The Night Stalker (1972) had been a ratings phenomenon. Richard Matheson's teleplay, about a Hildy Johnson-esque reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), hot on the trail of an ages-old vampire stalking the streets of modern-day Las Vegas, earned an incredible 54 share on a 33.2 rating, numbers virtually impossible in today's television market - except perhaps on Super Bowl Sunday. Matheson's immediate follow-up, The Night Strangler (1973), did almost as well, paving the way for Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a weekly hour-long series that debuted in the 1974-75 season. But as spectacularly popular as the two TV movies had been, Kolchak the series barely limped through a short, single season of just 20 episodes, then disappeared without a trace.
Kolchak's brief run precluded any sort of syndication deal, and while the two TV movies have been around on videotape and now DVD, the series has been much less accessible, though it did run on the Sci-Fi Channel.** This reviewer remembers one particularly cold Michigan winter where on January 31, 1975, at the impressionable age of 10, I was visiting my aunt and uncle and scared out of my wits watching an episode called "Chopper," about a headless, sword-brandishing motorcycle rider. More than 30 years later this show now plays as more than a trifle silly, but back then Kolchak really did creep out the Brady Bunch generation.
Looking at Kolchak: The Night Stalker now, it's easy to see why it flopped so badly as a weekly series. Beyond its "monster of the week" formula, the writing for the most part just isn't there (Matheson had nothing to do with the series), even though in many ways the series does a great job emulating the look of the TV movies. What made The Night Stalker movie work (and, to a lesser degree, The Night Strangler), was that Matheson's script did such an extraordinary job making such an absurd concept (Vegas vampire) perfectly acceptable. Much as Nigel Kneale had done with his Quatermass stories for British television 15 years before, Matheson builds his fantasy on a foundation of extraordinary logic, which in turn makes audiences more willing to suspend their disbelief. Reporter Kolchak may be something of a loose cannon, but his conclusions make sense given the carefully conceived evidence he uncovers.
The 50-minute shows don't have the time to carefully build a believable menace, and anyway they're structured to get the monster front-and-center, before the first commercial break if at all possible. The structure is awkward, too, with Kolchak's Independent News Service now inexplicably based out of Chicago. (The first film was set in Vegas, and the second TV movie in Seattle.) In both TV movies Kolchak's wild theories drive his boss, editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), to distraction. This is carried over to the series as well, but makes little sense. Vincenzo wants Kolchak to do his job, covering ordinary murders and the like, but he's forever sneaking off chasing after various ghosts and ghouls. Why does Vincenzo always get so mad when Kolchak's theories are always right on the money? How does Kolchak make a living if the authorities inevitably cover-up his discoveries (and/or kill his stories) week after week? The X-Files, the most obvious of Night Stalker imitators, shrewdly avoids this kind of nonsense by making such investigations the main characters' job, but in Kolchak all this friction between Kolchak and Vincenzo plays awfully forced.
And it's forced in spite of the wonderful chemistry between McGavin and Oakland, and in spite of McGavin's terrifically likable title character. The two actors had been kicking around Hollywood for years, the hard-to-cast McGavin never quite taking off as an edgy leading man type, and Oakland as one of the busiest character actors on television and, to a lesser degree, in films. Kolchak's disregard for authority and his perennial outsider status endeared him to teenagers and counter-culture types, and McGavin's likeability made a permanent imprint in television history, even if the series fizzled out like soda water gone flat.
Beyond McGavin and Oakland, the series' best feature is its moderately effective atmosphere, which is inconsistent but sometimes very good for 1970s series television. Gil Melle (The Andromeda Strain) seems to have written most of the show's stock themes and its memorable main title track, while others like Jerry Fielding wrote scores for individual shows. Jack Cole's title design is particularly good, as is some of the art direction. The Chicago setting was a mistake, however. Though the producers clearly took McGavin there to shoot miscellaneous stock shots of Kolchak driving around the city and such, most of the action is clearly filmed on Universal's backlot, or on location around Los Angeles, where the scrubby, arid terrain matches the Midwest not at all.
Episodes are undistinguished, though a few stand out as above average. The aforementioned "Chopper" was based on a story by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, their first big-studio sale; and "Horror in the Heights," generally regarded as the best episode of the short-lived series, was written by longtime Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster. Charles Aidman, Scatman Crothers, James Gregory, Mary Wickes, William Daniels, Eric Braeden, Tom Skerritt, Ned Glass, Keenan Wynn, Julie Adams, Jamie Farr, Larry Linville, Marvin Miller, Jay Robinson, Jackie Vernon, Dwayne Hickman, Kathleen Freeman, and John Hoyt are among the guest stars.
Video & Audio
Kolchak: The Night Stalker is presented in full frame format on three DVDs, with the first two discs double-sided DVD-18s (four episodes per side), and the third disc single-sided containing the last four shows. There have been widespread complaints about Universal's DVD-18s: interested consumers are advised to read here about potential problems, otherwise caveat emptor. DVD Talk Forum poster "darkside" has an interesting theory about all the problems people are having with these discs: he suggests those produced in Mexico are responsible for the high manufacturer error rate, while those produced elsewhere are generally fine. Don't know if this'll hold up to scrutiny, but the Kolchak discs, made in Taiwan, play just fine, while those impossibly frustrating Alfred Hitchcock Presents DVDs were, in fact, manufactured in Mexico. Kolchak: The Night Stalker looks great on DVD, with especially good color. The Dolby Digital mono sound is okay, and optional English and Spanish subtitles are included. One big complaint is the spoiler-filled text menu introductions to each episode. There are no Extra Features.
Nostalgia rather than quality drives the Kolchak cult. Seen today the series is tame and painfully formulaic, but Oakland and especially McGavin's performance and bits of good atmosphere make it watchable, but mostly it's a show of its generation.
**Reader William Sullivan adds, "wanted to
mention that at one point in the 80's, CBS was running the series at 12:30 on Friday nights. That's when I rediscovered it. The show seems more scary when you're half-asleep and it's dark outside! Universal also later spliced several of the episodes into TV-movies with added narration by Darren McGavin to tie unrelated plotlines together."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.