It was January 11, 1972. A made-for-TV movie debuted on ABC that would turn out to be the highest rated to date. This movie was The Night Stalker and it was America’s introduction to the quirky, persistent reporter, Carl Kolchak. I can’t think of actor Darren McGavin without picturing his portrayal of Kolchak and the various monsters of the week he was pitted against.
To get an idea of what this franchise is about, in case you aren’t familiar, let me give you a quick synopsis of The Night Stalker. The film begins with Kolchak at a hotel speaking into a recorder as he dictates a novel he is writing. He tells the audience about his recent shocking and life-changing experience. In Las Vegas, he became privy to a string of gruesome murders where the victims had been drained of blood. As Kolchak became more engrossed in the case, he believed the killer to be a vampire. He does manage to convince the authorities in the supernatural element, but the killer proves too elusive. Eventually it is Kolchak himself who disposes of the fiend.
The film contains many dark, seedy nighttime shots and such staples as your typical ’70s car sequences. The superhuman strength of the antagonist is occasionally shown and his spooky, almost animalistic demeanor is a bonus as a truly fear-inducing vampire. Actor Barry Atwater receives a well-deserved nod and a tip of the straw hat for his chilling vampire performance. In the end, Kolchak was duped, as becomes the norm later in the television series. His newspaper story had been changed, he was being threatened with charges of murder and, finally, he was run out of town. The final scene shows Kolchak back in the hotel as he finishes the book.
The Night Stalker was based on The Kolchak Papers, a then unpublished novel by author Jeff Rice. Producer Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame jumped on board and the script was adapted by Richard Matheson, the horror and science fiction author who not only wrote episodes of the iconic television show The Twilight Zone, but is also well-known for his works such as I Am Legend, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, and more. The movie was such a success and the ratings so high that a sequel was ordered. On January 16, 1973, The Night Strangler aired on ABC, cementing Kolchak and his paranormal antics firmly on the radar and leading to an eventual cult status.
After the success of the two made-for-TV movies, ABC decided to forego another movie and ordered a weekly television show instead. Titled Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the show kept up the main premise, putting Kolchak in Chicago this go-around and giving the audience different monsters every week. Kolchak went up against aliens, ghosts, doppelgangers, werewolves, and other creepy monstrosities. As the series continued, it began to see declining numbers due in part to the bad time slot it was given. Add to this that McGavin became disgruntled with the writing and wanted out of his contract early, and the fate of the show was decided. It was not renewed.
I watched Kolchak: The Night Stalker in reruns many years later and was instantly hooked. McGavin’s presence was just the right amount of goofy and steely determination to point and click his camera right in every ugly monster’s face he came across. And when he proudly presented his proof to his moody editor and the local police, he would find out that the evidence had been destroyed and no one believed him. The murder and monster a week format teamed with the bumbling reporter who, in every episode, would come so very close to showing the world that monsters were in fact real, was creative and entertaining for both horror and mystery fans of many ages. This show would go on to inspire popular and successful television series such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The show was revamped and televised by ABC in 2005. They slapped the name Night Stalker on it, hired a popular, gorgeous actor named Stuart Townsend to play Kolchak and gave him a beautiful sidekick by way of Gabrielle Union. This flopped big time, lasting only a few months before being cancelled. Kolchak’s looks weren’t supposed to surpass his passion for the truth, and no matter how talented Townsend was, he simply couldn’t pull off what McGavin had achieved so many years before.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first television movie. Since it debuted, there have been books, comics, graphic novels, and audiobooks produced allowing Kolchak to live on. The television movies and the entire TV series have been released on DVD. You can also watch the series streaming on Netflix. My fangirl self would love to see the movies and series with awesome never-before-seen footage or a well done documentary on one mega DVD, but we can all dream, can’t we?
If you haven’t watched this one before, I encourage you to give it a try. For a couple of made-for-TV movies and a short-lived series, it carries quite an impressive legacy that will easily stand for forty more years.
Amber Keller is a writer who delves into dark, speculative fiction, particularly horror and suspense/thrillers. You can find her work on her Amazon Author Page and she also features many short stories on Diary of a Writer. A member of the Horror Writers Association, she contributes to many websites and eMagazines and you can follow her on Twitter at @akeller9.