How Kolchak: The Night Stalker developed an early model for TV horror

How Kolchak: The Night Stalker developed an early model for TV horror

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows.

In the last couple of decades, supernatural horror has earned its place in the constellation of major genres represented in series television. Any list of the best and most influential TV series of the 1990s would have to include a straight-up monster show (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), a science-fiction series that fully embraced horror (The X-Files), and a murder-mystery soap with horrific imagery and supernatural elements (Twin Peaks). Their contemporary descendants include The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Supernatural, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, and, in the Twin Peaks mold, Hannibal—all critically acclaimed series (even if some of them have already seen their best days) with solid fan bases.

This marks a big change from the first 40 or so years of commercial television broadcasting, when horror was snobbishly scorned, or, at best, assumed to be unworkable for a dramatic series. People watched TV to be comforted and reassured, not shaken up. And how shaken could they be by monsters assembled on a series’ makeup budget that had to time their attacks to allow for regular commercial breaks? Networks sometimes took a chance on sci-fi shows, such as Star Trek or The Invaders, but outright horror was either confined to anthology series (Night Gallery, The Outer Limits) or treated as a joke (The Addams Family, The Munsters). One of the earliest exceptions was The Sixth Sense, a 1972 series starring Gary Collins as a parapsychologist detective. It says a lot about the networks’ respect for the genre that, after The Sixth Sense was canceled, its hour-long episodes were edited down to fit a half-hour time slot (including commercials) and repackaged in syndication as episodes of Night Gallery.

Two years after Collins saw his last ghost, Darren McGavin hit the ground running as Carl Kolchak, the Chicago-based reporter hero of a series that premiered as The Night Stalker. Kolchak is solidly in the classic pop culture mold of the lonely, wisecracking newspaperman who knows the ugly truth—in this case, that monsters walk our streets. He doesn’t set out to look for them, but in the course of investigating the stories he’s assigned, he usually finds them, either because he’s plugged into some kind of supernatural network, or because he remains receptive to the signs that are invisible to those who can’t handle the truth. The show ran for a little over six months, during which it endured a forced hiatus, a title change, schedule changes, general critical indifference, and jokes by Johnny Carson about how the series would have to close up shop, because it had run out of monsters. Although it stayed alive through reruns, in the end, it was resurrected and critically reappraised mostly because of its posthumous reputation as the show that Chris Carter credits for inspiring The X-Files.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker began as a Richard Matheson-penned adaptation of the unpublished novel The Kolchak Papers. Barry Diller, the ABC executive who had essentially invented the TV-movie form, reached out to Dan Curtis to produce—a logical choice, given the success of Curtis’ Gothic daytime soap Dark Shadows, which established his reputation as TV’s master of the macabre. Curtis, in turn, sought out McGavin, a gruff character actor who had starred in a couple of 1950s TV series that don’t get much play anymore: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Riverboat. As Kolchak, McGavin would play an old school, shoe leather newspaper reporter whose career stalled out due to his brashness and an inability to work or play well with others.

Kolchak is introduced as a brilliant loser, a talented reporter who has burned every bridge he’s set foot on and is dependent on his boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Fired from papers in Washington, Chicago, New York, and Boston, Kolchak is open to wild theories, reckless speculation, and confidential sources wearing tinfoil hats. But there’s no indication he’s ever been a believer in the supernatural. That changes when a man who looks like an evil Moe Howard arrives in Kolchak’s current stomping grounds of Las Vegas, leaving a trail of blood-drained corpses in his wake. Kolchak deduces that the killer is a 72-year-old Romanian vampire named Janos Skorzeny, but is unable to persuade the Las Vegas Police Department to issue crosses and wooden stakes to all its men. In the end, he kills the monster himself, but the powers that be are so freaked out they cover the whole thing up, threaten Kolchak with a charge of murder, and banish him and his girlfriend—a “night worker” in the film’s parlance—from the city.

Made for $450,000 on a short shooting schedule, The Night Stalker surprised everyone by pulling down a 54 share, making it the highest-rated made-for-TV movie up to that time. Curtis and Matheson immediately went to work on The Night Strangler, in which Kolchak, having relocated to Seattle, trails a 144-year-old alchemist who needs human blood for his rejuvenating potion. Both Matheson and William F. Nolan worked on the script for a third TV movie, but before it could be produced, ABC—then running so far behind the other networks in the ratings that they were in a “try anything” mode—decided to give Kolchak his own series. The network gamely produced a promotional spot for the new fall season in which a pair of burly construction workers talk about how they practically had to sleep with a light on after being scared by Kolchak’s latest adventure. (“That’s some pretty frightening stuff there, huh?”)

Curtis had no connection to the series itself; he turned down ABC’s offer to produce it, calling it “a bad idea,” and had already produced and directed a 1973 TV movie, The Norliss Tapes, about an investigative reporter who hunts vampires and, like Kolchak, narrates his adventures into a tape recorder. The Norliss Tapes actually was designed as a pilot for a possible series, and it was plainly an attempt to reshape the basic elements of The Night Stalker TV-movies in a way that would make the concept translate to a weekly format. It’s tempting to speculate that, had Curtis (or Matheson, who bailed out as soon as it became clear that Curtis wouldn’t be involved) been in charge of the series, they might have had some interesting ideas for how to keep the concept fresh. As it was, there really was no one strong personality behind the series, holding things together and trying to forge a consistent vision. (After some negotiations, the show carried a “Created by” credit to Jeff Rice, the fellow who got the ball rolling with that belatedly published novel.)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker set Kolchak and Vincenzo down in Chicago, as, reporter and chief editor for the Windy City bureau of the fictional Independent News Service. In the first episode, Kolchak chases down Jack The Ripper, who, it turns out, was an immortal figure who traveled from city to city, murdering women in clusters for more than a century. In the second episode, the enjoyably lurid and possibly borderline racist “The Zombie,” the hero discovers that an African-American woman who keeps live chickens handy in a backyard coop for ritual sacrifice has brought her dead son back from the grave and set him to work killing the gangsters who’d murdered him. The episode pits the voodoo practitioner and her monster against Italian-American gangsters, so it may be worth mentioning that David Chase’s name is on the script. But it seems just as likely that the producers were trying to take the perceived curse off the horror genre by leading with a couple of episodes that, if you dimmed the lights and squinted a little, might pass for weird takes on crime-show procedurals. (The voodoo priestess-versus-the Mafia angle had precedent in the 1974 blaxsploitation movie Sugar Hill.)

The show quickly settled into a formula. Kolchak launches an investigation into some murders or unusual events, takes shit from the cops and Vincenzo, identifies the monster responsible, and finds some expert who explains the one way to kill the fiend. Within the limits of that formula, some episodes of the show hold up a lot better than others. Although writing for network TV can be a notoriously complicated process—akin to a game of telephone in terms of getting a good, original idea on the air before it’s been completely wrecked and watered down—it may not be a coincidence that the best episodes of Kolchak tend to be those that started out as the work of people who can write their way around any obstacle. Robert Zemeckis and partner Bob Gale famously got their start in the business with the spec script, “Chopper”—a “rock ’n’ roll joke” about a headless motorcyclist—that was rewritten by Chase and Steve Fisher. Jimmy Sangster, who wrote some of Hammer Films’ best-remembered horror movies, is credited with the script for “Horror In The Heights,” about an elderly Jewish community preyed upon by a Hindu demon. Like most quality horror fiction, it derives its power from real-life terror, depicting a ghettoized class of senior citizens whose surroundings are so awful that people scarcely notice when something inhuman starts picking them off and munching on their flesh.

If anything beyond that formula holds the 20 episodes of The Night Stalker together, it’s McGavin as Kolchak. In a way, the character is very much of his time, a hero for the post-’60s era of conspiracy movies like The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor. It was also produced during a period characterized by Watergate and the real-life heroics of the reporter team that brought down a crooked president. “A reporter is paid to find out things, whether he wants to know them or not.” That’s how Kolchak defines his job, and it’s a line that would sound very strange coming from a reporter some years later—say, during the buildup to the second Iraq War.

But Kolchak is also a man out of his own time: No longer young, not smooth enough for TV talk shows, he’s a raffish, clownishly dressed character out of The Front Page. He even quotes the famous line by Chicago reporter Sherman Duffy, about how a reporter “socially… fits in somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually, he stands beside Galileo, because he knows the world is round.” McGavin’s great achievement is to play this guy so that he’s never self-pitying, even when witches are taunting him and Satan worshippers try to lure him over to their side. They can offer him power and riches and the respect of those in his profession, but Kolchak will have none of it. He knows the score; and that means more to him than anything the forces of darkness can offer in trade.

Kolchak is most clearly a role model for The X-Files’ Fox Mulder in the sci-fi-tinged episodes—“Mr. R.I.N.G.” and “Primal Scream,” about a robot and a missing link, respectively, in which Kolchak runs afoul of the federal government and the local police. One of these episodes opens with Kolchak having just returned from “a land of men with no faces and no names,” who go so far as to drug him in an effort to erase the memories he’s desperately spilling into his tape recorder. These episodes—and the UFO story “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be”—also break away from the usual formula in being more open-ended than the others; they don’t end with Kolchak himself vanquishing the menace. They also go about as far as expressing open distrust of the U. S. government as network TV would ever go in 1975.

Their endings make these episodes more X-Files-like—though looking at Kolchak now reinforces the things that Carter decided to do differently. Mulder may be a crank, but as a government employee he’s a crank with a relative degree of power and access, and he has youthful, romantic sex appeal, something that Kolchak—for all his heroic, truth-crusading charm—does not. The X-Files is a better show than Kolchak in many ways, but how much did David Duchovny’s looks, and his teasing, intimate rapport with Gillian Anderson have to do with making Mulder’s situation an easier sell for viewers? In the classic X-Files episode “Small Potatoes,” a schlub played by Darin Morgan chides Mulder for having chosen to be a loser. Kolchak didn’t have that choice.

How did McGavin feel about his best-known role (give or take A Christmas Story)? He turned Carter down when he asked him to reprise Kolchak on The X-Files. But he did agree to appear on the show as a different character, a retired FBI agent named Arthur Dales, described as “the father of the X-Files.” And McGavin himself freely took the blame for Kolchak: The Night Stalker ending with its 20th episode, “The Sentry.” The show, a low-rated series on a network that was doing so badly that it couldn’t afford to be picky, had been neither renewed nor canceled, but McGavin suddenly asked to be released from his contract, with a couple of completed scripts left unfilmed. (They were later adapted as comic books and published in 2002.)

It would be nice to think that, given a second season, the show could have ironed out its flaws, but watching “The Sentry”—in which there’s no effort made to use lighting or quick cuts to conceal the deficiencies of a subterranean lizard critter played by an actor on all fours—it seems clear that things were going in the other direction. “I hope they cancel this show as quickly as they can and get it out of their corporate, pinheaded minds,” McGavin told a reporter, shortly before deciding to risk a lawsuit by pulling the plug himself. “We started out with expectations of where we were going and what we were going to do,” only to be undercut by “a huge pool of mediocrity that I’m trying to extricate from.” Sounding more and more like Kolchak, he added, “It’s not the bosses. It’s the system. It’s group decisions… It’s the structure. That, and a certain amount of contempt for the audience.” Yet, watching McGavin, in the last episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, gamely using a handmade torch to do battle with a guy in a full-body frog suit, it’s evident that the man’s picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of “trouper.”

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Weirdo.

Next time: Julianna Margulies in a legal drama? Just over a year before The Good Wife came Canterbury’s Law.