Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Halloween Files: Kolchak: the Night Stalker

Last year around this time I paid tribute to the classic horror TV series Dark Shadows. This Halloween I want to throw the spotlight on another one of the finest horror series ever, Kolchak: the Night Stalker. Derived from two TV-movies and cancelled after just one season of 20 episodes, the show is revered by horror and fantasy fans, as well it should be.
The premise was very simple: veteran reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) uncovers a different supernatural or paranormal phenomenon in every episode, cracks the story wide open, and then has his article squelched by his editor, the local authorities, or the federal government.
One of the many reasons the show is so beloved by its fans is the notion of Kolchak’s Sisyphus-like job as a reporter. It’s a given that none of his stories will ever see the light of print, yet he continues on, remaining employed strictly because his harried boss Anthony Vincenzo (sublime character actor Simon Oakland) respects him.
The show was unique in that it contained a very healthy dose of humor. Kolchak was a man out of time — a mid-Seventies reporter who wore a cheap straw hat and a seersucker suit (the out-of-date wardrobe was McGavin’s own idea — he said he saw the character as stuck in the early Sixties). He was a comic figure who inhabited a comic environment (the newsroom of INS, a lesser wire service), but who deeply believed in his profession and would do anything, including putting his life in jeopardy, to get his story.
Like the original Star Trek, the show’s strength lay in its scripting and casting. The people who have put it down over the years (more on that below) have complained about the often threadbare-looking monsters and the ridiculous idea that one reporter could encounter so many different menaces.
Well, the show’s scripters, among them David “The Sopranos” Chase (who served as the show’s story editor), a young Robert Zemeckis, and Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein), carried it off by creating a raft of extremely imaginative threats, included monsters from Native American, Cajun, and Haitian legends. My all-time favorite (see below) is the East Indian monster who appears to you in the form of the person you trust the most, in Sangster’s episode “Horror in the Heights.”
In addition to the scripting, the show was immaculately cast with familiar faces from TV and the movies. Among the guest stars, and folks cast as Kolchak’s tipsters, in the 20 eps were Tom Skerritt, John Marley, Phil Silvers, Nina Foch, Keenan Wynn, Jan Murray, Larry Storch, Carolyn Jones, Erik Estrada, Scatman Crothers, Antonio Fargas, Lara Parker, James Gregory, Mary Wickes, J. Pat O’Malley, John Fiedler, Army Archerd, Milt Kamen, Nita Talbot, Dick Gautier, Jeanne Cooper, Richard Kiel, Alice Ghostley, Severn Darden, Julie Adams, Bernie Kopell, Jim Backus, Jesse White, Art Metrano, Jackie Vernon, Hans Conreid, Cathy Lee Crosby, and both David Doyle and Tom Bosley!
The supporting cast was also perfect for their cartoonlike roles, from Jack Grinnage's prissy reporter to Ruth McDevitt as the grandmotherly advice columnist to the sublime Simon Oakland as the long-suffering Vincenzo.
The premier casting coup, though, was the star himself. Darren McGavin positively shone in the part, as he was able to capably balance the show’s humor and chills. He also possessed a terrific voice and was one of the all-time great hardboiled voiceover men — he had formerly starred in the Mike Hammer TV show in 1958-59, where he refined his craft.
Kolchak represented a fascinating bridge between newspaper comedies of the Thirties like The Front Page, and the post-Woodward and Bernstein “reporter as free speech hero” films and TV narratives. In fact, the most interesting thing about the show was its anti-establishment stance. Carl Kolchak tries to expose the truth, but is constantly lied to by the police, politicians, and other authority figures. The killer-robot episode “Mr. R.I.N.G.” has Kolchak learning that a coverup has been put in place to uphold “national security.”
It’s refreshing to find a piece of popular entertainment that so blatantly has as one of its themes the fact that the government lies to us (a lot). One of the most common tropes in the series finds Kolchak’s photographs and audio cassettes being either confiscated by the police or destroyed. The only thing he’s left with is his trusty tape recorder, into which he recounts the full story after the menace has been disposed of.
Given the fact that that the show is held in very high regard by many horror and fantasy fans, it surprised me upon researching the series to discover that there was a very vocal minority of people who thought the series was a “mistake” — that only the two TV-movies should have been made — and that those people included the folk behind the creation of the original TV movies.
In the book Night Stalking: a 20th Anniversary Kolchak Companion, author Mark Dawidziak — who himself confesses that he thinks the series was a mistake (although he wrote not one but two books about it) — got interviews with all of the principals involved in the original pair of TV-movies, and all of them complain that the Kolchak series was completely misguided.
Scripter Richard Matheson, producer-director Dan Curtis, the creator of the Kolchak character, Jeff Rice, and Darren McGavin himself all agreed that the two TV-movies were terrific, but they disliked the notion of doing a Kolchak TV series. After the show became a massive cult hit in reruns, McGavin was fond of noting that he had a terrible time working on it because it was produced in such a last-minute fashion (the shows were shot in six days and aired in the order they were shot in, McGavin noting “We were turning in wet negatives”).
Add to the dissenting voices Stephen King, who derided the series in his book Danse Macabre We do have to keep in mind, however, that this comes from a talented craftsman who feels that every single line he writes is worthy of publication (you ain't Dostoevsky or Pynchon, Steve, you're a goddamned genre novelist!). As for film/TV entertainment, remember that King felt that the Kubrick Shining could be improved upon by a meager U.S. TV miniseries; he thought a similarly anemic rewrite of von Trier’s sensational The Kingdom was necessary; and he botched the EC formula for horror in his tribute to those classic comics, Creepshow.
The Dawidziak book (written in 1991) also contains statements in praise of the show. The late mystery writer and film historian Stuart Kaminsky and several TV critics, including NPR’s David Bianculli, go on the record proclaiming the show to be one of the best fantasy series ever to air on American TV. At this point, you could definitely add to that chorus producer-writer Chris Carter, who has professed a major love for the show and has stated that it was one of the key inspirations for his X-Files — since Kolchak was the first TV character to notice that “there's something out there.”
I fall in with the latter camp. I think Kolchak: the Night Stalker was one of the best horror series ever and was also a triumph when it came to mixing horror and humor. Sure, the monsters were often super-cheap looking, but a good deal of the low-budget sci-fi and horror films of the Fifties and Sixties contain bargain-basement creatures.
Thus, I urge you to check out the series and the two telefilms, all of which are currently online for free, thanks to three very generous posters, “naysgrace” and “Ocean71fvr” having posted the bulk of the series, with “wgdvds” picking up the slack and posting the remaining eps. Below I choose the must-see ten of the 22 Kolchak adventures.
No one – including the dogmatic and all-too-wordy Stephen King – disputes that the original Night Stalker TV-movie from 1972 is a classic of its kind. When we first meet Carl Kolchak, he's working in Las Vegas and the menace he uncovers is a vampire (Barry Atwater):
The second Kolchak TV-movie, The Night Strangler (1973) finds Carl in Seattle investigating an immortal strangler. The supporting cast in this telefilm is filled with familiar faces:
The first episode of the Kolchak TV series establishes that Carl and his boss have set down roots in Chicago. The first menace encountered there is a killer who may be Jack the Ripper:
The second episode pits Carl against a zombie killer, resurrected by voodoo (the Mafia are also involved, and the chief don insults Kolchak's “two dollar hat”). One of the standard plot devices in the series was for Carl to discover an arcane ritual that would kill the monster in question; this episode contains one of the best death-rituals in the entire series:
One of the best traditional monster tales in the series was the fourth episode, “The Vampire,” in which Carl hunts down a vampiress in Los Angeles (who happens to have been “turned” by the vampire in the original Night Stalker TV-movie):
Dark Shadows' Lara Parker is a fashion model who just happens to be a witch in the lively episode “The Trevi Collection”:
“Firefall” contains one of the images from the series that has haunted me since childhood. Kolchak hiding in a church as a deadly doppelganger bangs at a high church window trying to get at him. In this case, the doppelganger looks like an orchestra conductor and set his victims on fire:
I will close out with three of the best paranoia scenarios. The first is a UFO saga in which Carl finds out that the government has covered up the fact that killer aliens (who live by sucking bone marrow out of their victims) have landed on Earth. The title of the episode is the rather portentous “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be....”:
A Cajun man involved in a sleep experiment unleashes a swamp monster in Chicago in “The Spanish Moss Murders.”
And finally, my all-time favorite episode in the series, “Horror in the Heights.” Here grisly killings take place when an ancient Indian monster assumes the form of the person most trusted by its victims. Phil Silvers guest stars, and Jimmy Sangster's tight and imaginative script shows how good the series could be when all the elements were at their best:

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