Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Night Stalker: Classic Kolchak

Science fiction, fantasy & horror aficionados all have their favorite films & television shows, and will discuss their merits and weaknesses for hours. During the 60s & 70s, many TV movies with “fantastic” themes were produced. You might remember films like Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark, Duel, Gargoyles, Salem’s Lot, and one of my favorites, The Night Stalker. Originally aired in 1972, the movie was produced by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Trilogy of Terror) and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. It stars Darren McGavin as down & out reporter Carl Kolchak, who is covering a series of murders in Las Vegas by a serial killer who seems to think he’s a vampire. Or is there more to the story? As Kolchak investigates the murders, he begins to suspect that the killer might actually be a vampire. Of course, the police don’t believe him, and Kolchak follows the killer’s trail, leading to a memorable confrontation. Barry Atwater is chilling as the vampiric Janos Skorzeny, infusing the role with menace and terror without a word of dialogue.

McGavin is excellent as the rumpled, acerbic Kolchak, who also narrates the story. His humorous confrontations with his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), and the various cops & city officials, are witty and well played. In fact, the mix of horror & humor on display here should be quite recognizable to fans of later films in the genre. The film was written by Richard Matheson, based on a then unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. Matheson also wrote some classic episodes of the original Twilight Zone series, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and many science-fiction & fantasy novels, such as the original I Am LegendWhen the film first aired, it garnered a remarkable audience: a 33.2 rating and a 54 share, becoming the highest rated telefilm up to that point, a record it held for some time afterward. The success of the movie led to a 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler, written by Matheson and produced & directed by Curtis. Kolchak faced another killer, this time in Seattle, an immortal menace portrayed by Richard Anderson, who's best remembered as Steve Austin's boss Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man.

During the 1974-75 season, ABC produced a weekly version entitled Kolchak: The Night Stalker, one of the scariest shows on TV at the time. It featured the intrepid reporter battling demons, mummies, werewolves, and other supernatural beings. I remember watching and being excited to see what creature of the night Kolchak would battle every week. I enjoyed the creepy atmosphere of the show, the humor, and most of all, McGavin as the cynical but determined reporter who never gave up. In battling the monsters, he also had to contend with the authorities, who either didn't believe him, or covered up the true facts. Many familiar faces, including Tom Skerritt, Cathy Lee Crosby, James Gregory, Keenan Wynn and Tom Bosley appeared on the series. The writers included David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, and Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale, the co-writers of Back To The Future. While the show only lasted one season, it has since become a cult classic, and is cited by Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, as a specific influence on that series. In fact, Carter wanted McGavin to portray an older Kolchak on the show, but for various reasons, it never came to pass. McGavin did appear in a couple of episodes as Arthur Dales, an older FBI agent who was “the father of the X-Files.”

Sadly, the original TV movies are now out of print (I own the double feature disc of The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler released by MGM a few years back) but the complete series is available for purchase on DVD. A short-lived remake of the show, starring Stuart Townsend, was produced in 2005 that had none of the flavor of the original. The character has also appeared in some prose fiction & graphic novels from Moonstone Press. Johnny Depp (who is currently starring as vampire Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton’s remake of Dark Shadows) has reportedly purchased the rights to the character, and plans a big-screen update. We’ll see where & when Carl Kolchak next faces off against the forces of darkness. Here's a link to a promo for the original TV movie:

From The Night Stalker (1972) :
Kolchak : (regarding the story he's just told): Judge for yourself its believability, and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn't happen here.

From The Night Strangler (1973)Kolchak's opening narration: This is the story behind the most incredible series of murders to ever occur in the city of Seattle, Washington. You never read about them in your local newspapers or heard about them on your local radio or television station. Why? Because the facts were watered down, torn apart, and reassembled... in a word, falsified. 

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