'Kolchak: The Night Stalker' – The DNA of Horror Shows
Before Stranger Things, Supernatural, and The X-Files, there was Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Originally the brainchild of an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice (and later worked as a television script with I Am Legend’s Richard Matheson), independent newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak chased down all matter of hellish creatures from vampires to zombies to werewolves to demons. Kolchak’s near maniacal obsession to finding the truth behind unusual deaths had made him the first line of defense against all things that go bump in the night.
Beginning with two made for TV movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and later with The Night Strangler (1973), Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin, ran one season from 1974 to 1975. It had a total of 20 one-hour episodes. The show was canceled due to mediocre ratings as it premiered on Friday nights after 10 PM (an unpopular time slot at that time). These factors were combined with the fact that McGavin himself was growing tired with an exhausting filming schedule and was looking to be released from his contract.
Despite lasting only one season, the show had achieved near cult status as the precursor to shows like The X-Files. Chris Carter, head writer of that show, attributed approximately 30 percent of the inspiration behind his show to Kolchak: The Night Stalker, even going so far as attempting to get McGavin to reprise his character for one of the episodes. McGavin refused, but he did appear as Arthur Dales, a retired FBI agent who was described as “the father of the X-Files.”
Things That Go Bump in the Night
The DNA of Stranger Things and shows like Supernatural can be traced back to The Night Stalker. When we see some protagonist skulking through the darkness in search of monsters it echoes back all the way back to the reporter in the seersucker suit armed with nothing but a cross with a stake and mallet. Each of our modern ghost hunter shows can credit their success built on the trail of destroyed vampires and zombie carcasses dispatched by Kolchak.
Kolchak’s character in the original series was certainly part of the magic of its lasting legacy. Despised and mistrusted by practically everyone he’s come in contact with, he is an abrasive figure. His trademarks were his “bird feeder” straw hat, light-blue wrinkled seersucker suit, white tennis shoes, powder blue shirt, and dark blue knit tie along with his Instamatic camera and portable tape recorder perpetually hanging from his neck as he drove around in his pale yellow Mustang convertible.
An Unlikely and Unlikable Hero
He was iconic.
In his search for the truth, Kolchak made enemies of practically everyone except his editor Tony Vincenzo – whom he aggravated more than most people. It was practically a running gag that typical reaction to anyone seeing Kolchak would run, have him removed from a room, or attack him directly.
There is no one he wouldn’t bribe, impersonate, or harass to get further in his story. And regardless of what you thought of his methods, once he’d gotten on the trail of a story, nothing could shake him off that path. And when that path led him to a direct confrontation with a monster or demon, Kolchak was usually alone to face it.
You have to give him some respect. Kolchak was a clever man who had nothing but his wits and a lot of tenaciousness. After all, who else would go to a witch to find the evidence hidden by a dead mob informant or go into the underbelly of Seattle’s underground city to find a man who’s been killing people for over a hundred years?
One of the best features of the show was Kolchak’s off-camera narrations of each victim’s death. This is where we see him as the veteran investigative reporter that he is. Along with his rough gravelly voice, McGavin’s narrations were exactly what you’d expect from a newspaperman reading his own work. The prose is direct and to the point but not without a touch of poetry in it with imagery that would lead to the victim’s bloody death.
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A Newspaperman Looking for the Truth
Plus Kolchak’s job was really hard. He was a reporter without a computer in the seventies. Remember, these were the days before the Internet and cell phones. When he wanted to research anything, he had to refer to books or go to the library find articles on microfiche. Much of the information he had to get was from mystical or archeological experts that wanted nothing to do with him. He’d often spend every bit of his spare cash bribing someone for the lead he’d need to get important information. If he was going call people in another state, it was going to cost money and he had to make a “person to person” phone call via the operator. There were so many things that we in the modern age just take for granted that we forget how hard they were to do in an earlier age.
You have to wonder why he does what he does. Would anyone else do a job that naturally gets people to despise them, has them go broke, and can get them killed horribly?
The thing that makes him a hero is that he knows exactly how bad the situation is and he continues to go after the monsters. Yes, he knows he’s in mortal danger. Yes, he knows the vampire could be anywhere. Yes, the Spanish Moss creature can appear from anywhere and crush him to death. And yes, the rakshasa made itself look just like that sweet old lady he’s known for years – he’s still going to shoot it. Kolchak knows his job is thankless and at the end of every episode he comes away with a story that he can never print because every bit of hard evidence he had was destroyed.
A Failed Resurrection
Back in 2005, when I heard about a new Night Stalker series airing, I was excited. The new show starred Stuart Townsend as the modern day version of Carl Kolchak. This Kolchak is obsessed with the death of his wife. His editor, a soft-spoken Tony Vincenzo, pairs him off with a skeptical partner named Perri Reed and photographer, Jain McManus. Kolchak’s column is popular and widely read in the L.A. Beacon.
Truthfully, the show was more reminiscent of the X-files than anything else. While the episodes were good and the story arc made for good television, there was no real soul in it. They even took the flavor of one episode and gave it an injection of The Night Strangler. It was the only episode where Kolchak might have encountered a “monster”. In stripping out all of the tawdry quicks that Darren McGavin gave to the character, they took out all of the magic. In giving Kolchak a partner, we see he always has someone to rescue him. The fact that he is so despised gives more to the character that if he dies, no one will really feel his loss. Not that it would matter much when demons of the underworld feast upon the bones of every skeptic that didn’t believe Kolchak’s warnings.
Comic book fans know that Kolchak isn’t dead yet. He lives on through graphic novels. And the graphic novels are freaking incredible. They even did a few stories based on some of the unproduced scripts that weren’t done in the seventies. For those of you who really want to relive some of the Nightstalker magic, I can’t recommend enough the Moonstone published stories collected in The Big Book of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He’s even got a few stories that bring up the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.
It’s that kind of awesome.
Personally, I think the world is ready for Kolchak again. We need that one lone hero who’s willing to risk it all to save us all. We have an entire world of people who speak the truth and are naturally hated. Considering the number of people who are yelling in the wind that global warming will kill everyone on this planet if we don’t do something soon, someone like Carl Kolchak can be the first to tell everyone that vampires and zombies are living among us and those missing-persons reports are the perfect place to start an investigation.
Horror for Generations
Kolchak: The Nightstalker
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© 2017 Christopher Peruzzi