HORROR RETROSPECTIVE: KOLCHAK – THE NIGHT STALKER (1974-5)
I need to personally thank our very own Deggsy for putting together this retrospective on KOLCHAK – THE NIGHT STALKER. There were two horror-themed shows I watched as a very young kid (because my parents loved them too) and KOLCHAK was one of them (the other was the original DARK SHADOWS TV show … thanks for ruining that one, Burton!!). KOLCHAK, simply put, was a fantastic show and no one could’ve played the lead other than Darren McGavin. McGavin was absolutely brilliant in the lead and no matter what happens in the future with a remake, we’ll also have the originals!!
Thanks again for writing this one up, Deggsy!!
That TV shows are being remade into big-budget movies is a long-established fact in Hollywood, a condition as chronic and intractable as herpes. And while sometimes you get an outbreak that isn’t so bad, for the most part it can be annoying as hell. The last one I saw, Tim Burton’s execrable DARK SHADOWS (see my review here if you dare), made my rectum prolapse and I couldn’t hold down solid food for three days.
It came down to the recurring problem nearly all bad TV adaptations face: not grasping what made the original show successful and memorable. The DARK SHADOWS TV show was a supernatural soap opera with elements of Gothic tragedy. Burton made the DARK SHADOWS movie a light-hearted saucy romp with a 70s disco track, a decision as likely to succeed as Mitt Romney going to Spike Lee for a reacharound. The movie is now shown in retirement homes in order to clear bed space.
Johnny Depp is currently preparing another nail in his career coffin, playing the American Indian Tonto in the movie adaptation of the TV show THE LONE RANGER (I await his turn in blackface for AMOS AND ANDY). And after that? Nothing less than another remake, of MY show, with MY hero: KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER.
And I recognise that my choice of hero is not the typical. He was no superhero, he was no genius, he was no fearless warrior. Karl Kolchak was a crumpled, middle-aged, sardonic, irreverent but committed and tenacious reporter, with zero fashion sense but a cool car, a beat-up typewriter and a penchant for stumbling onto the supernatural.
The character first appeared in an unpublished novel called The Kolchak Papers, by writer Jeff Rice, who had always wanted to write a vampire story, as well as a story set in Las Vegas. And it seems strange today, with the glut of vampire stories in the last 30+ years, but Rice’s take, when adapted for television by veteran author Richard Matheson and played by veteran character actor Darren McGavin, was fresh: a vampire in a modern day city, being treated as a serial killer by the police, and at least at first, by an investigative reporter named Kolchak, who gradually comes to the conclusion that the killer, Janos Skorzeny, was an immortal, superstrong vampire, and only Kolchak would believe, and therefore be able to defeat him.
Nothing like it had been seen on TV before. Treated completely straight, where the police and local government prove to be almost as ruthless towards Kolchak as the vampire, THE NIGHT STALKER gained an incredible 54 share, an unheard-of figure for an original TV movie, and one that would never be matched in today’s multichannel digital age. Matheson had also received a 1973 Edgar Award from the Mystery writers of America for Best TV Feature/Miniseries Teleplay. The success led to a sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, where Kolchak, now in Seattle, reported on a string of murders committed by what appeared to be a 100 year old man stealing vital fluids to maintain immortality. The sequel, which benefited from decent support from veteran actors like John Carradine and Wally Cox and Richard Anderson (later Oscar Goldman in THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN), as well as location footage in Seattle’s Underground City, an actual section of the city that was sealed off in Victorian times as the city literally grew around it, and could still be visited in tours today.
Both TV movies were successful enough, and Kolchak such an interesting and memorable character, that ABC decided to forgo a third movie (Matheson had been in the middle of penning it, THE NIGHT KILLERS, which would feature aliens and androids replacing humans in authority) and go for a weekly series instead. After some negotiation, McGavin agreed to return as Kolchak and also served as the series’ executive producer. However, ABC did not obtain Jeff Rice’s permission to use the character (oops!), and he sued the studio. The suit was resolved shortly before the series aired in the fall 1974 season; Rice received an on-screen credit as series creator. The first four episodes aired under the title of THE NIGHT STALKER. After a month-long hiatus, the series was renamed and returned as KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER.
Based in Chicago with the fictional Independent News Service, cantankerous Carl Kolchak spent his days driving around in his Mustang convertible, avoiding a verbal bollocking from his ulcer-ridden editor Tony Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland, best known as the expositional psychiatrist at the end of PSYCHO), listening to the police scanner and making a general nuisance of himself with various police and other local authorities, especially when his revelations that a particular killing or set of killings might have supernatural or fantastic origins.
It is McGavin’s portrayal of Kolchak which makes him so memorable. It seems almost inconceivable now to have a fantasy/sci-fi TV series whose leading man isn’t young, good-looking and well-dressed, and at the centre of an ensemble of young, good-looking and well-dressed people (with maybe a nerd to do the IT work). But McGavin and Kolchak had a style all his own. And again, it seems almost inconceivable now to have a journalist as a hero, but this was the era of Watergate, and reporters could still be trusted to reveal the truth.
And the truth is what drives Kolchak. Through the course of the series, he’s threatened and bribed by the police, government agencies and even the forces of darkness, if only he would just shut up and look the other way – but he doesn’t. Even when he knows that Tony Vincenzo will crumple up the story and throw it in the garbage, he still finishes it. The truth must be told. Not that he’s fearless; once he got his story, he usually ended up scrambling away from the monster faster than Shaggy. But his all-too-human frailties are what make him all the memorable.
There were only twenty episodes made of the series, and the threats Kolchak faced ranged from traditional zombies, vampires, werewolves and aliens, to the truly bizarre. In “Chopper” (one of the first writing credits of a young Robert Zemeckis!), for instance, a beheaded motorcyclist returns from the dead to decapitate his former fellow gang members. In “The Spanish Moss Murders”, a narcoleptic Cajun conjures a swamp monster from his childhood nightmares to slaughter his enemies. And in “The Horror in the Heights” (written by veteran Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster), the elderly members of a Jewish neighbourhood are menaced by a flesh-eating Hindu rakshasa demon. My own personal favourite remains “The Zombie”, where a Haitian voodoo priestess reanimates her HUGE son to exact revenge on the Italian Mob for murdering him; the climax, where Kolchak has to crawl into a hearse to sew shut the lips of the corpse before it reanimates again, had me crapping myself back in the day.
By today’s standards, it’s blood and gore-free (and produced some laughably bad clunkers). But you don’t watch it for blood or gore (or even for decent effects). You watch it for the atmosphere, for the crisp writing (with some wicked gallows humour at times), for the by-play between Kolchak, Vincenzo and the other people he consorts with. You watch it for the slew of guest stars, all familiar faces in movies and TV: Richard Kiel (playing more than one monster on the show), Jim Backus, Jamie Farr, Antonio Fargas, Dick Van Patten, Larry Linville, Erik Estrada, Phil Silvers, Tom Skerritt, Scatman Crothers, Cathy Lee Crosby…
But the show, stuck in the graveyard shift (no pun intended) of Friday night at 10pm, and with McGavin dissatisfied with the ‘monster of the week’ formula it had fallen into (he had hoped to do stories with more conventional conspiracies) and having to do much of the work of an executive producer without the studio giving him the credit (something which is routine these days with the stars of a show). He asked to be released from his contract with two episodes remaining to be filmed, which the network granted in light of the show’s dwindling ratings.
But though KOLCHAK was short-lived as a series, its impact on popular culture continues to this day, beyond the subsequent book and comic book adaptations. In particular the series has been described as a predecessor to THE X-FILES, and creator Chris Carter showed his appreciation by casting McGavin in several episodes as a retired FBI agent described as the “father of the X-Files”.
Though Rice retains the rights to written Kolchak works, and Universal Studios owns the rights to the TV series, ABC maintained ownership of the two TV movies and began airing a new Night Stalker series in 2005, with Kolchak played by Stuart Townsend (LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN). It tanked like a lead balloon, partly because Townsend is no McGavin, and partly because, in this day and age, the remake ended up looking like just another generic paranormal show.
And now we have a new NIGHT STALKER movie coming, starring Depp. And as it’s a Disney property now, I fear that, despite allegedly being directed by SHAUN OF THE DEAD’s Edgar Wright, it will end up some HAUNTED MANSION-style PG-rated atrocity for the fuzz-pubed brigade. And when that happens, I will turn back to my DVDs of a cynical, badly-dressed man in an ugly suit and straw hat fighting alone against the forces of evil. And I will be happy.
Plot: (Various) 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: (Various) 1 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: (Various) 2 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien