Like much of the horror media that went on to make indelible impressions on me as a young horror nerd, I first heard about the Kolchak movies (and the series they spawned) when they were mentioned in Stephen King’s 1981 nonfiction book, Danse Macabre. Though I saw both of the iconic Kolchak TV films when I was a teenager and remembered liking them a great deal, I hadn’t seen them since then, and really wanted to revisit them to see if I still enjoyed them as much as I remembered. And I’m pleased to report that both 1972’s The Night Stalker and its follow-up, 1973’s The Night Strangler, are every bit as entertaining, fun, and creepy as they were back in the distant days of the early 1970s.
Younger audiences might not be aware, but Kolchak was very much a proto-X-Files, positing a hard-boiled investigative journalist who has to contend not only with various supernatural creatures and situations, but also the disbelief of his bosses and others in authority. Chris Carter, in fact, cast Kolchak actor Darren McGavin in The X-Files as Arthur Dales, “Father of the X-Files,” as a tribute to the inspiration he had provided, and Carter’s original idea was to actually have McGavin reprise his role as Kolchak for The X-Files, though McGavin opted to portray a different character.
For some reason, I had always been under the mistaken impression that the Kolchak TV series came first, and the films were later expansions upon the lore, but I actually got it completely backwards. When The Night Stalker aired as the ABC Movie of the Week in January of 1972, it wasn’t trading on an existing character, but was the entirely original creation of a novelist named Jeff Rice.
The unpublished book he wrote—about a vampire terrorizing the streets of Las Vegas—was originally titled The Kolchak Papers, and wasn’t really drawing any interest in the publishing world until an agent by the name of Rick Ray happened to read it. He thought the novel was wonderfully cinematic, and after it went through the proper channels, it ended up being adapted for television by none other than legendary horror and science fiction writer Richard Matheson, and produced by equally celebrated genre veteran Dan Curtis, who at this point had already earned his bona fides by creating the outstanding gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Director John Llewellyn Moxey was also brought on board to bring Rice’s vision to life.
The initial broadcast of The Night Stalker was wildly successful, at its time the most highly rated original television movie in the United States; it even got a subsequent theatrical release overseas, and immediately merited work on a sequel. Novelist Jeff Rice, whose Kolchak Papers had now been retitled The Night Stalker, was tasked with writing a follow-up, based on a screenplay penned by Richard Matheson. Both novels were then released in early 1974, after both TV movies had aired.
The second film was also a big success, which prompted ABC to develop a twenty-episode series out of the concept, utilizing Darren McGavin in the main role. The series was even briefly revitalized in 2005, with a reboot starring Stuart Townsend (Queen of the Damned, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Carl Kolchak, though its six-week run seems to have been largely forgotten nowadays.
I think the main reason that the Kolchak films of the 1970s appealed so strongly to audiences was the character of Kolchak himself: as portrayed by Darren McGavin, the rumpled reporter is a no-nonsense, lovably sleazy bulldog who will stop at absolutely nothing to get a story and will follow his leads wherever they take him, an attribute that has a habit of constantly landing his ass in hot water, especially when he insists on reporting on things that people in power don’t want him to disclose. In The Night Stalker, the barbed banter and screaming matches between Kolchak and his beleaguered editor, Tony Vincenzo (played by prolific character actor Simon Oakland, of Psycho, West Side Story, and Bullitt fame) are a definite highlight, and seem to have been deliberately expanded and amped up in the sequel for comedic purposes; the tone of the first Kolchak film is darker and grimmer with notes of wry humor, while the second film and the ensuing series heightened the humor considerably.
Kolchak’s down-to-earth but ever-so-slightly arrogant demeanor contrasts well with the supernatural nature of the cases he gets drawn into; it’s much easier to believe in vampires and other flavors of walking corpses if a hard-nosed, wisecracking son of a bitch like Kolchak is forced to believe in them, and you’re also on Kolchak’s side as he tenaciously fights (and usually fails) to get the real story out to the public before the police and politicians cover the whole thing up.
In the opening of the first film, The Night Stalker, we see Kolchak in a down-market motel room, and his voice-over informs us about the case he just had the misfortune of working on, the truth of which will likely never come to light. This is a great setup that was really tailor-made for a series; it’s later revealed that Kolchak has been fired multiple times from newspapers all over the country due to his habit of writing about inconvenient truths, and indeed, he gets unceremoniously bounced from the job at the heart of this narrative as well, an event that deepens his cynicism going forward.
The case that The Night Stalker centers around starts out as nothing but a routine homicide: a woman who worked at one of the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip ends up dead. Her body has been seemingly drained of blood, but investigators are keen to keep this little factoid far away from the press. Kolchak finds out about it through his connections at the hospital morgue, though, and decides to delve deeper into the case.
More women soon fall victim to this purported serial killer; all of them worked nights, and all of them were found with the blood drained from their bodies. One woman was even found lying on a sandy beach with no footprints anywhere around her, prompting investigators to wonder whether the murderer threw her body to where it was discovered. After four women turn up dead and a fifth goes missing—we see this fifth woman as she attempts to sic her Doberman on the killer, but the hero dog gets brutally dispatched and the woman is abducted anyway—Kolchak is all but convinced that the murderer is either a real vampire, or believes himself to be a vampire. He points out that not only have all the victims been completely exsanguinated, but all have telltale wounds on their throats that also bear traces of human saliva, another fact that the cops try to keep under wraps.
At one stage, the perpetrator is spotted robbing a hospital’s blood bank, and when he’s confronted by hospital staff, he’s able to toss nurses and orderlies around like rag dolls. The cops arrive and fire on him as he flees, but their flying bullets seem to have no effect on the man at all.
After this debacle, and after discovering that the suspect, Janos Skorzeny, is an international fugitive who is wanted all over Europe in connection with a series of similar murders going back to the late 19th century (making him about eighty years old, though witness reports place him closer to his forties), Kolchak is convinced that the dude is an actual, honest-to-goodness vampire. His hot, much younger girlfriend Gail (who also works at a casino and is played by Carol Lynley of The Poseidon Adventure) encourages Kolchak to read some library books about vampire lore, and Kolchak informs the police and the DA that they’ll have to find Skorzeny’s hidden lair, wait until dawn arrives, and then stake the fucker; it’s the only way to be sure. The authorities are incredulous at first, but after another confrontation with the killer leads to a handful of cops dead or wounded, and the perp riddled with thirty or forty rounds that did exactly nada, the cops grudgingly agree to let Kolchak help them dispatch the nosferatu, and promise they’ll give him exclusive rights to publish the real story to fame and fanfare once all is said and done.
Kolchak is no chump, though, and doesn’t trust the cops to honor their word. Proceeding on a tip from another source, he actually locates the vampire’s residence and sneaks inside before the cavalry are set to arrive at dawn. In the bowels of the creepy manse, he finds the woman who was abducted earlier; she’s still alive, but she’s tied to a bed and had clearly been serving as the vampire’s unwilling blood donor. Before Kolchak can free her, Skorzeny appears, big as life, and I have to say that the look of the vampire—played by character actor Barry Atwater—is pretty great, understated but subtly eerie, with bloodshot red eyes and pale, pockmarked skin. There’s a big battle during which Kolchak—aided by his friend Bernie Jenks, an FBI agent—is able to corner the bloodsucker in an area where the sunlight is coming into the house. Just as Kolchak has the stake poised over the vampire’s heart, the cops show up, and Kolchak looks at them smugly as he pounds the wooden stake decisively into the Skorzeny’s chest, killing him once and for all.
So, all’s well that ends well, right? Yeah, not so much. Kolchak writes his promised story, in which he divulges exactly what happened with all the supernatural jiggery-pokery, and he’s so certain it will net him a fortune that he even proposes to his girlfriend Gail and promises to take her back to New York City. But when he arrives back at the newspaper office, his editor seems oddly dispirited, and then he’s told that the cops need to talk to him about some things.
When he gets down to headquarters, they basically inform him that they’re going to hang a murder one charge on him for killing Skorzeny unless he quietly leaves town and never tells anyone about the whole vampire situation. Turns out the editor printed a cover story in the paper under Kolchak’s byline due to pressure from the authorities, and all evidence pointing to the killer’s vampire nature has been destroyed, including his body and those of his victims, which were all summarily cremated. The cops even strong-armed poor Gail out of town, threatening her with who-knows-what, and though Kolchak attempts to find her, he has no luck. In the novel, I believe the authority figures were even more ruthless and had some witnesses bumped off, though I don’t know if they did that to Gail. I suppose even in the movie you could also argue that Gail was killed, because Kolchak is never able to locate her afterward.
At the end, a disheartened Kolchak is back in that depressing motel room from the beginning, stating into his tape recorder that no one will ever know the whole truth about the case but him, and that if anyone tried to verify anything he had written about it, they wouldn’t be able to find any evidence because it had all been hushed up. He also says that it’s the last time he’s ever going to talk about it, though in the sequel, he’s drunkenly telling everyone who will listen about that vampire back in Las Vegas, which doesn’t do much to endear him to people, I tell you what.
Anyway, as I said, The Night Stalker was a big hit, so soon afterward, a follow-up called The Night Strangler was produced. It aired about a year after the first one, in January of 1973, and follows a similar narrative as the previous film, but with a slightly more original flair to the killer’s backstory.
After being run out of Vegas, the harried Kolchak finds himself in Seattle, and at the start of the story, it’s clear that his involvement in the vampire case and the subsequent loss of his girlfriend has taken a toll, as he seems to be spending a lot of time in bars, pestering random people about the vampire killer and showing them his scrapbook in which the whole case is detailed. Not surprisingly, most people back away slowly, wanting to enjoy their Harvey Wallbangers in peace without the added headache of a ranting lunatic in their faces.
In a shocking coincidence, Kolchak runs into his old editor Vincenzo on one of his Seattle bar crawls; Vincenzo, it turns out, was also shitcanned after the whole vampire fiasco, and ended up in the same city as Kolchak. The persistent reporter is able to convince a reluctant Vincenzo to get him a job at the paper he’s working for, which is run by a stern publisher with the fabulous name of Llewellyn Crossbinder (played by John Carradine).
Just like in Vegas, Kolchak gets put on a case where women—this time all exotic dancers—keep turning up murdered. The victims have all had a small amount of blood seemingly withdrawn from the backs of their necks with a hypodermic needle, but even more alarmingly, their throats have all been crushed by a killer with apparently superhuman strength. There’s also another very weird detail: some of the women’s necks bear small flecks of rotted flesh, as though the person who strangled them was already dead.
Because of his past history, Kolchak is ready to believe that something possibly supernatural might be going on, but naturally Vincenzo and the cops absolutely do not want to hear it. Kolchak interviews some of the victims’ coworkers, most of whom are dancers at an Arabian-Nights-themed club, and one of them, Louise Harper (going by the stage name Scheherazade, and played by Jo Ann Pflug), befriends him and helps him out with the investigation.
With the indispensable help of a nerdy and unrelentingly curious researcher at the newspaper named Titus (played by Wally Cox), Kolchak discovers that there were almost identical runs of murders in Seattle in 1952 and in 1931, and some of the witness reports stated that the killer looked like a walking corpse (though others claimed the man was quite handsome). While going back through the archives, Kolchak and Titus unearth a definite pattern stretching back to 1889: every 21 years, six women were murdered over an eighteen-day period, in precisely the same way as the modern-day victims, and then the killings inexplicably stopped.
Eventually, Kolchak is able to deduce that the killer is a man originally named Dr. Richard Malcolm, who was a surgeon during the Civil War. The doctor was also into alchemy, though, and evidently came up with a sort of life-extending serum. Problem was, the recipe for the serum called for human blood, and the stuff only worked in 21-year stretches, after which the doc would have to make up a new batch or he’d start to rapidly age again. That explained why some of the witnesses from the old murders said the guy looked like a corpse and why some said he looked handsome; he started to look better as he got farther along in his his six-victim session.
At one stage, Kolchak goes to an expert on the occult to ask about an alchemical elixir of life, and delightfully, the professor is played by Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West herself. She has a great line about if an elixir of life really existed, she’d basically be an elderly hot babe or something similar, and it legitimately made me laugh out loud.
Kolchak is able to track the doctor to his hiding place down in the Seattle Underground (which is a really cool setting for a horror story, by the way), and he discovers that not only does the dude have a whole lab down there where he’s trying to perfect the serum so it will make him permanently immortal instead of having to do all this every-21-year bullshit, but he also has the mummified remains of his family set up in the place, because I guess it’s lonely being a functional immortal. Oh, and also he’s batshit crazy, let’s not forget that.
Kolchak is able to defeat the mad doctor by throwing a heavy knick-knack at his glass flask of immortality juice before he can drink it, causing the doc to suddenly age into what he would really look like if he was more than a century old (spoiler alert: not so good). The doc then throws himself out a window just as the cops belatedly arrive, having just figured out where the guy’s super secret lair was.
Kolchak doesn’t get threatened with a murder charge this time out, but the story is duly suppressed by the powers that be again, and once again Kolchak is fired and run out of town on a rail. Vincenzo is also given the axe, and at the end of the movie, Kolchak and Vincenzo are bickering like an old married couple in a car on the way to New York City, accompanied by exotic dancer Louise, who I guess decided to go with them on their new adventures.
The second film in the Kolchak franchise was also very successful, so Richard Matheson and genre legend William F. Nolan began collaborating on a third film about androids, which was going to be titled The Night Killers. ABC stepped in and told them they actually wanted to expand the concept into a series, though, and Darren McGavin agreed to star as Kolchak after some salary negotiation and the promise of an executive producer credit. The series, eventually called Kolchak: The Night Stalker, ran during the 1974-1975 season, with only McGavin and Simon Oakland as Vincenzo reprising their roles from the movies. Over the course of the series’ short run, Kolchak investigated cases having to do with zombies, mummies, werewolves, witches, succubi, deals with the Devil, Native American myths, and more, but despite the variety and the prior success of the films, the series didn’t really seem to catch on with audiences, and was cancelled after only one season. In 1976, ABC cobbled together two more films, The Demon and the Mummy and Crackle of Death, which were basically just repurposed episodes of the series edited together to feature length, but these contained little to no new footage, and Kolchak thereafter passed into cult horror posterity.
It’s difficult to overstate how influential Kolchak was to horror television as a whole, and despite its age and relative obscurity, the films still have enough of a cult following to have justified nice, 4K Blu-ray releases in 2018, and the series got its time in the sun in 2021, with a new Blu-ray transfer and a package containing all the bells and whistles. Kolchak was not only the spiritual predecessor of The X-Files, but episodes of the series were later cited as touchstones for The Omen film franchise, Jurassic Park, and the tiger-headed rakshasa in the Dungeons & Dragons game.
Though I haven’t seen the series (yet), I can wholeheartedly recommend the initial two TV films if you like television horror from that era, and are a fan of Richard Matheson’s other TV work. The movies are fast-paced, spooky, and lots of fun, with Kolchak bantering his way through some scary situations and always getting kept down by the man at the end, even after repeatedly saving their bacon. It’s a cynical premise, sure, but Darren McGavin is so relatable and sarcastic that you can’t help but have a good time as he prowls the streets looking for supernatural killers, knowing all along that all his hard work is going to be “watered down, torn apart, and reassembled…in a word, falsified.”
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.