A man in a cheap suit that would be the envy of every Millenial Hipster on the planet, walks into an office setting that they would envy even more. He is whistling a happy and carefree little tune while he pours himself a cup of coffee that no hipster would touch with a thousand foot pole. The man throws his cheap straw, trilby at a hat rack and misses it completely while bossa nova music begins to play along with his whistling. As he sits at his typewriter the music switches to violins which changes his tune to eerie flat notes. Then as he starts to type the violins are replaced by a cello and the music is now openly menacing….
On the other side of the tube a little boy, who has been ordered not to watch this, has his arms wrapped around his drawn up knees while he rocks back and forth in tense excitement. Little Cataline is grinning delightedly because he knows he is about to be scared to death.
It started with a made for TV movie (75 minutes without commercials) that scared the unholy crappity, crapping crap out of me when I was a kid. It kept me up for a week. My parents were furious with ABC for airing it in the first place. That flick was terrifying back then but now I can’t help but look at it and wonder why I’d ever been so frightened by it?
The history of horror is basically a history of what we aren’t all that frightened of anymore.
Horror, began appropriately enough during the Reign of Terror. Religion was officially outlawed in France. The Catholic Church had been forced out of the country and if you were going to worship anything at all, it had to be the Goddess of Reason. Graveyards were filled with dead people who were, according to the First Republic, gone forever. They were in an eternal sleep from which there would be no waking.
Into this government mandated spiritual vacuum stepped Étienne-Gaspard Robert, the creator of the very first horror show: The Phantasmagoria.
The Phantasmagoria was a “Magic Lantern” show that combined sound effects and an eerie music score provided by Ben Franklin’s glass harmonica.
Robert, unlike his various conmen spiritualist predecessors, had to keep an eye out for militantly atheist authorities, so he was very clear about the fact that what his audience was watching was fiction. Ghosts and ghouls weren’t real and it was purely for entertainment.
And by all accounts, audiences found the Phantasmagoria utterly terrifying. Admittedly, Robert was careful to serve them punch laced with laudanum before the show started but that only goes so far. The fear was quite real. But now you can look at what was the most frightening thing in the world in it’s day and you just sort of shrug. *
Frankenstein 1931 had audience members fainting in terror and running out of the theaters. Today it’s so dull that only film students can force themselves to sit through it.
When I was a kid it was pretty much universally agreed that the the scariest movie in all existence was The Exorcist. But today when modern audiences watch it, they laugh at what had been the scariest parts.
So it is with poor old Kolchak.
But then Kolchak was never just about the monsters. What carried the show was Darren McGavin’s portrayal of a washed up, former New York Times reporter who had entered the world of the supernatural.
The Kolchak Papers was an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. I have no idea how the manuscript ended up in the hands of I Am Legend author Richard Matheson. Regardless, Matheson did a screenplay for a movie about a vampire in Las Vegas. For its day (1972), that TV movie had a sort of gritty realism to it. It’s kind of funny to look at it now because back then, even the FBI was pretty clueless about serial killers and I kept half expecting the police to make references to one.
The ratings were good enough to get a second movie made; The Night Strangler. This time Matheson had a firmer grasp of who Carl Kolchak was and he was able to concentrate on the story itself. And now that I think about it, he didn’t have to concentrate all that hard. It was really just a retread of one of his own, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” And McGavin wasn’t cool about it, he clashed with his director and a third TV movie, The Night Killers was stillborn. Rightfully so, the script is garbage.
With Curtis and Matheson off the production a new approach was decided upon, a monster of the week TV series.
And so for a single season in 1974/75, Carl Kolchak battled every possible form of evil. He himself had become the Night Stalker. He was the one doing the hunting and he was The Thing in the Night That Bumped back… Except he was usually screaming in terror when he did it.
That was the odd thing about Kolchack, he was scared to death of the monsters he was fighting, he only did it because the Authority of the Week never believed a word of what he was telling them. And people would continue to die if he didn’t.
No getting around it, the action hasn’t held up with time but the humor and McGavin’s over the top performance has.
My favorite episode is Vampire, a demi-sequel to the first TV movie, wherein one of that vampire’s victims is literally uncovered. The newly unearthed undead then goes on a reign of terror in LA. The climax shot of Kolchak driving a stake through the beast’s heart in front of a giant flaming cross is the best scene in the series and still works today.
Like every other TV character back then Kolchak was never changed by his adventures. He didn’t suffer from PTSD or develop a drinking problem. Every one of his episodes, reset his universe at the beginning of the next week’s show. Not even his more or less friend and boss Tony Vincenzo ever believing him. Despite how high is supernatural boadycount got. Consequently, Kolchak had a conspiracy vibe going for it because once Kolchak took care of the problem, the Authorities would immediately step in and hush the whole thing up. Thus ensuring that the Truth would remain concealed for next week’s episode.
This conspiracy by the Authorities had unintended consequences. For my money the weakest of the episodes was about an android named Mr. RING which was off mission for Kolchak but Chris Carter has admitted outright that it was the inspiration for the X-Files, so YMMV.
Sadly for Kolchak, the series was in a late Friday time slot, which hurt the ratings. Darren McGavin did a lot of uncredited writing and directing for his show. This is known to have worn on him. The Night Stalker’s ratings had it balanced on a knife’s edge between renewal or cancelation. A lawsuit from the original creator, Jeff Rice, appears to have been what tipped it over into TV oblivion.
Interestingly, even though it was canceled with only twenty episodes, it didn’t vanish completely. Which was nearly a supernatural oddity in itself because in those days if a show didn’t have seventy-two episodes, it would never get picked up for syndication. Yet Kolchak did indeed live on after it’s premature death. Usually on Saturday nights, when two episodes would be stitched together to create a “movie.”
Kochak’s legacy: From Infogalactic:
Though Kolchak was short-lived as a series, its impact on popular culture has been substantial. In particular the series has been described as a predecessor to The X-Files (1993–2002). The X-Files creator, Chris Carter, has acknowledged that the show had influenced him greatly in his own work. In one interview when mentioned that the majority of the viewing public considered the success of The X-Filesseries as being inspired by other such past shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, Carter mentions that while those shows were indeed an influence on Files, it was only about ten-percent, with another thirty-percent coming from the Kolchak series, with the rest derived as being based upon original ‘pure inspiration’. Carter paid tribute to Kolchak in a number of ways in the show. A character named “Richard Matheson”, named for the screenwriter of the pilot films, appeared in several episodes. Carter also wanted McGavin to appear as Kolchak in one or more episodes of The X-Files, but McGavin was unwilling to reprise the character for the show. He did eventually appear in several episodes as Arthur Dales, a retired FBI agent described as the “father of the X-Files”.
All in all, not bad for a one season wonder.
*Wordpress is still being goofy about video embeds so I had to put it down here: