Feb 10 2012 10:00am

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

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.


Follow the “Rewatch in One” series here and talk about The Prisoner, Brisco County Jr., and more.

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

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
The problem with a monster-of-the-week style show back then is that episodic television didn't have larger arcs or character development. Most dramas and quite a few comedies tended to something-or-other-of-the week: crime, disease, town, planet, etc. Even at that, I think better and more consistent writing could have kept McGavin's interest going. Rather than a weekly one-hour show, it would probably have been better served by being part of a rotation of hour-and-a-half shows like Columbo and McCloud were.

That said, the original movie is one of the scariest I know. Easily in the top five.
Bill Spangler
2. Bspangler
Always nice to see Kolchak get some respect. Another excellent TV episode, BTW, is "Horror In the Heights," written by Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster. It plays some neat tricks with cultural relativity and it features a member of the newsroom staff you didn't mention, the indomitable Miss Emily. As a former newspaper journalist, I can say I've worked with one real-life Miss Emily over the years...
Joseph Kingsmill
3. JFKingsmill16
I remember as a kid staying up late on Friday nights to watch the repeats of this show @midnight on CBS in the late 70's. I love this show. The two made for tv movies and the series have obivously inspired almost all the supernatural/scfi tv shows that have followed. Some of the episodes are cheesy and hard to watch but taken as a whole it is a really good show.
Also, you can even argue that without Kolchack that the modern Urban Fantasy genre wouldn't be a previlent as it is today.
4. dalgoda
I am another Kolchak fan. I would not miss this show when I was a kid. If we went over to someones house on the night it was on, I was in front of their tv ready for it. And then I would look around and others were sitting behind me watching it too.
Anyone remember Darren McGavin's guest spot on X-Files? What a nice way to pay homage to thier ancestor.
Steven Halter
5. stevenhalter
In 1974 I was 11 and this was the best thing on by a long shot. Really good stuff.
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
I was not a horror guy, and I don't remember specific episodes, but I watched the show actively and was impressed by the quality of the writing and acting. What a great show.
7. hammer
McGavin took the character to the other end of the spectrum when he played Mike Hammer in the '50s. Also, Kolchak was a reporter...which explains his lack of friends....
john mullen
8. johntheirishmongol
Darrin McGavin was always quirky enough that he was fun to watch. The show itself was merely ok, because it couldn't decide whether it was going to go for the real horror, or just be funny/quirky and go for the fun. It would probably have helped to have a co-star to play off of.
9. AlecAustin
Given that longer-term story arcs didn't really show up in prime time American TV (as opposed to Soaps) until Hill Street Blues, it's probably unreasonable to ding Kolchak too heavily for conforming to the format of its era. Which isn't to say that Kolchak's successors weren't stronger due to their ability to weave in ongoing plots...
10. KJ
Darren McGavin appeared in a couple of X-Files episodes as the retired FBI agent that originated the X-File cases. If I remember correctly, it was revealed in flashback that the reason the unexplainable FBI cases became "X-Files" was because the secretary the filed the original report stuck it in the folder marked X because it was empty and all the other folders in that file cabinet were full.
11. AlBrown
This was one I missed when I was young, but my wife was a fan, so I got to see it whenever it was re-run over the years. And I found it to be cheesy, but very fun and enjoyable. McGavin deserves all the credit in the world for making something special out of the series, with his witty performances. I hadn't thought about its role as a pioneer, but it really did break some new ground for the genre on TV.
12. Eugene R.
Chris Carter wanted to pay tribute to Kolchak very directly, by casting Darrin McGavin as Mulder's (biological) father, but Mr. McGavin turned down the role and instead got to be Mulder's spiritual father. A rather good trade-off, I feel. And the 2005 remake, Night Stalker, was created by Frank Spotnitz, long-time X-Files writer/producer/director.

As for the show itself, I would give the "Werewolf" episode some props, since the idea of sticking a lycanthrope on a cruise ship really ratchets up the terror by denying the obvious "Get out of there!" option. Plus, Kolchak's note at the end about how the cruise line was paying for a number of passengers to be treated at an exclusive Swiss clinic for an unspecified "blood disease" is pretty priceless. If I were to choose a "least favorite" episode, I would lean toward "Chopper", wherein the titular headless motorcyclist looked just a bit too much like a guy with a motorcycle jacket buttoned up over his head. Otherwise, the series did an admirable job of fusing horror and humor, as in the first episode "The Ripper", where Captain Warren of the Chicago PD is pooh-poohing Kolchak's "Jack the Ripper" theory by claiming "We've got your 'superman' right here, in maximum security", as we cut to the holding cells, where a vault-like cell door is being KICKED out of its wall by said 'superman'. Funny and spooky, at the same time.

Also, there were two TV movies preceding the series. The second was The Night Strangler (1973), also scripted by Richard Matheson and set in Seattle's wonderfully creepy Underground City.

Bspangler (@2): Yes, three cheers for Miss Emily! The ending of the Rakshasa episode ("Horror in the Heights") is another Kolchak gem, with Carl wondering if he should tell Miss Emily that she is the person whom he trusts most (which is why the Rakshasa takes her form) but decides against it, since he still shot her with a crossbow.

JFKingsmill16 (@3): Yes, watching the CBS Friday midnight re-runs, me too! It was good to see the shows again, even if they did start re-editing pairs of episodes to make some kind of "mini-movies" out of them.
13. Jim R
I watch these episodes for the memories. I was 10 when this show came on the air. Funny how retro shows can trigger memories of staying up late, eating chips and watching these kind of shows on the old black and white tube tv with a bad display which helped hide the cheap special effects. The dark grainy picture on the old tv helped make the show more ghostly.
14. PadawanDoug
I recently re-watched all the eps, and was surprised by the high quality of the writing, and especially the humor. Though I agree a more supportive sidekick character might have helped, the very nature of Carl's character suggests against it -- he is the epitome of the lone fighter against the unbelieving world, determined to bring the truth out even if no one believes him.

While I agree that "Werewolf" was pretty bad in some ways, though it did have some good funny stuff, with the other cruise-goers being total shallow 70's hipsters, I have to cry out that the last episode, "The Sentry," was the worst for me.

It had not a bad premise, but was so badly executed, with bad editing, horrible scripting (no humor either, due to none of the other regular cast being present), and the worst monster of the whole series -- it was literally a guy in a lizard suit! You have to really squint to not see this, or just look away! This is the only ep that I never want to watch again!

"The Werewolf" at least had Eric Braeden, who I remember from "Escape from the Planet of the Apes," though he is now more known for soaps.

Overall, one of the best (and of course most influential) shows of the 70's.
15. Jannisar
When i watched them in the 70s, i was a young kid, and i must say the vampire one scared the bleep out of me. Seeing it toss the dobermans around and then catch up to kolchak as he is driving away and ripping the door off just as kolchak speeds up enough to get away from him really freaked me out. cool episode.
16. Bradley Lindsey
I loved this show i used to watch it with my father when i was a kid back then. We didn't have cable only 3 or 4 channels to choose from. This show and Gunsmoke were the highlites of the week.
17. Yuri Del Castillo
What a great SCI-FI TV show for i'ts timeline. I remember it so well. From the way it started with the music intro to it's masterful creative writting. McGavin was the right guy for this
role and was a risk to do it all alone. I agree that great TV shows need supporting actors to
complement a series. But, I also think that McGaving did excidingly well in this series, because he was an unorthodox lone ranger of sorts with a Mcgiver sense and 9 cat lives to just keep us coming back for more. And you just have to give him great KUDOS for it.

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