I’m being candid with you, Dear Reader. I shan’t review Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a one-season wonder that aired on ABC in 1974-75.
The package boasts digital restorations and a full plate of commentary tracks for all 20 episodes, as provided by such TV historians as Gary Gerani, Amanda Reyes, Tim Lucas, Kim Newman, David J. Schow, and other noted authors. This is something I wish to savor slowly as I revisit a show I know very, very well, and that’s not conducive to writing reviews in a timely window. Halloween will be long over before I finish re-watching this series, and I realize this is meant to be a Halloween release.
What I’m doing here is memoir. I’m explaining why this show is so important to many of us, and that involves some emotional investment that nullifies critical distance.
At a tender age, I was terrified by a tall zombie shambling about the streets of Chicago, snapping the spines of hapless pedestrians. Then I witnessed one of the most awesome acts of bravery I’d seen before or since. As the zombie lay prone and inactive inside a hearse in a junkyard, a man scrambled up and climbed inside in order to fill the zombie’s mouth with salt and sew the lips together. Halfway through the tense procedure, the zombie opened his eyes.
I’m describing a nerve-wracking, heart-stopping scene in the second episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, a series that burned many images into the brains of impressionable spellbindees, if you will. I must be eternally grateful that ABC aired the show on Fridays so I could stay up late and be inducted into the cult of Kolchak.
This show’s long, strong afterlife includes reruns, a revival, a Universal DVD box issued years ago, and now a lavishly produced Blu-ray set reflecting the fannish love this series has inspired. Perhaps you had to be there to know why some of us are touching heaven.
Back then, you watched a show when it was broadcast or you’d missed it forever. After you watched it, only your memory remained. The VCR allowed us to start saving episodes, and the DVD era finally proved useful for resurrecting an entire series, if deemed sufficiently profitable.
By a stroke of luck, or rather an indicator of the strong appeal of this failed series, my second experience of Kolchak: The Night Stalker arrived years after its cancellation when episodes were rerun on The CBS Late Movie program, again on Friday nights. At this time, I had a new revelation: the show was funny. On purpose. During its first run, I’d only grasped the terror and suspense of watching all the monsters run amok. Now I perceived that at least half the characters were played for laughs in a beautiful balance of horror and comedy.
The premise: Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is a rumpled, smart-mouthed reporter for the fictive INS (Independent News Service), a wire service in Chicago. Kolchak eternally wears a faded, shabby ice-cream suit and battered Panama hat, as necessary a part of his uniform as Lt. Columbo’s raincoat.
Somehow, either by crazy luck or sheer orneriness, Kolchak keeps stumbling on homicides whose clues don’t add up to the simple explanations insisted upon by police. You know, marks on the blood-drained victims’ neck, cult symbols on the ground, that sort of thing. The gruesome deaths are presented as vivid setpieces narrated with cold-blooded, rat-a-tat-tat élan by Kolchak. Then we see him stonewalled by police and harangued by his editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), whose job consists of shouting at Kolchak and moaning over his digestion.
Kolchak always turns out to be right about the funny business, as we know well. After interviewing a motley crew of shady or wacky characters, he finally puts a stop to the supernatural shenanigans at no little risk to life and limb. One of the show’s temporary satisfactions are found in those moments when someone who’s been doggedly denying anything unusual is confronted with something stupefying. They’re momentarily hushed, at least until they regroup.
Far from being hailed as a hero, or even allowed to report the facts, Kolchak is crunched by forces of normalization who bury all evidence, barely letting him escape with his job. Among the consistent messages: it’s a weary, wary, unfair world. Nobody knows, nobody wants to know. If you’re a knight, your armor will never be shiny and your only reward will be your cold satisfaction as you continue battered but unbowed. Well, a little bowed.
This is a basically mistrustful, anti-authoritarian attitude fit for the 1970s, the kind of approach that wouldn’t have been taken ten or 20 years earlier when the good guys would have been solid members of the establishment in pursuit of truth and justice. Whether the effect is bracing or toxic depends on your context, but unfortunately, this sour take on society hasn’t dated, and this may be one reason for the show’s afterlife.
As I say, my unjaded and immature sensibilities didn’t take in the satirical streak or the social commentary the first time around. I merely found Vincenzo loud and annoying. Also annoying was a fussy little colleague named Ron Updyke (Jack Grinnage), or “Uptight”, always trading snipes with Kolchak. I didn’t register that these foils were comic relief.
Then there was Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt), a sweet old dear who wrote the Dear Emily advice column and who factored into an especially startling image in the episode about a Hindu demon called the Rakshasa. McDevitt had been in the premiere as one of Kolchak’s guest witnesses, an Edith Cowels with different spelling and everything, and the producers were clever enough to draft her as a regular. Emily’s dotty kindness was an oasis in a world of hostile squabblers.
I’d also missed the comedy of Monique Marmelstein (Carol Ann Susi), a green, impetuous, loudly Italian intern whose uncle was a bigwig in the wire service. She appeared only thrice, as did affable coroner “Gordy the Ghoul” Spangler, played by diminutive character actor John Fiedler. Among the police captains to whom Kolchak was a thorn in the side, only Capt. Joe “Mad Dog” Baker (Keenan Wynn) returned; he could be almost friendly.
You might think even a child would notice the comedy of eccentric witnesses played by the likes of Phil Silvers, Alice Ghostley, Larry Storch, Jim Backus, Mary Wickes, and Hans Conried, but it just didn’t register amid the frights and tension. I watched a scary show and that was that. That’s why it was a joy later to realize the show’s several levels.