Sunday, January 08, 2017
The premise was simple enough: Rumpled Las Vegas reporter Carl Kolchak is investigating grisly serial killings that turn out to be the work of a vampire. I guess the "vampire" angle was enough to lure in Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, a veteran of creepy TV, to produce the film, which had The Twilight Zone's Richard Matheson adapting the script. That script garnered the interest of veteran character actor Darren McGavin, who quickly signed on to play Kolchak. All three together led to some televisual alchemy. Watch it below:
Not only was The Night Stalker critically acclaimed, it was also the highest rated TV movie ever produced up to that time. This led to a sequel TV movie almost exactly two years later. The Night Strangler reunited Curtis, Matheson, and McGavin, this time for a story that saw Kolchak tracking another serial killer, this time in Seattle, WA, who turns out to be an ancient immortal. Strangler aired on ABC in January of '73, and did gangbusters in the ratings just like its predecessor. Check it out:
While a third film (entitled The Night Killers) was in the offing, with Matheson again set to script, that movie was scrapped when, after two solid returns, ABC instead rolled the dice on a weekly series. And so, The Night Stalker premiered as a weekly in September of '74 (it would take on the title Kolchak: The Night Stalker a few months later). Only McGavin (also executive-producing) returned from that original creative trifecta, but the series continued the "Kolchak investigates a strange phenomenon that turns supernatural" premise of the movies in a weekly format. Here's the intro:
I saw Kolchak for the first time way back in the early-'90s while living in Saudi Arabia. I was ten or eleven at the time. And while I dug (and continue to dig) the series' combination of chills and laughs (and McGavin's easy command of both), the thing that's most memorably about it is that eerie/cool opening theme music by Gil Mellé. With practically no imagery or exposition from, it tells you exactly what kind of experience to expect in the coming forty minutes-and-change.
Nonetheless, I guess it took more than McGavin as that character to make audiences tune in. The weekly Kolchak never quite took off in the ratings, and the series quietly went away the following spring after only twenty episodes had aired (with several scripts still in development). Still, reruns would show up constantly over the next few decades, and we know it was one factor in inspiring Chris Carter to create what would become The X-Files (McGavin even guested, in a nod to his previous alter ego).
There have been periodic attempts to bring Kolchak back, most notably an ABC reboot in '05 starring Stuart Townsend that lasted only ten episodes after losing everything that made the original work. And while Johnny Depp is (was?) attached to a feature reboot, I think Darren McGavin (who passed away in 2006) was so intrinsic to the original's appeal that any version without him would feel like an unworthy appendage. The two movies are now out of print, Universal just re-released the weekly Kolchak at a price that makes it an easy recommendation.
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