"If you want a job done right, you just have to foul it up yourself."
—Carl Kolchak, Kolchak: The Night Stalker
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
The character of Carl Kolchak was the protagonist in an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, The Kolchak Papers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 ABC optioned the unpublished novel for production into a Made-for-TV Movie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
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 original made for TV 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
It may not have hurt the series' reputation that subsequent credits for the show's writers included The Sopranos
, Hill Street Blues
and... Back to the Future
("Chopper" has story credit for Robert Zemeckis
and Bob Gale)!
A Kolchak movie
was recently announced in which Johnny Depp may star as Carl Kolchak.
This show provides examples of:
- Absurdly Spacious Sewer: "The Spanish Moss Murders."
- Agent Mulder: Carl Kolchak
- Agent Scully: Tony Vincenzo
- To say nothing of the police.
- Ambiguously Gay: Updyke.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 himicidal 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.
- Compilation Movie: Crackle of Death and The Demon and the Mummy
- Cool Car: Kolchak's yellow '65 Mustang convertible.
- 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 the voice of Piglet?
- Da Editor: Tony Vincenzo
- 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, only he loses the use of his legs in a prison rape incident."
- Deal with the Devil: "The Devil's Platform"
- Downer Ending: The first movie. His story gets heavily altered by the corrupt city government, he loses his girlfriend and nearly gets arrested for murder. After being told to leave Las Vegas, he ends up expanding his original story into a novel.
- Evil Elevator: "The Devil's Platform"
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- Glamour Failure: The Rakshasa in one episode.
- Headless Horseman: "Chopper."
- 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.
- Implacable Man: Lots of the monsters, but the zombie in "The Zombie" is the most obvious, and the most frightening.
- Invisible Monsters: Several. One an Alien, the other an Eldritch Abomination.
- Intrepid Reporter: Carl Kolchak
- 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.
- Large Ham: Quite a few of the guest stars, most notably Keenan Wynn as Chicago PD Captain "Mad Dog" Siska.
- Plus Kolchak and Vincenzo themselves.
- 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 mamalois killing off the mafiosi who ordered a hit on her son.
- Magical Native American: Subverted in one episode when Kolchak meets a "Shaman" who only has the old knowledge of 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.
- 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 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.
- 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: Carl Kolchak
- 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: "The Trevi Collection"
- Paranormal Investigation: Both the original series and the later remake.
- Playing Against Type: Phil Silvers in "Horror in the Heights"; John "Piglet" Fiedler as fast-talking morgue attendant Gordon "Gordie the Ghoul" Spangler; Jamie Farr as a high school science teacher in "Primal Scream."
- 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.
- Recycled INSPACE: "The Sentry" is the TOS episode "Devil in the Dark" in an underground data storage facility.
- 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.
- Silver Bullet: "The Werewolf".
- Spiritual Predecessor of The X-Files.
- Urban Fantasy
- 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.
- What Could Have Been: If the series had been renewed for a second season, Kolchak would have dealt with creatures such as Sasquatch, Medusa, the Piasa Bird, a woman transformed into a savage killer as a result of a failed experiment, a demon-possessed young man, medieval executioners that came out of a painting to kill their victims, and a monster wreaking havoc on a film set.
- Who You Gonna Call?: Carl Kolchak, who fits the "concerned but average citizen" variant.