KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974)

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Kolchak

"It occurred to me that I could combine both into a genre or sub-genre of fiction that I didn't think had been tried: a thriller combining the vampire story with a police and political cover-up, all based on what I knew would be the logical bureaucratic response to the situation I could create: a threat not only to life but also to the all-important tourist trade of a city that existed on the strength of it." - Jeff Rice.

In the days of X-Files mania, post millennium fever, paranoia, bureaucratic distrust and general cynicism about how much of what "They" in power are telling us is the actual truth, the above quote from author and Kolchak creator Jeff Rice, effortlessly highlights the basic philosophy which unites Kolchak: The Night Stalker with its modern day counterpart and spiritual child, The X-Files. Based on writer Rice's previously unpublished novel; The Kolchak Papers, the original Night Stalker TV movie, premiered in the US on January 11 1972, scoring a then record 75,O00,0OO viewer - attendance. The project had resided with Dark Shadows supremo, Dan Curtis for close to two years before he handed it over to top genre scripter Richard Matheson for development.

Matheson's intelligent, high octane, Edgar and Writer's Guild award winning fantasy thriller script introduced the world to the down at heel, over-the-hill, cynically engaging character of Carl Kolchak, (embodied in the memorable performance of veteran character actor, Darren McGavin) as he first uncovers and then finally confronts a vampire who is on a killing spree in modern Las Vegas. Encouraged by the unprecedented success of the telemovie, Curtis, once again in tandem with Matheson, produced an effectively atmospheric sequel the following year. January 16 1973, saw the unveiling of The Night Strangler, re-teaming McGavin and Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo, Kolchak's ulcer plagued editor, eternally at odds with the reporter's wild theories regarding the supernatural.

Now based in Seattle, Kolchak once again accidentally uncovers a series of strangulations, which lead him to the discovery that these killings are merely the latest in a series of 21 year cycles dating back over a century. The reporter's investigation leads him to a chilling showdown with an immortal, insane doctor in the deserted streets of Seattle's historic underground city. (An underground city of intact nineteenth century stores which, amazingly, actually exists and must have been a godsend for Matheson as a suitably exotic location for his story's climax). The movies, unsurprisingly, spawned an hour-long series produced by McGavin under the banner of his own company, Francy Productions, in association with ABC-TV and Universal Television. Kolchak: The Night Stalker, aired September 13, 1974, with the episode The Ripper, scripted by Rudolph Borchert and directed by Allen Baron. Now based in Chicago, at the offices of "International News Service", the series format saw Kolchak plagued by a weekly diet of assorted supernatural dangers ranging from Werewolves to a creature from native American mythology.

Lasting for twenty episodes before McGavin himself ordered the series cancelled (added to the fact that Rice sued ABC Network for producing the series without his permission), The Night Stalker ultimately suffered from an inherent weakness in the core structure of its own basic format. A format which decreed that not only must Kolchak - rather improbably - uncover a "Monster" every week, but also had to end each story with all proof of his encounter stripped from him by the forces of officialdom, eager to suppress the truth from an unsuspecting public. Although never capable of matching the incredibly high standards set by the original TV movies, the series nevertheless managed to produce a number of excellent episodes, which effectively utilised elements of common, deep rooted, primal and mythological fears. The opening episode, "The Ripper", has Kolchak memorably fleeing in panic from his hiding place within the eponymous killer's closet rather than risk discovery, while in legendary Hammer Horror veteran Jimmy Sangster's script "Horror in the Heights" (guest starring Phil Silvers), the creature manifests itself mostly by taking on the form of a loved one of its intended victim. In common with the X-Files, in Kolchak's world, nothing is ever quite what it at first seems. Nothing can ever be taken at face value; no one can ever be completely trusted.

In both the movies and the series, the character is forced to wage a lonely, unwanted one man war against the forces which he "knows" are there, waiting on the threshold ever ready to use humankind for their own ends. Nothing is impossible in this world, except Kolchak's ability to warn us about the hidden dangers awaiting us in the night's darkest shadows... Kolchak: The Night Stalker was by no means a perfect television entity. But even at its worst in stories such as "Chopper", a dubious tale of a headless, motorcycling ghost or "The Sentry", a forgettable romp featuring a man in a rubber lizard suit, the show was never less than entertaining, due in no small measure to the outstanding professionalism and on screen chemistry of McGavin and co-star Simon Oakland.

World weary, cynical, forever frustrated by official forces determined to prevent him from revealing the truth which he knows, is indeed out there... middle aged Carl Kolchak could well be taken for a cautionary foretaste of the fate waiting for a much younger FBI agent from a certain later show. Mulder, Scully and Chris Carter may well know that the truth is out there... But Darren McGavin's Kolchak: The Night Stalker, knew it first.

Review: Stephen R. Hulse. September 2000

for Television Heaven