Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By John C. Alsedek:
Pretty much my entire childhood was spent one of two places: in front of the television or on my bicycle. But there’s a particularly vivid memory of mine that combines the two: nine-year old me, riding home as the sun was dipping below the horizon, knowing that my new favorite show was going to be on in just a few minutes. That show? Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker originally began as an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice entitled The Kolchak Papers, about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas and the titular reporter who made it his mission to stop the monster. The Kolchak Papers had trouble finding a publisher, but it attracted the attention of agent Rick Ray, who saw its potential as a movie. But even Ray couldn’t have predicted how well it would do: with Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis as producer, Richard Matheson as the screenwriter, and Darren McGavin as the title character, the now-retitled The Night Stalker aired as the ABC Movie of the Week on January 11th, 1972 and set a new ratings record, drawing a 33.2 rating and 48 share.
ABC was eager to capitalize on the success of The Night Stalker, so McGavin was back a year later in The Night Strangler; set this time in Seattle. It concerned McGavin’s character, Carl Kolchak, and his efforts to halt a string of grisly murders going back over a century. The Night Strangler was a ratings smash as well—so much so that ABC shelved plans to film a third TV movie entitled The Night Killers and decided to give Carl Kolchak his own TV series. And so it was that, in the fall of 1974, Kolchak: The Night Stalker hit the airwaves at 10 p.m. on Friday nights. Could it capitalize on the success of its TV movie predecessors?
Well . . . no. Ten p.m. on Fridays was a brutal schedule spot for a horror-themed show, as the teenagers who would most likely be its most avid audience (as had been the case with Dan Curtis' Dark Shadows) would probably be out. It was the sort of deadly scheduling that had led to the cancellation of now-classic shows such as Star Trek and The Outer Limits, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker would soon follow suit. Even a move from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m. midway through its first season didn't help, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker was cancelled after just twenty episodes. It even stopped production two episodes early because McGavin asked to be let out of his contract; knowing that the show was getting the axe anyway, he didn't see the point in continuing to do a role that he'd already grown tired of performing.
Looking at it objectively rather than as a fan, one could see his point—what had worked brilliantly as a pair of TV movies was simply unsustainable as a series. Stephen King (who clearly knows a thing or two about horror) explained the fatal flaw of Kolchak: The Night Stalker in his outstanding treatise on horror, Danse Macabre; suspension of disbelief will only stretch so far before it completely breaks, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker had gone right past that breaking point. Kolchak finding a vampire in Vegas? Sure, absolutely. Kolchak finding an immortal killer in subterranean Seattle? Yeah, okay. But Kolchak finding a werewolf on an ocean liner? Witches while doing a story on high fashion? A killer robot while doing a simple obituary? At some point it simply turns into a parody, and that's kind of what happened.
But you know what? Kolchak: The Night Stalker remains one of my favorite series to this day because an interesting story well-acted will always be a winner for me. And while I can see why suspension of disbelief might have become a problem for a lot of viewers, it never fazed me. Maybe it's because most of my favorite shows are anthologies, so I just looked at each Kolchak adventure as self-contained, which made suspending my disbelief really easy. Or maybe, since I'd grown up with Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, etc., a world full of monsters didn't seem incredible to me at all.
There’s so much to love about this show, starting with the opening sequence of Carl Kolchak typing away in the Chicago INS (Independent News Service) office late at night. The moody, almost claustrophobic setting is perfectly accented by Gil Melle’s staccato, dissonant theme—a theme that climaxes just as something seems to lunge at the terrified Kolchak. I love the INS office set, dark and dingy and old-fashioned even for the 1970’s . . . it’s the perfect home away from home for Kolchak, very much a function-over-style guy in his seedy seersucker suit and cheap hat. I love the esoteric mix of monsters; sure, the show featured the occasional vampire or werewolf, but it also introduced viewers to little-known beasties such as "Pere Malafait" and the rakshasa. I love the familiar faces of the show’s guest actors, a who’s who of character actors and former stars such as Keenan Wynn, Phil Silvers, John Dehner, and Jim Backus. And I especially love the scenes with Kolchak and his INS coworkers: officious Ron Updyke, sassy Emily Cowles, and perpetually stressed-out editor Tony Vincenzo (played to perfection by Simon Oakland). Honestly, I could watch an hour of Kolchak and Vincenzo arguing.
Thankfully, though its life on ABC was short, Kolchak: The Night Stalker found brand-new audiences in reruns over the years. It first came back in 1979 on, of all places, The CBS Late Movie as a regular Friday feature. Later, it would air on SyFy and is currently airing on MeTV . . . although with just twenty total episodes, it tends to come and go from the schedule every few months.
And speaking of going . . . this is my last column till January 2020. But I’ll be back with a look at a different sort of investigator: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado, John C. Alsedek, shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.