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In Praise of 'Kolchak'


Welcome to class. Today we're going to dig into the ancient forbidden horror tome known as... THE TV GUIDE!

Okay, so let’s talk TV and horror, shall we?  When it comes to TV icons, science fiction has Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Fantasy has Xena. Weird tales has Twilight Zone and X Files. But what revered TV icon does horror have? You could argue (rightfully) that there was Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Night Gallery, and Tales from the Crypt. All excellent nominees, but I’m going to dig a little deeper. I’ve found a horror show that only the horror academia seems to remember…

A show that most of us missed completely, either because it was way before our time, or because it just never got the press or credit that it deserved. And that show is Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  Never heard of it? No worries. Neither did I until a few years ago. I was perusing Netflix for any obscure TV horror one night when I came upon a film called aThe Night Stalker. It was made in 1971, aired in 1972 on ABC and starred one of my all time favorite actors, Darren McGavin, (You’ll remember him as the put-upon father from A Christmas Story).

Anyway, in the TV movie Night Stalker, Darren plays Karl Kolchak, a hard boiled reporter who stumbles onto the trail of a real honest to god vampire while covering the homicide beat for his newspaper. I don’t want to give anything away, but the writing in this film was engaging, funny and even had a few good scares in there. And I’m not alone in being impressed with the film, as it got the highest ratings of any TV movie ever at the time. ABC was quick to launch a sequel called The Night Strangler which pitted Kolchak against an immortal and supernatural Jack the Ripper, who stayed alive through the centuries by using the blood of his victims.

After renting both films I got that feeling. You know the one. The one you get every time you finish a book or a movie and you’re sad that there’s no more. Like finishing a meal and living with hunger pains that gnaw at you and won’t go away…

Well my misery didn’t last long, because I soon stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of my pop-culture-consuming life… In the fall of 1974, ABC decided to make Kolchak a TV show, following the exploits of police beat reporter Karl Kolchak as he investigates the seemingly endless number of supernatural stories that emerged in Chicago that year.  And even though it only lasted one season of 20 one hour episodes, it’s clear that the show left an indelible mark on everyone who ever saw it. Was it simply a case of “Monster of the week”? Yes. But god the writing was great. And so was McGavin. Chris Carter has frequently credited Kolchak as the inspiration for his X Files. There’s homage paid to Kolchak in many films and TV series, even Bladerunner (I’m not telling what, you have to find it).

As far as horror goes, TV’s always been a pretty shallow tide pool, but when you splash around a little, you can often find pearls like Kolchak resting on the bottom waiting to be discovered.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. Why aren’t you renting these already? Stop reading and go get them!  Both films and a great compilation DVD of the series are out already and hours of horror fun are guaranteed. Every week’s a new monster too. Just remember my analogy to Star Trek back at the beginning. Just like in it’s science fiction brother, the effects in Kolchak suck… bad.  The monsters are laughable (mostly) and not scary, but somehow, the actors are so committed and talented, and the scripts are so tight and perfect that you can’t help but love this one from the vaults….

Now go forth and watch.

Gaudium per Atrox.

The Show’s famous intro sequence

TV promo