Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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, Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a 1974 ABC series starring Darren McGavin as Intrepid Reporter turned Occult Detective Carl Kolchak. It was 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The character of Carl Kolchak was the protagonist in an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, The Kolchak Papers, a thriller in which Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak tracks down a serial killer, only to discover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 ABC optioned the unpublished novel for production into a Made for TV Movie, and the resulting adaptation (The Night Stalker) scripted by Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, I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.

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 Oakand (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 (2005)).

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.

Tropes used in Kolchak: The Night Stalker include:

  • Absurdly Spacious Sewer
  • Agent Mulder: Carl Kolchak
  • Agent Scully: Tony Vincenzo
    • To say nothing of the police.
  • 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.
  • Car Cushion: "The Trevi Collection"
  • Compilation Movie: Crackle of Death and The Demon and the Mummy
  • Cool Car: Kolchak's yellow '65 Mustang convertible.
  • Creepy Mortician: "Gordy the Ghoul" Spangler, who isn't so much creepy 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"
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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 suit and straw 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."
  • 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.
  • Monster Is a Mommy: "The Sentry"
  • Monster Misogyny: Sometimes, but 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: In an episode about a Hell's Angel riff on the classic Headless Horseman myth.
  • Never Sleep Again: 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: Carl Kolchak's trademark porkpie hat.
  • 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.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: "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.
  • Who You Gonna Call??: Carl Kolchak, who fits the "concerned but average citizen" variant.