When I was a youngin’ there wasn’t anything on television quite as scary to me as KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (except maybe NIGHT GALLERY’s opening credits). I don’t think I caught the original airings but I believe there was a summer when repeats aired on one of our local channels. Reporter Carl Kolchak (the late great Darren McGavin who visits yearly in A CHRISTMAS STORY (’83)) had somewhat the same demeanor as my dad and that added something extra to the stakes as he butted heads with the supernatural.
One episode, in particular, was particularly notorious in our household. It was entitled “The Spanish Moss Murders” but we knew it as “The Swamp Monster” episode. Every time I caught KOLCHAK’s eerie opening credits, I remember hoping I had stumbled upon that much-spoken-about (at least between me and my brothers) monster of the week outing. Yes, these were the days before VCRs and home media when you just had to settle for whichever episode graciously materialized. A recent re-watch of this particular jaunt (like many an infamous kindertrauma) proved to be not quite as frightening as I remembered, but certainly just as entertaining.
There’s a rash of unexplained murders popping up across Chicago with seemingly little connection except for the fact that each victim’s chest cavity has been crushed. Enter the “Swamp Monster” as played by hulking Richard Kiel (“Jaws” of the James Bond films, another childhood idol) a shambling mass of straggly green vines leaving behind a trail of slime. In a very interesting (and Kindertrauma-friendly) twist, it turns out the monster is the physical manifestation of the childhood fears of a patient undergoing extensive sleep therapy. Things come to a horrifying head when our hero Kolchak realizes the most likely spot for such a creature to hang up his moss-covered hat is the sewer below the city! His plan to bust the Cajun legend come to life is foiled further when (wouldn’t you know it) a truck parks on top of his manhole escape route! The monstrous mound of verdure still looks rather daunting today (especially as he rises from the rat-strewn sewer waters) making it pretty clear why this episode has stuck in the craw of my mind like spinach on a tooth all these long years.