Remembering Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, made-for-TV movies had a cinematic quality. These movies would have played easily in a theater. The first I remember seeing was 1974’s Dan Curtis’ Dracula starring Jack Palance as Count Dracula. I was roughly four years old when I saw this and it spurred a life-long fascination with the Dracula character and vampire horror in general. In 1972, Darren McGavin starred as gruff, intrepid Las Vegas reporter Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker. I saw this with my dad sometime in the late 1970s on the Late Late Show on a Friday or a Saturday night. I remember it sticking with me for some reason and recently I had the occasion to watch the film again for the first time in more than four decades. I had forgotten how good it was.

Many of you may know McGavin as Ralphie’s father in 1983’s A Christmas Story. For that role, he will forever occupy a place in my heart. He was even better as Kolchak. As I watched The Night Stalker, I noticed several other actors you may be familiar with – Claude Akins (Sheriff Lobo), Simon Oakland (Psycho), Elisha Cook, Jr., (The Maltese Falcon), and Larry Linville (M*A*S*H* (TV show)).

As the story goes, young women are being stalked and murdered in Las Vegas and upon further examination, the victims have all been drained of blood. Kolchak, ever the pain in the ass reporter, starts to piece it together as the police ignore the evidence and the obvious. Our scribe starts to think that the killer is a maniac who is thinks he is a vampire. Kolchak’s girlfriend, Gail Foster played by Carol Lynley, puts it in his head that the killer just might be an actual vampire.

I’ve given away too many spoilers already. You might think I should give them all away because, hey, who cares about a 1972 made-for-TV movie? Because you should watch it for yourself. If you saw it back then and haven’t watched it since, it’s time for a revisit. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.

While I was taking it in and marveling at how good it was (is), I started to wonder why. So, I looked it up on IMDb. The teleplay was written by prolific horror and science fiction writer Richard Matheson of I Am Legend and Twilight Zone fame (among hundreds of other things). The Night Stalker was produced by none other than Dan Curtis.

As a writer of such things myself I often struggle with my vampires traipsing around the modern-day world and how the media and police would react to a blood-draining serial killer and the implications. Matheson, Curtis, and director John Llewellyn Moxey handle all of this with aplomb. It’s all very believable.

In 1973, McGavin reprised his role as Kolchak in The Night Strangler. I’ll have to go back and watch this one again too. Once again, the teleplay was written by Matheson, but this time Curtis directed. An all-star cast appeared alongside McGavin – Jo Ann Pflug (M*A*S*H* (film)), John Carradine, Richard Anderson, (Six Million Dollar Man), Al Lewis (The Munsters), and Simon Oakland returned as Kolchak’s newspaper editor. Kolchak was run out of Las Vegas in The Night Stalker, so he now resides in Seattle.

From 1974-75, McGavin and Oakland teamed up again, this time for a 22-episode series called Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Kolchak has taken his writing and reporting skills to Chicago.

From 2005-06, Stuart Townsend, yes, that Stuart Townsend, took a turn as Carl Kolchak and I have to admit, I have never seen the series. Regular players included Gabrielle Union. Yes, that Gabriel Union. It must not have been very good because it only lasted 10 episodes.

My point to this whole thing is that I had no idea that several of the same people teamed up on multiple projects that created and informed the horror fan and addict I am today. I have Richard Matheson, Dan Curtis, and yes, Darren McGavin to thank for this. Who knows, Kolchak might pop up on my 100 Favorite Horror Movies Countdown in a few weeks.