With a pedigree both problematic (“inspired by” a well loved cult series) and intriguing (the revamp is helmed by X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz), ABC’s Night Stalker is not the catastrophe it sounds like. A “reimagining” of Dan Curtis’ Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974), it seemed to be treading on sacred soil. But Spotnitz promised to be as faithful as possible to the source material, and the creator of his previous gig, Chris Carter, swore that the Darren McGavin vehicle was the inspiration for all the “truth is out there” terrors.
What a difference a few months makes. Obviously mangled by studio heads who figure there’s a “formula” for every successful show, Night Stalker now derives from the adventures of Mulder and Scully, down to the male/female tag team of investigators and a secret conspiracy involving mysterious deaths, unexplained body markings, and brooding supernatural forces. Spotnitz also throws in a little Fugitive (Kolchak is a “suspect” in the death of his wife, and has his own personal FBI agent hot on his case) and even Millennium. Imagine that grim, misunderstood serial killer show without Lance Henricksen: not so promising.
But, despite these obvious missteps and in between the blatant attempts to appease original fans, Night Stalker shows promise. In the pilot, Kolchak (U.K. pretty boy Stuart Townsend) arrives in the City of Angels after fleeing Las Vegas and his past (dead wife, police inquest). He winds up working for old pal Tony Vincenzo (Cotter Smith), his first story remarkably similar to the facts surrounding his spouse’s brutal murder. Of course, he has a run-in with senior crime reporter Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union) and her Jimmy Olsen wannabe sidekick Jain (Eric Jungmann). Everyone thinks Kolchak is a crackpot when he suggests the killer may not be human, at least until a suspense sequence face-off makes believers out of his coworkers.
This set-up allows for nice interplay between Kolchak and Perri (during one memorable exchange, Kolchack reveals his horrible story) and Vincenzo has transformed from Simon Oakland’s hyperactive hollering machine to a more reasonable and loyal friend to Carl. At the same time, these relationships suggest where Night Stalker goes wrong. Fans of the original show don’t want a hero. They want the irascible everyman trying to convince the world that evil is real.
McGavin’s Kolchak was a lovable loser. His reporter was ethically challenged, scrupulously unscrupulous, and hell-bent on uncovering the supernatural beneath workaday surfaces. Our new Kolchak is driven, a regular journalist only recently converted to the paranormal and the possibilities of unwelcome ethereal forces. He made his name uncovering financial scams and corrupt politicians, not discovering zombies and unmasking werewolves. Gone are the “fearless vampire hunter” days. Welcome to the new age of moody music montages denoting introspection and doubt.
Actually, the atmosphere of unknown, simmering menace is one of the remake’s welcome changes. Unlike his past incarnation, this Kolchak is not a kook, but a considered man who may be onto something unexplainable. The original Night Stalker never once hinted that its horrors were not be the work of otherworldly forces, explicitly showing a headless motorcycle rider, a Native American spirit, and a Godzilla-like lizard man in Chicago’s underground, for better or worse. Today, the “whatzit” is glimpsed in brief, decidedly dark shots. We never get the full-on F/X shot, just more endless conversations questioning its existence.
Several elements in the pilot (Kolchak’s story, the Las Vegas connection with Vincenzo) could have been withheld until further down the seasonal run. By springing all the backstory in this initial episode, it is hard to fathom what additional underlying dramas Night Stalker can uncover. There is also an obvious attempt to create a collective reason to tie all of Kolchak’s suspicions together (hello, new mythology), meaning we might not see the “monster of the week” mandate that made the original show such a treat.
Still, like that baffling body mark that appears in so many of Kolchak’s crime scene photos, the show sustains a kernel of promise. At its core, Night Stalker is about a man who is driven, caught up in the inexplicable. Campy and crude, the original got by on its excruciatingly likeable lead. If Night Stalker can trim the formulaic fat and be consistent with the creepshow, it can succeed. It needs to distance itself from both the ’70s and the ’90s. Otherwise, all we are left with is memories of better shows, and that’s one legacy this series can’t sustain.