The Night Stalker (re-monikered Kolchak: The Night Stalker after the first 4 episodes) (1974-1975)

by Douglas Buck March 7, 2021 11 minutes (2615 words) DVD

It’s taken over a year since I knocked out bluray viewings of those small screen, at-the-time ground-breaking horror films, ones that held such sway over me since seeing them in my youth, and that introduced that most enjoyable of intrepid reporters Carl Kolchak into America’s living rooms, namely The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973), on consecutive nights no less (following them up, naturally, as is my wont, by scribbling down my thoughts and posting them) for me to get around to finishing up the ensuing single season series (total of twenty episodes) that followed off the massive TV success those initial movies had.

Now, that length of time isn’t rare for me on these retros, especially with me yoy-o-ing back and forth between any number of on-going ones (my concurrent retrospectives, for example, on the films of “Dr Mabuse” and Fritz Lang have been going on for over two years… and with only two entries left in the “Mabuse” one, I can see light at the end of the tunnel for that one at least!), the reason for the break on the The Night Stalker retro is a bit different. In fact, full disclosure, I initially delved in almost immediately after watching the two films and found myself… alas… quickly losing interest. I tried again, sometime soon after, going right back to the initial episodes, and yet… again… after three or four episodes, I gave up. The third time though? As they say… a charm.

Kolchak with constant foil Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland, the explain-it-all psychiatrist at the end of Psycho)

It wasn’t as if Darren McGavin’s street smart, opportunistic urban reporter, hustling from the films into the show, isn’t as endearing as ever. Dressed in his familiar seer-sucker suit and pork-pie hat, driving around the city in his 1966 Ford Mustang convertible, as the cliché goes, it was a role he was born to play, and, man, does he relish in it; it was interesting to learn how unhappy and frustrated he was with the direction of the show (quite understandably, but more on that below), to the point of openly fighting with producers, as each week what comes through — in front of the camera, at least — is the contagious exuberance with which he approached his part, perfectly towing a line of tongue-in-cheek mannerisms, creating a memorable, larger-than-life character, while never transgressing into the broad (okay, maybe once or twice he may catapult slightly too far over the top, but you could shrug that off as perhaps Kolchak – or maybe McGavin himself – having had a bit too much coffee before arriving at that particular moment… minor stuff, I say, and, even then, still enjoyable to watch!). Hell, if this mini-retro reinforced anything, it was that McGavin’s Kolchak performance is a virtual tour-de-force.

Even the interactions with the recurring characters back at the office of the independent wire service Kolchak is employed by (though barely seems to be working for, spending most of his time chasing after some weekly monster story that has emerged from whatever assignment that his eternally put-upon editor Tony Vincenzo is trying – invariably unsuccessfully – to have him stick to) are usually amusing enough, such as his main rival at the paper, the supercilious (and not so subtly coded gay) Updyke (Jack Grinnage) – or “Uptight” as Kolchak calls him – and the elderly advice columnist Miss Emily (Ruth McDevitt), who Vincenzo ends up invariably offending with some off-the-cuff remark about old people while yelling in frustration at Kolchak for running off half-cocked again on some wild goose chase (that isn’t ever actually a wild goose chase but always a literal monster chase, which somehow Vincenzo never catches on to no matter how many times he goes through this drill).

Speaking of the understandably temperamental Vincenzo, while maybe not on par with Robin to Kolchak’s Batman, I still wonder where the show would have gone without his loyal, if heavily reluctant, position as Kolchak’s foil (or, honestly, if it would have attained quite the revered ground-breaking status that it has, having led directly to later monumental monster-of-the-week shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files and even Supernatural (a show I haven’t caught up with, but my daughter – she of outstandingly good taste may I add — says I should watch), with those shows’ creators openly acknowledging the influence on them of The Night Stalker, to the level of X-Files creator Chris Carter affectionately having McGavin guest-star on an episode.

Simon Oakland’s eternally put-upon editor, continuously throwing up his hands in frustration at this impulsive reporter who he inexplicably keeps employed, no matter how many times the screwy, smart mouthed reporter keeps stumbling upon monster cases wherever he goes. leading to Vincenzo inevitably becoming part of the collateral damage by the end (from Las Vegas in the original “Stalker”, where Kolchak uncovered his first supernatural creature, namely, a vampire, leading to the two of them both kicked out of town by local officials who refused to believe Kolchak’s story, then on to Seattle in “Strangler” where Kolchak stumbled upon the 144 year old women-killing ghoul leading, naturally, to the two newspaper men both shit-canned and unceremoniously ushered out of town, and right on into the show’s current setting of Chicago, where Vincenzo is now constantly picking up Kolchak’s shrapnel from out of City Hall, while this time somehow managing to never quite get fired… the better to have a continuing series, I guess, in a single city) is as important a cog in the Kolchak iconography as anything else… and, like McGavin, man, is Oakland seemingly having a lot of fun in the part.

And while the show’s relatively miniscule budget left the show more than a bit bereft in the monster creation department (guess the TV execs weren’t quite sold on the show’s appeal as much as they were with the better-funded “Night” films … and they turned out to be right… then again, maybe the show would have done better in the ratings if the show had the money to make the monsters look cooler?) – from the werewolf Kolchak stumbles across while on a boat cruise with some hair awkwardly glued on his face, to the headless motorcycle rider who clearly is just wearing his jacket over his still-attached head, to the Spanish Moss swamp creature that is just Richard Kiel with a lot of green moss-stuff lackadaisically tossed on his head, to the humanoid lizard creature that’s a man in an ill-fitting full-body Halloween costume, I sometimes pondered if the show wasn’t better off when they went with cheaper options, such as the ‘invisible invaders’ trick – like the alien with the cloak of invisibility, or the energy monster, or (even more head-shakingly amusing) that knight’s armor that kept attacking people until crashing to the ground, with a raise of the metal visor revealing no one inside (I mean, I’m not kidding regarding the budget) – or the more ‘human’ form of monster, which I have to say, with these often working out most effectively, such as the very genuinely creepy images of the haunting doppelgänger hanging in the church windows, or the witches coven (especially chilling when they burst into what sounds like actual hysterical laughter, even if hinting at the threads of misogyny that run throughout the show – I mean, with the fat jokes on the female reporters and the underlying giggles at the closeted gay Updyke, the show wears it’s reactionary transgressions in true 70’s television style) – that part of it was more than forgivable, certainly when weighed against the positives of the show, like the plethora of rich cameos from so many character actor extraordinaire each week.

McGavin with Phil Silvers

They might have names you likely don’t remember, but the faces are unforgettable — playing the constantly shifting smorgasbord of agitated police sergeants, captains and lieutenants, each one more annoyed with Kolchak’s habit of sniffing about crime scenes they’re trying to cover up or constantly putting them on the spot by asking outrageous questions at press conferences – allowing for the delightful likes of James Gregory, William Daniels, Ramon Bieri, and even Keenan Wynn (the only one who comes back for an encore episode he’s so good, where we learn he actually went away for therapy to get his temper under control – all which naturally goes by the wayside after a few confrontations with Kolchak), John Marley (yes, he of not only the films of indie maverick John Cassavetes, but eventually the Hollywood producer who woke up with the ‘offer he couldn’t refuse’, represented as a horse’s head, in The Godfather), to Larry Linville (apparently slumming a bit as he was already getting major acclaim as the dim-witted Frank Burns of “Mash” fame), the absolutely hilarious John Dehner (doing the cookiest turn by far of any of the police heads, playing him as a distracted and narcissistic erudite quoter of Shakespeare) and, finally, to the single female of the group, in the last episode, Kathie Browne, who naturally uses her feminine wiles (in another nod to the thread of sexism that follows right along with the show) as a way to control the male press corps (though, of course, our man Kolchak will have none of that!) – or the cavalcade of familiar TV faces of the time that Kolchak stumbles across in his investigations, from long-time legendary comedian Phil Silvers, to a Bosley both real, i.e. Tom Bosley (already famous to television audiences as Pappa Cunningham in “Happy Days”), to a make-believe Bosley, i.e., David Doyle, who was better known already at the time as the single-named Bosley, the sidekick to the three uber-hottie babes of Charlie’s Angels, right on into Jamie Farr (who delivers a super-elaborate cameo as an unhappy school teacher that’s amusing, if way to unnecessarily complex), another guy in the middle of “Mash” fame and the beautiful ex-tennis-star-turned-television-celebrity-with-little-real-acting-chops Cathie Lee Crosby (as the evil Helen of Troy, returned to suck the life out of poor unsuspecting health nuts to keep herself young forever).

Cathy Lee Crosby

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the appearance of one of the greats of the indie exploitation scene, namely William Smith, doing some really fun work (once you get past the absurdity that he’s supposed to be playing a Native American) as a studly construction worker who the women can’t seem to keep their hands off of wherever he goes, who teams up with Kolchak to fight off a bear spirit (otherwise known as a budget-saving formless energy eater) threatening to destroy a hospital built on an old burial site. Or long time comedic Hollywood player Nita Talbot, having great fun playing off Kolchak on a single’s cruise, in that episode that has the ridiculous werewolf (played by another worthy name, though, Eric Braeden, who I put right up there with Bradford Dillman as far as being way under-appreciated for his great 70’s genre roles, such as in Colossus: The Forbin Project and Escape from the Planet of the Apes) though is one of the more entirely successful as far as the really nice character banter between Talbot’s lonely-hearts character and the K man as they work to destroy the wolf (who ends up, naturally, shot dead by a silver bullet, but over the side and into the drink, with no proof of any of it).

Keenan Wynn

In fact, there’s plenty to enjoy in this show (hell, even the sexism and the underlying gay stereotyping feels harmlessly nostalgic)… so much so I’d argue that, as a forerunner of monster television to come, it belongs in the Television Hall of Fame (I mean, if they have one of those… do they have one of those?)… no, the double hurdle that was required to get me into the show was the narrative repetition.

Every week is the same. Kolchak narrates the opening murder in (usually fairly effective) noir-kinda style (almost inevitably including some dark newspaper-headline-like quip, some better than others), which will lead down a rabbit hole of discovering some supernatural entity (or alien, or something) where he has to not only fight the monster but the red tape of City Hall as they attempt to deny the reality of it. There’s the scene of Kolchak watching the police get their asses kicked in confrontation with the ‘thing’, then at the press room where they all can’t stand him (because he keeps discovering monsters) then investigates some way to defeat the threat, does defeat it, and then has no evidence… and is faced with a very annoyed editor who either has no story to print from Kolchak, or one far too fantastic for anyone to believe (again I ask… why Vincenzo keeps the guy around is anyone’s guess…. especially as, to make matters worse, the mischievous Kolchak often deliberately toys with his editor, doing things like putting donuts in front of his face just as the boss is trying to go on a diet…. I mean, what is going on here?).

You would have thought the makers, after basically repeating the same narrative of the first film for the second (though better in many ways, as “Strangler” has wonderfully creative visual flourishes the first didn’t really attempt), would have realized this could be a problem… but they didn’t seem to bother. In fact, the first episode, in which Jack the Ripper has come back and is killing stripper in the night, is basically a replay of the first film (only not as good, and shorter, so it feels like a summation). The coincidence was already hard to believe by “Strangler”… let alone having him do it every week (with exactly the same notes of disbelief from everyone around him). I mean the show never veers away from its weekly outline… we never discover where he lives, or if he has any living relatives (though the last episode, in which someone he’s interviewing mentions someone being ‘a nag’ to which Kolchak responds ‘Oh, I have one of those at home’ is intriguing… ). The later shows clearly learned from this weakness – the brilliant “Buffy” comes to mind, with the proliferation of demons, vamps and all sorts of supernatural oddities that the cute-high-school-cheerleader-cum-vampire-slayer and her Scoobie Gang are forced to confront each week, they discover, are drawn there because the sunny little town of, yep, Sunnydale happens to be sitting directly on top of a Hellmouth (problem resolved right there!). But The Night Stalker never resolved that issue. And that’s why McGavin, understandably, simmered.

But once I accepted that the stories themselves would be a bit… well, uninteresting at times… and I let go and enjoyed watching McGavin’s Kolchak prance about town, raising blood temperatures in City Hall and with his newspaper editor, mixing it up with all sorts of colorful character actors, what the show had to offer opened up to me. And I was able to enjoy it for what it was, and appreciate it as the very Godfather of the Monster of the Week show.

And while the 2008 re-boot of the show from every little snippet I’ve heard and read absolutely screams mediocrity (the mind-numbing effect endurance of that equally short-lived – also only ten episodes — supernatural series “Damien” based upon the “Omen” franchise somehow springs to mind… eegads… do I really wanna do this?), my completists nature seems to be telling me I gotta do it…. so… gonna give it a go. Who knows? Maybe they somehow satisfactorily resolve the missing ‘overall arch’ that explains why our busy-body reporter keeps stumbling upon monsters each week. Not holding my breath though.

The Night Stalker (re-monikered Kolchak: The Night Stalker after the first 4 episodes) (1974-1975)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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