Wednesday, 18 October 2017

October Nightmares III #18: Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 - 1975) - Gone Gonzo

"And though you, the reader, would find these facts almost impossible to substantiate, that does not change their nature. Facts they are. I know: I saw them happen."

If there's any purpose to this month long celebration of horror television, then it's to highlight how we've been making the same six shows for the past fifty years. There's the straight-up horror show, the hybrid-horror show, the 'reality' horror show, the anthology show, the horror movie franchise adaptation, and the monster-of-the-week horror show. Near enough every series I've reviewed thus far has represented one of these six archetypes: it's like the gene pool of a small backwards town which is run by the company from Parts: The Clonus Horror.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker then, in this increasingly strained metaphor, is the patriarch of this band of clones and freaks. Perhaps more than little malformed, but otherwise unaffected by the years of genetic degradation that his children have endured. This is perhaps the single most influential show on this list. Without Darren McGavin's cynical investigative journalist - and his forays into a seedy American underbelly crawling with vampires, lizard men, invisible aliens, and zombies - it's hard to imagine how the likes of The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Fringe, and countless others, would have crawled up from the the dank depths and onto our television screens.

The show started life as a Jeff Rice novel called The Kolchak Papers. Though the novel was unpublished at the time, in 1972 it was adapted into the TV movie The Night Stalker - allegedly against Rice's will; well, the Harvey Weinstein saga has shown us Hollywood's attitude to quaint notions such as consent. Following the success of The Night Stalker, another TV movie, The Night Strangler, followed in 1973. If these movies - about a vampire stalking the sleazy neon streets of Las Vegas, and a doctor from the 1800's strangling his way to an elixir of life - have the air of genre-outing about them, that's because they were adapted by Richard Matheson. A proposed third TV movie would have seen Kolchak investigate an alien conspiracy involving politicians being replaced by robots. Just who does Matheson think he is - John Carpenter?

Kolchak: The Night Stalker followed the two TV movies in 1974 and ran for a single season of twenty episodes. The show took more or less the same format of the movies, with Kolchak constantly chasing his elusive big scoop whilst being the only one able to save the day from the supernatural forces he encounters. It's your basic monster-of-the-week setup (likely the proto example) in which it's same shit, different week, different variation on rubber monster. Like working the 9-5 grind in Customer Service.

I'm willing to state that going from the telemovie format to a series is what effectively killed the franchise's momentum. Kolchak worked best when the movies ended with the authorities running him out of town, and you always knew he was going to end up somewhere else. Chasing the story, like Hunter S. Thompson without the cocaine. With the series, the action was mostly contained within Chicago which spoiled the weird Americana vibe and meant there was no progress. Even The X-Files had a mythology which was constantly evolving. There's only so many times you watch Kolchak's supernatural baloney get shot-down by his highly strung editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), or for Kolchak to fall foul of the authorities.

The show itself falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo and Dirty Harry. Our main character is a seedy shutterbug, a cynical bastard who's in it for himself and plays by his own rules. He's prowling the mean streets of Chicago looking for his next story; which no one would believe and suspicious government authorities would always cover up. Just like an anti-vaxxer who's real truth is being blocked by logic and a poor internet connection. But beneath his gruff-exterior, goofy clothes, cynicism, and pork-pie hat, Kolchak remains a believer. He's always going to chase the truth, and to put himself on the line to save the common man from the things the authorities can't and won't believe are real. Jobsworths.

I like to think of Kolchak as the American Doctor Who. I know we've already sort-of had that in the American-made Doctor Who: The Movie (which temporarily killed the franchise), but Kolchak: TNS fits the bill more accurately. A lone-hero in outlandishly outdated dress (seersucker suit, bowler hat) with poor social skills is quite literally an alien in his belief of ancient unnatural threats hidden in bright, technological modern age. Kolchak has that grandfatherly sagely charm, yet is world-weary and hardened by the streets. There's a hard-edge paranoia pervading the series, as Kolchak's foes stalk amongst the pimps and hustlers; even if they're cheesier than a Kenny G music video.

Rubber lizard-men, swamp monsters, Aztec mummies, voodoo zombies, Helen of Troy for some reason: the monsters are particularly cartoonish, which seems at odds with the rest of the vibe the show is aiming for. From Kolchak's dry Mickey Spillane style voice overs, to the rather rad opening which sees Kolchak whistling as he walks over to his type writer before the music takes on a sinister edge, suggests combining noir trappings with investigative journalism. Indeed Kolchak's camera is his gun.

Yet the Seventies ham is there: bright lighting, odd music, and ropey Doctor Who style monster effects. Perhaps it's best to remember Kolchak: The Night Stalker as the source for the far superior The X-Files. And for providing us innumerable photos of Darren McGavin holding a gleaming crucifix or stood in front of one. In the average episode of Kolchak, McGavin looked as though he was posing for a Christian metal album cover.

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