We have heard of one-hit wonders in music but there can also be one-hit wonders when it comes to TV shows. Those are the shows that for whatever reasons just never caught on beyond a single season yet would go on to become cult classics. For a certain young man growing up in the 1970s there was a show that considered the greatest show ever. It was Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Each week, Carl Kolchak, a meddlesome, yet dogged investigative reporter tracked down all sorts of monsters and strange phenomena while reporting for a newswire called the INS.
Kolchak got his start in a 1971 ABC made-for-TV movie called The Night Stalker which was based on a book written by Jeff Rice and adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson. The film is set in Las Vegas as Kolchak is investigating a series of murders that have taken along the Las Vegas strip. Kolchak believes the killer thinks he’s a vampire, much to the consternation of his perpetually irritable editor, Tony Vincenzo. Kolchak soon learns that the killer actually is a vampire. He manages to kill the fiend and even though the police were witness to the supernatural events, Kolchak is forced to leave town.
The Night Stalker was the highest rated made-for-TV film in history leading to a sequel in 1973 called The Night Strangler, this time written by Matheson. This time Kolchak has relocated to Seattle and once again working for old boss, Tony Vincenzo. A series of murders of exotic dancers who have had their throats crushed and had some of their blood drained leads Kolchak in pursuit of a new killer. Kolchak soon discovers that there have been similar series of murders taking place every 21 years dating back to 1889. Kolchak trails the killer to old Seattle, a ghost town located underneath the present city to find a doctor who has been living since the Civil War by making an elixir from the blood of his victims. Kolchak kills the doctor but once again the true story is suppressed by the police.
A third film was actually planned and was to have been set in Hawaii with Kolchak investigating a UFO but the third film was scrapped when ABC ordered a series. Kolchak: The Night Stalker premiered on Friday night, Spetember 13, 1974. Returning for the series was Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak and Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo, now working in Chicago. One recurring action which ran throughout the TV films and the series was narration by Kolchak as he talked into his ever present cassette recorder, giving the action a past tense, almost documentary type feel.
The show ran for a mere 20 episodes before it was canceled. But during the 20 episodes Kolchak encountered all manner of monsters and weirdness including zombies, werewolves, ghosts, Native American Indian spirits, swamp creatures, witches, mummies, even Jack the Ripper and a headless motorcycle rider.
The show was extremely formulaic…Kolchak investigates a murder or murders, he finds out that the killer is some sort of supernatural being, the police and Tony don’t believe him, but in the end Kolchak manages to kill the creature. Simple? Yes but damn fun and quite terrifying back in its day when there was little horror on TV. Kolchak: The Night Stalker featured outstanding writing but what made the show a success was the unforgettable performance by McGavin as Kolchak. Today best known as the “Old man” from the holiday classic A Christmas Story, McGavin created a memorable character with a penchant for cheap suits and straw hats but whose skill as a reporter was unparalleled.
The Night Stalker would be a tremendous influence on Christ Carter when he created the X-Files. Carter even got McGavin to guest-star in several episodes of the X-Files playing a retired FBI agent. In 2005, ABC resurrected the TV show with Stuart Townsend in the role of Kolchak. But rather than concentrate on the stories and monsters, the new show concentrated too much on Kolchak and it was canceled after only ten episodes. The new producers just didn’t get it. The original show never was about Kolchak. In fact we found out very little about Kolchak over the course of two TV movies and the 20 episode run and that’s how we liked it.
While it lasted only one season, Kolchak: The Night Stalker has earned a place in the horror wing of the TV Hall of Fame.
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.