Thursday, July 21, 2016

Kolchak: The Night Stalker

He was a jaded, sarcastic reporter who was looking at a career as a newspaperman that was in serious decline. He had an abrasive attitude- complaining about a myriad of things and butting heads with anyone who disagreed with him -that would probably grate on anyone who had to spend time with him on a regular basis. Yet, somehow, likely due in large part to Darren McGavin’s portrayal of the character, he’s one of the most beloved characters from television’s history for a huge number of genre fans.

"I promised I'd show up with a haircut, a new hat, and pressed suit... but I lie a lot."

Carl Kolchak was a character introduced to the world in two television movies (originally set to be three) and a short lived TV series following the adventures of a newspaper reporter who was seeing the signs of his career reaching a definitive dead end. As played by Darren McGavin he was a rumpled everyman. As heroes go he was less than impressive looking. He wasn’t the biggest, the most square jawed, the most athletic, or even sometimes the one who seemed the bravest. He was forever butting heads with his editor, Tony Vincenzo, played by Simon Oakland, and many of his various coworkers. He could also be enough of a pain in the backside for local law enforcement that he seemed to push several members of the higher ranks towards therapy and/or retirement. Then the story of a lifetime dropped into his lap- a vampire terrorizing Las Vegas.  

The Night Stalker was a 1972 TV movie written by Richard Matheson and Max Hodge and based on a then unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. The novel would eventually be published after the success of the movie. It was directed by John Llewellyn Moxey and produced by Dark Shadow’s legend Dan Curtis. When it aired on ABC it received the highest ratings of any television movie of its time.

The plot was fairly simple and straightforward. Kolchak is looking into an unusual death when he chooses to follow a lead from his trusty police scanner and arrives on the scene of a murder. The police have already arrived and closed the crime scene off, but it’s easy enough to see. A woman’s body is lying out in an open stretch of sand. It’s here that Kolchak notices the first sign of something unusual. There are no footprints leading to or from the body. It was as if she was thrown the distance and landed where she now lay. His questions about the increasingly unusual nature of this murder and the murders to follow do not endear him to the local police; not that he was popular with them to begin with.

"Captain Leo Winwood and I had a relationship that was long and bloody; like the Crusades, only without the chivalry."

With each new murder and the revelations around the deaths the secret behind the identity of the killer becomes more and more apparent to Kolchak thanks to the help of his girlfriend. He has determined that the killer is a vampire. Of course, no one else believes him; least of all his editor. But as events unfold it becomes clear to at least the police that they’re facing something they’ve never seen before and may not be able to stop. This leads to the inevitable confrontation between Kolchak and the vampire. It also leads to Kolchak learning that there are far worse things that can happen to him than merely the bite of a vampire.

"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."

Kolchak would return to face the supernatural and to see ratings success in 1973’s The Night Strangler. The TV movie was produced and directed by Curtis with a story by Matheson. In the second film Kolchak, having now landed a new newspaper gig in Seattle, finds himself facing a serial killer. It should be an easy, normal story to cover until he begins to discover that this killer has had a habit of returning for a series of killings every few decades over the century. The hunt for the truth leads him into danger both in the streets as well as below the ground in a very fictionalized version of the Seattle Underground City.

At this point the two movies were a sensation. Kolchak was a ratings winner and the character was a watercooler favorite. McGavin played the character in a way that made him a joy to watch even when you might have sympathized more with the people who wanted to slug him. The character was written with a quick, dryly sarcastic, biting and insulting wit that McGavin turned into a charmingly delivered black humor. McGavin himself also helped with the character’s popularity just by being who he was as an actor. Kolchak, as I said earlier, wasn’t your typical hero. He really was an everyman. He could have his less than brave and heroic moments without seeming lesser for it, and it in fact made his finer moments seem all the better in contrast. He played the character in a manner that made him feel far more real than many other characters along the same lines as Kolchak, and it made you want to root for him all the more.

The problem was that it made ABC execs just want to root for more. In this case, it was more than the people behind it wanted to give. Curtis had been preparing to do a third film in the trilogy with a script by Matheson and William F. Nolan. ABC wanted a weekly series that would bring in anything close to the ratings and buzz of the movies. By the end of the negotiations to determine who would get what they wanted, Curtis and Matheson were gone, McGavin agreed to stay on as the character, and ABC announced the series premiere date.

The series, titled Kolchak: The Night Stalker, was not the success the original two movies were. The writing on the series delivered more than a few moments of solid, enjoyable horror in its timeslot, but the quality also dipped badly in some episodes. But even the best moments of the series didn’t seem quite as good as the original films.

"Sherman Duffy of the New York Herald once said, 'A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth. Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo because he knows the world is round.' Not that it matters much when his editor knows it's flat."

One way the series suffered was in how the unbelievable was handled and how everyone reacted to it. With the movies you had Kolchak encountering the supernatural once every blue moon and in different cities. With a series you had him encountering the supernatural every week in the same city. This not only strained the “realism” of a series supposedly set in the real world, but it seemingly turned everyone in the city other than Kolchak into morons. He was now in a major city that seemed to be overrun with the supernatural and the paranormal, yet he seemed to be the only one who ever ran into it (and lived) and no one else ever believed any of it but him.

But there was still one consistent point of quality on the show, and that was Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak. Actually, there were two points of consistent quality. Simon Oakland also stayed on as Vincenzo, and the two of them had some great chemistry together. But McGavin alone or teamed with Oakland wasn’t enough to save the series, and it was cancelled before running a full season.

"Rumor has it that the day Anthony Albert Vincenzo was born, his father left town. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it. The only point I wonder about is why his mother didn't leave too."

The series would eventually find new life in syndication. It also acquired a larger following and greater appreciation over the years. Many more people were able find the episodes that were gems and simply tune in and enjoy those when they rotated through the syndication cycle. The character of Kolchak as brought to life by McGavin also became far more popular with far more viewers. Eventually, as has been told many times by the creative powers that be behind the later series, it would be the largest single source of inspiration for another genre favorite, The X-Files.

Chris Carter has stated any number of times now that the series was a huge influence and inspiration for him. He even brought Darren McGavin in as a very Kolchak-like retired FBI agent who used to run into the types of cases that his modern counterparts ran into on a weekly basis. There was even a very visual nod to Kolchak thrown into the 2016 revival of The X-Files.

In 2005 some of the people behind The X-Files tried to do a modern update of Kolchak. It failed miserably. The one thing that the series needed most, the heart of the series, was missing. In order to be done right, Kolchak has to be a rumpled, sarcastic, quick-witted everyman, and the modern take on the character was anything but. The series also played it too X-Files slick rather than dirty, grimy, get through the day city.

The original Kolchak, the two movies in particular, was filled with great character writing. Aspects of it owed as much to noir detective materials as it did the then modern mysteries and horrors. The stories and plots- at least the good ones -were fun, involving, and utterly engrossing. If you ever liked the X-Files or anything like it and you’ve never seen any of the original Kolchak stories, this is a series you need to track down on DVD. But get the movies first. The two films can typically be found as a double feature DVD and either of the two films alone is worth twice the price the DVD retails for. Although, at this point, the most recent releases have gone out of print and you’re going to have to aim for buying used.

"They booked me for murder just like I thought they would, but then after 12 hours they let me go. They never said why, but while I was sitting in Lt. Matteo's office waiting for execution I happen to see a coroner's report on Catherine Rawlins. I quote the coroner- "The tissue structure of the individual appeared to be that of a female species human who had been dead at least three years. This is a medical conundrum for which I have no explanation." Three years..."

Jerry Chandler is getting ready for Dragon Con. No, seriously, that’s all he’s doing. Ever gotten ready for Dragon Con? This close to con it’s all you have time to do.

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