Once upon a time, a reporter named Carl Kolchak investigated the many things that went bump in the night, shining light on mysteries the world refused to acknowledge. To a generation of young and impressionable minds, he inspired a thirst for urban fantasy, shaping our genre fiction for years to come. While I didn’t have the opportunity to see the series when it initially aired, a local TV station (thanks WRAL!) aired syndicated episodes at 11:30 every Friday night. Subsequent video releases and a run on the Sci-Fi channel have continued to expose audiences to this classic series.
The premise was simple: an investigative reporter (a vocation now almost extinct) with an unfortunate knack for discovering elements of the fantastic (mostly horror, but with a bit of sci-fi thrown in). As his work rarely saw print, and he tended to piss off a lot of people, he was perpetually in danger of losing his job (explaining why he worked in a different city in each movie and again in the series). Undeterred, he continued to risk injury or death each week struggling to uncover the truth.The short lived series was credited by no less than Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz as a prime influence for their series “The X-Files” and “Millennium”. Spotnitz would later drive a 2005 series attempting to re-imagine the Kolchak story, though it would last only ten episodes.
Darren McGavin (1922-2006) starred in both the two original films (1972 and 1973) and in all twenty episodes produced during the series run (1974-1975). Also known for his starring roles in the 78 episode run of “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” from 1958 to 1960 and in the beloved holiday classic “A Christmas Story”, McGavin’s talents were honored by a 1991 Cable Ace award and a 1990 Emmy nomination. His impact on the genre was saluted via appearances on two episodes of “The X-Files” (portraying Arthur Dales, the original agent assigned to the FBI’s more “spooky” case files), and on “Millennium”, appearing as the father of series protagonist Frank Black.
The first film, “The Night Stalker”, was adapted from a little known novel (“The Kolchak Papers”) by Jeff Rice. Kolchak investigated a vampire loose in Las Vegas. At the time, its’ successful debut was the highest rated made for TV movie ever produced. It spawned a successful sequel, investigating similar murders in Seattle.
While lacking in any grand mythos or long story arcs (such as the “black oil” storyline), it’s inspiration of the many “monster of the week” episodes of “The X-Files” was evident. It is very easy to imagine Kolchak encountering the sewer dwelling Flukeman featured in Mulder and Scully’s second season. Ironically, the actor in the repulsive rubber suit was none other than Darin Morgan. He would later serve as a writer and producer on show’s such as “The X-Files”, “Millennium”, “Fringe”, “Tower Prep”, “Bionic Woman” and…. the 2005 remake of “The Night Stalker”. He received acclaim for writing the “X-Files” episode “Humbug”, which revolved around unsolved murders at a traveling sideshow circus.Subsequent series, such as the WB’s “Supernatural”, continue this tradition, frequently combining humor, horror and suspense.
Publisher Moonstone Books continues it’s run of the character in comic book form, written and drawn by industry greats such as David Michelinie, Ron Frenz, Sal Buscema and the legendary Peter David. They’ve issued numerous graphic novels, short story anthologies (including tales by Mike Baron, PN Elrod, Christopher Golden and John Ostrander) and even a mouse pad. They’ve also taken a bit of creative license and produced adventures teaming Kolchak with genre icons such as Sherlock Holmes, Barnabas Collins, the Frankenstein Monster and a number of Lovecraftian horrors! Below are a sample of the many publications they have available via their web site (here).
Fans of Kolchak may have recently gotten more good news. Johnny Depp is teaming with Disney to bring the Night Stalker to theatres. While I believe Depp to be a bit overrated, I do think he would nail this role. My all time favorite Depp film is 1999’s “The Ninth Gate”, and based on that performance alone I’d happily cast him in the part. It’s not set in stone, as he has another Pirates movie as well as his re-imagining of “Dark Shadows” to complete first, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Wild Tangent #1:
If you haven’t seen “The Ninth Gate”, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a slow burning, creepy tale of the occult. It reminded me of some of the best Hammer films, as well as the some of the better 70s horror films.
Based on the book, “The Dumas Club“, it’s beautifully filmed and driven by an intricate plot. Johhny Depp stars as an “authenticator of rare books” whose knowledge of ancient texts involve him in a quest to find a tomb supposedly written by Satan. Co-stars Frank Langella (Dracula, Frost/Nixon), Lena Olin (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and Emmanuelle Seigner (Bitter Moon) all provide great performances. Four thumbs, way up.
In 2005 the entirety of the original twenty episode run of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” was released on DVD by Universal (in conjunction with the airing of the remake). The two movies were also made available as a 2 for 1 package deal.A third original movie, “The Night Killers”, scripted by Richard Matheson and William Nolan, was planned. It went unfilmed as the series took precedence. The completed script would eventually be included in Richard Matheson’s “Kolchak Scripts”, released in 2004. Its now out of print and copies on Amazon are outrageously expensive.
During the mid 70’s, television was just beginning the long journey toward film-making respectability. Many still looked down at the medium, and its reputation for low production values and general hackwork was frequently well deserved. The days of high quality work like “Game of Thrones”, “Deadwood” or “Rome” were still decades away. Instead, the series focused on producing tense, fast paced, dialogue driven episodes. And for the most part, it worked. The special effects are hoky, the monsters a stretch and the protagonist comes across as self-destructive enough to hang with Nicholas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas”, but…if you can get past that, its still a very fun ride!
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- A Birthday, A Movie, Forest J Ackerman and something yummy called a Double Mexicana
- Amazon Breakthough Novel Awards Quarterfinals – Brothers In Darkness Free Excerpt
- Amazon Breakthrough Update: And the Round Two Winners Are….
- Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and other writing stuff
- A bit of research for the upcoming book
- My Customer Service Nightmare