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Years before Mulder and Scully of X-files devoted their time to investigate strange happenings around the world there was another show that dealt with the investigation of paranormal or alien phenomena. This show was 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker' and although quite short-lived it has in later years become a cult favourite.
The TV series was made after the success of a TV movie 'Night Stalker' (1972), which at the time received a record US TV audience of 75million. A sequel 'The Night Strangler' (1973) was also very successful. The movie was adapted from an unpublished novel 'The Kolchak Papers' written by Jeff Rice. In the novel the author combined the sci-fi genre with the traditional horror story all wrapped up in the popular paranoia of the political cover-up. The series as the TV movie before it combined these elements and centred the action on hard-nosed but down on his luck reporter Kolchak brilliantly played by actor Darren McGavin.
The TV film was only made when the story got to into the hands of Richard Matheson a renowned writer of Sci-fi horror, he had previously written 'I Am Legend', episodes for the 'Twilight Zone', and had adapted stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Dennis Wheatley for Roger Corman and Hammer films respectively. Matheson's intelligent script built upon the elements that Rice had put in place and created a likeable rogue character involved in high paced exciting adventures just right for television. After the success of the first TV movie Matheson also wrote the sequel this time produced by the star of the show Darren McGavin's own production company. The TV series in 1974 soon followed but without Matheson on board.
The TV series picked up after the second film and moved location from Seattle to Chicago. Carl Kolchak a middle-aged small-time newspaper reporter for Chicago's Independent News Service is a one man crusade concentrated on uncovering the truth behind stories involving paranormal. In his investigations he frequently came across supernatural creatures including vampires, werewolves zombies, spontaneous combustion, devil dogs, headless bikers, Jack the Ripper, and invisible aliens. Despite his best efforts Kolchak never quite managed to gather the evidence he needed to convince his sceptical editor Tony Vincenzo and thus was usually dismissed as an oddball who possessed a vivid imagination. On the odd occasion where the authorities were witness to these supernatural occurrences the news was covered up as a kneejerk bureaucratic response and to protect the all important tourist trade of the city. In the end Kolchak was never able to print his story.
Unlike Mulder and Skully, Kolchak could not draw upon the resources of the FBI to investigate his cases but rather relied on his skills as a reporter an unhealthy contempt for his own safety and a large slice of luck in every episode. Part of the charm of the series is Kolchak relationship with his editor the long suffering Tony Vincenzo played perfectly by Simon Oakland. This was a love hate affair, Vincenzo constantly exasperated by Kolchak disregard for the tenets of 'responsible' journalism and his constant antagonism of the local authorities but at the same time he could see that Kolchak despite all this was a brilliant crime reporter. The exchanges between the two often provided the comic relief in each show and generally despite the darker themes of each story the atmosphere of the shows was usually up beat.
The series ran for twenty one-hour episodes and all are included in the box set some of which have never been shown on British television.
The episodes are as follows:
01 "The Ripper" September 13, 1974
02 "The Zombie" September 20, 1974
03 "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be..." September 27, 1974
04 "The Vampire" October 4, 1974
05 "The Werewolf" November 1, 1974
06 "Firefall" November 8, 1974
07 "The Devil's Platform" November 15, 1974
08 "Bad Medicine" November 29, 1974
09 "The Spanish Moss Murders" December 6, 1974
10 "The Energy Eater" December 13, 1974
11 "Horror In The Heights" December 20, 1974
12 "Mr. R.I.N.G." January 10, 1975
13 "Primal Scream" January 17, 1975
14 "The Trevi Collection" January 24, 1975
15 "Chopper" January 31, 1975
16 "Demon In Lace" February 7, 1975
17 "Legacy of Terror" February 14, 1975
18 "The Knightly Murders" March 7, 1975
19 "The Youth Killer" March 14, 1975
20 "The Sentry" March 28, 1975
Although the series never quite reaches the imaginative heights of the films partly because of the time constraints of the TV format to properly develop a story and the lack of Matheson influence in the writing, The character of Kolchak subtly changed his world weary demeanour of the TV films gave way to the more wisecracking on in the TV series despite this the episodes are still overall very good. The episodes do of course vary in quality. I would say the strongest are 'The Ripper', 'The Vampire' which is actually a direct sequel to the TV movie, 'Primal Scream' and 'The Devil's Platform'. 'The Vampire' in particular has got some quite scary imagery. This is not to say that the rest of the episodes are bad even the weakest of the series which I would say 'The Sentry', 'Chopper', 'They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be...' and 'The Werewolf' are still great fun to watch even though sometimes the special effects and monster make-up get quite ropy. The plot of 'The Werewolf' is quite inventive setting the story on ocean liner, a neat twist to the usual full moon yarn.
The series also featured some unlikely guest stars on episodes in particular 'Horror in the Heights' a tale of shape shifting entities stands out for featuring Phil Silvers (better known as Sgt. Bilko) with a script written by Hammer studios veteran Jimmy Sangster. Other notable guest stars included Antonio Fargas (aka Huggy Bear) in the zombie episode, Tom Skerritt, Richard Kiel (Jaws from the Bond films), William Smith, George Savalas, Jamie Farr (from M*A*S*H) along with many others. David Chase who later went on to write 'The Sopranos' wrote eight episodes and acted as overall story consultant for the series, while the music on many episodes was provided by film composer Jerry Fielding.
In common with the TV movies the stories in the series all feature a voiceover by Kolchak setting the scenes for each story in the style of the old film noir detectives, it's a nice touch.
Most of the episodes has the common theme that thing were never quite as they seemed and Kolchak lived by the first rule of conspiracy theorist 'trust no one!' clearly something that would later thrive in X-files.
In the end the series ran its natural course with Kolchak simply running out of monsters to discover. Unlike X -files which as well as the week to week battles with monster had underlying conspiracy story involving many other characters Kolchak was a lot more simple in its story arc and was really a one man show despite the regular supporting characters that appeared every week. Eventually McGavin himself who was the show's producer cancelled it partly because he saw that the series was running out of ideas and partly due to a law suit submitted by the original author Jeff Rice against ABC for producing the series without his permission even though he does get a name check in all the credits. There were six unmade episodes still to be filmed when the run was cancelled but there had been no plans to make another series. It has to be said that most of the episodes were rather formulaic and in most cases it was a question of good versus evil with little doubt which was which inevitably ending with Kolchak on his own saving the day but with little thanks or evidence to put in a story to show for it. There were signs towards the end of the run that some of the storylines were becoming more sophisticated, in 'The Sentry' for instance the 'monster' is humanised to an extend so that while not sympathising with its actions we can at least understand its motives.
The legacy of this series is a strong one although it has seldom been repeated on British TV. Chris Carte creator of X-files has acknowledged that Kolchak was a greater influence on X-files than the more popular 'Outer Limits' or 'Twilight Zone'. Carter was always keen to pay tribute to the show and throughout the X-files series he placed little clues. For instance a character called Richard Matheson appeared in more than one episode and he even wanted McGavin to reprise his role as Kolchak in X-files. Although McGavin refused he did later appear in several episodes as retired FBI agent Arthur Dales described as the "father of the X-files". More recently the comic book character 'Karl Vincent: Vampire Hunter' is also based on Kolchak.
CAST & TECH DETAILS
Darren McGavin....Carl Kolchak
Simon Oakland....Tony Vincenzo
Jack Grinnage.... Ron Updyke
Ruth McDevitt.... Emily Cowles
John Fiedler.... Gordy Spangler
Carol Ann Susi.... Monique Marmelstein
Executive Producer: Darren McGavin.
Produced by: Paul Playdon, Cy Chermak.
Directors: Don Weiss, Gene Levitt, Bruce Kessler, Vincent McEveety..
Writers Included: Paul Playdon, Jimmy Sangster, Michael Kozoll, Stephen Lord, Steve Fisher.
Title Music by: Gil Melle
20 episodes of approx. 60 minutes duration first broadcast on ABC 1974-1975.
UK certificate: 12 mostly for some scary images and a bit of sanitised violence.
The series is presented in the box set on 5 DVD but unfortunately the two original movies are not included, there is also a total lack of extras which is a pity. While we should be grateful that the set is available on DVD it is apparent that no restoration of the original has been made and the picture quality is not always brilliant with frequently poor definition and some occasional print damage.
Overall despite the lack of bonus material this a must have box set for all fans of X-files and sci-fi horror fans in general, it's not that scary but great fun to watch.
Kolchak- Night Stalker Complete Series [DVD] can be bought from Amazon UK for £12.93 free delivery.
© Mauri 2011