atwater is chilling as the vampiric Janos Skorzeny, infusing the role with menace and terror without a word of dialogue.

McGavin is excellent as the rumpled, acerbic Kolchak, who also narrates the story. His humorous confrontations with his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), and the various cops & city officials, are witty and well played. In fact, the mix of horror & humor on display here should be quite recognizable to fans of later films in the genre. The film was written by Richard Matheson, based on a then unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. Matheson also wrote some classic episodes of the original Twilight Zone series, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and many science-fiction & fantasy novels, such as the original I Am LegendWhen the film first aired, it garnered a remarkable audience: a 33.2 rating and a 54 share, becoming the highest rated telefilm up to that point, a record it held for some time afterward. The success of the movie led to a 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler, written by Matheson and produced & directed by Curtis. Kolchak faced another killer, this time in Seattle, an immortal menace portrayed by Richard Anderson, who's best remembered as Steve Austin's boss Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man.

During the 1974-75 season, ABC produced a weekly version entitled Kolchak: The Night Stalker, one of the scariest shows on TV at the time. It featured the intrepid reporter battling demons, mummies, werewolves, and other supernatural beings. I remember watching and being excited to see what creature of the night Kolchak would battle every week. I enjoyed the creepy atmosphere of the show, the humor, and most of all, McGavin as the cynical but determined reporter who never gave up. In battling the monsters, he also had to contend with the authorities, who either didn't believe him, or covered up the true facts. Many familiar faces, including Tom Skerritt, Cathy Lee Crosby, James Gregory, Keenan Wynn and Tom Bosley appeared on the series. The writers included David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, and Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale, the co-writers of Back To The Future. While the show only lasted one season, it has since become a cult classic, and is cited by Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, as a specific influence on that series. In fact, Carter wanted McGavin to portray an older Kolchak on the show, but for various reasons, it never came to pass. McGavin did appear in a couple of episodes as Arthur Dales, an older FBI agent who was “the father of the X-Files.”

Sadly, the original TV movies are now out of print (I own the double feature disc of The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler released by MGM a few years back) but the complete series is available for purchase on DVD. A short-lived remake of the show, starring Stuart Townsend, was produced in 2005 that had none of the flavor of the original. The character has also appeared in some prose fiction & graphic novels from Moonstone Press. Johnny Depp (who is currently starring as vampire Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton’s remake of Dark Shadows) has reportedly purchased the rights to the character, and plans a big-screen update. We’ll see where & when Carl Kolchak next faces off against the forces of darkness. Here's a link to a promo for the original TV movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hedpWMsppE.

From The Night Stalker (1972) :
Kolchak : (regarding the story he's just told): Judge for yourself its believability, and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn't happen here.

From The Night Strangler (1973)Kolchak's opening narration: This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur in the city of Seattle, Washington. You never read about them in your local newspapers or heard about them on your local radio or television station. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart, and reassembled... in a word, falsified. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Rite: Faith, Religion & The Nature of Evil


The Rite (2011) directed by Mikael Hafstrom seems to be a story about demonic possession and a typical horror film in the “exorcist” genre. But there’s more going on beneath the surface of this interesting drama.  Colin O’Donoghue stars as Michael Kovak, a young Catholic who works as a mortician in his father’s business. He feels something is missing in his life (and his faith), so he enters the seminary. He doesn’t find the answers he’s seeking as he studies for the priesthood. After his ordination, he writes a letter of resignation to his superior, stating his intent to leave the priesthood.

But Father Matthew (nicely played by Toby Jones) talks him out of leaving; he feels Michael is truly called to be a priest. He asks that Michael consider going to Rome and taking a course on exorcism before making his final decision. The church is making an effort to train more exorcists, as incidences of alleged demonic possession are on the rise. Michael agrees and heads to Rome. He takes the class, taught by a Father Xavier, who, seeing the conflict within Michael, sends him to speak with his friend Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins), a renowned exorcist. He wants Michael to see there is real evil in the world.

Father Lucas has Michael sit in on an exorcism he performs (in a chilling scene), and even though Michael still has his doubts about the veracity of what he sees, he continues to visit with Father Lucas, until his faith is tested in ways he doesn’t expect. Hopkins, as usual, is excellent as the priest/exorcist, who has some belief issues of his own. Alice Braga is solid in a supporting role as a reporter who is also taking the class, and becomes involved with Michael’s search for faith & redemption. Rutger Hauer shines in a small role as Michael’s father.

When The Rite came out in winter 2011, it was marketed & sold as a horror film, playing up the more supernatural elements of the story, But this is really a film about faith, belief & redemption; though it does have horror-themed elements, they’re not played for the sensational, and are an integral part of the story. That’s not to say there aren’t some scary scenes here for fans of the genre; but this is a solid, well-acted (especially by Hopkins) film, that tells a thoughtful story about faith, redemption & how our own doubts can open the door to our darker natures. The movie is based on the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio, which tells the real life story of Father Gary Thomas, the model for the Michael Kovak character. It’s worth a look, whether you’re looking for a scary rental for Halloween, or a nicely done film about the nature of faith.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Seattle's Pearl Jam At "20"

Brief thoughts on a recent documentary celebrating Pearl Jam's 20th Anniversary:

Pearl Jam Twenty – This absorbing story of the Seattle-based rockers traces the history of the band from its beginnings in the roots of the grunge scene to its’ multiplatinum success in the 90s and beyond. It's directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire), a former rock journalist, who wrote for Rolling Stone in his younger days. The movie gets to the heart of the band’s creative process, and their desire to keep making meaningful music and stay true to their alternative roots while becoming successful. It's a fascinating study of the band.

There’s a treasure trove of performance clips from the group’s beginnings through the present day, as well as incisive interviews with the band’s members, and fellow Seattle rocker Chris Cornell. The movie doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, including the death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain in 1994, and the group’s boycott of, and court battle against, concert promoters Ticketmaster. But ultimately, this is a story of a band that enjoys making music together, and continues to find themselves creatively energized by one another. Pearl Jam Twenty was originally shown on PBS’ American Masters, and it is also available DVD & Blu-Ray. Here's a link to the film's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEm5gwxRaKU.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Leaves of Grass: An Effective, Offbeat Drama


What if your past came back to haunt you in the present? The 2009 drama Leaves of Grass offers one answer to that question. Bill Kincaid (Norton) is a philosophy professor at Brown University; he’s been successful in the world of academia, and is being courted by Harvard to create a philosophy curriculum within their law school. A phone call from home changes everything. Bill is told his twin brother Brady has been killed. Bill hasn’t been home in years and left his old life behind to start over.

Bill heads home to Tulsa, but discovers Brady (also played by Norton) isn’t dead. He’s hatching a plan to break free of his allegiance to a drug distributor, and start over with his pregnant girlfriend. Brady’s a pot grower, who makes some of the most potent weed in the state. He needs Bill to pose as him as part of his plot to outwit the drug dealer. Bill refuses at first, but is drawn into the plan, and also has to deal with his own demons, and his memories of the family he left behind.

Norton is excellent in the dual role, as the strait-laced Bill, and the free-spirited Brady. He expertly conveys Bill’s reluctance to deal with his old life; the mixed emotions he feels for his brother, and his buried feelings of resentment towards his mother (a nice supporting turn by Susan Sarandon).  As Brady, he shows how the brother who stayed home feels about his sibling, who left his family behind, and never looked back.

The story goes in directions you don’t expect, with moments of drama & pathos mixed with some unexpected black comedy. The fine supporting cast includes Keri Russell, Richard Dreyfuss and Tim Blake Nelson (who also wrote & directed the film). A soundtrack of Southern style rock & folk is a nice touch that adds flavor to the movie. This is a unique film, a little different from the usual Hollywood product. The closest comparison would be the films of The Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing). If you’re a fan of intelligent dramas that are a little off center, then I recommend you give Leaves of Grass a try.

Monday, October 3, 2011

From R.E.M. to Prince and Beyond...Another Playlist from the Eclectic Avenue Jukebox

As fall begins, here's another random "baker's dozen" playlist to plug into your music device of choice:

1. Call Me Rose by Bruce Cockburn. A quirky, satirical tune from the Canadian folk rocker, about Richard Nixon being reincarnated as.....a girl from the projects?! Great lyrics and nice guitar work from Cockburn on this excellent song, which is featured on his 2011 release, Small Source of Comfort.

2. She Walks In So Many Ways by The Jayhawks from Mockingbird Time. The original lineup of the band returns for their first album since 1995, and they haven't lost their knack for making tuneful country-flavored rock.

3. What You Don't Know About The Girl by Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. from Solid State Warrior. Manning was a member of the late, lamented band Jellyfish. On this cut from Manning's 2006 solo album, it sounds like the Partridge Family sent Laurie on a double date with Roger, fellow rocker Matthew Sweet & Karen Carpenter, and they came up with this cool, retro style song.

4. Near Wild Heaven by R.E.M. After 31 years, the seminal Georgia based alterna-rockers recently announced they're calling it quits.  Here's a fantastic song from their classic 1991 album, Out of Time. Thanks for all the music, guys. You'll be missed.

5. Crazy Water by Was (Not Was) from Boo! The soul/funk/rap/rockers groove out on this old fashioned r&b shouter, with vocals by "Sweet Pea" Atkinson. Check out some of their other fine albums, including Born To Laugh At Tornadoes (1983) or What Up, Dog? (1988).

6. Sittin' Pretty by Brendan Benson. Perhaps best known as a member of Jack White's side project The Raconteurs, Benson rocks on this offbeat number from his 1996 debut, One Mississippi.

7. Crimson & Clover by Prince from LOtUS FLOW3RPrince covers Tommy James & The Shondells, and puts his own stamp on this classic song.

8. It Doesn't Matter by The Orange Humble Band from Assorted CreamsA power pop gem from this group, featuring Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, Daryl Mather of The Someloves and famed indie rock producer Mitch Easter. The whole album is excellent and worth a listen, especially if you're a fan of the power pop genre.

9.  You & Your Sister by Chris Bell from I Am The Cosmos. From the late Big Star member's posthumous solo release: a beautiful, emotional, gentle love song. Sadly, we lost Chris in 1978, and this album wasn't released until 1992.

10.  Knowing Me, Knowing You by The Wondermints from The Wonderful World of The Wondermints. This group, best known for backing Brian Wilson on a couple of albums and tours, gives the Abba classic a rock edge on this cool cover.

11.  That's The Way God Planned It by Billy Preston from That's The Way God Planned It. A gospel influenced tune from Preston, who played with everyone from The Beatles & The Rolling Stones to Ray Charles, and had a successful solo career of his own, with hits like "Will It Go Round in Circles."

12. I Can't Be Without You by Lenny Kravitz. A lover's plea that builds in intensity & emotion as the song goes on; from Lenny's latest album, Black & White In America.

13. Something To Fall Back On by Todd Rundgren. From the 1985 album A Cappella; a unique release from Todd, as every sound on the album was the product of the artist's voice, via some overdubs and sampling. A great song from a talented artist who doesn't always get the respect he deserves.