The Night Stalker Universe
This page is dedicated a collection of things. First, there is the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which ran for 20 episodes. And then there are two made for television movies that the series was based on: The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973). They all star Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, as the first two movies explicitly made reference to, a character straight out of The Front Page. He’s a disshelved newspaper man who will do anything to get his story. It just so happens that the stories he follows have an odd tendency to be supernatural.
Supporting Kolchak in the films and series is Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo, a hot tempered editor who clearly has stomach ulcers. Kolchak makes his life much harder because even though the stories are right, Vincenzo can’t publish them. That’s especially true in the movies, where Vincenzo wants to publish Kolchak’s stories but is prevented from doing so. In the series, it is usually the case that evidence is destroyed or withheld, not allowing Kolchak to file a story.
The Night Stalker
The first movie was The Night Stalker, produced for ABC and released as part of its Movie of the Week series. It is different from the second film and the series in being more serious. It was based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice, who would go on to be credited as the sole producer of the series. But despite its sad ending and Kolchak’s more serious nature, the basics are all there. Kolchak figures out that a series of killings is being done by a real life vampire, he tries to convince the authorities that this is the case, but in the end, the authorities cover up the truth. Today, I find the “people will panic” explanation to be tired and unbelievable. But it worked in 1972.
Barry Atwater plays the title role with intense stillness. Also of interest is Larry Linville as the coroner, who stands out in being open-minded to Kolchak’s vampire theory. Elisha Cook Jr has a small role as one of Kolchak’s informants. Carol Lynley plays Kolchak’s girlfriend. She’s good, but seems a bit out of his league. Other familiar faces include Claude Akins, Kent Smith, and Stanley Adams.
The Night Strangler
The Night Strangler was an original story and screenplay by Richard Matheson. He had also written the screenplay for The Night Stalker, but you can tell that he gets to be more of himself here. Matheson was a great science fiction and horror writer. But he was really at his best when he combined these genres with comedy as he did in The Comedy of Terrors and Roger Corman’s The Raven.
The whole movie has a lighter tone, with an absolutely fabulous ending. But that doesn’t mean it lacks for horror. Much of the third act is quite suspenseful. At the end of The Night Stalker Kolchak was run out of Las Vegas. So at the beginning of The Night Strangler, we find him in Seattle. The movie opens with Vincenzo at a bar where he orders a glass of milk (remember the ulcers). As he’s being served, he overhears a voice that sounds familiar. So he asks the bartender, “Take a look around that corner; see if there isn’t someone there who looks like he just came from a road company performance of The Front Page?” So the two are back together again! But even with its upbeat ending, it still ends the same: moving on to another city.
The film also stars Jo Ann Pflug as Kolchak’s love interest. She’s a college student who is a belly dancer by night. She is also a chatter box — outdoing even Kolchak himself. The Night Strangler is filled with even more familiar faces than its predecessor. They include Richard Anderson in the title role. You probably know him as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man. But it also includes Al Lewis, Wally Cox, and John Carradine. There are many more you’ll recognize, but those three are especially delicious.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker
With the success of the two movies, more had to come. Matheson and his friend William F Nolan apparently wrote screenplay for a third movie. But ABC opted to create a series instead. This was a mistake. Imagine if Columbo had been a television series with 24 episodes per year: how long would it have lasted? Even with its roughly 6 shows per year, it was a bit hard to take. It was really best in the 1990s when it could go a couple of years between episodes.
With Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the situation was even worse. You can’t have Kolchak running into supernatural stories every week. The only way that would have worked would be if the show had arcs. But that idea hadn’t been invented in 1974. So we were stuck with a new monster each week. Some worked pretty well. “The Devil’s Platform” comes to mind. That would have made a fine movie. But “Chopper” features a headless motorcycle rider, mowing people down. “The Sentry” finds us with a humanoid lizard that is killing workmen who are unknowingly destroying its eggs. And “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…” is a weird take on UFOs.
All of these could have worked in movie form. But it wasn’t just having so many unbelievable things happening so often. The shows often suffered from having too little time to tell their stories. So there’s more narration in a format that already relied on it rather too much. Note that the series didn’t lack for talent either. The main writer on the show was David Chase, who did a lot of great work, including creating The Sopranos.
Having said all that, Darren McGavin really does save it all. It’s fun to hang out with the guy. I still enjoy watching the shows, even if they are rather silly.
The Night Stalker and My Career Choices
Over the last week, I’ve checked out a few episodes of the old television series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. When I was a kid, I loved that show. I was crushed when they cut it after the first season. But I can see why.
For those who don’t know it, it was the mid-1970s version of The X-Files. The main character was Carl Kolchak — a very good investigative journalist who just so happened to always be running into stories involving vampires, zombies, Hindu curses, whatever. The show came about as a result of two very successful made for television movies: The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. They should have kept with that. By doing one or even two movies per year, you could go along with it. But Kolchak running into ever more ridiculous ghosts and goblins just didn’t cut it week after week.
What Made The Night Stalker
Although I loved the horror in the show, that wasn’t what really made the show. It was Kolchak. He was totally unkempt with a straw hat that was often coming apart. He’s a klutz. While foolishly trying to destroy these monsters because, hey, no one else will do it, he is always falling down and making a lot of noise. But he’s smart, and he manages to always get around his editor and the police. I think it was 10 year old Frank watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker that got me thinking that being a writer was a cool thing.
More recently, this got me thinking again, because being a writer isn’t all that much like what we see in The Night Stalker. Of course, I’m not a journalist. But even still, we rarely see Kolchak file any stories. The monster stories always end with the evidence being destroyed or the police blackmailing him into silence. There’s one time that I recall filing a story being a big deal, and that’s when he goes out of town and gets an aspiring writer who is a real estate agent to create stories for him so that he can pursue a lady vampire. That is very Kolchak, though. There’s a lot of the con man in him — but only in the name of digging out the truth.
The Night Stalker Made Me What I Am
But the more I thought, the more it occurred to me that my entire working life has actually been a lot like Carl Kolchak. The implication is that Kolchak manages to survive in the newspaper business because he is, ultimately, good at his job. But his pluses just barely offset his minuses. And I’ve been that guy most of my life. I wrote about this before, Unstable Weirdos and Business Success. I’ve been asked throughout my career, “Why can’t you just be normal? Why can’t you just do it like other people?” Now I have an answer, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Don’t think that I’m not aware of my arrogance. That is, in fact, what this is all about. Kolchak is full of himself. He doesn’t much care about filing the story; he just wants to get the truth, and if you don’t appreciate that, well, that just shows you’re an idiot. And that’s pretty much been me through most of my career. Things seem better now, but I’m not sure if that means I’ve changed or I’m just working for better people. Probably a bit of both.
Afterword: The Night Stalker
It sucks that the films are not available on Netflix at the moment (they come and go). And when I bought the complete series many years ago, they weren’t included. It doesn’t make sense. But the two movies are available on a single disc. It’s worth checking out, The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler.
Update: Movies Online
I found the two movies online. I haven’t been sleeping well, so I watched The Night Strangler last night:
And I watched the original The Night Stalker early this morning: