In the contemporary landscape of supernatural investigators on television—high school cheerleaders adept at martial arts and chiseled GQ hunks offering quips with every shot of a silver bullet—Carl Kolchak would appear to be an anomaly. The name itself is likely unknown to the younger generation, lest they faintly recall handsome Stuart Townsend briefly playing the role on ABC in 2005 before disintegrating into the televisual ether.
But before this scant resurrection, there was the original Kolchak. Author Jeff Rice’s unpublished manuscript The Kolchak Papers was picked up by producer Dan Curtis, the creator of Dark Shadows, to be filmed as a made-for-television movie in 1972 that would star established actor Darren McGavin as the irascible reporter. The film, retitled The Night Stalker, dealt with the Las Vegas inkslinger’s investigation into a series of prostitute deaths that turned out to be the work of red-eyed and centuries-old vampire Janos Skorzeny. The movie was a ratings dynamo and was quickly followed by a sequel, The Night Strangler, the next year, detailing the ventures of Kolchak and his ever-suffering editor Tony Vincenzo as the city of Seattle is victimized by a decrepit mad scientist living underground in need of precious human blood to create his life-restoring elixir.
The sequel performed admirably and, despite the relative similarity in narratives, it instigated the creation of a regular television show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker that brought McGavin back as the medium’s first regular monster hunter. However, the absence of the TV films’ strong creative force (producer Curtis and screenwriter/genre stalwart Richard Matheson), along with lagging ratings and growing weariness on McGavin’s part, led to the program coming to an end after a total of twenty produced episodes. It would seem that the character was meant to languish here in the dust of time and eventually be forgotten.
For various reasons, that has not been the case. In spite of initial naysayers charging the show with being repetitive or resorting to a monster-of-the-week formula, the program’s influence has been well-documented. Chris Carter has commented on many occasions that it was this low-budget excursion into the paranormal that served as the inspiration for his own groundbreaking title, The X-Files. (McGavin would later turn up in Carter’s show as Arthur Dales, a former FBI agent who was appropriately credited as being the “father of the X-Files.”)
But it’s not the show’s featured creatures or even its innovation that leaves the greatest impression on the viewer’s mind. Much of the credit for its endearing quality can be given to its star. McGavin, who is undoubtedly most recognizable for his fantastic role as the Father in the TBS-Yuletide staple A Christmas Story (1982), was a character actor who did extensive television work on such titles as Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), Crime Photographer (1951-1952), Mike Hammer (1958-1959), and Riverboat (1959-1961) before his fateful turn as the INS newshound. It was with Kolchak that McGavin solidified himself as a minor cult icon, and it is his likeness and attitude that is always associated with the character.
What separates Kolchak from the throng of modern day monster hunters is his perfect ordinariness. He has mastered the patter of any self-respecting reporter (indeed, it’s Kolchak’s verbal spats with his boss and co-workers that serve as the major source of enjoyment in some episodes) and has enough bombast and wiliness to boast his way through a police force that is constantly dogging him at every utterance of his crackpot monster theories. Besides this he is, for all intents and purposes, a bit of a schlub. He’s not a sharp dresser, fancying his seersucker suit, tennis shoes, and straw fedora with very little deviation. Most folks tend to bristle at his bombastic nature. His endless stories about werewolves and succubae don’t earn him much professional clout or general respectability either.
The formulaic approach of each episode—victims pile up under mysterious circumstances, Kolchak investigates, city officials shout him down, Kolchak saves the day after some handy research only for his side of the story to be struck from the public record—may seem to some the lazy pattern of unimaginative writers, but Kolchak’s weekly adventures speak to a more personal trait of the character: his perseverance even in the face of insurmountable odds.
It’s Carl’s job that seems to give him the purpose to keep going: the hunt for a good story and the need to inform the public of the world around them, even if that means telling them about all the things that go bump in the night. It’s through the power of McGavin’s performance that Kolchak becomes likable and compelling. As conspicuously theatrical as his deceptions are, we buy into his tall tales because of his conviction and his heart. Watching McGavin is like seeing a good friend across a room full of strangers; it brings a smile to one’s lips.
Unlike his fictional descendants, Kolchak is almost always outmatched by his adversaries. It’s clear from the get-go of some episodes—like his confrontation with intergalactic aliens—that he is out of his depth and has little chance of totally eradicating the evil at hand. What’s more, there are a few occasions in which, when faced with the unspeakable horror of the week’s episode, Kolchak makes a clear delineation between himself and others of his noble boogeyman-filled profession: he runs away.
There are several prominent examples, such as his reaction to the muck-man from “The Spanish Moss Murders,” where the reporter, upon seeing the abominable fiend with his own eyes, lets loose with an unfettered yelp of terror and beats a quick retreat in the opposite direction. Our hero always manages to execute the monster by the final fadeout, but his initial panic and realization that he’s a lone man against the world only makes the audience grow fonder of his basic humanity. Kolchak may provide stoic, noirish commentary with his handy tape recorder, but for all his pride he still knows his own limitations.
It is ultimately this that has ensured Kolchak’s position in the pantheon of great characters. He is the little guy that we all root for and secretly wish to be, the person who is kept down by both the human powers of authority and the inhuman powers of darkness as he fights for survival and truth. Though the special effects (or lack thereof) from the series have not aged especially well, McGavin’s earnestness shines through even the program’s most limited resources. We feel his excitement, his frustration, his small patches of sweaty victory at the end of a long day. In an age when audiences laud the depth and precision of character on television, it is good for us to look back at the medium’s early days and see the excellence that was striven for since the beginning. Kolchak will always be there for us to rediscover him, waiting in the dark of the newsroom for the next big story.
– Jose Cruz