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Home > TV > Scary Stuff, Part 2: Kolchak The Night Stalker

Scary Stuff, Part 2: Kolchak The Night Stalker

October 26th, 2005

Yesterday evening, I indulged in another early Halloween screening: the first episode of the short-lived 1974 TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Darren McGavin (aka “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story) starred as Carl Kolchak, a perpetually rumpled and derided journalist hunting monsters in the dark streets of Chicago. It was the inspiration for many later series, most notably The X-Files.

Kolchak first appeared in the 1972 made-for-TV movie titled The Night Stalker, written by horror maestro Richard Matheson. The title actually referred to a vampire, Janos Skorzeny, who terrorized Las Vegas. The movie scored record-high ratings, so it was no surprise that next year Kolchak went in pursuit of an immortal alchemist in The Night Strangler. (What was a surprise was that both Kolchak and his suffering boss, Simon Oakland’s Tony Vincenzo, had inexplicably been relocated to Seattle. They had moved once again–this time to the Windy City–by the time of the weekly series.)

A weekly series followed, but it made little impact in a Friday night timeslot and was dropped after a mere 20 episodes. It made quite an impact on me, however. I was 10 years old at the time, and I recall “watching” it from the other room, where I could hear but not see the monsters. It wasn’t until many years later, when the series was repeated in CBS’ pre-Letterman late-night lineup, that I finally got the picture.

Kolchak is very much a ’70s show, and it isn’t particularly scary by modern standards, but it makes up for its watered-down chills with a macabre wit and excellent performances by McGavin and Oakland. Carl’s frequent voice-overs keep the proceedings entertaining and “sell” the monsters.

The first series episode was “The Ripper,” which–oddly enough–was about a bloke named Jack carving up prostitutes with a sword cane. Kolchak realized that he wasn’t merely a copycat Ripper, but the original. No explanation was given for his longevity or apparent supernatural strength and invulnerability (Jack was immune to all but electricity), but that’s okay: monsters lose much of their power once they’re catalogued. The director wisely kept Jack’s face obscured until the very last moments of his appearance, a restraint that I wish more filmmakers followed.

A couple of things surprised me while rewatching the episode last night. Kolchak met a fellow journalist, a tabloid reporter played by Beatrice Colen, who was “Etta Candy” on Wonder Woman. (She was uncharitably described as “fat,” despite being perhaps 10-20 pounds overweight.) She’s something of a kindred spirit for Carl, and it seemed that once she agreed to meet Jack for an interview, the stage was being set for Kolchak to come to the rescue. Nope; poor, chubby Beatrice was unceremoniously killed between scenes, Carl stumbling over her corpse in his mad dash from the fiend.

The second surprise was the long build-up to the final confrontation: literally ten minutes passed without a single line of dialogue (aside from Carl’s cry of terror) as Kolchak staked out Jack digs and prepared an electrifying trap. That sort of suspense is all but unknown in this day of frequent commercial breaks.

I hope to spin a few more Night Stalker episodes this week. Good to see you again, Carl.

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