It Was Killed
But It Won’t Die
The series came about because a writer named Jeff Rice wrote a novel called The Kolchak Papers and couldn’t get it published. The story came to the attention of TV producer Dan Curtis, who’d achieved fame with the supernatural serial Dark Shadows (1966-71). Curtis spent much of the ’70s working on TV horror movies about classic characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll, plus Trilogy of Terror (1975), which left its mark on all who saw it.
Curtis’ 1972 production of The Night Stalker, written by the illustrious Richard Matheson and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, became the highest-rated TV film to date. Really, everyone was shocked at how well it did; nearly half of all TV sets tuned in to watch McGavin’s Kolchak battle a Las Vegas vampire. Curtis promptly directed a well-received sequel, The Night Strangler (1973), also by Matheson. Kino Lorber issued these TV films on Blu-ray in 2018.
Curtis relinquished involvement in the series, which was produced by Cy Chermak with McGavin as uncredited executive producer. Jeff Rice was credited as creator, although he had to sue for it. Gil Mellé’s opening theme created nervous rhythms that mimicked the banging of a typewriter, a good totem of the hero’s plodding old-fashioned tools and work ethic.
Don Weis, known for light comedy films, directed four of the best episodes. The one about a ghostly doppelganger was scripted by prominent crime novelist Bill S. Ballinger. Weis’ other three efforts were rare outings with female villains, including one about a succubus and another with Lara Parker of Dark Shadows as a witch in the world of high fashion. These and his vampire episode combine sexual allure with terror, which is about par for American civilization.
The same is true for the non-Weis episode with Cathy Lee Crosby as an immortal Helen of Troy, still causing trouble. That was scripted by Rudolph Borchert, who was on the cusp of a long, busy career in Universal shows like The Rockford Files (1974-80).
Gordon Hessler, a veteran of British horror films, directed the ingenious episode about a legendary French Creole monster dreamed up in a scientific sleep experiment. That was among several episodes scripted by someone we now recognize as a crucial creative element in the stew: David Chase.
Chase, whom I see is interviewed on the Blu-ray, is today famous as the creator of The Sopranos. In 1974, he moved from his first regular gig as a TV staff writer on another Universal series, The Magician (1973-74) with Bill Bixby (another show of stealth legacy) to acting as story consultant on Kolchak: The Night Stalker. This means he not only wrote episodes but had the responsibility of polishing others’ work and maintaining a consistent tone.
Due to lackluster ratings, this series “failed” after its one – and only – season and Chase moved on to writing and producing The Rockford Files, about another hero who loses while winning, then acclaimed runs on Northern Exposure (1990-95) and I’ll Fly Away (1991-93) before developing that little soaper about a Jersey family. And there, ladies and gentleman, you have a case history in a certain tone, blending the comic and ghastly, the amusing and the serious, swimming down the river of TV history from one series to another.
The writers of Kolchak: The Night Stalker knew exactly who they were working with and gloried in it. Another element I had no way of appreciating in the ’70s is that Kolchak was the apotheosis and epitome of McGavin’s TV persona, which he’d been carrying on for decades. You can go all the way back to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958) and find him narrating with wry street poetry as his character sheds shoe leather and wisecracks. (For the record, I reviewed that series here.)
Among the countless little boys spellbound by Kolchak’s antics was Chris Carter, who would grow up to create The X Files (1993-2002). Its run was considerably longer than any of its inspirations, which also included The Invaders (1967-68) and Project UFO (1978-79).
Carter tried to salute his influences by casting McGavin as Kolchak for guest appearances on The X Files. Carter couldn’t swing the clearances, so McGavin showed up as a grizzled curmudgeon of a different name, but we all knew. (Fans of The X Files also know that the hero’s sister was kidnapped while they waited to watch The Magician, so put that in your trivia file and smoke it.)
McGavin’s stamp is one reason a short-lived attempt to revive the series as Night Stalker (2005) so dismayed hardcore Kolchakians or Kolchakists or Kolchakites. In keeping with the spirit of the age, the new version could only present its hero as a hot young stud (Stuart Townsend). If Lt. Columbo is revived, surely he’ll be a pin-up boy. Network TV is far from the era when its heroes were played by slabs of gravel-like Broderick Crawford or William Bendix, who got by on the personality of having lived. And so it goes.
Kolchak, you’ve really never left us, and it’ll be good to see you again.