Lou Harry’s more than 40 books include Creative Block (Running Press), The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures (Quirk Books), and the novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. His produced plays include Midwestern Hemisphere and The Pied Piper of Hoboken.
Banacek. Ironside. McCloud. Mannix. Columbo. Kojak. Baretta. Cannon.
The list goes on. All distinct action heroes from 1970s TV.
None of these tough guys, however, could battle a vampire, werewolf or headless motorcyclist like Kolchak.
It’s difficult, nearly half a century after he made his debut, to capture the impact that Carl Kolchak, as played by Darren McGavin, had when he hit the small screen in 1972 in a movie of the week.
Note for anyone under 40: Back in the time when you had only three network choices — plus PBS — there used to be two-hour slots carved out on select nights to air movies. These were often made exclusively for TV, the second-best known of which may be Duel, helmed by a pre-Jaws Steven Spielberg.
The most popular of these couch-potato feeders was The Night Stalker, an original-premiere flick about a rumpled, loud-mouthed reporter who comes to believe that a series of killings in Las Vegas are the result of an on-the-loose vampire.
Smartly framed with Kolchak’s knowing narration (“This will be the last time I’ll ever discuss any of these events with anyone,” he says near the top), the film gets right to the action, putting a working class girl in late-night jeopardy. She’s walking home from her casino job and, before the credits roll, her body is found by trashmen.
It’s a setup that could have led to an episode for any of the aforementioned TV detectives. What differentiates The Night Stalker very quickly isn’t the supernatural element — that will come later — but the immediate clicking of character. Not only do we get the raffia-hatted Kolchak, but also soon meet his exasperated editor, Anthony Albert Vincenzo (Simon Oakland, indelible) whose intensity makes J. Jonah Jameson look like Fred Rogers. And there’s Kolchak’s girlfriend, Gail (Carol Lynley, just prior to her Poseidon adventure), who seems destined for a final-act confrontation with the killer but, well, nope.
That’s one of the only places, plot-wise, that The Night Stalker defies expectations. Otherwise, Richard Matheson’s script is fairly conventional. There are killings. Kolchak pieces together what’s going on. Nobody believes him, and no other press seems to be interested in covering it. His efforts to uncover the truth lead to aa confrontation with the killer. There’s a pre-Raiders of the Lost Ark cover-up. Vincenzo sweats and yells.
But it’s brisk. In spite of commercial breaks, The Night Stalker moves. Full of holes but never dull, it doesn’t waste too much time trying to give the villain much of a backstory or personality. Barry Atwater’s creature, sporting what seems to be an early version of Jim Carrey’s Dumb and Dumber hairdo, isn’t the chatty type.
More than scary or funny, The Night Stalker is a rarer thing — damn entertaining.
I wasn’t alone thinking that back then. On first airing, The Night Stalker became the highest-rated original made-for-TV movie up to that time, earning a 33.2 rating (The only regular series with a higher rating that year was All in the Family, with a 34. For comparison, Monday Night Football hovered around 20.9).
And its popularity led to a sequel, The Night Strangler, with Kolchak stumbling on another series of murders, this time in Seattle and caused by a creepster (Richard Anderson) in search of immortality. Bonus: This one’s got a supporting cast worthy of a Love Boat episode or two, including Wally Cox, Jo Ann Pflug, Al Lewis, John Carradine and Margaret Hamilton.
While fun, the sequel suffers from talk-itis, with the bad guy falling into the “before I kill you, let me tell you about my plan and how it worked and …” trope.
Nonetheless, the back-to-back hits led to a one-season series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker — which stretched credibility further, having Kolchak stumble into encounters with just about every other creature in the supernatural pantheon. At one point, if memory serves, it aired opposite the also-short-lived Planet of the Apes series, making a very difficult choice for those of us who had subscriptions to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
X-Files creator Chris Cater said Kolchak inspired him. I’m not surprised. For all its flaws — and the now-quaint style of TV movies of that era — The Night Stalker had a heartbeat. Blood did seem to flow through its veins. It wasn’t a copy of anything else out there, and I have yet to see anyone on TV since who’s quite like Carl Kolchak (a 2005 reboot series, with anguish replacing fun, is best forgotten).
P.S.: On rewatching, I was glad to see that the line that has reverberated in my head hadn’t been twisted by history. Kolchak does, in fact, say,“This nut thinks he’s a vampire.”
P.P.S.: You can actually search “Kolchak hat” and find manufacturers of his signature chapeau.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2019
Pop Skull – Richard Propes
The Ghost and the Darkness – John Tuttle
Graveyard Shift – Eric Harris
Alien – Nicole Brooks