Kolchak: The Night Stalker - The Complete Series (1974)
In 1972, "Dark Shadows" creator Dan Curtis collaborated with famed horror writer Richard Matheson to bring an unpublished story by Jeffrey Grant Rice to the small screen as the television movie The Night Stalker. The film, about rumpled news reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) and his investigation of a Vegas vampire, aired to outstanding ratings and strong critical response. Based on that success and that of the 1973 follow-up The Night Strangler, Universal commissioned a weekly television series that ran for 20 episodes in the 1974-75 season. Most of the cast from the movies returned for "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," and Rice took a creator's credit, but Curtis and Matheson declined involvement. A shame, too, because while the elements are definitely in place for a stunning, thought-provoking horror series, the final product is too cheesy and formulaic to really gel.
The basic format of each episodes varies little from one to the other: someone dies under bizarre circumstances, and Kolchak dives into the story head-first, despite the protestations of his ulcer-ridden editor. After interviewing some colorful character and butting heads with the Obstinate-Detective-of-the-Week, Kolchak hits upon a crazy theory about the identity of the killer -- crazy, but usually right. By this time, however, he's been marked as a target himself, and he must race against time to defeat the menace. The episode usually ends with Kolchak's article going unpublished -- it's just too fantastic to be believed.
The problem is that, at its heart, "The Night Stalker" isn't much more than a supernatural news procedural with a dash of the sitcom tossed in for flavor. Knowledge is rarely cumulative. Kolchak somehow manages to keep his employment every week despite the fact that he rarely gets his story out, and he never wises up to the fact that people might regard his ravings about the supernatural to be, well, crazy. Without an overall arc to follow along with (and little explicit acknowledgement of past episodes), "The Night Stalker" can be watched in pretty much any order, leaving out incoherent stories like the "vomit alien" and giving preference to "The Devil's Platform," featuring a young Tom Skeritt as a Satanic politician.
Production values are decent, if dated. The series really gives a strong impression of Los Angeles (where it was filmed), despite being set in Chicago for the most part. The monsters themselves range from effective to fragrantly cheesy, mostly the latter. The cinematography, however, wisely hides their visages for up to half the episode. Where the monsters are not cheesy, they are usually surrounded by cheesy effects. For instance, in the first episode, a man in a top hat and cape bursts through a maximum security jail cell and you really gauge how cheap the building materials were. Still, cheesy is not necessarily bad, and it does give the show its own goofy and enjoyable niche.
Acting, however, is usually top-notch. In the lead, Darren McGavin flails, sputters, and cons his way through each episode, giving him a miscreant charm that carries some pretty weak episodes to the land of the quite watchable. In his rumpled blue suit, cheap hat, and white tennis shoes, he comes off as a poorly-dressed, nuttier version of Cary Grant's Walter Burns from His Girl Friday, and it's absolutely beautiful. Without McGavin, this series probably would have floundered and died much, much sooner.
The writing, although trapped in its formula, is often quite good. It's not hard to see why, either. David Chase, the man who penned more episodes of the series than anyone else (and most of the good ones), would go on to create a little mob show called "The Sopranos" 25 years later. Before he went back to the future, Robert Zemeckis (with writing partner Bob Gale) contributed the story for an episode about a headless biker. If that's not enough, Hammer darling Jimmy Sangster is the man behind "Horror in the Heights," possibly the best episode of the series.
Universal's release of the complete 20-episode series on DVD is not exactly awe-inspiring. 20 episodes are crammed onto three double-sided discs (8 episodes each on the first two and 4 on the third), stored in slim cases. I'm usually in favor of that particular storage solution (see "Firefly: The Complete Series"), but not here. These are some of the cheapest, flimsiest cases I've seen. They don't even hold the discs very well -- my Disc 1 arrived loose and scratched (although still playable). The video is acceptable, however it doesn't appear that a lot of care was taken in the transfer. For the most part, it's just a little too dark and grainy for comfort, although some scenes are remarkably clear -- like they'd been filmed in the last ten years. Sound is mono, just like the series itself. Special features include... a very shiny outer box.
If you can get around the unfitting DVD treatment by Universal, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" turns out to be some really entertaining old-fashioned cheese. If you're in the mood for some nostalgia-laden supernatural goodness with a dash of comedy, then give the adventures of this old newshound a spin.
McGavin decided not to continue doing the show after the first season, due to what he felt was a lack of support from the network. Without a lead actor, the series was cancelled.