Number 14: Kolchak: The Night Stalker
Carl Kolchak is a hard-nosed investigative reporter for the Chicago chapter of the International News Service. With his trusty yellow Mustang convertible, cassette Dictaphone and camera, he forges a career solving mysterious and unexplained crimes often ignored by law enforcement. The supernatural nature of the cases he works, coupled with an absence of concrete evidence at their conclusion, frequently leaves him at odds with his editor and the local police.
The series itself was preceded by two made-for-TV movies – ‘The Night Stalker’ in 1972, in which Kolchak investigates a series of serial slayings in Las Vegas, and ‘The Night Strangler’ in 1973, which followed a similar plot. Originally based on an unpublished novel, ‘The Kolchak Papers’, written by Jeff Rice in 1944 and with a script written by Richard Matheson, both movies were a huge success garnering huge ratings and a large fanbase. When its American network ABC was pitched a third movie, they opted instead for a series based around the character, with a different investigation each week. The show ran afoul of original author Rice however by not attaining the required permissions and was sued; the suit was ultimately resolved shortly before the series’ premiere with the author receiving rightful billing as the show’s creator.
To help with continuity the show hired Darren McGavin to reprise his role as Carl Kolchak from the original movies and, in doing so, helped to solidify the character as iconic. An instantly recognisable, abrasive, no-nonsense, gumshoe reporter in the hard-boiled tradition, Kolchak acts as both the narrative and emotional centre of the show. Despite the often fantastical nature of his investigations, he remains grounded; the resolution is achieved through his hard work and intelligence, and the solutions are always logical within the context of the show. Also returning from the movies is Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo, Kolchak’s editor with whom there are frequent clashes. Very much in the vein of J. Jonah Jameson, Vincenzo is perpetually angry but, despite of their frequent disagreements, has respect for Kolchak’s investigative skill. It is this central relationship that gives the show a wide streak of genuine, if unexpected, humour as the impassable Kolchak’s frustrating doggedness pushes Vincenzo to escalating rage often, as he repeatedly says, at the expense of his blood pressure and digestion. The recurring cast is rounded out by: Jack Grinnage’s Ron Updyke, the polar opposite of Kolchak and his main rival; Carol Ann Susi’s Monique Marmelstein, a deceptively intelligent intern at the Independent News Service; and Emily Cowles, played by Ruth McDevitt, who, as the resident puzzle and advice columnist serves the dual roles of friend to Kolchak and sounding board for some of his more controversial ideas. The show was also notable for early roles for many well-known faces in its weekly episodes, and the eagle-eyed viewer will spot Richard Kiel, Phil Silvers, Tom Skerritt, John Marley, Hans Conried, Jackie Mason, Scatman Crothers and Erik Estrada, amongst others; the series also has the honour of being the first ever writing credit for the legendary Robert Zemeckis.
After a difficult birth, ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ was not the ratings success that ABC had anticipated and, despite being ordered to full season of twenty-six episodes, the show was cancelled after only twenty had gone to air. In many ways, it was not helped by the network itself who, despite marketing the show heavily to a younger demographic, broadcast the show in the 10pm late evening graveyard slot; in an era when television habits were substantially different, this was effectively the kiss of death for any show. When the ratings were mediocre at best, the decision was made to move the show to the more sociable 8pm Friday evening primetime slot; however, ratings did not improve. Show star McGavin had also become increasingly disillusioned with both the filming schedule, which he openly described as unreasonable, and with the show’s episodic nature. When ultimately he asked to be released from his contract early the network agreed and ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ was brought to a premature end. The show was briefly resurrected in 2005 with the Stuart Townsend vehicle ‘Night Stalker’ show; commissioned by ABC which held only the rights to the Kolchak movies and not the television show, it introduced an unnecessary mythology and a premise that the character himself was somehow supernatural. Unwisely put up against CSI, the show achieved very low ratings and was cancelled after six of the season’s ten episodes had been aired. Both shows are now widely available on VOD and home media complete with missing episodes restored although there is little to recommend its more modern iteration; derivative and nonsensical, it is a pale shadow of its forefather.
Despite its relative age and ignominious cancellation, ‘Kolchak’ rightfully deserves a place on this list. Whilst many of the show’s special effects do not stand up to modern assessment, even if they do have a certain ‘Dr Who’ fake-looking-but-fun vibe, the tales themselves are entertaining and creative. The central conceit is rather passé to the modern eye too, but it is difficult to overestimate the influence that the show had on many of the biggest TV hits of the recent era, most notably on Chris Carter’s all-conquering ‘The X Files’. Lifting directly the ‘monster-of-the-week’ mechanic and transplanting the dynamics of the relationships Kolchak has with his colleagues to Scully, Skinner and even The Lone Gunmen, there is no doubt the two shows are intertwined; Carter himself has, in many interviews, paid tribute to the show and its legacy. In fact, it is easy to draw clear lines between Kolchak and almost all of the episodic, supernatural-themed shows that followed, and for that alone it deserves recognition on this list. Add in the fact that it is also well written, has entertaining central performances, and is genuinely creative and funny, ‘Kolchak: The Night Stalker’ is a show that any horror fan should check out.