Series / Kolchak: The Night Stalker

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Intrepid Reporter Carl Kolchak and Mr. R.I.N.G.

"If you want a job done right, you just have to foul it up yourself."
Carl Kolchak

1974 ABC series starring Darren McGavin as Intrepid Reporter turned Occult Detective Carl Kolchak. Preceded by two Made for TV Movies, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973).

The character of Carl Kolchak was the protagonist in an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, The Kolchak Papers, a thriller in which Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak tracks down a serial killer, only to discover that the serial killer is really a vampire. ABC optioned the unpublished novel for production into a Made-for-TV Movie, and the resulting adaptation (The Night Stalker) scripted by Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend) became a surprise hit, earning the highest ratings of any TV movie up until its January, 1972 airing (reportedly a 33.2 rating/54 share.) It was so well-received that some of the producers later said that they wish they had taken the movie and gone with a theatrical release instead. The production also earned the 1973 Edgar Award for Best TV Feature/Miniseries Teleplay.

Impressed by this success, ABC arranged for Matheson to write the screenplay for a followup TV movie, The Night Strangler, which aired about a year later, about a century-plus old serial killer who strangled his victims and then used their blood to prolong his life through alchemy. The Night Strangler carried over the star and several of the supporting cast from the earlier TV movie, while transferring the venue from Las Vegas to Seattle (the better to use the scenic beauty of the Seattle Underground as locations). This sequel did well enough in the ratings that Pocket Books proceeded to publish The Kolchak Papers as a "Night Stalker" tie-in, changing the title of the novel to The Night Stalker and featuring a picture of star Darren McGavin on the cover. Reasoning that nothing succeeds like success, Pocket Books then commissioned Rice to write a novelization of Richard Matheson's script of the second movie, which Pocket Books published as The Night Strangler.

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Behind every successful Intrepid Reporter is Da Editor. Kolchak's is Tony Vincenzo

The success of The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler caused ABC to reconsider plans for a third movie installment (early plans included the possibility of marketing the three movies in syndication as "The Trilogy of Terror") and the network decided to produce a weekly "Kolchak" series instead. Darren McGavin and co-star Simon Oakland (playing Da Editor, Tony Vincenzo) signed on to reprise their roles from the two movies, while the venue changed again to Chicago, where Kolchak and Vincenzo were employees of a wire service, the Independent News Service (INS). The series also featured a set of memorable office denizens (INS became something of the office version of a Quirky Household), and several other recurring characters (including a wacky morgue attendant and the statutorily required contact in the Chicago Police Department, a police captain ultimately driven into group therapy in order to deal with anger issues arising from his frustrations in dealing with Kolchak).

The series failed to garner the success of the two movies, and Darren McGavin, who was not only the star but also acted as executive producer (credited as such for at least 4 episodes), began to become disappointed in the series, which had started to degenerate into a Monster of the Week show. McGavin therefore began to negotiate with ABC to be released from his contract. ABC, having noticed the series's dwindling ratings, decided to cancel it with two of the planned 22 episodes unproduced, and granted McGavin's request. While ratings for the series were disappointing (especially in the light of the success of the predecessor movies), the series's quirky blend of horror and black comedy struck enough of a chord with enough fans that it became something of a cult hit, retaining enough drawing power to warrant the production of two compilation movies, to earn substantial airtime in syndication, to inspire the publication of a series of novels featuring the characters, and eventually to earn a complete series DVD release and a less-than-successful remake series - Night Stalker (2005).

It may not have hurt the series' reputation that subsequent credits for the show's writers included The Sopranos (David Chase was the de facto story editor), Hill Street Blues and... Back to the Future ("Chopper" has story credit for Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale)!

A theatrical film update, starring Johnny Depp as Kolchak, has been planned.


This show provides examples of:

  • Absurdly Spacious Sewer: "The Spanish Moss Murders."
  • The Ace: Jim Elkhorn, who in addition to being a Magical Native American shaman, also has an MBA, speaks French fluently, can dig up Matchemonedo's entire history (with references) in less than a day and has great success with the ladies. He is the single-most useful ally Kolchak comes across in the entire series.
  • Agent Mulder: Carl Kolchak is always quick to make the leap to supernatural explanations. Even though he is often right, it's still noticeable that he doesn't even try more mundane theories first.
  • Agent Scully: Tony Vincenzo hardly ever believes any of Kolchak's theories, to say nothing of the police.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Updyke has all the stereotypical mannerism associated at the time with gays, but his personal life is never touched upon on the show.
  • Animated Armor: In the episode "The Knightly Murders." The ghost of an evil knight animates his old suit of armor to kill everyone responsible for the desecration of his burial site.
  • Asshole Victim: The mobsters in "The Zombie" amply deserve the gruesome deaths that they are dealt.
  • Badass: He may be more of an Action Survivor than anything else, but you know what? Kolchak definitely qualifies. His mother wasn't killed by a demon. He wasn't Chosen by the Powers That Be. Heck, he doesn't even work for the FBI. Yet time and again he throws himself into danger to get the truth and help people, armed with little more than a few old legends, and comes up victorious every time.
  • Baleful Polymorph: At the end of "The Devil's Platform" the destruction of his amulet prevents Palmer from transforming back into a human, leaving him stuck as a dog.
  • Berserk Button: The one thing guaranteed to piss off Miss Emily is discrimination or condescension towards the elderly.
  • California Doubling: For Chicago. Sometimes this is more obvious than others.
  • Cannot Dream: A scientific test subject is denied the ability to dream in "The Spanish Moss Murders", and the same energy is diverted into creating a homicidal Plant Person.
  • Car Cushion: "The Trevi Collection"
  • Cats Are Mean: A cat claws a fashion model's face in "The Trevi Collection."
  • Classical Movie Vampire: the eponymous Night Stalker in the original TV movie.
  • Closest Thing We Got:
    • A double serving in "The Werewolf". When Kolchak needs a priest to bless the silver he is using to make bullets, he ends up resorting to a fellow passenger on the cruise ship who flunked out of the seminary. And once he gets the guy, he doesn't know any Latin blessings for that, so they end up using the Last Rites prayer, hoping it's close enough to get the job done.
    • Given the absence of a stepped pyramid in Chicago, an Aztec cult makes due with the seats of a stadium for their Human Sacrifice.
  • Compilation Movie: Crackle of Death and The Demon and the Mummy
  • Cool Car: Kolchak's yellow '65 Mustang convertible.
  • Cool Old Lady: Miss Emily, the elderly puzzles and advice columnist at INS. She is the only coworker Kolchak actually likes and she's always ready to help him. "Rakshasa" reveals that she is the one person in the world Kolchak completely trusts.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The Vicepresident of Public Relations for the oil company in "Primal Scream" prides himself of his ability to put a positive spin to any and all the horrible crap his company does.
  • Cranium Chase: Episode "Chopper". The skull and body of a dead man are separated. The man's ghost animates his dead body as a Headless Horseman and goes on a search for his head, killing the people who murdered him along the way.
  • Creepy Mortician: "Gordy the Ghoul" Spangler, who isn't so much creepy (although he does run a gambling pool based on the corpses' statistics) as preternaturally cheerful. Did we mention he's played by John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet?
  • Da Editor: Tony Vincenzo's job description.
  • Darker and Edgier: The remake was this, as a) it lacked a lot of the humor, and b) Kolchak was motivated in his investigations by the death of his wife at the hands of something unknown. As Warren Ellis put it, "It's like Ironside (1967), only he loses the use of his legs in a Prison Rape incident."
  • Deal with the Devil: In "The Devil's Platform" a politician makes one of these in return for wealth and power.
  • A Degree in Useless: How Jim Elkhorn views his MBA, since he makes far more money as foreman of a specialized construction crew than he ever could putting his degree to use. note 
  • Downer Ending: The first movie. The vampire serial-killer is defeated, but Kolchak's story gets heavily altered by the corrupt city government, he loses his girlfriend and nearly gets arrested for murder, and an episode of the series would reveal that one of the victims became a vampire herself and continued killing. After being told to leave Las Vegas, he ends up expanding his original story into a novel.
  • Dug Too Deep: In "The Sentry", subterranean workers discover a clutch of eggs underground which they steal. This causes the eggs' mother to hunt them down and kill them.
  • Evil Elevator: The bad guy in "The Devil's Platform" kills and entire elevator full of people to silence a single person.
  • Evil Twin: A homicidal spirit takes on the form of a symphony conductor it adulates in "Firefall." Disturbingly, the Rakshasa in "Horror in the Heights" takes on the form of Kolchak himself to kill one victim.
  • Evil Versus Evil: In "The Zombie" you have a ruthless voodoo priestess seeking revenge against a bunch of mobsters and a corrupt police captain.
  • Expanded Universe: The series has inspired a number of novels featuring Carl Kolchak, Tony Vincenzo, and other series characters, the latest being published as late as 2007! There is also a series of comic books by Moonstone Comics with new adventures, including crossovers with Sherlock Holmes, Honey West, and Cthulhu.
  • Extra-Strength Masquerade: Given the sheer number of supernatural phenomena that Kolchak goes up against in Chicago alone, it is remarkable that The Masquerade has remained in place. It is implied that this is due to the active efforts from the authorities to suppress any an all evidence that Kolchak might come up with.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: Or not, in the case of "Primal Scream."
  • Failure Is the Only Option: No matter how many monsters and paranormal happenings Kolchak gets involved with, he never has enough evidence left at the end of an episode to prove it, although in one episode he and Vincenzo actually get the story onto the wire before their management kills it.
  • Fauxreigner: Pepe LaRue, the French street musician that gives Kolchak information in "The Spanish Moss Murders" turns out to really be Morris Shapiro from Brooklyn.
  • Finagle's Law. Whatever Kolchak needs to destroy the monster, he often drops, breaks, or loses the item required. "The Vampire," "The Devil's Platform," "Bad Medicine," "The Spanish Moss Murders," and "The Trevi Collection."
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Subverted with Louise in "The Night Strangler", who spends the entire movie as Kolchak's only ally and risks her live to help him stop the killer. But by the end of the movie she hates his guts, since her association with him resulted in her losing her job, her home and getting run out of Seattle by the police before she could complete her degree. She correctly points out that meeting him and joining in his adventure ruined her life.
  • Follow the Leader: The X-Files creator Chris Carter admits to being a Kolchak fan, and explicitly named Kolchak: The Night Stalker as an inspiration in his creating The X-Files.
    • Also, the revival was overseen by The X-Files writer-producer Frank Spotnitz.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: It's a complete mystery why the rest of the staff at INS puts up with Kolchak, considering he routinely treats everyone like crap, and with the exception of Miss Emily, none of them seems to particularly like him.
  • Glamour Failure: The Rakshasa in one episode.
  • Headless Horseman: The Monster of the Week in "Chopper", although he happens to ride a motorcycle.
  • Hidden Depths: Miss Emily is writing a detective novel. She only took the INS job to get more life experience... and to steal office supplies for the book.
  • High Voltage Death: In the episode "The Ripper" Kolchak manages to destroy the spirit of Jack the Ripper by electrocuting him.
  • Hollywood Darkness: Averted. In Kolchak: The Night Stalker dark scenes are really dark, so much so that all one can see are highlights, reflections, and the occasional flashlight blotting out the entire screen.
  • Human Sacrifice: In the episode titled "Legacy of Terror," an ancient Aztec cult is performing Human Sacrifice to bring back their deity.
  • Iconic Outfit: He really wouldn't be Kolchak without the blue seersucker suit and straw porkpie hat.
  • Ignored Expert: Carl Kolchak, who in both movies and the series is usually the only person who notices the unusual happenings which drive the episode. This trope is played with in some episodes where the people in charge actually do believe him or knew the truth all along, but are still determined to avoid having to admit it to the world.
  • Imperfect Ritual: Episode "The Youth Killer". Helen of Troy (yes, the one from Greek Mythology) has retained her youth down to the present day through the Human Sacrifice of perfect physical specimens to the goddess Hecate. Kolchak points out to Hecate that one of Helen's recent sacrifices had a glass eye, causing Hecate to withdraw Helen's stolen youth and Rapid Aging her to death.
  • Implacable Man: Lots of the monsters, but the zombie in "The Zombie" is the most obvious, and the most frightening.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Carl Kolchak
  • Invisible Monsters: Several. One an Alien, the other an Eldritch Abomination.
  • Jack the Ripper: In the episode titled (appropriately) "The Ripper." The Ripper also picked up some qualities of Spring-heeled Jack along the way, including the ability to make unusual (if not outright impossible) leaps and walk away from very high falls, and the ability to avoid or ignore gunshots.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Played straight in The Night Stalker where Kolchak is able to leverage the differences between the Las Vegas FBI office and the local law enforcement to gain access to the case, but Averted in every single story afterwards, with all levels of local, state and federal government and law enforcement working in flawless cooperation with the sole purpose of screwing over Kolchak.
  • Large Ham: Quite a few of the guest stars, Keenan Wynn as Chicago PD Captain "Mad Dog" Siska, plus Kolchak and Vincenzo themselves. It can verge on a World of Ham sometimes.
  • Life Drinker: In the episode "The Youth Killer". Helen of Troy has survived to the present day by sacrificing perfect human victims to the goddess Hecate. The sacrifice is made by magically causing Rapid Aging in the victims, which in turn gives Helen eternal youth.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Kolchak's seersucker suit and ratty old hat. Considering how much abuse it goes through during the series, Carl's dry cleaner must be very talented, and very rich.
  • The Mafia: "The Zombie," written by none other than David Chase, features a Haitian mamaloi killing off the mafiosi who ordered a hit on her son.
  • Magical Native American: Subverted in one episode when Kolchak meets a "shaman" who is the only one who has the old knowledge about the monster of the week. He's a construction foreman and ladies' man more than anything else. He's also one of the only helpful people Kolchak ever meets. Another episode plays this only slightly straighter, when an elderly Navajo relays some vital information to him, but isn't portrayed as anything other than someone who actually believes the monster exists.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The killing spree in "The Devil's Platform" is composed entirely of these, although by the end the person responsible stopped caring about plausibility as the accidents themselves featured glaring holes in logic.
  • Mayincatec: "Legacy of Terror" centers on an Aztec cult, complete with bird masks and feathered headdresses. The cult is cutting out the hearts of sacrificial victims in service of their mummified god, Nanauatzin. Lacking a step pyramid, their final sacrifice is staged at the top of a long flight of stairs at the sports stadium.
  • Missing the Good Stuff: "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be..." begins with Kolchak happily preparing to go see the Cubs play in the World Series. Not only doesn't he make it to the game, even his attempts to pick it up on his car radio are repeatedly foiled.
  • Monster Is a Mommy: "The Sentry"
  • Monster Misogyny: Found in both TV movies. In the series, usually only when it's justified, such as in the obvious case of "The Ripper." Other times it's averted.
  • Monster of the Week: Sufficiently so in its death spiral to cause series star Darren McGavin to ask for early release.
  • Murderous Mannequin: The first clue that something supernatural is going on in a fashion house in "The Trevi Collection".
  • My Horse Is a Motorbike: "Chopper" features a Hell's Angel riff on the classic Headless Horseman myth.
  • Never Sleep Again: In "The Spanish Moss Murders," Inverted when a walking-weed swamp monster turned out to be a psychic projection from a young man undergoing an experimental sleep-drug therapy. He had grown up hearing ghost stories about such a creature, and the drug gave him the ability to manifest his childhood fear.
  • Nice Hat: Kolchak's iconic straw porkpie hat is practically synonymous with the character. Funnily enough it's Inverted In-Universe, since everyone Kolchak knows hates the hat.
  • Non-Nazi Swastika: In the "Rakshasa" episode, Kolchak sought wisdom from an emigrant from India, who had swastikas. The man explained that in his culture they were holy symbols.
  • No Swastikas: Justified aversion; swastikas appeared in "Horror of the Heights" as protective talismans. Painted by a Hindu man in a Jewish neighborhood, so... yeah.
  • Noun Verber: The very title (or portion thereof) The Night Stalker.
  • Occult Detective: Even though he is a reporter by trade, Carl Kolchak ends up filling this role by default, since the authorities' refusal to act on his discoveries leave him as the only one who can defeat the monsters.
  • Our Monsters Are Different: Lots and Lots
    • Eldritch Abomination: "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be" invokes this with explicitly alien visitors who use Earth as a trucker does a pit stop, completely ignoring humanity as anything other than a nuisance or a food source. Then there's Matchemonedo, the "Bear God" in "The Energy Eater" which only visible to the X-Ray Spectrum, feeds on energy and likes it hot. When an X-Ray picture is taken of it, the being looks like a malevolent hurricane of energy.
      • It was stated in the episode that it was referred to as the Bear God not because of its appearance, but because of its habits: it fed in the summer and rested in the winter, as it could not function in the cold.
    • Lizard Folk: "The Sentry"
    • Our Demons Are Different: Featuring a Fantasy Kitchen Sink of Hellhounds ("The Devil's Platform"), Rakshashas ("Horror in the Heights") and...
      • Horny Devils: Ugly as Sin in its true form, the succubus from "Demon In Lace" kills people with its visage alone.
    • Our Ghosts Are Different: "Firefall," "Bad Medicine," "The Knightly Murders"; the headless head-chopper in "Chopper" updates "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by replacing the horse with a Motorcycle.
    • Our Werewolves Are Different: Wolf Man variety.
    • Our Vampires Are Different: Pretty much the Hammer Horror variety.
    • Our Zombies Are Different: The eponymous beastie of "The Zombie" is the original Haitian variety. It's far tougher than your average zombie, and requires an elaborate ritual to kill it.
    • Witch Species: Kolchak was a run-in with one of its members in "The Trevi Collection".
  • Paranormal Investigation: Both the original series and the later remake.
  • Police Brutality: While they never go as far as beating him up, the police have no trouble manhandling Kolchak all the time and often illegally confiscate and destroy his camera and recorder in order to get rid of any evidence regarding the unexplained creatures they’re trying to cover up.
  • Pun-Based Title: "Chopper" features an undead motorcyclist riding a chopper, chopping people's heads off. In "The Knightly Murders," the murders take place nightly.
  • Ripped from the Phone Book: Carl does this a lot. In one episode it comes back to bite him.
  • Room Disservice: Inversion in one episode, where a pimp substitutes another hooker for the vampiress call-girl Kolchak is hunting. Her reaction to Carl's wooden stake and crucifix is priceless.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The oil company in "Primal Scream" is able to stonewall Kolchak's investigation by virtue of all the money they throw around, specially to universities.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Jim Elkhorn, the Native American shaman who proves so helpful in assisting Kolchak in "The Energy Eater", wisely refuses to risk his neck trying to stop Matchemonedo once the true scale of the threat becomes apparent.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Matchemonedo, an Eldritch Abomination Native American deity was put in permanent hibernation when its nesting place was covered by the cold waters of Lake Michigan. By the end of the episode, it is decided to demolish the hospital built on top of it and flood the area again to make a marina.
  • Sequel Episode: "The Vampire" is a sequel to the first TV movie, with an overlooked victim of the Vegas vampire resurfacing.
  • Shout-Out: In episode 12, "Mr. R.I.N.G.", the company that was creating an android was casually mentioned as being the Tyrell Institute, in reference to the Philip K Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. This was a few years before the release of Blade Runner, too.
  • Silver Bullet: Kolchak has a hard time coming up with one in "The Werewolf" because he is on a cruise ship. He ends up stealing the silver buttons from the captain's dress uniform.
  • Spiritual Predecessor: Of The X-Files.
  • Suit with Vested Interests: The main reason the authorities in both Las Vegas and Seattle refuse to act on Kolchak's advice, even after it becomes clear that he is completely right, is because both cities are dependent on tourism and any hint of the truth would have catastrophic effects on both towns' economies.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: In "the Night Strangler" Kolchak fills in Louise about the events of "The Night Stalker" and how he barely beat a murder charge for killing a vampire by hammering a stake through its heart. He does this in an elevator full of people, all of which are listening in on the conversation and look progressively more panicked as the story goes on. By the time they reach the top floor all the other passengers are looking at him funny and refusing to leave the elevator.
  • Urban Fantasy: One of the most influential examples in television.
  • Vain Sorceress: In "The Youth Killer", Helen of Troy returns to drain the youth out of unsuspecting perfect victims, sacrifices for the goddess Hecate, in her quest for immortality.
  • Whole Plot Reference: The final episode of the series is a blatant copy of Star Trek's "Devil in the Dark".
  • Who You Gonna Call?: Carl Kolchak, who fits the "concerned but average citizen" variant.

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