A very different era.
In order to understand and appreciate this series I’m about to get into, modern readers should understand that the 1970s were a very different era; we’re talking nearly a half-century ago. When watching many shows of that time today, there are many casually sexist/racist terms, cultural appropriations and other unwitting offenses tossed about like so much candy corn at Halloween. No, it’s not acceptable today, but it was a result of ignorance, not deliberate malice. Personally, I’m all for updating my mental firmware to current sensibilities as often as possible, but I can still recall the cultural zeitgeist of a given time whenever I’m watching older movies and TV shows. In 30 years, I guarantee that many popular movies and TV shows of today will be shockingly offensive to viewers of 2050. That said, I want to discuss an old horror show that I loved as a kid. It was the same show that inspired a teenaged Chris Carter to create “The X-Files” nearly 20 years later. As a then-8 year old monster freak, I used to devour new episodes of this show every Friday night for the single season it was broadcast (no VCRs, DVRs or laptop streaming back then; you watched what was on when it was on).
“The Night Stalker” was a TV movie based on a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice that was adapted by legendary horror author/screenwriter Richard Matheson (“The Twilight Zone,” “I Am Legend,” “Stir of Echoes”), which became so popular in ratings that it spawned a sequel which served as a pilot for an eventual TV series.
*****SPOOKY SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
The first two Kolchak TV movies (1972-1973).
“The Night Stalker” (1972) told the story of a rumpled, middle-aged Las Vegas newshound named Carl Kolchak (a wonderfully wry Darren McGavin) who, at the urging of his ‘entertainer’ girlfriend Gail (Carl Lynley), tracks down a modern day vampire named Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater). Carl eternally taxes the patience of his boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), who recognizes Carl’s tenacity, but wishes he’d stick to traditional story material instead of monster-hunting. A decidedly less-than-happy ending sees Skorzeny defeated, but Gail is kicked out of the city (it’s implied she’s a hooker), and all evidence of Carl’s final showdown with the ancient vampire is whitewashed and covered up. Carl is also told to leave the city of Las Vegas or face murder charges.
The seeds of a good idea are all here–Carl’s unique brand of irreverence, his delicious antagonism with Tony, and the noir-ish backdrop of a sleazy city being stalked by a true monster. I was a bit too young at the time to see this TV-movie in first run, but I would catch it (and enjoy it) in reruns, and it’s similar to more lighthearted show that would eventually follow. The pairing of star Darren McGavin (“Man With the Golden Arm”) and Simon Oakland (“Psycho”) was pure gold, but Carol Lynley (“The Poseidon Adventure”) feels a bit like a fifth wheel in the mix, despite leading her beau Carl to follow a supernatural bent for his story. The ratings for this first Kolchak TV movie were superb, and a followup film came one year later.
The sequel, “The Night Strangler”, also written by Richard Matheson, would see Carl landing on his feet in Seattle after being run out of Las Vegas. Inexplicably rehired by his former editor Tony, he is on the trail of yet another supernatural serial killer; this one strangles young women, leaving bits of decayed flesh around their necks. The killer turns out to be a Civil War-era surgeon named Dr. Malcolm Richards (Richard Anderson of “The Six Million Dollar Man”) who must kill every 21 years in order to extract blood for an elixir he’s created which grants him a sort of chemical immortality. The city of Seattle is used to great effect in the film, especially the Underground, which creates a nicely modern-gothic atmosphere. Richard Anderson (whom I once met, 8 years ago) is perfectly chilling as the sociopathic Dr. Richards. The ending sees Carl defeat the rapidly decaying doctor, but once again, Kolchak is chased out of the city by the authorities, who want the whole thing hushed up. This time Carl flees with his unwitting accomplice, Tony, who is also forced to leave Seattle for the sake of his damaged reputation. The ending sets up for yet another sequel, of course.
“The Night Strangler” feels more genuinely creepy and atmospheric than its slightly cheesier predecessor, and is my personal favorite of the two, but both work well enough to lay the groundwork for the one-season wonder that followed…
Kolchak: The Night Stalker series (1974-5)
The series would see yet another change of venue. For the TV-series, Carl and his just-this-side-of-a-coronary boss Tony relocating to the Windy City of Chicago (many pickup shots were done there to gloss over the Warner backlot locales used for the street scenes). Carl & Tony are once again working in their previous roles as rogue reporter and put-upon editor for INS (no, not the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, but a fictional AP-type news organization). For the TV series, a lighter overall tone was adopted–more Scooby-Doo, less Jeffrey Dahmer. McGavin added a smidgen more whimsy to the series’ portrayal of Carl Kolchak, bringing him much closer to Peter Falk’s Columbo with his disarming nature. Simon Oakland as put-upon news editor Tony Vincenzo would play his unique brand of exasperation as Yo-Yo Ma plays his cello. I can’t say enough good things when these two acting greats share the screen; their dialogue crackles, their humorous tension is comedic gold, and they make even the silliest monster stories a lot easier to buy. As a kid, I loved the show for the monsters–as an adult, I fell in love with these two charactors.
Composer Gil Melle (“The Night Gallery”) would create the ‘whistling-in-the-dark’ main title theme song (something writer/producer Chris Carter would blatantly steal 19 years later with “The X-Files”). There would even be a few recurring characters added to the cast as well. No more hooker girlfriends for this revised version of Carl Kolchak, but he would get a rival INS reporter named Ron Updyke (Jack Grinnage), whom Kolchak would dismissively refer to as “Uptight.” Uptight was played as stereotypically ‘prissy’ (ancient coding for gay) and it’s a shame that his character was so often used as Carl’s punching bag, but occasionally he was allowed to dish out as well as he got. Also working in the INS newsroom was kindly old “Ms. Emily” (Ruth McDevitt) who was the paper’s sweet-natured, maternal advice columnist (this was back when “Dear Abby” advice columns were print journalism staples).
Aside from a gaggle of semi-regular cop characters, there was also “Gordy the Ghoul” (John Fiedler, of “The Odd Couple” movie and the voice of Piglet in “Winnie the Pooh”). Gordy was Kolchak’s conveniently bribable contact at the morgue. These recurring characters were arguably superfluous, but the actors really sank their teeth into the roles, as did various guest stars such as Scatman Crothers (“The Shining”), Tom Bosley (“Happy Days”), Richard Kiel (“Jaws” from the Bond movies), Nina Foch (“The Ten Commandments”), Alice Ghostley (“Bewitched”), Phil Silvers (“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”), Larry Linville & Jamie Farr (both of “MASH”) and many other TV/movie actors of a bygone era. This short-lived series had a great roster of guest talent; something I never really got when I watched as a kid, but very much appreciate now.
“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” typically revealed its monsters in quick cuts, so we were always startled by their appearances. This was also a clever way to hide those makeup effects which were sometimes less-than-successful. The series wisely adhered to Alfred Hitchcock’s old horror axiom of “less is more.”
The 20 episodes of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” (or 22, if you count the pilots) were all entertaining to varying degrees. Like Star Trek, even the worst of them held your attention for whatever reasons (cheesiness, campiness, well-written banter, take your pick). Like the prior TV movies, the stubbornly standalone-format series saw Kolchak chasing down a new monster every week. Typically we’d see Kolchak on the trail of a boring old news story, only to turn up evidence of a supernatural being which Tony would always try to (unsuccessfully) dissuade his star reporter from pursuing. In the end, the real story would always be buried somehow, but we’d see Carl dictating the truth into a tape recorder for (presumably) a future book. In just one short season, Carl would battle zombies, ancient deities, prehistoric reptiles, mummies, robots, vampires, unseen extraterrestrials and even Jack the Ripper! I won’t list them all, but here were a few personal favorite episodes that stood out for me*:
* Your favorites will vary, of course, and I’d love to hear about those favorites in the comments section below.
“Vampire” is the only episode of the series that is a direct sequel to the original 1972 TV movie. Catherine Rollins (Suzanne Charny), a late victim of the late vampire Janos Skorzeny, rises from her grave in Las Vegas and migrates to Hollywood (of course) to begin a new blood-sucking career as a high-priced escort, using heavy makeup to cover her graying pallor. Kolchak just happens to be on the west coast covering a popular meditation guru story for which he has zero interest. Not a particularly imaginative story overall, but a nice callback to the original Jeff Rice TV movie as well as some nice mid-1970s location shots of Tinseltown, including the famed Sunset Strip, the Egyptian (now American Cinematheque) and Mann’s Chinese Theatre (now TCL Chinese Theatre). Interestingly, we never hear Catherine speak..she only hisses and rampages. Perhaps this was done to keep Carl’s own conscience clear so that he kills only a ‘monster’ instead of a woman. Chivalry doesn’t cover the undead.
“The Werewolf” sees Carl Kolchak forced to fill in for Tony on a cruise ship assignment to cover swinging singles on the high sea. The real-life Queen Mary, docked as a permanent tourist attraction in Long Beach, California, doubles for the ‘classic’ cruise ship used in the episode. Actor Dick Gautier plays the titular monster, who is often seen (mercifully) only in quick cuts, since the werewolf looks more like the movie-dog “Benji” than a rampaging hell-beast. That said, there is terrific location use of the QM, which also doubled as the Poseidon in the 1972 Irwin Allen disaster hit, “The Poseidon Adventure” (costarring Carol Lynley, who played Gail in the 1972 “Night Stalker” movie). For some reason, cruise ships always made for cheesy 1970s TV fun, with many ‘very special episodes’ as well as the popular TV show “The Love Boat.” Hell, even “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” had a cruise ship episode, for chrissakes. “The Werewolf” proudly follows this campy 1970s tradition, and makes a fun outing of it as well. In the age of COVID-19, cruise ships are terrifying for very different reasons…
As a political junkie, “The Devil’s Platform” is another favorite of mine. Actor Tom Skerritt (“ALIEN”) plays Robert Palmer (not the ‘80s rock star), a campaigning Chicago politician (of deliberately unspecified party affiliation—clever) who is in league with Old Scratch himself in order to further his ambitions. Basically, it’s “The Omen”’s entire movie canon played out in 49 minutes (politics and the devil just seem to be a natural fit, don’t they?). Thanks to his ‘benefactor’, Palmer has the ability to shape-shift into a raging Rottweiler whenever a rival (or nosey newshound) needs quelling. Tom Skerritt gives a nicely understated performance which enhances his character’s believability, despite all of the devilish hugger-mugger. The ending sees Carl resisting an offer by Palmer to join him in becoming the next Bob Woodward (The Last Temptation of Kolchak?). Skerritt would go on to possess drive-in theaters a year later in another Satan-worshipping melodrama, “The Devil’s Rain” (costarring William Shatner). After “The Exorcist” exploded into cinemas in late 1973, the occult became big business for a few years…
“Horror in the Heights” is an interesting variation on the usual rampaging monster, as a carnivorous beast is terrorizing an old Jewish neighborhood in Roosevelt Heights. The creature has the ability to appear as someone its intended victim trusts implicitly, such as a spouse, neighborhood cop or, in Carl’s case, the beloved Miss Emily. Once lured, the victim is mauled and eaten in grisly fashion. Famed 1950s TV comic Phil Silvers guest stars as one of the vulnerable elderly members of the community whom the creature is preying upon. A local Hindi restauranteur (Abraham Sofaer, in a bit of racially insensitive casting) is marking swastikas around the neighborhood in an effort to ward off the creature known as a Rhakshasa. The swastikas mislead the police to suspect the murders are hate crimes, not realizing the swastika was originally a religious symbol from India, misappropriated by the Nazis later on. As a nonreligious person, I can’t personally vouch for the authenticity of the religious symbolism, but it adds a richer element to a story that is otherwise very similar to an earlier episode called “The Spanish Moss Murders.” Overall, “Horror in the Heights” is the more effective of the two similar stories, as it creates a greater sense of paranoia, along with the terrifying specter of anti-Semitism, which is making a most unwelcome return these days…
One of several all-out science fiction stories in this series, “Mr. R.I.N.G” plays like a rampaging version of Gene Roddenberry’s “The Questor Tapes” pilot TV-movie (made around the same time), but with a Frankenstein angle to the story, as the intelligent robot is on the verge of achieving sentience. The robot RING (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia) is programmed by a shady Department of Defense to destroy anything (or anyone) who would threaten it, thus causing its unintentionally violent behavior (much like Frankenstein’s creation, who was similarly ‘programmed’ by the rejection of other humans to become an isolated ‘monster’). The episode is framed by a semi-amnesiac Kolchak, who is struggling to fill in missing gaps of his memory, as his short-term memory was apparently ‘erased’ by Men-in-Black style feds, who want to keep the military’s use of reckless, near-sentient robots hush-hush. Early in the episode, the robot steals clothing and an expressionless rubber mask in a crude attempt to blend in. I’d bet good money that John Carpenter was inspired by this very episode when he created the unstoppable and similarly-masked serial killer Michael Myers a few years later in 1978’s “Halloween.”
“Chopper” was written by future “Back to the Future” writer/producers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. The monster-of-the-week was a headless, sword-wielding biker seeking revenge on those responsible for his untimely demise in the 1950s. Larry Linville guest-stars as a cop of the week who goes toe-to-toe with Kolchak. As a kid fascinated by both monsters and motorcycles, this episode was a natural favorite of mine, even if the headless biker is clearly seen today as a not-too-well hidden rider wearing a pair of false shoulders over his head. These days, the stuntman’s head could be digitally erased by a ten-year old kid with an iPhone. That said, the scenes of the headless biker stalking his victims are still pretty effective, if more for the threatening stunt-riding than anything else.
“Demon in Lace” wins for scariest makeup in the entire series as an ancient Sumerian demon assumes the form of recently dead women in order to lure young men to their deaths (forgive the binary thinking of 1974, folks…these stories never take LGBTQ sexuality into account, I’m afraid). It’s a modern retelling of the legend of the succubus, the evil spirit/demon who drains the life-force from her victims. The murder mystery story it solid enough, but those jump-out moments where we briefly glimpse the succubus itself are pure nightmare fuel. This episode was retold somewhat less successfully later in the season with “The Youth Killer” (more on that one later). If time is of the essence, watch “Demon in Lace” instead of “The Youth Killer”; it has the scarier story, boasts superior makeup effects, and features great guest stars, including Keenan Wynn (“The Twilight Zone”) and Caroline Jones (“The Addams Family”).
A few genuine misfires.
Not all of the series’ 20 episodes were so solid. A few of them are pretty awful, in fact, even when factoring in older cultural insensitivities regarding race, sexism, etc. One that I was tempted to add to this list was “Legacy of Terror.” However, the Aztec-themed mummy murder mystery had a very effective monster as well as an intriguing central performance by future “CHiPs” costar Erik Estrada, so it narrowly avoided a spot on this list. As did the genuinely creepy thriller, “Zombie,” which is absolutely rife with racist voodoo stereotyping of Haitians. I chalked those two otherwise effective episodes up to the ignorance and insensitivity typical in 1970s entertainment, and (barely) kept them off the following list.
Others weren’t so lucky…
“The Youth Killer” sees Cathy Lee Crosby (former “Wonder Woman” in the 1974 TV-pilot, before being wisely replaced by Lynda Carter) playing the literal Helen of Troy (‘the face that launched a thousand ships’) who stays alive in modern times by stealing the life-force of young men. But the murdered specimens have to be physically perfect, or it all goes to hell (physical perfection is never adequately defined, either). When her last victim is revealed to have had a glass eye (an ‘imperfection’), the ancient Greek gods smite her, turning Helen into a statue. When all is said & done, the admittedly attractive Cathy Lee Crosby simply lacks the acting chops to be a strong “monster” for the show. This dud of a story is also too similar to the much more effective succubus episode, “Demon in Lace,” which at least scored points for being scary. The only thing scary about “The Youth Killer” is the abysmal age makeup of Helen’s dried-up victims. Not worth the trouble, save for the usual series’ glue that is Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland’s wonderful chemistry together. Skippable.
The aptly-named “Bad Medicine” sees future Bond villain, the late Richard Kiel (whom I had the pleasure of meeting 16 years ago), as a giant shapeshifting Native American monster-of-myth known as the Diablero, who basically uses his supernatural gifts to kill rich people and steal their valuable gemstones, reinforcing an ugly racist stereotype of Native Americans as thieves. In the mid-1970s, there were some token and admittedly very clumsy attempts in popular culture at restoring the unfairly maligned image of the Native American, seen previously as savage boogiemen in countless westerns for generations. Well, this episode takes that meager progress back by once again casting a white actor as a freakish Native American monstrosity who only wants to steal precious baubles from the white establishment. I love the late Richard Kiel’s memorable work in the Bond movies and “The Twilight Zone” (“To Serve Man”), but I just can’t waste any remaining life energy rewatching this terrible excuse for an episode, even through more forgiving 1970s-goggles.
In the series’ final episode “The Sentry,” star Darren McGavin had an opportunity to work with his real-life wife, Kathie Browne (Star Trek, “Wink of an Eye”) as Kolchak teams up up with an attractive police detective to solve a series of murders within a subterranean storage facility two miles underground. Excavating workers have disturbed a reptilian creature that is apparently protecting a new generation of its eggs that are due to hatch soon. If this story sounds familiar to Star Trek fans, that’s because it’s pretty much a shameless, uninventive rip-off of the 1967 classic episode, “The Devil in the Dark”. The alligator-like monster is somewhat effective, as long as you don’t use your pause button. If you do, the creature becomes about as convincing as something seen on a polo shirt. Once again, the episode is partly redeemed by McGavin and his wife teaming up together, and well as the usual interplay between Kolchak and Vincenzo. Overall, this isn’t the final episode this series deserved.
One very guilty pleasure.
“The Trevi Collection” is the “Spock’s Brain” of this short-lived series–an episode so wonderfully bad that it qualifies as pure entertainment (in spite of itself). The story sees Kolchak covering mob activity when he gets sidelined by modern day witches in the equally cutthroat world of haute couture. Fashion matriarch Madame Trevi (Nina Foch) is introducing her fall collection just as several of her top models are mysteriously disfigured and bumped off the runway shortlist, leaving a spot available for Madelaine (a hilariously over-the-top Lara Parker). Madelaine wants to be “America’s Top Model” (this was a few years before the term supermodel was even a thing), and she manipulates Kolchak into believing that Trevi is a witch. After dodging attacks by driverless cars and a roomful of animated mannequins, Kolchak finally figures out the truth; Madelaine is the witch (dum dum duuuuuum!). Armed with his protective mojo bag and a barrel filled with blue fabric dye, he sets out to expose Madelaine to the public, which is the only way to sap a witch of her power (I won’t even get into how ‘public exposure’ also helped persecute innocent women who were wrongfully accused of witchcraft…).
Simply too crazy to be taken remotely serious, this episode is a closet favorite of mine for many reasons. Yes, it’s portrayal of witches reinforces wrongheaded stereotypes (many of which continue today), but it’s so outrageously silly that it’s impossible to accept as anything but broad parody. Lara Parker’s utter lack of any restraint whatsoever makes Faye Dunaway’s “Mommie Dearest” seem like a study in minimalism. Parker cackles and screams with a gusto that would make “The Wizard of Oz”’s Margaret Hamilton blush (Hamilton, incidentally, had a cameo in “The Night Strangler”). Lara Parker’s Madeleine is of the best overacting performances in 20th century television. The final shots of Madelaine, exposed as a wild-eyed witch with bright blue hair and a face full of warts, are the blueberries on the cheesecake. You can’t watch this magnificent train wreck’s final fifteen minutes without howling your ass off.
“The Trevi Collection” is a textbook example of “so bad it’s good.”
The 2005 reboot.
I can’t get too deeply into the 2005 reboot of “Night Stalker” as I only watched the pilot, but it was enough to convince me that it wasn’t what I was looking for. Everything that I loved about the original was no longer part of this remake. Carl Kolchak was being played by a young, sexy, brooding Stuart Townsend (“Queen of the Damned”), who now possessed a tragic background which saw his wife killed by a monster (because everything these days has to be a joyless downer). This binary backstory now provides the motivation for Carl’s monster-hunting. I guess a person can’t be motivated to champion a cause without first experiencing a tragedy to make them do so, right?
Kolchak now has a team working with him, led by Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union). The new Tony Vincenzo (Cotter Smith) is totally sympathetic and supports Carl every step of the way…which basically sucks all that delightful antagonism right out of their old relationship. Now we’re just left with a boring, wannabe “X-Files” clone (which is ironic, since “The X-Files” was patterned so heavily on “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”). The 2005 reboot seemed particularly hellbent on taking all of the charm, wit and whimsey out of the Carl Kolchak character and turning him into a depressing second-rate Fox Mulder. Everyone in the new series has to be model-beautiful, too… no more elderly Miss Emilies or portly Vincenzos. The series (unsurprisingly) lasted less than half as long as the original one-season “Kolchak,” spitting out only nine episodes before it was mercifully cancelled. Good riddance.
Watching the old series again, I’m amazed at how it appeals to me even at very different ends of the age spectrum. At eight years old, I loved the monsters and the adventure. At 53, I love the relationship between Kolchak and his office teammates, particularly the ceaseless banter between himself and Tony. The actors played their roles with just enough realism to sell these characters, but with an extra helping of theatricality to make them truly enjoyable. Most of the actors and others involved with the show have since passed away, but it’s great that their work is preserved for future generations to relish.
While modern audiences may not be as lenient with the slower pacing of 46 year old network television (made for an entirely different era), I suspect there are still some patient younger viewers out there who will recognize the influences both imported to, and exported from the show. “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” borrowed from sources such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Peter Falk’s Columbo, the Universal monster movies of the 1930s-40s and yes, perhaps even Scooby-Doo. “Kolchak” would go on to directly inspire the creation of “The X-Files” and even sprinkle its influence across such series as “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” “Fringe,” and the recently ended “Supernatural” (the longest running live-action fantasy series of all time). Not bad for a one-season wonder with only 22 episodes (if you include the two pilot movies).
While the 2005 reboot of “Night Stalker” seemed to have completely missed the point of the 1974 original, there are still a few fans out there (including Chris Carter) who still get it. A few years ago at San Diego Comic Con 2017, I ran into a cosplayer doing a pitch perfect Carl Kolchak cosplay, complete with an old pocket camera, seersucker suit, sneakers, crucifix and the old straw hat (red & black banded, of course).
The Kolchak cosplayer and I chatted about the show (we were about the same age), and he felt the exact same way about the series as I did. We both loved it for the monsters when we were kids, but continue to enjoy it today for the characters. He was the first Carl Kolchak cosplayer I’d ever seen in nearly 20 years of attending conventions. If COVID-19 ever gets under control, and convention attendance comes back into vogue, I hope to see more like him. This still underrated series deserves a bit more attention. If they ever do take a second stab at rebooting Carl Kolchak someday, let’s just hope they forget the brooding and leave in the fun.
COVID-19 safe viewing.
“Kolchak: The Night Stalker” is available for streaming/viewing on SyFy.com, Bravo, E!, nbc.com and on Prime Video (as well as for purchase on DVD with contact-free shipping via Amazon.com). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are nearing 200,000 (!) as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Take care and be safe!