R.I.P. Jimmy Sangster 1927-2011

Auugh! After getting started back after a long hiatus, our website got hijacked by spammers. It has taken us awhile to get it back on track as we are computer-comfortable but apparently not web-savvy (or not web-savvy enough at any rate).

Sadly back on August 19th,  Hammer icon Jimmy Sangster passed away. While much of the success of Hammer films may be credited to stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Jimmy Sangster penned many of the snappy scripts they read from. Unfortunately none of his films are currently available on instant Netflix.

His first full-length screenplay was the wonderful pre-Blob gelatinous monster movie X – The Unknown. Modeled after the success of The Quatermass Xperiment (by Nigel Kneale), this is a Quatermass movie in all but name.

After the rousing success of The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown here), X the Unknown, and Quatermass II (Enemy from Space), Hammer executives decided to splurge on color gothic remakes of the classic Universal canon. Jimmy Sangster penned The Curse of Frankenstein, The Horror of Dracula, The Mummy and the first few sequels (Revenge of Frankenstein, Brides of Dracula, Dracula, Prince of Darkness).

Sangster seemed most at home in the thriller with a twist genre. Sadly these do not hold up well as the twists have since been done to death. Sangster wrote the stories and/or screenplays for The Snorkel, Scream of Fear, Paranoiac, Maniac, Nightmare, and the Bette Davis-vehicles The Nanny and The Anniversary.

The only Sangster title I was able to spot on instant Netflix was the Kolchak: The Night Stalker episode Horror in the Heights. It is not a particularly good representation of his work but allows me to plug the good cheesy fun that is Kolchak.

Kolchak The Night Stalker

Ok I have to admit that this may not be a good recommendation. Kolchak is one of my many guilty pleasures from a misspent youth. Darren McGavin starred as Kolchak in two of the most popular made-for-TV movies ever – The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. These were played seriously with a little bit of lightheartedness from McGavin and are quite good – unfortunately they are not available on instant play. The two movies were so popular that they greenlighted a series based on Kolchak’s character – the entirety of which is available on instant play.

Kolchak the Night Stalker

WATCH: Kolchak, the Night Stalker (1974) – “Independent News Service reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) investigates the supernatural in this 1970s series. Kolchak has his work cut out for him as he tracks down Jack the Ripper, aliens, zombies, werewolves, vengeful spooks, Satanic dogs and a boogeyman from the Louisiana bogs. Guest stars include Richard Kiel, Phil Silvers, Keenan Wynn, Jamie Farr, Bernie Kopell, Tom Skerritt, Scatman Crothers, Dick Van Patten and Erik Estrada.”

Darren McGavin is absolutely fabulous through the whole series. Sadly the series is completely episodic – nothing that happens in any episode affects any of the other episodes except that the villain in The Vampire is someone who had been turned from the villain in the first movie. The show’s quality varies wildly and never reaches the quality of the movies. All of the other characters seem like merely props for Darren to play with. Having said that, this was my absolute favorite TV series as a kid and I still enjoy Darren McGavin’s one-man show as Kolchak. The first two episodes are probably the best, the Ripper and the Zombie and are suspenseful though not to the degree of the movies. After the first two, the humor value is increased and there isn’t really much suspense in the show so the only reason to watch this creature-of-the-week show is for Darren McGavin’s performance.”They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be” plays just like an X-Files episode.

The X-Files, which is a direct descendant of this show, featured Darren McGavin in a homage episode and would have featured him again had he not taken ill (his character was replaced with that of his brother).

Darren McGavin

Darren McGavin was one of my favorite character actors especially in his big starring role as Carl Kolchak. He was also a great narrator – he did a number of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books on tape. His gravelly voice was wonderful for those long car rides. In addition to the below Instant Netflix, Darren McGavin also appears in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents season 1 (1955), one episode of Magnum P.I. season 2 (1981) and one episode of Murder She Wrote season 8 (1991).

Kolchak the Night Stalker

1. Kolchak the Night Stalker (1974) – “Independent News Service reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) investigates the supernatural in this 1970s series. Kolchak has his work cut out for him as he tracks down Jack the Ripper, aliens, zombies, werewolves, vengeful spooks, Satanic dogs and a boogeyman from the Louisiana bogs. Guest stars include Richard Kiel, Phil Silvers, Keenan Wynn, Jamie Farr, Bernie Kopell, Tom Skerritt, Scatman Crothers, Dick Van Patten and Erik Estrada”

This was my favorite TV series growing up and I find it to be great campy fun now. The monsters are laughable and the plots are half-baked but Darren McGavin is simply delightful as Kolchak. This does not include the 2 TV movies that preceded the series – The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler (both of which are more serious than the series). I loved the series so much that one evening as a child I cut short trick or treating to watch Kolchak. While this is Darren McGavin’s signature role, most people nowadays remember him for…

A Christmas Story

2. A Christmas Story (1983) – “Humorist Jean Shepard’s nostalgic view of Christmastime in Indiana during the 1940s is a holiday classic. Nine-year-old Ralphie desperately wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas and wages an all-out campaign to convince his reluctant parents (Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon) that the toy is safe. Meanwhile, as Ralphie prepares for the big day, his brother has a strange relationship with food, and his dad fights the never-ending furnace battle”

I generally try to avoid this film 364 days of the year as every year I look forward to one of the Turner stations playing “24 hours of A Christmas Story”. I’ll have that on in the background all day. This film is an absolute classic. If you haven’t seen it yet – why haven’t you?

The Natural

3. The Natural (1984) – “A bat made from a tree struck by lightning and a passion for baseball define Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford). But when he’s shot and severely wounded, his career gets cut short. Years later, Hobbs tries out for a struggling team. He steps to the plate and knocks the ball out of the park in this mythic film that’s as epic as America’s national pastime”

I don’t care for sports so I really don’t care for sports movies. Having written that, this is the best baseball movie I’ve ever seen. It is not really a Darren McGavin film – he’s only in a tiny portion of the movie but this a truly poetic film.