Kolchak: The Night Stalker — tying it all together

A train on the Chicago El clatters past the windows of the Independent News Service (INS). Within, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is having his millionth stand-up row with his boss, agency manager Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Their problem is that the two men have entirely different worldviews: Kolchak will follow a story to wherever it might lead him, even if he discovers that at its heart lie ghosties or ghoulies or, anyway, something that goes bump in the night. Vincenzo, more pragmatic, just wants some usable copy he can file to head office.

The pair are old adversaries. They met in Las Vegas in The Night Stalker (1972), where Kolchak managed to settle the hash of a vampiric serial killer. Next time their paths crossed was in Seattle, in The Night Strangler (1973), where this time it was a seeker after the elixir of life whose murderous exploits had to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Needless to say, in both instances Kolchak had the adventures and the girl while Vincenzo had the office job and the (apparent) security.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak.

As often happens between old adversaries, they’re in a sense the best of friends. But at the same time they really, really can’t stand each other:

Kolchak: “What don’t you like about this hat?”
Vincenzo: “What’s under it.”
(from #7 “The Devil’s Platform”)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker first aired on ABC in 1974–5, which was fine for US viewers but not so very much use for me, because I lived in the UK at the time. It’s possible that either the BBC or ITV aired it over there soon after its ABC appearance, but my guess is they didn’t. I first became aware of the series in the early to mid-1990s, when it was my job to write a brief entry on each of the two TV movies for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), which I edited with John Clute; the even briefer entry on the series itself was passed along to our TV specialist, Bill Cotter.

So I was surprised to discover, on blitzing through the twenty episodes of the series more recently for the purposes of this countdown, that at some stage I’d watched them before—if not all, then at least most of them.

Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo.

The Kolchak/Vincenzo dynamic is a constant of the series. The series tried hard to build up similarly adversarial relationships for Kolchak with milksop fellow-reporter Ron “Uptight” Updyke (Jack Grinnage) and Monique Marmelstein (Carol Ann Susi), an intern of staggering incompetence employed by Vincenzo because her uncle’s one of the INS’s top management.

“Uptight,” who’s present in almost all the episodes, is merely an irritant for Kolchak, too slight a character to be anything more than verbose office furniture. Monique, on the other hand, represents a challenge to our hero . . . the challenge of how to get her out of his thinning hair whenever events start heating up. The character lasted just three episodes: #2, #3 and #6. (Rather confusingly, she was pitched from the INS at the end of #3 but then reappeared without comment for #6. We have to assume the episodes were aired out of order.)

Jack Grinnage as Ron Updyke.

Carol Ann Susi as Monique Marmelstein.

A further regular character was the elderly Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt); just to confuse matters, (a) “Miss Emily” is sometimes credited as Edith Cowles and (b) McDevitt’s first appearance in the series, in #1, was as a quite unrelated character, an elderly witness to a crime. “Miss Emily,” who sets the puzzles that the agency syndicates to its clients, eagerly aids Kolchak in his various subversive activities, because he’s a nice boy whom someone should take proper care of.

Ruth McDevitt as Miss Emily.

The episodes by and large follow a single format. There’s a murder or series of murders; sometimes an inexplicable disappearance instead. Vincenzo doesn’t think there’s much of a story there; Kolchak’s grizzled old crime-reporterly instincts lead him to think otherwise. There’s at least one knockout beautiful woman involved. The cop in charge of the case is hostile to Kolchak’s interference, but the journalist persists nonetheless—and discovers that the perpetrator of the atrocities is a witch, a werewolf, a ghost, a reincarnated Aztec demigod, a nigh-immortal Jack the Ripper, a visiting extraterrestrial . . . but never, never, never yer average Joe Schmoe human sociopath.

The solution to each case is thus a mindblowing revelation, and would hugely expand humanity’s view of the universe’s fundamental reality if ever it became widely known, but Vincenzo doesn’t believe it and spikes the story and/r the authorities anyway clamp down on it, so the world never learns of it. This reversal does nothing, however, to dampen Kolchak’s world-weary resolution when the next case comes along . . .

From this brief description of the formula, it’s obvious Kolchak: The Night Stalker can be seen as, so to speak, a dry run for the far more successful and better-developed series The X-Files (nine seasons 1993–2002, spinoff tenth and eleventh seasons 2016 and 2018). Chris Carter, the later series’ creator, acknowledged this, and indeed wanted McGavin to appear in The X-Files on a semi-regular basis as an elderly Kolchak. McGavin declined, though he did accept another occasional role, that of Arthur Dales, the supposed progenitor of the titular files.

For a series that has earned such a measure of cult fame, Kolchak: The Night Stalker had a surprisingly brief original run: just a single season of twenty episodes. (The episodes were aired at somewhat random intervals/times, too, which cannot have helped ratings.) A number of further episodes made it to varying stages of production but were left unfinished. Two of these—“Eye of Terror” and “The Get of Belial”—were later adapted as graphic novels by Moonstone Books, as has been the screenplay for a third Kolchak TV movie, developed but, again, never produced: The Night Killers, set in Hawaii, in which invading aliens, Body Snatcher-style, murder important personages and replace them with androids. (You can find the relevant page of the Moonstone Books site here.) Richard Matheson’s screenplay for The Night Killers has appeared from Gauntlet Press alongside those of the two earlier movies.

Two movies were produced by cobbling together episodes of the TV series:

  • Kolchak: Crackle of Death (1974 TVM), combining #6 “Firefall” and #10 “The Energy Eater,” and
  • Kolchak: The Demon and the Mummy (1975 TVM), combining #16 “Demon in Lace” and #17 “Legacy of Terror.”

In Kolchak’s concluding monologue for #20, “The Sentry,” there’s a sense of futility, as if McGavin were acknowledging that this was the end of the line, that the formula had delivered as much as could have been expected from it and indeed rather more: “Don’t walk, run to the nearest exit,” are his final words to us. The rumpled, rebarbative investigative reporter would be absent from our screens—aside from reruns, of course—for another thirty years or so, until the short-lived 2005 series Night Stalker attempted to breathe a new lease of life into him.

That series would, alas, be something of an audience disaster; it was pulled after just six episodes had been aired of the ten that were made. (All ten are available on DVD.) Yet again the Kolchak saga has reached its finish, dying with a whimper rather than a bang.

Or has it?????

As Carl Kolchak would be the first to remind you, death is not necessarily the end . . .

++++++

When Sam Juliano, the genial host of Wonders in the Dark, asked me if I’d like to contribute a piece on Kolchak to the ongoing television countdown he’s running at that site, my first instinct was to say no. I’d already, after all, said no to the idea of contributing to the countdown at all, since I’m even less informed about TV than I am about most other things. However, Sam knew how to lure me: Offer me the chance to write about Kolchak. Sure enough, the prospect of revisiting this classic series proved just too tempting to pass up.

And, me being me, and thanks to a publisher pissing me around so that I had a bit of free time where I didn’t expect any, I went a trifle over the top. I soon realized I was producing far, far too much stuff for one of Sam’s countdown entries. I decided accordingly to put my accounts of the two Kolchak movies, the twenty Kolchak episodes and the two Kolchak novels as a sort of archive here on Noirish site, whose owner would be in no position to beef about all the space I was hogging.

Those individual discussions have been appearing here over recent weeks. For reference, the links are as follows:

The Movies

The Night Stalker (1972 TVM)
The Night Strangler (1973 TVM)

The Series Episodes

#1–#4
#5–#8
#9–#12
#13-#16
#17-#20

The Novels

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1973) by Jeff Rice
Kolchak: The Night Strangler (1974) by Jeff Rice, based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson

I was hoping to find the time to watch and report on the Night Stalker TV series as well, but then the publisher, breaking with centuries of professional tradition, stopped pissing me around, and since then things have been a bit harum scarum as I try to finish the book in question by what’s now a very tight deadline. Maybe one day . . .

++++++

The above is adapted from my piece on Kolchak: The Night Stalker that appeared on June 13 as #113 on the Wonders in the Dark TV Countdown. All those 13s: auspicious, eh? If you’d like to see the piece in context or, more to the point, to explore the score of stupendous essays that have been and still are appearing there on other seminal TV series, click THIS LINK.

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4 thoughts on “Kolchak: The Night Stalker — tying it all together

  1. I might be tempted to give the books or the films a whirl if I ever cross paths with them. TBH, it’s not a series I have fond memories of from growing up, unlike say Ironside or The Rockford Files. I don’t think my parents watched so I never either.

  2. A great collection of essays about a significant bit of TV history! I know I watched the show as much as I could, but I only remember bits of four of the episodes. I’ll have to track them down for a re-watch.

    The less said about “The Norliss Tapes”, a pilot for an attempted knock-off series, the better…..

    • Thanks for the kind words, Richard!

      I haven’t come across The Norliss Tapes, but thanks for the tip! If it’s as bad as you imply, I really must dig it out . . .

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