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Night Stalker – The Five People You Meet in Hell (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

The Five People You Meet in Hell makes it quite clear that Night Stalker is not going to have an easy life. (As it turned out, the show was not to have a particularly long one, either.)

The Five People You Meet in Hell was not originally intended to be the second episode of the show. The original plan had been to broadcast Into Night as the second episode of the season. However, the network shifted the broadcast order, opting to air The Five People You Meet in Hell in second place and bury Into Night much later in the season. In fact, Into Night would not be among the six episodes of Night Stalker to air on ABC; the show would be cancelled before the production team would get a chance to broadcast the show.

Eye see...

Eye see…

The reason for the shift is quite obvious. Into Night is not a great episode of television, but it is one that aligns quite neatly with what Night Stalker is supposed to be; it opens the mummification of two office workers and goes from there. In contrast, The Five People You Meet in Hell is much more generic. Sure, it involves mind control and psychic projection, but it is a much blander piece of television. The Five People You Meet in Hell is very much Night Stalker as a forensic procedural with paranormal elements than an accurate representation of the show.

Shifting the broadcast order around in order to prioritise The Five People You Meet in Hell suggests that the network is not entirely comfortable with the show they have commissioned. Two episodes into the first season, that is not an ideal signal to be sending.

A stab in the dark...

A stab in the dark…

One of the more controversial elements of The Pilot was the way that Frank Spotnitz reconceptualised Kolchak himself, reengineering the character to strip away a lot of what made Darren McGavin’s portrayal so compelling. Carl Kolchak was now no longer an old and washed-up reporter chasing ghosts and demons in pursuit of a good story, he was a young and handsome widower with a traumatic back story. Stuart Townsend was very much a conventional leading man for an era of network television that had not yet embraced House.

The new Carl Kolchak seemed generic. This is a problem, but not a fatal one. The character can be developed over time, fleshed out and expanded. More than that, The Pilot assured viewers that at least the show around Carl Kolchak was familiar with and faithful to its roots. Carl Kolchak hunts monsters, and The Pilot set the character against the most archetypal of monsters. Spotnitz’s script seemed to insist that Night Stalker had held tight to its identity, even if the reboot had lost sight of its distinctive leading character.

Home invasion...

Home invasion…

The Five People You Meet in Hell throws all of this out the window almost immediately. The episode discards monsters for something all the more mundane. Reportedly, ABC were not too hot on the idea of monsters, which was a source of considerable frustration to Spotnitz:

You can imagine that I was shocked, especially with this title. If you know the Night Stalker at all, it was all monsters. All monsters! We got that directive that they didn’t want any monsters and I was shocked. I don’t know whether they have some research that supports this or if it was some personal preference. The interesting thing is that what happened was that we had more reality based bad guys in the first ten episodes, and they ended up scarier than monsters might have been, because with monsters you can say that’s not really real. And that’s harder with a human bad guy.

This does illustrate how awkward a choice ABC was for a show like Night Stalker, given its conservative outlook. Even after the success of The X-Files, and possibly even because of the show’s fade from attention in its autumn years, major networks were still wary of science-fiction and genre fare.

Sleep tight...

Sleep tight…

In the specific case of ABC, that wariness was not specifically limited to Night Stalker. The network had been stunned by the success of Lost during the previous broadcast season, a bold genre hybrid that defied categorisation as much as it shattered expectations. Despite the show’s ratings and critical triumph, ABC had already begun to urge the production team to pull back on its genre elements. In the late first season and into the second, writer and producer David Fury acknowledged “the network’s desire to not make the show too ‘out there’ too fast.”

So the decision to focus the second broadcast episode of Night Stalker on a human monster feels like a major compromise of the show’s core premise. If Kolchak is now a more generic television leading man who no longer hunts monsters, could it be argued that Night Stalker retains little material connection to its source material beyond the title and the fact that the character is a reporter. (Which is itself something of an issue from a plotting and basic credibility standpoint.)

Paying lip service...

Paying lip service…

To be fair, it could be argued that the monsters in Night Stalker are mostly metaphorical, as monsters in horror fiction tend to be. In fact, the script of The Five People You Meet in Hell even nods towards that when Kolchak seizes upon Doug Linman’s observation that cult leader Damon Caylor seemed to possess his followers and control their actions. “Linman was using the word ‘possession’ as a metaphor,” insists Reed. Of course, that is how Spotnitz and most other genre storytellers tend to approach the paranormal, as a metaphor for certain experiences or realities.

Certainly, the monster Spotnitz presented in The Pilot was archetypal to the point that it only came out at night, kidnapped children and took them to a cave in the wilderness. The monster in The Pilot was not so much a fully-formed monster as the idea of a monster. Similarly, murderous cult leader Damon Caylor is himself an expression of certain universal anxieties; as Kolchak’s opening monologue points out, Caylor embodies the fear of random violence from people we trust; the violation of the home, the betrayal of the family.

Stepping up to bat...

Stepping up to bat…

Spotnitz is very much interested in big themes about the universality of concepts like good and evil in the human experience. As with The X-Files, the basic premise of Night Stalker provides a framework to explore these ideas:

So much of what this show was about are themes and ideas that are really important and interesting to me. The mythology of good and evil, which is such a profound issue in everyone’s lives, whether they think about it or not.

This theme played through Spotnitz’s work, and resonates with Carter’s own ruminations on the topic. In theory, Damon Caylor is a way to explore this theme that is every bit as valid as a monster stalking the desert.

City limits...

City limits…

The problem is that positioning The Five People You Meet in Hell as the show’s second episode feels like a cop-out, a betrayal of the basic promise of the show. It would be less troublesome later in the run, but its place in the broadcast order marks a very clear statement of purpose. Night Stalker is not particularly interested in being a show about actual “monsters”, instead focusing on a looser and more abstract definition of the word that allows it to include more standard prime-time baddies.

There is a paranormal element to The Five People You Meet in Hell, with Caylor controlling his targets via supposedly psychic powers. However, this is consciously downplayed in the structure of the episode. The Five People You Meet in Hell looks and feels very much like a stock forensic procedural episode, with a captive killer orchestrating fresh crimes from his prison cell. There are lots of interview scenes, with Kolchak and Reed interviewing various characters inside a holding room, and an emphasis on the law enforcement procedural aspect of the case.

Interview to a kill...

Interview to a kill…

In many ways, The Five People You Meet in Hell evokes CSI, with its focus on crime scenes and its sleek grey aesthetic. Indeed, the conscious cutting from characters about to commit horrific crimes to the aftermath of those crimes (complete with police tape and forensic evaluators) feels like a direct lift from CSI. In some respects, emulating CSI makes sense; it was a phenomenally successful network drama at a time when reality television was conquering the world. However, there are problems with this approach.

Given that Night Stalker was airing on Thursdays nights directly CSI, it was not a good idea to invite direct comparisons. CSI had invented its own visual look and style, and there was simply no way for Night Stalker to compete directly with the franchise. No television show could out-CSI CSI; at best, it would look like an emulator or a clone. Trying to force Night Stalker into the mode of CSI demonstrates a reluctance to embrace the show’s unique identity and sends a frustrating signal to audiences. Why watch a watered-down CSI when CSI is airing at the same time?

Blind leading the blind...

Blind leading the blind…

CSI is not the only source of inspiration here. In a feature in Los Angeles Weekly, Frank Spotnitz reflected on the dangers of doing an “incarcerated master mind” episode so early in the run of the series:

Commenting on a scene in which the Caylor character seems too derivative, Spotnitz cautions, “We don’t want viewers to think we’re doing our Hannibal Lecter episode here.”

The problem is that The Five People You Meet in Hell very much feels like a “Hannibal Lecter episode.” There is even a British character actor (name “Tony”) playing a mysterious and possibly even supernatural incarcerated serial killer.

Bloody murder...

Bloody murder…

As played by Tony Curran, Caylor feels very much like a knock-off of Hannibal Lecter. Like Lecter, he fixates upon the young female lead. Like Lecter, he presents himself as calm and collected with unique insight. Like Lecter, he proves adept at manipulating people to serve his own ends. The script even offers Caylor the sort of wry taunts that Hopkins delivered so skilfully. After manipulating a judge into murdering her husband, he observes, “Twenty-seven years of marriage down the drain.”

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with doing an homage to The Silence of the Lambs. The film is monolithic; it towers over nineties film and television, arguably the first horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It cemented Hannibal Lecter as one of the most engaging characters of the twentieth (and maybe even twenty-first) century and borrowed deep into the public’s consciousness. Sure, the script might be reduced to soundbytes (“a census taker…”) and the performance to lip-smacking, but it endured in the popular imagination for a reason.

"So, do we get to do the cool quick-cut flashback stuff, or just the montages?"

“So, do we get to do the cool quick-cut flashback stuff, or just the montages?”

Even if the set-up is hackneyed, it is possible to do something good with a “Hannibal Lecter episode.” During the first season of The X-Files, Glen Morgan and James Wong used a similar set-up to write Beyond the Sea, a script which became one of the best episodes that the show ever produced. When the duo were drafted on to the first season of Millennium, they adopted a similar approach to the scripting of The Thin White Line; although less iconic than Beyond the Sea, it remains one of the best episodes of Millennium ever produced.

In fact, producing a “Hannibal Lecter episode” as part of the first season of Night Stalker helps to connect it back to the core themes of The X-Files and Millennium, suggesting the show is a cousin (or even a half-sibling) to those other series. Given Spotnitz’s fascination with the idea of evil, the “Hannibal Lecter episode” is a great way to explore that. One of the big recurring themes of Thomas Harris’ work is the idea of Lecter as the embodiment of evil or as a human monster rather than mere psychopath or sociopath.

Pointing it out...

Pointing it out…

The problem with The Five People You Meet in Hell is not that it is a “Hannibal Lecter episode”, it is that it is a bad “Hannibal Lecter episode.” Although not credited as a writer on the episode, Spotnitz should have been well aware of this risk. During the final season of The X-Files, he had written and directed Dæmonicus; Dæmonicus is very much a bad “Hannibal Lecter episode”, for many of the same reasons that The Five People You Meet in Hell is a bad “Hannibal Lecter episode.”

Quite simply, it’s easy to forget that Clarice Starling is more important to The Silence of the Lambs than Hannibal Lecter. The story needs both characters to work, but Lecter is only on screen for seventeen minutes. The story is focused on Starling’s experience and her encounters with Lecter. Even in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, Will Graham is every bit as important as the eponymous character. Lecter gets one of The Silence of the Lambs‘ big set pieces with his escape, but Starling gets to stop Jame Gumb and rescue Catherine Martin.

Fair cop...

Fair cop…

Dæmonicus and The Five People You Meet in Hell forget that the characters around Lecter need to be engaging and interesting in their own right; he can be unnatural, but the story works best if there is something to contrast against. Watching Lecter run circles around Chilton would be far less dramatically satisfying than watching him actually lock horns with Will Graham or engage with Clarice Starling. Dæmonicus and The Five People You Meet in Hell make the main characters dumb so the criminal mastermind can outwit them.

Kolchak and Reed do nothing to affect the outcome of The Five People You Meet in Hell, just as Doggett and Reyes do nothing to affect the outcome of Dæmonicus. Caylor is conveniently stabbed to death before he can force Kolchak to murder Reed, creating the impression that our heroes are completely ineffectual and inept. That would be fine if that were the point of the story, but it’s not. The episode does not end with Kolchak and Reed realising that they are wading into dangerous waters, or that they’ve been reckless.

Don't press this...

Don’t press this…

The Five People You Meet in Hell suggests that Kolchak and Reed have absolutely no idea what they are doing, and no defenses against the unnatural. This seems like a counter-productive message to send in the second episode of the series. Why should the audience invest in such hapless characters? This is pretty much the exact same mistake that Dæmonicus made in its handling of Doggett and Reyes, botching the introduction of the second generation of X-Files characters by making them less than useless in their first case.

The Five People You Meet in Hell is directed by Rob Bowman, who was one of the strongest directors working on The X-Files. Bowman was the director tasked with The X-Files: Fight the Future, and remains one of the most cinematic directors working in television. Landing Bowman is a coup for the fledgling series; although Bowman had mixed fortunes in film, he would go on to become a defining creative voice on Castle, a show running into its eighth year. However, The Five People You Meet in Hell does not play to Bowman’s strengths as a director.

"I see," says the blind man, "a hole in the wall..."

“I see,” says the blind man, “a hole in the wall…”

Bowman was very good at blockbuster action and thriller episodes of The X-Files, playing into the show’s conspiratorial mindset and offering impressive scale on a television budget. However, Bowman was never quite as good when it came to being scary or creepy; X-Files veterans Kim Manners and David Nutter were stronger at that stuff. Bowman’s discomfort with slasher movie style horror was evident even in his time on The X-Files; to pick one example, Bowman’s work on Orison offered an inferior sequel to Nutter’s Irresistible.

To be fair, Bowman is not to blame for the episode’s problems. The script is terrible, with Caylor never seeming like anything more than a cliché who offers plot exposition in an only-slightly-obtuse manner. When Kolchak accuses him of compelling Linman into murdering his wife, Caylor responds, “My followers were weak-minded. Directing a prosecutor would be a pretty neat trick. From inside my cell.” Yes, Caylor. That is the plot of the episode, right there. Just in case the audience wasn’t paying attention.

Family fun!

Family fun!

Similarly, Caylor spouts nonsense like, “I can’t see you. But I can see who you are.” Curran is a performer who can do menacing and unsettling, and he tries to do what he can with the material; there just is not enough there. It does not help matters that the episode positively ladles on the symbolism, to the point of hitting the audience over the head with a brick. Caylor is blind, but he has special (in)sight! Night Stalker was always going to be a show driven by symbolism, but it feels too blatant and convenient.

Speaking of convenient, the episode’s climax hinges on the authorities releasing a blind inmate into the prison’s general population, well aware that everybody in the prison wants to kill him. They promptly do so. More than that, various law enforcement officials standby and watch, making this a brutal extrajudicial execution. The Five People You Meet in Hell never bothers to question this, just happy to have an ending to its story. There is no meditation on the morality or consequences of this action.

"Hm. We really need to talk to our ghost daughter about these ominous messages she's leaving."

“Hm. We really need to talk to our ghost daughter about these ominous messages she’s leaving.”

Then again, the entire climax of the episode is a montage set to a stock rock song whining about “my evil eye.” It is painfully on-the-nose as references go, and incredibly generic stylistically. It feels, in many ways, like a punkier paranormal take on those snazzy lab montages from CSI, lacking the impact or resonance of the more effective use of outside (and often ironic) music in Millennium and The X-Files. The Five People You Meet in Hell might have the high production values and stylish sheen on The X-Files, but it lacks its predecessors’ heart and sense identity.

The Five People You Meet in Hell is not bad so much as bland; the episode carefully sands down any of the show’s potentially rough edges. The second broadcast episode is desperate to avoid offending any potential viewers, but this bland smoothness has the effect of making it very hard to latch on to the show. Why should viewers care about these characters or this world if it is so unwilling to find its own voice and is so committed to offering a fairly unsatisfying copy of more satisfying work?

Nothing of note...

Nothing of note…

That said, The Five People You Meet in Hell does retain the sense of place that ran through The Pilot and bubbles through the rest of the season. One of the details that distinguishes Night Stalker from The X-Files or Millennium is the fact that it feels very firmly tied to a specific location; sure, that location is the second largest city in the United States, but it means that Carl Kolchak has deeper roots than Fox Mulder or Frank Black. The city becomes a recurring character in a way that no city could on The X-Files or even Millennium. (Seattle… rains a lot.)

Night Stalker is a show very firmly rooted in Los Angeles. The Five People You Meet in Hell plays into that by positioning Caylor as a rather blatant clone of Charles Manson. With his beard and his long hair, Curran evokes Manson’s iconic (if now outdated) hippie messiah look. Reed even explicitly describes Caylor as “sort of a Charles Manson wannabe.” In keeping with that basic character description, Caylor is presented as a charismatic cult leader who convinced others to carry out murder in his name.

Who we are in the dark...

Who we are in the dark…

Even the short sequence where Caylor seems to stop Kolchak’s tape recorder with his mind recalls the famous story about Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi‘s watch stopping during an interview with Manson. Spotnitz acknowledges as much during the Los Angeles Weekly feature:

When consulting producer William Schmidt suggests that to convey Caylor’s pathology, they might “do something like” the incidence in the actual Manson case that saw prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s watch stop during a conference with the murderer, Spotnitz lifts his hands and shouts, “Don’t do something like it – just steal it.”

The Five People You Meet in Hell does not hide its influences. Caylor is not a thinly-disguised version of Charles Manson. Caylor is very clearly Charles Manson, from his look to his crime to the way that characters who have interacted with him describe him.

Light relief...

Light relief…

The Manson Family murders are part of the social fabric of Los Angeles and the greater California area. When Chris Carter decided that the second episode of Millennium would focus on a mysterious cult, he made sure to set Gehenna in San Francisco. Manson haunts the city and the state:

Rugged and eerily beautiful, the property at the High Western end of the San Fernando valley, where the killers launched their bloody attacks, now stands empty and unmarked. The old Spahn movie ranch burned down in the 1970s, and the land remains undeveloped. Gone, too, is the Benedict Canyon house where the first night of slaughter occurred. Those who look for 10050 Cielo Drive—and many do—look in vain. It was demolished in the 1990s, and the Mediterranean villa that replaced it bears a different address. The hillside residence at 3301 Waverly Drive in Los Feliz, where the madness continued on the second night, is intact, but it also has a new street number. As for Barker Ranch, the desert hideaway to which the murderers fled, it burned this spring.  Still, the events that transpired at these places have left an indelible scar on Los Angeles’s psyche.

The murders, so bizarre, so arbitrary, could have happened only here. For 40 years the city has been haunted by the names of the victims, usually run together as Tate-LaBianca.

David Duchovny is currently starring in Aquarius, a prestigious NBC drama that weaves Charles Manson into the social fabric of sixties Los Angeles. Manson is more than just a gory horror story, he is an essential part of the social and political history of the area.

This investigation is going to be murder...

This investigation is going to be murder…

There are lots of reasons why Manson latched on to the public consciousness. In many respects, he represented the dark side of the sixties; he weaponised the ideology associated with the hippie movement for his own sick purposes. Given that many of the modern political conflicts between the American left and the right are rooted in (or at least framed in terms of) the sixties, it makes sense that Manson should become so iconic a figure. Manson is easily cast (even subconsciously) as a culture warrior, a warning of sixties idealism gone dark and twisted.

More than that, Manson and his crimes resonate on a deeply profound level. Manson was not a lone psychopath. He managed to cultivate an army of followers. By and large, these followers were not the poor or the disenfranchised or the dispossessed. His followers were mostly “nice girls from middle-class homes.” Manson might have been trying to stoke a race war, but he also represented a grotesque perversion of the family unit. He did exactly what Caylor does here, he turned families against themselves.

"So... do I get the terrible liner, or do you?"

“So… do I get the terrible liner, or do you?”

Manson embodies one of the most primal anxieties, as Kolchak acknowledges in his opening monologue. Night Stalker is largely a series about fear that is anchored in its Los Angeles setting, and there is a lot to fear out in the world. As Kolchak points out, there are “killers who strike with no remorse or reason. In our waking hours, we look over our shoulder, out the corner of our eye, alert for the stranger who might attack without warning.” However, more unsettling is the idea of a killer who is not a stranger; a killer who is trusted and recognised and loved.

Random violence is terrifying. Random violence from somebody you love is even more terrifying. “I just want to know why a happily married man suddenly decides to bash his wife’s head in with a baseball bat,” Kolchak observes. It makes sense, given the popular associations between Los Angeles and arbitrary violence; whether drive-by shootings or even freeway violence. Both The Five People You Meet in Hell and Three are centred around that kind of trauma, only committed by somebody whom the victim trusts.

Giving it hall they've got...

Giving it hall they’ve got…

In a way, then, The Five People You Meet in Hell and Three position Night Stalker as much as a sibling to The X-Files as to Millennium. The first season of Millennium engaged repeatedly with the idea of family home as an institution threatened from within. This was metaphorically the case in episode like Wide Open and Weeds, when threats managed to sneak through all the careful safeguards designed to keep them out. It is also literally the case in The Well-Worn Lock and Sacrament, when abuse of patriarchal power turned the home into a nightmare.

Of course, Millennium and The X-Files are linked in terms of core themes and big ideas. Naturally these themes have bubbled over into The X-Files as well; what is the conspiracy but the ultimate abuse of patriarchal power? More to the point, Frank Spotnitz’s scripts to Via Negativa and The Gift hit on similar ideas. In Via Negativa, Doggett is haunted by the image of himself holding an axe over Scully’s head. In The Gift, Doggett finds himself investigating the possibility that Mulder is a murderer. Still, these are themes more explicitly tied to Millennium.

Night stalker nightmares...

Night stalker nightmares…

This is perhaps the strangest result of the decision to push Night Stalker away from its monsters. While the stock comparison for Night Stalker is with The X-Files, the decision to focus on more mundane monsters suggests that it has more in common with Millennium. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, given how brilliant Millennium could be. However, it does seem like a rather esoteric choice. The X-Files was the more successful show, by virtually any measure. It would seem the obvious template to follow for a show hoping for a long a prosperous run.

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