Icons of the Overlooked #6: Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Kolchak: The Night Stalker shares similar conventions with most of the American detective shows of the seventies and eighties. Our lead character, Karl Kolchak, is a bit of an oddball with a unique fashion sense who drives an iconic car. Despite being a reporter for a small Chigaco newspaper he finds himself not only investigating murders but doing so more effectively than the Police. He often visits sources and high-flying suspects on their tennis courts, by their pools and in there stately homes, ruffling feathers and appearing dim-witted and bumbling but really digging out all the clues he needs with great efficiency. The show even had a catchy theme. It's all very Murder She Wrote/Columbo/Father Dowling Investigates.

Except for one minor detail: Kolchak investigates the supernatural. More specifically ghosts, demons, vampires, robots, aliens... you name it. The show essentially had a monster-of-the-week format and used it to its fullest.

Each week Kolchak is assigned a light fluffy story but uncovers anomalies that lead him to discovering the existence of some evil creature. His colleagues roll their eyes and the authorities want him out of the way (sometimes permanently) and so it falls to Kolchak to dispose of the beastie himself.

The main cast are superb with Darren McGavin excelling as Kolchak. Though not quite as disheveled and quirky as Columbo, McGavin's bow-legged Kolchak, ill-fitting blue suit draped in clattering recording equipment, stumbles and bullshits his way into all manner of dangerous situations pretty much pissing off everyone he meets. Kolchak strays off every story he is assigned much to the increasing annoyance of his boss, Tony Vincenzo (played by Simons Oakland). The friction between these two keeps the shows light but also warm as it becomes clear that Vincenzo doesn't hate Kolchak quite as much as he lets on.

Curiously, each episode featured a different Police official for Kolchak to annoy. This could have easily been a re-occurring character yet with one exception none of the Police chiefs return for a second episode. This is never referenced or explained and although the show boasted some impressive guest starts including Tom Bosley, Richard Kiel, Tom Skerritt and Phil Silvers, none of them took on this role. It is an odd creative choice but one that leads to some increasingly quirky authoritative characters for Kolchak to bounce off of.

If your show has a monster-of the week format you'll live or die on the quality of the monsters. The show was fairly ambitious at times although this occasionally outstretched the shows production as the dinosaur from The Sentry and the headless, samurai sword swinging biker from The Chopper (based on a story by Robert Zemekis and Bob Gale) can testify.

Yet for a TV show made in the mid-seventies the creatures were generally good, the Zombie being a particularly effective monster.

But it was not always the monster that made the episode. The Werewolf, for example, had a great contained set-up as a singles holiday cruise is besieged by an angry lycanthrope and although both the make-up and athletic performance of the actor are fine, the way in which the monster is shot becomes an issue. It's hard to take talk of how the creature “tore them limb from limb” seriously when all we see is a lot of wide shots of the creature just shoving stuntmen into nice stage falls. Yet the episode is crammed with the snappy dialogue and, most importantly, the balancing of contrasting tones the show managed so well.

The Ripper is also an episode I rate quite highly. Kolchak stumbles across Jack the Ripper in modern day Chicago. This ripper, however, is no mere English gentleman. He possess superhuman strength and near invulnerability showcased in a scene where the Ripper leaps from a rooftop into a squad of police officers and beats the crap out of them. Unlike The Werewolf, the action here is handled superbly managing to make the scene seem violent without showing a drop of blood.

My favourite episode is the Jimmy Sangster scripted Horror in the Heights. In a Jewish part of town hapless victims are being killed, seemingly by people they know, swastikas are being spray painted on the streets all coinciding with the opening of an Indian restaurant. It's an intriguing story with a proper monster.

Originally two TV movies, the show then went onto become a full series, yet it was cancelled after only twenty episodes. Its influence, however, has been significant primarily as it was the source of inspiration for the X-Files. It doesn't get repeated much and it's not hard to see why. This is a proper horror series that goes to some dark places pretty much excluding it from daytime viewing yet it's still too light to make a splash in any post-watershed slot. A new version of the show aired in 2005 but was cancelled after only six episodes.

The original, however, is well worth your time. Don't get me wrong, it's not a lot more than good fun but as a work of genre television it deserves a little more attention. So if you're at home during the day and are a little bored with watching Angela Landsbury bumble her way through another vanilla murder then get yourself a copy of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and watch a day-time detective take on a swamp monster.


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