Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Night Stalker

Karen: I can't believe we haven't talked about intrepid reporter Carl Kolchak yet! Well, now seems the time to do it. I'll open things up by saying I saw the original TV movie, The Night Stalker, again last year and thought it held up very well. The second film, The Night Strangler, wasn't quite as good, although it was still entertaining,  particularly with its underground Seattle locations. The TV series was very hit-or-miss for me, but I find Darren McGavin's Carl Kolchak amusing enough to make it through even the weaker episodes. And how about that theme music?


Humanbelly said...

I've a mountain of piled-up bookkeeping and paperwork staring me in the face this morning, and NOW you're gonna play the Night Stalker card?!?

Ohhh, Karen, you are indeed an admirably subtle and ingenious super-villain in your own right-- gleefully manipulating us poor late-Boomers by playing on our nostalgic devotion to the distractions of our youth. . . but I digress. . .

I still can't believe this was just a one-season show. I was in 8th grade when it came out, and it was hugely popular pretty much across the social spectrum for all of boys that year. The geeky guys loved it, the jocks loved it, the lake kids loved it, the farm kids loved it, the town kids loved it,black kids/white kids-- it was pretty much the main topic of excited chatter on the morning bus. "Didja see when that zombie WOKE UP while Kolchak was stuck in the car with it??? Ohhh MAAAAAAAAAAAAN!!!" It was The. Perfect. Show. -for 12-14 year old boys at that time. I can't think of a single girl that liked it, however (which means, Karen, that you would have been HIGHLY popular w/ the fellas in our class!). I also watched the original movie a couple of months ago on YouTube, and you're quite right-- although it's certainly dated, it does hold up surprisingly well-- esp. considering the low TV-Movie budget. IIRC, those first two films saw light as part of the ABC Tuesday/Wednesday Movie-of-the-Week line-up (a whole other blog-worthy topic, I'd say). Darren McGavin does make the character work wonderfully as a hero who is not fundamentally brave at all, but is hopelessly compelled to chase the truth and do the right thing in spite of the possible consequences. Bringing Simon Oakton along throughout both films and for the series to act as his foil was a very, very canny move on the producers' part, as well.

I missed the first film's original airing, but IIRC it was replayed sometime around the following Halloween, and I hunkered in my room w/ my little 12" B&W TV to make sure I caught it this time. As fate would have it, we had an extraordinary string of thunderstorms that night, and in that final sequence, as Carl is sneaking through the decaying mansion, and is just about to make himself open a door that you KNEW the vampire must be hiding behind. . . our electricity was knocked out by a HUGE nearby lightning strike.

Primitive fight-or-flight reflexes took complete control of my being, and I bolted (in the pitch dark) out of my bed and ran smack into my closed door. I managed to get through the door, into the equally dark hallway, and realized that that was EXACTLY what the vampire wanted me to do-- at which point I was paralyzed w/ fear, and stood there going "GNNAH! GNAHH!", until I regained some measure of orientation and composure.

And then the lights came back on w/in about 30 seconds. TV started right back up (as they did in those days). My two younger sisters (down the hall) were giving me about the hairiest eyeballs you've ever witnessed. And so little time had actually passed that Carl was still grappling w/ the vampire in that final scene. I mumbled something like "'z everyone okay?", and slinked back into my room to finish watching. I have to say, however, that I remembered very little of how it actually wrapped up. . .


Anonymous said...

My father loved this show, a kind of early X-Files. I don't remember its' original broadcasts as I'd have been in bed by then. It comes from the days when U.S. TV shows were huge on British TV, not like now when they are rarer than a snowflake in July !

Anonymous said...

I meant UK terrestial TV.

Anonymous said...

I thought the show started out well, but soon ran out of steam. There are just not that many variations on the premise: Kolchak investigates the murders, finds a supernatural monster, consults some Van Helsing-type professor (i.e., an expert on the occult), exorcises the menace, and then can't publicize the story because the evidence was disintegrated along with the monster, or because the government is covering it up. As I recall, the two movies were played straight, and the series was more tongue-in-cheek, which was probably the right approach. The fantasy premise would be too hard to take seriously on a regular basis. I did love Darren McGavin's performance. Maybe they should have done a series of occasional made-for-TV movies, or a rotating series that alternated with other shows (as was done with Columbo and McCloud), instead of a weekly show.

Steve Does Comics said...

BBC1 took to showing it late on Friday nights in the early 90s. I'd have to agree with Anonymous; from what I remember, it started off well but quickly became very formulaic.

It did seem to me that there seemed to be similarities between the character and the way Sylvester McCoy played Dr Who but that may just have been my imagination.

My favourite episode was the one set in the underground city, because I like underground places.

Rip Jagger said...

Night Stalker is the bomb!

This movie was the greatest at the time. It's never been topped for sheer exquisite pacing. Darren McGavin is a godsend in this one, a character for the ages.

I just finished reading the second Kolchak novel a few months ago, and it had the snap of the original, though sadly as all the sequels I've read, it falls short.

It's been a while since I watched the TV series. I might need to do that.

Rip Off

Anonymous said...

Retro Lad says

I don't think we ever got the series in the UK, but I loved the two tv movies, particularly for the comic love-hate relationship between Kolchak and his editor, which I recognised even then as a welcome callback to old movie stereotypes.

I remember one of Steve Englehart's Luke Cage stories explicitly referencing the Night Stalker as inspiration. (I just checked my Essential Luke Cage, and the story was even entitled 'The Night Shocker'!). It stuck in my mind at the time because the plot made no sense - Englehart does Bob Haney :-)

Retro Lad

Anthony said...

LOVE The Night Stalker. I also really enjoyed the Night Stalker Companion by Mark Dawidziak. It's a quick fun read. Favorite episodes include The Ripper, Spanish Moss Murders, Horror in the Heights, The Vampire, The Werewolf, Primal Scream and the odd one out, The Sentry. All the episodes and the 2 movies are all still very watchable. Old Seattle in The Night Strangler was awesome. Not as big a fan of the new series though I did watch some episodes. I did get a little thrill when the Mossad chief in World War Z mentioned rakshasa even though it was more a reference to Hindu myth than the Night Stalker episode.

William Preston said...

Loved it. An early lesson in "shows you love will be cancelled." They often reshowed the first movie on light-night TV in the Philly area.

I used to walk around whistling the theme. I recall being somewhat obsessed.

Some comic book ("Not Brand Ecch," perhaps?) did a "Night Gawker" bit one time.

Humanbelly said...

William-- I think it was the mid-70's Not Brand Ecch sequel, "What The-?" that did that parody-- good memory, there!

Colin-- my main argument at around that time for getting my bedtime changed from 9:30 to 10:00 was because I kept having to miss the last half-hour of those TV movies, and it was making me crazy (not to mention that it was creating a social barrier between me and the kids who actually did get to stay up til 10 regularly).

Formulaic is justifiably a problem for us adult viewers, but I think kids and even young teens take a certain measure of comfort in surrendering to formula in scary viewing fare like this. I don't see it as necessarily a bad thing. I mean, we all still liked Scooby-doo, right?

And y'know, a very cool thing about Darren McGavin the actor is that, as Kolchak, he comes across as seemingly kind of physically smaller than everyone else. . . kind of a disheveled little guy. Check him out in the Sinatra film THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM. . . he plays an imposingly big tough crimelord. He creates the physical size of the character simply with his manner. That's good stuff.


Comicsfan said...

If someone mentions "The Night Stalker," the first thing I always think of are those cellos slicing through the intro. Great series, and McGavin was wonderful in it. He and Simon Oakland ("Tony Vincenzo") had such great chemistry with each other.

Anonymous said...

Ahh loved Kolchak, the inspiration for another of my favourite series, the X-files.

Darren McGavin played Carl Kolchak just the right way, slightly bumbling but dogged in his determination to deal with threats like vampires or a headless motorcycle rider!

I don't think I've seen all the original episodes (neither the new version) but it's one of those series which didn't last long in its original run but still remains influential many years later.

- Mike 'hmm did Kolchak ever meet Kojak?' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Anonymous said...

I have never seen it, though I have heard from others older than I how beloved it was in certain circles.

Didn't they try to revive it a few years ago?

Karen said...

Just checking in and I'm happy that at least a few of you had fond memories of old Carl. HB, you take the prize again for your very personal recollections!

Darren McGavin did an excellent job of making Kolchak an Everyman-hero. No towering pillar of courage was he, but a normal man who gathered his wits and nerve to face the unknown week after week.

Night Stalker certainly did serve as an inspiration to many shows. I thought it was inspired that McGavin appeared on the X-Files. It's too bad he couldn't have actually been Kolchak! That would have been fantastic, to see him in that rumpled suit and hat, helping Mulder and Scully chase down aliens...

Edo Bosnar said...

I'd heard about this for years and years, especially after the X-files came out, but I knew nothing about it. But coincidentally, I just found out rather recently (like about 2 days ago) that the entire series, including the movies, are posted on YouTube, so I intend to remedy this glaring hole in my pop culture upbringing.
So far, I've only watched the first episode of the series (The Ripper) which is pretty solid. I see that Darren McGavin, playing it like a rumpled smart-aleck, is really key here. And since you mentioned the theme music, Karen, I love the way it starts, with Kolchak sort of whistling in the dark (which also seems to have inspired the X-files theme music).

Paul said...

Like those here that actually saw it when it originally played, I loved The Night Stalker as a kid. I do believe that adhering too close to the formula was its downfall, and the reason that it only lasted one season.
I remember, even then, thinking that there should have been at least one episode in which Carl uncovered a fraud, ala Scooby Doo. (However, I NEVER wanted the Scooby Gang to fiind a real monster. So, some shows should ALWAYS stick to the formula, I suppose.)

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