Category Archives: The X-Files

RIP “Night Stalker” creator Jeff Rice

jeff rice night stalker

I’m kind of heartbroken right now.

Earlier today I saw a random tweet about the passing of Jeff Rice.

If you ask, “Who is Jeff Rice?” you’ll either not give a damn about his death or – hopefully – you will care after I lay a little information on you.

Jeff Rice, who died in Las Vegas on July 1 at age 71, was a talented writer who peaked way before he should have and struggled – and failed – to reach the same height of success again.

You see, Jeff Rice created Carl Kolchak and “The Night Stalker.”

If that rings a bell, and it should, you might remember that “The Night Stalker,” a TV movie from “Dark Shadows” creator Dan Curtis and starring Darren McGavin as Kolchak, aired on ABC on Jan. 11, 1972.

The movie – what might now be called a procedural, as Las Vegas newspaper reporter Kolchak tracks a serial killer in Vegas and ruffles the feathers of cops, politicians and his boss at the paper – was one of the most successful TV movies of all time, with 54 percent of TVs in use and 33 percent of all TV homes tuned in the night it aired.

That’s in part due to the funny, action-filled script by “I Am Legend” and “Twilight Zone” screenwriter Richard Matheson and Kolchak’s way of staying one step ahead of everyone else – and rubbing their noses in it. (I’m betting he influenced almost as many would-be newspaper reporters, like me, as did Woodward and Bernstein.)

But “The Night Stalker” also did as well as it did, I believe, because Vegas serial killer Janos Skorzeny was a vampire.

I’ve written in this space before about my love for the movie – and my great fondness for the follow-up movie “The Night Strangler” and the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV series that aired from September 1974 to March 1975.

As writer Mark Dawidziak noted in his book “The Night Stalker Companion” and his online obituary for Rice, the author’s work and the adaptations of it were enormously influential.

Not just on “The X-Files,” which captured the spirit of the movies and TV series and even paid tribute to Kolchak, but also a host of series that, like Rice’s work, brought “creatures of the night” out of the Victorian era and shook off their gothic trappings to introduce them to the modern world, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and pretty much every recent movie or series that used “The Night Stalker”‘s mix of horror, humor, sarcasm, pessimism and, ultimately, bravery.

There had been little like “The Night Stalker” before but there was plenty to come.

As Dawidziak notes, however, Rice’s story was in many ways as dark as his story “The Kolchak Papers,” which eventually saw paperback publication as “The Night Stalker” in December 1973.

night stalker books

(The book cover photos that accompany this post I took today of my copies of Rice’s books. I’ve had them since they were published. They’re terrific.)

Dawidziak notes that Rice – himself a Las Vegas Sun reporter in the 1960s, and nobody’s pushover – based his fantastic yarn on his own experiences in Vegas, running up against corrupt politicians and criminals. Rice didn’t encounter any vampires, as far as we know, but anyone who remembers the movie knows that the most dangerous antagonists in the movie aren’t the age-old vampire but the forces of politics and the law, who lower the boom on Kolchak just as he triumphs.

As Dawidziak tells it, Rice’s downfall came after the “Kolchak” series was approved. It seems like somebody neglected to get the rights to the characters from Rice. The author asked for a piece of the action and, when the studio thumbed its nose at him, threatened to sue.

Rice was barred from the the production of the series and felt like his career was greatly diminished.

Rice never caught the huge break that his talent deserved.

And as Las Vegas Review-Journal writer John L. Smith reported, Rice lived out a “troubled” life until his death a little more than month ago.

I’ve seen “The Night Stalker” countless times and I’ve read Rice’s books several times. From the first page, Rice grips the reader with his portrait of Cheryl Ann Hughes, a casino worker in one of Las Vegas’ darker sidewalks on the wrong night.

A series of bullet points – a style best appreciated by those of us in the newspaper business – sums up Hughes in less than a page. Then this:

“Cheryl Ann Hughes: a girl with less than fifteen minutes to live.”

If you seek out and read Rice’s book – and you should – you’ll realize how much the TV movie owes to Rice not just because of characters and plot but also tone and voice. You can hear McGavin’s voice as you read Rice’s story.

I was 12 and a horror film fanatic when I first saw “The Night Stalker.” I greedily sought out more of this world, snapping up Rice’s novels when I found them and watching the sequel movie and series.

After hearing the news about Jeff Rice today, I’ll be stepping back into Kolchak’s world again soon.

‘The Man in the High Castle’ teases alternate history

themaninthehighcastleamazon

I haven’t spent a lot of time on Amazon lately, in great part because I haven’t liked what I’ve heard about the way the retailing and publishing giant has squeezed publishers and authors after years of putting the hurt on independent bookstores. The fact that I didn’t buy any books or music through Amazon this past Christmas – and a few months before that – is decidedly immaterial to Amazon, of course.

I have gone back to Amazon recently however – without breaking out my credit card – to check out two projects from Amazon’s burgeoning original movie/TV production house.

One is “Bosch,” a series based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch crime novels. Another is “The Man in the High Castle,” based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 alternate history novel.

It’s a testimony to the lasting fascination with World War II that “The Man in the High Castle,” the book and the Amazon pilot I saw, are still so vital.

When the book by Dick – the author of the stories behind classic films like “Blade Runner” – was published in 1962, World War II vets were still strong and vital men and women, the driving force in our society, albeit soon to be supplanted by their children, the generation that came of age in the 1960s. But in 1962, the heroes of World War II and the scars of the war still loomed large.

Dick’s story is set in a world where Japan and Germany defeated an overmatched Great Britain and Russia and an unprepared United States. The US is divided between a Japanese colony on the west coast and a German colony on the east. In between is a rough neutral zone.

The Amazon pilot – which streamlines Dick’s story – tells the story of two people: Juliana, who journeys by bus from San Francisco to Canon City in the neutral zone to complete a mission started by her sister, who is killed by Japanese authorities, and Joe, a young New Yorker who seeks out a dangerous mission for anti-German resistance underground and drives a truck to Canon City.

Each is carrying a newsreel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which seems to show the US and its allies triumphant over the Nazis and Japanese. But that didn’t happen, did it?

The newsreel – a book in Dick’s original novel – is the product of a mysterious figure known as “The Man in the High Castle.” What his role in the story is and what happens to Juliana and Joe are still unknown to Amazon viewers because the creators – including former “X-FIles” producer Frank Spotnitz – have barely scratched the surface of Dick’s book. We’re not even sure if there will be more episodes to follow the Amazon pilot.

The most chilling moment in the pilot is when Joe is stopped by a swastika-wearing sheriff who acknowledges he was a US soldier in the war. “Can’t even remember what we were fighting for now, though.”

Joe notices ashes drifting down around them and asks what they’re from.

The hospital, the sheriff replies. Just the regularly scheduled burning of “cripples and the terminally ill (and other) drags on the state.”

“The Man in the High Castle” is visually stunning, from the opening credits to the newsreel images to the lived-in look of the US under occupation. The look of the series pilot is big-screen-movie-quality.

The characters are intriguing and the story is fine, although I felt like I saw the last-shot twist coming.

Maybe we’ll see where “The Man in the High Castle” takes us.

Classic ‘X-Files’ – ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’

x-files jose chung's from outer space

It’s funny, as the 20th anniversary of the debut season of “The X-Files” rolls along, to see how sharp and canny many of the episodes are even when watched anew and not viewed through the filter of a couple decades of nostalgia.

“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” was the 20th episode of the third season of the series, originally airing in April 1996, and written by Darin Morgan (who played the shape-shifting grifter from “Small Potatoes”) and directed by Rob Bowman.

The episode is told in flashback form, from more than one viewpoint, as Mulder and Scully unravel a reported alien abduction of two teenagers.

Jose Chung X-Files

Framing the story is Scully’s interview with author Jose Chung, played in a relaxed and funny performance by Charles Nelson Reilly, who had been best known to a generation of TV watchers for game show appearances, including “Match Game.”

While Scully is a fan of writer Chung, she plays her typical role of skeptic here, arguing that some kind of sexual trauma occurred, while Mulder believes the story of alien abduction.

Random observations:

Reilly returned as Chung in an episode of “Millennium,” the “X-Files” spin-off.

The “Men in Black” who show up to discourage one witness are played by Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek.

The story as retold by a young D&D fan is maybe the best version, with Mulder giving out a little scream when they find an “alien” body and Scully – a man posing as a woman but not quite pulling it off, according to the witness – threatening to kill somebody.

“I didn’t spend all those years playing Dungeons and Dragons and not learn a little something about courage,” the young witness says.

Vintage commercials during the episode I have on videotape: New at the movies: “Scream 2” and “The Postman.”

Classic ‘X-Files’ – ‘Home’

xfiles home mulder scully

I’m watching old episodes of “The X-Files” lately – on videocassette, no less – and not just because this week marks the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut.

I’m watching them because I haven’t seen them lately, and that circumstance applies in particular to one episode I’ve watched only a handful of times since it premiered nearly 17 years ago.

That’s just how disturbing “Home” is.

The second episode of the fourth season, originally airing in October 1996, “Home” is a monster of the week episode but just might be the creepiest hour of TV ever, from the opening moments of what appears to be a group of deformed creatures overseeing a misbegotten birth to the macabre ending centered around the trunk of a vintage Caddy.

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When a group of kids playing baseball find the bloody, buried remains of a severely deformed fetus, Mulder and Scully are called to the small town of Home to investigate the discovery and meet not only Sheriff Andy Taylor and his deputy, Barney, but also – at a distance at first – meet the Peacock family, three adult brothers who have been living on their own for 10 years. The Peacock boys have isolated since their parents died – or were injured – in a car accident. I say “died or injured” because, after the accident, the brothers made off with their parents and Sheriff Taylor says it’s only assumed the Peacock parents died.

That’s not the case, of course. The dark, dark secret of the Peacock family and the town of Home seeps out thanks to the investigation of Mulder and Scully.

For once, Scully is the instigator of the deeper investigation. Fueled by her concerns that the Peacock brothers might be kidnapping women to breed, Scully pushes Mulder into probing just what the Peacocks are doing in their remote house.

“Home” is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Written by “X-Files” veterans Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Kim Manners, “Home” hits so many horrific notes, from the initially barely-glimpsed deformities of the Peacock brothers to the horrible attack on the sheriff to the glimpse of eyes through a crack in the floorboards of the Peacock house.

Random  observations:

“They raise and breed their own stock, if you get what I mean.” Holy shit, sheriff. Seriously, I think it’s time to bulldoze the Peacock homestead.

The brothers’ drive over to Sheriff Taylor’s house with Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful, Wonderful” playing on the car radio – and what happens after they arrive – is enough to make your skin crawl up and off your body and out the door.

I wasn’t sure how the brothers could be quite so deformed, but Scully does make a reference to generations of in-breeding. And sure enough, a family photo shows the Peacock parents had weird noses. Or somethin’.

“Oh no,” Mulder exclaims as he spots something in the Peacock house: It’s the front page of the newspaper from when Elvis died.

Even though the episode was set in Pennsylvania, the writers plainly intended to evoke backwards southern stereotypes. Not just incest but a reference to “The War of Northern Aggression.”

As I’m watching these episodes from videotapes I made at the time they aired, I’m also catching a glimpse of commercials from the time. This episode included an America Online TV spot. New at the movies: “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”