With Further Ado #064: That Night Stalker, Carl Kolchak

I grew up in a time that was perfect for scaring ourselves silly. I was at that age where my friends enjoyed a steady diet of monster movies, and then Kolchak: The Night Stalker came along.  It wasn’t like anything we had ever seen. It took place in the here and now, unlike all those Universal monster movies. And the “hero” didn’t seem very heroic. He was kind of a…goofball.

And it was really, really scary!

Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a short-lived TV series in the early seventies, inspired by an incredibly successful made-for-TV movie. (Do you remember made-for-TV-movies?)  Each week intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak would stumble into an astounding story that inevitably involved the existence of real-life vampires, werewolves or aliens. 

Kolchak’s greatest motivation wasn’t saving people, and it certainly was not punishing bad guys. What really got under Kolchak’s skin was when authority abused power and subverted the truth. At the core it all, he was motivated to get the real story out there. He wanted to ensure that real news, as bizarre as it may be, was available for all. 

Unlike Van Helsing, Dracula’s perennial nemesis from the classic vampire movies, the world gave Kolchak no respect. In most vampire movies, the common folk defer to Van Helsing as an authority figure. In the modern age, the world sneered at Kolchak. He was not always pleasant. He was a rule-breaker. He was a poor dresser. He was not particularly diplomatic. He was a nudge. Maybe he was even a nut. No one, except the audience, was ever rooting for a guy like Kolchak.

He was such a flawed protagonist.  We would admire his dogged pursuit of the truth, but couldn’t he – just once – wear a nice suit?  Couldn’t he, for once, support an overwhelmed police force? And when Carl was scared, he was really scared. Not really cowardly, but he could be surprised. More often than not, he’d foul up some elaborate plan to stop a menace because he was just so damned frightened. And we’d never fault him for that – we were too.

Historical Antecedents?

There have been many crusading journalists in literature and pop culture. The most direct antecedent of Kolchak is reporter Randy Stone from the old radio show Night Beat. This was a “radio noir” type series that ran for several years in the fifties. The hero was played by the excellent character actor, Frank Lovejoy. 

Randy Stone, reporter, would narrate each episode, peeling back the layers to reveal the latest story he uncovered.  Ostensibly, Randy would start looking for a story each night, stumble across something, and then write it up for the newspaper in the wee hours of the early morning.

Stone, like Kolchak, felt comfortable wading thru the seedier side of humanity that oozed out onto the streets of Chicago after it got dark.

But by the time Kolchak arrived on the TV scene, pop culture was already used to a gritty ironic narrator of creepy, yet thoughtful, tales. Rod Serling had been doing it in the previous decade on The Twilight Zone. And he just finished up another run narrating stories on the less successful Night Gallery series.

Before we get to The Night Stalker TV movie, it is interesting to note how horror films were trying to update the vampire mythos.  Count Yorga, Vampire was a thriller with a modern-day vampire. Blacula tried hard to be a mash-up of blaxploitation movies and horror, as Dracula begat a modern-day black vampire. Even Hammer got into the act, as their Victorian Age Dracula franchise was dragged into the swinging 70s with Dracula AD 1972. Austin Powers would have fit into that one quite nicely, baby.

The Night Stalker TV Movie was adapted from Jeff Rice’s The Kolchak Papers. The great writer Richard Matteson, you might remember him from his many Twilight Zone scripts, wrote the screenplay. The 1972 movie was a big hit for ABC. It set the viewing record for TV movies, winning a 33.2 rating (that’s a percentage of all TV homes) and an impressive 54 share (that’s the percentage TV sets estimated to be in use when the show aired). It’s easy to forget that during time, ABC was a distant third-place network.

As an aside, as a young child I remember some confusion about it all.  Just as Orson Welles had done decades before with his War of the Worlds radio dramatization.   The modern-day setting for Night Stalker caused confusion amongst my cadre of neighborhood knuckleheads. Was that movie just a movie or was it based on…a real story?

Inside the Actors Studio

Darren McGavin was an unlikely actor to play the anti-hero Kolchak. Younger audiences will always remember him as “the old man”, i.e. Ralphie’s father in The Christmas Story. But before that, he was more often a leading man. In the western TV series Riverboat, McGavin and Burt Reynolds essentially were Butch and Sundance before “Butch and Sundance” were a thing.  Later, McGavin played the quintessential hard-boiled detective in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.  He’d get another bite of the apple as another detective in the late 60s TV series, The Outsider.

So, one would have thought he’d be so wrong for the part of investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak. But McGavin would prove the doubters wrong. He was captivating in the role. His Kolchak was a determined loner; the perennial outsider. On one hand, he was driven by a deep personal code but on the other hand, he was clearly an inevitable screw-up and/or nutcase.  And when the monster of the week scared Kolchak, you knew he was really terrified.  Things always worked out for the best, but Carl’s raw fear mirrored the audience’s terror, even though we were always safe at home on the couch.

This movie/pilot episode was filled with loveable character actors. The Night Stalker is almost a who’s who of the 1970s.  That’s nothing new for a detective story, as the protagonist typically does meet with a myriad of loveable goofballs who inch the hero and story that much closer to the truth.

The lovely Carol Lynley was the female lead. As Gail Foster, she played a Las Vegas showgirl. Like Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty, she may have been more than ‘just a showgirl’, but in the discrete world of 1972, the audience didn’t get everything spelled out in black and white. She’s bewitchingly serene on screen, in stark contrast from the “typical” leading ladies of the previous decade.

Kolchak’s inaugural adventure took place in Las Vegas.  That seemed fitting, as Vegas, in those days, had that reputation of an uncaring fantasy-fueled, seedy city. When the movie morphed into a weekly TV series, it would kind of pick up the whole premise, including Kolchak’s boss, and move everything to Chicago. Kolchak seems like a Chicago guy to me, anyways.

The TV series debuted on ABC late on Friday nights. It was moved to an earlier 8:00 pm timeslot, but never caught on as hoped.

They even changed the name from The Night Stalker to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It was like The Thin Man, a movie series that always confused everyone as the title referred to the antagonist.  But despite these changes, Kolchak’s journalistic crusade was over before it started. The weekly show fizzled away after just one season. As the story goes, Darren McGavin was frustrated with the eroding quality of the scripts.

The Night Stalker Lives On

Like everyone’s favorite Transylvanian count, the series seemed to come back from the dead again and again:

  • Network TV gave it another go as CBS put Kolchak: The Night Stalker into its late-night evening rotation. (That’s where James Cordon’s show is now.)  Believe it or not, it was a huge success there.
  • The X-Files were famously inspired by The Night Stalker and ran for many years even guest-starring McGavin as a Kolchak-like character.
  • ABC did create a Night Stalker reboot in 2005. Unfortunately, I am pretty sure I was the only person in America who watched it.
  • And my friends at Moonstone Books published quite a few Kolchak comics. They now have shifted their efforts to create a line of really good Kolchak prose books. It’s impossible not read one of these stories without hearing Darren McGavin’s warm-yet-gravelly voice in your head.

Locally, I host a movie series called Screams & Screens at Auburn Public Theater. It’s a kick to share my favorite classic horror films and B-Movies on the big screen. Our season finale is The Night Stalker, the made-for-TV movie. What a treat it will be to see it on the big screen.  Come and join us! More information is here.

2 thoughts on “With Further Ado #064: That Night Stalker, Carl Kolchak

  1. Great piece, Ed. I remember it so well. It had such a deep bench of movie/TV/Broadway greats as guest stars, too: Simon Oakland (of course), Jim Backus, James Gregory, Keenan Wynn, Carolyn Jones and my all-time favorite, William Daniels. Although the movie pre-dates Watergate, the series is definitely in the post Watergate “you can’t trust anyone in authority” trope; another fascinating application of modern sensibilities to the ol’ school horror stuff. I do have a memory–maybe unfair–that they were really straining to find a good monster every week, once they ran through mummies and zombies. Maybe it was time for Carl for fold his cards when he did….

  2. Admit to never having much interest in Kolchak, but the prose story I wrote for a Moonstone anthology a few years back I still think of very fondly…