Friday, October 16, 2009

31 Days of Halloween (Bonus 2nd Feature!): Kolchak Stakes Out a Vampire in The Night Stalker

The Night Stalker provided Darren McGavin with his best pre-Christmas Story role as Carl Kolchak, a pesky investigative reporter who investigates a series of Las Vegas murders where the victims are drained of blood. Initially, Kolchak believes that the culprit imagines himself to be a vampire—but eventually the reporter comes to realize that the killer really is a modern-day vampire.

The Vegas setting, with its night skyline filled with glittering lights, seems like an unlikely place for a vampire tale. But the cleverness of this location becomes clear in Kolchak’s opening narration: “In any town the size of Las Vegas, the murder of one young woman hardly causes a ripple.” And in a city where tourists outnumber the residents, the sheer turnover in population works to a vampire’s advantage, too.

Versatile horror/fantasy author Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Duel) co-wrote this fast-paced blend of chills and humor. Unlike traditional bloodsuckers, Matheson made his vampire (played by Barry Atwater) a contemporary villain with superhuman strength and the wiles to survive in modern society (e.g., he steals blood from a hospital). While The Night Stalker wasn’t the first contemporary vampire film (earlier attempts included 1970’s Count Yorga, Vampire), it was one of the best.

The Night Stalker debuted on ABC's Movie of the Week, a series of original made-for-TV films shown in a 90-minute time slot. The Night Stalker stunned network executives by becoming the highest-rated TV movie up to that time. McGavin and Simon Oakland, as his boss, appeared in the following year's sequel The Night Strangler (also written by Matheson). Despite a better story--involving an underground city in Seattle and a killer that appears once every 21 years--it didn't attract the huge ratings of its predecessor.

Still, it was popular enough to spawn a weekly TV series called "Kolchak: The Night Stalker." Unfortunately, the show's "monster of the week" format grew tiresome with mainstream viewers and it was cancelled after one season. The "Kolchak" TV series has since acquired a cult reputation; its repeats became a popular installment on The CBS Late Movie on Friday nights. A short-lived remake with Stuart Townsend as Kolchak was launched in 2005.

Dan Curtis, who brought vampires to daytime drama with his "Dark Shadows" soap (1966-72), produced the two telefilms and McGavin's weekly series.


  1. I've never had the pleasure of seeing this gem. Your review is descriptive and creates a desire to spend a night on the town with Kolchak! I saw a couple of episodes of the 2005 version, and even though I like Stuart Townsend, I was bored. Thanks, Rick, for your always enjoyable reviews!

  2. I own The Night Stalker movies and tv series on dvd. While so episodes were cheezy, Darrin McGavin was always hysterical as the reporter who got amazing stories that no one would ever believe. In addition, I loved that Mcgavin would start with the of intentions to fight the supernatural force, but often got scared as he actually faced the monster/demon. I can't imagine anyone but McGavin doing that part. I argue with Sark, while I like Stuart Townsend, the fun element that the original series had was lost and doing it straight failed. Great Post!

  3. Sorry I meant I agree with Sark -- need to work on my typing!

  4. Rick,
    Night Stalker, is one of my favorite classic TV is fun to see how the newspaper office looked back in those days.. the big teletypes instead of computers/Internet. i kinda miss those days..

  5. Rick, I just loved the Night Stalker TV movies and series. I watched the TV movies and every episode of the series. Carl was always getting in trouble with Tony. Carl told people what he thought too. He always got his point across and made me laugh such as: "We all have rats, sir. You should see the one I work for." My little brother gave me a video movie set containing: The Night Stalker, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Dracula Prince of Darkness, and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. I watch all four movies every October. My brother is so cool!

  6. I watched Kolchak pretty regularly. I remember one episode about a doppleganger with fred beir, and another about the spirit of an Indian warrior...the particulars escape me, right now, but I think william smith (falconetti in RMPM)was in it. I looved Darren McGavin who was so delightful in this role. Expect a blog about him and his wife, Kathie Browne. Thanks for the memories.

  7. I think I see a recurring admiration for the work of Richard Matheson in your posts, Rick. I liked his writing, too, particulary in "Somewhere in Time." I remember enjoying "The Night Stalker" TV series. It was really interesting to read about how the TV movie earned the highest rating status at its time. It is always interesting to see what does well and then watch others try to copy their successful format. I always appreciate the background information you share with us. Well done again, Rick!