Azathoth. Had H. P. Lovecraft lived just a few years more, he could have called it by the name we know today: Television.
For every example of classic television, it isn't difficult to find a dozen soul-sucking monstrosities — and most of the very worst of them claim to represent "reality": there's the one about young women destroying their reputations, relationships and futures preparing for their wedding days — which, they've been taught their whole lives, is the one and only day they count for anything at all. There's the one about a bunch of moronic New Yorkers living in Miami... you know: "Jersey Shore" (?!). More recently, one of the tiny tyrants of that appalling how-the-hell-is-this-shit-legal "Toddlers and Tiaras" has been given her very own spin-off series, as if the original wasn't horrifying enough. Through all of them, the naked face of Azathoth grows clearer and clearer, until one day we will see him as he truly is... and we won't even notice, because we will have already become his zombie slaves, waiting to be devoured. We'll be back after these important messages!
Oh, and it's not just recent TV that provides examples of the chaos that rules the universe. Take, for instance, the TV career of the actor Werner Klemperer.
In the early 1930's, the great German conductor and composer Otto Klemperer was forced to flee his country with his family: the Nazis were taking over, and the Klemperers, being Jewish, were in danger of their lives. Otto's son Werner, in addition to inheriting his father's talent for music, proved to be an excellent actor, with a commanding stage presence and a powerful, expressive voice. Werner Klemperer had a long and varied career, including roles on stage, on screen and in opera... 1
1. You can also hear him in the brief role of the Speaker toward the end of Seiji Ozawa's epic 1979 recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.. But for what is he best remembered?
For his performance as a comical Nazi on television: Colonel Klink in "Hogan's Heroes".
Klemperer had only taken the part of Klink on the condition that the German prison camp commandant be characterized as a hopeless incompetent. Oh, Werner, Werner... how you misread the character of your adopted country! It's the idiots on TV we identify with most strongly! Ask anybody today who remembers the show about their favorite "Hogan's Heroes" characters, and they're unlikely to mention poor Bob Crane as Hogan, or even The Guy from "Family Feud". Chances are they'll remember the Nazis: Sergeant Schultz, whose "I know nothink!" catchphrase is still used in political satire — and timid, querulous Col. Klink, the man who was the antithesis of the actor who brought him to life.
In what sane universe does such a thing come to pass?
Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the name of Azathoth is rarely spoken aloud by his minions on the small screen. Yet there have been exceptions. There have been moments when the veil has been put aside, and the name of the Dark One has been uttered. One of the rarest intances is 1964/65's Dark Intruder.
Intended as the pilot for a TV series called "The Black Cloak", Dark Intruder is one of the earliest movies to reference H.P. Lovecraft and his pantheon directly — the movie generally credited as the first real Lovecraft adaptation, Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace (based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward") came out in 1963. Dark Intruder is not based on any of Lovecraft's stories, but it bears a strong resemblance to "Charles Dexter Ward", and its thematic concern with the loss of identity aligns it strongly with other examples of Lovecraft's writing, including "The Thing on the Doorstep", "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "The Evil Clergyman".
The hero of "The Black Cloak" was going to be Brett Kingsford, occult investigator. The series was to be set in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century; each week Kingsford and his dwarf assistant Nikola were going to encounter another mysterious threat From Beyond, and Kingsford would use his special knowledge to thwart it. He'd be helped in his adventures by the Chinese mystic Chi Zan and the skeptical Inspector Misbach.
In this adventure, Kingsford is drawn into the investigation of a series of brutal murders. The violence of the crimes has reminded everyone of the recent Ripper murders in London2
2. Not surprising, considering writer Barré Lyndon also wrote the screen adaptations for the 1944 version of The Lodger, The Man in the Attic, and the TV version of Robert Bloch's "Yours Truly Jack the Ripper")., and the city is on the verge of panic. Inspector Misbach contacts Kingsford because of the only real clues left at the scene of each killing: a set of hideous carvings in ivory, representing some sort of monster.
Kingsford, examining the carvings, notices that there's a subtle difference between them. In each successive carving, a second ghastly figure seems to be emerging more and more clearly from the first. The style suggests to Kingsford certain cults "in the Hogar region... the Crimson Desert: Azathoth! Dagon!" Kingsford intends to show one of the carvings to Chi Zan for his opinion... but first, he's distracted by the seemingly-unrelated issue of the upcoming wedding of his friend Robert Vandenburg.
Vandenburg's talkative fiancée, Evelyn Lang, is also an old friend of Kingsford's. In fact, she'd come to see him earlier in the day, but in spite of her torrent of words, she'd had stopped short of saying why. He'd got the feeling it had something to do with Vandenburg's behavior. What might be troubling her becomes more clear to him when he meets up with Robert outside Misbach's office. Vandenburg seems curiously distracted. At one point he drops out of the conversation entirely and seems to retreat into a world of his own.
Dismissing Robert's behavior as pre-wedding nerves, Kingsford goes off to visit Chi Zan. The old man is horrified by the mysterious carving. Naturally, being Chinese3
3. This is sarcasm. Chi Zan is played by a white guy in unconvincing makeup., Chi Zan is an expert in all Eastern religions of all time4
4. Yes, this is also sarcasm., so he immediately recognizes the statuette as an ancient Sumerian deity... one of many Old Ones who were banished to outer darkness, and who struggle constantly to return to our world. He shows Kingsford another small figure: "A Sumerian demon," he says, unveiling a squat, toad-like thing clutching a wheel with seven spokes. Kingsford remarks he's never before seen a wheel with 7 spokes (which seems to me an odd thing for him to have noticed, unless perhaps he suffers from OCD), and Chi Zan tells him he's right: the wheel of seven spokes has a particular meaning. Each spoke represents a life to be taken — spiritual energy to be drained in order to allow the demon to return.
Kingsford impulsively picks up the figurine, but Chi Zan instructs him to put it down at once. Too late: the figure has suddenly grown hot in his hands, and as he hurriedly drops it, its talons scratch his wrist as though the thing were alive. Of course that's impossible. It's only a statue... isn't it? No, says Chi Zan; it's not a carving after all. The ugly little thing is a mass of mummified flesh and bone...
Kingsford goes to meet Vandenburg at his antique shop, located on a busy city street... but Vandenburg has stepped out. He's helpfully left a note on the unlocked door, informing Brett that he'd be away for a while, but that he should just let himself in. What Kingsford doesn't realize is that something — something in a dark cloak, with claws — has followed him from his meeting with Chi Zan; and while he's alone in the antique shop, it sneaks up and springs on him. Kingsford is barely able to fend off his attacker, and sustains an injury to his shoulder. The cloaked assassin runs off when a crowd gathers, drawn by the sight of one of Vandenburg's antiques flying through the store window; Vandenburg shows up shortly thereafter. Brett claims he was attacked by a thief — a reasonable story, considering Vandenburg left the door open and the shop unattended. Robert is concerned about the obvious claw-wound, so he takes Brett to his own family doctor, Dr. Burdett.
Dr. Burdett is intrigued by the fact the injury looks exactly like a larger version of the scratch on Brett's hand (which we know was caused by a Sumerian demon). Brett, for his part, is intrigued by the fact that Burdett has a statue of a Sumerian god in his office. Burdett reveals that he used to travel with the Vandenburg family on its archaeological expeditions to Mesopotamia — there had been one such expedition just before Robert was born. By a strange coincidence, his nurse at the time — the very one who had attended at Robert's birth — had been one of the recent San Francisco Ripper victims. They hadn't been particularly close... the nurse had stayed behind in Baghdad after Robert's birth, and only came back to San Francisco years later with the child she'd adopted in the Middle East. Funny thing... the boy had run away before anybody had a chance to meet him; it had just about broken the poor woman's heart.
After all that's happened, Robert decides to unburden himself to Kingsford. It's these episodes he's been having, in which he seems to lose control of himself: almost like sleepwalking while he's awake. He has no memory of what he's done during those episodes, but he's made note of the times they've happened. There's a terrible pattern to them. They seem to line up with the mysterious murders. Robert is terribly afraid that he may be insane, and committing the murders while in these odd dream-states.
Kingsford is well aware that something deadly and unnatural is happening, and he's beginning to realize that it all revolves around Robert Vandenburg. But he's anxious not to let Robert think he suspects anything. So he dismisses Robert's worries in his usual careless manner. For once, though, Brett's superficial charm doesn't work: far from being put at his ease, Robert is deeply hurt. He's come to his friend at the lowest point in his life, and all he gets is Brett's usual dismissal. Furious, he storms out; Brett orders Nikola to follow him and take note of everywhere he goes & everyone he sees.
Robert's merely stormed out with no fixed idea where he's going. However, as he walks the foggy streets, he's approached by a young man in a turban, who silently hands him an advertising flyer and then disappears into the crowd. The flyer announces the services of Professor Malaki, psychic: "Uncovers the Past — Sees the Future". Just the man to tell him what's been going on! But when Robert goes to see Malaki, the mysterious professor hesitates. When Robert asks what he's waiting for, Malaki tells him he's expecting Robert's friends to arrive. Sure enough, Brett and Evelyn (following Nikola's directions) show up unexpectedly... well, unexpectedly for Robert, anyway.
Malaki gives them some demonstrations of his occult skill, though he himself remains half-hidden in shadows and swathed in robes. He calls Kingsford by name, though as far as anyone can tell the two have never met... Malaki asks him bluntly: "Why are you not dead?" He goes on to speak (in his deep, sepulchral voice) of the wound on Brett's shoulder, though the bandage isn't visible. As for Robert, Malaki seems able to peer into his mind with the ease of someone reading a book over another's shoulder. He mentions that Robert' too has a scar, on his back — "It is old, this scar," he says; "but for an hour, as old as you." It's true: Robert had had a growth of some sort removed shortly after his birth. How in the world did Malaki know that?
Obviously with Brett and Evelyn in the room, poor Robert can't get to the matters he really wanted to discuss with Malaki. Brett, though, has his own private matters to discuss, and he won't let anything stop him: he pulls out the ivory carving from the crime scene and passes it to Malaki before the professor has a chance to react. He asks Malaki what that means to him, particularly with regard to time. "Time?" croaks the professor. "Periods in proportion... getting smaller and smaller..." Then he seems to recollect himself and tosses the hideous object back to Kingsford with a snarl. Kingsford thanks him with a bland smile and makes his exit.
The next night, Dr. Burdett is killed. When Misbach and Kingsford go to investigate, Kingsford realizes that some of the Doctor's case records have been stolen. The rest of his office has been ransacked to cover up the theft of the record books. The records seem to be for the year 1860 — the year Robert was born, off in Iraq. It does look as though Robert must have something to do with the murders... but Misbach informs Kingsford that he couldn't possibly be the murderer himself. He has an alibi not even he knows. It turns out the first in this series of murders happened somewhere completely different. Misbach had realized the first two victims were connected to Iraq, so he'd cabled there for more information. He'd been informed that an exactly similar killing had been recorded in Basra several months before. Even the ivory carving was the same... and Robert Vandenburg had been in San Francisco at the time. Clearly the killer had followed his victims from Iraq.
This news galvanizes Kingsford. This means there have been six murders, not five — six out of the seven required to fill the spokes of the Sumerian demon's wheel. Calculating quickly, he realizes there were 108 days between the first and second murder, then 54 days to the next. The fourth had occurred 27 days later... the distance in time being halved each time. But the next killing had followed in only nine days: one-third the time, rather than one-half. That had been 3 days ago: Dr. Burdett's murder tonight is one-third the time again, which means... when you follow the pattern to its logical conclusion... the killings form a pentagram! (No, no, no.) Ummm, the killings form a spiral! (No, no, NO!) Ummm5
5. Actually, the Sumerian number system was base 60, so these numbers make even less sense than usual.... the seventh and final killing will be tomorrow night — the night of Robert and Evelyn's wedding rehearsal & dinner. It's urgent that Misbach's men go undercover and pose as waiters, guests at the party... even clergy... to be prepared in case the murderer should strike.
Unfortunately for Brett, he and Misbach have been discussing their plans and deductions in the same room as the killer. Now fully up-to-date on the state of the investigation, the robed, clawed intruder leaps through a window and disappears into the night.
Well, our hapless heroes go ahead with their plans anyway. They're not counting on two things though: one is the psychic hold the killer has over Robert. The groom-to-be seems to be perfectly normal as he goes for a quick breath of air... but in fact he's been summoned by the mysterious Other. The second unexpected detail? The seventh and final victim turns out to be neither Robert, nor his bride. Misbach's men discover the mutilated body of... a young man in a turban: Professor Malaki's mute assistant.
For it's Malaki who's behind it all. Malaki, the grotesquely deformed... the Evil Twin who had been surgically removed from Robert's back at birth, but who had refused to die. The nurse had hidden the loathsome child and raised him on her own. When she'd returned to the United States, the boy had realized it was no place for him... he craved the forbidden magic of the East, and so he fled back to Baghdad (presumably to consult Al Azif of the mad Abdul al-Hazred in its original tongue). Then, when the stars were right, he began his cycle of seven killings in order to get revenge on his whole and able-bodied brother.
Kingsford and Misbach respond to the sounds of a struggle, and find Robert grappling with a hideous creature up in the church's bell tower. But Malaki's misshapen body, in spite of his powerful brain, is not strong enough to overcome the hale and vigorous Robert; there's a horrible scream, and Malaki's body pitches from the tower and lands in a broken heap below. Robert is shaken, but all right. Everyone assumes the San Francisco Ripper is dead at last... for all his clever plans, Malaki failed at the last moment.
Brett, though, is not so sure. In fact, if what he suspects is true, than Malaki's evil scheme is just beginning...
In essence, Dark Intruder was a proto-"Night Stalker" made about a decade before the actual "Night Stalker". The resemblance would have been even more uncanny if the pilot had ever been picked up for a series. As it was, the networks were uninterested (though Universal realized the pilot episode was too good to waste, so they took the unusual step of releasing it to theaters... in spite of the fact it was only 59 minutes long). The television world was not yet ready for "The Night Stalker". As I'm sure Prof. Malaki could have appreciated, the stars were not yet right.
This general unreadiness applies to the well-intentioned people behind Dark Intruder as well as its audience. The movie is marred by a handful of problems... the main one being Leslie Nielsen as Kingsford. These days, we're most likely to remember Nielsen for the latter part of his career, in which he became the greatest on-screen idiot since Peter Sellers; it's difficult to remember that Nielsen rose to fame as a serious leading man. When the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker team started casting the original Airplane! film, they initially resisted asking Nielsen to join the cast... they just didn't think he was an appropriate choice. But Nielsen, to his credit, realized that comedy had always been his real strength, and he successfully re-invented himself as a master of deadpan farce. Unfortunately, his success as a comedian has made it all the more difficult for us to understand how he could ever have been chosen as a leading man.
Nielsen's Brett Kingsford is supposed to be so heavily burdened by forbidden knowledge — by his familiarity with both the physical and spiritual underworlds — that the only way he can live with it is by posing as am aesthete who takes nothing particularly seriously. Think of Christian Bale's Batman and his other identity, the glib millionaire Bruce Wayne, as a good example of this sort of thing. Now: cast Leslie Nielsen as a man pretending to be a fool, and you get... Frank Drebin of "Police Squad!", only without the jokes. The situation is particularly intolerable when Kingsford is called upon to demonstrate his mastery of disguise. First he dresses as a foppish Englishman, then he impersonates a Scandinavian sea captain. He's so bad at it that you expect it to be a joke... but the payoff never comes. The effect is a little like watching Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty immediately after Monty Python's Meaning of Life: you wonder what happened to the punch lines.
The next problem is Judi (Jack the Giant Killer) Meredith as Evelyn. With her fiancé out of the way, the implication was that she would become a recurring character, and a possible romantic interest for Brett Kingsford. But if there's anyone more irritating than Nielsen's Kingsford, it's Meredith's Evelyn: she's been given stilted "witty" dialogue as bad as Kingsford's, which is annoying in its own right; but when that dialogue is chattered, it's enough to drive the viewer nuts6
6. I'm deliberately skipping over some of the things that haven't aged well: the "short" jokes aimed at Nikola, and the casting of yet another Caucasian actor as the inscrutable Mandarin, were both acceptable at the time... though they would have made the proposed series uncomfortable viewing for today's audiences..
More seriously, the writers don't seem to have realized the implications of their pilot story. Brett Kingsland loses much more than he gains at the end of the movie. He's discussed his plans with the Inspector without realizing that the Monster is hiding in the room with them — some psychic sensitive he turned out to be...! It's true, he does manage to put together the clues and solve the mystery, but he does so too late to save his friend. It's only narrative convenience that keeps Evelyn from being killed; and in the final confrontation, it's Inspector Misbach who keeps Vandenburg/Malaki from tearing Kingsford to pieces. For Kingsford, the whole affair has been as much of a tragedy and an embarrassment as a successful case... yet by the final scene, he's back to his usual flippant self. And this was our introduction to the hero!
Yet for all these minor issues, there are just as many strengths that make Dark Intruder one of the most unjustly neglected gems of TV horror. Its subtle references to Lovecraft's work bring it closer in spirit to HPL than many of his literal adaptations. The body-switching theme in particular — the idea that a man might be displaced in his own flesh by the evil soul of another, or that a man could be cursed by his own kin to transform into something horrible — is one that Lovecraft returned to again and again, and many of Dark Intruder's creepy little details — the peculiar carvings left like fetishes at the scenes of the crimes, or the hideous ancient statue that's not really a statue at all — might well have met with his approval7
7. There are deep undercurrents to the story as well, which give it added power. After all, what is Dark Intruder but the story of a man who, on the eve of his wedding, begins to fear that he may not be the person he thought he was? That there's some hidden part of himself — grown monstrous from being locked away so long — that threatens to burst out and destroy his happiness? In San Francisco, for Cthulhu's sake!?.
Yet the very best thing about Dark Intruder is its monster, Professor Malaki. His face used to pop up as an occasional filler illustration in the monster magazines I read as a kid, yet I never knew where the image came from... it wasn't until I saw that old familiar photograph in a 1992 issue of "Gorezone" magazine (which I found in a box lot I bought at auction in 2007!) that I was finally able to identify the film.
But it's not just the costume that makes Malaki such an effective villain. Nor is it his deep, hypnotic voice. It's his entire presence: there's something electrifying about him, whether he's sitting in stillness, or coaxing his helpless victim to his doom, or attacking Kingsford in a bestial rage. He exudes power and menace. And that's hardly surprising when you consider the caliber of the actor playing him... for under that heavy cloak, rendered unrecognizable by the full-face mask, is none other than...
(You were wondering when I was going to make the connection, weren't you?)
... is none other than Werner Klemperer.
So you see how the influence of Azathoth has corrupted even this, the film that mentions him by name? It wasn't enough that Klemperer should play such a memorable role under so much makeup that nobody recognized him. It wasn't enough that the finished movie, good as it was, was far enough ahead of its time that it ended up nearly totally forgotten. No. Within a year of his fine performance in Dark Intruder, Klemperer accepted the role of Colonel Klink, the role that he would be associated with for the rest of his life... and beyond. It's a mark of the man's astonishing range that he could be so effective in such different ways, but even genius isn't enough to withstand the might of Azathoth. As Malaki should have known when he took on Leslie Nielsen: on television, no matter how long the struggle, the Idiot eventually wins.