Digital Polyphony

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A Look at Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Posted on February 21, 2011 at 2:42 AM

Kolchak: The Night Stalker

To start this off, let me first say a "thank you" to Netflix. Netflix's streaming service is what allows the discovery, or rediscovery, of those things you've always wanted to sit and watch (even if again) yet never had the patience or money to go and hunt down. I've watched the entirety of Battlestar Galactica, got caught up on the likes of Dexter and have recently began revisiting Quantum Leap and, soon, Damages.

One such item on my extensive "to see" list is the short-lived yet much beloved Kolchak series. To summarize, it's a brilliant show. It's so simple yet so effective, influencing many shows to come, most notably the X-files where creator Chris Carter has pointed directly to Kolchack as his main inspiration; so much so that he even cast Kolchak himself as a special guest star on the show.

Kolchak himself is Darren McGavin, a long time actor even in the 1970s, and created a character that is absolutely impossible not to like. McGavin embodies Kolchak and gives us a character that leaps from the screen, shows just enough nievity combined with confidence and seems to be a vessel for us to vicariously live out our fantastical wonders of solving mysteries and confronting the various legends, creatures, ghouls and mysteries that stalk the night.

The show is based on the novel counterpart. Or, rather, the original made-for-tv movies were based on the novel (The Night Stalker and Night Strangler) that were so popular the series was just a natural decision for ABC. This was a time when the movie of the week (MOWs) were dominant and especially with ABC who gave us great films such as Duel, Trilogy of Terror and Death Takes a Holiday. These were the big events and hundreds of movies spawned from ABC's loins. In Kolchak's case, so did the TV series. Week after week, for 20 episodes (not including the movies) Kolchak confronted the mysteries and even now, 30 or so years later, it's hard to still not be hooked. Future big names were associated with the show too, such as David Chase and Robert Zemeckis both whom were getting their start in the entertainment industry.

Ah, right...but only 20 episodes. One season. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but it still has a cult following and now, having watched all 20 episodes, I thought I'd give a brief rundown of each one. Just know there might be spoilers.

The Ripper

A cool idea done pretty nicely, I think this would have made for a good movie as well where Jack the Ripper is some sort of immortal praying on victims.

The Zombie

Some memorable scenes, but a pretty weak second episode though, like most of Kolchak's episodes, it does a good job explaining the mythology and such behind everything. This one (and the next I believe) have a character introduced then gone quickly. Not sure why.

They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be

An attempt at an alien related episode that works half the time, but it's not as grounded as some others.

The Vampire

A follow up to the movie and references the movie quite a bit. A good episode even if it is a retread.

The Werewolf

Great setting, here on a cruise ship, though not everything comes together cleanly. It's good for what it is, but it feels like there could have been a lot more. Also one of the few times you see Kolchak with a weapon, he's a wit-based fella.


Really liked this one, all about the doppelganger demon and human combustion. I think an episode of the X-files had something similar, but a personal favorite.

The Devil's Platform

Another really strong one about a devil worshiper (and shape changer). Kolchak almost doesn't make it out of this one, also an awesome ending to it really.

Bad Medicine

It comes down to the "monster's" motivation, and it just doesn't quite compel you. An episode you could probably skip.

The Spanish Moss Murders

Yeah, this one is pretty cheesy, there's no way to make a "moss monster" frightening or compelling, overall a bit of a boring episode, though you still have McGavin being awesome and that should keep you watching.

The Energy Eater

More of an idea than something that really makes the story. Not sure what to think about this, I like it tried something different but it feels like there's more standing around talking about the situation than actually doing something.

Horror in the Heights

One of my favorites. It has a combination of comedy and horror and the idea of a shapeshifter leads to a great (albeit seemingly half-hearted) climax.


An attempt at a science fiction based episode that might have been more in tune with Star Trek than Kolchak.

Primal Scream

A decent one but also forgettable. At least you can remember the moss monster one, this is just a very basic episode with not a lot of twists and turns.

The Trevi Collection

Excellent episode and a bit of a goofy (but in line) way to end it. Witches can be crazy, and I love the manipulation that Kolchak realizes is going on.


A retelling of the headless horseman myth. It falls right in line with it, but the episode feels like it wants to show off stunt riding more than solve a mystery. Overall, a good one, though.

Demon in Lace

Loved this one, all about the succubus. Hot women seducing men then offing them. Hated the archeologist character, though. Just annoying.

Legacy of Terror

Not a bad episode, but like Primal Scream a bit forgettable. I like the idea they're going for, with Aztec sacrifices, but the mummy was cheesy.

The Knightly Murders

One of my favorites, but I also like seeing people killed with medieval weapons so that probably says more about me than anything.

The Youth Killer

Almost feels like a retread of Demon in Lace, but overall not too bad. McGavin breaks the fourth wall with his monologue at the end, I noticed.

The Sentry

Cheesy as all hell. It's too bad because I like the setting and how it was shot (really all the epsidoes are shot pretty well, but this one uses shadows really effectively to make the obviously-fake-looking monsters at least a little scary.

And that's really it, unfortunately. Not the best way to go out, but the show was supposed to have a few more episodes and a few more movies as well. But ABC pulled the plug. As for the two movies, they're fantastic. I don't need to say much more than that and really set the course for the show, I would watch them first.

The show wasn't perfect, though. Around episode four you'll start catching one to the same structure. Mystery comes up. Kolchak starts getting weird ideas. He frustrates the police (or whatever higher-up is leading the opposing side, but it's usually the police or sheriff or some sort of security figure). His editor Tony Vincenzo will yell at him a lot. He pokes fun at Updyke a little. Usually gets a final warning/arrested/thrown off the story. Then he hunts down whatever the threat is and disposes of it after doing his own off-the-books investigation and writing a story that will never be published.

If the show as maybe thought out ahead of time, or expected to be a bigger hit, I'm willing to think larger-scale arcs would have come into play. As it was, it was just a monster of the week type of show and we really only got to know a little bit about Kolchak himself: he's a bad driver in his Mustang, he always has a crappy camera and tape recorder with him, he's a horrible dresser and wears a beat up hat and almost everything is found out of him being in the right place at the right time...for better or for worse. There's one thing though: he's a hell of a reporter. He's smart and witty, will point one hand while sneaking something into his pocket with the other and everybody with a badge absolutely hates him...and that's why he's hard not to love.


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