Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974)
By: Mr Intolerance on July 24, 2009  | 
Madman (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English DD 2.0. 975 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Don Weis, Allen Baron, Alexander Grasshoff, Don McDougall
Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland
Screenplay: Jeffrey Grant Rice, David Chase, Rudolph Borchert, John Huff, L Ford Neale, Bill S Ballinger, Arthur Rowe, Dirk Wayne Summers, Michael Kozoll, Jimmy Sangster
Country: USA
External Links
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The only words I can think of to briefly sum up the ABC-TV (US) horror series Kolchak: The Night Stalker are "quaint" and "charming", and that sounds all too much like I'm damning it with faint praise (or describing a remote rural cottage), because I genuinely like the show, despite its all-too-apparent hokiness and dogged, bordering on the fanatical, adherence to the inherently limiting "monster-of-the-week" formula, which uncredited executive producer and star Darren McGavin was desperately trying to avoid.

In 1972, Jeff Rice's not-so-hot novel about a investigative nosy newsie, The Kolchak Papers, was adapted by Richard Matheson (writer of I Am Legend (as The Omega Man), The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel and many episodes of classic TV series such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek) as the highest-grossing made-for-TV movie of its day, The Night Stalker. The basic story is pretty simple – likeable rogue Las Vegas reporter Carl Kolchak (played with world weary, fast-talking aplomb by straw-fedoraed, tennis-shoe shod Darren McGavin, to some extent re-hashing his role as the eponymous PI in Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, or as David Ross in The Outsider) is investigating a series of murders that point to the involvement of a vampire, despite the fact that the authorities won't listen to the facts, and has to try taking matters into his own unwilling hands, leading to his getting fired – hardly justice for the poor fella. Nevertheless, the film was so popular that it immediately spawned a sequel, the not-so-imaginatively titled The Night Strangler, which pitted Kolchak against a zombified doctor whose extra-curricular activities involved murdering five victims every five years so as to make the elixir he needed for eternal life. Again, the show was enough of a success to spawn the almost inevitable spin-off series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which is what we're here to talk about today, after the projected third film The Night Killers failed to get off the ground – once McGavin and producer-turned-director Dan Curtis (also responsible for what was possibly the most bizarre and mind-boggling soap opera of all times, Dark Shadows) took swings at each other over The Night Strangler, it was unlikely to have come to pass.

However, the show ultimately did happen with McGavin's essential involvement (who else could have played the role? After all, he is Carl Kolchak), and injected more humour into the characters and events than had been in either of the two preceding films, more than likely due to the absence of Richard Matheson as scriptwriter, as well as McGavin's initial increased control over the direction of the series, something that seemed to peter-out as the show progressed, before it finally went under before its one and only season had even been finished.

Working for the Independent News Service for irascible Edward G Robinson-clone Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), dishevelled reporter Carl Kolchak is now relocated to Chicago, and that toddlin' town seems to be plagued with all sorts of supernatural events and villains – marrow suckinhg aliens, serial killers, voodoo zombies, vampires, werewolves, Satanists, ghosts, headless bikers, sewer-dwelling prehistoric monsters, demons from all necks of the woods, Aztec cultists, robots and more. Week in and week out for 20 episodes, Kolchak would do battle with them, his stories about the cases usually going unpublished, with the authorities uneasy about revealing what really happened, for one reason or another. Reminiscent of Mulder and Scully's problems on The X Files? That'd be because that show's creator Chris Carter (also the creator of arch-conspiracy theory show Millennium) has long been on record stating his debt to Kolchak: The Night Stalker for The X Files' success.

This in itself is kind of ironic, as while The X Files was immediately a runaway success, Kolchak: The Night Stalker was originally a dismal failure – a total ratings flop which didn't really gain an audience until syndicated repeats, or for sad acts like me who love episodic TV horror and actively seek it out, even if it is with a comedic twist. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's by no means a bad show, but most of the original crew from the made-for-TV films had left by the time the show went into pre-production, and the replacements, including a list of rather forgettable directors and C-list guest stars (F-Troop's Larry Storch, anyone?), really weren't cutting the televisual mustard (although Hammer Films' A-list screenwriter Jimmy Sangster did turn up to write an episode). The show itself is held together by McGavin's performance as the shop-worn Everyman journalist, and the audience's sympathy for his weekly plight, at the mercy of the otherworldly forces he struggled against.

I guess one of the reasons why the show never really took off at the time would be the uneasy balance it tried to achieve between getting laughs and getting shrieks – horror and humour are bloody hard things to work with at the best of times, as what scares you and what you find funny are about as subjective as you could possibly get. Sadly, as the show went on, they went more for the comedy than the terror, and the show suffered accordingly, as TV wouldn't allow the excesses of violence and nastiness that the scripts sometimes called for (episode "Firefall" is a good example of that), and when they tried to show you the scary thing, the special effects were so rudimentary, bordering on the risible, that it all fell rather flat (see "The Sentry", "The Werewolf" or "The Spanish Moss Murders" for proof) – in that instance, cheap laffs are easier – and more cost-effective to produce.

However, when the horror works well (as in "The Ripper" or "The Devil's Platform" - which prefigured The Omen by a number of years in its story of Satanic influences upon politics), it works quite well indeed, despite the leavening quality of the sometimes understated and pleasingly wry, sometimes unfortunately goofball comedy – the chills and the laughs work fine together when the balance is good, but when the laughs over-shadow the scares (and it never works the other way around) the show suffers for it. There are also a few cliches that the show over-works to its detriment, such as Carl's bumbling clumsiness (a plot device that soon becomes intrusive – no-one falls over that much, and with that amount of flailing of limb outside of a Jerry Lewis film, surely?), his bickering relationship with his co-workers, his equally antagonistic relationship with the police and the somewhat purple film noir-style narration, which is often at odds with the more street-level dialogue of the characters in the episodes. The formulaic nature of the stories probably wasn't helping either:

  • bunch of grisly deaths in a suspicious manner
  • Kolchak gets on the case despite being assigned to a different story
  • Vincenzo gets frustrated with him
  • Kolchak annoys the police who thwart him at every turn, despite the fact that the audience know he's in the right. More grisly deaths occur.
  • Kolchak has a run-in with the monster/force/whatever which leaves him briefly injured, or possibly a suspect in committing foul-play (or both). If locked in the slammer, Vincenzo bails him out.
  • Kolchak researches the thing he's up against this week, sometimes aided by folks in the know about whatever it is, and vanquishes it just in time
  • Closing enigmatic narration from Kolchak stating why the story won't run

You could apply that simple formula to pretty much every single episode (maybe a very slight variation here and there), and it would all fit. That's no crime, but it doesn't leave much breadth of scope for the series, or for that matter, the audience's reception of it.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker ground ignominiously to a halt after 20 of the projected 22 episodes. Ratings had not been good, the show hadn't been planned effectively to begin with – which unfortunately shows, and the last-minute nature of the writing weakened the show as badly as the ill-conceived "Monster-of-the-Week" format it had written itself into – even The X Files pulled itself away from that as quickly as it could, using it to hook the audience in, but at the same time hinting at a larger story arc, which gave the show a backbone. Kolchak's teetering house of cards was always going to fall down sooner or later. Without a strong hand on the creative wheel, that kind of thing is unavoidable. Dan Curtis had held the two TV-films together because he was the man in charge, and the man with a vision from the beginning – he wasn't present for the TV series, and that absence of vision, as well as the lightening of the horror element Curtis was keen for (the original The Night Stalker is an actually scary film, its popularity is definitely well-founded) is palpable. Trying too hard to be all things, and without any real direction or even continuity between episodes, Kolchak: The Night Stalker ended up shooting itself in the foot. Dated? Sure, through the humour certainly. Interesting? Definitely – this could have, with a longer time in pre-production and greater emphasis on the actual stories rather than the monster that inhabited its 50 minutes run time every week could have made Kolchak: The Night Stalker rather more special than it actually ended up being.

That all said, it spawned a remake in 2005 with the excruciating Stuart Townsend in the title role, and thankfully didn't last past one season, and has also had comics and novels keeping the franchise name alive, so its popularity is undeniable – and it is a nifty premise, just one that the screenwriters were unable to really bring to life.
The credit sequence of the individual episodes is lower quality than the picture quality of the actual episodes, and occasionally so are some of the location shots, but generally this ain't too bad for a show that's nearly as old as I am. It's presented in full-frame 4:3, as you'd expect from an early 1970s TV show. There is the occasional artefact, but they're pretty few and far between – generally the image is pretty smick.
Not too bad, given the rather limited nature of a 2.0 dual mono track, but occasionally it does distort a little at high volume.
Extra Features
Practically nothing. Some production notes, liner notes on the on the flipside of the DVD covers. That's pretty much about it. I would have liked maybe some interviews, or some kind of retrospective by a mother-fucker in the know, but sadly enough – bugger all is what you get.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Look, I realise that the review of this boxed set probably hasn't probably been the most glowing, but I actually do like Kolchak: The Night Stalker a great deal; its blend of humour and horror appeals to me in a big way, if for no other reason than Darren McGavin's charismatic performance as the camera and tape-recorder-toting, weather-beaten reporter Carl Kolchak. This is a series that could have been a lot more than it was given a great deal more time for gestation, but given what the series is and the time-frame in which it was made, you have to play with the hand you're dealt, and appreciate the sporadic excellence that you get. As a child of the Saw generation you might find all of this a little light-on; as a person with a few more years under your belt, you might appreciate it a little more for the goodness that it is.

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