Now Here are the True Facts: Kolchak: The Night Stalker

A supermodel dabbling in dark magic curses her competition, plucking them off one at a time, only to be foiled and locked away. An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? No, that was cheerleaders, not models. A mysterious creature devoures zoo animals’ bone marrow and collects electronic equipment? An episode of Fringe? Could have been, but wasn’t.

Perhaps it is unfair, but it’s impossible for me, as a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Fringe, to talk about Kolchak: The Night Stalker without thinking of the shows it so clearly influenced. I don’t know if the creators of either of those shows ever directly credited Kolchak, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least. Chris Carter cited it as a significant inspiration for The X-Files. I’ve only seen a few episodes of The X-Files so I’ll refrain from comparing it to Kolchak, but feel free to do so in the comments.

Refresher Course: Carl Kolchak, (Darren McGavin) investigative journalist for the Chicago (originally Las Vegas) arm of the Independent News Service tends to get mediocre assignments and turn them into investigations of supernatural phenomena. These are not Scooby Doo episodes: Carl doesn’t pull back the mask on Old Man Smithers and save the amusement park. Vampires and werewolves and witches and aliens are all real in this show. More than a few times, Kolchak himself dispatches the evil whatchamacallit terrorizing the city. 

Before it was a TV show, Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a made-for-TV movie with a Richard Matheson script. The night stalker in question isn’t Kolchak; it’s a vampire. This gets confused in the series, as it seems to imply that Kolchak himself is the night stalker. This makes him sound a bit creepy, and he really isn’t at all.

The show never had great effects but got a lot accomplished with a ton of nearly pitch-black scenes and screaming. Kolchak has no powers, little money and few friends. He’s neither a warrior nor an expert in the occult. Intense curiosity and general disregard for danger are all he needs. McGavin plays Kolchak as a sort of nonchalant goofball on the surface, with a straw hat and ill-fitting suit, and a huckster’s delivery of fast talk, witty enough though hardly brilliant. But under that, McGavin instills Kolchak with a potent perseverance that belies the occasionally clownish exterior. More than the writing, which is inconsistent, McGavin’s performance is the reason this show works. Every episode hung on him and he didn’t disappoint.

Best and the Worst: To my way of thinking, the Matheson TV movie is better than any particular episode of the show it spawned. Matheson did excellent work with vampires, after all. But I’m going to focus on the series itself for the best and worst.

I’d have to split the number one spot two ways. One for “Vampire,” the 4th episode, which functioned as a full story almost entirely independent of Kolchak’s previous TV movie encounter with bloodsuckers. By this I mean there is a small sense of continuity between the stories and it isn’t just a rehash of the TV movie version. And though the show didn’t always impress the eye, the scene of Kolchak lighting a cross and a circle of flames is gorgeous and intense, a degree of arresting visuals the series never surpassed. Sharing the top place is “The Knightly Murders,” a tale of a suit of armor that kills everyone who wants to turn a museum into a disco. A silly premise, sure. It’s like Bedknobs and Broomsticks 2: This time it’s personal. But what makes this episode fun is something that really lacks in other episodes: interesting supporting characters. Most episodes, you get Carl as the sole point of interest in any given scene. In this episode, John Dehner plays Vernon Rausch, an “almost” legendary detective given to long-winded monologues that cover for his lack of integrity. I really wish he could have been a regular on the show. Several other interesting though short-lived characters populate the episode as well.

The worst? I’m going with “Werewolf,” a tale of lycanthropy on a cruise ship. This one seems to cause some division among Kolchak fans. I’m firmly in the camp that thought it sucked, though. The special effects are bad even by Kolchak standards, and let’s face it, effects were never the strong suit. The incidental characters are irritating. Kolchak himself is not at the top of his game, and the villain lacks any real depth.

What went wrong? The show had a lot going for it and most of it was Darren McGavin. The writing was often brilliant, but McGavin carried the weight. Here’s where Kolchak differs most strikingly from any of the several shows it spawned. Buffy has Xander, Willow and Giles as well as a host of others to support her. Skully has Mulder. Supernatural has that one guy and his brother (can you tell I’m not into that show?). Agent Dunham has Peter, Walter and Astrid. This allows for better dialogue, more characters to care about, greater risk, more emotion and so on. Kolchak had his editor, Vincenzo, and the office jerk Updyke. But they seldom showed any depth or involvement in the supernatural side of Kolchak’s life.

So you have a show resting entirely on its lead, and in this case, the lead got sick of the show. McGavin openly derided the monster of the week format and said the writing had devolved from being inventive and clever to basically an insult to the viewers’ intelligence.

I personally have no problem with the monster of the week format. After all, hey, it’s a monster. Every week! I’m easy to please on that score. But unlike the other paranormal shows I’ve mentioned, Kolchak had no larger arc or even a timeline. It’s purely episodic television, and I think that was a mistake. A monster every week inside a larger plot structure simply works better. 

Whatever its flaws, Kolchak is still damn fun with a lot of surprises, not the least of which is how this one-season show remains infuential more than 30 years later.

 

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Jason Henninger lives in Los Angeles, which if you watch Kolchak looks eerily like Chicago….

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